It is the Age of The Corporation.
The common man toils under the watchful eye of the elite and their enforcers. The rules of law have long been replaced by the politics of profit. For many centuries, the Covenants of Commerce have ruled mankind, from boardroom to factory floor, from mine deep to fertile field, upon the battlefields of heart, of mind, and of distant star.
The dark ages of feudalism have returned with capitalistic ferocity. There is no peace among the stars of mapped space; business is booming.
Impoverished workers drown in debt, laboring for subsistence pay. Mercenaries of every kind wage war, loyal to the banner of any company willing to meet their price. Everyone in existence is locked in a ceaseless struggle for economic dominance and survival. Scavengers and space pirates swoop in to loot what they can from the forgotten and unprotected.
To be a human being in such times is to be one among countless billions in a civilization spread across a vast universe, all ensnared in the same blood-soaked web of capitalism, most doomed to be ground to dust amidst the gears of progress.
There are some people, however, those rare few, who rise from the ranks of the faceless masses, to make their mark upon history.
This is one such tale.
1. ANVIL BORN
The Reaper fleets had departed from Gedra Prime, set to make the long journey back to their respective home-worlds, salvaging all the way. There would be battlefields and void debris aplenty, not to mention chance conflicts with rival corporations, so there were hazard wages to be had.
Jada Sek had chosen not to say goodbye to the marines of Tango Platoon, choosing simply to file her paperwork, pay her fees, and walk away from the Reaper camp a free woman. She had gone straight to the small fortified encampment of the Dire Swords, where she was eagerly awaited by the mercs she had fought side by side with weeks before. The mercs were still based off of Gedra Prime, making sorties against various enemies at the behest of House Indron, the current signatory of their contract.
Tango Platoon had been through hell and back many times, though out of the original platoon who graduated boot camp together, only a scant handful still survived.
Jada had fought beside them, bled beside them, slept with a few of them and loved one of them. To say goodbye after all of that took a kind of strength that Jada felt she’d left in the pits of Vorhold.
Samuel Hyst had made the offer of hospitality to any who wanted to muster out and follow him to the frontier, but unsurprisingly, nobody took him up on it. Prybar had his own path to tread, and it really had never been a Grotto one. She knew that the rest of the marines were lifers until death or retirement, just like she’d planned on being, and they were willing to fight and die for the corporation, warts and all. They would understand, she told herself, they were men and women of Baen 6. Say what you will about Grotto, she thought as she forced herself not to look back at the Reaper compound, the people of this corporation could endure hardship and loss without an overabundance of sentimentality.
She had always thought of herself as strong in her own way, of body and of mind, both qualities which had lent themselves to being an exemplary soldier during her time with the Reaper Corps. She knew now that the scale against which she had measured herself and her fellow salvage marines had been a poor one indeed. Not that the marines of Tango Platoon were weak, quite the opposite, but the strength of un-enhanced human beings paled in comparison to the feats the elite warriors of the Dire Swords were capable of.
Now, assuming that she survived the gene therapy that would transform her, she would rise to their level and become a fellow sword.
And so Jada lay strapped down on a machine that she had been told was called ‘The Rack,’ a contraption that would deliver the requisite gene therapy. She had trusted the mercenaries, both on the prowess of their skills in the field and the promise of the data coins they had heaped upon her.
The former marine was aware of how special it was to have so many mercs awarded so many coins at once and Jada knew she had earned at least most of them.
In truth, she had wanted to die and had aggressively assaulted the alpha cyborg with something akin to suicide in her mind. Much like the first cyborg she’d fought, and many of the combat engagements since. There was always the element of a death wish in her battlefield heroics, and she had the distinct impression that it was this closeness with death that had drawn the Dire Sword’s eyes to her deeds.
“Try not to die, Reaper,” said Poe from the corner of the small chamber, where the boyishly handsome and exceptionally deadly mercenary leaned against the wall with his thick arms crossed over his chest. “We like you and Ranec owes you his life.”
“I’m not a Reaper anymore,” hissed Jada, the first waves of pain beginning to wash over her while the serum took effect, and in seconds, it was all she could do to spit out the words, “Not Grotto.”
“Yeah, well you ain’t a Dire Sword either, Sek,” growled Womack, who even now, many hours after the fighting had ceased upon the surface of Gedra Prime, was encased in his mag-armor. “I don’t care about your coins and Ranec is a careless bravo that owes plenty of folks his life. What matters is that you make the cut.”
“What our esteemed commander is trying to say, in his own way, is that the gene therapy isn’t just about getting a shot and waking up a meta-human.” interjected an un-enhanced middle-aged man wearing a dull blue medicae jacket with the name MARIUS stenciled upon the left breast. He walked quietly into Jada’s line of sight holding a datapad. “It’s that while the serum performs its function, you also have a job to do.”
“I’m ready,” snarled Jada as she began to fight back against the horribly painful spasms that wracked her entire body, making her feel as if her nerve endings were on fire while the very fibers of her muscles unraveled and re-knit themselves every few seconds.
“The serum is going to tear your body apart and put it back together, only faster, stronger, more agile, and far more resistant to pain. To help with the rapid increase in body mass, the Rack is going to feed you enough calories and nutrition sufficient to feed a single human being for nearly a year.” Marius reached out to tap the datapad, causing the Rack’s angle to elevate so that Jada was nearly upright and able to see all three men without moving her already restrained head. “Your job is to take control of your body. The exorbitant cost is not the only reason that this sort of therapy isn’t commonplace in corporate space. Forgive me for such an unquantifiable statement, but you but literally have to
“The trauma of this is going to take your mind back down into the deepest and darkest places of your past, even as it breaks your body to pieces,” said Poe, his voice taking on a breathy quality that made Jada think he was actually experiencing a kind of reverence for the serum. “It’s up to you to come back; there is no shot or treatment to get you back and you’d be all but brain dead.”
“You’ve fought mech-warriors on both Tetra and Gedra Prime now, Sek, so think of it this way,” said Womack just as he turned to leave the chamber, finishing by saying over his shoulder, “Your body is about to become a war machine, but you’re going to have to learn how to drive it, otherwise you’ll never get up from that table again.”
Jada’s eyes filled with tears as another wave of pain slammed into her body, causing it to surge against the restraints. She whimpered, her mind lost to the pain, and then she growled and fought against the renewed surges of her muscles as they violently resisted their own destruction.
There had only been one time that Jada had felt so helpless against the trauma of still being alive and that was in the dark pits of Vorhold. The former marine had always thought that a part of her died back there, in the dark embrace of the stalkers. In some ways, that dead part of her had empowered her to be a more fearsome soldier, giving her the will to make harder choices, the nihilistic resolve to endure and overcome.
The thoughts of Vorhold began to overpower her conscious mind, and in an instant, she realized the truth in Poe’s warnings. Suddenly, Deepspire and the horrors of that place were all she could think about, so much so that only the pain in her body kept her from accepting the nightmares as reality. The stalker’s hands were on her body, their fetid breath hot against her skin, and the smell of blood and gunsmoke filled her nostrils. All that she could perceive was the horror and the pain, yet as the violence and depravity worsened, the pain itself seemed ever more distant.
She was back on Gedra Prime.
She had earned more duty coins in that single battle than anyone in Tango Platoon over the course of a career. She had been reckless, vengeful even, ...