About the Book
Kay has no official family, no official name, just a gene line designation and a crappy future thanks to the Nassien Research Division. As the sole Terran genetic experiment in a Novan Marine outfit, her life is a never-ending conflict.When her Novan ship comes under attack from unknown assailants, she becomes a part of the dreaded Black March and an aide to the enigmatic Lieutenant Colonel Nassien. As the only world she’s ever known crumbles around her she no longer knows who to trust.
Kay slid into her seat next to Jax. She tightened the strap on her oxygen tank and spat out a stream of qat juice. It wouldn’t be the worst thing the cleaning crew would scrub off the deck by the end of this mission. She turned to Jax. “How long?”
Jax slipped on his helmet. His eyes took on that distant look that meant he was accessing his Heads-Up Display. “HUD says fifteen minutes to drop.”
Jax’s mixed-breed Tarquin skin went even redder than normal as he fiddled with every strap and buckle on his suit and double-checked the line from his oxygen tank. His eyes flicked back and forth across his HUD, presumably as he scanned the status of every Marine under his command.
“You want some?” Kay tapped her traveling pharmacy sealed in her other suit pocket. She had a pill for every kind of mission and for the downtimes in between.
Jax shook his head. He was the only one who knew the extent of her stash. It was much better than the Neuro-X they gave every grunt to kill pain, and the Dexalin to stimulate coagulation on wounds.
Valderrama on the other hand, thought chewing qat was her main vice. “He’s not desperate to look like a real Novan. You can chew qat and dye your hair black, but you’re still pasty-faced Terran mierda.”
Kay squeezed a stream spit through her teeth that landed on Valderrama’s brown boots. “Whether I’m cloned from Terran shit or home-grown clanless Novan shit like you, it won’t matter when the bullets fly, Private.”
Valderrama’s tanned face darkened in a rage that triggered an extra strong dose of his unique Novan scent. A dose like that from a woman would have had her weak in the knees. From him, it turned her stomach.
“Still sensitive about that demotion?” she said. “I can give you some pointers next time you go for a civilian.”
“You’re no better with women,” he said through clenched teeth.
Kay’s grin widened. “None of my dates ever filed charges against me.”
That was one taunt too many for him. He lunged for her, but she was faster. She used his momentum to flatten him against the bulkhead and had her knife wrapped around his oxygen line before he could retaliate.
“You want to breathe on this mission,” she said, “or does your pure Novan blood let you suck asteroid dust in place of air?”
Jax stepped in. “That’s enough, Kay.” When she didn’t budge, he pulled rank. “Step down, Private First Class.”
It was a direct order, but he’d managed a subtle dig by using her full rank, one grade above Valderrama’s. Jax had her back, as always.
Kay let go of Valderrama’s oxygen line, but she didn’t sheathe her knife until he turned his back to her and maneuvered to the other end of their cramped space. She rolled her shoulders to let go of the tension and leaned back against her harness, spitting out the rest of her qat. The new kid’s eyes were on her, but she was smart enough to keep out of it. Maybe she’d survive the first mission and earn the right to a name.
Kay wouldn’t admit how much Valderrama’s digs pissed her off. Her Terran origins isolated her even more than Jax’s mixed-Tarquin blood. His was a fourth-generation gene line, closer to direct integration into the Novan gene pool. She was UT status—unaltered Terran, first-generation, from the Novan’s worst enemy.
Terrans had tried to boot Novans out of the human race, and that wasn’t something the Novans were inclined to forgive. Generations of Novan genetic manipulation made them physically and mentally superior, but no longer genetically pure as far as Terrans were concerned. Terrans compensated for being genetically left-behind with a heavy dependence on extensive integrated implants. They protected their genetic purity, while Novans made it all but sacrilegious to alter the human body with non-biological material.
Kay was in the middle of that mess, cloned from a Terran prisoner who caught the eye of the Nassien military establishment for exceptional natural combat skills. Jax had a similar background, but his gene line was further along. The Nassien Genetics Division mixed genes with other species like kids mixed paints in preschool, but Kay and Jax were the only two gene-line clones in the 28th Regiment. It was what made them closer than family to each other.
Kay locked on her helmet just as her comm came alive with a direct feed from their C.O. “Drop ship in five. Anyone who dies on this mission is on my shit list.”
He wasn’t a motivational speaker, but he’d kept most of them alive for the past seven months, all except Yang. Kay eyed up Yang’s replacement. She didn’t hold much hope for the kid. The new kid gave off a strong scent of fear, one that would have had Kay wrapping her in a protective bubble, if she hadn’t long since learned how to control her instinctual Terran reaction to Novan scent variations. She hadn’t let those scents control her since her first Novan girlfriend.
Novan pheromones were another one of those genetic differences between her and everyone else but Jax. No wonder they clung to each other like family. She couldn’t detect and resist the effects of Novan pheromones on her without special modifications—modifications she got on the black market after being dumped by that girlfriend.
Jax settled down to a mild panic. “Countdown’s starting. Strap in.”
