A Limit War Sci-Fi Romance
She survived the explosion. The searing heat and jagged shrapnel had missed her body by millimeters. Captain Jessa Tokk knew she was alive. Her ears rang with the sound of the blast. Every muscle in her body was sore, but she welcomed the pain. Better that than eternal sleep.
The acrid smell of the explosives started to clear. Dusk Warrior weapons always carried the odor of burnt vegetation, sharp like rotting leaves in a swamp. Jessa had studied the schematics of the Dusk technology, always searching for a better way to fight the voracious aliens. Their explosive propellants and accelerants were all derivatives of the vines they planted on any world not strong enough to fight them off.
This planet was a rock. The land masses of Kopol were mostly barren, and the inhabitants scraped together sustenance from the vast oceans. They didn’t have the technology to fight the Dusk. That was why Core sent the Dawn Soldiers.
It was hard fighting. Long trenches were dug in the thick mud and whole battles gained only a few meters. The next day they were lost again to the flooding rain or a Dusk counter attack.
She was somewhere in those battlefields now. Disoriented from the explosion, all she knew was that dirt and mud surrounded her. Was she on her back? The world spun, giving her no sense of up or down. She strained to hear sounds of rescue, but her ears were still filled with the scream of the explosion. If her fellow soldiers were close, they would find her, pull her from the mud that felt as if it was burying her body. But there was no sign of help coming. Wherever she was, Jessa was alone, separated from the other Dawn Soldiers of her unit.
The ground seemed to open up to swallow her, but it was just her equilibrium spinning, still reeling from the impact of the blast. She didn’t want to fall unconscious and struggled to focus on the events leading up to the delta attack.
She and her squad had been in the trench. The antenna. They had been trying to set up the antenna. Jessa commanded a good squad. They had experience and focus, and didn’t panic in a fight. But even the best Dawn Soldier regulars had a hard time overcoming the agony of trench warfare.
Except Ryder. Son of a bitch. Always had a smile, even when his face was caked in mud. And when he knew no one else from the squad could see, he would give Jessa a wink—as if she could forget the long leave they had taken together.
Sacred Star, she hoped he had survived the attack.
More details came back to Jessa. Ryder and the rest of her squad had been strung out along the trench, running a three-centimeter-thick cable to the long-range antenna Jessa had unfolded on one of the ridges that bordered the battlefield. The whole scene was bathed in the eerie green light of the twin moons overhead. It was as if the barren territory was at the bottom of a still sea.
Thirty meters behind the trench line, a huge mountain range jutted upward. Impasse Mountains, that’s what everyone had named them as soon as the Dawn Soldiers had landed on Kopol. The bare stone range ran like a jagged knife edge along one side of the battlefield and eventually into the sea that was on the other side of delta-held territory on the bunker’s right flank. The Dawn Soldiers knew the deltas couldn’t cross the mountains to attack them from behind, but that also meant there were no escape routes that way, either. They were backed against the natural rock wall.
Under cover of the misty night, Jessa had walked the length of the trench, tracing the cable, checking the junctions on the extensions. It had to be perfect. They’d been cut off from Core Command for days and the long-range antenna could finally bring in the support they needed—if the Core ships got through the anti-aircraft cover from the Dusk Warrior’s four big guns.
Jessa had given words of encouragement to every soldier she passed. In a grinding fight like this one, morale was almost as important as a fully charged 8-80. Her squad had smiled back weakly or grumbled some words lost in the muddy water at the bottom of the trench. Everyone but Ryder.
He had smiled, taking her back to a sponge-tree hut in the tropics of a neutral planet, Fet-Nine. On stilts, three meters over the water, the hut was like a world unto itself. Population: Two. Jessa and Ryder.
Thinking about that time with Ryder had almost made Jessa forget the cold and damp of the trenches. He must’ve seen the memories in her eyes, because his smile grew wider. It was that same wicked look he had in that hut, when they were done eating or sleeping and needed to make love again.
Have sex. It was sex.
Back on the battlefield, Ryder had sloshed his combat boot through the water at the bottom of the trench.
“Go for a swim?”
It was a common question when they were on leave on Fet-Nine. A dive from the hut, a swim among the tropical fish and plants, then back to the bed. Or the floor. Or the roof.
