She Chose the Hardest Way
The daughter of a Legion war hero, fighting was in Andien Broxin's blood. But the battles Republic marines face on strange and alien worlds are a far cry from the vaunted, brutal, no-holds-barred conflicts fought at the edge of the galaxy by the elite legionnaires.
Until a devastating war erupts right in the Republic's stellar backyard.
Newly stationed on a mid-core planet being harassed by terrorist revolutionaries, Andien and her fellow “hullbusters” find themselves right in the middle of a desperate fight for survival. All their training, standards, discipline - all the hard paths - have led to this. If she and her fellow marines are to come out of this alive, Andien will have to find out who she truly is...and what she can become.
Best-selling military science fiction author Jason Anspach and USMC/US Army veteran Michelle C. Meyers explore the rigors of combat, survival, and the human will in this edge-of-your-seat account set in the Galaxy's Edge universe.
Release date: June 15, 2020
Publisher: Galaxy's Edge Press
Print pages: 135
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Listen to a sample
Sometimes, when I run, I see the faces of the people I’ve killed.
There are three of them, though I’m sure the actual number is more than that. But I remember three clearly. They were all human.
The first was an old man with curly black beard streaked with white. I was a newly minted Republic Marine—a hullbuster—fresh out of academy and on my first deployment. It was my second day in company. We caught him setting up a roadside IED. Told him to back away. He tried to detonate instead. We all shot him. Filled him full of blaster holes. I know I hit him, and as he died, he stared at me. Wouldn’t look away from my face until the light went out of his eyes and he slumped down into the dirt.
I think he blamed me for killing him. And when I run, he sometimes comes back and extends that death stare.
The second was a man in his forties with a terrible scar that ran from right above his top lip down to his jawline. I remember the hate in his eyes as he swung his rifle around to me. But too slow.
The third was just last year while deployed on Ulori. She had been part of a failed ambush trying to kill my Marines, and I was leading a squad through the ferns and evergreens to find her after she broke and ran.
I thought we’d lost her, but by chance, I spotted red on the moss lining a blue cedar. I flipped the safety off my N-4 and stalked around the tree. And there she was, just standing there. Like she had no idea we were so close.
We both froze. She looked just like me. So much so that you’d think we were sisters. I think the shock of seeing a reflection where we expected an enemy stopped both of our minds for an instant. And while she had whatever meager training the Mid-Core Rebellion provided, I was a Marine.
I came to quickly and sent two blaster bolts into center mass.
She let out a “hup!” that I can still hear with perfect recall, and then fell flat on her back, half buried in scrubby ferns blanketing the forest floor between the old-growth trees.
My fire team, being the warfighters that they were, ran to the sound of weapons fire and then, seeing that the threat was gone, stood in a crowded circle, looking down at the girl.
“Damn, Cap’n Broxin,” my gunny had said. “She looks just like you.”
I knew I needed to reply, to say something, but I didn’t want to. It was as if I was looking at myself in death. Like I’d been taken through time and given a chance to see how it would all end. Or maybe I was seeing what could have been had my life been different. Had my father not been a legionnaire. Loyal to the Republic. Instilling in his daughter honor, perseverance, faith, loyalty, and hard work the way other, more normal parents, instill sugar, spice, and ballet into their daughters.
“You all missed your chance,” I said to my Marines. I could tell they were watching me. Wanting to know how I’d handle that unique situation. “That was the closest you hullbusters will ever come to being able to shoot your captain and not face court-martial for it.”
Gunny had laughed at that, which gave the rest of the Marines permission to laugh as well. “No one ever accused me of understanding women, Captain. And I understand officers even less. None of these boys ever wanted to shoot you, though. If anything, they’re disappointed they can’t ask this here dead MCR out on a date. Marines ain’t never been picky, and she’s a sight better looking than them water buffalos lookin’ for an easy benefits package I see stalking outside the barracks back home. Some of you boys were probably just about ready to take her up on it, too, I’d say.”
It was all automatic from there. Gunny called it in, got the team ready to march back to the rest of the unit. But I stood there for a while. Just staring at her.
That rotation before Ulori is what bumped me from Captain to Major. You could say that my star is on the rise. Enthusiastic lieutenant colonels tell me there’s no way I won’t make at least Brigadier, provided I stay a hullbuster long enough.
I can’t help but feel like that would be a disappointment.
