Copyright © 2014 by Elizabeth Munro
Chapter 1

“I love you, Rye.”
Angel instantly regrets the words.
Her commander tenses in her arms. Moments before, she teased his ear with her teeth the way she knew drove him crazy. Unbridled bliss in the dirty and debris strewn room forced the words from her lips as he shook beneath her.
Now she confesses the one thing they shouldn’t have.
“Damn it,” she mutters, lips still pressed to his ear.
Angel wears nothing but standard-issue black socks and sweat sticks her breasts to his armour plated chest.
“I...” she tries as Rye pulls her away enough to look in her eyes.
“Angel,” he breathes. This close she can easily tell the difference between the natural eye and the implant. His natural steel grey eye dilates with pleasure while the matching technical marvel closes tightly in deference to the room’s weak light. Both are beautiful.
She can’t hold his hard stare and turns away in shame.
This ransacked apartment once held a family. Scattered toys and furniture rest beneath dust dumped by two decades of abandonment. Angel used to be bothered by the broken remnants of life in places like this but now they are, more often than not, where she spends her two hours of rack a cycle.
“No,” he forces her nose to his. “Never.”
Never say it. Never think it.
Rye is a third generation soldier, his body far more modified than hers. His genetic alterations make his wetware implants more effective and eliminate the need for drugs and therapy to enhance his strength and speed. She joined the war ten years ago. First generation. Civilian parents.
She’s not the kind of female chosen to pair with a specimen like him. Let off some steam during downtime, sure, but that’s all it can ever be.
Angel nods since there’s no point in arguing. They’re in Aphid territory and her job is to get all the data she can while the rest of the team has her back.
Rye fingers the tender spots on her hips where they’d dug in with passion and hisses at the loss of contact as he helps her to her feet. With her back to him, she hides the burning in her cheeks and the flush of her chest.
“I’ll grab rations,” Rye fastens his trousers and weapons. Then he leaves Angel alone to dress. Ninety minutes remain off duty. More than enough for a tasteless meal and the hour of sleep she needs to stay alert and keep the shakes at bay. Rye can last a week before he needs to power down.
He returns with two small boxes as she adjusts her earpiece and tests the function of the zipper covering the data port embedded in her arm. Angel’s own handgun seems small and impotent compared to Rye’s weapons but she’s not made for combat. Five foot nine isn’t the small end of things for a woman back on Earth but in Rye’s unit she’s a pixie.
Angel can’t look at Rye when he shoves her rations in her hands. Once she takes her box he wraps his hands around hers to quiet her tremors.
“You need rest,” he whispers.
Somehow his stating the obvious feels like an insult. Of course she needs to rest. She shakes every damn day as a reminder she’s first gen and her position in his unit is temporary at best. Rye hasn’t slept in three days and he’s as still as the dead housing block surrounding them.
“We need to talk about us,” he says as he drops to a squat then rocks onto his ass. A quick wiggle of his hips moves him against the wall and he crushes the corner of his box to activate the heater.
“Sure, Rye,” Angel concedes. The colour code on her box contains a lot of red for protein. Rye’s shows equal amounts of red, green, blue and white. Protein is for shakers but it stops her back end up like nobody’s business and after two weeks she wonders if she’ll ever function right.
She knows what’s coming. Angel has been Rye’s ‘regular’ for nearly six months since he came to her quarters dressed only in a towel. She was beautiful and very private, he explained, and someone he could trust to be discreet. Any intimacy shared wouldn’t leave the room. Their time together would give them a chance to push the real world away for a while and nothing more.
He couldn’t hide his emotion when he found out he was her first and after, he cried silently in her arms. He knew he could trust her, he said, if she trusted him with her innocence. It was strange to think of herself as innocent since she’d already taken hundreds of Aphid lives by sabotaging life support systems or overloading their weapons banks. Her physical demonstration of trust had triggered his.
“We got too close,” she mumbles around a dry fibre bar. Like fibre will help with the protein cramps.
