Author : Julian Miles, Staff Writer

He’s petrified. I can tell from the white-knuckle grip he has on his rifle, the way his eyes cannot fix on a given point for more than a few seconds. My threat scan classifies him as ‘low to negligible’. Which is a bit of a bugger as he’s one of my best.

“Johnny… Trooper Blumenthal!”

That gets his attention. He slams upright so hard I have to backhand him in the knees to stop him coming to attention – which would leave a metre of the bits he’d really regret losing sticking up into the open.

“Johnny, I know this is scary, but you have to get your fear to work with your training. Don’t worry about bravery, charging in, even shooting your weapon at an enemy. Leave that to me. I have a special op for you.”

His gaze fixes on my visor. I can see the four-metre creature I am reflected in his eyes. In fairness, I can also see the veins at the back of his eye that tell me he needs a diabetes check if he survives this. How did the medics miss that? But, more importantly, let’s concentrate on getting him to that medical.

“Johnny. You with us?”

He swallows hard. I see him consciously gather himself into the now. Good lad.

“Yes sir. I’m back.”

“Right. You see how the back of this sorry excuse for a foxhole gives you a clear field toward our rear?”

“Yes sir.”

“Scan that field. If you see one of ours pulling back, you use that heater of yours to melt a death-for-desertion clean through them. Can you do that?”

He goes white. Then his smile thins out, and he nods.

“That’s the spirit. I’ll tell you a secret, Johnny. You’re not here to fight the Bodan. You’re here to stop the others running away. I’m going to fight the Bodan. Between the two of us, we’ll have a victory, and a unit one step nearer to being veterans by nightfall.”

He looks at me quizzically.

“Each of these combat bodies costs more than the GDP of two colonies, Johnny. We can’t waste them on trainees. Every one is operated by the mortal remains of an old soldier. As one of these is equivalent to a thousand-man battlegroup with full mechanical support, we are holding the Bodan. What we need are more hardcore soldiers to pilot the next generation, and fill the occasional gaps in the ranks.”

Johnny grins: “You reckon I’ll last long enough to get me one of what you’re wearing?”

I smile, although nothing shows where Johnny can see it: “Yes. Now cover your sector, Trooper Blumenthal. I’ll be back in a while.”

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