War is Oscar Wendell's ticket to greatness. A reporter for The Stars and Stripes, he has the only one way pass to the front lines of a brutal war over natural resources buried underneath the icy, mineral rich mountains of Kazakhstan.
But war is nothing like he expected. Heavily armored soldiers battle genetically engineered troops hundreds of meters below the surface. The genetics-the germline soldiers-are the key to winning this war, but some inventions can't be un-done. Some technologies can't be put back in the box.
Kaz will change everything, not least Oscar himself. Hooked on a dangerous cocktail of adrenaline and drugs, Oscar doesn't find the war, the war finds him.
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By McCarthy, T.C.
OrbitCopyright © 2011 McCarthy, T.C.
All right reserved.
I’ll never forget the smell: human waste, the dead, and rubbing alcohol—the smell of a Pulitzer.
The sergeant looked jumpy as he glanced at my ticket. “Stars and Stripes?” I couldn’t place the accent. New York, maybe. “You’ll be the first.”
He laughed as if I had made a joke. “The first civilian reporter wiped on the front line. Nobody from the press has ever been allowed up here, not even you guys. We got plenty of armor, rube. Draw some on your way out and button up.” He gestured to a pile of used suits, next to which lay a mountain of undersuits, and on my way over, the sergeant shouted to a corporal who had been relaxing against the wall. “Wake up, Chappy. We got a reporter needin’ some.”
Tired. Empty. I’d seen it before in Shymkent, in frontline troops rotating back for a week or two, barely able to walk, with dark circles under their eyes so they looked like nervous raccoons. Chappy had that look too.
He opened one eye. “Reporter?”
“Where’s your camera?”
I shrugged. “Not allowed one. Security. It’s gonna be an audio-only piece.”
Chappy frowned, as if I couldn’t be a real reporter, since I didn’t have a holo unit, thought for a moment, and then stood. “If you’re going to be the first reporter on the line, I guess we oughta give you something special. What size?”
I knew my size and told him. I’d been through Rube-Hack back in the States; all of us had. The Pentagon called it Basic Battlefield Training, but every grunt I’d met had just laughed at me, and not behind my back. Rube. Babe. Another civilian too stupid to realize that anything was better than Kaz because Kazakhstan was another world, purgatory for those who least deserved it, a vacation for the suicidal, and a novelty for those whose brain chemistry was messed up enough to make them think it would be a cool place to visit. To see firsthand. Only graduates of Rube-Hack thought that last way, actually wanted Kaz.
“Real special,” he said. Chappy lifted a suit from the pile and dropped it at my feet, then handed me a helmet. Across the back someone had scrawled forget me not or I’ll blow your punk-ass away. “That guy doesn’t need it anymore, got killed before he could suit up, so it’s in decent shape.”
I tried not to think about it and grabbed an undersuit. “Where’s the APC hangar?”
He didn’t answer. The man had already slumped against the wall again and didn’t bother to open his eyes this time, not even the one.
It took me a few minutes to remember. Sardines. Lips and guts stuffed into a sausage casing. Getting into a suit was hard, like over-packing a suitcase and then trying to close it from the inside. First came the undersuit, a network of hoses and cables. There was one tube that ended in a stretchy latex hood, to be snapped over the end of your you-know-what, and one that ended in a hollow plug (they issued antibacterial lube for that), and the plug had a funny belt to keep it from coming out. The alternative was sloshing around in a suit filled with your own waste, and we had been told that on the line you lived in a suit for weeks at a time.
I laughed when it occurred to me that somewhere, you could almost bet on it, there was a certain class of people who didn’t mind the plug at all.
