Monday, August 15, 2016

Heart-Shaped Locket

Chapter 1


I was standing in front of the recruitment officer, and he’d given me that look. The same look my big brothers gave me when they thought me an idiot for volunteering to do a job that I was way too small for. My father would shake his head, pull me aside and give me a different chore. Like polish his boots and armor. I didn’t mind the work at all because it meant I got to spend time with him. And I learned a lot from my dad, especially when he finally let me clean his guns.

The officer quickly looked me up and down, shook his head and then looked away to study my files.

“Grunt,” he said, not laughing. On the recruiting form, where it asks what positions you wanted to train for, “Ground Tactical Unit” was the only box I’d checked and then handwritten that old word next to it.

“Yes sir,” I replied, trying to make it sound as crisp and clear as I remembered my brothers saying many times to my father.

“Right,” he grumbled, but didn’t look up at me again. He added his stamp of approval and pointed to the other side of the auditorium where a line of big guys and gals stood waiting for a Doc to scan and then move them along to the next line once they passed their health check.

Everybody passed, but I still worried when the drone made a few extra body scans, more than I’d seen happen to those in front of me. The doc who passed me did so with a raised eyebrow, and I got that same look every time an officer put me through their evaluations.

I heard snickers from the other recruits when I finally got to the front of the line where you traded in your civilian clothes for boot camp gear. The NCO spent a few extra minutes looking for a uniform small enough to fit me. Even so, I had to roll up the sleeves and trouser legs, and was glad to have a belt with a D-ring.

The last line took the longest. A Sergeant and two officers reviewed all applications and qualifications, and then gave out your first assignment. I knew where I wanted to go. The Wichita Army Regiment is where everyone in my family started out.

When I got to the table I tried hard to keep my eyes staring straight ahead and not at anyone unless I was spoken to. That was one of the tips my big sister had given when she dropped me off at the Recruitment Center.

“Don’t look at any officer unless they ask you a question,” she said based on her own successful experience, “and only then do you look them in the eyes, answer briefly and seriously. And when you finish speaking, look away.”

But it was difficult cuz one of the officers at the table was my best friend, Allen, who’d sorta been my protector throughout our childhood. He’d been the one to give me my first kiss, and we had laughed about it afterwards cuz we both knew that would be the last time anything like that happened between us.

“What you smirkin’ at girl?” One of the officers said. It was spoken harshly, as a threat, but it was a question nonetheless. I pulled down the corners of my lips and looked at her to see the two bars on her lapel that told me her rank.

“Sir, I’m just glad to be here, Captain Sir!” I snapped my salute and looked straight ahead, giving my best impression of my father in his dress blues when he stood before his Commanding Officer and got pinned with another distinguished medal for bravery in the face of the enemy.

“Good answer.” I recognized Allen’s voice but kept my eyes looking above their heads.

“Your quals are impressive for a Grunt,” the Captain said. I blinked at my stupidity for writing that word, and felt the sweat starting to trickle down my back.

“I think maybe she filled out the wrong form,” said the Sergeant at the table. The multiple stripes on his sleeve were those of a Chief, and made me worry that he’d push me into a desk job instead of the infantry.

“Her family name though is something to consider.” In that moment I could've kissed Allen a second time, but I held steady. My eyes forward, my mouth pursed small and tight.

“Well then,” the Captain said. She outranked the other two at the table, and I knew she would make the final decision. She read my records again, and then added her approval to my paperwork.

“Grunt it is,” she said.

Chapter 2


I was sitting at the chow table, devouring the food rations on my plate, when the most beautiful woman I ever saw walked by. She wore tight white shorts and a white t-shirt that accented her bronze figure just right. She stopped to stare back at me, her head tilting to one side like my dad’s guard dog would do when it was judging you as friend or foe.

She turned and walked away, going to the far end of the mess hall and sitting with her back to me. I felt a finger under my chin pushing my jaw back up to where it belonged.

“Don’t even think about it,” Allen said. He was sitting next to me, and just like when we were growing up, he was looking out for me here too. My assigned buddy, Sheila, was on the opposite side and turned to see who I was looking at.

“Who is she?” I asked.

“Major Kara Sanford, AF, lead autonomous pilot for the regiment,” Sheila said in her Kiwi accent. “And she’s a spacer. There’s training simulators up on Deck 3.”

Sheila had somehow ended up in the Americas instead of Asia when the melting glaciers of Antarctica swallowed up New Zealand and much of Australia. It was so hot in the southern hemisphere that whatever wasn’t covered by water quickly shriveled up the minute it broke through the dry red dust.

“Wow,” I said. I knew Wichita had spaceflight status, but I didn’t realize we would all be bunking together.

“Yeah. And if she winds up kicking your ass you’ll be kicked outta the army,” Allen laughed. “A few idiots have tried and been burned. Don’t be an idiot.”

“Damn,” I muttered, taking a deep breath before taking my next bite. The klaxons went off mid-chew, and everyone stood up and started running out of the room. My buddy pushed me behind her to keep me from being trampled by several enormous guys whose strides were longer and faster than mine. They were still munching every last bit of meat rations they had been served, which looked to be real and three times the quantity I'd been allowed.

“What, uh who are they?” I asked, fearing for my life as several more big boots stomped by. The guys must’ve been over six feet tall, with enormous muscles popping out of their olive drab t-shirts, and their ACU trousers stretched tight around their tree-trunk-sized thighs and calves.

“Warrior Class,” Sheila said, turning me towards the hanger. That worried me. One of my brothers had made it into the Warriors and we’d not seen nor heard from him since he left bootcamp for his first command. He was way bigger than any of my brothers and the neighbor boys,  but smaller than these guys running ahead of me.

