"Here." She tapped her finger on the compartment in the diagram. Other such compartments were spread throughout the ship, but this was the nearest. She could not read the alien letters that spelled Theater. "I tire of slaughtering animals," she told her First. "Let us go here and see what we might find."


Ortiz led her detachment into the solarium, which was made to look like the beach of a tropical island and was at least a hundred meters across. The Marines trudged across fine white sand, weaving their way between stands of palm trees, beach chairs, and tiki bars. Waves still lapped at the beach from the pool which, with the aid of holographic projection looked like an ocean that reached to the horizon. Looking up, she breathed a sigh of relief that the exterior shield was still in place over the enormous ceiling of clear panels overhead.

"Just imagine the view if that was open," Davis murmured in wonder as he gawked at their surroundings.

"Just imagine all this — and us — getting blown into vacuum through those clearskin panels," Walker chided. "The shield isn't armored, but it's a lot better protection than the glass."

"Cut the chatter," Ortiz growled.

Gunfire erupted off to their right, on the far side of the solarium, the distinctive sound of Marine pulse rifles hammering on full automatic.

Ortiz's Marines dropped to the sand or found cover.

"No contact!" Stalin called out. "I see nothing."

"There!" Eustus blurted as he saw distinctive black-clad figures pour from one of the other entrances to the solarium, focused on the Marines on the far side that were still blocked from his view.

"Where, dammit?" Ortiz snapped.

"Sorry, ma'am! Two o'clock, behind that restaurant."

"I don't see anything...wait, there they are!" Kreelans spilled out into her field of view. "Contact right!" Ortiz shouted. "Engage, but watch for friendlies!"

As one, the Marines opened fire, the energy bolts of the rifles tearing into the Kreelans who had no idea their flank was totally exposed. The detachment's two pulse guns chopped the restaurant to pieces, giving the other Marines a clear field of fire into the entire Kreelan formation that was now reeling on the sand-covered beach.

"Shit," someone hissed as more Kreelans boiled out from another entrance on this side of the restaurant.

"Get down!" Stalin bellowed.

Ortiz and the others who weren't already prone on the sand dove to the ground as a volley of the lethal alien throwing stars whistled overhead. "Cut 'em down!" she ordered as the newly arrived Kreelans charged their position.

Fire from the rifles and pulse guns raked the approaching enemy, but the Kreelans didn't make it easy. The warriors had an uncanny ability to dodge aside at the last moment, even while running across the powdery sand. Dozens went down, but dozens more continued to sprint toward Ortiz and her Marines.

"Grenades!" Ortiz ordered.

The Marines were already prepared. The word had barely escaped her lips when a dozen gray spheres sailed from her line toward the approaching enemy. Some reached their programmed proximity detonation height and exploded about three meters above the ground, while others were swatted away or sliced in half by warriors who leaped into the air, slashing at the incoming weapons with their swords.

"Wow!" Davis exclaimed, as if he were watching a circus act.

"Goddamned acrobats," Walker cursed as she swapped in a fresh power pack for her rifle. "Shit!" She dodged aside as a bolt from a pulse gun fired by the Marines on the far side missed the hundreds of intervening Kreelans to sail a centimeter above her head.

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