“Later,” he insists and looks away when her hands become too unsteady to keep eating. “Sleep.”
Angel uses the ration box to keep her short blonde hair off the dirty floor and curls up. For a few minutes she watches Rye’s face glow in the soft light of the palm-sized data tablet he pulled from his thigh pocket. His spiky brown hair and angular cheeks complement the three days stubble on his jaw as it works in thought.
“Sleep,” he orders without looking up.
“Can’t,” she sits and goes through her pockets for something to help. Just as she breaks the seal on a small sleep-aid disk, a deep rumble no more than a block away jars the building, knocking dust into the steep light streaming in from the window.
“Tong?” Rye fingers his earpiece as he gets an update from his twin brother, his second in command. Tong’s voice rattles in Angel’s ear as well.
Town hall went up, Rye. A second blast jars the building and her earpiece shuts down to protect her hearing. Greens everywhere. The school’s gotta be empty. I’ll keep the ... clear for Angel and follow ... in.
“Need you solid for a couple more hours, Angel,” Rye orders but she’s already on her feet, pulling out a stim-tab. No sleep now but her hands shake so bad she can’t get the packet open.
Rye grabs the tablet and pushes her against the wall. He opens the foil envelope containing a translucent thumbnail sized disk and presses it against her neck. Thousands of micro needles coated in stimulant penetrate her skin, not deep enough to hurt but enough to get the drug into her system. Shit, she usually takes it in the arm to slow the rush.
Nothing ever prepares her no matter how many times it happens. Rye turns, pinning her to the wall, his hip pressed hard into her lower belly as her heart lights up. With her head thrown back, she sucks her lungs full and Rye slaps a hand over her mouth to silence her involuntary screech.
Every nerve in her body immolates, triggering a fiery orgasm deep in her over-sensitive sex. It isn’t good at all and tears burst from her eyes as she tries to bite her way free of Rye’s hand.
As her sight fails, the building rocks through the biggest explosion yet and Rye’s other hand shields her wide open eyes from a cascade of falling dust and ceiling tiles. Angel can’t breathe and the dust thickens, sending her into a terrified primal reaction to Rye’s big body and the hands over her face. Gun in hand, she strikes out.
“Angel,” he growls as she recovers from the horrible jolt to her system. Rye holds his fist over hers on the pistol grip as he groans in her ear. “Easy.”
“Rye,” she wheezes but her legs tremble and she blinks as he brushes dirt from her eyes.
“You came hard,” Rye sounds close himself as he shoves her pistol back in her holster and fastens the snap.
“You put it in my fucking neck, Rye.”
“You’re a big girl.”
Angel shudders as her strength returns. When she holds her still hands over Rye’s chest he rests his lips in her hair.
“Tong thinks the schoolhouse is empty. Their comm system is still blocking us up close so we can’t be sure.”
She nods. For two days they’ve been careful in the dead zone around the elementary school.
“I’ll keep an eye on you then you’re on your own until Tong gets there,” Rye steps away, the lover in him shuts down as he checks his weapons. Angel does the same, thoroughly buzzing inside. For the moment she forgets their intimacy and the stimulants take control.
“You’re going to suck their data banks dry, Angel,” Rye orders but his next words don’t foreshadow the breakup she sees coming after her confession of love. “You’re going to prove a first gen can pull her weight in my unit. You’re going to prove you deserve to be here permanently, with me.”
“I’ll do my job.”
She can barely acknowledge his words, the closest he’s come to expressing he wants her and with his comm line open to Tong it isn’t a private sentiment.
The initial effects of the stimulant pass, allowing Angel to focus. Artificial endorphins and relaxation from sex combine to help her bring up models of Aphid computer systems and security protocols with unusual clarity.
Easy job, she tells herself. The chemicals in her system drive out random thoughts that might intrude on her orders. Hack the Aphid comms, steal what she can and make Rye proud.
Be a good soldier, Angel. Show them you’re not a pretty liability.