Underground meant the jitters. A klick of rock hung overhead so that even though I couldn’t see it, I felt its weight crushing down, making the hair on my neck stand straight. These guys partied subterrene, prayed for it. You’d recognize it in Shymkent, when you met up with other reporters at the hotel bar and saw Marines—fresh off the line—looking for booze and chicks. Grunts would come in and the waiter would move to seat them on the ground floor and they’d look at him like he was trying to get them killed. They didn’t have armor on—it wasn’t allowed in Shymkent—so the guys had no defense against heat sensors or motion tracking, and instinct kicked in, reminding them that nothing lived long aboveground. Suddenly they had eyes in the backs of their heads. Line Marines, who until that moment had thought R & R meant safety, began shaking and one or two of them would back against the wall to make sure they couldn’t get it from that direction. How about downstairs? Got anything underground? A basement? The waiter would realize his mistake then and usher them into the back room to a spiral staircase, into the deep.
The Marines would smile and breathe easy as they pushed to be the first one underground. Not me, though. The underworld was where you buried corpses, and where tunnel collapses guaranteed you’d be dead, sometimes slowly, so I didn’t think I could hack it, claustrophobia and all, but didn’t have much choice. I wanted the line. Begged for a last chance to prove I could write despite my habit. I even threw a party at the hotel when I found out that I was the only reporter selected for the front, but there was one problem: at the line, everything was down—down and über-tight.
The APC bounced over something on the tunnel floor, and the vehicle’s other passenger, a corpsman, grinned. “No shit?” he asked. “A reporter for real?”
“Hell yeah. Check it.” I couldn’t remember his name but for some reason the corpsman decided to unlock his suit and slip his arm out—what remained of it. Much of the flesh had been replaced by scar tissue so that it looked as though he had been partially eaten by a shark. “Fléchettes. You should do a story on that. Got a holo unit?”
“Nah. Not allowed.” He gave me the same look as Chappy—what kind of a reporter are you?—and it annoyed me because I hadn’t been lit lately and was starting to feel a kind of withdrawal, rough. I pointed to his arm. “Fléchettes did that? I thought they were like needles, porcupine stickers.”
“Nah. Pops doesn’t use regular fléchettes. Coats ’em with dog shit sometimes, and it’s nasty. Hell, a guy can take a couple of fléchette hits and walk away. But not when they’ve got ’em coated in Baba-Yaga’s magic grease. Pops almost cost me the whole thing.”
“Popov. Victor Popovich. The Russians.”
He looked about nineteen, but he spoke like he was eighty. You couldn’t get used to that, seeing kids half your age, speaking to them, and realizing that in one year, God and war had somehow crammed in decades. Always giving advice as if they knew. They did know. Anyone who survived at the line learned more about death than I had ever wanted to know, and as I sat there, the corpsman got that look on his face. Let me give you some advice…
“Don’t get shot, rube,” he said, “and if you do, there’s only one option.”
The whine of the APC’s turbines swelled as it angled downward, and I had to shout. “Yeah? What?”
“Treat yourself.” He pointed his fingers like a pistol and placed them against his temple. The corpsman grinned, as if it was the funniest thing he had ever heard.
Marines in green armor rested against the curved walls of the tunnel and everything seemed slippery. Slick. Their ceramic armor was slick, and the tunnel walls had been melted by a fusion borer so that they shone like the inside of an empty soda can, slick, slick, and double slick. My helmet hung from a strap against my hip and banged with every step, so I felt as though it were a cowbell, calling everyone’s attention.
First thing I noticed on the line? Everyone had a beard except me. The Marines stared as though I were a movie star, something out of place, and even though I wore the armor of a subterrener—one of Vulcan’s apostles—mine didn’t fit quite right, hadn’t been scuffed in the right places or buckled just so because they all knew the best way, the way a veteran would have suited up. I asked once, in Shymkent, “Hey, Marine, how come you guys all wear beards?” He smiled and reached for his, his smile fading when he realized it had been shaved. The guy even looked around for it, like it fell off or something. “ ’Cause it keeps the chafing down,” he said. “Ever try sleeping and eating with a bucket strapped around your face twenty-four seven?” I hadn’t. Early in the war, the Third required their Marines to shave their heads and faces before going on leave—to keep lice from getting it on behind the lines—but here in the underworld the Marines’ hair was theirs, a cushion between them and the vision hood that clung tightly but never fit quite right, leaving blisters on anyone bald.
Not having a beard made me unique.