Jessa had felt a flush of heat through her body, standing in the trench with Ryder and remembering what they had shared. Then he winked, telling her once again that he would never let her forget their long leave together. Sometimes it felt as if every time her blood pulsed, it drove the memory of Ryder’s touch into every nerve of her body. But that didn’t mean Jessa was under his power. She still had rank over him.
“Good idea, Sergeant Ryder. Why don’t you belly crawl the last thirty meters of this cable through the mud and attach it to the antenna?”
He hadn’t lost his smile, damn him. “Is that an order, captain?”
“A tactical suggestion.”
Ryder had looked up and down the length of the trench. The other soldiers in the squad were out of earshot. He had tipped his helmet back, giving her a better look at his lean face, smeared in mud and with a stubble that was out of regulation. “Tactically, this is a two-soldier job.” He stepped closer. She was tall and so was he, seeing eye to eye. “And I’d really like to go crawling through the mud with you.”
She had given him her stainless steel look, learned years ago when she was a police officer on her home planet. “I’ll be at the antenna and await your arrival with the cable.”
Ryder had taken on his most regimented stance, saluting her. “Copy that, Captain.” But the smile had remained in his golden eyes.
He had turned away from her slowly, giving her plenty of time to watch the cords of his neck, his broad shoulders and lean strength. Jessa knew what his body looked like beneath the combat uniform and armor, and not just from the barracks sector of their Guardian. His skin was a deep copper, his short red hair so dark, it was almost black. Growing up on the farm had made him strong, with angular muscles on his chest and back, tapering into a narrow waist. Combat had transformed him further. He was stronger, more efficient in his movement. But always with a touch of the country ease in his stride. She saw it as he had walked back down along the trench to retrieve the last length of cable.
Jessa had hiked up the trench in the opposite direction, toward the antenna. More than mud had made her steps up the hill difficult: she had been weighed down with her thoughts. Was it a mistake to escape with him on that long leave? She was his superior. Ryder was a sergeant in her squad. There was order to maintain, and this disrupted all of that.
These doubts had been swirling through Jessa’s mind when she saw the first volley of cutter fire coming across the no-man’s-land between the trenches. The dark purple energy cells had sliced through the air and chopped into her trench. Her squad dove to deeper cover. She had been separated from them by about twenty meters. Over two hundred yards further down the trench was the safety of the bunker that had been their home for the last few weeks.
Jessa had peeked over the wall of mud in front of her and saw at least two dozen Dusk Warriors in black armor charging toward her trench line.
“Return fire,” she had shouted while lining up her 8-80’s sight on the closest delta. She had pulled the trigger, dropping the delta, then saw the shots coming from her squad. There had been no time to see who was shooting, but from the accuracy, Jessa knew that Ryder was picking off the coming Dusk Warriors as fast as he could pull the trigger.
Then the delta attack had halted, falling back to cover among the foxholes created by the daily artillery barrages. The first wave had been a feint. Jessa knew that the real trouble was coming.
“Cover! Cover!” she had shouted down the line. Her words had been lost in the scream of the shells. Dusk artillery had arced overhead, then rammed into the trench line. The explosions blossomed with purple fire. The first one had landed between Jessa and the rest of her squad. She hadn’t been able to see how many of her soldiers were wounded or killed. Her view of Ryder had been cut off.
The second shell had blasted her out of the trench and into the black sky.
Now, she didn’t know how long she’d been unconscious. Jessa wore a multi-function watch on her wrist, but didn’t want to risk moving yet. If the smell of the Dusk explosives was just clearing, then the explosion couldn’t have been long ago.
Slowly, Jessa tested her body. First she mentally searched through her torso and limbs. She lay on her back. Her right leg was buried under mud and it held her from sliding down a small hill. Small movements in her fingers and toes told her she was still intact. No bleeding, and her nerves worked well enough to tell her how sore she was. Her body armor held strong on her chest and protected her back.
The ringing in her ears diminished and she heard this planet’s wind. It whistled through the broken rocks and torn trenches of the battlefield. There were also shouts somewhere on the other side of her hill. They sounded far. The blast had thrown her away from the rest of the squad. Some of them were still fighting back. Jessa hoped they could make it back to the bunker. That position could hold off a delta attack. Not forever, but any safety was worth fighting for.
