<Second Draft> A sharp crack echoed through the basement of the Civic Center. I fought the urge to get down as my encoded instincts screamed for me to hit the deck. I remained standing with an effort of will; falling down every time someone dropped a pallet wasn't going to make unloading these boxes any easier. The Imp working the pallet with me glanced up as I faltered in our rhythm. His eyes were twitchy, afraid, but he stood there trying to look unconcerned. Not a soldier then, a civilian. No Imperial soldier would stand within easy reach of a Jekotian fighting back the urge to run... or to kill. The Imps had won the war, and Jekotians were second class citizens now. To the Imps our speed and strength and endurance only meant that we could do more work in less time, and my status as a Former Enemy Combatant meant they could pay me less for it. I bent back to my work, focusing on the mindless routine of lift, turn, set down, turn back. The pain of our defeat burned deep in my soul. It had been that way since the end of My War. I say "My War" because brave Jekotians still struggled against the Imperial dogs in the northern territories, at the heart of ancient Jekotia. There were heavily censored reports of terrorist activities to the north, so I knew we were still hurting them. The Imps had gone so far as to call us the "Northern Faction", as if changing our name could make us less than what we were, the true sons of Jekotia, the rightful rulers of the great and noble empire that brought civilization to the savages. While the Brenodi had taken to technology and the trappings of power, at heart they were still the cruel barbarians we had tried to civilize all those centuries ago. It tore at my soul, that I was no longer an active soldier. At the same time, I was still a citizen and soldier of Jekotia, and unlike the Imps with their cybernetic implants, I couldn't turn off who and what I was. I am Jekotian right down to my DNA, literally born and bred for war, a fully functional combat system engineered to be the ultimate multi-purpose killing machine. A killing machine who spent all day shifting boxes from one pallet to another. The long rows of pallets filling the basement were coming to an end when the world exploded. Blazing white light filled my mind, a low rumbling roar echoed in my ears, trailing off into a painful quasi-electronic scream as the light faded away. I just had time to realize that I'd been hit with an Imp security stunner when the floor rushed up and smacked me in the face. I fell between the pallets into the aisle leading to the wide double doors out of the basement. Beams of blue-white light stabbed down from the darkness behind the overhead lights as the Imp security system tried to knock me out. I rolled to my feet and dashed for the door, twisting and strafing to avoid the enemy fire. Confused Imp civilians stared and shouted questions as I raced past them. A few of the Imps were silent, standing bolt upright as their implants churned through POST and initialization procedures. Soldiers in the Brenodi Empire, specially equipped to make them almost a match for a Jekotian, but neuro-patches and muscular-skeletal grafts are nothing compared to the elegant and time-tested gene sequences I was born with. I didn't have to wait for anything to initialize or connect... I AM Jekotia. The security doors slammed shut around a pallet full of candy and ground to a halt in a shower of colored sugar. Security beams sparkled around me as I leapt through the gap above the crushed boxes. The late-afternoon sunlight blinded me as I flew between the double doors and landed in the serviceway beneath the Civic Center auditorium. I stumbled up the ramp as alarms rang out in the public square. The square was crowded with shouting crying Imps pushing toward safety, desperate to find shelter before the dreaded terrorists attacked. The blue-black pyramid of the Civic Center loomed behind me as I pushed my way through the herd of panicked Imp civvies running for the emergency shelters beneath the auditorium. I felt an old familiar tickle in the back of my mind, and suddenly became aware that I was in the southeast corner of a roughly square plot of land a half mile or so on a side, a seemingly insignificant bit of city and lakeside property ringed by low hills and Imp security systems. I allowed the awareness of the landscape to fill my mind searching for the location of the power that drew me onward. Immediately I sensed what I needed, a warm homelike feeling pulled me toward the west, a safe haven of almost tangible familiarity and comfort, a Jekotian barracks. I turned towards it, running around a typically ugly Imp building and onto a long bridge. The crowds of Imp civvies had dispersed before I made it halfway across the bridge, my initial rush of adrenaline fading as I slowed to a stumbling walk, disgustingly out of shape. I trotted the rest of the way across the bridge, then broke into a run as I caught sight of the old familiar shapes of Jekotian automatic defense turrets guarding the entrance to a Imp construction area. They tracked me as I ran up, but did not fire. Despite my Brenodi work clothes, even the simple circuitry of the turrets could tell I was superior to any Imp... that and the fact that I wasn't broadcasting on the Imp military frequencies. A basso grumble echoed across the construction site as the dual engines in a massive Command Vehicle turned over nearby. The solid reddish mass of a Barracks appeared out of the afternoon mist, and I saw for the first time in years other Jekotian soldiers as they dashed into and around the building. A group of men lifted sheets of rusty metal into position by sheer physical strength, and a pair of engineers clinging to the sides of the Barracks quickly riveted them into place. A cheer went up as the two men jumped to the ground and declared that the Barracks was complete. As I ran with my brothers into the welcoming steel womb of the Barracks I felt alive again for the first time in years. The room echoed with the sounds of power tools as the building materials stacked in neat piles across the acres of concrete were re-purposed into weapons of war. The Imps had thought themselves safe, so far from the front. Construction sites and material stockpiles were common in the areas where the Imps were rebuilding the cities they destroyed in the war, and we were quick to take advantage of them. All around me metal pipes and electrical fittings were coming together in ways that completely voided their warranties. My eyes were drawn to a table at one end of the room where a trio of technicians labored under an old, but serviceable display screen. Not only were the techs the first Jekotian women I had seen in years, but the display itself was an eye catching relic of command technology from the early days of the war. The whole room quieted for just a moment as the screen glowed into life and the techs began handing out the battle-scarred comm helmets that would allow us to hear - and obey, our leaders from anywhere on the coming battlefield. I quickly entered my serial number and was strangely ecstatic when my old name appeared in the list on the big screen. The techs finished their work and we all stared after them as they left the Barracks for the relative safety of the Command Vehicle. It took a whole squad of specially engineered techs to keep the huge vehicle and it's systems running, and we sometimes joked - only half in jest, that it was the irreplaceable (and extremely well designed) female technicians that we were protecting, not the equally rare Command Vehicle itself. As if in response to my thoughts, the data flashing across big screen updated and Commander: NONE flickered into Commander: Tallmage. It didn't matter that I had never heard of a Commander Tallmage in my life, command vehicles were only awarded to the best men, soldiers that had proven themselves in leadership positions time and again. I had a Commander again, he was in the CV, the Barracks was just as I remembered, and a pair of refineries were already coming together on the Resource Points the Imps had uncovered to power the installation they had planned to build here. I was more than happy to help my brothers change those plans. I adjusted the comm helmet's straps and fitted it on my head. Nano actuators whirred as tiny lasers scanned an image directly onto my left retina. The HUD was minimal, the information broadcast over our comm units was only the most basic and non-critical, to prevent the Imps from gaining anything of value when they inevitably cracked our encryption. I ran through the personnel lists and discovered that no one I knew was presently on the battlefield. My old squad was long dead, and I hadn't been part of the active military in years, so I had to apply for a slot in a squad that was forming up with other soldiers in the same situation. That done, I hustled over to a pile of crates stacked with equipment and requested an Engineer's kit.