Chapter One

Ni zai na’er zuo shenme, kong jun shao wei?”

Feng stopped fiddling with his light vacuum suit and processed the words of his superior officer: What are you doing there, junior lieutenant?

“Going through the transport module boarding checklist, sir!” Feng replied smartly.

“And what part of the checklist are you at now?”

“I just verified the integrity of my vac suit,” Feng replied.

The light vac suit was standard issue for Chinese soldiers engaging in space warfare. It wasn’t a full duty suit capable of lasting the ravages of space for an extended period of time, but it would most likely save his life if a section became depressurized by an explosion or an armor piercing projectile.

“Then I suggest you seal your rib vents,” said the officer in a scalding tone. “I believe that will considerably improve the protection afforded by your suit.”

“Aye, sir,” Feng said, feeling his face turn red.

His training unit, composed of junior officers such as himself, had boarded a transport module of their capital ship, Ascending Dragon. The battleship fielded two such modules, which detached from the main vessel to move robots and soldiers onto other ships and stations in nearby space.

Feng floated slightly as he finished the checklist. The Ascending Dragon only simulated gravity while en route, and otherwise was not capable of providing acceleration for the comfort of its crew. Fortunately for Feng’s health and the well being of his fellow soldiers, the vastness of space required they spend a great deal of time moving from place to place, so they were able to enjoy the illusion of gravity for the majority of their lives in the space service.

Once Feng’s suit was ready, he hefted the weapon he’d been given for the training exercise. He accessed the short rifle through his cranial link, reviewing its capabilities. He could select between a nonlethal crowd-suppression slug or a small gas grenade for its next launch. He left it on its current setting for the rubber bullet. The rifle interface in his PV showed that it carried 50 of the soft bullets and 10 of the gas rounds. The target profile was for a human in civilian clothing. He could fire at anyone or anything with a special override, but the interface indicated he didn’t have authorization for the override today.

Feng suppressed his annoyance at the lack of a real weapon. If he played their games long enough, he’d have true military issue someday.

Acceleration warning, his link told him. Feng grabbed onto a stabilizing handle with one hand and pulled his rifle close with the other.

The soldiers had several channels of communication open in their links, a hierarchical set of lines for a man’s squad, his group, company, and battalion. Other channels linked the men to various logistics and support units on board the Ascending Dragon. Feng felt very much a part of the large team, and hoped he’d never get cut off from that support in a real battle. They’d had to train without it from time to time, to simulate the worst case scenarios, such as operating under heavy jamming, being struck by a link-debilitating weapon, or simply being the last man alive.

The soldiers swayed under acceleration. Feng’s link showed him that the transport module had detached and was underway to their new training ground, the Heavenly Fortress. The Chinese space station was exclusively a military base in near-Earth space.

Feng waited patiently as the module made its way toward the station. Somewhere in the channel he heard a man breathing. He held his breath to make sure the sound wasn’t his own. The sound continued. Someone’s channel was misconfigured. He ignored it.

More acceleration. This time it continued steadily along one axis, bringing his weight first to his left and downwards, then moving forward and upward. The visualization showed the module matching the movement of the target station. Feng didn’t want to think about what might happen if they crashed into the station too hard. He just waited and left him mind calm even though his body was reacting, speeding up his breathing and his heart rate.

“Looks like we’re getting the noobs all stirred up,” a commander said on the channel. No doubt he was monitoring his ‘troops’ vital signs. Feng took a deep breath and tried to calm down again.

His effort was shattered by a sharp clang and an abrupt jostling of the module. Feng swung around on his handle, accelerated in a slightly different direction. His link told him it was time to deploy.

Feng remembered his training. He reoriented himself slightly, aligning with the acceleration so that he would “climb” up into the station through the exit hatch above.

Feng waited for the green line in his squad director interface. If every man obeyed the directions provided by the battle plan and his squad leader, they could all make it into the station in good time. The first few seconds of an incursion were very important, he’d been taught, since the defender wouldn’t necessarily know where the transport module would breach the bulkhead. The men and their machines would only have a short time to get onboard the station before any defenders could redeploy to stop them.

