So this was it. This was finally the much talked about day. The day that Dimitri had told me about so many times had come to pass - and that day was now!

"On that day, Mark you will become a man. From then on you will no longer be an innocent. You will see the world as it is - not through the eyes of a child who is dependent upon others, but through the eyes of a man who is capable of shaping his own destiny."

Today - my childhood was complete. And today - the real training - for a career in the New Euron National Service was about to begin.

And of course this was all true - because I like all good New Euron citizens followed a predetermined path through life. It was a structured life plan that had served our New Euron nation very well for generations. It consisted of three stages of approximately twenty years in length each, and I at eighteen years of age was about to begin the second. Should I please those on our local immortal council with my personal achievements and proven qualities of merit during my service as a practical unit in this upcoming second phase, I - just as all other New Eurons would be awarded with a period of remuneration lasting of no less than fifteen years until our final retirement.

This period of remuneration was somewhat like being sent to a heaven on Earth; not a single day would pass there where one would feel ill or suffer any pain or loss of wit. The only exception to the ultimate retiring of each practical unit was rare, but when the circumstances warranted it - it was the granting of immortality - for this to happen you would have to have found yourself in a position of great favor with all of the council of immortals - a feat that was accomplished as often as every couple of generations. To be adopted into an immortal position by the council usually entailed a post of governor of a new colony within the ever expanding New Euron Empire and of course - a timeless life.

Of late, the door to immortality seemed to be closing, though since it first became possible to become a timeless immortal - it was necessary that all candidates had to have had at least part of their original conception as one that entailed real people - something that was becoming less and less common or even possible today, but I and a handful of my classmates were members of an elite group of cryogenically stored embryos produced in a famous old Paris lab and then and there, subsequently lost for centuries until just eighteen years past - though we were not quite harvested from real people, we were quite special nonetheless, since many immortals had first started their life in that same old Paris lab. We were both admired and reviled by our peers at our former schools and I suppose soon that would become the case at the New Euron National Service Academy.

My former brethren have been dead for centuries, but still there were immortals out there with my numbers - at least I'd heard that this was so. It was my edge. At least that was what I thought, but I kept that to myself since most of the others found me and my series 'Three Thousand' friends to be - freaks. What made me a freak was something that couldn't even be seen unless I was undressed: I had a penis and I had something else that frightened them even more - I had an old style navel. This penis was ridiculed and was the cause of riotous laughter at times among a world of hermaphrodites for the most part, and the odd owner of a real vagina. What did it matter in a genderless world, anyways? But to be the holder of these old sex organs - and they were nonetheless, infertile - was still, - a monkey on my back.

The old-style navel brought both awe and respect from everyone, but for a few who were jealous or superstitious - I was bad luck, a demon from the past - no good would come from the likes of me. It was immaterial to them that my navel was only the result of some old technology. Deep down, at the very crux of it, I think it was just an unpleasant reminder to all that all of New Euron society that the new stock was becoming less and less human.

So here I stood - alone in a long queue of young humanity at a transport terminal. I was alone because we were all strangers. All of us were dressed the same and carrying identical duffel bags, but not a single face in the lot was familiar to me. Lonesome eyes seemed to dart all about for a familiar grin or an up-raised brow, but no one seemed to know anyone. And so it seemed that our first test as new cadets in the New Euron National Service was to deal with the loss of all old friends and their camaraderie.

As the minutes passed by, talk began between us at any rate. None of us had seen a transporter of such size before. There was speculation among some that it could hold hundreds of people and thousands of metric tons of cargo. It was quite an intimidating sight to behold for the first time - it was cigar-shaped, and had a metallic outer shell that was black in color but with a matte sheen. It was a hundred maybe a hundred and fifty meters long and I bet ten to fifteen meters high as well, and all along its fuselage man-doors and cargo-doors were opened. And as more time passed and we had come to realize how little we were in control of our immediate destinies; stress could be seen emerging through our numbers as people wiped sweaty palms on the backs of their trousers and brows furrowed with worry. For certain, some of us had seen matter transporters before, but none in this youthful group would have seen anything near this size. A matter transporter was a miracle of technology, but we all knew that accidents, miscalculations - minor or severe during their operation usually resulted in the certain unrecoverable loss of the machine, the crew and its cargo.

