"Lieutenant?" the voice said gently. It was soft. Feminine. Angelic. "Lieutenant Burke? Can you hear me?"
The last conscious thought Eric Burke had was one of searing pain. It was gone now, replaced by numbness. He blinked his eyes. The room came into focus.
Eric was staring up at the ceiling. He tried to move his head but couldn't. His arms wouldn't move. Nor would his legs. He tried to sit up, but to no avail.
"Where—" His voice was feeble. "Where is my platoon?"
"They're fine," the voice said soothingly. Someone's head leaned over, blocking out the overhead lights. She was wearing a white overcoat with medical insignia and commander's stripes. A stethoscope hung around her neck. The doctor was Alliance, which meant he hadn't been captured.
"Where am I?" Eric breathed a sigh of relief.
"Citadel Haven." Bringing out pocketlight, she shined it in both his eyes. "Sector twelve, 40 Eridani system."
He didn't recognise the name of the base, but with the war on, there were lots of installations he didn't know about. The fact that he was on a citadel told him that he had been transferred to relative safety and away from the front lines.
"Why can't I move?" Eric asked as the doctor continued to poke and prod.
The doctor's brow creased for a split second. "Lieutenant, what's the last thing you remember?"
"Pain," he said. The memories came back, and not all of them were welcome. "My platoon was to breach a Federation space station ahead of the Marines. We had just planted the bomb and we were getting ready for extract. There was an explosion . . ."
Eric's voice trailed off. There had been a flash out of the corner of his eye. He heard nothing in the vacuum of space, but the explosion vaporised Jenkins, who had been standing next to him. He was thrown against the hull of the cruiser and then he blacked out. His arms and legs felt like they were on fire.
"Your suit was breached by shrapnel," the doctor said. "The failsafes cut your right arm off at the shoulder, your left arm off at the elbow and your right leg at the knee."
The Valkyrie Combat Suit is one of the finest all-purpose zero-g military exoskeletons in existence. Equipped with a variety of weapons and sensors, it represented the pinnacle of combat firepower, stealth and survivability for Alliance infantry. Their cost was also astronomical, which is why only the Army Special Forces and Space Navy SOLARs got them.
In the event of a major vacuum breech that could not be sealed, the suit would inject the wearer with anesthetic, cut off the exposed limb at one of several points, cauterise the wound and seal itself up, all in about four hundredths of a second. It wasn't pretty, but it sure beat freezing or suffocating to death in the black emptiness of space. With the widespread use of bionic prosthetics and cloned replacement limbs, losing an arm or leg (or two) seemed a small price to pay for survivability.
"According to your chart, your helmet also had a small crack in it which led to some air loss. It was patched by one of your shooters, but not before you lost consciousness and slipped into a vacuum coma." The doctor finished her examination and elevated the head of his bed.
"How long was I out?" Eric said. He had survived four deployments—three in the special forces—with only a couple of flesh wounds, now this. His body was covered by the sheets, but he could make out the silhouettes of his limbs. Everything looked normal.
Some of the guys in his platoon had mechanical replacement limbs. They all seemed to like them. After all, it made them faster and stronger, invaluable attributes for a special operator. Still, Eric hoped that he could get through his life as 100% flesh and bone.
"Two months," the doctor replied gently. Once in the sitting position, Eric noticed a nurse and two orderlies in the room. "You really had us worried with the coma, Lieutenant. We knew you didn't have any brain damage but for some reason, you didn't want to wake up."
Once he was sitting up, the nurse and orderlies came over.
"I'm going to release the spinal block in just a minute. Then we'll start moving your new arms and leg," the doctor said, stepping back.
Eric suddenly felt sensation return to his body. His arms started to twitch involuntarily. The room started to spin. He tipped over and blacked out.
Control over his new limbs didn't come immediately. Although the neural network of the prosthetics was integrated seamlessly with his own nerve endings, he had to learn to walk and pick things up again.
The biosynthetic arms and muscles were stronger, tougher and faster than his own arms; he gave himself a black eye trying to run his hand through his hair. Within a couple of days he was able to walk with assistance and then began four months of physical therapy.