A captain grabbed my arm. “Who the hell are you?”
“Wendell. Stars and Stripes, civilian DOD.”
“No shit?” The captain looked surprised at first but then smiled. “Who are you hooking up with?”
“Second Battalion, Baker.”
“That’s us.” He slapped me on the back and turned to his men. “Listen up. This here is Wendell, a reporter from the Western world. He’ll be joining us on the line, so if you’re nice, he might put you in the news vids.”
I didn’t have the heart to say it again, to tell them that I didn’t have a camera and, oh, by the way, I spent most of my time so high that I could barely piece a story together.
“Captain,” I said. “Where are we headed?”
“Straight into boredom. You came at the right time. Rumor is that Popov is too tired to push, and we’re not going to push him. We’ll be taking a siesta just west of Pavlodar, about three klicks north of here, Z minus four klicks. Plenty of rock between us and the plasma.”
I had seen a collection of civilian mining equipment in the APC hangar, looking out of place, and wondered. Fusion borers, piping, and conveyors, all of it painted orange with black stripes. Someone had tried to hide it under layers of camouflage netting, like a teenager would hide his stash, just in case Mom didn’t buy the I-don’t-do-drugs, you-don’t-need-to-search-my-room argument.
“What about the gear in the hangar—the mining rigs?” I asked.
A few of the closest Marines had been bantering and fell silent while the captain glared at me. “What rigs?”
“The stuff back in the hangar. Looked like civilian mining stuff.”
He turned and headed toward the front of his column. “Keep up, rube. We’re not coming back if you get lost.”
Land mines. Words were land mines. I wasn’t part of the family, wasn’t even close to being one of them, and my exposure to the war had so far been limited to jerking off Marines when they stepped off the transport pad in Shymkent, hoping to get a money shot interview, the real deal. Hey, Lieutenant, what’s it like? Got anyone back home you wanna say hi to? Their looks said it all. Total confusion, like, Where am I? We came from two different worlds, and in Shymkent they stepped into mine, where plasma artillery and autonomous ground attack drones were things to be talked about openly—irreverently and without fear so you could prove to the hot AP betty, just arrived in Kaz, that you knew more than she did, and if she let you in those cotton panties, you’d share everything. You would, too. But now I was in their world, land of the learn-or-get-out-of-the-way-or-die tribe, and didn’t know the language.
A Marine corporal explained it to me, or I never would have figured it out.
“Hey, reporter-guy.” He fell in beside me as we walked. “Don’t ever mention that shit again.”
“What’d I say?”
“Mining gear. They don’t bring that crap in unless we’re making another push, to try and retake the mines. If we recapture them, the engineers come in and dig as much ore as they can before the Russians hit us to grab it back. Back and forth, it’s how the world churns.”
There were mines of all kinds in Kaz, trace-metal mines and land mines. The trace mines were the worst, because they never blew up; they just spun in place like a buzz saw, chewing, and too tempting to let go. Metal. We’d get it from space someday, but bringing it in was still so expensive that whenever someone stumbled across an earth source, usually deep underground, everyone scrambled. Metal was worth fighting over, bartered for with blood and fléchettes. Kaz proved it. Metals, especially rhenium and all the traces, were all the rage, which was the whole reason for our being there in the first place.
I saw an old movie once, in one of those art houses. It was animated, a cartoon, but I can’t remember what it was called. There was a song in it that I’ll never forget and one line said it all. “Put your trust in Heavy Metal.” Whoever wrote that song must have seen Kaz, must have looked far into the beyond.
I needed to get high. The line assignment had come from an old friend, someone corporate who’d taken pity and thought he’d give me one last chance to get out the old Oscar, not the one who used to show promise but couldn’t even write a sentence now unless he’d just mainlined a cool bing. Somehow, I knew I’d screw this one up too, but I didn’t want to die doing it.
