By Brian Donnegal
LIAO MING. LIAO FUNG. ASHTON CARVER. JASPREET SINGH. MELANIA TORRES. She carves the names into the last Javelin’s aluminum firing case with her only prized possession, a rusted garage key taken from the ashes of her parent’s habitat complex. Quickly, furtively, as the crew chiefs shout for reports.
“Prepare for operational departure.”
Beloved family, her brother’s new boyfriend, a dignified guest, the on-call technician at their lonely and beautiful three-acre compound in Silverwood. She remembers high summer and pollen pressed into every pore. Bare shoulders and rolled up jeans, the periwinkle brushstrokes of a muggy July horizon.
“Step-off in ten minutes. Ten minutes!”
She’d tapped her tablet absent-mindedly that morning. The morning. Slapped raw pork onto the solar barbeque. Her usual morning newsletter, blank. SIGNAL NOT FOUND. SIGNAL NOT FOUND. Then: EMERGENCY ALERT. Evacuate immediately. Liberator punitive force within Silverwood Protective District. Local security personnel dispatched to location. Take shelter if surrounded.
Evacuate immediately. Evacuate immediately.
That ominous allegro of steel toe boots.
“Stand by for cross-check. Two minutes. Oiling?”
The key vanishes under greasy coveralls. A blur of frantic flicks: safety check on the Javelin (clear), debris check (grit from the tarmac under the wing panel), final look-over (clear), arming. She tentatively taps the button – red, of course – stands back. Purses her lips as the crew chief glides to inspect the starboard hydraulic actuators a breath away from her station. Grabs the last panel on the Javelin MX-18 missile rack and hauls it shut. Her last task, complete.
Liao Li returns to herself. A bespeckled, slight woman in a hanger heavy with iron, aluminium, gasoline, oil, and sweat. Southern heat drifts through the open bay doors. The faint hint of cordite and solid-state fuel, improvised napalm with the consistency of warm fudge, still a nauseating reek a week into her first deployment. She sways, sweat-sodden, blinking away salt from a dull gaze and eyebrows accustomed to the latest designer mascara.
“Complement loaded, Gunny,” she replies. Eighteen Javelin short-range missiles. Ten thousand rounds of point-defence infantry shredders. Sixty seconds of anti-urban burner fuel.
“Nine inferno, seven airburst, two armour-piercing.” Standard punitive load.
Gunny rolls up stained coverall sleeves the width of her thigh, leans in, runs a solitary finger across the rack panel’s edge with a maid’s delicacy. A millimeter’s discrepancy and he’d pop the hatch open, read those precious names. Ask uncomfortable questions about her competency. Confine her to quarters. Hurl wrenches.
Li stands stiffly.
“Never a panel out of place, eh, technician?” A contented grunt. A new victim: Lynn Mellow, sensors and targeting chief. The calibration chatter drills into her temple with iron intensity, pushed softly, as the morning’s headache builds.
Worse this time.
Then, the ceremony. Pilots in their rebreathers and crimson flight suits march the length of the hanger from their air-conditioned barracks units. Drone cams flitter and click and send taunting reels to the rebels cowering in Jacksonville’s basements. We are coming. Another excursion into a slum city: a crustacean subdivision broken by rising oceans and contentious fuel prices.
Li keeps her eyes forward as Ares Two’s pilot passes, trailed by schools of cams and hover-mics. Lucinda Praetoria. Slim still – gaunt, really – in a sagging combat suit, strawberry blonde hair pulsing with barely perceptible UV highlights. Twenty-six, fiendishly extroverted, reportedly prefers virtual Johannesburg raves to simulated training on this side of the Atlantic. Yet at the corner of those gulping brown eyes is a weariness she instantly recognizes. On the bad days, she shoulders it too.
The ladder clunks to the tarmac. Lucinda climbs.
Towering over them all is a squat figure. An ugly form, misshapen: Ares in the body of Hephaestus, raiment and exquisite Greek body muddled by silver ablative armour and cabling bundles, ammunition hoppers and servo motors. Hunchbacked, heavy with autocannons and missile racks and chemical dispensers. A Rig, fearsome anti-insurgency beast. Walking siege machine. Nightmare engine. Just beneath the cockpit, a red dot winks over and over and over. A gun camera already bears witness.
Li can imagine.