“Mighty big boys,” I said. I was incredibly curious, but there just wasn’t enough time to ask any more questions.

We got to our station and began suiting up. I’d been graduated early from bootcamp because I already knew all about the armor, its weapons systems and neural connections, but this was my first real outing. I had been posted as a Lineman because I was light and fast, and small enough to wiggle into the tunnels and make repairs while everyone else stood watch and kept me from getting killed.

My buddy checked all my hookups and slapped my shoulder. “Five by five, ‘cept this outfit looks a might big for you,” Sheila said, turning so that I could do likewise for her. “If it weren’t for all the velcro I bet it’d fall right off ya.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” I said, checking out her hookups and slapping her shoulder to confirm all was good. I didn’t bother telling her I was wearing my dad’s armor and had worn it nearly every day after he had died on some stupid diplomatic mission. My mom had remained the unflappable Captain those first days after she received the call, but nearly jumped out of her uniform when I came into the living room wearing the thing. She started giggling at how clumsy I was, and then laughed a bit too long when the steel toes caught on a piece of furniture and I ended up face first on the floor, flopping around as I tried to pick myself back up under all that weight.

After that I figured out how to plug up the toes in the boots, and cut lots of spare material that I used for extra coverage in the most sensitive areas - chest, abdomen, back, and up the back of the neck. But those first few weeks wearing my dad's fixer-upper I was all rolly-polly, unable to keep upright. I finally got my bearings and mastered the thing by practicing with my brothers. It became like second skin and was way better than what the Army would have given me if I’d accepted 15-years worth of paycheck deductions.

Allen gave a short command whistle and we all lined up at attention. He walked around, looking us up and down, checking a connection here and there, then nodding as he went back to stand in front of our line.

“Platoon,” he began, reading from the micro on his wrist, “about 50 clicks south we’ve got a power line down. We’ll be trucked out and have AirFire Escort. Private,” he looked at me, “you’ll have about 20 minutes to get in, find the break and fix it. Wichita Subdivision Nine needs that power back on before the backups fizzle out. Got it?”

“20 minutes, yes sir Lieutenant sir!” He smirked at the formality of my answer. I don’t know if I’d been put under his command because that’s where the opening was, or if he’d pulled some strings.

Either way, I was glad to be with him.

Chapter 3


“Rats again, sir,” I said over the comm. This was our fourth outing to this one section of the main feed from the energy farm to subdivision nine. The power outages were causing havoc with base systems, and heaven help us if the containment fields failed.

“How big, how many?” Allen’s voice held no fear whatsoever even though he could see via my head-cam a pile of dead rats nearly as big as my dad’s boots. Those were the ones I had killed as soon as I’d gotten down into the tunnel. More dead rats were laid out at the line break, though they were normal sized and likely died when their teeth gnawed through the casing and chomped down on a gigawatt of juice.

“About 100 or so. The ones around the break are three to four inches, and the ones that rushed me about the size of a small dog. A pack of dogs.” I stomped on one nearest me because it whimpered. I’d already thrown flames down both ends of the tunnel, careful not to get too near the power lines. Why the fuck were they eating through the casings?

I put a search into my heads-up display, and read through the history of power distribution. About 20 years ago the last of the overhead lines had been quickly moved underground into tunnels large enough for a small human to make repairs (well, small enough for me even with my armor). That move was to prevent the lines from being brought down by the tornados and haboobs that had begun to sweep across the midwest every spring and fall. And those were just some of the impacts of climate change. Power had become all important for the electrified containment fields that protected the base and nearby towns from the wild beasts and nasty buggers that roamed the wasteland, always hungry and always thirsty.

I flamed another rat that was gnawing on a dog-sized carcass that lay nearby. At least I wasn’t a worker at the energy farm. Those guys had it bad trying to keep the solar panels clean and dealing with the constant damage to the wind turbines, particularly in the older sections that were falling apart at a rate much faster than new sections could be brought online.

“Private, what’s your ETA on the fix?” The question dropped out my search results and I looked at the view from Allen’s position. Shit, the containment field around sub-nine was popping and crackling, the telltale signs of near-term failure of the backups for that section.

“Five minutes, sir,” I said, pulling out my toolkit and lasering off the shredded casing so that I had clean ends to work with. I pumped the vacuum up on my sprayer and began squeezing out some goo to reconnect the break. The 'goo' is a black tar-like substance that takes about 42 seconds before it forms solid once it leaves the nozzle. I shot short bursts to lay down the goo while using my big rubber spatula to fold it around the hot wires.

Just like mom used to make, I thought, and laughed at the memory of a woman in an apron, cooking eggs over an old time stove. Scenes like that, from silly old movies, kept popping into my head as I worked. We didn’t have a stove, nor real eggs, and my mother never cooked. But such distractions helped pass the time.

This was tiring work and always made me sweat even with the suit’s environmentals on cold. Pump, shoot, fold, repeat. For five minutes. That’s a long time, especially when I’d occasionally have to shake a rat off my boot. Damn things infested the tunnels, and I wondered why we just didn’t toss some gas down here every so often to get rid of ‘em.

“Private?”

“Yes sir, nearly done sir.” I shot the last goo and folded it over, making sure it was neat and clean and smooth. I counted down the 42 seconds while thinking through my latest theory about the rats. I pushed a couple of dead ones away and pocketed a few shreddings that lay on the floor, then picked up a big dead rat and shoved it into my largest cargo pocket.

“Sir,” I said when I had put away the toolkit, “can I have a few extra minutes to check something out?”

“You got three. It’s getting hot out here, Lil,” came Allen’s response.

I hated it when he called me that. Short for my real name, Lily, the whole platoon laughed and I became the butt of their jokes for several days and nights when he first used it. “Hey Lil bit, when ya gonna grow into that uniform?” or, “Hey Lil bit, get your puny ass outta my way.” I was just thankful that Allen hadn’t told them about me being a premie, which would have caused even more ribbing.