She’s overheard the talk from some of Rye’s men. After pulling off some minor miracles on previous assignments she landed a temp spot with Rye’s unit and it’s just what she expected. She stays out of the way while the real soldiers work, moves faster than Scarlet the medic yells when things get hot and jacks herself into whatever Aphid data port they shove her at.
It doesn’t take up all her time.
With access to the advanced and well appointed labs in Rye’s mobile home base on The Barrington, she spends her spare time duplicating Aphid tech and has several untested hybrid data blocks in her belly pack. Tech that may be able to draw Aphid data out and digest the mess of ones and zeros into something the Core can use other than more mysterious ones and zeros. All without the constant babysitting of a biological interface like her.
When she steps from the building, the world outside no longer resembles the one she left an hour before. The summer breeze moves toward the explosions, clearing the air and fist sized chunks of demolished buildings dot the grass veined road. Fire and gun shots sound to the north where the town hall used to stand and she gets down behind a rusted truck. Even so far from Earth, humans built around them so it felt like they’d never left.
“Go, Angel,” Rye shoulders his arc-rifle over the truck box, flips it to laser and squeezes off a couple of dirty, glowing rounds. The thick, two foot long sub-rifle doesn’t recoil so the scent of hot plasteel is the only evidence it fired, other than the rounds themselves and the tight explosions three blocks away.
She doesn’t question her orders.
Even with the humans gone, the air is redolent with their overgrown flowering trees. Transplanted lilac, magnolia and wisteria exceed three times the size of their earth grown counterparts from over a century of alien nourishment. Mid-afternoon sunlight, too bright for comfort, casts Angel’s harsh, short shadow as she steps out on the main street of the small town six generations of colonists called Constant.
The schoolhouse stands two blocks south and Angel runs low and fast enough that a mis-step would put her flat on her face. Through her earpiece, she gathers what she can from Rye and Tong’s chatter as Rye gets up to speed and takes command of the offensive around the burning town hall. Nobody knows what caused the explosions but it drew in the Aphids and in turn Rye’s Core soldiers. As she nears the schoolhouse she’s on her own. Aphid comm signals overwhelm her earpiece and over the last fifty feet she hears nothing but hiss.
Angel squats by the open school door, pressed flat against the wall. Smoke and the slow bend in the road hide the truck and Rye though the hisses and reports of the fire fight still reach her.
Gun in hand, Angel crawls into the small two story building. She knows the openings on the left and right lead to a couple of classrooms and the office. The heavy metal door at the end twists into charred chunks caused by an old battle. Not much remains of the ivory paint since the Aphids blew it open to slaughter the children and teachers who sought refuge on the second floor twenty years earlier.
Half way down the hall, Angel spots what she came for and pulls her useless earpiece free so the buzzing doesn’t distract her from any noises which would warn she’s not alone.
The main computer station and thick rectangular keypad occupy the top of the only unbroken office desk. Like most Aphid tech, it accommodates a two handed grip. Finger control buttons and touch pads on the sides in concert with pressure from the thumbs on the top send three dimensional data to the Aphid CPU. Figuring out how to use the damn keypad got her promoted to Rye’s unit.
In a few minutes, the three displays glow. The characters hide, indecipherable from the background and Angel pulls out special polarized glasses to filter the extra light. The data materializes before her in three dimensional arrays of angular text, the reason for the three dimensional grip on the keypad.
A small explosion to the north causes her to freeze until she’s certain the rattle of falling debris doesn’t conceal an Aphid. For a few seconds there’s nothing then a minute rasp of boots against the dirty floor.
Angel releases the keypad and pushes herself against the wall to hide. Keeping her gun in reach, she pulls out a small silver tablet the size of a pack of cigarettes. With her eyes on the classroom door, she taps in an access code then another set of numbers which auto-program the unit. It warms quickly at her touch as it reads the comm frequencies and starts to produce a counter signal to partially mask the frequencies Core needs for scanning and comms. If the Aphids don’t notice then they won’t come to investigate the cause.
