The wound on Jack’s forearm stung; it burned hotter than the laser pulse that caused it; it ached so badly he was having trouble focusing on anything but the pain. He drove it from his mind and tried to take in the environment around him, he needed to concentrate if he was wanted to live.
The smell of burning plastic lingered in the air, and he could hear the light crackle and spit of a small fire. Tiny pieces of concrete and brick pinpricked his cheek and he could feel the unforgiving edges of his mass-produced pulse rifle as they dug into his pelvis. Jack wasn’t interested in these though, he was trying to make out any signs that they were near; the sounds of distant gunfire, of explosions caused by their plasma disruptors, the screams of their victims and the high pitched whine of the fusion engines that drove their war machines.
He had been lying here for nearly eighteen hours, hardly daring to move a muscle. He must have fallen asleep at some point during the night because one minute it was dark and he was surrounded by hideous faces, Draylon faces, all closing in on him, their menace plain to see, and the next all he could see was a ninety-degree view of the rubble-strewn ground. Suddenly his mind was filled with visions that drove out the pain, visions of the battle: weapons firing, building exploding, marines charging to meet the enemy, then being cut down, men with limbs missing, blood draining from wounds, scorch marks on armour, the lifeless bodies of dead comrades. Then came the overwhelming sense of guilt. Jack cried, the tears streaming out, completely unable to stop them. Most of his unit killed, men he had been with since boot camp, not just colleagues, brothers. Faces that were burnt into his memory, faces of men that would no longer laugh, or joke, or see their loved ones. Jack curled his legs up until he was in a foetal position, he was shaking badly. And while his colleagues fought, and battled, and showed the sort of courage that gave the 3rd Space Marines Special Arm it’s legendary history, he had hidden, and survived with only a scratch. He was a coward, and that hurt more than any other wound could.
Slowly the flow of tears slowed as he fought to regain control of himself. He shifted his weight and rolled onto his back. Above him lay a perfect, clear blue sky. Slowly his senses returned to normal. And then he heard it, quietly at first, but getting louder as it went on, was the voice of the Special Arm’s training master, Bob Higgins. Bulldog Higgins, as he was known, was the no nonsense instructor charged with turning the raw recruits (despite them all being experienced soldiers, they were raw recruits in the eyes of the Arm) into the cream of the Space Core: an Armer. His voice was a low grumble which always seemed just about to become a growl, but never quite made it.
You’re not an ordinary member of the Core, it said, you’re Arm material, and there ain’t no cowards in the Arm, so get the fuck up and get on with it. Men die, battles are lost, sacrifices are made, but an Armer never gives in, never stops fighting. Honour those men who died beside you by winning, cos that’s all that counts.
The minute he heard the voice a ball formed in his stomach, a ball of resolve, of resolution. He was transported back to his days in training, remembering how willpower, defiance and hate had driven him beyond ordinary soldiers. The steely determination possessed by every Armer flooded his veins. He flexed his twisted muscles and felt life flow back into his body again. Desire took him, the desire to kill, to fight, to win. He pulled himself to his feet, driving away or ignoring the aches. He looked down for his rifle to find himself holding it in drilled tactical readiness. Instinct had already taken over, his mind swarmed with suggestions and warnings about what to do first. He decided to do an inventory of everything he had. His pulse rifle still showed two-thirds charge, around 650 shots. Two fully charged pulse cells and five concussion grenades were snugly held in his chest webbing. A high-velocity dart pistol was strapped to his right thigh, a carbon-steel combat knife to his left. His tac/com module was still firmly attached to his left hip, he hunted round and found his helmet, smashed beyond repair. He’d need to find another before he could access the tac/com’s facilities properly. He checked the mount points for his slim line backpack, which looked like a thickened area of his suit more than a backpack. It was still attached. Lastly, he gave himself a once-over to see if he needed medical attention. The only wound of note was the one of his left forearm. He ripped an emergency sachet from his right thigh patch, tore off the top with his teeth and squeezed the milky paste from the top half through the hole in his suit. He held the packet in his teeth as he spread the thick ooze with a gloved finger to cover the whole wound. The heat had sealed it, so it was just a case of letting the nanites in the paste rebuild his skin and any tissue that had been damaged. He tore the opposite end off the pack and spread the glittering graphite-grey paste onto the torn edges of his suit. Soon neither the hole in man or material would exist.
Last was to think about what to do next. Armers were taught to think, taught that brains and brawn were much stronger together than they could ever be individually. Jack became a statue as his mind suggested, weighed and measured ideas. He could do any number of things, but the overriding desire to win persisted. To do that he needed to think of a way to stop the Draylon, halt their progress, then begin to drive them back. To win a war you needed to know the enemy, and no one knew much about the Draylon. That led back to one thing, information. They needed to find out everything they could about the Draylon, only then could they hope of defeating them. Jack’s mind was set, he could see his course, he would use his skills and be the information gatherer.