My father was partial to a Legion saying: Forget nothing.
He told me all the ways life could be boiled down to those two words. Drilled it into me from the time I first walked. Reminded me of it while I was in school and then facing the wrath of my drill instructors.
Of the three people I know I killed—up close enough to remember their faces—the girl is the one I can’t forget. The other two are infrequent haunts. But I see her daily.
Usually on runs. Like right now.
I’m running outside, feeling the wind and smelling the soil of Ulori. Every planet has its own smell, and Ulori smells fresh, like rain and growing grass. Before landing here to relieve the Marines of 19th Battalion, I spent a week on a transport cruiser. I could never stand for stationary running if I could avoid it, so I would run the lower decks of the ship, each lap encompassing 0.93 miles, which was just enough to be inconvenient for someone like me who enjoys round numbers. Start at the lowest deck I could access, run it, sprint the stairs, repeat.
Ships never smell fresh to me, no matter how advanced the air scrubbing system is. There’s no scent of life in what those ducts push out. That’s what had me looking forward to the run outside the perimeter of Camp Puller. And I’d been enjoying it too, moving outside the wire, a nice, even five kilometers start to finish. Even the ground was comfortable, just burnt grassland—kept free from the camp for about a kilometer out.
I can hear the grass swaying in the wind, feel the cool of the breeze blasting my thighs and rifling up my running shorts as I pick up my pace, determined to outrun that face. That’s how it usually works. I zone out, maybe from the sound of the grass or my own breathing—from the steady beat of my stride.
And then she comes. Visiting me from the grave again.
So I move faster. Run harder. Determined to make some ache in my ribs or knot in my legs appear and drive the girl from my thoughts.
Ahead, I see a group of Marines running in olive T-shirts and black shorts. Men from the 19th, moving along at an easy pace. Probably happy to be rotating out of Ulori. It’s not the worst spot in the galaxy, but it’s had its share of trouble.
I fix my eyes on them, burning holes in their backs as I stretch my stride and move my legs faster.
They hear me coming, right about the point where they can’t do anything about it—my momentum is too much. I’m moving too quickly. I see their faces as I run past their little gaggle of testosterone. Most are sweating, indifferent. A few seem amused, eager to watch me pass them by. That we’re all hullbusters doesn’t mean they won’t ogle.
Oba, do they ogle.
But a couple seem bothered at the thought of being lapped. We started off our PT at about the same time. I left the gates not a minute before them. Only I ran while they jogged, leaving them far behind. And now I’m back in their midst.
I can hear a couple of them take off after me, picking up their speed to try to run me down while their buddies yell for them to “go get her!”
They yell other things, too. Things that will cause them to blush and squirm if they see me in the camp later, wearing a major’s leaf. A part of me hopes that does happen. But then I see the face of the girl—my reflection—and I run faster still. Until I hear my pursuers curse and give up chase.
And still I go, not sprinting, but getting a full stride so that I feel like I’m gliding. Like I belong out in the grassland among those delicate four-legged animals native to this world; those graceful creatures with horns growing along their slender necks. I wonder what they’re called.
I turn a corner, running under the shadow of a guard tower manned by a Marine with a slim conically-shaped bot meant for spotting threats in the distance. Those bots are lousy company, but they never fall asleep, at least.
This is the home stretch. I can see the main gate ahead—where I started from—marking completion of kilometer fifteen. I pull back, wanting to get into a rhythm that will drop my heartrate down a bit and make me cool off faster, but not slow enough to let those hullbusters catch up and regain their pride. Otherwise I’m liable to shower too soon and sweat in my uniform—I’m on a schedule.
The girl’s face is gone. Coming only if I purposefully bring it to mind. It’s funny, but she never looks as real when I try to recall her. And she doesn’t look that much like me, either. Different color hair, eyes set farther apart than mine. Smaller ears. Sometimes I wonder which her is real and which one is a figment of my imagination.
As I ponder this, I hear heavy footfalls behind me despite the muffling effect of the burnt and cutback grasses in the perimeter’s kill zone. Maybe I did let my pace slow too much and the Marines caught up. But no, instead a group of four legionnaires in their dark gray-green armor have emerged from a knocked down path through the grasslands and are now a hundred meters behind me, running the perimeter.