Jessa imagined Ryder at the heavy door of the bunker, half buried in the trench. He fired his 8-80 with expert precision while the remaining squad made use of his cover to hurry to shelter. She hoped that was happening. But would Ryder organize that? Would he take over after the explosions and get the squad to safety? If First Lieutenant Wuller was alive, he’d get the squad under cover. Was Wuller alive? Too many questions.
There was only one answer Jessa needed now. How to stay alive.
The wind swirled the smoke from the explosion further away. Stars and the two moons glittered in the sky. They spun quickly and Jessa knew that she hadn’t fully recovered from the blast. The dark horizon appeared and tilted back and forth as if she was at sea. She tried to slow her breathing to steady herself. If another attack came while she was spinning like this, there would be no way to fight back.
Jessa focused on the stars. She had looked at those systems from the trenches on clear nights. One of them might be her home world. Her city was out there, patrolled by the police officers she knew and once called brothers and sisters. But she wasn’t sure which star was hers.
One star came into focus, bringing with it the memory of Ryder’s voice.
“That’s our heaven.”
Had he been joking? She hadn’t heard the irony in his words. There seemed to be a depth in them that went beyond his usual wry mask. Jessa and Ryder had been standing in the trench, on late watch, when he had pointed out the star.
“Fet-Nine orbits that star. That’s ours.”
Did she shoot him a cutting look or did he leave for the darkness up the trench because he was afraid of the emotions that couldn’t be hidden in his voice? Neither of them wanted those emotions.
Lying on her back, head clearing from the blast, Jessa now focused on that star. Heaven. He had been right. The last pleasure she had felt was on that planet. With Ryder. His hands on her, his mouth joined with hers, their bodies wrapped around each other. It was hard to pull themselves away.
After the tropical heat of Fet-Nine, they had returned to their Guardian ship separately, so no one knew about the affair. In the stark hallways, she was the officer and he was the sergeant. Everything was regulation, as it should be. Except when he had known no one was looking. Then she’d get the smile or the wink. Jessa could’ve had him transferred to another squad, but she tolerated his small challenge. She needed to be reminded of the pleasure in life.
Especially after they deployed to this rock.
And now, half buried and lucky to be alive, Jessa stared at the star that was her heaven with Ryder.
But she wasn’t ready to die.
Her breath steadied and she dug her fingers into the thick mud around her. She still had strength. That meant she could fight.
More sounds carried to her from the battlefield below. Dusk Warrior boots sloshed in the mud. Patrols were out hunting. They were between her and the bunker. She was cut off and alone. Her 8-80 had been blasted out of her hands with the explosion. Jessa’s sidearm, the same pistol she carried as a police officer, was strapped to her right leg, under piles of mud.
With extreme care, Jessa moved her right hand over where her leg was buried and started slowly burrowing her fingers into the mud. Delta patrols could be close and any noise would alert them.
As she dug, she thought about Ryder. Jessa wanted him to be alive. It meant that she was still living as well, in the shared memory of their fling. But she didn’t hold any hope that he would come to her aid. Ryder was a farm-boy joker, a troublemaker. Tall and strong, he was meant for the barroom or the bedroom. He wasn’t a leader. Except between the sheets. But if pleasure was his goal, he wouldn’t find it out here behind enemy lines.
It might be a suicide mission anyway.
Jessa froze. Delta footsteps neared her. She heard the boots sucking through the mud as they tread closer. The very tips of her fingers had reached the grip of her pistol, but it was still in her holster and under the mud. If the deltas found her, she wouldn’t be able to draw fast enough.
She let out her breath and allowed her body to go limp. Jessa had reached the rank of captain by battling across the universe with the Core Army. And battles meant death. She had seen her share of bodies. Not wanting to join those casualties had always inspired her to fight hard and smart. Now, though, she willed herself to be one of the dead on the battlefield.
Her eyes barely open, Jessa saw three Dusk Warriors come from the other side of the hill she lay on and approach her body cautiously. She prepared herself mentally to fight if they got too close. From this vulnerable position, she might not be able to kill them all, but it was better to take at least one with her.
