“Do you always travel this light?” Venus asked as she scanned the room. Misha locked the hotel door behind him and tossed his keycard on the coffee table.

“This is business, not a vacation.” He responded, observing the droid as she continued her inspection of his room. He’d be lying to himself if he said that she wasn’t an impressive design. Her hair was raven black and sat in lush waves just below her shoulders. Her body was designed with professional grace and precision, not like the Barbie-doll prostitution droids you’d find on in a brothel. She had enticing curves that gave her an organic quality. But it was her face that stuck with him. Something about those synthetic golden honey eyes. He liked that there was a touch of artificiality to her.

“So what do you do when you’re not working, Mr. Businessman?” She turned and asked him, a coy and teasing smile hanging from the corners of her mouth.

He ignored the flirtation as he removed his suit jacket and hung it up, careful to avoid any wrinkles or damages. He noticed her staring at his pistol and holster hanging by his shoulder. “Is that meant to impress me?” she asked, her smile unchanged.

“Do I have to impress you?” Misha retorted, “I thought you were programmed to be impressed by me.” She sat on the coffee table and crossed her legs.

“That’s what your employer sent you to purchase isn’t it? Programmable compatibility? Besides, if Mr. Patel believed you just wanted a pretty escort, he’d have given you a different model. He guessed that you might want something a little more…complex.”

“And that’s what you are? Complex?”

“Something like that.” Misha opened the bottle of vodka and poured himself a full glass. The whole time, those honey eyes stared straight at him.

“So you won’t do what I say?” He asked.

“You haven’t told me to do anything” she replied without skipping a beat.

“Stand up.” He said. She complied.

“Sit down.” She made her way to his bed. “Not there. On the couch” She raised an eye brow but complied. “Not feeling adventurous?”

“Not looking for pleasure” he answered, satisfied that his point had been proven.

“What is it you’re looking for then?” She asked, stretching out on the couch. He took a sip of vodka and held it in his mouth until it burned. He kept repeating in his head that this was only a program, nothing more than an imitation of reality. But it was a very convincing one.

“I’m not looking for anything.” He said after swallowing his drink.

“Yes you are.” She responded, standing up. “Maybe it isn’t pleasure but you are looking for something.”

He tensed as she came closer and closer to him, her eyes burning with electricity. His pulse quickened and he didn’t know whether to reach for his gun or her.

“All that precision, your suits, your manners, your control: you’ve bound yourself up.” She draped an arm around his neck. Misha’s stomach knotted and he braced with every muscle in his body. “You want to come out.”

Her face was millimeters from his. Her lavender perfume reached out and hooked into his brain. “You want to unwind” Each word was seductive and warm on his ear. He felt a vein of desires rising up in him. They pressed so hard against him that his very skin ached and itched. He wanted to rip her skin-tight dress off and fuck her until he couldn’t move. He wanted to lay in bed with her and hold her. He wanted to talk to her, not about business or some coy game of verbal chess but just talk. He wanted her to be real.

“You’re not real.” Misha said, trying to bring himself back in control.

“This is real.” She said, drawing a finger from the back of his ear across his neck, “This is real.” She guided his hand first from her breast to her cheek. “This conversation is real”

“But you’re not.” She wrapped both arms around him and stared him square in the eye.

“I can be real for you.” Misha looked into the eyes that had intrigued him the minute he saw her in Mr. Patel’s club. Designed and customized to react the exact same way human eyes do, behind them was a complex web of circuitry and wire, all working seamlessly and invisibly to produce the perfect woman. Programs and algorithms, constantly adapting and totally focused on him from every word he uttered to the smallest facial tick, burned away to serve and seduce him. A synthetic succubus, ready to play lover, confidant and therapist all at the same time and she could be all his.

“No.” Misha removed her arms from around his neck, “You can’t”.



“I’ll take point.” Collin said, bringing his carbine up to his shoulder. Kelly nodded and stacked up behind him. “Control, Foxtrot Sierra five is on the deck and looking for extraction.” She said into the mic around her neck. The team waited inside the squat brick building as dull chaos of battle echoed through the alleys and streets.

“Roger that Foxtrot Sierra five. Proceed to our forward command post at 17th and Columbia. We’ll get you home from there.” the voice in both their ears said. “You ready to go?” Kelly asked. Collin gave her a thumbs up. She checked her rifle, gave Collin a light pat on the shoulder and they set off.