I could hear the faint clicking of heels in the distance coming from down the long hangar sized hall as four uniformed transporter attendants approached our group. Their entrance that began with a startling display of militaristic pageantry or should I say choreography with their clicking heels and swinging arms - all in unison, quickly disappeared as the four arranged us into two long queues, single file with gentle humor and kidding as only someone experienced with organizing hundreds on a daily basis might be able to do. Within minutes their silly jokes and hijinks had all of us feeling much more at ease with our situation.

The spokesman of the four gave a short oratory on the procedures for embarking and disembarking a New Euron matter transporter - the strapping-in of the passenger and the unstrapping of the passenger once the transport was complete. There were no emergency exits to discuss of course because there was no real need for them or even reason for them for that matter, because once the machine was committed there was no time - literally, for an evacuation because the travel period of the transporter was complete within seconds and on some trips: within milliseconds. Nonetheless, we were all reassured that in this transporter's five years of service there had never been any loss of life or harm come to any of its many payloads. And after ending on that rather positive footnote the chief transporter attendant added that there would be yet further mandatory instruction for all of us via a video simulation that would outline in more detail the routine and general procedures for the passengers of a New Euron matter transporter just before our boarding.

And just as they had said, we all watched a larger-than-life animation just a few meters before our boarding. The multidimensional demonstration illustrated the actual launch of the cigar-shaped transporter. Once it was fully loaded with its payload, the transporter would slowly rise up into the sky to about a kilometer or so and hover in a standby position for a minute or two. It was at this moment when in stand-by that the passengers and crews, compartment's atmosphere would be altered with the addition of a depressant to calm any anxiety that might occur among its crew and passengers during our rapid hyper-acceleration that immediately followed the standby position. Within a tiny fraction of a second into our craft's hyper-acceleration phase - all of its matter would be travelling many times the speed of light. Our matter would then re-gather in another hemisphere here on earth or even upon another planet or extraterrestrial colony. To the observer down below a short trail or aura would be visible in the sky directly above where the transporter would have once been hovering in standby and the same aura or short trail would re-occur wherever the transporter was about to arrive. At the end of the demonstration its narrator tried to impress upon the viewer the very significant nature of this technology; each crew member and passenger would effectively gain five or more seconds of life each time he or she embarked upon a typical inter-planetary trip. We could grow young - just like that!

Moments after the video simulation had ended, the two long queues began advancing into the open man-doors of the matter transporter. Each of us picked up our duffle bags and followed whoever was in front of them in an eerie silence. Each cadet seemed to instinctively look up into the sky above as they passed their man-door's threshold to perhaps behold the last familiar thing they might ever see.

Inside the transporter things were rather peculiar. There was only dim light inside that barely illuminated the floor. There appeared to be at least two decks devoted for holding passengers. In groups of five, an usher guided us along a main aisle and into enclosed stalls that lined the walls of the main aisle. Once we had entered a stall the usher helped strap each of us in with criss-cross styled harnesses onto upholstered human depressions in the stall's walls.

We then waited in this near darkness in anxiety for what seemed like an eternity for something to happen, when suddenly a porter reappeared at the entrance of our stall and gave us a thumbs-up and then quickly left to visit the next stall I suppose. I was sweating pretty heavily now and it was that nervous smelly kind that stung the nostrils. It was utterly claustrophobic in there and though it was so dark that I couldn't see the face of the cadet across from me or next to me, I could still sense the panic and stress of the others all around me. And at the moment I thought it might have become just too much to bear - the depressant was added to our atmosphere and suddenly - I was euphoric and ready for any adventure - or disaster. The dim lighting that barely illuminated the floor of the transporter grew dimmer until all was pitch black. I had not a worry. Even when I could feel the transporter jolt into acceleration - I could only smile and let out a giggle!

There was nothing to see. There was nothing to recall or tell. The whole experience had taken place in total darkness or near darkness. Only a few minutes of euphoria had passed when a clearly different porter wearing a different uniform entered our stall and began unstrapping our harnesses. We followed this new porter back down the main aisle to the transporter's exit and out into a waning daylight of another unmistakably new continent.


