March 5, 2227, United Terran Confederation (UTC) Standard Date. Mu Arae System, Molino, First Moon of Planet Quijote
A few in the crowd groaned. A few always take the sucker bet.
Erik grinned as his final metal dart hit the board.
A moment later, there was a satisfying chime. Another bullseye.
He looked around with a smile on his face. “It’s hard being this good, and this handsome.” He watched as the waitress, Janette, walked by and winked at her. “But I’ve been blessed, so who am I to complain?”
She waved the back of her hand twice, telling him to deal that talk to someone else, although she had a smirk on her face. She grabbed two empties and disappeared through the crowd.
Dammit! Model-good looks, and I can’t even tease the waitress and get more than a smirk in return?
That’s it. He shook his head, although he kept a smile plastered on his face. He raised his arms in triumph, but in his mind, the conversation ended with I’m officially old, and I suck.
A roar of approval erupted from the men and women surrounding him. The group of them were clad in loose black pants and white undershirts, and they had dog tags around their necks.
The dog tags were deceptive, nothing more than a thin piece of metal to the naked and ignorant civilian eye, despite being one of the more sophisticated examples of non-volatile nanomatrix storage in the entire United Terran Confederation.
That level of technology was necessary to store the gene sequence of the relevant soldier along with other data while maintaining fidelity even under extreme conditions, such as exposure to pure vacuum.
None of the soldiers concerned themselves with the possibility of their demise. The only enemy action they feared at the moment was death by boredom.
There weren’t a huge number of off-duty soldiers in the room, only twelve out of the fifty making up the UTC Army Expeditionary Force 108th Assault Platoon. Their boisterous voices were more than enough to challenge Erik’s ears in the small, windowless and mostly empty barracks rec room, however.
A lanky dark-skinned man standing next to Erik shook his head. “It’s been four days since your birthday, but I don’t know if I can let this go anymore, Major. Big five-zero or not.”
He chuckled and gestured at Erik’s hair. “Getting a lot of gray up there.” He pursed his lips as Erik raised an eyebrow. “Just saying, maybe it’s time to get some rejuvenation treatments.” He grabbed the darts being handed to him and waved them to catch Erik’s attention. “I know I’m new here, but come on. You think I’m an idiot?”
Erik eyed the other man with a slight frown. “I know you’re new here, but I’ve told you this before. When we’re off-duty, it’s just Erik or Blackwell.” He nodded at the darts. “What aren’t you going to let go?”
The other soldier shrugged. “I’m just saying, si…Blackwell.” Adeyemi gestured at Erik’s left arm. “It’s cybernetic. It’s not fair. If you want to link up with your smart lenses, that’s one thing, but you can also guide that arm with the smart lenses. I can’t do that.” He flexed his arm. “I lost the minute you convinced me to even play.”
The soldiers gathered nearby shook their heads, some smirking, others looking annoyed. A young, stocky Asian woman with short black hair stepped forward—Lieutenant Biyu Yang.
“He’s just that good, Adeyemi.” She waved at Erik’s darts, which were still stuck in the board. “Trust me. Everyone who comes into the Knights Errant figures that out soon enough.” She rolled her eyes. “Because he always tricks someone into playing, and once we get suckered, we have to let the next guy do it. It’s kind of our platoon’s initiation ritual.”
Adeyemi grunted. “Maybe he’s that good,” He eyed the darts in the center of the board. “But I’m not convinced.”
Erik’s lips rose at the corners, just the tiniest amount. “You think I’m cheating?”
Poor bastard, Erik thought. He comes from an important military family. No reason to cause trouble unless I want to end up stuck doing nothing for years instead of only months.
“I’m not saying you’re cheating,” Adeyemi replied. “Just that you’ve got an advantage.”
“An unnatural advantage?” Erik raised an eyebrow in challenge.
Adeyemi snorted. “I don’t have time for Purist garbage. I hate people because they’re annoying, not because they’ve got some extra genetic engineering or a few metal parts. No, I only care about how that arm is helping you win against me in darts right here and now.” He slapped his hand on his chest. “I’ve got some pride. I won almost every tournament in my old unit.”
Erik strolled over to the black, red, and green board and pulled the darts out one by one. The room had quieted, and his voice, which came out gentle but unforgiving, was heard by everyone. “My unnatural advantage is thirty years of playing darts when I’m stuck in some backwater system like this one with nothing better to do than play a little hand-eye coordination game to keep things fresh.” He stepped away from the board and made two quick tosses, this time with his right arm. Both darts landed dead-center in the bullseye.
He kept one dart and twirled it in his fingers, his eyes watching the dart but his mind lost in the past.
The other soldiers clapped, except for Adeyemi. He looked at the board and Erik with a frown.
“I told you,” Biyu offered, shaking her head. “Just give up while you’re ahead. You’re not going to win this. I should know. I went through this last year.”
Adeyemi laughed. “Come on, he can’t be that good. He’s just gotten inside all your heads.” He scratched his chin. “Okay, if he’s that good, let’s see the real deal. I knew a man back in Lagos who could hit bullseyes blindfolded. Are you that good, Blackwell?” He gestured at the board. “You land those kinds of darts without your metal arm, and then I’ll be impressed.”
