Today's Reading

PROLOGUE

T MINUS 8 YEARS—CANBERRA


"At least," thought Elena, "I'll die in a Corps uniform."

She faced down the gun, looking not into the barrel but into the eyes of the man holding it. Keita had brown eyes, but in the frigid, rainy afternoon of this dying planet they looked jet-black and devoid of light. He had always—for as long as she had known him—looked angry, but she thought she saw something else as he stared at her through the gun's sight. Not fear, not that. Keita had never been afraid.

He looked lost.

The others were clustered behind him in the meager shelter of a crumbled cement wall. Savin was stoic as always, weight on one foot, but she saw his left hand resting on the grip of his pulse rifle. Jimmy had placed himself between Keita and Niree's prone figure, the medic shielding his patient. Elena knew his expression without looking. The loud argument, in a shattered alley next to a public square, was risking their exposure. Jimmy would be annoyed with her.

"Get the fuck out of the way, Shaw!" Keita yelled.

She did not move. "Stand down, Ensign," she said evenly.

"She killed the lieutenant! She set him up! You were there! You saw just like I did!"

Behind her, the girl she was protecting made a small sound, and Elena wanted to tell her to shut up. "She was a prisoner, Keita," she said. The child had been in chains, used as bait. Keita had seen it, even if they had been too late to keep the lieutenant from being gunned down. "Lieutenant Treharne was trying to save her, and now you want to kill her?"

The gun's barrel never wavered. "I will blow a hole through you, too, Shaw."

At that, Jimmy couldn't keep silent. "Keita—"

"Shut up, Jimmy."

She and Keita said it in unison, and she almost laughed. But it was time to bring the confrontation to an end. "You'll have to blow a hole through me, then, because I'm not fucking moving,'" she said. "Make up your goddamned mind. We don't have time for this shit."

Seconds passed. Elena could hear the girl whimpering behind her, and fought off irritation. What good were tears? Tears wouldn't make him put the gun down. Elena needed him to stop reacting and start thinking. She knew he could do it. She had "seen" him do it. She had served with him for six months aboard the  CCSS Exeter, and despite his pretension of brainless thuggery, he was far more thoughtful than his usual manner betrayed.

"What about you, Savin?" Keita addressed the other infantry officer. "You with me, or are you going to listen to some fucking 'songbird?'"

The nickname sounded ridiculous in context. But Savin, in his typically taciturn fashion, responded immediately:

"Songbird."

Keita's gaze faltered, and for a moment she caught a glimpse of pain in his eyes. Then he lowered his rifle, swore loudly, and stalked off.

The girl behind Elena began to sob openly. Elena ignored her, catching Savin's eye. "Give him thirty seconds," she instructed, "then get him back here." Savin nodded and trotted after his friend. She turned to Jimmy, who had witnessed the entire exchange with growing incredulity. "Can you move her?" she asked.

Jimmy looked down at the fifth surviving member of their landing party. Lieutenant Niree Osai, ranking officer since Treharne's death, was not unconscious, but she was in shock, blinking absently into the rain, her breathing shallow. Jimmy had used his jacket to wrap the remains of her arm, protecting the torn and ruined flesh from the acidic rainfall, but her color was awful, and she seemed to have no sense of where she was. Part of Elena envied her.

"She's not stable," he said. "She's in shock, her pressure's in the toilet, and she's not nearly unconscious enough."

"You misunderstand me." She locked eyes with him. "I didn't say should you move her, I said can you. Do you need help carrying her?"

"Lanie, she's had her arm torn off. Moving her like this could kill her."
...

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