Lil your ass you dumb grunts, I thought, hiking 10+ meters down the tunnel to the last repair I’d made. I bent down to inspect the patch and it looked good, though the old casing on each side showed fresh teeth marks.

“Mother fuckers,” I breathed.

“What’s that Private?”

“Nothing sir, just inspecting my last repair. The rats have started to eat away at it too.”

“Does it need to be fixed?”

“It’ll last a couple weeks before we’re called out again,” I said.

“Good. Dogs on the periphery, comin’ in fast. Zip it up and get out now."

Damn, I thought. The wild dogs confused me cuz they made me think about my dad’s dog, whom he caught as a puppy and trained into a fierce and loyal guard dog. It wouldn’t leave his graveside for nearly two weeks, and I’d bring it food and water every morning. It finally followed me home the day I wore dad’s armor, and remained my faithful companion till the day it died.

I pretty much ran all the way back to the tunnel entrance, or what you can consider running in such a small space. It was more like a four-legged lope, like an animal, which I had figured out how to do back when I was practicing with my brothers who nearly toppled trying to reach down to grab me. That was the one weakness in the heavy armored suits. They didn’t bend very easy. The modifications I’d made to my dad’s armor allowed me to shift and bend in ways that the boys couldn’t, and I’d laughed at them as they stumbled around me. When my mom warned me that the joints were weakened beyond safety parameters, I reinforced those areas with extra kevlar fabric from what I'd cut from the legs and sleeves.

I heard several pop-pop-pops and recognized the sounds of AirFire Escort strafing the area too near the tunnel hatch. I hooked on the winch line and hit the “up” button, and used my arms to pull me up faster than the winch allowed. Sheila was hanging into the tunnel and extending her arm out to me. I grabbed her hand and she pulled as I pushed off with my feet, and then something went thunk and she let go. I fell as far as the extra line allowed and was nearly yanked apart. My back felt as if something cracked, but I was more frightened by the blood I saw pooling into Sheila’s face mask, and the huge wolf that was hovering over her. It was twice it's normal size, and it's gaping jaws were readying to bite down on her neck.

In a panic, I pulled out my sprayer and shot some goo at the thing, hitting it squarely in the mouth. Some of the goo dripped down onto Sheila. The beast whimpered but didn’t move away, and so I flung my spatula up into it’s throat. 42 seconds, just 42 seconds, I thought, worrying about what the hell was going on up there. The winch had stopped working, and I was laid out on my back, in pain and unable to move my legs. Sheila’s eyes were wide and staring at me, but the pool of blood in her mask had stopped growing.

The overgrown wolf was shaking it’s head furiously, and stepped off Sheila as it tried to get the hardening goo out of it’s mouth. Which it couldn’t.

“Forty-two,” I said, and winked at Sheila. More strafing AirFire from our Escort joined with the sounds of our platoon guns, and I saw Allen’s face through his foggy mask as he peered down into the tunnel. Two other soldiers pulled Sheila away from the hatch, and then two more started hauling me up. I screamed in pain at the jolting motion.

“HOLD!" Allen’s voice was calm but forceful. "Private, what’s your status?”

“I think my back is broken,” I said, gritting my teeth and trying to keep myself from crying out.

“Pull out your med kit, give yourself an injection.”

I wondered why I hadn’t thought of that. I toggled the emergency switch in my mask and then used the eye-tracker to send a morphine shot pumping into my neural.

“Go,” I said, not quite numb enough but hearing too much AirFire blasting away outside. I did my best to keep from screaming as the jerking of the line caused the pain in my back to blossom out to all my limbs. Not good, I thought, but at least I still had feeling in my legs, even if I had no control over them.

And then I fainted.

Chapter 4


With the help of electronically-controlled metal braces, I stood before the Colonel of the Wichita Base as he read through my report. Allen was standing to the side and slightly behind the Colonel. Major Sanford stood on the opposite side.

“So,” the Colonel finally said, putting down his micro. “You think the rats are feeding on the casings of the underground powerlines. Particularly the older cables that used paraffin wax as an insulating property.”

“Yes sir, Colonel, sir.”

“At ease soldier," he said, waving my formality aside. "You think the rats have formed a method of,” he peered down at my report, “ 'teaming together such that the smaller rats chew the casing away from the power lines and the larger rats feed on the scraps.' ”

“Yes sir,” I said, having relaxed my back and shifting my arms behind me. “That’s my conclusion based on what I've seen, what with the lack of material near the smaller rats plus the stomach contents found inside the big rat I brought back.”

“Hmmm,” he said as he rubbed his chin in thought. He swiped away my report and pulled something else up, taking several moments to read whatever was displayed on his micro.

“The Lieutenant's report says AirFire Escort was out of track and that allowed the wolves to attack his platoon. The pilot has been summarily punished by Major Sanford. The report also says you saved Corporal Wilson’s life. Is that right?”

“Sir. Um, I was lucky enough to hit the wolf and miss Sheila, er, Corporal Wilson.”

“The doctor’s report says the goo that dripped onto her neck actually cauterized the wound. Otherwise she would have bled to death. Did you know that when you took the shot?”

“No sir,” I said.

“It also says the mods to your armor are non-standard, and probably the cause for your broken back.”

I blinked and tried not to look at Allen, the Major, or the Colonel.

“Your paperwork says you volunteered for this Army station. And yet it also says your marks are better than the average infantryman.” He looked up at me, the seriousness in his face making me feel more uncomfortable as the silent seconds ticked by.

“All right then. The Lieutenant will take you back to your quarters. You’re dismissed.”

