It had been a hard-fought tour and Harlow felt she’d earned the right to go home. But not like this. She waded slowly through the river in her six-ton mech suit, mindful of making waves that would douse her squadmates who were on foot. The water was up to their waists and they were doing their best to keep their weapons dry and their senses alert. The five-oh-five was a battle-hardened star-hopping professional kill machine. Seemed that most of the campaign’s other outfits hadn’t shared in their success.
This was the invasion of New Earth, the last beachfront. It had been their home when they deployed two years ago. Now it wasn’t their anything; wasn’t theirs at all.
A swarm of drones overhead shifted silently through the murmurations of their programming. It was an emergent behavior reminiscent of starlings. There were no starlings anymore. Not on New Earth. And certainly not on Old Earth. But hey, until this morning there hadn’t been any people on New Earth either, so things were on the up-and-up.
The river ran between two high-walled cliffs, cutting a nearly vertical incision through the jungle. Tall thin trees hugged the valley walls, staying clear of the river banks that would surely uproot any new growth during the rainy season. But today the river was shallow and calm with a lazy current, as if it had lost the will to flow in humanity’s absence. She’d feel better with the four-meter-tall treads of a megatank covering her rear, but they’d had to abandon theirs on Theta IX. She felt terribly exposed. The mech suit provided substantially more armor than what her squadmates wore, in equal measure to making her more of a target, but it didn’t feel equal in her gut, and Harlow learned a long time ago on some planet without a name to let her gut be in charge of keeping her alive.
Something streaked through the air. Too fast to see, but everyone felt it in their bones and then heard it as a warbling rumble that echoed off the canyon walls like an auditory mirror maze. The drones fell dead into the river, and Harlow’s exposed squadmates huddled under her like a steel umbrella, fleeing the shrapnel rain. They were afraid, sure—you’d have to be crazy not to be—but they were ready. They were finally home, and they wouldn’t be leaving again.