As she slides the tablet onto the desk beside her gun, she lets her lungs empty at the sight of Tong in the doorway. He blocks as much light from the hall as Rye can and if he wasn’t facing her it would be impossible to tell which brother he is since his thin, sleazy moustache is the only way he’s different from his twin. He steps in, back to the wall and scans around with his gun like he’s clearing the room.
Bad news.
If Tong acts like she isn’t there then he’s been followed. He’ll stay ahead of the Aphids, likely a small team of three, and set up an ambush. Before he steps out she stands at the keypad, well aware she’s nearly out of time.
Angel draws a second silver customizable tablet from her pack and activates it. She doesn’t program it for recording yet. Data storage is her job but she’s been distracted by Tong. Rye and his brother couldn’t behave more differently but the two are as close as Angel and her own brother had been. Instead of holding the Aphid data in the drives which share her ribcage with her lungs, she can use the tablet and help Tong.
If she can prove she can fight in close and get the data then she’ll be a permanent addition to Rye’s unit.
Once the zipper above her left jacket cuff opens, Angel grabs the thick tan mole on the inside of her wrist and pulls out her data tether then she rubs spit in the maintenance port on the keypad. During the two seconds it takes to reboot, she shoves the mole in the port and silently prays.
The display stays green when the Aphid keypad reconnects to the computer.
Angel programs the data cube while she overwhelms the Aphid system with maintenance protocols and watches as a single light starts to blink on the cube.
Holy shit, it works. She doesn’t have to stand here like a target while her internal servers micro manage the data retrieval. Those internal computers, hardwired to her brain, take advantage of billions of neurons she doesn’t use. No portable device has ever had the power to pull it off but this one does.
Angel squats out of sight as more footsteps enter the school. While the Aphids try hard to be quiet, they must still believe Core scanners are blocked and Tong doesn’t know they’re coming. Angel shoves her earpiece in place. The hiss remains but in the background she can make out the occasional syllable of human speech, each one stronger than the last. The clicky sounds of quiet Aphid talk reach her as she sends a signal to the Aphid computer to expel her tether. While she has an affinity for Aphid tech, she’s never learned a word of their convoluted and subtle spoken language.
As the tether retracts, three Aphids pass down the hall. They don’t look inside and stop talking as they reach the bottom of the stairs. Angel slips silently to the door and peeks out just in time to see their feet disappear up the landing to the second floor. A scuffle breaks out overhead. With her small pistol pointed at the ceiling, she unsnaps her dagger and follows.

Chapter 2

“Interference getting weak, Rye,” Atom says. They hunker down half a block from the town hall in a shitty stand off with a dozen Aphids. Atom brings his own type of class to the front lines. Smallish and wiry, he comes off as nervous since he constantly licks his lips but he’s really just annoyed at his still knife. Atom claims Aphid blood feels good on his skin and since the bright green stuff soaks his knife hand, Atom must be in heaven.
“Fucking A,” Rye intones as he pulls out his tablet. Fifteen minutes earlier he sent Angel to the schoolhouse and five minutes after that he lost contact with Tong as he went after her.
“You think Angel did that?”
Rye’s stomach rolls at the thought. His last comm officer tried to eat them a clear path through the Aphid interference and in doing so gave away his position. The Aphids caught on to him long before Rye could scan the area and by the time they got to him the man was dead, hanging by his feet with his skin pooled around his head.
“She wouldn’t be that stupid,” he allows, more to reassure himself than anything else.
“Shit,” Atom breathes as he scratches his neck with his blade, smearing green all over his skin. Between the green blood and a streak of red from a cut on his head he looks like an evil candy cane.
Rye hides his disgust.
“Two Core transmitters, one faint but I can’t tell if it’s Tong or Angel. Static too heavy.” Rye smacks his tablet in a vain effort to improve the reception but this looks as good as it will get. Clever girl, Angel. She degraded their signal just enough and didn’t get greedy. One of the humans is in bad shape and whether it’s Tong or Angel it’s going to be a very bad day. He needs them both in his life.