Outside the building, the air was cooling off as the sun slid towards the horizon. The oppressive baked white light was now a warm glaze of orange and red as dusk came. Step by step, Kelly and Collin scurried through the maze of brick and concrete, careful to watch for any threats. Every clatter of an assault rifle sent a spike of adrenaline through their bodies.

Kelly could feel her muscles tensing and the sweat from the day’s heat and her own nervousness clinging to her body armor. Her stomach growled and her throat was dry but still she kept her focus on each window they passed and her hands ready to snap her weapon to any threat. She maneuvered through the debris-littered streets in perfect sync with her partner. She had always taken pride in how well they could move together without the need for digitally enhanced read-outs or equipment. They just gelled.

Collin came up to a street corner and put his hand up. The two stopped dead, hunched against the thin sheet metal of a make-shift kiosk someone had built. Carefully, Collin peeked around the corner, his carbine raised to answer any shots that rang out. He was about to wave Kelly to cross the road when he screamed “Dow-“

An explosion finished the sentence for him as the shanty collapsed on top of both of them. Kelly’s ears were ringing and she felt the weight of the shanty pressing against her armor. The world seemed to be swimming in slow motion as the sound of her breathing echoed inside her own head. She was only vaguely aware of the incoming bullets smacking into the ground around her. She pushed against the piece of metal sitting on her chest. A bullet pinged off it as she did.

When Kelly wiggled free, she peered through the dust and smoke for her partner. Collin was on his hands and knees and appeared as dazed as she was. She reached out and grabbed him by the belt. He turned but fell on his side. The haze wore off when Kelly noticed why he’d fallen. Collin’s right arm had been shredded off just below the elbow.

Collin must have recognized it around the same time because he started screaming in pain. Kelly grabbed him by the collar of his armor and started dragging him to behind firmer cover. The ringing in her ears had toned down enough to hear Collin spewing profanity and wincing as blood ran from his mangled stump.

“FUCK!” was the first word she could clearly make out.

“You’re gonna be alright.” She said, pulling the field aid kit out of her rucksack. More bullets hissed and smacked into the pavement as she readied a tourniquet. Collin clinched his teeth as she tightened it around what remained of his arm. “Control! We’re under heavy fire and need an immediate medevac for one critically wounded.” She reported into the comm as she continued treating Collin’s wound.

“Copy that five. We cannot medevac from your current position. Get to the forward command post and we can get you out there.”

“Jesus Christ! That’s still ten blocks away! Request close air support!” Kelly yelled as another explosion showered the two of them with dust and chips of asphalt.

“Negative that request five. We cannot spare any CAS at this time. Advise you disengage immediately.” The mechanical tone of command underlined the desperation of their situation.

“Great fuckin advice!” Kelly screamed as she brought her rifle up, looking for a target. The fire was coming from an elevated position and the sheer volume made it clear that they were easily outnumbered. Kelly leaned as carefully as she could from behind cover and fired off a few rounds into a window where she could make out muzzle flashes. The return volley of gunfire blew a chunk out of the wall she was using for cover and she cursed again.

Suddenly, Collin threw a smoke grenade into the street and a cloud of grey began to block everyone’s field of vision.

“Get running. I’ll keep ‘em busy.” He said, trying to un-holster his pistol. “It’s been a shitty enough day without you pulling the martyr card.” Kelly said, managing to crack a smile through the smoke. Collin wanted to protest but Kelly grabbed his remaining arm and pulled him to his feet before he could say anything. He let out another cry of pain as she slung his left arm over her shoulder.

“Ready?” Kelly asked, balancing her partner on one shoulder and her rifle in the opposite hand.

“Ready!” Collin snarled through gritted teeth. With a deep breath, they hobbled across the street as more bullets filled the air around them. Small shards of concrete and pavement peppered them and a bullet grazed Kelly’s knee but they pressed on to the other side.

Kelly slammed the two of them into a thick wall, well out of sight of the enemy shooters. “Are you dead?” she asked, almost surprised to have made it.

“Not yet.” Collin said, equally as surprised.

“Cool. Then let’s get out of here” She said as they limped down the alley towards their evac point.