My first barrage lasted three days. I was so scared that I forgot about my job, never even turning on my voice recorder, the word “Pulitzer” a mirage. Three days of sitting around and trying to watch them, to learn something that might keep me from getting wiped—or at least explain why it was I had wanted this assignment in the first place—and always wondering what would drive me crazy first: the rocks pelting my helmet, not having any drugs, or claustrophobia. Living in a can. The suits had speakers and audio pickups so you could talk without using radio, but I’d never realized before how important it was to see someone else. Read his face. You couldn’t even nod; it got lost in a suit, same as a shrug. Meaningless.
Ox, the corporal who had educated me about mining gear, was a huge guy from Georgia. Tank big.
“I friggin’ hate curried chicken,” he said. Ox pulled the feeding tube from a tiny membrane in his helmet and threw a pouch to the ground. “Anyone wanna trade?”
I had some ration packs that I’d gotten off a couple of French guys in Shymkent, and threw one to him.
“What the hell is this? I can’t read it.”
“It’s French. That one is wine-poached salmon.”
Ox broke the heat pack at the pouch’s bottom. When it was warm, he stuck the tube through and squeezed. I swore I could almost see his eyes go wide, the no-friggin’-way expression on his face.
“Where’d you get this?”
He squeezed the pouch again and didn’t stop until it was a wad, all wringed out. “Un-fucking-real. The French get to eat this every day?”
I nodded and then remembered he couldn’t see it. “Yeah. And they get booze in their rations. Wine.”
“That’s it,” Ox said. “I’m going AWOL, join up with the Legion. You, rube, are welcome in my tunnel.”
And just like that, I was in the fold.
Occasionally the Russians lobbed in deep penetrators, and near the end of the second day, one of them detonated, breaking free a massive slab that crushed two Marines instantly. One of their buddies, a private who sat next to them, got splattered with bits of flesh and bone that popped from their armor, like someone had just popped a huge zit. The man screamed and wouldn’t stop until a corpsman sedated him, but he kept rocking back and forth, repeating, “I can’t find my face.” Finally the captain ordered the corpsman to sedate him further, tie him up, and drag the Marine into the rear-area tunnel, where they could pick him up later.
“Good thing they did that,” said Ox.
I pulled my knees up to my chest. “Why?”
“I was about to wipe him.”
Things returned to normal for a while. Muffled thumps of plasma still shook the ceiling, and suit waste pouches opened automatically to dump human filth on the floor—because someone had been too scared or too lazy to jack into a wall port. That was normal for subterrene.
The only flaw in the captain’s plan was that eventually the guy who had been sedated came to and picked up where he had left off. Over the coms net, his voice screamed in our ears that he still couldn’t find his face, every once in a while adding “the shitheads left me.”
Ox picked up his carbine and muttered, “He’s dead,” but fortunately for both Ox and the crazy guy, a corpsman was close to the tunnel exit and sped off to deactivate the man’s communications.
I knew what the crazy guy meant. Ox did too, and that was the problem: nobody wanted to hear it; nobody needed to be reminded that none of us could find our faces. Without being able to touch it, I had begun to wonder if maybe I didn’t have one anymore, like it got left behind in my Shymkent hotel so that some half-Mongolian puke could steal it for himself because I had forgotten to leave a big enough tip on the pillow to make stealing not worth it. I needed to find my face, knew that it had to be around there somewhere, if I could just take off my helmet for a second.
By the end of the third day, the barrage lifted, and I sat quietly, watching the Marines and feeling like I was the uninvited guest who didn’t know what fork to use at dinner, too scared to say anything because my stupidity would show. I’d left my rig in the hotel too, hadn’t thought I’d have to go this long without juice, and now I felt the shakes, got that chill, a warning that if I didn’t get lit soon, it’d be bad. Even so, nobody moved. Everyone soaked in that stillness, and only an occasional click as the armorer went down the line, checking weapons and suits, broke it. Then the captain slapped the four men closest to him. They stood and moved slowly to a ladder before disappearing through a hole in the ceiling.
“Where they going?” I asked.
Ox checked his carbine for about the hundredth time. “Topside watch.”
“ ’Cause Pops is shifty. Sometimes, when neither of us has a barrage on, he’ll try and move in topside.”