Kay buckled into her harness. The drop ship jolted seconds later as it was jettisoned from the belly of the Kasai. Her stomach dropped to her toes for an instant before their drop ship’s engines kicked in and accelerated them toward their landing zone. She slipped a special green pill out of her pocket and tucked it under her upper lip. Prilax was a fast-acting stimulant. She wouldn’t waste its effects until she had her automatic rifle pointed at something worth shooting.
“Shit!” Jax was on the private com to her, not a good sign.
“Fourth fire team’s drop ship malfunctioned. We’re going in without them. How the hell are we supposed to keep going with a third less firepower?”
Kay’s mind sped through their options and latched onto the best tactical alternative. “Order Valderrama to blow the hole. He and the kid stay behind to guard the exit while we join the Third fire team for the section-by-section sweep.”
“She can’t stay behind. She’s your ammo backup.”
Shit. Kay didn’t want babysitting duties with the new kid, but a fire team had only so much flexibility. Jax was right; she needed the kid with her.
He squirmed out of his harness while he sent everyone their new mission responsibilities over their squad-com channel.
“What the hell are you doing?” she asked when he tore off his flak vest and tossed it at the new kid.
“It’ll keep her alive,” he said.
Kay wasn’t going to take that bet. The kid looked like she was going to vomit in her helmet as she buckled up the oversized vest. This mission was going straight to hell, and they hadn’t even landed yet.
The deck rumbled under Kay’s boots. Landing gear down. The kid and Jax were back in their harness, and Valderrama was giving her the same look he did before every mission, the look that said, “Is this the one you’re gonna turn on us, Terran bitch?”
She gave him back the same enigmatic smile she did on every mission. Let the bastard sweat a little.
She flicked on her HUD and watched their approach on the external camera feed. The asteroid’s surface filled the view, a yellow-like beach sand, but this beach had too many boulders and no water. They approached the Jahan Depression, a relatively smooth plain where the ore was mined. The main mining pit, evident by the slag heap that rose thirty meters high above it, dominated the near side. The first mining dome rose from the surface like an off-white soap bubble. That was the target for a different squad, and she saw the distinct dots of those drop ships approaching it. Her target appeared on the horizon, smaller than the first dome, but marked by her HUD with three red dots. She didn’t need them to see the defensive cannons visible above the dome. They were already active and targeting their ships. Neutralizing the cannons was her job, assuming they survived the landing.
“We’re on the ground in ten,” Jax said.
They were ten slow seconds as the drop ship dipped and swerved to avoid the cannon fire. If they were the original mining company cannons, and if they operated as badly as they had three months ago, and if the Terrans hadn’t upgraded them, Kay and her squad would survive. It was a lot of ifs.
One final steep dive ended in a teeth-jarring thud. They were dirt-bound. Kay was first out of her harness and at the exit hatch, waiting for the go signal from Jax. She switched her multi-ammo rifle to nuclear bullets and started sucking air through her helmet’s oxygen feed. Jax gave her the nod, and she slapped the hatch trigger at the same time she bit into the Prilax pill.
The world slowed as Kay’s mind sped from the first rush of the drug. She could feel every heartbeat, every blink of her eyes like she was watching it all on slow motion video. She had the first cannon in her sites before the hatch finished sliding open. With the cockiness of unmatched firing accuracy, she fired a single round and shifted to line up the second cannon before her HUD registered the hit and explosion of the first. She neutralized the second just as easily. The third got off one round before Kay blasted the cannon to bits. Not even her drug-enhanced reflexes could shoot down the incoming ordinance.
She and Valderrama were out of the hatch before the explosion took out the front of their drop ship. So much for the pilot. She looked back to see the new kid on the deck with Jax sprawled across her. Always the freaking hero.
“If you’re not in heat, get off the kid and get out here,” she said on their private channel. He grunted in reply and rolled off. After a spot check of his gear and the kid’s, they were out beside Kay. Jax looked back at the mess of their ship. Even the hero knew there was no hope for their pilot. He’d blame himself for that one.
He turned back to them. “Station-safe ammo.”
As the only one firing outside the dome, Kay was the only squad member needing to switch ammo packs. She pulled out her nuke pack and switched it with the station-safe pack the kid held out for her.
Valderrama and Jax popped up an emergency dome extension, large enough for one person. With the extension in place, the dome would not register a loss of atmospheric pressure when they blew the hatch. Valderrama was already tacking the explosives to the maintenance hatch when Third fire team landed behind their ruined ship. Kay’s HUD registered the presence of four more friendlies as Third fire team exited their ship. They were all under Jax’s command and awaited orders.
On Jax’s signal, Valderrama blew a hole in the hatch. He crawled out of the emergency dome extension in a cloud of dust. “Atmosphere secure.” He was a jackass, but he was good at what he did.
“Everyone in.” Jax started to lead the way, but Kay shoved him back.
She slapped his unprotected bio suit. “You’re on hatch watch, remember?” She couldn’t see his face but she knew he was regretting his decision to stay behind with Valderrama. Too late for second thoughts.
Kay crawled through the hole first and grabbed the ladder that led down into the underground facility. “Come on, kid.”
Kay’s HUD switched to overlay a map of the maintenance tunnels they were heading into. She registered the new kid at her back and four more following her down the ladder.