If this was the end, Jessa found some comfort in knowing her last pleasure had been with Ryder. They had matched well, challenging each other and trusting enough to give their bodies completely. For the first time, Jessa admitted to herself she wanted to return to Fet-Nine with Ryder. Even though their bodies had been explored, there was still more to be discovered. But Jessa’s heaven with Ryder was further than the star. It was a fight to the death away.
* * * *
Damn dirty detail, stringing the antenna cable. In the light of the green moons, Ryder saw Jessa was all business, and he wouldn’t be able to coax that orange blush across her pale blue skin. He remembered the warm hue, like a star-rise on a clear day. It had bloomed across her chest when they had sex. And sometimes, when they were away from the rest of the squad, he’d get to see her blush while she remembered their long leave.
Crawl through the mud. That was the best he could come up with at the moment and it didn’t even get a spark of interest from her. Jessa reacted as Captain Tokk, not the woman he knew from Fet-Nine.
Usually didn’t take much. Just a hint. Night swim. Crush-palm oil massage. Rooftop meteor shower. Ryder never had to dig far to unearth the memories and see her blush. So what if she held rank? She could bust him to private, transfer him to another squad, send him on a suicide mission. The insignia on their battle-armor showed who had the power. But that was in the Core Army. There was more history between them than what the training and combat archives would show. And Ryder wasn’t going to let her forget it.
She could order him as much as she wanted; he would follow every command. But he had some power, too. A little wink, humming a tune they sang after just enough spice-water. The captain would go away for a moment and Jessa would appear, blushing, warm with memories. Even if he couldn’t get that response this time in the trench, he still had a smug smile on his face as he walked down toward where the remaining cable was coiled.
She hadn’t buried him and their history in a shallow battlefield grave, 8-80 and helmet the only marker. Ryder could still touch some nerve in her. That meant Jessa might think about their time on Fet-Nine as much as he did.
Ryder almost had those memories blasted out of his head. A volley of delta energy cells streaked along the top of the trench. He ducked low, the 8-80 instantly ready in his hands. Private Seq wasn’t so lucky. He took cells to the head and neck, falling dead into the bottom of the trench.
On Ryder’s home planet, when the ravenous Kryto beasts were attacking a homestead, one either learned to shoot or to hide. Ryder handled a long gun better than anyone he knew.
With the Dusk cutter cells chopping the dirt around him, Ryder leaned against the top of the trench and lined up the sight ring on his 8-80. The deltas were coming, and he wanted all of them.
Calm, he pulled the trigger. One delta fell. Another pull of the trigger and another delta dead.
Then Ryder heard Jessa’s command. “Return fire!” She was further away than he thought.
Answering would’ve thrown off his shooting pace, so he grumbled, “Already dropping deltas.”
But his targets disappeared. The wave of attacking Dusk Warriors receded, taking cover in the churned soil of the battlefield. There was a sudden quiet, and Ryder didn’t like it at all. His first impulse was to get to Jessa.
She must’ve been feeling the same chill of danger he was. It was like ice flies, swarming over his spine. “Cover! Cover!” she called out before he had made it three steps up the trench toward her.
Then he heard the scream of the shells. Hardly any time to move. All he could think was that Jessa was strung out on the far end of the trench with no one else out there with her.
The explosions shook the ground. Purple blossoms of fire erupted, throwing heat and shrapnel everywhere. The first blast cut the trench in two, separating Ryder from Jessa and throwing the bodies of two of his squad-mates into the air. The second impact hit closer to Jessa, and Ryder cursed as debris and fire rained all around him. He couldn’t get out there, to where she was. More shells were coming and the Dusk advanced again. Ryder had no choice but to sprint back down the trench to the bunker with the remaining Dawn Soldiers.
Another explosion rocked behind him, followed by a spray of delta energy cells. Mud-and-blood-spattered Dawn Soldiers hurried with him toward safety. More of the squad was coming, but under the delta onslaught, they wouldn’t survive the last few meters of the run. Ryder slid to a stop and brought his 8-80 to his shoulder again. The charge was down on the main power coil, but he might have enough to hold off the deltas and buy some time.