“Sir, thank you Colonel, Sir.” I gave a crisp salute, turned and walked out the door with a jerking motion as the braces bent and snapped back unnaturally at the hips and knees. Allen followed me out and closed the door behind us and was silent the whole way out of the command office. It was all I could do not to ask him what would happen to me.

Was I gonna get demoted? Kicked out of the army because of my broken back? The wheels in my head wouldn’t stop churning over the Colonel’s speech.

I heard music growing louder and louder as we neared the bunk room, and when we walked in an old song was blasting through the loudspeakers over our cots. A caterwauling rose up, and all of Allen’s off-duty platoon soldiers were standing and clapping. As I looked around the room I realized that soldiers from other platoons were here too, and even Major Sanford came in with a few of her pilots.

The noise of their applause drowned out the music that played overhead, but I caught a few snippets of the lyrics. Something about being a Wichita Lineman, still on the line.

Chapter 5


The Colonel seemed to think I had an aptitude for figuring out a problem without much evidence, and I'd gotten a promotion to Sergeant instead of a dishonorable discharge. He called me a ‘natural intuitive’ and moved me from infantry to analysis while my back healed. I didn’t want to stay in analysis, it was actually kinda boring. Except for the time I was able to spend with Kara. 

The Major and I had grown close during the past few months, working together on air-to-ground flight protection patterns for the Linemen who were digging up and replacing the casings of the older powerlines. I wanted it to be more than friendship but Allen’s words from so long ago kept ringing in my head. Enlisted do not fraternize with Officers.

“I thought I’d find you here.”

The Major’s words interrupted the silence, and I dropped the binoculars I'd been looking through and turned to salute her. She waved away my formality and moved to stand next to me behind the thick polycarb windows of the Observation Deck.  She was wearing her regular fatigues instead of the spacer skivvies she usually wore when going to or coming from an immersive simulator session, and I was glad I didn’t have to pretend to ignore that distraction.

“Don’t you have spacer training today,” I asked.

“All done and graduated.”

“What? Why didn’t you tell me? I’d like to have been there to congratulate you.” I grabbed her hand and shook it. She moved closer to me and kept my hand in her firm grip.

“They do give diplomas, don’t they?” I pulled my hand away.

“Just a simple ceremony. Something you’ll be going through soon enough.” She smiled.

“Huh?” I blinked.

“Let’s just say a birdie told me that your theory about the odd rat behavior, along with your gas solution to rid the tunnels of the vermin, are ‘an efficient and effective use of military resources.’ ” She dropped her voice to imitate that of the Colonel.

“Oh.” My head spun from the news and I wondered if that meant I'd finally get a single gold bar on my lapel. And, maybe, the Major could appreciate me for more than my brain.

“So, any new movements today?” Kara had allowed me access to the OD, a place usually reserved for officers, because I’d wondered aloud about the odd dust clouds the Lineman mentioned in their reports. I handed her my binoculars.

“Two o’clock,” I said, pointing southward. “Another at four, and again at ten. That's three more since the last time I checked. And they're headed this way.”

She adjusting the settings of the binocs to get as close a look as possible at the dust clouds on the horizon.

“Agreed. Approximately 15 clicks out by my measurements.”

I gasped. “They were 40 clicks just before you walked in.”

She frowned and looked through the binocs one more time before keying the emergency alarm and then radioing her aircrew. “Enemy inbound, 10 clicks. Get up in the air, Pilots. Now.” She dropped the binocs on the windowsill and ran out of the room, stopping at the doorway to turn around and yell at me.

“Come on, Soldier.”

I ran after her and we headed towards the hanger. All platoons were suiting up and loading extra firepower. The Big Boys - my nickname for the Warriors, were already marching out of the hanger to engage the first of the packs that were attacking Wichita base.

I stood at the doorway into the hanger, not quite sure what to do. The hulking metal braces had been removed a few weeks ago and replaced with a fine electrified netting that made movement much smoother and more natural, but the Doc hadn’t cleared me from medical status.

I saw Sheila wave at me from her new Platoon. Allen was at his and looking at me now and then as he went over his speech to the troops in his care. I saw my dad’s armor hanging in his Platoon’s locker.

“Damnit,” I said, and started to run towards Allen.

“Grunt, wait up,” Kara called after me. We stood together in the middle of the hanger as she pulled something from around her neck and handed it to me.

“What’s this?” I asked, holding the gold, heart-shaped locket and running the thick chain necklace between my fingers.

“Something my grandmother gave me years ago, for luck. Open it.”

I pinched my nail into the seam and opened the locket. One side, if I knew my biology properly, had a four-leaf clover. It wasn’t green anymore but it held it’s shape underneath the clear plastic cover. The other side was a picture of Kara and me. She must have grabbed the photo from the news report on my promotion to Sergeant.

I looked up and smiled at her, and put the locket around my neck. Before I could turn to leave, she grabbed my collar and laid one on me, and it was nothing like the 7th grade kiss from Allen.

I kissed her back. When we parted she headed for her command post while I went straight to Allen’s platoon. I saw Sheila raise two thumbs up at me.

“About time,” Allen said, laughing as he pushed my jaw closed before I could speak. “Shut up and suit up, grunt."

I grabbed my dad’s armor and pulled myself into it, patting down all the connections and letting Allen double-check them. He slapped me on my shoulder, and then yelled “Go!”

We marched out of the hanger and past the containment field and were immediately entangled in the fighting that had begun just inside the base perimeter. The Big Boys hadn’t made a dent in the attackers that came at us from all sides. I hauled out my flamethrower and aimed it at the beasts that were lunging towards us.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw several of the Warriors screaming. Most were trying to slip out of their armor and one was grabbing at his helmet, nearly shooting off his own head. Big yellow squirmy things dropped out of his face mask as he pulled it off, but more were stuck to his head as he stumbled around, prying at his eyes.