Men moved out around him. When his line appeared, Feng moved rapidly but calmly toward the breach. Everyone moved just as in previous drills. Feng climbed into the breach tube, with two men at his back, facing away from him. They emerged into a large white room. Feng held his rifle firmly but didn’t have it armed. He followed his green line to one side of the room. He could see from the equipment and a line of lockers that it was a conventional airlock room.

The inside of the station wasn’t much different than his own ship. The corridors leaving the area looked wider, but the construction was familiar. Plain white bulkheads and foam walls with carbon struts visible on the ceiling and through the grille flooring.

Boarding exercise is complete, said the training officer over their channel. Your performance was acceptable.

“I guess we were fast enough,” Feng said.

“Acceptable,” Zhengqing, the junior officer next to him, echoed. “Our first base incursion. We could have done worse.”

“Bah. This wasn’t an incursion. Just a childish exercise to get us into the training station.”

“We got to use the real transport module,” Zhengqing pointed out. They’d never been allowed to even enter the module before, much less actually be deployed in it.

“I suppose. But the breach was faked,” Feng countered. “We attached at an existing airlock. They just came in hard and fast to make a lot of noise and shake us up a little.”

Zhengqing laughed. “What’s wrong, Feng? The Divine Space Force life too dull for you?”

“What good can we do playing games?” Feng said.

I have to earn my way.

Feng felt the familiar drive to accomplish something meaningful. His parents had paid so much for his enhancement package. They’d given everything to have his genes modified. That was why he looked so handsome, stood so tall, so strong, and why he was so sharp. But his mother had told him all along: now you have to pay China back for this investment. It is your duty. You were bred to be a leader.

Zhengqing didn’t answer. They both knew that Feng was driven to great deeds and Zhengqing took a more relaxed approach to life. Nevertheless, Feng had realized that Zhengqing was not to be underestimated. He possessed the charisma and intelligence necessary to be a great officer.

Feng received an order to report at a new location within half an hour. He looked at Zhengqing.

You too?

Zhengqing nodded. They walked together in silence, regarding the interior of the station. It looked a little older than the Ascending Dragon in places, Feng decided. That wasn’t surprising, since his own ship was commissioned only nine months ago. When they arrived at the designated chamber, Feng saw the other main difference from his ship: the interior of the station was considerably larger. The room they walked into was even larger than the airlock area they had “breached.”

Feng looked around. About fifty junior officers like himself and Zhengqing had been routed here. He wondered if the station was big enough to run the current course in parallel for others in his class or if they were being rotated.

An officer stood in the center of the room. She had a clear, wide face with thin lips and small eyes. Her appearance otherwise mimicked that of hundreds of other female divine space force personnel, with short black hair and a modest uniform that masked her sex very effectively. She raised her hand briefly in greeting.

“You’ve done your drills with the weapons out in space. You know how to handle yourselves in zero g. Today you will come one step closer to knowing what you need to know to be in a real space warfare unit.”

On that cue, a mechanical quadruped over a meter tall at the shoulder walked out onto the open deck. Trainees stepped aside to give it a wide path. It strode quickly over next to the officer in a natural gait that had to have been copied from a real animal.

“This is the workhorse of the divine space arm,” said the officer proudly. “The dian chuen. You will become expert in working alongside this device.”

Feng looked the machine over. The officer had called it a “electric soldier dog”. It did look quite a bit like a large metal dog, albeit one with a rifle barrel through its brain and glue canister launchers on its shoulders. It had no skin or fur. Its metal skeleton was visible, providing a framework for an interior filled with power systems, cables and cyblocs.

“This dog machine is equipped with a single lethal projectile weapon on the head mount, one glue launcher on this side, and a gas grenade launcher on the other side. These three mounts are standard and can field a large variety of weapons. Each dog machine also has the ability to discharge a fraction of its on board power capacitor across any two of its limbs, which can be devastating to any un-insulated foe, living or machine.”