Erik glanced at the board, the rest of the soldiers, and finally at Adeyemi. “I don’t know. How about we bet and find out? It’s no fun if there is nothing to lose.”
He felt the tension in the room rise.
“What are we even supposed to bet? The commissary here is sad and empty, and the civilian store isn’t much better. A few extra credits aren’t going help me three months from now.” Adeyemi shrugged. “You going to pull strings and get me off some mission rotations?”
Erik reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick silver coin decorated with an elaborate embossed image of a soldier in an exoskeleton, the blue and white UTC flag in the background. He walked over to a nearby black metal table and tossed the coin down, the ring as it settled going on for fifteen seconds.
Adeyemi stared at the coin, brow furrowing in confusion. “You’re coin-checking me? There’s not even any alcohol on this blasted moon to drink.” His eyes widened as he glanced at the item and back to Erik, who was licking his lips. “You know where some is, Blackwell? Is that it? I’ll bet whatever I need to get a drink. There was no alcohol on the transport out here, and it’s been three months since I’ve had anything decent. Someone’s got to have something on this rock. Anything.” He looked around the group. “Can’t we distill a drink out of something?”
“You’re not understanding what I’m betting.” Erik patted his left shoulder. “Let’s back up, so you’ll understand. You know how I lost this arm?”
“To an angry Zitark?” called Twizzle. The pain-in-the-ass rifleman snarled and raised his hands like they were claws, lowering his voice with a hiss. “I’ll eat your spleen, human, and then I’ll feed the rest of your body to my babies once they come out of their eggs.”
Most of the people in the unit knew how Erik had lost his arm, but he didn’t doubt they wanted to mess with the new arrival a little.
As long as they kept it to jokes, he didn’t mind.
Biyu laughed, her brown eyes lit up with merriment. “We’re only on this damned moon because someone’s worried about those little reptiles getting jumpy and poking at UTC territory again like last year.” She shook her head. “Who would have thought the first aliens humanity would run into would be tiny dinosaurs with spaceships?”
“Not worried about them.” Erik tapped the table and sighed. “Nah, plenty of humans around to shoot at other humans before we go wailing on the local neighborhood races, but this isn’t about featherless velociraptors in space.” He nodded at Adeyemi. “Or maybe it is. Maybe they’re really good at darts, and they might have a chance against me, but for now, this is about my arm and my coin. So, I’m asking you, do you know how I lost it?”
The other soldier frowned. “I assume you lost your arm during a mission.”
“Yeah. One of the first battles during Wolf’s Rebellion. Some of the bastards got the drop on me when I was away from the rest of the squad checking on a hunch. They thought they were lucky. It turns out I was the one who was lucky.” Erik’s grin turned feral and hungry.
Adeyemi grimaced. “But you lost your arm after getting ambushed. Why the hell do you think you’re lucky?”
“There were ten of them. I survived. They didn’t, and all it cost me was a replaceable arm. I’m good, but don’t ever count out Lady Luck on the battlefield, or she might just decide to stay home when you most need her.” Erik nodded at the coin. “I asked to get a cybernetic arm. I wanted to get back into action and not waste time with regrowth and the time to attach it.”
“Still sounds unlucky to me, and I’m trying, but I still don’t get it.” Adeyemi frowned. “Why didn’t you just get a new one grown once you got away from the frontlines? I mean, I don’t care, but there are a lot of Purists out there.”
Erik clenched and released a fist, his eyes watching the movement of his fingers. “Because in a battle right after that, some insurgent tried to stab me. I threw up this new toy, and his knife broke.”
He looked up, his eyes glinting. “After that, I started thinking it was my new lucky charm. I survived against ten guys, and then it saved me against another, so I decided to keep it.”
He shrugged. “My CO at the time gave me that coin after I asked for the arm. Turns out the enemy squad I ran into was a recon squad. They were supposed to be probing our line for weaknesses so the enemy artillery could light us up. We had total control of the skies. You couldn’t get a bird up, let alone a spotter drone. The CO was all impressed that I took them out because the artillery could have ripped our flanks to shreds. But I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. I was just trying to take out some cocky guys who thought they had gotten the drop on me.”
Erik paused, then pointed at the coin. “But that, along with the arm, always reminds me that it’s a combination of skill and luck that keeps us going. A good soldier always needs both, even if he has to make his own luck on occasion.”
“I get it.” Adeyemi swallowed. “But look, I don’t have anything that important to bet.”
Erik shook his head. “Who said anything about you betting?”
This time, even the squad seemed confused. “Wait.” Adeyemi held his hands open. “You just did. That’s why you told that whole story.”
“Nope, not quite,” Erik replied. “You don’t need to bet anything. I’ll be the only one to bet. If I lose, you get the coin. If I win, I get the satisfaction. Can’t buy that with money, and it’s worth more than gold out here. I told that story because I wanted it clear I’m beyond one hundred percent confident I can bullseye without looking at the board. That might not be a blindfold, but it’s got to be good enough to impress you. How about this? I’ll turn around and toss it.” He paused for a moment. “Guaranteed bullseye.”