“What the hell?” I yelled.

“Leaches,” Allen yelled back just as he shot at one of the things wriggling on the ground, hitting it dead on but to no effect.

I used my handgun to shoot a pair of wolves that had latched onto the Warrior’s legs, pulling him down. I was off the mark, too afraid of hitting the Big Boy.

His screams caused shivers down my spine, and I saw Allen slowly take aim again and shoot the Warrior dead, to put the man out of his misery.

Others Warriors were stumbling around, their guns firing on full automatic. Most of the squads had broken ranks, and soldiers were running every which way, trying not to get shot by friendly fire as more and more Big Boys flailed about.

“Damnit Lieutenant,” came Kara’s voice over the comm “we can’t protect you. Get your Platoon back to the hanger. Retreat, retreat, retreat.”

Allen and I grabbed the shoulder armor of a couple of his recruits that had been shot, and started to haul them back. But huge beasts were already upon us, ripping apart each recruit they could get to. I flamed on and toasted several of the wolves to a crisp, while others howled as their fur caught fire.

An AirFire Escort laid down a strafe in a circle all around us. A couple more of our soldiers went down, shot by a Big Boy gone insane, and Allen grabbed them both and hauled them into the center of the AirFire safety circle as the beasts moved away from the threat above. I chased them with my flames, catching several in their backs.

“Goddammit,” I yelled after a round of machine gun fire whizzed past me. I put a bullet into the helmet of the nearest Big Boy before I burnt to a crisp the leeches that were attached to him. I was sobbing when I took those shots.

It was chaos. Most of the Warriors were down, their masks covered inside with yellow leeches causing them to stumble about, shooting all their firepower in any and every direction. Platoons that would normally have outflanked the enemy had broken up, and the beasts pounced on them.

Dust and smoke was everywhere. I didn't see the rope lines dropping from the sky.

“Hook on, Sergeant,” Kara ordered, and I realized the AirShip that hovered above us had let down the pickup wires. I hooked a line onto a wounded soldier, and then another to the second wounded. Allen grabbed the other lines and hooked them to the two remaining recruits still alive, and waved at the Pilot to haul away. He stepped closer to me.

“You and me, Lil,” he said. I nodded, and charged up my flamethrower as he pulled out every gun he had and reloaded. We stood back to back as the beasts began to rush us, and turned in a circle as we pulled on and held our triggers open. Hundreds of beasts dropped, but more were climbing over the piles of the dead to get at us. We kept turning around and around, firing everything we had. And still they came.

Something tapped my head and I looked up to see a wire, and I suddenly recoiled from the memory of when I was last hooked to such a thing. I slapped the carabiner onto Allen’s belt then wrapped myself around him and he wrapped around me. We held each other as the AirShip pulled us up and took off towards the hanger. The beasts yapping at our heels.

“Hang on, Lily,” Kara whispered in my ear, “hang on.”

Chapter 6


“What the hell happened out there,” the Colonel practically shouted at Kara, Allen and I. We’d been called into his office, and I had placed a dead leech the size of my arm on his desk.

The containment field was up and the beasts had all but disappeared. Yet, so many soldiers had not made it back to the station. The worst losses were in the Warrior Class, not a single one had survived.

“The Big Boys,” I said, “the Warriors. My brother is one of them.” I prodded the leech, "this came from inside their suits.”

The Colonel looked at the thing and then leaned forward and stared at me, finally remembering who I was from the 3,000 soldiers under his command.

“Multiple bases are reporting their Warriors down.” He pushed the leech off his desk and into a waste bin. "And they too had those yellow fuckers inside their suits. Sergeant, I don’t know how that happened, but you’re going to figure this out and fast.”

“How do the Warriors get so big?” He looked at me, his jaw clenching and releasing several times before answering my bald-faced question.

“They’re given a special steroid cocktail that increases their size and bulk. They wear a pack 24/7 that regulates the intake so that they can retain their mass but keeps their cells from shifting into uncontrolled growth.”

“Okay,” I said slowly, trying to calm myself down because 'uncontrolled growth' meant something bad. "Where do those packs come from? How are they made and who makes ‘em?”

“I can’t give you that information, Sergeant.” He sat back in his chair and I knew he wasn’t going to give me any more info unless I did something that would cause me to wind up in a court-martial. I was pretty sure that I was ready to do it, for my brother.

Kara touched my arm. “Thank you sir. We understand your orders. I’d like to get the Sergeant started with the investigation. May we be dismissed?”

He nodded at the Major. “Tread carefully Sergeant,” he said, and then waved us out. When we had left the command offices, Kara pulled Allen and I aside.

“We fly ‘em in from New Asia,” she said.

“New Asia?” I ran my hands through my short hair, squeezing my eyes shut and scanning my memory for recent intel reports I’d seen. “They’ve been ramping up production on bio-substitutes but have a lot of quality problems.” I pounded on my head, trying to remember which manufacturing company had pest infestation rates nearing 65% and climbing.

“What else do we get from New Asia?”

“I can show you a shipping manifest.” She pulled out her micro and swiped the report to mine. I read it, astonished at the length of the list. More important, I traced down the list to find the name of the company that manufactured the protein packs. I rescanned the list with the name as the search parameter, and the results grew larger than I’d thought it would.

“Protein packs, rice, beans, peanut butter, meat, milk, eggs. Damnit, that’s nearly every sub we get! We’ve gotta go to food storage and see how much of it's contaminated.” My stomach grumbled, and I realized it’d been nearly half a day since our last meal. But I wasn't feeling very hungry.