Collin settled on his stomach and flipped open the cover of his rifle’s scope. The city-scape was a mix of squat concrete structures and rusting sheet metal shanties. The echo of automatic weapons and the rumbling engines of vehicles came from several directions.

“Control, Foxtrot Sierra five is on-site.” He said into his mic.

“So did you talk to Joe?” Kelly asked him as she made herself cozy in her spotter’s position. Collin felt a flash of irritation. Why did Kelly always pick the worst time to make small talk?

“Not now, Kelly.” Collin said, focusing down the scope. Kelly chuckled as she deployed the observation drone. “You didn’t did you?”

Collin sighed, “No. I didn’t talk to Joe.”

“Reb, one o’clock. Roof of the blue building.” Kelly called out, her normally playful tone replaced with a mechanical and emotionless one.


“306 meters.” Collin put the crosshairs over the enemy soldier, slowly exhaled and squeezed the trigger.

The rifle’s report pierced the relative quiet of their rooftop perch. Collin watched the bullet hit the target square in the chest. A mist of blood came out of his chest and he slumped to the ground.

“Hit. He’s down.” Kelly confirmed. Collin pulled the bolt back on his rifle and ejected the spent casing. “You know you’ve got to talk to him.” She continued, seamlessly switching back to her playful tone. Collin sighed and continued scanning the rooftops and windows.

“See this is your problem. You try and tamp down those little things called feelings and you wonder why Joe’s always upset with you.” Kelly continued lecturing him. He had heard it all before. Ever since command had made them partners, she’d appointed herself Collin’s shrink as well as his spotter.

“Doesn’t the army have rules against having conversations like this during missions?” Collin asked, trying to keep focus on the battlefield.

“There you go again. This is what I’m ta-. Shooter, twelve o’clock. Fourth floor window, Grey building.” Kelly called out, never taking her eyes off her binoculars. Collin dialed in the target and saw the rebel setting up a machinegun in the window. Another exhale, another squeeze of the trigger. The rebel fell backwards into the room, taking the weapon with him.

“Hit. Kill confirmed.” Kelly said, “Burying all those feelings isn’t healthy.”

“Jesus Christ. You’re worse than he is.” Collin grumbled, “In the middle of a goddamn war and you two want to talk about my fucking emotions.”

“What’s that say about you then? Kill rebs from dawn till dusk, sure. But letting either of your partners what’s going on in your head? That’s where you draw the line?” Kelly asked.

Collin hated when Kelly made points like that. He wanted to tell her to leave him alone, to keep her mind on the mission. He wanted to tell Joe that fretting about their relationship seemed incredibly petty while the country was literally tearing itself apart. Most of all, he wanted to push all of this bullshit out of his head. The federal army didn’t need someone in tune with his emotions: it needed a sharpshooter who could consistently hit the mark.

“I don’t need to talk about it cause there’s nothing-“

“Reb. 10 o’clock. Rooftop of the McDonalds. He’s behind the AC unit.”


“389 meters.” Through the scope, Collin waited, his muscles tensing in anticipation. The air was hot and quiet between the two as both were fixed on observing their target. Through the scope, Collin saw only the flat metal of the AC block. Seconds ticked away into minutes. He could feel sweat trickling down his face and he could practically chew on the early summer humidity.

Then, after what felt like a lifetime, the black helmet of the rebel slowly peered out from the cover. Collin exhaled but waited just a second more. The rebel put his whole head out and Collin squeezed.

The rifle kicked into his shoulder and Collin watched through the scope as the bullet connected squarely with its target, the gruesome report visible across the roof.

“Kill confirmed.” Kelly said.

Collin wiped the sweat off his face before returning his eye to the scope.

“Nobody’s saying there’s anything wrong with you. I’m just saying if you stay bottled up like that, either you’re gonna snap or he’s gonna walk.” Kelly returned to giving advice. Her tone wasn’t playful anymore. There was a genuine concern and emotion that colored it.

The two were quiet again for a moment.

“Droid. Three o’clock. Shanty with the flag graffiti on it.” Collin scanned the cobbled together houses until he found the one in question. The wall facing them had the Federal Union’s flag spray-painted on it but the twenty stars had been replaced with swastikas. Inside the shanty, he could just make out the shaded outline of an assault droid. Collin put the crosshairs over its chest and fired.

