It had been more than a decade since Syteria had breathed the sweet air of Kappa, the world where she’d been born.
High above her, Rho—Kappa’s larger planetary sister—dominated the sky like a vast,malevolent eye. Its light washed out the hauntingly familiar stars struggling to make their presence known.
A leaden weight, as heavy as the armor plating of her tactical vest, took form in her belly. Her grip on the rifle tightened, each deliberate breath bringing it closer as if it were some talisman.
Syteria had been paired with Mara, a trusted eniseri veteran. Age lines and scars crisscrossed the older woman’s face. Her dark hair, clipped close to the scalp like Syteria’s own, was covered almost entirely by her helmet. Mara’s gloved hands rested lightly on her rifle. A soft wind stirred the leaves on the trees above them, sending shadows into play across her confident face.
They knelt at the edge of a clearing, in the cover and concealment of a downed tree, awaiting the order to advance on the lone shack with its pitiful column of smoke.
A stone well fronted an animal corral. The lowing of the beasts within, the odor of manure,the tinkle of bells worn by the animals in case they got lost all poked at her memory. Syteria had been born and raised in a place not so unlike this one.
She closed her eyes as flashes of her past surfaced: running barefoot through leaves; watching Rho rise and set; holding soft, downy hatchling in her hands.
Syteria shook her head and opened her eyes, darting a glance at Mara, checking to see if she’d somehow given something away. But Mara was watching the shack.
To keep her hand from drifting up to the monitoring collar, Syteria tightened her grip on her rifle’s stock. Maybe the collar would attribute the change in her breathing and body chemistry to nerves, to this being her first time. Maybe the Matrons who were monitoring this mission were too busy to notice.