“One more thing Sergeant,” Kara said holding my arm, “we lost a supply carrier a few months back, about 50 klicks southwest of the base. The crew ejected safely and we were able to pick ‘em up without incident, but the supply crates were all busted wide open.”

I stared at her for too long, the wheels in my head spinning from this new information. “Pretty much right where we’ve been seeing those too big rats and too-big wolves. And whatever else is feeding on those rations.”

I looked at the base maps to locate the food storage, while the Major and Lieutenant picked up several soldiers who had lost their platoon leaders but still had their wits. I was glad to see Sheila had made it back, though her platoon had been decimated. She joined us, and Kara explained the mission to our new squad.

“This is gonna be dangerous. You saw what happened out there, to the Warriors. No one will blame you if you don’t want to go in.”

No one moved.

“Okay then,” she said looking at me, “take the lead, Sergeant.”

I nodded and headed out, following the station maps to the armory to pick up more ammo and fuel packets, and then the shortest route from there to the food storage facility. I held everyone at the main doors and looked to the three officers.

“Is anyone posted inside?” I asked. Kara, because of her position and status, had access to all orders. She looked at her micro and shook her head.

“Still, we shouldn’t go in there shooting first and asking questions later,” Allen whispered, even though I'm sure leeches can't hear. But these aren't normal leeches.

“Right,” Sheila said, her kiwi accent drawing out the word, “but we can’t let anything past these doors either.”

“I’ll be on point,” I said, pulling out my flame thrower. “Signal me if you see anything odd, and I’ll lay down some fire.”

Everyone nodded. The soldiers split up, flanking me left, right, and behind. Allen and Sheila were at the doors.

“Open up,” I said. They pulled open the big steel doors and stepped aside. Nothing happened. Not a single thing moved and not a sound was heard above the flub-flub of the air scrubbers.

“Anyone got any movement on infrared?”

“Nothing in front of us,” Allen said.

“Nothing behind,” said Kara, who kept three soldiers on lookout. I muttered a curse under my breath, and signaled everyone to wait while I moved in.

I stepped forward, hearing my steel boots tapping on the concrete floor. I reminded myself this is like going into the tunnels. And then it hit me, and the thought made my skin crawl. I backed out the doors and motioned for them to be closed and locked tight.

Kara, Allen and Sheila huddled around me as the other grunts kept watch. I pulled up the power tunnel maps on my micro and traced each of their lines into the base.

“Fuck,” Kara and Allen whispered in unison as they watched what I was doing.

“Yeah,” I sighed, wishing my stomach would stop churning.

“What?” Sheila said. She wasn’t following where I was going with this.

“The power tunnels lead right under and into the base.”

“So?”

“Anything smaller than a cow can get in.”

“Like wolves,” Sheila hissed. She rubbed the back of her neck.

“We need to place guards at every tunnel entry into the base," Kara said. "Not just power, but all the tunnels and piping. How many are we talking about?” We bent our heads over my micro, counting the red, blue, yellow and green lines to answer her question.

“Too many are big enough for anything larger than a rat.” I pointed to the red lines, “the Linemen can push gas into these three cuz they’re power tunnels, we just gotta seal the entries so no gas gets into base.”

Allen motioned to one of the grunts who leaned over to look at the map, listen to his orders, and then was off at a run. “Red’s taken care of,” he said, “what about the blue?”

“These,” I pointed at two large blue lines, “are the main water feeds for the base.”

Kara nodded, “Only way in is through the intake treatment plant. I’ll radio the Specialists to take extra precautions. What about the yellow lines, there’s an awful lot of them all over the place.”

We all stared at the map, and I bit my lip as I followed the maze of yellow lines throughout the base. “Sewage. See here? They run everywhere, but lead out to the waste treatment plant. Those pipes are open flow..."

“What would wanna come inside so bad they’d wade through all our shit?”

Allen chuckled at Sheila’s question. “Yeah well, some things just love shit. We gotta keep the latrines latched down and when we open 'em up, we shoot first then aim. Afterwards, we flush a bunch of chemicals down to keep those pipes clean.”

Sheila snorted, which caused me, Kara and Allen to laugh. I sighed after the giggles passed.

“Sounds like a plan. Now the green lines.” I stared at the map, following ten lines that led directly into the center of the base and abruptly ended. “I don’t know what these are.”

Kara looked at me, the crinkle in the center of her forehead deepening. “I do.”

Chapter 7


Why anybody would color-code green on a map for the tunnels to underground nuclear missiles was beyond me. And why those tunnels were so big was another stunner. Without my armor, I could crawl through them, which meant so could a very large rat.

I hated going in without my flame thrower or a regular gun, but I wasn't particularly fond of baking myself to a crisp, nor shooting myself with a ricochet in those steel tunnels. I had only my goo gun and spatula because I would need to fix any breaks in the power and communication cables. Nobody liked the idea of a chewed line causing a launch of the five megaton warheads atop each of the ten candles hidden under the Kansas dirt. Even so, Kara took nearly an hour to convince the Colonel to turn the nuke's failsafe to “test” mode.

While those two argued, Allen and Sheila posted soldiers at the entryways for red and yellow tunnels, got the word out about the latrines, and put the Water Specialists at the treatment plant to work. Sometimes the simplest solution is the easiest, and they distributed specially filtered bottles and chlorine tablets to every soldier while they worked out how often to flush the systems with toxic chemicals.

Allen and Sheila then took another squad for reconn of the food storage, while Kara accompanied me to the lowest floor in the complex, where the green tunnels disappeared from the map.

"You have to go down about twenty flights, and it's all ladders," she said, helping me take off my armor. "I want you to clear all the odd-numbered tunnels first."

"Why?"

"Need to know, soldier," she said. I guessed by her look that she would eventually tell me what that order was about.