The sight’s ring was covered in mud as he took in the no-man’s-land where the deltas swarmed. Sensing the action, the glass in the sight spun, cleaning itself and giving Ryder a clear view of the enemy. There were too many of them. The odds were against him. The safe bet was to turn and run.
He was a terrible gambler. Always went for the bad odds, searching for the biggest payoff. Those bets and debts fueled plenty of fights back on his home planet. Ryder knew better than to try any games of chance that would cost credits with his fellow soldiers. He needed friends in this war. But did he need a lover? The long odds of seducing a superior officer had spiced the affair with Jessa. He had gambled and lost. Ryder was still paying the debt when he remembered how she blushed across the top of her chest or how her lips tasted after a swim in the salty sea. Yes, Ryder was a terrible gambler, but he was an expert shot.
Ryder didn’t run. Steadily squeezing the trigger, he sent shots across the mud and dirt and into the bodies of the Dusk Warriors. The 8-80 didn’t kick like the long guns back home and there was no smoke from the barrel, but he didn’t have any nostalgia for the archaic weapons of his past. When the Core Army issued him his 8-80, Ryder knew he’d found his new best friend.
Dusk Warriors died and others took cover. Ryder’s squad mates hurried past him and into the bunker. He smelled the charged particles that lingered around his weapon, same as after a lightning strike. The indicator in his sight ring showed him how low his power was. Two more shots. One delta killed, the other discouraged with a blast to the knee.
From their cover, the Dusk Warriors pumped inferno grenades through the air and into the trench. Time was short. Ryder hauled himself away from the side of the trench and hurried toward the bunker. The grenades exploded, thumping behind him. The heat washed over his back, just as he slid into the concrete bunker.
Pushed by two soldiers, the solid metal door slammed shut behind Ryder. The sound of the lock was too final. Jessa was still out there, somewhere on the other side of the explosions and charging deltas. With five centimeters of steel door between him and her, Ryder felt sick. His head spun as if there was no air.
Lieutenant Wuller tried to wrangle order from the chaos in the bunker. “We’re short five heads,” he called out to any one of the forty or more soldiers who were recovering from the attack. “I need a report.” He looked around, yellow reptile eyes glaring at the ragged group.
Wounded soldiers were being tended to. Others caught their breath, leaning against the thick walls. Some manned weapons at the slot window that faced the battlefield.
Ryder had spent the last weeks in this bunker and knew he could survive more if he had to. But out there, on the battlefield, he didn’t know how long Jessa could last. If she was still alive.
Ryder cursed himself, shoving the dark thoughts of her mangled body out of his mind. She was alive. Her beautiful body, which he had shared, teased and savored, was intact. Captain Jessa Tokk was a fighter. That fire in her had burned him. If she was merely pretty, he would’ve taken what he needed and moved on. Wouldn’t have been the first time. But Jessa had the strength to go after what she wanted, on her terms. And it left him wanting more. Damn if he hadn’t been roped and ion-branded. But he had promised himself not to go following her around like a first-season calf. He remembered every moment they’d spent together and vowed that as long as they were in the same squad, he was going to make sure she wouldn’t forget either.
Ryder dropped the spent coil from his 8-80 and slapped a fresh one into the side of the frame. He filled the pouches on the front of his armor with more coils, then slung a bandolier of grenades and coils over his shoulder before turning to Wuller. “I saw Seq buy it. Two others in an artillery hit.”
“That accounts for three.” Wuller moved about the other soldiers. “Two more missing. Who saw something?”
Sergeant Yasper sat on a crate, drumming her fingers on the side of her 8-80 nervously. “Saw the two get it in the blast. That’s it.” She glanced at the slot window, where Dawn Soldiers stood behind heavy guns, ready. “Don’t know if we can hold off another attack like that.”
Ryder motioned for her to stand and she came close to him. “Not asking you to dance, Yasper.” With a gentle hand on her shoulder, he moved her aside and opened the crate she was sitting on. Ryder grabbed handfuls of field energy supplements and stuffed them into the side pockets of his fatigue pants.
The heavy guns at the slot window opened up, adding their growl of low concussion to the din of the bunker. Wuller continued to move about the soldiers.
“The fight’s not over. We’re in the box, but we’re supplied and battle capable.”
“For how long?” a private asked. He was so covered in mud that Ryder didn’t recognize him.