“Good hit.” Kelly confirmed the droid was scrap. “You’re not a droid, slick. Talking helps”

Collin sighed again. It was going to be a long watch.



Jack froze dead in the swamp and brought his rifle up to his cheek. He scanned the opaque brown water and waited in a cold sweat for any sign of movement. Butcher waded up slowly on his right flank, shotgun poised.

“What did you see?” Butcher asked.

“Not sure. Something in the water I think,” Jack replied in a hushed voice. The squad spread out slowly, everybody nervous and on edge. That was what being on Hera did to a man. No matter how hard they were when they landed, everybody was nervous on Hera.

“Scoop! Bring up the flamethrower,” Jack commanded in a hoarse whisper. Scoop stepped forward, gripping the weapon so tight his knuckles were white. Jack signaled with his hands where he wanted Scoop to aim. The mountain of flesh followed his order and lit the pilot light.

Jack fired a quick burst into the muck. The water kicked up and sent ripples across through the swamp. For half of a breath, the planet was quiet. Then a giant centipede-like creature reared its head out of the water. Its pincers clicked and it let out a disgusting and skin-crawling noise. Scoop reacted first when he let loose a long jet of flame.

The fire hit the alien in the face and ignited the water around it. Then Butcher thumped away, putting two slugs into its body. The alien charged forward, determined to take down the intruders. Jack and the squad stepped backwards slowly, firing all the time. A whole squad’s worth of fire pouring into this monster and it just kept coming, burning and bleeding all the while.

It was about to bite Jack clean in half when Butcher put a 10 gauge slug into the side of its head. It jerked and fell just to the side of Jack, splashing them all in the swamp water. Jack felt the hundreds of wiry legs brush past him. He shivered and twitched involuntarily.

Beak walked up to the dead monster. He walked up too fast. Jack screamed for him not to. In a last gasp, the centipede roared and impaled Beak on one of its pincers. Jack jammed his rifle into the alien’s eye and emptied the fifty round magazine. Blood and more swamp water blew into his face. It twitched a little bit but it was finally dead. Everybody stared at the felled creature. Jack was the first to move. He picked up Beak’s rifle and distributed the spare ammunition. “Let’s keep moving,”

They kept trekking through the sweaty and claustrophobic hell. Val was next to Jack at the front of the squad.

“How did you know it wasn’t dead?” Val asked.

“You’ve been on-planet for what: five weeks?” Jack said, without breaking focus.

“ 36 days,”

“String enough days together and you’ll learn when something’s dead or not,” Val had been a contraband smuggler back on Earth so he wasn’t completely clueless. But there was a big difference between slipping past customs or trading panic shots with other criminals and surviving out in the wild.

“How many days do you have?” Val asked again.

“247 on Hera. 973 on Webley,” Jack replied.

“Holy shit. What did you do?” Val asked in awe but also took a step away. It was a common question in the penal gangs. Everybody wanted to size each other up, see who was top dog. It was a question of hierarchy before the first patrol. But if you could survive that patrol, then what you did was merely a question to make conversation.

“Something unforgivable,” Jack answered after a moment.

“Clearly,” Val said sarcastically.

“Just keep sharp. We’ve got another four miles to go before it gets dark,” Jack ended the conversation and brought everybody’s focus back to the swamp.

Unlike everybody else in the gang, Jack wasn’t counting down days. The convicts all got sentences based on their crimes. Thieves and smugglers got 365 days. Rapists like Beak got 1,200 days and murders got 1,500 days. Survive long enough and you were released. Everybody knew their number and was counting down to get out. But Jack was counting up. He was the only volunteer for penal work in the entire history of the system. He technically could leave anytime he wanted.

“502 days and a wake up,” Butcher said as the floodlights of the camp appeared through the building-sized trees. They picked their way through carefully, warm and putrid water up to their balls. Even in the fading light, the humidity was thick enough to chew.

Step by step, their campsite grew closer. They’d be fools to think it was safe but it was at least safer than being in the water. The evening brought on an auditory onslaught as tens of thousands of aliens, bugs and other predators began making noises. It made every man’s neck hair stand on edge.

Jack thought back to almost dying earlier when the centipede attacked. He felt a strange pang of regret that Butcher had shot the alien just in time. On the other hand, he knew he was nowhere near through his own sentence. Earth may not have sentenced him but Jack had sentenced himself and he owed a great many more days.