Once outside of the transporter I quickly realized where my first assignment had taken me: I was in America. Centuries ago, it was called the new world and it became the birthplace of one of the greatest nations in history. In time they evolved into a band of gangsters who intimidated other weaker powers and took what they wanted from them, and as fate would eventually have its due, the great nation of gangsters and their allies were defeated quite decisively in the final fiery months of the greatest war on Earth. Most of the continent was a barren and scorched battlefield by the time the greatest conflict of man had come to its end. From those ashes of that giant battlefield: America, - the New Euron victors restored the New America to near twenty-second century or even twenty-first century amounts of foliage and ground cover! Today, the only inhabitants of this paradise were New Euron agricultural technicians, military personnel and a handful of bureaucrats to administer the place and of course: the infamous roaming Rebel outposts of the Republic.

It was a paradise. I had never seen so much green before - just meters from where our transporter had come to rest was wilderness - and for as far as the eye could see. It now being near dusk here, the whole pastoral vista was illuminated in the remaining red glow of our setting sun. A sight I think I'll always cherish.

The architectural design of the base here was such that no external part of the structure rose higher than three meters or so above ground level. All of the base's above-ground super-structure was expendable in the event that it came under serious attack. The greatest part of the base was safely situated deep underground and was spread out for hundreds of square kilometers down below. The base's atmosphere was kept under positive pressurization to keep contamination out and the environment inside was one that was closely controlled to resemble a moderate climate with a normal twenty-four hour lighting ambience.

Porters marched us at-ease and in no apparent order into the facility. There they had us assemble in a large auditorium, and then they bid us farewell and good luck in our training. Now, for the first time since we had left New Euro, real chatter could be heard amongst us. It seemed that the transporter experience had given us all a common experience to talk about I suppose.

A few minutes of typical new cadet camaraderie and hijinks passed by as we whiled some time away in the auditorium when eventually four National Service droids appeared at the auditorium exits and the room fell silent. One droid who evidently was the superior of the others barked out curt commands to the other three as they approached us. A roll-call by name and asset number was started and soon we were forming into four groups.

Three groups of thirty, each led by one of the lesser droids filed out of the auditorium. The fourth remaining group of just ten and of which I was included in remained for a moment in the auditorium in the company of the superior droid as the others vacated the auditorium. And then in a clatter, our droid was on the move with us following behind him and we too filed-out of the auditorium but into a different direction than the others who were now almost out of sight.

Our droid's name was Leon and he chattered nonstop about rules and procedures that we all had to follow precisely - and with no exceptions of course! And what was now taking place was just beginning to gel in my mind and my companions as well I suppose: we ten new recruits were to receive some kind of specialized training. Perhaps - officer training I pined momentarily. When I heard old Leon begin chattering about a close air-support training program, smiles and grins suddenly spread like a contagion among my group with this revelation, as we half ran and half walked after this hyperactive droid named Leon.

After a near two kilometer hike through the base we finally arrived at our new living quarters and no sooner had we dropped our duffle bags at our bunks, Leon began lecturing us about our new home's layout, our responsibilities to the New Euron National Service and of course our new daily routine. Once done with that he began distributing amongst us more information for us to read and become familiar with, and as soon as we could of course! It was at this moment that one of my companions managed to distract Leon from his well practiced orientation lecture and asked him why we ten were not moving through the ranks as would be the tradition?

Leon answered that we, meaning the one hundred of us, not just our ten - were the first newly commissioned infantry division to have been created in twenty years. And, we were also rumored to be the first of ten newly to be commissioned divisions to be completely on line within the next two years. There was a new Rebel uprising afoot and we were being prepared at an accelerated rate to deal with this new insurgent threat.

"You will have to be prepared for the battlefield in two months time and I will be your tutor for this first week."


We put in mostly sixteen hour days into those eight weeks of basic training that focused on survival skills, combat skills and operating skills. It soon became abundantly clear as to why most New Euron service veterans never returned home to tell their tales of service in the New American theatre because if one served in the war against the Rebels, then once your tour was complete you were retired to a distant extraterrestrial colony. It was considered to be in the best interests of New Euron society and for our great nation's national security that in general, all personal accounts of any human rebellions were to be kept secret from the rest of its citizenry.

The Rebel forces that occupied parts of the New American continent called themselves: 'Freedom Fighters'. Their ranks were made up of indigenous American natives who had survived the wars that had literally erased most all of the life off of their continents. Additionally, some of their ranks were composed of New Eurons and they were made up of defectors, traitors and other criminal elements and now, recent rumors and intelligence information that had only now had come to light, indicated that outside aid was being provided by mutinous Republican colonies.