Cocooned in dirt, she digs. Fresh scarlet nails punch into sopping clay and jagged bedrock and the sickly splint of timber. (The basement, maybe). Mewling: a strangled violin bow dragged and distorted beyond belief. Her knuckles lash out. White quotations at the corner of her eyes, little action lines, as the red molten pulsing grows hotter and hotter and hotter.
Finally, emptiness: angry air. Magenta clouds through a gash in the dark: haze, acrid fumes, freshly mown prairie grass. Deep breaths now – deep, rib-cracking, shuddering breaths. She pushes her eyes to the filthy hole, then her head. Birthing herself into a world of rust and soot and iron and dandelion seed no longer held captive to their bulbs. Floating free.
Silverwood is trampled. Solar barn crushed into a crescent of plastic rebar and decapitated panel arrays. A comma of chestnut wood presses deep into the tarnished grass. Jaspreet Singh’s beloved pipe. Still, that violin bow, dragging and unmooring itself from the faintest suggestions of music. Becoming feral.
No, that is her own voice. Joining a chorus.
Steps away from her feet, Liao Fung burbles and thrashes in the dirt. Hands to her throat. Plywood spars, violently ejected from the shed, denote her ribs and guts with violent certainty. Silver bangles complement her wide, wide eyes.
Beyond the treeline is a hill. It lumbers. The Rig, returning, shivering with an adrenal rush almost alive. Red pauldrons blink through what few oaks remain on the property’s southern edge. Pauses for breath.
Li throws herself back into the hole feet first, kicks off her torn shoes, curls in on herself with the instinctive certainty of the womb. Claps a fist into her very mouth. For silence.
“Except you can’t,” Gunny replies. “Not without a connection.”
Vapes whisper between their blackened fingers. Amber skies overhead, streaked with exhaust trails and the Gulf Coast’s broiling thunderheads. Miles beyond the dunes and the bay – their diminutive Green Zone – a hillside suburb flashes with small arms fire. Their Rig squadron responds in kind. Tracer streams, autocannon booms, teacup infernos, all over the constant rumble of last-century foundations giving way.
“I was there.”
Click, hiss. Liao Ming bent over the earth, shovel braced, soaking up the southern humidity with a lizard’s appreciation. No progress on that gnawing ghastly fatigue gobbling her attention span and eyelids and that carefully cultivated reservation. Napping didn’t help. Pills aren’t kicking in. Another sleepless night awaits,
“I know, Li. I know. You watched Silverwood burn to the ground. We’ve all heard it. What I’m saying is that it’s different when you’re behind the sticks.”
She can’t tell if it’s the tone deafness, the pills, or this old-school Virginia leaf. Can’t stand it, but neither can anyone else born in the 21st century. Still, they’re traditional Army so Gunny keeps them in stock. There’s a roughness to her throat and a welling she won’t quite place. Behind bloodshot eyes.
Gunny taps the vape tip and betrays his age. A murder of crow’s feet cuts through the veneer of grease across his sunburned nose and woollen nose. Crocodile skin on a very weary predator. The face of a life outside, Fung sighed, handing him a jug of iced tea. The fields, lolling on a midafternoon breeze. He takes a whiff, savours the taste, hisses through marble teeth.
“When you’re slumping towards a target in one of those – ” a nod at the Hoplite playing hide-and-seek with an unseen insurgent team in the distant dockyards – “everything is abstract. At most, you notice streaks of movement outside your cockpit windows. That’s as close as you are to the ground. Figuratively speaking.”
“You’ve seen the live gun camera feed?” That unblinking red dot.
“Course not,” Gunny snorts. “That shit’s classified. Well, suppressed. Not for friendly consumption. Supposed to be unnecessarily traumatic to untrained personnel which, in this case, includes you and I. It’s why they save it for the Liberators, as snuff.”
Another pause for wry, dramatic effect. You worry too much. “The archive captures aren’t so bad. Catch them in the engineering offices, sometimes, when the brass are out.”
Blue-yellow wisps, beyond the picturesque artificial hills cresting the city centre. Methane rupture. Illegal compression tanks deep under the cobblestones. Li can feel them rumbling beneath her feet in time with her queasy stomach. Afternoon skies are too harsh, too bright, too bright-
“You enlisted for those feeds, huh?”
