Today's Reading

CHAPTER ONE

When you join the military, none of the recruiting material shows you trying to stow away on a bot freighter headed to a war zone on a hellhole of a planet.

But there I was.

Add to my list of crimes that I'd sort of stolen my power armor. I say sort of because technically, I signed it out of the armory to do perfectly legal cleaning and maintenance. But somehow, I don't think a military judge would see it that way at my court-martial.

Hopefully it wouldn't come to that.

I walked down the station's wide docking corridor, trying not to draw attention. Not that I could remain inconspicuous while wearing a sixty-kilogram armored bioenhancement suit—that was the official name for what we grunts called power armor. Each fall of my polymer boots thudded on the deck, screaming for everyone passing in the busy walkway to look at me. I kept my eyes forward, my pace steady, trying to project the image of someone who belonged. Everyone on station had seen augmented infantrymen before. Nothing new here. If I acted like I belonged there, the maintenance workers and cargo specialists would have no reason to question me.

Technically (there's that word again), I hadn't broken any rules. Yet.

I rationalize once more because while I didn't belong in the loading area, nothing prohibited it. Given my rank of sergeant, nobody would say anything about me taking my suit for a stroll. Nope. At this point, I could talk my way out of everything right up until the point where I stepped onto United Federation of Planets supply ship S4044, berthed at bay lima 9. The moment I crossed that threshold, I ceased being a sergeant in the augmented infantry and became a common stowaway. Or, rather, an uncommon one, considering I was going toward the war zone, rather than away from it like a sane person. But I had my reasons.

I passed the wide bay doors of lima 8, the curve of the station keeping lima 9 out of sight. I had a hundred meters of corridor left to change my mind.

Not likely.

I kept my pace steady, not hurrying. I couldn't appear nervous. That would just make me more obvious. This was the only supply ship headed to the surface of Gallia in the next twelve hours, and I had a ticking clock. Every hour made it less likely that I'd find Kendrick, the soldier we left behind when we pulled out of combat under duress. We don't leave people behind in my squad. Except we did, and I had to fix it. Now, almost a day later...he might be alive, he might be dead. But my suit's display said he was alive when we left, and I'd trained my squad well. I'd trained this soldier especially well. I fully expected to find him alive and holed up, waiting for us to come get him. But even if the worst had happened, I could recover his body. At least then we'd know.

It wasn't going to come to that, though.

I tried to do it the right way first. But the captain—my company commander—told me they couldn't support a mission for a single soldier stuck behind enemy lines. I'd expected that. He might have been right, though I'm not sure he asked. My captain didn't like to rock the boat with his higher command. And if he did ask, he didn't ask hard enough. At least that was my considered opinion.

I'd expected that too.

Well, fuck him. You know, with all due respect...which was none. I took care of my people, and they took care of me. I needed to find Kendrick, and if the captain wouldn't help, I'd do it myself.

Despite what it sounds like, I'm not stupid. I did recognize the inherent flaws of my plan. Plan. I probably should put that word in air quotes. It was more like a series of ideas at this point—an initial concept, and then some branches, depending on what happened. There were too many unknowns to get much beyond that. Truth be told, I hadn't thought much past the point of getting to the planet. That alone seemed daunting enough. I'd figure out the rest once I got there, find a way to get to Kendrick's last known location, and then play it by ear. Things would work out for me. They always did.

Mostly.

I want to stop right here and make something clear, because I think it's important. Going back into a combat zone after a missing soldier looks like something a good soldier would do, but I'm not a good soldier. Never have been, never will be. I didn't even want to be a soldier, but three years ago I was running from some stuff, and the military seemed like a pretty good place to hide. I probably should have thought that one through a little better, because now I had served three years of a six-year contract, and I couldn't get out. And I had a guy who counted on me stuck down behind enemy lines in a war zone.
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