These suspicions of an imminent and powerful Rebel offensive had resulted in the commissioning of these new New Euron National Service divisions that I was now a part of. In just twenty-four months there would be one hundred thousand mechanized army infantry units or as we commonly referred to as miu's, prepared to battle the Rebels and restore the balance of power back to the central government of New Euro and Earth would be safe once more again. Our commander, General Joshua Taylor, who was rumored to be an up and coming candidate as an immortal council member himself had been unanimously appointed by the New Euron Council to take-on the task of eradicating these Rebel insurgents from wherever they had taken a foothold and in any manner he saw fit.

Thus, it was General Joshua Taylor's decision to beat back the Rebel insurgency with an almost solely infantry styled army. He felt that when dealing with cockroaches and this being a reference to previous attempts to eradicate the Rebels with biological and thermo-nuclear weapons and also by other more traditional counter-insurgency tactics that had been used in the past, and the Rebels' resiliency to those efforts that this more personal approach might be more effective in their ultimate eradication. The Rebels were nomadic and by all standards - experts in guerilla combat techniques and General Taylor felt that they would be best beaten with similar small units of New Euron mechanized commandos using the same withering guerilla styled combat tactics.

New Euron mechanized infantry units were not human at all; they were soulless killing machines with the dexterity and cunning of skilled human commandos. They could charge tirelessly upright or on all fours until they needed to be repaired or refueled. They were programmed to have a tireless hunger for killing. And by the thousands if they were made available in those quantities could they be distributed in minutes by transporter - grid like, all over the face of a continent. For each one thousand mechanized infantry units perhaps one hundred New Euron servicemen were needed for support on the battlefield as commanders, repairmen, transport and low atmosphere air-support.

My area of training was as a member of an air-support patrol unit. Presently, I was the crew of a 'stinger' which was a low-atmosphere, attack airship and patrol craft. I assisted a captain and I also operated the stinger's principle weapon which was a heat-ray battery. I came in the top of my class in marksmanship and in hand to hand combat, too. I had become really pleased with myself of late having outdone my personal best several times and my goal was that captain's seat.

A recent chance encounter and talk with General Taylor himself nonetheless, had me burning with optimism - I could almost taste that pending promotion to the rank of captain. When others relaxed; I studied and it was apparent in my metrics - I was going places and I could feel it! I knew it all. I knew the stinger from tip to stern, inside and out!

My first assignment of sorts was to accompany gunship captain Tom on routine reconnaissance patrols of the Great Lakes area. Tom and I had already been previously acquainted with one another from gunnery classes where he was one of the tutors. I'm sure that Tom was a man you could count on in a tough fix, but he was not outwardly ambitious or daring when it came to combat situations or even in advancing his position within the rank and file of the service. Nonetheless, Tom was so impressed with my marksmanship in gunnery practice back then that he referred to me as his 'Dead-Eye' and he had kidded with me too, that he would request me as his gunner when the big offensive began.

Personally, when the big offensive begins I want to have a captain's kit and - not the gunner's kit that I have now. Of all the New Euron National services the captain's kit was by far the most attractive. It was the sleekest and the tiny embossed wings at the temples struck awe in everyone - they represented freedom - tiny wings of freedom. Some captain's kits would allow an operator to literally operate any craft - stinger, heater or even a transporter! My kit would only allow me to pilot the stinger in an emergency - I was hundreds of flight hours away from acquiring a kit upgrade to a pilot trainee, but that hadn't stopped me from studying as far ahead as I could manage.

A mission like today's was gravy - very routine and we embarked on it with relaxed attitudes. It was going to be twelve hours of respite from the hectic activity back at the base. The stinger's program preformed most of the mission's operations automatically and the pilot and crew were more or less aboard for the ride. The program collected any data that it determined to be useful and if there was any need for the pilot and crew to intervene, such as a sighting of present enemy activity, it would alert us immediately. I had been on this mission more than a few times now and nothing ever happened. All that ever changed was the weather!

Today, we flew along for hours covering thousands of square kilometers while the stinger's program collected reconnaissance data that I'm sure never changed from one mission to the next. We maintained an altitude of approximately one hundred meters when cruising and when we approached military and natural resource installations the stinger would halve its altitude and circle once and then move on. Between these outposts were kilometers upon kilometers of nothing but forest and hinterland interrupted with blue ribbons of running rivers and the blue bodies of lakes. Here and there, perhaps a little bit of exposed white rock would appear.