Six months ago, he drilled every component of an Ares into her mathematically pruned brain. Converted relations to operations, immediate action, ratios, doused it all in a heady slurry of grease. Watched her blossom last week into Ares Two’s best reload tech without ever considering why she’d declined the customary signing bonus.
“I enlisted for revenge.” A lie. “Out of duty.” Another lie. Her lips are wet cement. Pills kicking in. Sweet serotonin release and by that numbing, the tingling at fingers and toes. Curiously, under it all, a slow crescendo. “Why the fuck does it matter?”
“I don’t need a basket case in my unit.” Gunny replaces the Virgina leaf for a headier, muskier cap. Lemon Haze, cheap THC, wafting gently over the hanger doors and a gaggle of off-duty mechs. “Moment you glimpse those feeds, you’ll be psychologically compromised. Out of the unit. I’ve seen your type before.”
“My type.” Spirals in the bay doors, blurry neon palms, a coiling deep within. “You have any idea what-”
“Yes. Vividly.” Gunny turns, appraises her wobbly knees, hair sodden with sweat and the ubiquitous engine grease. “The archives aren’t what you imagine. They’re just for post-operational analysis. Uncovering tactical weaknesses, unnecessary movements. Configuring future operations.” He coughs.
“Yes, that too.”
Blackness at her temples. That familiar pressure across her jaw. Spirals are everywhere now: her twitching bootheel on the tarmac, the crook of her slack elbow, a seagull skating over thermals high overhead. You will inherit this place, she once said, but not until your uncle drops dead in the fields. As he will.
“Crew resources tell you that? Keep watching all the classified footage you want, but keep the psycho away?”
“Let’s talk about this.” Gunny flicks off the vape, sighs. “No rank stripes, no record. What’s going on? You fucked up on bliss?”
“Don’t patronize me.”
“Unsettled?” She can’t feel her toes but she does purse her lips, chews the end, savours a brief sting. “Traumatized Conflict bitch who takes Reload way too seriously. End quote.”
It takes Gunny a moment.
“You left it on your desk, open. No password.” Li offers. “Think I haven’t picked the splinters from an Artemis crater out of my own fucking kneecaps?”
“Li-”. Now he’s embarrassed.
“The reek of intestines exposed to the open air?” The tremors begin behind her left eyelid. Not the drugs: simple rage. She is trembling now, slowly, taut, bamboo caught in an entirely unsurprising updraft. “Then don’t bother hiding what I’ve waded through. Not – not a figure of speech. What I’m volunteering for, right now.”
Another dirty thunderclap. The gasp of a Jacksonville dumpster sucking oxygen and cracking on its way over the low hanging roofs of Dock District; whatever remained of the stucco and receding brick and wall-mounted satellite dishes. Before the Sunrise Treaty, the shale rebellion, pharma shortages, rats, retreating shorelines, carbon imperatives; an age of chaos they often reviled yet, sometimes, barely remembered. I remember when this farm ran on gasoline generators. There, there, and the eastern shed. The fumes were filthy. But that was before the Liberators. Before their little terror operation on this forgotten Atlantic corner.
Gunny’s tongue traces an apology. Retracts, recalls the jerry can of his typical invective. Remembers himself in the face of Technician Li’s intoxicated brilliance and uncustomary verbosity. He flicks the nozzle, metaphorically speaking, leaves the extinguisher buried in the weeds of forgotten niceties. “Last I checked, crying over your fucked up childhood wasn’t an excuse for hacking a superior’s tablet. My tablet.”
Finally, a stillness; from her ankles inward. Time shivers in whatever is suppressing that backwater of incandescent rage, that rage –
“You want to know what you’re missing out on? Before I assign you to a month of decoupling and emergency refit duties with the new crew?”
An odd sequence unfolds, one the bliss never gave her before. There is Jaspreet Singh before the submunitions tore his robes apart in the courtyard copper oaks in late spring, quivering as tungsten balls little wider than a toddler’s pinkie painted a gentleman of tender smiles and sundowner whiskey into the garden wall trilling crickets and laughter and the road’s constant hum. Bicycle races cut short.
Li tastes blood. Her jaw is a steel cable.
“Telemetry. Machine readouts. Heat signatures, disappearing one by one into the fog of war. The gun log is a blur. Occasional visuals, scuffling, the collapse of entire subdivisions as your squadron advances. Exactly the sort of CGI shit you see on the commentaries.” He is yelling now. “The rest is irrelevant.”
