Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Unsol remembered his twelfth birthday, remembered his fathers face alight with pride as he read aloud Unsol’s draft notice. ‘You’re going to be a pilot, Unsol.’ His father beamed ‘You’ll be the most valuable commodity in the Corps.’

Thirteen years they had invested in him, teaching him, leading him, shaping him. Days turned into years racing war craft through fields of stars and cavernous landscapes of dust and stone, sometimes hunting, sometimes the hunted as they prepared him for his future.

At twenty five he pledged his allegiance to the Corps. ‘I will gladly sacrifice my life to protect our Earth, I pledge my life to the Corps.’ The next day he pledged his love and honour to his new wife. The words ‘Semper Fi’ etched themselves upon the man. These were the happiest days in his memory.

Hot wired into the cockpit of his Slipstream, his every thought, every twitch of his wrist, each flick of a fingertip was translated into immediate motion; pitch, yaw, roll. He merely willed the craft to move, and kept his eye on his prey. A more perfect union of man and machine was simply beyond his comprehension. Pushing through the dust cloud above the surface to hug the craterous landscape, his squadron chased their elusive quarry through canyons and across wide open plains to the mountains. They could taste victory, but they had been careless, arrogant. Unsol’s last memory was of tearing metal, the rush of atmosphere and the smell of burning flesh.

It took twelve months to rebuild him, but after spending thirteen years creating him, reconstruction was an economic viability.

His wife had attended his funeral. There were Corpsmen firing rifles into the sky, and a squadron flew the missing man formation over the graveyard for each as their friends and families paid their last respects. The pilots watched the proceedings from their hospital beds. Each wife fathered a child, some right away, some not for months after. The Corps knew how rare pilot DNA was, so they helped facilitate the in-vitro as part of the bereavement benefit package. Unsol would never be seen by his wife, or his child. He was dead to them both, though he would still fly to protect them.

Security allowed him into the nursery wing after his son was born. Unsol stood in the hall, staring through the glass at a sea of tiny hands none of them would ever get to hold, smiling faces that would never smile for them. Unsol reached with phantom arms and felt new polymer hands connect with the glass, pickups extending reflexively from his palms, skittering on the smooth surface as they searched for an access point to interface with. He shuffled inside his legs, and felt the bulk of thighs and boots not entirely his own move him closer. The lights dimmed in the nursery, and the glass suddenly reflected back the white dome where his face should have been, fogging below the chin line where his air exchanger vented moist air forward. He could feel a tugging in his chest where his own heart once had been, and pain where he knew tears could no longer flow.

When Unsol agreed to sacrifice his life for the Corps, he had only meant that he was willing to die.

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