Tom had to point out to me where once huge cities had stood only a century and a half ago. These areas looked scrubbier in their vegetation cover, but they were still nonetheless, a brilliant green in color. Tom said that if we landed down there and dug a hole with a shovel - that about a meter below the surface and maybe less in some places that we would find old crushed concrete and asphalt buried where the cities once stood.

When the reconstruction of America was first undertaken most of the land was a lifeless desert of concrete ruins and so it was decided then that much of the continent's surface would be simply razed, leveled, and then buried over with soil again. The soil was gathered from wherever it could be obtained, such as river basins and lake bottoms. Geologically speaking, nothing of this magnitude had happened to America since the last ice age and this time it was done by man himself - it took decades. This remarkable feat took almost thirty years using technology that had then only just been acquired in the development of the extraterrestrial colonies. It was hoped that the venture would have helped restore earth's atmosphere, but the overdevelopment of earth's low orbit over the centuries had a deleterious effect on the earth below. Trees for example were half or less as tall as they should be and the hoped for agricultural windfall never materialized. Plants do much poorer in a polluted haze and so the much needed oxygen that they produce just can't be produced in the quantities needed from plants which have such poor living conditions.

So as great as the advancements in engineering and bio-technology were at restoring plant and animal life to the Americas there was still an overwhelming amount of work still to be done.

"Politics and war - are the two steps backwards we have to take each time technology takes us one step forward," said a reflective Tom.

It all looked like a paradise to my young eyes. As stunted as they say it is - it was all natural and there was nothing natural about where I came from.

This craft that I've referred to as a stinger that Tom and I were operating on this mission today was a reasonably well armed war-machine. It was the close, air-to-surface support workhorse for the infantry down below. It had two fifty millimeter cannons positioned at tip and tail that were completely omnidirectional in coverage and were operated in tandem by a continuous tactical program that constantly analyzed all the variables on the battlefield and adapted its attacks and retreats with virtual-intuition and logic. Beneath the stinger and at about its mid-belly were two racks of 'fire and forget' air-to-air or air-to-surface missiles and they too, were operated by the ship's combat program. All these weapons however were only complimentary to the stinger's principle weapon which was a single, forward mounted, heat-ray battery. The heat-ray battery was the ship's solely human operated weapon aboard the stinger and I was its gunner today.

The stinger operated much like most other New Euron machinery: it functioned by program - independently when needed, but always in conjunction with other equipment or resources that may be available to it nearby. The captain or operator of a stinger however, could override maneuvers enacted by the combat programming and the two paired together were a very effective combination in real combat. Whereas, the combat program knew nothing of fear and was very aggressive; the human captain had the common sense to retreat or conserve fire power for instance.

The stinger acquired its name in part from its unique combat techniques. It behaved much like a wasp or hornet. It might hurtle itself forward in an attack maneuver or even hover in attack over its target and then just as suddenly, retreat from an enemy retaliation with great agility and speed - and then, counter attack again immediately after evading the enemy's reach. These sudden changes in inertia and acceleration put an immense strain on the stinger itself and its crew! In fact by design, the top speed for a stinger was achieved in reverse for retreating from a bold counter from an enemy. Often a gunner could only manage to hold onto his station and his lunch when a stinger made one of its characteristic retreating maneuvers. At high altitudes where the atmosphere was thinner a stinger could retreat at a thousand kilometers per hour in an effort to outrun an incoming attack that could also be attacking at near that same speed, too.

At about the half way or at about the turnaround point of our mission an alarm went off up in the cockpit of the stinger. Both Tom and I were on the mid-deck at the time and we both spilt coffee as we hurried back to our posts and as we hurried along you could feel the stinger begin to bank and change its course. Tom acknowledged the alarm and the stinger's program announced that we were presently in a high state of alert and that further instructions were forthcoming in one minute's time via an encoded message on the nature of our new mission.

Momentarily, the base's instructions followed by voice: "Captain and crew of reconnaissance mission Great Lakes June 10th. Remainder of reconnaissance mission: cancelled. Captain and crew: to assume combat-ready, immediately. Target ETA: twenty minutes. Captain: to refer to further forthcoming programming instructions. Good luck gentlemen."