Another explosion ripples over the waves.
“What I’m saying is,” Gunny finishes, “it’s nothing personal.”
The bar downstairs was open to the meandering streets of the Parque del Perro. August’s stinking humidity; neon coating the jagged peaks of Cali’s Reconstruction pueblos. A toast, the sweet chime of glasses, the opening glow of another bliss pill pressed surreptitiously under the table. A lovely hand trailed across her shoulders. Perhaps, later, drifting down her back, pressing against her spine, tugging at the loose summer dress she bought with the last of her survivorship funds.
The K-Pop stream disappeared. Dim greys, muted oranges: the impressionism of a scarred and bloody field. Bouncing perspective, rhythmically, sweeping predator sharp. Suddenly a dirty corrugated shack – what remained of it. A slight and filthy figure heaving the half-rusted door open to a gentleman caller.
She couldn’t be sure as she pushed past the maitre d’, thudded through a pack of ground security troopers in leave jackets, sprinted up the iron fire escape three rungs at a time. Below was a muffled crump, a collective cackle, the roar of a bassline. <RAW AND UNFILTERED> screamed the speakers. Distant cheers. She couldn’t be sure but never stuck around whenever a Rig’s perspective lumbered into view, no matter how distorted or unrealistic.
Was it Liao Ming’s delicate nose tearing in the backwash? Chestnut eyes, deep smile, slightly crooked teeth imprinting themselves for impossible seconds on the bewildered expression of her date? The bliss was supposed to erase it all from deep inside her cortex (Jack always told her that, stripped to their sweaty singlet, before pressing the unmarked bottles into her palm with a dour businesslike expression). And still she wished she could rewind rewind rewind-
<Let’s get to work>
Ares Two limps through the hangar doors. Knee plates shift and grind, jagged from IEDs, sodden with mud and filth and human grue. The anti-insurgent gargantuan monstrosity slumps, arthritic, drunk across the tarmac, showering tool cages in whitecaps of sparks. Under the hangar halogens, the butcher’s bill is slowly unrolled: an autocannon limb severed at the elbow, wires trailing from an exposed midsection pectoral, fist-sized craters knocked through three major panels. Leaking oil and chemical irritants briefly overpower the dawn breeze. Her morning after-bliss fugue is thrown in sharp relief. Her spine stiffens. Ashton’s snaggletooth grin.
<Bad night for Ares Two> To her left, Vasyli, crew chief, taps his mic. Refit Crew Eight sizes up their charge twelve metres below their boots in a loose semi-circle behind the Plexiglass crash barriers. <Flushed out Liberator camp solo. Tough fight. Cockpit took direct hit. Once we engage braces, I want knee actuators as top priority. Medical team is extracting pilot immediately. No post-action tech briefing>
Crew Eight springs to the braces, heaving oversize wrenches and spanners from multitude of toolboxes rendered tiny by her fugue and the distance. Every speck of mud grinding at the catwalk rings grates on the back of her molars, the flipside of her throat, her teeth, her tongue. Another sleepless night spent cursing the empty bottle tossed under her pillow. The incessant beeping of a hangar intercom rousing Ares Squadron’s night shift. Finally, six hours in, she rose on creaking knees to watch the sun rise between the thousand tiny smoke plumes of post-action Jacksonville.
Vasyli leans against the railing beside her, automatically flipping green dreadlocks over his broad Slavic shoulder. Every bit the raver. As crew chief, he avoids idle chatter, but he’s read the manifest. Only one reason for a sudden reassignment from Reload.
“Sorry about transfer.” English with harsh consonants, a musicality, a richness she sometimes admired on good days. He grinned ruefully. “At least, sorry about circumstances. I do not regret inheriting an excellent technician.”
“Why?” Below, Ares Two’s heels crunch into place on the servicing dias and knock dust from the nearly empty hangar’s ceiling. Ares Squadron’s remaining eleven machines are on extended punitive patrol for the next week at least. Only the malfunctioning or wounded or dry return for servicing. Swing right, hard. Yes, harder. I want to feel your wrist and elbows in that one, honey.
Vasyli shrugs. “Unpleasant introduction to Refit. It is no secret why you’re on a dawn shift with us grease wretches. For my part, I am happy.” He nods. “Although I do not understand your disagreement with Gunny.”
“He’s an ass.”
