They said that as a child he had hated being held. He did not remember any instances of refusing to sit in a nurse’s arms, but it had been a long time ago and the drugs and training had turned his first memories into a jumbled mess of light and sound. He knew it to be true, though, for when he saw mothers gripping their children, he noticed in some of them the look of discomfort.

He often wondered if he had ever even been a child. His earliest recollection was one of getting knocked down in a pugilism class at a young age. Young enough to wash himself and see to his own toilet, but not old enough to wield a mass rifle. According to doctrine the youngest a warbaby was pushed into wrestling was three cycles, and by then the time in the crèches was long over.

The concept of childhood was lost on him. As far as he was concerned, he had always been a warrior and would be until he died in glorious combat. There was only the struggle for victory.

The transport shuddered, sending a shower of rust flakes filtering through the hold. He checked the seals on his rebreather and secured their armored gaskets. For all their training, for all their technological and biological advantages, an Arcatauran would die in minutes without the life-giving breathing mask that every one of them was forced to wear. From birth to their final days the soft plastic seal sat around their mouths and noses, processing the poisonous air outside and making it safe to breathe. The people of the toxic planet knew only the smells of the antiseptic filtered air. Thousands of years of the handicap had given them other gifts in the form of enhanced vision and hearing, yet they were a fundamentally handicapped people.

He was unfamiliar with the history of Arcataur, having only received a perfunctory overview of it in battle school. Since he was constantly surrounded by others who had received identical training, no one he had ever come across had known more than the rudiments. The origin of the rebreather was no mystery, though. The earliest people on the planet had been explorers, testers of the harsh environment. Some said they had been outcasts from other worlds in Solarus, or a crashed expeditionary force, or both, and had simply chosen to remain on the planet rather than return home. Whomever they had been they had possessed the will and technology to not only survive in the toxic air, but flourish. Centuries later Arcataur was the third-most populous planet in the system and had even once been the first. A great war had swept through Solarus, destroying whole cultures and cleansing continents of their inhabitants. If it had not been for the valiant warbabies of Arcataur they might have been all but lost. Or so the stories went.

He did not care for rumor and fables. He concerned himself with his immediate survival, the maintenance of his weaponry and gear, and completing the objectives he had been assigned. In that certainty there was purpose, and with purpose he knew no fear, no doubt, and worked without question. So it had been, so it would always be.

The transport juddered to a halt, and the hold was filled with a cloud of rusty metal particles. He checked his weapon by feel and, satisfied that it was ready, he stood and slammed the rear door open. The hold filled with the sounds of explosions and mass fire, and the muffled screams of Arcataurans dying behind their masks.

He grinned and went to work.

2014.10.23 – 2023.06.14

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