The end of the announcement was followed by another alarm and this one was calling for captain and crew to suit-up for cabin depressurization. By the time I had climbed out of the battery's cockpit Tom was nearly suited-up already.

"Quickly Mark! This is really serious my boy! The cabin will depressurize in about one more minute!"

My fingers were racing instinctively like they had a mind of their own as my eyes raced all about the mid-deck following Tom's progress as he rushed from one panel to another prepping armaments and fire extinguishing systems for full combat. I was still fumbling with my headgear when Tom hopped up from his hands and knees where he had been checking the missile's hold; his face was red with anxiety.

"There are twenty-five damn heaters - minutes behind us!" said Tom brusquely from the side of a partly clenched mouth as he rushed by me on his way to the captain's cockpit above.

With the mention of the heaters I grabbed a sidearm from the gunner's locker and gave up adjusting my suit any further. In two leaps I was in the battery's cockpit and sealing the cockpit's fire hatch.

Heaters were one of the ultimate space and surface weapons in the New Euron military arsenal. They could be dispatched to anywhere on earth in minutes and for that matter anywhere within the New Euron's transporters reach. When they attacked they could raze in an inferno virtually everything on a planet's surface to a depth of about three meters. It was the same technology that was used to raze and level the ruins of the Americas. The debris spread from a large heat-ray battery strike could cover hundreds of square meters in all directions. These large heaters generally operated in groups of five, so they could cut large swaths of destruction across a target area. Just a single punch from a heater battery could transform a hill into a smoking crater.

I sat in my cockpit and shivered uncontrollably for several minutes until my suit heated up - my anxiety wasn't helping. At times like this, you think of everything you ever accomplished in life and worry about how it may all might suddenly change or end in just a few minutes. Beneath me, I could see through the armoured glass bubble that was my cockpit, a sea of green with blue tapestry running beneath my feet as the stinger sped as fast as it could only meters above the treed terrain and as hill and dale appeared our altitude followed suit; up and down, silently. with the exception of a slight whistle in the wind from the stinger's draft.

It all altered my state of consciousness somewhat. Think of it; everything in my life had just changed. Everything that had happened to me up till a few minutes ago was all a certainty - a logical path that everyone followed until you are called to war. The stinger appeared to have life of its own; panels were lit up that had I had only seen in demonstration. You could feel the machine's determination as it sped into combat; it was pursuing its own destiny.

I understood the combat computer's programming - it would follow through with its programming with all the determination and will of its programmer. The program knew nothing of fear and it was quite capable of suicidal combat maneuvers - only Tom, as its captain, could override a stinger's zeal to win the battlefield at any cost. These two - a program and the captain held my life in their power. I had the control of only the battery's operation.

"Mark, that's our target coming up on the horizon . You with me?"


"In a few minutes we'll be over it . How's the battery? Is it fully operational? Cause we're going to need it".

"Yeah, everything has been checked and double-checked, Cap".

"If we get into a scrap, you're going to show me what you learned in gunnery class, huh"?

"I sure will, Cap."

Another alarm then sounded announcing our approach on the target. The stinger's speed dropped off and the craft began to climb in altitude for a better look at the target area. There was now virtually no noise from the craft's propellant just a very low whistle of air breaking over the stinger's hull. To the trained eye down below we'd be just a brown speck moving across the sky - there'd be no noise and no reflected light off the stinger's hull.

Down below, amid a large forested area surrounded by several small lakes and a connecting river; billows of thick black smoke rose from the target area and were blowing east.

"Mark, turn your number three monitor on. to its first channel!"

The first thing I noticed on the monitor was the unmistakable wreckage of a crashed stinger that was identical to the model Tom and I were in today. The heat-ray battery had been blown away from the fallen stinger's hull. And further along, I could see the wreckage of several burnt-out personnel carriers. And further still, the wreckage of yet another fallen stinger, but it was broken up into pieces scattered along a nearby river. By far, the greatest amount of smoke was coming from the wreckage of a transporter and one that was as large as I've ever seen since first coming into the New Euron National Service. It lay broken like an opened egg - all crushed along it's under belly and wide open across its middle where thick black smoke billowed out from this fissure.

Increasing the monitor's magnification, I could make out among the trees the bodies of our fallen infantry both human and machine. They were rudely dismembered and a vapor arose from the earth dampened by both their human and machine, body fluids. It became obvious that an enormous ambush - a slaughter had occurred here only recently.