Feng crowded in to get a closer look with everyone else. The officer invited them to touch the dog if they wished, which several did.

“What the dog lacks in flexibility and brainpower, it makes up for in numbers,” she told them “This war machine is very cheap to produce and quite expendable. The Ascending Dragon can deploy one thousand of these units in a single battle. Does anyone have any questions?”

“I haven’t seen any of these on the Ascending Dragon,” a man said. Feng recognized him and recalled his name was Wenbo.

“Your ship will be accepting its full complement of dog machines from the Heavenly Fortress,” she said. “They’re manufactured here.”

“Why doesn’t it have armor?” Zhengqing asked.

The officer shrugged. “Real armor is heavy. We’re in space. It’s simple economics. Although the machine does have some boron weave here, and here, to prevent an instant kill from the front using small arms. It is minimal. Many weapons here in space aren’t particularly powerful, anyway, since to use such a weapon would depressurize a station.”

Zhengqing nodded. Feng frowned.

Space or no space, warfare is about neutralizing the enemy before he neutralizes you. And you can prevent that with armor.

Feng couldn’t resist the urge to step forward and touch the dog. His hand ran along the smooth, cold metal of its spine, then tapped an energy cell nestled inside its back. The machine didn’t have ribs per se, but the thick metal of its spine tapered off into a thinner hexagonal support web that he could slip his hand through.

“Your first mission on board the Heavenly Fortress will commence in 32 hours. The parameters are as follows,” the officer said. “You are 93 men. Given an order of battle including 100 dog machines, you will deploy in section A of the station. Your objective is to capture section C. It will be secured by 200 dog machines.”

The junior officers exchanged grim looks. Some whispered. Feng set his face like stone. He looked out among the trainees and saw a few others that had reacted as he did, with determination instead of dismay.

“Myself and a handful of other officers will be standing by to instruct you in standard preparation, including outfitting and configuring your dogs. But the strategy will be your own.”

Feng and the other junior officers were introduced to the configuration interface of the war dogs. Soon Feng had half a dozen panes open in his PV, reviewing hardware options, sensory tweaks, and order suites to set up and install on their dogs.

It didn’t take long for the trainees to start to discuss strategy.

“To the attacker goes the advantages of selection of the venue and timing of the attack, and the ability to apply concentration of force,” Zhengqing said. “This will be ample advantage to counter the superior numbers of the enemy.”

Feng smiled. Each and every officer in training knew these lessons. But only a few of them had any confidence in their ability to apply such generalities in the face of an attack ratio of 1:2. Zhengqing was one such man. While the others had been familiarizing themselves with the vagaries of the war dogs, Zhengqing had devised a plan and sent it out to the others.

Feng looked over Zhengqing’s plan. It was similar to what Feng himself would have created. By putting their 100 dogs into a pincer movement against a third of section C, they could attain both superior concentration of force and an attack from multiple directions which would give them an advantage.

“We won’t outnumber them enough,” someone said. “The ratio isn’t very high.”

“We have another advantage that’s not being used,” Feng said. He waited until the others were looking at him. “Ourselves.”

“Yes,” Zhengqing agreed. “We don’t have a great ratio of dogs but if we engage behind our dogs, it may be enough to tip the balance.”

Feng met Zhengqing’s gaze. “No. We should be in front of them.”

“Ridiculous. They are more effective than we are. The whole reason we have them is to help protect us,” someone said.

“The dogs are configured to go all out against other battle machines,” said Feng. “They’re not supposed to mercilessly slay humans. That will introduce delays and reduce their legal field of fire.”

“Let’s run a simulation,” Wenbo said. “It’s true. The machines have different protocols for dealing with humans. And they won’t be configured to be lethal to humans.”

“We’ll just all be glued and unable to continue,” someone protested.

Feng paced furiously while the others set up the simulation. Zhengqing watched Feng out of the corner of his eye. Summing him up? Perhaps.