I shivered, a mental wind that preceded whacked-out thoughts. No way I could deal with all this shit; I wasn’t ready. It wasn’t what I signed up for; someone else could cover the line, get the first story. My next question proved to me, to everybody, that I was terrified, a rube.
“What about the sentry fields? The bots. Won’t they deal with anything topside?”
Ox laughed. “Pops can make magic in his land, and Kaz is his land. Sentry bots don’t always work.”
“Come on, reporter-guy,” Ox said. “You want a story, this’ll give you a story.”
It was Ox’s turn on watch, so he and two of his buddies, Burger and Snyder, moved toward the ladder, motioning for me to follow. I had no saliva. I don’t even remember willing my legs to work, yet there I was, heading to the ladder, and in that instant I knew exactly how the Marines had felt—the ones who had wanted to eat dinner in the basement of my hotel. You didn’t go up; it was all wrong. Anything could happen up there, and the rest of your unit would be far below, unable to help and just glad that it wasn’t them. My legs seemed to have grown a mind of their own, refusing to work the way they should have, almost detached from the rest of my body as they resisted efforts to move them toward danger. This was tangled. I knew it was tangled, Ox knew it, the captain knew it, and even the guy who had lost his face knew it, but everyone except that guy managed to pretend it was all cool, all smooth. Normal.
“Come on,” said Ox.
When I got to the base of the ladder, the captain stopped me.
“Hold a sec.” He grabbed a Maxwell carbine from the closest Marine, snapped the hopper from the kid’s armor, and then rigged me with it. The carbine felt heavy and I slung it over my shoulder.
“Anyone who goes topside is a cranker,” the captain explained.
“Sir, I’m a reporter. I didn’t think I’d even be allowed to carry a Maxwell on the line.”
He had taken off his helmet during the lull in shelling, and smiled. “You’re DOD—a civilian who wanted this crap, right?”
“Well, you got it. Here… He lifted my helmet and placed it over my head, sliding the locking ring into place. “You’re going topside, you button up. Period.”
When I caught up to the others, they had stepped off the ladder into a tiny mining elevator, about a hundred feet up from the main tunnel. Ox laughed and pointed toward my carbine.
“You know how to shoot one of those?”
I could barely talk, realizing for the first time how important spit was. “Yeah. I fired one in Rube-Hack.”
“Going up,” said Snyder, and our elevator jerked.
The car rattled. I wondered how often the thing had been used, recognizing what it was from some of my earliest stories on deep-mining operations in Nevada, where collapses and explosions had made mine rescues something boring, not even newsworthy anymore. It was ironic. The elevator was a modified rescue rig, two cages welded together to fit four men, but it wasn’t doing its job anymore; it wasn’t taking men out of danger but throwing them in. You can hate an inanimate object on the line. Every bump and shake made me want to throw up, rip the yellow wire cage apart and scream, because it wasn’t supposed to move people to their deaths, and I just knew that the thing was laughing at our expense, that the elevator had clearly lost its way, been corrupted. It was an orphan. A street kid that had learned to make the best of it and survive any way it knew how—at our expense.
It took us a little under an hour to make the trip topside and we had to switch into three different shafts to do it. When we got to the top, the other watch was waiting and didn’t say anything as they fought to get on the elevator, to get back inside Mother Earth, while we tried to dismount as slowly as possible. We still had one more ladder to climb, another hundred feet up to the observation post, and when we got there, I had to blink from the sudden light, a bright bluish glow that made me remember everything, including that there was a world aboveground and that it rested under a thing called the sun. There was snow. Fall had made its escape while I had been tunnel-bound, and winter claimed the land with its pale blanket.
I had never seen a battlefield and hadn’t expected it to be so… clean. You sensed the rubble but couldn’t see it under what looked like about two feet of fresh snow, and the land was flat, vacant except for wind. The war had vanished. But at the same time there was a thrill, an undercurrent of danger, because you knew that no matter how peaceful it looked, here, exposed, you had reason to be scared. The position allowed us to see in three-sixty, from a concrete bunker that just barely protruded from the rubble fields and had four narrow windows, their glass three feet thick.
