That doesn’t sound like anything I’d say or even think, but it’s true. On my best day, I’m not a thinker. I’m a boiling pot of impulses and snap judgments. Now that I know about my unique genetic heritage, I tell myself grimspace blazes in my DNA, inciting me to extremes. Unlike other jumpers, I was conceived in grimspace, a happy quirk of my mother’s quest for greater thrills. Doc thinks that exposure rewrote my DNA, resulting in a mutation that allows me to heal the grimspace damage that destroys other navigators.
But not me. I endure, and I flail, and I inflict collateral damage with my dangerous impulses. So maybe this chip has made me more able to articulate my private convictions. Or maybe the shift has been a long time coming. Nothing stays the same, not even me; all metals can be melted and refined.
His eyes close, his lush lashes making extravagant fans against the blades of his cheekbones. I can sense he’s thinking hard, on the edge of something big. I just hope it doesn’t break my heart. At last, breath slips out of him in a little sigh.
March stands then, as if he’s made a difficult decision. “You really want to know what I dream about? I’ll show you.”
Dread sluices down my spine. I can’t imagine how bad this will get, but I fix a smile on my face.
“Come then,” I whisper, beckoning.
He takes me. A wall of ice rears up inside my head. Two separate things struggle in one space. Then he and I merge into . . . we.
And it begins.
The stench of rotten meat pervades everything.
There’s a cloying, coppery tinge to the air that tells me I’ve stepped into a charnel house. The dead are everywhere, piled so high now I can scarcely pass through the tunnel. My boots squelch in dead flesh that’s devolved into organic sludge as it rots away from the bone. My first impulse is to turn and run, but I’m not alone in this, and the other half of me—the March half—knows that he has to finish the job. There are more to kill.
Shit, I recognize this place. While it shares certain infernal, subterranean traits associated with the mythic depiction of hell, I’ve been here before—and not just emotionally. When we walked out of the Gunnar-Dahlgren underground base, I’d thought myself lucky to be alive. I had no idea what I was leaving March to face alone, or I wouldn’t have gone. I’d have fought harder, begged him not to stay. I think I’d have done anything to prevent him from going through this.
His grim determination overwhelms my nausea, and we move forward. Footsteps behind tell me we’re not alone. I ride his memory, unable to impact the events. We trek through the dark stone passages, rooting out pockets of resistance. Most of the McCulloughs that have gotten trapped down here are wounded and starving.
That doesn’t alter March’s resolve. They are the enemy, and they must die. He kneels beside a young soldier, whose enormous eyes glitter in the torch-tube someone shines down on him. His face is all sharp angles, a geometric study in atrocity.
He tries to form a word through parched lips. “Please.”
Though I don’t want to see what’s coming, I can’t look away, tied to March as I am. He won’t give the order to someone else. The blood will be on his hands. He draws a knife from its sheath on his thigh. The soldier sees what’s coming, I think, because he tries to crawl away. His limbs won’t hold him, and he collapses.
March rolls him over, his motions economical and precise. With a monstrous mix of resignation and expertise, he holds the head steady and jams his knife up through the man’s chin. The jawbones guide the blade into his brain, and death is nearly instantaneous. Someone weeps nearby, a low and broken sound.
Men should never sound like that. Even as I register the thought, we move forward—and with a smooth motion, March silences the sobbing. Again and again he uses the knife to put down these men with no more hesitation than I would show in shooting a rabid animal. With each execution, I feel his detachment growing until he’s like a small boat bobbing in the middle of a vast and trackless sea.
We push forward. Find two more makeshift encampments full of desperate men. They’re too weak to fight, and some of them beg for their lives. They promise to move off world, severing all ties to kith and kin. March is implacable. One by one, they die.
I understand the idea in theory. He’s making an example of Clan McCullough, teaching the others what will befall them if they come after Gunnar-Dahlgren. That sounds smart in the abstract, but when a human being kneels before you, begging for mercy—and finds none, well. You can imagine what it’s like.
Behind us, his company moves in silence, just booted feet against the rock. Are they glad to see their enemies crushed or tired and heartsick as I am, just from the relatively brief time I’ve spent in March’s memories? I don’t know how he’s not entirely a monster. Doubtless he’d argue that he is.
In the distance, I hear the eerie sonic shrieks of feeding Teras—and the resultant howls of the men they’re devouring. It feels like an eternity before the death cries go quiet . . . but that’s worse. I want to turn and look at the clansmen at our backs, wondering how this is affecting them.
But March doesn’t turn. Finally, his comm unit trembles against his thigh. He takes it in hand and says in an undertone, “Go.”
“No more life signs,” a male voice reports. “We’ve scoured them clean.”
“Then it’s time to end this,” March replies. “I want all units assembled at the south entrance in ninety minutes.”