The fatter one named Wenbo took the lead in laying out the simulation. Feng took note of his skills with the computer interfaces. If Feng and Zhengqing had the confidence and will to devise a plan then here was someone who could test it out before battle.

Finally Wenbo announced readiness. Everyone linked into the machine and watched a virtual assault. There were many ways to watch the data in the simulation. Some chose to watch only numbers dance across a pane with the results as the battle proceeded. Feng watched the attack proceed in his PV as if watching from above with the ceilings removed so he could see into the base and get a feel for the action.

“Our own dogs can’t fire quickly, either. Not with us in front of them. They’re as hindered as the enemy,” Wenbo summarized after two minutes of analysis.

Feng felt great frustration that his plan hadn’t produced great results. The stupid dog machines! Their own dogs couldn’t adapt to having humans in front of them even when it was part of the plan.

Then he had another idea.

“Wait. Our presence had the desired effect on the enemy dogs. You say the problem is that our own dogs are also hindered because we’re right in front of them. But if we were on our dog machines, then we’d be behind their main targeting sensors on their heads, as well as behind the first weapon mount.”

Wenbo laughed. “On them? Are you crazy?”

Others laughed. Feng heard “niu zai” off the lips of a junior officer somewhere nearby: “cowboy”.

Zhengqing frowned. Then he smiled and laughed, too.

“That is... interesting. Their dogs may not be able to use their electrical attack either, as long as humans are on the machines. Let’s test it out.”

The others stared at Zhengqing as if he were as crazy as Feng.

“I said let’s test it out! Get moving! Set up the simulation again!” Zhengqing barked.

Wenbo complied. He altered the simulation to test out Feng’s new idea. This time it took longer. Feng studied the dog interface some more while he waited, looking for anything that might rule out his idea.

Again they watched the results of the simulation. Feng had it on high speed. The tiny men and dogs flowed into the section. This time, the invader’s rate of fire was considerably improved. The assault was working!

A minute or so later everyone had seen the result. Feng smiled widely and his heart beat quickly. He’d contributed to a superior strategy!

“There were some negative results,” Wenbo said slowly. “There was a fatality.”

Everyone fell silent. Feng had missed that. He’d been so eager to see the overall results and had been busy exalting afterwards. Wenbo continued.

“One of the dog machines became damaged and the rider was thrown. The man died.”

“A freak accident,” Feng said.

“Maybe,” Wenbo answered. “Another man lost his leg. It got in the way of the glue grenade launcher. A glue canister was fired and it took his leg off.”

Zhengqing frowned. He looked at the other junior officers. “We’re soldiers. Of course there’s danger. We’re playing with war machines. No question, we’ll do it. The simulation shows a distinct advantage to the strategy.”

“It’s only a simulation. Not that accurate, I think,” a short junior officer stated, stepping forward. “It would be reckless to rely on it when we are doing something so unusual. It’s bound to affect the accuracy of the program.”

“Then why are we using the program at all?” asked Feng. His voice held an edge. “It’s logical. We’re from the Ascending Dragon. That means something. We’ll show these trainers what we can do!”

Well of course, it’s better than nothing...” Wenbo said.

“Riding these things is no more dangerous than the glue,” Feng said. They’d all trained extensively to deal with glue weapons. The main danger lie in suffocation. As long as someone remained free and unglued, they could apply their solvents and save anyone who couldn’t breathe. They’d done it many times in drill.

Some of the officers looked at Feng. He could see they still weren’t certain.

“Okay. Fine. Bring two of the dogs here. I’ll show you myself.”

Zhengqing smiled. “Yes! Do as he says.”

Feng wasn’t sure if Zhengqing was backing him up or just giving Feng more rope with which to hang himself. He decided it didn’t matter. This was his idea. He had to show them he could do it.

Two dian chuen were summoned. Wenbo stared off into space, configuring the machines through his link interface.

Feng walked over to the nearest silver dog. He grabbed the rib webbing and pulled himself onto the silver dog. Its neck was open, filled with cables.