I can’t see their faces as I glance over my shoulder at the noise. They have their helmets on. Other than their rifles, their kits seem meant for PT, just a bunch of charge packs, rocks, and anything else they can find that will weigh them down, all stuffed into their pockets the way a boy might fill his jeans with candy and shiny objects of treasure.
These legionnaires are attached to Camp Puller, though they operate independently of the Marines. And they’re constantly training. To the point that the smell of ozone drifting from their blaster range is a part of the Camp, as is the sound of near around-the-clock target practice. I frequently find myself wishing I was on the blaster range with them instead of building rosters and org charts behind a datapad in the climate-controlled command center. The legionnaires are fanatical, and without regulations keeping them close to Puller’s perimeter, they often go for marathon-length runs through the countryside. I’m guessing that’s what this group did and now they’re coming back.
Probably while feeding themselves only three-quarters oxygen, just to make things harder. My father used to say that being a legionnaire meant wanting everything the hard way, deep down.
“Dini,” he would say, or sometimes “Andien,” if he was serious enough to use my full name. “When your time is up, you won’t never know what you could have really been unless you always chose the hard way. You go easy, you’ll forget something. And someday, you’ll regret it.”
The legionnaires coming in from the field were living life the hard way—the hardest way. The most difficult training to endure the hardest fights on the most violent planets in the galaxy.
I could hear them gaining on me, the rustle of their weighted vests and the thump of their armored boots spurring me to pick up my own pace. They would catch me. But not yet.
The four men split into a pair of uniform rows to move around me. Two men on either side, running in formation with myself in the middle. I get a sense for their speed and increase my stride, stretching my legs as far and fast as they can move.
And the five of us run together.
But it’s not enough. I push myself faster and harder, running for what seems like forever though it couldn’t be more than ten or fifteen seconds. My lungs burn like they’re on fire, and I rasp out my exhalations through fiercely gritted teeth. My legs feel heavy as marble.
I won’t stop. I see the main gate loom closer with each agonizing stride. If I can just make it to the gate with these legionnaires…
But the warfighters don’t stop at the gate. They keep running along the perimeter. And even though my race was supposed to be done, I stay with them. To the next turn if that’s what it takes. Another five kilometers around if it comes to it. The only way I’ll break from this pack is if they peel back off into the prairies, something I know they won’t do.
One of the legionnaires turns his head and looks at me. “You’re pretty fit for a Marine.”
There’s no fatigue in the man’s voice, and though it sounds hard and almost robotic through the external speaker of his helmet, it seems warm and kind. He means it as a compliment.
But the fact that he’s even able to utter a sentence while I feel as though my heart is liquifying in my throat makes me angry. I can’t even manage a grunt in reply.
And then, as if by instinct—like birds all taking flight at once—the legionnaires find another gear and leave me altogether. I’m still running. Moving as fast as I can, giving everything my body has to give without care for the pain that will surely come the moment I let things stiffen up with rest.
They just keep going. As though until now, they hadn’t even started to run.
I stop, hearing an involuntary cry of exhaustion as I slow down. My chest is heaving for want of air and I can feel my heartbeat in my neck and ears. I know I should be walking right now, gradually reducing my heartrate. But all I can do is stoop over and hold my knees while the sweat drips down my arms and from my face, falling in quick droplets from my nose and overwhelming my eyebrows to obscure my vision.
I look back at the main gate and see Marines being marched by a sergeant whose voice booms unintelligibly outside the wire. I turn to watch the legionnaires, who are small now, still running. Far away.
Finally I drop my head in acceptance.
“Sket,” I say, and then straighten out and jog back to the gate.
It’s 0712 when I arrive at the command information center—CIC. My hair is wet, pulled up beneath my cap. I had to shower as fast as I could, and it didn’t quite take. I’m still hot, cooling down beneath my uniform with just enough sweat to uncomfortably trickle down the small of my back. Not so much to sweat through the uniform though.
The extra run cost me. I’m supposed to report at 0730, but in my opinion, twenty minutes early is on time and anything after that is late. One of those things my father pounded into me. At dinner, or arriving to practice, church, anything.
It’s not exactly a universal standard, though. When I arrive, I find only a few staff officers going about their work. Colonel Gerlach is still in his office and none of my peers are on hand yet, either.
As a major, I’m supposed to move into more of a logistical role, making sure my captains are making their lieutenants listen to their sergeants. But a quick check of the command rosters tells me what I’ve suspected since I arrived on Ulori—we aren’t at full strength, and I’ll likely be doing what I did before my recent promotion for a while yet.