“Funny” Vasyli says without a trace of sarcasm. Don’t be afraid to strike. I’m wearing gloves, too. Padded, see? “Last week you were sharing vapes and stories with him as if he was an uncle. Why the change in heart?”
Blackness at her temples. “He pulled rank. Went all paternalistic on me. Talks about the gunbox footage but won’t give me access. Says I’m not prepared for it.” Shakes her head. “He signed my release forms. He knows.”
Vasyli stares. “Most I have heard from you in weeks.” He sighs. “Technician, has it occurred to you that others on this squadron care for your welfare? Especially those who understand your circumstances?”
Clattering from the maintenance bay’s far-left gantry. Six white-coated crash team medics pounding down the catwalk with a rail-mounted gurney and webbing full of antibacterial gel, morphine, dermal glue. An urgent tide of chatter on their comms silenced by Vasyli’s irritated swipe. “Why does it matter if they do?”
“Because they are mystified, Technician.” Those wide eyes again. Surprise or mirth or alarm; Vasyli is notoriously illegible. “You survive Liberator atrocities that scarred many hundreds of people. Anger, yes, revenge, yes – yet you transfer to a maintenance unit servicing the monstrous engines that uprooted your home. Why shouldn’t your comrades wonder?”
What do you think about us? Be honest. Hydraulic grippers cling to the cockpit, flex, dispassionately rip the battered windscreen from its hinges. Praetoria thrashes between a tangle of crash restraints. The unmistakable slurry stench of waste, sweat, blood, oil. Panic on the medic channel <in shock concussed otherwise fine crash team preparing for extract preparing for extract>
“I arrived two months ago. Since then, I haven’t asked a single one of my teammates why they signed up. It wasn’t hard.” Li finally, painfully, removes her gaze from the bloodied gurney’s drama. “Does everyone need to lay their histories on the table around here? Can’t we just work?” <and there she goes again prepare for flatline yep wheel her move move move>
Vasyli laughs. “You sound like my aunts. But most of this squadron is Anglo, Latine, Southeast Asian. Big talkers. As I’m sure you know.” He nods to Ares Two as the shank technicians begin stripping the most charred armour plates from the engine’s chassis. “And much to discuss.”
“Speaking of which-” Vasyli checks his diagnostic watch “-new candy is in. The usual?”
“It’ll be in the bag, usual spot.” Murmuring, a few curses in Russian. “Until then – I need you inside cockpit. Status ports in the legs are offline. Need to disarm any excess weapon systems before we proceed with refit.”
She’s gone before Vasyli’s parting words. Sure, that’s hard sometimes. I can understand. I love your brother. You know that, right? Ares Two’s chitin steams with the leavings of hurled p-frag improvised explosives, leftover rpg impacts, even a dusting of rifle rounds. Above the Rig’s left brow, an indent, unobtrusive and alarming as a contour in a skull. Her and Ares Two, alone at last.
Over the threshold and into the cockpit itself: a claustrophobic bucket with a coffin’s comfort, riddled with rows of kaleidoscope sensors blinking irrelevant reports. Nearly all primary systems are in the red. Only weapons are yellow. Reactor is disabled – emergency safety override. Possibly a core hit. Her boots crunch. Impact spiderwebs scurry across all the portside panels.
<Couple of the consoles are fried> She settles gingerly into the damp seat. <Main radar, comms, gyros and stabilization. Weapons aren’t critical. Give me a minute>
Target matrices still trace the hanger in dangerous ways. Support column, 155 m, critical; foot-mobile, 140 m- (technician, unarmed); fuel canister, 41 m – a skull keychain swings above her right eye and breaks the subtle teal outlines.
A red light winks. Tell me more.
Inside the master engineering panel is a systems breach. Gun box data, untouched, suspended from the moment Ares Two crossed the perimeter. Sensitive, left to the whims of uncleared technicians and the vengeful. Blink, blink, blink –
Li taps the menu. Twice: her hand, shaking, misses the key. An entire archive of slaughter for examination. Hazy apartment substacks (her heart jumps), a meandering chase along winding old cobblestone roads (sharp breath) figurines bending down in the middle distance (blink, blink) before she closes the preview, sits up, takes stock.