Eric Burke came from a navy family. His mother was a career space warfare officer. His dad was an intel officer. Both retired before the war between the Federation and the Alliance, leaving it for him and his sisters to fight. After graduating from secondary school, Eric enlisted in the Terran Space Navy; even though he was smart enough, his grades weren't good enough for college or the Academy, and he needed direction.
The TSN gave him a swift kick in the ass; his mother may have been an admiral, but that counted for squat in his world. Chiefs loved to torture him, but what he didn't know until later was that they were building him up. After one deployment, his section chief talked him into going career.
With a couple of years in the fleet, he went to college, breezed through OCS and was recruited to the Naval Special Warfare Command, with the promise of being able to blow shit up. He somehow survived 24th Century BUD/S and soon found himself among the interstellar descendants of the old Navy SEALs.
Then the war started. He had three deployments as a SOLAR (Space, Ocean, Land, AtmospheRe), one as a platoon AOIC and two as an OIC because the SOLAR teams were stretched so thin.
He didn't really know what the war was about. He didn't care. Secession. Trade rights. Resources. Whatever. All Eric Burke wanted to do was kill things and bring the young men and women under his command back alive.
Now a full lieutenant, Burke was nearing the end of his third platoon deployment when he lost his arms and leg. The wounds wouldn't force him out of the service, but he did lose his platoon. At least until he was done with rehab.
While on Citadel Haven, he heard from his parents; they were worried, but understood all about the risks of having a child in special warfare. His dad told him he loved him and his mother told him to keep his head down.
After a month of physical therapy, Burke was reassigned out of the hospital section of the citadel to the barracks wing. The space station was almost brand new and had never seen combat. Of course, anyone crazy enough to assault a citadel was either completely insane or backed up by a fleet (or two) of warships.
He was inexplicably assigned to his own room. Rather, Eric was assigned a double-occupancy bunk, but no roommate ever showed up. He got used to it and his therapy was going faster than the doctors had anticipated. Burke pushed himself because he wanted to get back to the Teams. There were SOLARs with their plasma cannons in the fight and he was lollygagging around a cushy Navy base far from the front. He wanted back into the action.
Once a week, he attended group therapy, sessions designated for sailors and space marines who had lost limbs and were trying to adjust to their new prosthetics. PTSD and all that. Burke went because he had to; he'd just assume get on with his life instead of getting all touchy-feely.
That changed when a new officer came to the group.
Sub-Commander Maylene Torres hobbled into the session one afternoon. It was obvious to Eric that both her legs were bio-synthetic. From the looks of it, so were her hands. Underneath her coveralls, Eric saw skin grafts on her chest and neck. The skin on her face was the perfect complexion and perfectly smooth, the hallmark of tank-grown skin. Her eyes were the prettiest, but not quite natural, sparkling blue. That meant cyber-optic implants.
She sat quietly next to Eric the first day and didn't talk much. She seemed pre-occupied, as if her mind were somewhere else.
Eric had made a couple of friends in the group and they spent some afternoons in the officer's club. After two or three sessions, they invited Maylene along with them, but she politely declined.
Another week went by. Maylene and Eric again sat next to each other, and again, neither said much. They both listened a lot. Both responded well to the physical therapy and were well on the road to recovery.
One afternoon, after the group session, Eric stood to leave when Maylene's hand tapped him on the shoulder.
"You're Cheryl Burke's son, aren't you?" she asked softly.
Eric blinked a couple of times. He had never heard her say so many words at one time. "Yes, I am."
"I was a nugget on the Solar Storm when she was the Captain," Maylene said.
"She always said that was the best job she ever had," Eric smiled. "Mom thought she'd like being an admiral, but she said being a captain is the best job in the Navy."
The corners of Maylene's mouth turned up. "She was a good skipper. All of the crew knew she was watching out for us."
Eric smiled and filed a mental note to check with his mother about this woman. Everyone else had vacated the room, leaving the two of them standing there by themselves. "Listen . . . are you busy now? Would you like to go get a drink or something?"
It was the first time she had looked him in the eyes. Her face was pretty. The newly grown skin was soft and free of blemishes. The grafts appeared to be healing well. Over the past month, she had developed a remarkable amount of control over her new limbs.