And that suits me fine. Because it means I’ll be up front, moving with my Marines. If not pulling triggers, at least on hand to make sure those kids who do are put in the best possible situation. Making their sergeants’ jobs—to keep those boys alive—easier if not easy.
I’ll miss it when I can’t be out there any longer. It will likely be the last time I get to work so closely with Marines at a small unit level, and I will miss that immensely. My career path determined by the Republic Marines from here on out as a major will likely lead me to more time spent in a CIC than in the field. But that’s the way it goes if you want to make it a career and move up. And the higher you move up, the more you can do to help keep Marines safe.
I stand there in the small briefing area, cap in hand as the staff officers quietly give instructions to comm officers hunched over glowing holographic displays. I strain to pick out individual words, if only to have something to do. Most of the discussion is about verifying intelligence reports called in by the Ulori—the native species on the planet.
They would almost pass for human if all you saw was their face, up close. But they look a bit more avian when you take them in as a whole. Their hair is really a trail of feathers that runs from their brow across and then down to the middle of their backs. Their feet resemble eagles, five-toes with sharp talons. Their hands are more human, but with only four fingers and another sprouting of feathers that run from their wrists back to their elbows.
They’re good people. Extremely loyal to the Republic. And it’s on their behalf that this increased military presence is happening. Like most planets in the galaxy, there are a lot of humans. And the humans on Ulori don’t share the natives’ love for the Republic. I don’t know why.
But they’re making life harder than it already is. Bloodier than it needs to be.
No matter where you go in the galaxy, you always find people who want blood. It’s the one thing that seems to connect every species. Blood and its flow. They all want it and yet it never really solves much.
The door to Colonel Gerlach’s office opens with a whispered swoosh. The man is not yet fifty. Just old enough for his own children to be reaching adulthood. His head is shaved and shined. He looks like the dad who very much could beat up all the other dads. But his smile is friendly.
“Major Broxin,” he says, holding out a cup of hot kaff as though giving a toast. “It’s good to see my new officers arrive early.”
He takes a sip, looks around, and adds, “Even if it’s just one.”
“Thank you, sir.”
I hear footsteps come up behind me and turn around, expecting to see my fellow officers. Instead a troop of four legionnaires step inside, their helmets off and clipped to their chest rigs. They’re loaded down with fraggers, charge packs, and their rifles.
These men are prepared for war.
“Colonel Gerlach,” the lead man says.
He’s wearing black shades that completely hide his eyes. His hair and beard are both red and he walks with a swagger that very much suggests he owns this camp. I feel a sense of resentment I can’t quite justify. He hasn’t actually done anything to deserve ill feelings.
“Nice to see you this morning, Lieutenant,” Gerlach replies. He gestures to me. “Have you met Major Broxin?”
“No, sir. We have not had the pleasure.”
The legionnaire holds out a hand and tells me he’s, “Lieutenant Ellek Owens,” as I shake it.
“Andien Broxin. It’s good to meet you, Lieutenant.”
Owens tilts his head, seemingly to study me from behind those dark glasses. He holds up his finger, as though a thought has just come to mind. “You’re the girl who was running with us this morning, aren’t you?”
I feel my face flushing at this. “You’ll have to tell me. I was the only one not wearing a mask.”
“It’s not a mask, it’s called a bucket,” chimes in one of the legionnaires with Owens. “And that’s her, LT.”
“Thought so,” Owens said, looking down for a moment and sniffing before meeting my eyes again. “You run well. Most Marines can’t stay with the Legion for five steps.”
“Maybe you haven’t met the right Marines.”
Owens smiles. “Maybe not.”
Colonel Gerlach interjects himself into the banter. “Were you boys doing PT this morning, Ellek? Seems a bit late for Dark Ops.”
“Only a little, sir.”
Getting over my initial disdain, I find myself intrigued by this legionnaire. First, because he’s Dark Ops, the elite of the elite. Small units tasked with completing the most vital and difficult missions the Legion needs doing. And second because of how he’s handling himself. I’ve known enough legionnaires to know that they’re hit or miss when it comes to giving respect. They all have a swagger, and rank isn’t a distinction that carries across branches in the mind of a legionnaire. Not like it does in the Army, Navy, or Marines. To them there’s the Legion and then there’s everyone else.
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