“Easy to hang on to,” Feng said, gripping the hexagonal support web inside its skeleton.

“Your leg is in front of the launcher,” someone said.

Feng cursed inwardly and rearranged himself.

“Make a checklist,” Zhengqing said. “We could strap ourselves onto these things if it turns out that he can’t hang on. Watch and see if his leg gets in front of the launcher again. We need to know if that’s inevitable.”

More of the trainees were coming over to watch. Feng needed to be as involved as Zhengqing, he decided. Even though he was the one on the dog, it couldn’t look like he was simply following Zhengqing’s brilliant orders.

“Okay. Set the dog up in that room,” Feng said. “I’ll attack. We’ll see if the simulation is right.”

Feng sent the dog a message through his link. It turned under him and they trotted off into a side corridor.

He experienced a moment of doubt. He sat on top of a giant metal dog like some kind of ridiculous space cowboy. Then his drive returned.

“Mind the launchers,” he said to himself.

Feng double-checked his weapon. It was set for mock combat. The war dog beneath him had been configured the same way by Wenbo.

“The dog is guarding the room. We’re clear,” came a message from Zhengqing.

“Beginning the assault,” Feng sent back.

Feng’s heart raced as they set off. He dog machine under him moved smoothly, making it feel safe to ride until the first corner. Feng almost hurled off the top of the mount as it swung smoothly around the corner. An expletive escaped his mouth as he clung to the metal. Somehow he managed to keep his rifle in hand.

He mentally fumbled with the dog interface in his PV. He knew there was a parameter for setting its maximum turn acceleration. Then he thought better of it. First, there wasn’t any time to be fine tuning it while in action, at least not at his level of familiarity, and second, he didn’t want to cripple the machine any further. He’d just have to get better at riding it.

The next corner wasn’t so bad, he told himself. He took a deep breath to dispel some of the adrenal surge. As he rode into the bay, he realized abruptly the door to the room being guarded had been shut. It made sense that they had shut it, but he hadn’t been expecting it. He was charging toward a shut door and he didn’t even know if the dog could remotely open it.

He had to make a split-second decision: door or foam wall?

Foam wall, Feng boldly decided. If he succeeded, everyone would be willing to follow him.

He commanded the dog to ram the wall to the right of the door, directly between two thin carbon struts. Feng hugged the dog and his rifle with all his strength, leaning forward and sheltering himself behind the neck of the machine.

The last thing he did before the jump was warn the dog to be ready to shoot or discharge its capacitor in close combat.

The foam wall gave way with an enormous tearing sound. Feng thought he may also have heard some shouts and verbal expressions of astonishment. The foam wall stayed mostly in one piece like a punctured automobile windshield. Feng saw the other dog, facing the door. He couldn’t let go of his own dog in time to use his rifle. The machines turned towards each other, then his dog reared up and slapped its front feet across the body of the other dog.


Feng watched the other dog wobble for a second. His own dog trained its head mount on the guard dog. Finally, Feng gained control of his own rifle and logged a mock shot. He cursed himself for being so slow.

“You got it!” came Wenbo’s exalted message over the link.

Feng checked his legs. They weren’t in the way of the canister launchers. He’d been holding on so tight that his body hadn’t shifted forward, even when the dog had landed from the jump through the wall.

The officers flooded in and started to congratulate Feng. Even Zhengqing seemed to appreciate the achievement rather than show jealousy of it.

None of the others complained about the oddity of the plan after that. They worked for the rest of the day on splitting up the teams and practice riding the dogs.

“We can disperse and work on the details for the rest of the day,” Zhengqing said.

“I’m glad there’s enough time for us to sleep before the test,” Feng said. Despite his nerves, he felt certain he would be able to achieve sleep.

“Do you think the trainers will learn of our plan and take moves to defeat it?” Zhengqing asked quietly, within earshot of only Feng.

“We’ll know by the end of tomorrow,” Feng answered.