Eric and Maylene headed down to the officer's mess and got a bite to eat. She was still a little withdrawn, so he did most of the talking.
After some persistent inquiries—and some scotch—Eric got her to open up a little.
Maylene was a VR fighter jock. Even in the 20th century, advances in technology were hampered by the limitations of the human body. A fighter can simply take more g-forces than their pilots, so their development stifled. That changed in the late 22nd century when discoveries in subspace revolutionised unmanned warfare.
The same technology that made it possible for him to talk to his parents on Earth across 16 light years in real time also allowed pilots to remotely control fighters from the safety of a base ship that was half a solar system away. As a result, fighters got faster, more maneuverable and more deadly.
Of course, sometimes the dirty business of warfare required people on the ground and on the front lines instead of hiding in control pods behind sterile virtual reality screens two AUs from the fighting. That's what SOLARs, Space Marines and Army groundpounders were for.
"So how did you end up here?" Eric asked, pouring Maylene another drink.
There was a flash of pain across her face. Her artificial hands began to shake involuntarily. Taking a deep breath, Maylene calmed her racing heartbeat.
"I am . . . er, I was . . . squadron XO for the Crimson Knights on the Invincible," she said softly. "We were patrolling what was supposed to be a system free of Federation ships. We must have stumbled on something because when we got close to a small moon, the place started crawling with Locust-class fighters and Freelancer gunboats."
She downed half the drink. "Our squadron scrambled immediately and we tried to keep the rest of the battlegroup clear of fighters. A couple got through and hit us with two torpedoes. There was a fire near one of the magazines."
Eric watched her carefully. There was a distant look in her cybernetic eyes. "I . . . I'm really not sure what happened next. I was in my pod when the screen blew up. I only remember bits and pieces, mostly the smell of smoke and burning flesh . . ."
She took a deep breath. "Next thing I know, they're waking me up here. The docs say I was under for almost ten weeks. They got me new eyes, hands and legs, but it took a while for them to grow my face back."
Reaching across the table, Eric took her mechanical hands in his. He squeezed them gently. She squeezed back. Their eyes locked together and for an instant, their shared experience brought them an instant understanding.
"They tell me that once I get back to a full medical base they can clone my arms and legs and grow new skin all over my body, but there are too many other needy sailors and Marines here, so I have to settle for biosynth limbs for now."
"I got the same thing," Eric smiled. "Of course, the sector COMSPECWAR tried to talk me into full bionic conversion."
"What did you tell him?" Maylene asked, already knowing the response. It was the first time he had seen her smile with her teeth.
"I told him to go to hell," he replied with a smirk. "Only not so nicely."
It seemed like the first time either of them had a reason to laugh since arriving at the medical base.
For the rest of the afternoon, the two talked. It was almost like their lives were back to normal.
When they parted, she was heading to a physical therapy session and he headed back to his room. They swapped comm numbers and promised to talk again before the next group session.
Over the next several days, Eric found a couple of excuses to call Maylene, but she was never there. She returned one of his calls, but he was over seeing the special warfare group commander trying desperately to get back in the war. He had heard that some of his men from Delta Platoon, SOLAR Team 23 were in the sector and he wanted to get back to active duty as soon as possible.
Eric was very disappointed when his doctors told him that he would need some more physical therapy before he would be cleared for combat duty. His fine motor coordination still needed some work, but they told him that he might be ready to get back to the Teams in a month or so.
Dejected, Eric returned to his room and found Maylene waiting outside the door.
His face lit up when he saw her.
"Hey, stranger," she said. They were both out of their hospital coveralls and in standard khaki uniforms. She had a hanging garment bag slung over her shoulder and a packet under her arm. "What are you doing tonight?"
Eric frowned. "I was thinking of having a 'no pride' night."
"What the hell is that?"
He flashed her a sardonic smile. "It's where I sit around with whatever liquor I can get my hands on and drink myself into oblivion."
Maylene took his hand. There was something different in her expression. "Well, then I'm going to be happy to save you from yourself. Open the door."
They went into his room. She hung the bag from a hook on the back of the door. Unzipping the garment bag, Maylene began laying out a white TSN dress uniform.
