Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Tucker went through the drills with the rest of the squad in a state of meditative indifference. It took focused effort to keep his mech and chem systems in check while still performing well enough to earn one of the dozen seats on the Mars shuttle. These freelance lifts were rare, and he couldn’t miss this opportunity.

What little attention he could spare he directed to monitoring the other’s level of performance. He deliberately maintained a slightly-better-than-middle spot in the ten kilometer run and obstacle course. He kept that position as they commando-crawled five hundred meters through a muddy creek bed while a machine-gunner fired a steady stream of live rounds over their heads, the gun’s belt drive screaming above the clatter of shell casings piling up at her feet.

Several of the men curled up fetal under fire, disqualifying themselves involuntarily, and Tucker downgraded his speed accordingly.

It wouldn’t take a genius to recognize his Special Ops rigging if he slipped here, and that would bring a rapid and painful end to Tucker’s unauthorized excursion.

Pulling himself out of the muck, Tucker loped the last hundred meters downhill to the gun range, joining the dozen or so already there. Several sported bloody stripes across their backs where they’d been grazed by the gunfire.

Tucker wiped the mud from his hands on the back of his pants, before unracking and loading an M4 Carbine and stepping into an empty slot on the range. There were only two perfect shoots ahead of him that he could see, and he squeezed off an evenly spaced volley of shells at his target, carefully distributing them across the red of the bulls-eye, and deliberately putting one just outside the bull, kissing the colour.

Making safe the weapon, he re-racked it and followed the others along a short trail and into another clearing. Here a handful of uniformed men stood reading incoming performance data on hand held pads while they waited for the stragglers to filter in.

“Sten, Rourke, Burke and Trillo, you’re in Red Quad. Clean up, suit up and be on the apron at sixteen hundred.” The shortest of the uniformed men barked the orders.

“Abrahms, Booker, Suez and Styne, Blue Quad. Clean and suited, on the apron. Sixteen hundred.”

“Jope, Minerez, Minsk and Parker, Green Quad. Clean, suited, sixteen hundred.

For a moment Tucker felt panic well up, and nearly lost his grip. Parker had finished behind him in all the exercises, but must have impressed on the range. As Parker elbowed his way through the crowd, Tucker sidled up and, unnoticed, drove two rigid fingers into the base of his spine as he passed. The movement was so swift and the contact so brief that the man barely noticed. It wasn’t until he’d taken another dozen steps through the crowd that his legs folded up neatly beneath him, and he dropped silently to the dirt.

There was quick discussion amongst the uniforms as a medic made his way through the confused crowd to the fallen man.

“Tucker, take Parkers place in Green, looks like this is your lucky day.”

Tucker knew that it was Parker who’d gotten the lucky break. He still had to kill the rest of them once they cleared orbit and that was unlikely to be as painless.

The thought of imminent violence brought the chem bubbling to the surface, and he pushed it back down. Not here, not now. He’d stay near comatose through liftoff, but before the zero hour there’d be no reason left to hide, and they’d have nowhere to run.

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