My face pressed against the nearest window, looking north, and I stared, hypnotized. Somewhere out there was Pops, looking back at us, and I just wanted to see him. I knew there was a word for my type, but my brain hadn’t been working since getting on the line. Choked up. It had clogged with ass puckering, with the sound of my own breathing inside the helmet, and with dreams of getting wired again, plugged in. Words started coming to me as I stared out across the rubble field, words that described me to a T. “Voyeur.” “Spectator.” “Pulitzer-fanboy.” “Coward.”
Ox yanked his helmet off and I nearly choked in surprise. “What are you doing?”
He laughed and the others took their helmets off too. Vision hoods came next, and Ox and Snyder carefully disconnected the series of cables that connected coms and goggle units to the suit. Burger kept his hood on. The goggles made him look funny, like a bug with big green bottled eyes, and he grinned at me.
“Rube, you’re about to get initiated into the brotherhood. First reporter on the line, first reporter to get zipped!” He took a seat near the north window and stared out.
“Get down here,” Ox said. When I sat next to him, he popped my helmet and helped me out of the hood.
“What about Russian sensors?” I asked.
“We’re tight.” Ox pointed to two lights on the floor next to us, one green, the other red, and I saw the green one glowing dimly. “Green means go. A good seal, so they can’t see our therms, even if we unbutton, and we don’t need the chameleon skin in this domicile.”
Snyder pulled a small tin from a belt pouch and began flicking it, his finger snapping against the lid. His teeth were unbelievably yellow. “The good life,” he said.
Ox laughed, slid a small player out of his pouch and hit a button. I couldn’t believe it. Old music from the ancient world, rock. Nobody listened to that shit anymore except me, and as I sat there, it seemed… right. I didn’t know these men and hadn’t really seen much of them down in the tunnels, since we had been buttoned up for most of the time, and the only one I really spoke with was Ox. But I had listened and watched. They all had a look, and it wasn’t the one you saw on any of the troops that made it to the rear for R & R; out here the look was more raw, a tightness in their faces and eyes that manifested in a kind of cornered-animal thing even when they grinned. Always looking for signs of danger, always moving.
Snyder was a kid, from Jamaica, I think, and like the rest of them, he’d grown out his beard, but it grew only in patches, so it looked as though someone had ripped out tufts of hair.
“What’s zipped?” I asked.
“Zipped?” Snyder thought for a minute. “It’s a long trip.”
Ox grabbed the tin and opened it. He pinched the dark material inside—it looked like finely ground dirt—and pressed a tiny wad inside his lower lip.
“It’s tobacco. But we add a special ingredient, tranq tabs.”
“Illegal shit,” Snyder explained. “They give them to the crazies, the Gs, to make ’em not so crazy, keep ’em fighting and energized.”
“The Gs,” I said. “Genetics.”
Ox tossed the tin to Burger, who repeated the ritual and then threw it to Snyder. “Around their second year of service, Gs start to lose it, unstable. At first they didn’t give ’em anything and some Gs went nuts, wiped an entire battalion of Army on the push northward from Bandar. Then came tranq.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s a mixture of haloperidol, fentanyl, and some kind of speed—in elephant-sized doses. We got some from a very friendly supply sergeant last time on leave. You crush up the tabs, mix it with dip, and there you go. Zip. We can’t smoke anything on the line—screws up the air handling when everyone lights up—and there’s no way a human could take a G-dose of these things. Can’t inject anything through suits unless you’re a corpsman. So mixing tranq with dip gives us just the right cut and a new way to see the war.”
Snyder finished and handed it to me. I looked at the stuff suspiciously, not because I didn’t want it—I wanted it more than anything—but because I didn’t know if I could keep my fingers steady long enough to take some. When the shakes eased for a moment, I dug in.
“Whatever you do,” said Snyder, “don’t swallow.” He held up a finger and spat onto the floor. “You spit.”