"Where did you get that?" Eric asked. It was his dress uniform.
"Admiral von Luck had it shipped here last week," Maylene handed him the sealed packet.
"You already know what it says." It wasn't a question.
"I made friends with the chief over in the comm station," Maylene smiled. "It seems your exploits have finally caught up with you."
"The dress uniform is a lot of trouble just to have me arrested," he replied dryly.
Eric opened the envelope and a thick stack of paper fell out. He began to shuffle through them. Awards. Lots of them. Not that he needed any more. Or wanted them.
After five years of constant deployments and fighting from one side of the galaxy to the other, all the paperwork that had built up at Alliance Navy Special Warfare Command had finally been processed and is somehow found him. Even in the 24th century, there was still red tape and bureaucracy.
Purple Heart. Sigma-16 Campaign Ribbon. Silver Cross for Gallantry. Omicron Prime Invasion Arrow. Navy Unit Commendation. New Berlin Campaign Ribbon.
The last one was sealed in a second envelope. There was a hand-written note clipped to it.
I told them you'd hate it, but the rest of the platoon and I wouldn't have gotten off that goddam rock if you hadn't pulled our asses out of the fire. We put you in for the IKC. It's our way of saying thanks.
We tried to call you a couple months ago but the docs told us they hadn't woken you up you. We need your gun, and soon! We're up to our armpits in the shit and the newbies are getting themselves killed faster than we can train them.
Don't go soft on us at whatever hospital station they've got you hidden on.
Eric swallowed hard. He hadn't realised how long he'd been gone. Sub-Lieutenant Stacy Kimble was his platoon AOIC and must have taken over for him, what was it . . . Four months ago? She was sure to have made full lieutenant by now and his platoon had either been filled out with new guys or disbanded among other platoons in need of veteran bodies.
His artificial hands trembling, Eric opened the envelope. It held the formal notification of his medal, the highest award the Alliance gave out for military action including witness statements attesting to his heroism and courage.
What's brave about bringing two young men back in bags? Eric though to himself.
Maylene watched him go through the packet in silence. His dress uniform was laid out on the bed, but she watched his eyes. They had grown distant, as if the SOLAR officer suddenly felt the weight of command catch up with him. She knew what it was to command others, but few people died under her orders. When a VR fighter pilot gets shot down, another fighter is rolled into the launch bay and they're back in business.
A couple of decades back, VR robots were field tested in infantry situations. They didn't work as well as in the cold vacuum of space. When ground needed to be taken and held, having flesh and blood infantry had proven to be the best. Machines could take the ground, but the command and control bunkers were easy targets when trying to hold it.
Plus, the subtle cues infantrymen relied on to stay alive couldn't be passed through a virtual reality rig. As a result, combat suits and power armour were developed, but there still had to be someone in the field, living in the mud and paying a dear price for capturing and keeping a pile of dirt.
Lieutenant Burke had spent the past five years fighting. Not from the sterile bay in the belly of a star cruiser, but planetside. He had killed more men and women than he could count and ordered more than a few of his own sailors to die. There were lines on his face and gray hairs that attested to each person who had died by his hand or on his orders.
Maylene reached out and touched his shoulder. He turned to her and for the first time, looked vulnerable. The stoic mask commanders have in front of their subordinates melted for a second and she saw the pain in his eyes. He blinked back tears, then with a deep breath, the mask came back.
He compartmentalised his feelings once again. Maylene was probably the closet person he had to a friend on the citadel, but even she couldn't understand what it was like to be in a team of special operators. The bonds there are stronger than mere friendship, stronger than family. Infantrymen throughout the centuries have relied up on each other for their lives. That breeds trust and brotherhood. He couldn't open up to her; she wouldn't understand.
There was an awkward silence in the room.
"Congratulations," Maylene said quietly. She flashed him the coversheet from the packet. "You're getting your own party tonight on the parade deck, so you'd better get dressed."
Eric stared blankly at her for a second. The last thing he wanted to do was put on a stuffy dress uniform and listen to speeches from self-important admirals who hadn't been in combat for years. But it was all part of the game, and he needed to play, especially if he wanted to get back in the field.