I sucked on my hydration tube before pinching it closed and making the long crawl down through the first of the green tunnels. It was slow, cramped work, and when I crawled back out Kara handed me a wet towel to cool off.

"Clean as a whistle," I said after gulping down some water.

"Good. Nine more to go."

I nodded at her and I popped into tunnel number three, immediately sticking my head out to smile and wink at her. "Go," she said in all seriousness, "stay safe."

It took me the rest of the day to clear tunnels three, five and seven, and each were squeaky clean. Just one more to go but I was so tired and wobbly coming out of seven that Kara helped me to the floor. She laid my head in her lap, and her hands felt cool as she massaged my scalp and neck, careful to avoid the connection of the electric netting that I still wore.

"It's a good thing you're so tiny," she whispered.

I yawned. "My mom told me that when she was pregnant with me she was sent on a test run. Chemical warfare wasn't such an exact science back then. Something leaked, and I popped out a bit too early."

"My miracle baby," she said. Her voice barely registered above the sound of another soldier coming in with spare guns. She motioned him to stand guard at the door.

"Sleep now. You'll check the rest of the tunnels after you're rested."

I couldn't keep my eyes open, but my thoughts were a bit harder to shut down. "Are we still in failsafe?"

"No. The Colonel wants us armed at all times when you're not in the tunnels. I'll radio him in about two hours. Get some sleep." She leaned down and kissed me, and the softness of her lips was the last thing I remember. Until I saw the rats.

They were bigger than me, attacking the platoon and tearing Allen and Sheila limb from limb. Kara was raining fire down from her airship as I lay on the ground, unable to move away from the yellow leeches that were climbing up my legs. Allen was screaming at me, begging me to shoot him. Klaxons were blaring and someone jerked me upright, and then I was wide awake.

"What happened," I yelled over the alarms.

"Breach at the south side containment field, sir." The soldier who answered my question was the only one in the green room with me.

"Where's Kara, Major Sanford?"

"Pilot's command post, sir. She said to stay here with you."

"What about the failsafe?"

"Don't know sir, she didn't say anything about that. We're to stay here and I'm to stand guard while you clear the rest of the tunnels."

I nodded, wondering what the fuck was going on, wanting to abandon this post and go out to fight with the rest of my platoon. But I could tell the soldier had his orders, and he had just relayed mine.

I paced a few minutes to rid my legs of the last tingles of sleep, then ripped open and devoured a protein bar and drank some water. I grabbed my goo gun and slung it's supply pack onto my back, then opened the hatch to tunnel two and went in, head first. It was clean.

Tunnel four was trouble. I could smell the reek of ammonia the second I popped my head inside. Rat piss, I thought, pulling myself out of the tunnel too disgusted by the odor. I dropped a gas grenade in and closed the hatch, hoping whatever was in there would die before it did too much damage. Six, eight and ten also reeked, and each got a gas grenade. That left just one last tunnel to check.

I ate my last protein bar and sucked the last drop of water from my hydration pack. The soldier handed me his bottle and I took a small sip, wanting only to take off the edge but leave enough for him. Then I opened the last hatch.

Tunnel number nine smelled like stale air. I hoisted myself in and followed it down. My headlamp showed no breaks in the power and comm lines all the way to the bottom hatch. I squirmed around and started my way back up the ladder when a scratching sound made me stop. I waited several seconds, the silence of the tunnel broken only by my own breathing. And then it came again, the sound just above me like nails scraping against metal.

I shined my light up the tunnel, and two small red eyes stared back at me. Something yellow was attached to the side of it's head. My scream echoed through the tunnel and the damn thing scampered up the ladder and out of the range of my light.

"Fuuuuuck," I yelled, knowing the sound would reverberate and hoping to scare the thing farther away. It was above me, which meant that I couldn't shoot my goo gun because the damn stuff would fall back on me. I took the few ladder rungs back down and stood on the bottom hatch, shining my light up the tunnel and trying to keep still so I could listen to what was going on overhead.

I heard the sound of gunshots reverberate for several minutes, and then start bouncing into the tunnel. The noise of the bullets against the metal walls was thunderous, and I had to clap my hands over my ears.

"Stop shooting," I screamed, "you're gonna get me killed."

My radio crackled.

"Where are you?" It was Kara.

"Bottom of number nine," I radioed back, "what's going on?"

"Stay there," she said, "We're coming down."

"What?"

"Stay there Sergeant, that's an order."

I swallowed hard, knowing what ever had just happened was bad. Really bad.

"Be careful," I radioed, "we've got company."


Chapter 8


Kara checked the buckles on my seat's harness, making sure they were tight. She locked the helmet onto my suit, and slapped my shoulder.

"You're going to feel a lot of gees," she said over the comm as she strapped herself into the pilot's seat. "Squeeze all your muscles as tight as you can for as long as you can to keep the blood from flowing out of your brain. Hold the air in your lungs as long as possible. Once we reach free flight try to pop your ears by yawning."

I was still in disbelief at what had happened, and the fact that we were sitting in the command capsule atop a rocket ship. Thirteen other soldiers had climbed down the tunnel with her, and I was relieved to see Sheila was one of 'em. But Allen... I shook my head to keep the tears inside.

A battle had raged above me while I was in the green tunnels, and we lost more than half the division. The yellow tunnels had been breached, and the food storage had been over run. On the Colonel's order to abandon the base, Kara had rounded up the other spacer pilots along with specially designated officers, soldiers and their families, and they had fought their way to the green room.

The green room was a secret escape point that led to the ten underground silos, and I learned why she wanted the odd-numbered tunnels cleared first. Those had been converted to house space capsules instead of warheads, and would shoot us up and out of the earth's atmosphere, into orbit around the planet. We would rendezvous with multiple space stations that had been built to house the last survivors of the human race.