The rough pop of an explosion to the south knocks Rye to his ass and not due to the shock wave. One of the human life signs blinks out.
Only the injured human remains on his display. Whatever blew in the school house changed his life forever by taking either his brother or Angel.
“Scarlet,” Rye calls and she looks up from Webber. The man has a round in his arm and isn’t in any trouble but he’s out until she stops fussing over him. “Now, south. Atom, you too.”
The three break away at a run as the rest of the team tightens up the line to make up for their absence. Aphid gunfire peters off and stops and Rye looks back to see his soldiers prepare to advance.
A section of the school house second floor topples inward and black smoke curls thick around the hole. As Rye ducks behind another building, he takes a moment to run his hands over his face. They still smell of her and he can only hope the readout on the tablet is wrong and unreliable. He has no trouble going through fifty-four undetected Aphids if it means Angel and Tong are okay.
God, she loves him and she’s braver than him for saying it. She’s damn good for a first gen or even a second for that matter and came very highly recommended. Much of her record was sealed, of course, since all operations are classified but the legendary and very senior comm officer who signed off on her assignment with Rye took the time to escort her to Barrington Station himself.
Now, Rye has to face the very real possibility Angel is dead or dying alongside his dying or dead big brother.
-oing on, Rye?” Scarlet asks. She doesn’t even look up. Both arms sink elbows deep in her med bag since she’s always taking stock of her supplies. Each clamp, bandage and med-tab plays on her giant mental board game and she’s a dozen moves ahead.
“Angel and Tong,” Rye breathes as they run the last block to the schoolhouse. “Ambushed inside.”
“Fuck,” Scarlet mutters, articulate and colourful. Her long red hair dangles half out of the knot she keeps at the back of her head and the smokey wind snakes strands around her shoulders.
The main hallway lays empty and Rye and Atom check the rooms for Aphids as quickly as they can, keeping Scarlet in the rear. Second door on the left opens to the small Aphid mainframe. It only takes a second to see that Angel isn’t there, only some of her hardware, and Rye signals to take the second floor.
Several smouldering chunks of debris litter the stairs but old damage marks the fire door at the bottom. Ivory enamel paint covers parts of the buckled and torn surface. Rye has seen it before in dozens of schools. Antibacterial and easy to keep clean. So much thought had gone into the properties but nobody ever made it another colour.
More charred bits cover the landing including an Aphid head. The three inch high pale green ridge running over the top lacks much of the flesh which once covered it and a small calibre round punched out one eye.
Damn it, if she’d just stayed put...
There’s nothing but silence from the top floor and Rye nudges the head aside with his boot.
Atom kicks it off the landing. The head makes a solid thunk as it hits the wall above the blown out door and bounces twice at the bottom of the stairs.
The ceiling above opens to the sky and the harsh sun reveals a garish mix of Aphid parts and rubble. Some property of the natural light makes the green blood glow vibrantly in spite of the dust and smoke trapped by what remains of the walls. Angel’s knife rests hilt-deep in a green torso.
“One human life sign,” Scarlet mutters to her tablet and Rye nods his permission for her to get to work. His own tablet shows no active explosives. With the sun in their eyes they can’t see into the dark cavity ahead, the section of the second floor that still has a roof, but without Aphid life there’s no danger.
“Enough gunk to account for three greens,” Atom assesses. Rye thinks the same thing and as he strides after Scarlet he spots what’s left of at least two more. Both appear to have been killed in close combat then smeared across the floor and over the body that has the medic’s attention.
“Rye,” Scarlet calls. “Tong.”
Damn, where’s Angel? Maybe she wasn’t in the building when it went up.
Tong blinks as Rye kneels beside Scarlet and she assesses him. The panel on her medical tablet strobes green. Tong’s heart beats strong and his thigh is bound in more bandages than even Scarlet could have done already.