“Roger that. I’ll spread the word. Dirge One out.”
I vaguely remember that a dirge is a song they sing for the dead. Cold washes over me. I’d like to be able to question what comes next, but I’m a passive observer; I can’t impact or change events. Maybe I’ll ask March a few things once we’re done.
The beauty of memory is that he can choose what parts to leave out. We flash forward in time—I only know that because he’s aware of all the minutiae he doesn’t share, such as getting back to base camp when each step feels like a kilometer—and then we wait for the rest of the troops. Filthy, exhausted, and blood-spattered, they trickle in.
Ten men make up a patrol, as the tunnels don’t lend themselves to larger groups. Five pairs is a substantial number when the fighting takes place in such confined space. I can tell they’ve taken losses, but it’s not as bad as it would have been if they didn’t have a fallback. That showcases Mair’s uncommon ability to guess at what’s coming and anticipate what will be required.
They form up before March, and, by their regard, I see he’s one of them, their general if not their chief. I didn’t understand that until this moment. His relationship with Gunnar-Dahlgren is knotty and complex, something from which he’ll never walk away. Thanks to Mair’s intervention, his life will never entirely be his own.
To be precise, he can’t imagine not answering if Keri calls on him for help. Despite my petty jealousy, there’s no romantic component to his affection. The fact that she was a child when they met precludes him from seeing her in that light. In some ways, she’s akin to the sister he lost. Mair told him to take care of Keri, and he’s doing his best to hold up his end, no matter what it costs him.
He waits for them to fall quiet before speaking. “It’s time for us to go on the offensive. We have a cache nearby, so we’ll go out through the rubble and head for the gear. There, we’ll find two pearl-class rovers waiting to take us to the McCullough compound. Intel tells me they don’t have a fallback. We’ve decimated their numbers and left them nowhere to go. Most of their women and children have already fled off world, and, if we finish this properly, they won’t be coming back.”
A rousing cheer goes up, echoing weirdly. The rest of the encampment shouts back, catching fire at the idea they’ll soon be delivered from exile. March lets them scream their fill, then holds up a hand for attention. “I’m sending coordinates to each patrol leader. You’ll be responsible for getting your team to the cache at the appointed time. Once we reach the McCullough compound, what’s our strategy?”
A tall, scarred soldier replies, “No quarter.”
His men echo the cry. “No quarter!”
I’ve seen enough war vids to understand what that means. I don’t want to see the rest, but I can’t pull from his true-life nightmare. I asked to see what he dreams about, so he’s serving it up. It feels like I’m crying, but I can’t touch my cheeks to be sure.
From here, we flash to what must be the McCullough war room, bodies everywhere. March was kind enough not to show me all the killing, but the carnage can’t be avoided entirely. I know that it was barely even a fight. The McCulloughs were broken when they lost in the tunnels. I know the man I love used his knife again and again on enemies too young to die, thrusting the blade cleanly up through the chin.
We stride toward a surprisingly young man. He can’t be more than twenty turns, full of invincibility and dreams of grandeur. Like the rest, he’s thin and wild-eyed, hair standing in a crazy tangle. By the way he’s dressed, I realize this is the McCullough. Everyone else is dead.
He tries to run, but the floor is slick with entrails. The reek of voided bowels doesn’t affect March, but I want to scream. It’s beyond anything I could have imagined. The McCullough slips in the spilled blood, falling hard.
“I have a wife,” he begs, as he scrambles backward on feet and hands. “Children. I was only trying to secure their future. Let me go to them, please. They’re on Arcturus.” He names a small colony in the Outskirts. “Don’t do this, please. I’ll accept exile—”
This time, there’s no clean thrust through the chin. March rams his knife upward through the rib cage, knowing precisely how to find the heart. I imagine the way it pierces lung first, then slices clean through. The McCullough lets out a horribly childish whimper and crumples. March leaves the blade in the body.
His voice is toneless as he says, “Hostile takeover complete. Begin an inventory of property and assets; we take possession immediately.” He grabs a man I recognize, but whose name I cannot recall. “Top priority is finding out what they did with the Teras.”
The soldier acknowledges with a sharp salute. While his men get to work, March stands staring at the river of blood running beneath his feet.
I come to myself huddled in a shivering heap on the floor, my face wet with tears.
March sits a few meters away, still sprawled in a pose that somehow suggests tension instead of ease. His long fingers tap out a message against his thighs that would break my heart if I could translate the mournful tempo into words.
“So now you know what I dream about,” he says at last. “And there’s more. You want to see it all, Jax?”
For once, I have no quick comeback. Hell no, I don’t want to see more. Honestly, I wish I hadn’t seen that much. The worst thing? He has to live with those memories. No wonder he took the meds from Doc without complaining. If I’d lived through what he has, I’d want to forget my own name.