I no sooner gave thought to that obvious conclusion when the battery suddenly came to attention for action at the sound of another alarm.

"Enemy installation ten kilometers north," announced the combat program.

Another alarm sounded and our stinger came to a full stop.

"Mark, there is some kind of sophisticated artillery to our north. That's what our current reconnaissance data indicates. We're to search here for survivors or enemy. The heaters are still just minutes behind us.. Now. Here we go."

And we began dropping lower and lower into the target area below. Falling freely or more like gliding freely from our present altitude like this would certainly reveal our presence to those below us so I freely fired the battery in short bursts and at a close range. We were no longer on a reconnaissance mission; this was combat - stinger style. This was one of my most favorite activities in training; exercising the battery. It was such a feeling of empowerment whizzing around in circles in the bubble-like cockpit - obliterating anything real or imaginable in my sights.

"Mark, we're going to enter the target area from the east and take a little cover from that smoke cover and circle."

There wasn't time to acknowledge the captain. Another alarm sounded and we were suddenly being hurtled backwards at maximum speed judging by the intense noise and vibration. I'd never heard a stinger make such a screeching noise. Two pairs of missiles were launched from each starboard and port missile holds beneath the stinger's underbelly. On my target finder I could see that three incoming artillery charges were pursuing our stinger. The best I could manage was to keep my hands clenched to the safety and the trigger on my heat-ray battery. My stomach twisted and churned violently and I thought I might either feint from light headiness or swallow my tongue in panic at the same moment!

Then suddenly, an intense fireball formed in front of us lighting up the cockpit and cabin many times brighter than the sunny daylight illumination that we were already in. An explosion then occurred that shook the 'zigging and zagging' stinger so violently that I could see debris fly off our hull. An intense heat filled the cockpit and I heard the remaining missiles being dumped as the stinger continued to hurtle backwards in retreat. A second explosion of similar intensity erupted and the stinger was now dodging vertically up and down in a feeble effort to defend itself from the third artillery charge.

And as fate would have it, we beat the third charge's range and it fell harmlessly into a lake below and exploded into a huge ball of steam. I could take no more and vomited a frothy- bile into my blast mask.

The stinger was now no longer flying level and I found myself supported or more like suspended by my seat's harness above the bottom of the battery's cockpit and the operator's panel. I vented the cockpit with atmosphere and removed my soiled mask.

By what was lit up on the cockpit's control panel and also by what was not lit up on the cockpit's panel; indications were that there was some significant damage to the craft. The skew of stinger was way-off and it appeared that we were still retreating though at a much slower speed. I unharnessed myself and tried to acknowledge some of the alarms and to get some of the battery's panel to respond to my adjustments, but it was all for not. It appeared that I had no communication with the captain and that we were without any navigation - by program or human. If this was the case, then the stinger without having someone or a program in control of the bridge, then by being pilotless: she would soon lose altitude and stall. I wondered for Tom's sake as I opened the battery's hatch to the mid-deck to investigate.

The mid-deck was quite smoky, but thankfully it appeared to be all intact. I found the hatch from mid deck to the bridge was still sealed; this was not a good sign - I was certain that Tom would have been at mid-deck by now if only to check on me. The safety mechanism on the hatch would not allow me to open it so I had to open the hatch manually. To my horror once I had thrown the hatch open - I found that I was looking at blue sky! Most of the forward section of the bridge was gone! What remained of the rest of the bridge was charred black. Cap's seat was still there, but only his torso was still strapped in. His head and extremities had been blown off by the blast - likely the first one I would imagine; it had seemed to have been the most powerful.

I felt weak and I fell back into the mid-deck's cabin and let out a pitiful and muted primeval sigh. There on the mid-deck, I collapsed into pitiful fetal ball on the cabin floor and sucked in air in huge great breaths partly because of the stinger's altitude but for the most part as a result of the shock of my first real combat.

And I shall always - remember how on that day I laid, more or less prostrate, looking up from that mid-deck cabin floor, staring through that opened hatch above me whilst that blue sky rushed by and a premature sunset of sorts began building off in the distance of that late afternoon light because now, our heaters had surely arrived. Good luck to them I thought to myself in resignation. They'll likely need to engage the enemy at a greater distance now, since an advance wave of New Euron stingers and infantry that I had been a part of were no match for the Rebel's artillery that day.


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