I miss my original skin. This skin is thin and weak, tears easily, bruises, needs to be moisturised and cared for. Not like the skin I came to Daneer’s World wearing. We burned out of the sky, released just beyond the outer atmosphere by our hit and run cruiser. Four hundred of us, like flaming angels wearing just our combat skins and loaded for trouble. The feeling of being aflame against the increasing air pressure as we roared inwards. Our target was, of course, the troubled city of Kromesh. While an ordinary assault might require us to land outside and work our way in, we had a more aggressive mission. We landed inside the heart of the city, in a near-perfect set of concentric rings. The ash and soot from our entry was easily dusted off, that thicker outer layer designed solely to protect us and burn away had done its job. Underneath we were smooth, seamless creatures of combat. Weapons systems came online, moving slickly under our skin until micro-railguns stretched through the skin to rest on shoulders, velocity rifles through the forearms, and blades. So many blades. We felt every moment of it, felt the wind against our skin, local heat and humidity, electromagnetic fields, everything. It was the apex of feeling alive. The next hours were about taking lives. Daneer’s World had broken away, abandoned its treaties and duties. We were there to ensure it returned to the fold, no matter what it took. Funny thing about the combat skin is the sheer elation you feel while wearing it. It’s supposed to dispense drugs straight into the bloodstream to counteract the utter delight it is to move, feel and fight in, but they don’t always work. Especially not in the thrill of combat. We moved through the city like a tornado, a whirling storm of death. And it felt amazing. Knowing the precise temperature and density of blood splashing over you, even feeling the distinctive electric signature of a life fading away – all of it. We did our job, crushed the militia within the city, stormed the parliament and removed all obstacles to reinstituting imperial command. We didn’t know that while we were hard at work, so too were the imperial envoys. Their job is like ours, but with words, promises and threats. We’d already outstripped the worst of the threats they could have made, those who’d have been threatened were dead. That left them with promises, and when the scale of the massacre we’d been deployed for became clear, they started to backpedal. There was no doubt we were imperial troops – no one else wears combat skin, it’s too expensive and has to be grown specifically for the operative wearing it – so they had to work through their plausibly deniable alternatives. So apparently we’d gone rogue, or been dispatched by a rogue imperial unity alliance who had taken things a bit too far when seeking their beloved unity. A real shame, and all the envoys could promise was that there would be punishment and restitution – when Daneer’s World rejoined the empire, obviously. We were down less than a quarter of our invading force (those combat suits are really very good) and that was only a result of heavy artillery that you’d normally only sling at warships, and building collapse, a consequence of using weapons never meant to be deployed in a city. That left three hundred and some of us. We got the message from the hit and run cruiser who had dropped us off that we weren’t going to be picked up, that we’d been disavowed, dumped and abandoned. We picked up the transmissions confirming the public relations choices the envoys had made, and understood what they’d done to us. Daneer’s World folded to imperial pressure. Of course they did, we’d eliminated the vast majority of their renegade government and laid waste to their capital city. That compliance meant we were now the other half of the bargain, no longer the threat, now the hunted to be punished as a promise. It wasn’t clear whether we were going to be rounded up and arrested, shipped out somewhere else for a mission on the other side of the empire as had happened before. When we saw the shooting stars heading our way we knew what had been decided: another battalion had been dispatched to clean us up. Some of us were still spoiling for another fight, a fight that would utterly demolish this city, whether they sent overwhelming numbers or not. Or we could run. Or hide. We were no longer a coherent unit since our governance had been removed, and we were free to act as we pleased. So we split up. Those wishing to keep fighting stuck together, a lot of us fled the city seeking better ground and maybe a ship offworld. Some of us opted to hide, but we all had to get out of the city first. I chose to hide, to hide by exposing myself and sinking into Daneer’s World. The combat skin isn’t easy to remove. The application process involves being soaked in the stuff until it fills and penetrates every pore, and it’s undone by a bunch of enzymes that make it run off you like jelly. We didn’t have any of those, so I scraped and cut the suit off my skin. If you kill enough of the suit, it’s eventually dissolve on its own account, but you have to get something like ninety-five per cent of the external surface off to make it do that. It’s tough stuff, and not easy to get into – the weapons ports are the only time there’s a natural hole in the suit, and that only for a second – just enough time to get a knife under the skin. Getting it off my face was the worst, like shaving my eyeballs with a knife. Finally, when I’d pared back enough of it, feeling all those glorious additional senses compromised and failing, it triggered the breakdown sequence, combat skin bleeding back out of my pores. Free of the combat skin we looked just like everyone else. Well, I looked like the I’d just been in an awful accident, fire, shuttle crash and thrown through barbed wire all at the same time. Thankfully, there were an awful lot of people making their way out of the city who looked pretty much the same: the lucky survivors of our assault. It was easy enough to join the crowds fleeing the wreckage and seeking shelter in nearby towns and villages. I was a refugee now, surrounded by those I’d brought much suffering to. It wasn’t easy to fit in. I mean, it was appallingly easy to fit in, to just pretend to be one of them, trapped in skin that just felt pain. But accepting their help, sympathising with their grief and pain… It’s not what we’d come here for. Feigning shock and trauma got through a lot of questions. I’d lost track of the rest of the unit, apart from seeing the distant shooting matches in the city ruins. I didn’t know what any of the other troops looked like, and the skin removal damage wasn’t much worse than the state of half these people. It took months to be resettled, and now it seems that I’m a baker, of all things. The imperial troops are still looking for us, having successfully tracked down everyone still in combat skin, but they have the same problem telling us apart that I do. I suspect that I’m stuck here now, baking, living a life that I’ve stolen from somebody else. I still miss my original skin.
The path ahead is perilous, but I have walked it many times. I’m driven by a sense of responsibility and a need to check that everything is in its right