<Yes, stand by>
Li double-checks. Two junior technicians kneel at Ares Eight’s station a hundred yards away, sleeves rolled up, tugging at the stubbed iron. A quick tab of Ares Two’s exterior cameras: the pit crew crowding her ankles, welding irons white to the glimpse. She sighs. Pops the archive’s disk drive, palms it. Gun box light vanishes. Alarms chime.
<Technical malfunction. Sensors are fried. Rebooting now>
She slams the master panel release, taps the reboot button, curls up tight in the seat and surprises herself. Drives both heels straight into the sensor panel’s exposed wiring. Glass snaps, crunches, and the alarm suddenly dies. Li reaches into the jagged hole in pounding seconds and yanks the fibre-optics out. Smears the gash with ash and cockpit filth: a minor detail in a phony explosion. Your secret is safe with me, Li. I promise.
<Weapons disabled, Vasyli. All yours>
Gentle sea-green walls, waveform couches, a mug of mediocre Earl Grey. Soft jazz. Lynne Azura’s disconcerting smile. Beyond the frosted glass, August humidity roasted Mexico City’s downtown strip. Red Cross Political Trauma Clinic memorabilia discretely hugged the usual academic accolades. Melania’s curtains, deep blue, magnificent. “What did we learn this week?” she asked as Li settled into her fifth session of the month.
“How to fill out a recruitment form.”
Those expensive lip corners upturned, pursed, settled. Li closed her eyes, inhaled, followed her breath – as she’d been taught – and waited for her therapist to regain some professional composure.
“What will you do?” she asked. Far too calmly.
“Ordinance tech. I’ll be reloading Rigs for Pacification’s East Coast Division.”
No notepad this time. Lynn obsessively inscribed everything in neat green shorthand, even if Li only said a dozen words. Mr. Singh’s custom on those meandering evening strolls around the duck pond. During their sessions, she gave Lynn and the other therapists far less. The pen lay abandoned on a glass coffee table. She sat back and pursed her lips. This is a beautiful place, Singh once told her, the most he’d ever spoken to anyone in Silverwood.
“This will not help your progress”
“Why can’t it?”
“Because-” she inhaled deeply, silently murmuring her own mantra, “-experience is not the same as desensitization.” She never understood why.
“Isn’t that what you go on about?” Every session ended with an offer to watch the latest combat representations. Whenever she refused, an oblique approach: talking about the purpose of Rigs in modern warfare – merely to terrorize and subtugate – listing off models, asking questions about their function. She always zoned out.
“No. No, it isn’t,” Lynn said. “You deliberately avoid all attempts to engage with this traumatic experience. I see it in your eyes. You unfocus. There is a difference between accepting a horrible experience such as yours and reliving it. Participating in it.”
“And if I resolve it?”
“Resolve?” She squints. “You see this as a – a puzzle?” The notepad appears. Ashton Carver’s delicate sketchbook propped against the fencepost.
“I see it as a frozen experience.”
“Frozen? Suspended in your mind?”
“Yes.” Li glanced to the bustling street distorted by glass and a sudden strike of regretful nausea. What if it thawed?
Atop her cabin desk, a fistful of earth quivers in a glass jar at Ares Two’s ponderous passing. Her last handful of Silverwood soil. Pried from chapped and bruised hands all those years ago by gloved medics, tossed into the gap between tents at the triage station in Sulfur Towne. Carefully swept, gathered, hoarded many hours later by a wide-eyed slip of a woman with pink patient tags dangling from scarred wrists. Her only real memento of Silverwood. Still, her steel bunk is encircled by carefully curated Southern Gothic farm photography, faded interstate signs, pressed daisies.
Inside the salt chip back is more bliss, purple-coded this time, deliberately and carelessly discarded in the customary corner of Ares Two’s equipment cage. A scratched note within. On the house. Vasyli knows. Just water to taste. She feels her throat hum, drops the glass, then the intractable itch in her stomach. Warm sunlight inching gently up her thighs. Dew between her toes on the porch.
Li floats on her bed, stripped and weightless, creeping by seconds to that place she always finds herself at the intersection of guilt and these irresistible highs. The moments of absolutely no one in the courtyard on this musky July dawn.
Vinegar and iron. Scooping water for the dog bowl. She’s either swallowed disinfectant or bitten her tongue. Perhaps both although her sobbing (yes, outside of herself) is strangely reminiscent of the other pills Vasyli often provides. Not bliss. A verdant finger of moss up the solar barn’s bleached timbers. Something far more introspective. She is confined to humming as clouds of mosquitoes tune their wings in irritable cacophony. Another morning.