“As long as it takes.” Wuller grabbed the soldier by the sides of his armor and hauled him to standing. The gills on Wuller’s neck flared with anger, showing the red interior of his skin. “Four reasons to stop shooting: Run out of charge, run out of targets, you are ordered to stop, or you are dead.” Reptilian eyes bore into the private. “You count any of those four?”
Wuller pushed the soldier toward the slot window. “Then go kill you some deltas.”
Inspired, the soldier hurried to the fighting side of the bunker.
A wounded corporal gritted her teeth as another soldier secured a patch of clotting agent on her leg. As she winced in pain, the tentacles that made up her hair coiled tighter. “I saw Hyr go down with shrapnel.”
“That leaves one,” Wuller replied to the room.
Ryder spoke, “Captain Tokk.” Jessa was somewhere out there.
Even the hardened Lieutenant seemed a bit shaken when the news hit him. “You’re sure?”
Ryder nodded. “She was at the top of the line, at the antenna when the attack came.”
The wounded corporal hissed, “Sacred stars, we didn’t need that.”
Wuller stayed focused on Ryder. “Did you see her? Is she wounded … dead?”
“Didn’t see her after the first explosion.” For years on his home world, Ryder yearned to move, to break away from the farm and cut a path across the solar system. He never wanted to get out of a building more than he did at this moment.
Sergeant Yasper took off her helmet and ran her hand through her short black hair. “Okay, this squad is seriously compromised. Core will send reinforcements, even if we don’t push a message out to them.”
Wuller glanced at the ceiling of the bunker as if he could see the sky. “No air support is coming in through the delta battery grid.”
The wounded corporal offered, “A Nightfighter. They could slip one in and he could wipe out every last dirty delta. Remember on that planet’s moon? Nightfighter must’ve ended that fight.”
Ryder scoffed. “You know how many credits it takes to train one Nightfighter? No way they’re risking a resource like that on a bunch of regulars.”
“They’re going to do something,” Yasper countered. “Veterans’ Honor is in a day or two, right? They’re not abandoning us during that.”
“Veteran’s honor is tomorrow, but it don’t matter. I ain’t waiting.” Ryder started toward the door.
Wuller’s hand on his arm stopped him. “You stopping this war yourself?”
“Going for Captain Tokk.”
Wuller blinked. “Never had you down as suicidal. Or a hero.”
Soldiering was a job, and Ryder had always done just enough to get by and stay alive. This wasn’t about any worthless commendation, though, it was about him finding Jessa. With his free arm, he unholstered his service pistol and set it to short range/high power. “Neither.”
Wuller glanced at the door, then at the Dawn Soldiers who battled at the slot window. “I can’t authorize a rescue operation during a battle.”
Ryder pulled out of Wuller’s grip. “Captain Tokk’s a veteran, too. I won’t leave her out there.”
Wuller showed his small, pointed teeth as he grimaced in frustration. “I don’t like the idea of our captain out there any more than the rest of us, but we don’t have the manpower to support you.”
“I’m riding alone.” Ryder checked over his 8-80. It was ready.
Yasper shook her head with disbelief. “This another one of your jokes, Ryder?”
Ryder ignored her, speaking to Wuller. “Doesn’t matter what it says in the reports. Tell them I didn’t make it inside after the artillery hit. I’m MIC.” He took another step toward the door. “Whatever status you’ve got for Captain Tokk, put me down for that.”
The reptilian lieutenant squinted at Ryder, trying to read him. “You really mean to do this?”
“Keep this squad alive, Lieutenant. Fight the deltas. Don’t try and stop me because it won’t work.” Ryder’s voice was low and he hoped that Jessa might somehow hear him through the din of the battle. “Captain Tokk’s out there and I’m going to find her.” He hefted his 8-80 and faced the exit to the bunker. “All you have to do is open and close the door. I’ll take care of the rest.”
It was clear there was no arguing with him. Wuller moved to the door and threw the lock. He and Yasper grabbed the handle and looked for Ryder’s ready sign.
Ryder gave them a smile. “Dawn Soldiers light the way.”
He nodded and they pulled the door open just wide enough for his body. Ryder was out of the bunker and into the battle. One step closer to Jessa.
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