“Whatever happened,” Scarlet shrugs. The set of her mouth says she disapproves of the amateur dressing. “He’d have bled out by now without it.”
Rye knows what that means. Brain death and no chance to get him in cryostasis until he could be repaired. Angel did that. If Rye has to guess, Tong was surprised by the two now dead Aphids and injured. Maybe he took care of a couple of the ones at the stairs but Angel had been there and shot the one in the head. Two had been dead before she got there and put her knife in the third and saved Tong’s life or she wouldn’t have reached him.
“Rye,” Tong’s voice grates through the thickness of pain meds and he grabs Rye’s sleeve then points into the corner where the two dead Aphids lay. “Angel.”
“Uh,” air punches from Rye’s lungs. He can’t get on his feet and crawls to the pile of bodies. A camouflaged human knee sticks clear of the green, bloody mess.
“Scarlet,” he gasps but she’s ahead of him, pulling dead Aphids off Angel.
By the time Rye gets to her side, Scarlet has her tablet out. The display strobes an angry red and Rye’s hope fades.
“Tong is stable,” Scarlet mutters to herself and holds a hand over Angel like she’s afraid to touch her. Angel’s neck bends at a terrible angle and it’s clear her head is close to severed. Her burnt off fatigues reveal black and red skin.
“Bag her,” Rye chokes out.
“Rye,” Scarlet shakes her head. “Wait.”
The display flashes yellow then red again. Every few seconds another flash of yellow brings new hope.
“Lock her down for cryo, Scarlet.”
“Shit,” Tong moans behind them.
Scarlet rolls Angel to her stomach and snaps a thumb-sized black med-tab to what remains of the back of her neck. The lights flash on, green then red.
“Not enough circulation,” Scarlet says but Rye knows that. He busts off Angel’s chest armour and tears open the buttons of her shirt. Scarlet readies another med-tab and sticks it between Angel’s exposed breasts.
The lights on this one turn blue and as they get clear, it jolts her with enough electricity to jump start her heart. Her lungs expand and a small trail of blood runs under the curve of one white breast. The device drove two spikes in through her ribs. It loads her up with drugs to dehydrate her body in order to supply enough fluid to her veins and arteries to distribute the other meds going in the back of her neck. Other drugs seal up the breaches in her circulatory system to stop the bleeding.
Once circulation resumes, the lights on the back of her neck turn blue. The med-tab on Angel’s neck soaks her brain and internal organs in a massive dose of drugs to protect her tissues from the cold of cryo and oxygen deprivation until she gets there. Not a promise of life by any means but a chance. If her injuries are recoverable then she could be repaired.
“Nothing more I can do, Rye.”
“I know.”
Scarlet takes her tablet to Tong’s side and brushes her fingers over his cheek. The two have always been close so he isn’t surprised to see his medic comforting his brother.
To hell with it.
Rye takes Angel in his arms and cradles her between his legs. The unsettling grind in her lower back and pelvis adds to the pain in Rye’s heart.
Her eyes flutter open but it’s just the meds in her body and her brain reacting to the chemical preservatives. The blue light on her chest brightens with the beating of her heart and accelerates as the temporary fluids from her tissues leak out past the seals other meds made in her circulatory system but the light doesn’t change colour. The preservatives have been in her long enough to do their job.
As the light flashes become irregular, a rough sob breaks from Rye’s chest and Scarlet flinches at the sound. Her hand stays on Tong’s cheek and when Rye looks up the breeze has cleared much of the smoke from the top floor.
Atom stands beside them holding one of Angel’s silver data units.
“It’s full,” Atom reports but he can’t look at Rye. He’d been fond of Angel, too. Not in the way Rye was but Atom was brotherly to all females in the unit. “Whatever she did… she got what we came for.
“Fuck, Angel,” Atom stomps away and drops his ass on the top stair.
Rye rests his lips on Angel’s cheek until the light fails.
“I love you, too.”