The morning. Fingers pressed to her singlet, tunnelling inside her pocket, spoiled by Melania Torres ripping into the solar barn with a power drill. A white guesthouse door bangs and opens the packet. Nearly loses the chip to the folds of her unmade bed. She struggles to rise and recall who resided in that lovely little frontier-chic hut as Ashton lights a bitter cigarette in flannel boxers, rolls his eyes at the racket. Lets her hands rifle the deployment orders and unsigned insurance, probe her pen collection, overturn the stack of bereavement folders until – yes, there. “Could it wait until noon?” A cheerfully insolent Spanish rebuke. Melania’s way of saying rise and greet the moment, greet the vidpad hiding behind her therapy bills.
Sometimes the bliss numbed the harsh edges of her aversions. She’d open an illicit CGI feed and cue up some art student’s rendering of a Rig fight. Catch propaganda flips of insurgency atrocities on the victim fundraisers. Maybe glimpse the opening seconds of quasi-accurate simulations she was required to watch in reload school. The ones she skipped. Tonight, she pulls out the vidpad, jerks the stolen chip inside, presses it home to a click and a slowly brightening screen, the opening sequences of a BLINK sensor package unloading to an unaccustomed civilian device, managing an earbud before her concentration slumps out and she falls headline into yellow mist as she slaps another greasy pork chop on the barbeque that fine, fine July day-
Whitewashed Jacksonville prefab modules spitting blown out glass from the maws of windows. Dirty tire fumes. Abandoned midblock, a velvet couch bisected and seemingly untouched. Puddles of molten plastic. An ancient Chinese wind chime clanking against a top-floor balcony railing; the only sign of the top-floor loft’s past existence. Everything tagged and collated inside BLINK’s exhaustive catalogue system of blues and greens, faint pinks, ominous magentas; auras outlining the probabilities of hostile appearances.
Dark red: a trio of dirty beards and windswept greasy hair breaking cover from a shuttered convenience store’s obsolete shutters, a Yankees cap, a muddy boot flung from desperate feet. Ares Two’s targeting laser paints all three unknowingly.
“Praetoria here. Enemy contact. Three spotters, hostile intent. I’ll do it.”
George Avenue’s concrete is peeled from its rebar, bricks from mortar, flesh from any trace of bones that survive the first milliseconds of hot bombardment. Rickety backyard sheds collapse. That wind chime dances madly. Above, the balcony railing mutates into splinters, grains, hot steam under the deluge. Five second burst.
“Get anything?” Ares Prime. <Directional: 400 metres to right rear, monitoring flanks, flamer active>
“Sure.” A chuckle. “I don’t see anything.”
“Mop up, do a ping. They might have been beaming us.”
“Yeah, beaming. Sussing us out. Fuck, Ares Two, didn’t you go to Rig school?”
George Avenue; a desiccated bohemian market strip; anonymous warehouses forming an isosceles triangle at the junction to their north, windowless and pockmarked. Eighty metres out; tar shingles wafting like old moths in the blocks beyond. Two hundred metres; cautious vultures preening under burst eaves and punctured strip malls, turning east to the main thoroughfare –
“Hit, Ares Prime! Check the yellow warehouse! To your right.”
Jerky, greasy hands on the joysticks. Biometric spike. More keening in this cockpit, the insides of her ears as the whole squadron plans itself in a textbook wide skirmish line across the junction. <sensor: pan> No nearby movements. These suburbs hold their breath.
“I’m in position, Praetoria. We’ve been over this manoeuvre before. Keep your head on.”
Magnification times two hundred. Every weathering crack a canyon under her goggles. Yellow residue peeling behind the black pebbles and graffiti tracks. Customary pockmarks, too: the crisis of rising tides, unaffordability, and plentiful ammunition. Predates her time.
She takes a half-step back, brings Ares Two’s fist back in a crude haymaker. Holds it while the gyros whine and settle and eventually calibrate.
A ribcage of fallen walls and collapsed ceilings: cheap bamboo studs locked together, tight as two hands intertwined, sheltering a dozen Jacksonville denizens. Faces plastered white as ghosts. Bullish men hug doe-eyed children quickly, furtively. Stoic wives stare into the middle distance. A pink-haired androgynous youth hugs their filthy chest and casts a molten gaze downward. Bowing: in effect, prostrating themselves before this filthy machine.