I gulped and looked towards Kara, trying to slow my breathing so that I could see past the fog inside my helmet.

"All of the nuke tunnels are infested," I said. "and from the smell of it the rats have been there a long time."

She acknowledged me with a nod, but continued working through her launch sequence. It worried me that she wasn't worried about nukes going off when we launched. But then, I figured she knows what she's doing and I trusted her. We all needed to trust her.

"Let's light this candle," Kara finally said, turning to wink at me as she flipped a switch. A red light started blinking, and a mechanical voice counted down from T-minus fifty. A rumble grew beneath us that felt like it was going to shake me to pieces.

I looked around inside my helmet and found several controls, and turned on a heads-up display that showed me around the capsule. I took a virtual walk and saw a group of 100 or so people in space suits seated in a large passenger cabin beneath the command module. Another spacer was working her way through the last of them, slapping harnesses closed and locking helmets shut, then bolting herself into her own seat. I could see her talking inside her helmet, her voice sounding far off and repeating the same things Kara had told me.

I came back into the co-pilot's seat at T-minus 25. Kara grabbed my gloved hand and squeezed, then her hands were back at the pilot's station, doing whatever it was they needed to do.

At T-minus ten I heard Kara say, "here we go," and then the explosions began beneath us. The pressure seemed to build slowly at first, and then slammed me back into my seat. I felt like I was becoming one with the cushions, and then shoved out the other side. I tried to squeeze all my muscles like Kara had warned, but I couldn't breathe and I screamed as the edges of my vision went black.  I didn't lose consciousness entirely, but the hammering in my head caused my tears to finally let loose.

I was aware enough to realize that the pressure ended abruptly, and I gulped air into my lungs in painful sobs. I had no strength to keep my arms and legs from floating up, and my head lolled around in my helmet. I barely noticed that Kara had gotten out of her seat and was pressing some buttons on the outside of my suit. Whatever she did made me feel funny, and I started to giggle.

"Go easy now girl," she said to me, taking off my helmet. "Feel better?"

I tried to smile but let out a groan instead. I couldn't make my tongue or throat work properly to speak, and felt lightheaded and giddy. I realized she'd given me a boost of morphine.

She smiled, moved closer and kissed me on the lips just before picking the gold chain and locket out of the air and pushing it back down under my shirt.

Safe and sound, and exactly where it should be.


Epilogue


" 'Space, the final frontier.' I remember those words from old movies I used to watch when I was a kid, I just never thought I'd get there." I blinked. "Here."

"Well, it took some convincing, but the Colonel could't refuse when I said I wouldn't fly without you." Kara grinned.

She was sitting at my bedside holding my hand while I was, once again, laid up in the hospital. Seems my brittle bones couldn't take the gee-force of take-off, and now here I am waiting for little nano-bots to weave together new titanium vertebrae and synthetic nerves.

Twenty-eight years ago, my mother had to harass the docs to keep me alive. They didn't want to spend the time or money on a lost cause, but she forced them to at least give me organ transplants so that I would have a fighting chance. Well look at me now mom, I thought, I'm getting a whole new skeleton.

"At least you'll grow a couple of inches," Kara said, though I knew so would everyone else on station and I'd still be the runt of the litter. But that doesn't really matter.

"Did the Commander approve my idea," I asked.

"Yep. In the next few days you'll be the proud owner of a fancy neural hookup to the observation systems. You can run search patterns and analysis to your heart's content."

"Thank you," I said, knowing how much she was doing for me and wishing I could lift my head to give her a kiss, or just squeeze her hand. But physical motions like that were weeks away.

When Kara, her crew and passengers had made it to the green room, Wichita base had been overrun by rats and wolves three times their normal size. The worst of it was the leeches that had infested the food stores all across Earth's last protected human settlements. The powers that be decided it was time to abandon ship.

Rockets had launched from multiple bases and roughly 5,000 people (half the carrying capacity) had escaped to the ten space stations in orbit around the planet. I had faith that those left behind - like my mother, sister and brothers, would stage themselves in defensible positions and survive because of their military skills. And laid up as I am, I'm the only one with the time to try and find them.

"I've done a bit of thinking." I paused to let Kara's laughter subside. "You've got to keep a rigorous exercise regimen, you and your crew. Your bodies need to stay strong enough to handle Earth's gravity. And the rescue missions will be dangerous."

Kara nodded. "We're workin' it."

I could tell there was more, but waited for her to speak.

"You know," she said, "there's only so much time before the power systems down there fail. Some are already starting to fail."

"Right. And when the power goes, so does everyone's chance of survival." I sighed. "We've just got to work as fast as possible. And then... when the power is gone, we're done."

She was silent again, but this time I prodded.

"What is it?"

"Everyone hopes that one day we'll go back and live on Earth. But recovery of the planet's natural systems will take far too long. Second generation spacers will be like you, they won't be able to return to Earth even if they wanted to."

"Yeah." I drew out the word, wondering why she was changing the subject.

"As soon as we finish the rescue mission, the Commander wants to start ferry flights to the moon and mars. We'll need new water sources as the population grows."

"Uh-huh." I noted the lack of the plural when she said 'mission'.

"I'll need a good analyst, and a space launch will be easy. Less stress on your body. And besides, you'll be stronger than a locomotive by then."

It was my turn to laugh. "You're full of surprises."

"Well, you're not the only one who watches old movies. What else am I gonna do waiting for you to grow a spine."

And this time, we both laughed.

"I don't want to give up on them," I whispered.

She nodded and squeezed my hand. "I won't let you."

And that was as strong and true a statement as the heart-shaped locket I wore around my neck.

<word count: 9876>

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed it. Didn't want to stop reading once I started.