For seconds there is silence. Clattering; spent cases crunch underfoot, the subtle creaking of the Ares superstructure in a sudden chill breeze. Beyond, a giant’s thunderclap: another IED in distant streets. The windchime tinkles.
“You know what happens now, Praetoria.”
Ares Prime’s flamer cooks the very air. “Our orders are to produce deterrence.”
Flat doubt. Apparent even to her, hunched over the controls, a red-dot gun camera bearing witness to the atrocity that will invariably come next. She’s handled deterrence before but never with so many obvious noncombatants standing so unambiguously. Ares Four thumps down George Avenue to cut off any retreating stragglers.
“Deterrence.” Sour and glum.
“Yes Praetoria, deterrence. Extreme discouragement material. The very reason we send bipedal Rigs into combat zones at all.” Ares Prime inches around to starboard and halts in the intersection’s very centre. Squirts another miniature geyser of flame as the crowd gapes, transfixed, too entranced still to scream. “We terrify. Remember your training.”
Flesh doesn’t burst, it fans: an aerosol, watering the deep basements of this Jacksonville hovel. Another breeding ground for Liberator fanatics who doubt carbon and revel in gasoline, who stood tall and desecrated global warming memorials out by the Silverwood on-ramps, snuck out at night to wreck solar installations all along the countryside. Luddites, fundamentalists, fiercely loyal to an older masculine order of self-serve pumps. More martyrs to wash out of their holes with a hose and extreme prejudice.
Sobbing, shaking, Lucinda collapses over the controls and fills the floorwells with bile. Again and again and again as the BLINK pings finally connect with hostile traffic. She swings with the startled roar of Ares Prime over the comms, feels a hammer clang against her Rig’s midsection, pulls hard on the stick to about-face into the newest unnamed threat to pour from Jacksonville’s basements.
Hours before Lucinda clicked the double-trigger and added another crack to this shattered hemisphere’s most shattered city, Li had cradled those Javelins with a mother’s care. She’d laced her fingers and gently slid the sixty-pound casing into the base of Ares Two’s automatic hopper. Checked the armament modules to ensure they’d properly rupture concrete and steel and bone to the best of their abilities.
Before she’d slid the rack casing shut and checked the seal, she’d glance furtively at her fellow technicians, reach under her coveralls, pull out a key. Remember her cherished uncle and aunt, the new boyfriend who smoked and sneered, that silent guest, the gung-ho technician: carving those names with every ounce of annoyance and worry and love she once possessed.
At least, that is how she recalls those unremarkable years.
As the vidpad slides from numb fingers and dances itself out on the floor, a figure is caught in the freeze-frame picking through the yellowed warehouse, scarce seconds before the Javelin’s backwash. A half-burned girl, barely a woman, staggering in a sundress too stiff to spark, green eyes gaping for a hole, a hideaway, anything to escape the Rig’s abject terror.
She recognizes the gait.
Then, finally, she recognizes herself.
LIAO MING. LIAO FUNG. ASHTON CARVER. JASPREET SINGH. MELANIA TORRES. She carves the names into the last Javelin’s aluminum firing case with that rusted garage key and actually recalls Carver’s ruddy giggle, Singh’s mischievous grin, the salsa Torres adored. Her last words to Liao Ming and Fung. Pass the pork.
“Operational departure in five minutes.” Gunny snaps past her place on Ares Two’s maintenance bay, doubles back, gives her a once-over with that expressionless mask of soldierly purpose.
“Are we good, Technician?”
Javelins and Hellfires rumble on their carts towards splayed loading catches. A six-Rig punitive deployment. Repayment for some Liberator slight. She purses her lips, nods slowly and pensively, as only a penitent in her position could.
“Splendid.” A humourless grin. Then he returns to barking at the shaking junior reload apprentice fiddling with the portside chaingun hatch.
Li, in turn, reaches into the firing case to conclude her little ritual. The key slips from willing fingers. As she checks the seal, she reaches even deeper, into the belly of the Javelin assembly. Flicks open a panel. Grabs the igniter, the one critical component to the whole lethal apparatus. Tugs, hard.
About the Author: Brian Donnegal is a Canadian writer based in Toronto. His short fiction has been published in The Story Shack.
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