Cool and easy, all grins. Everything seemed smooth and I swore I smelled the snow, even over the stink of our own bodies. The music got louder. It took me a second but I realized that there was no fear—no war, even—just us and music that I could see coming out of the speakers, and I started giggling, unable to stop even if I had wanted to. I was about to swallow when Ox warned me. His voice sounded faraway and slow, so damn slow.
“What’s your name?” Snyder asked.
I don’t remember telling him, but I must have.
“Oscar Wendell?” Ox asked. He and the others started laughing then. “No, no, no, hell no. We’re gonna give you a new name, your war name, ’cause you been born again, son of Kaz. Oscar Wendell will now be known as Scout.”
“Well, Scout,” said Snyder. “Welcome to the jolly green brotherhood, no turning back now, nothing to do but crank on. Crank fire.”
Crank fire. We cranked fire, and looking back, I realize I was glad for the drugs, for the cushion they gave me, a cocoon that filtered reality and kept out the really bad stuff or made it seem as though nothing was actually happening and everything was a dream. Two hours later the snow stopped, leaving the battlefield covered by an additional foot. I was on watch with Ox. The white made it difficult to concentrate and I had to close my eyes every few seconds to keep from getting dizzy; even though I had spat out the zip a long time ago, its effect still bounced in my head, keeping the edge off but blurring my sense of time and vision. Something moved out there. It looked like a piece of rubble melted into the snow and then rose from a new position, closer, so when it happened again, I told Ox.
“Button up,” he said. The mood shattered in an instant. Ox’s and the others’ fingers blurred as the Marines yanked on vision hoods and snapped the cables into place, and it got dead quiet when Snyder killed the music. All I had to do was put on my helmet, but I was the last one finished.
“Cycle the air.”
Snyder hit a button and I heard a hiss, watching the temperature gauge on my heads-up drop rapidly. It stopped at five below zero. Burger popped open a firing port under the window and the floor light flickered from green to red at the same time he shoved his grenade launcher through. Ox and Snyder popped their ports, too, and gestured for me to do the same, so I poked my carbine into the narrow opening, and it clicked against the sides as my hands shook.
“Contact.” Ox’s voice crackled in my ear, over the radio. “Grid Foxtrot-Uniform-one-six-five-three-five-zero.”
The captain answered, his voice surreal, a caricature of what it should have been, as though someone pinched his nose while he spoke. If things hadn’t been so tense, I might have laughed. “Roger. Artillery off-line, weapons free, sentry bots show green lights. Green light.”
The shapes crept forward. It was almost impossible to detect, and had I not been paying attention, they would have crawled all the way, hundreds of white blobs that moved forward in a continuous line, so slowly they seemed barely to shift. Chameleon skins. Our suits, and theirs, had been coated with a reactive polymer, wired to the suits’ computers and power systems so that it sensed one’s surroundings and changed to the same color as the closest objects. That was why they had been so hard to see, and it reminded me of what Ox had said, how he’d described them. Spooky. Popov was a ghost.
“Why are they moving so slowly?” I asked.
Ox grunted. “ ’Cause of our sentry bots. The bots can detect heat, but armored suits mask heat. That leaves motion and shape detection, but if you’ve got your second skin activated, move slow enough, and stay low…
“Crafty little bastards,” said Snyder.
I shook my head, trying to concentrate. “How slow?”
“Once they reach our security zone,” said Burger, “about two feet a minute.”
Two feet a minute. Outside. If a plasma barrage came and you were out there when it hit, instant crisp. I’d seen the bodies and wreckage on flatcars in Tashkent, smelled it when the wind was right. Ceramic melted at plasma temperatures, and the dead bodies looked like lumps of rock. These guys had come from their own lines, almost three klicks away. Slowly. That meant they had been out in the weather for almost a day, come plasma, snow, or anything, and that kind of dedication indicated that whoever these men were, they really wanted to kill us. What had we ever done to them?
“I think I’m going to puke,” I said.
“Well,” said Ox, “then let’s get this over with. Burger.”
Loud pops sounded from my right as Burger worked his grenade launcher up and down, left and right, arcing deadly eggs toward the oncoming shapes. Posts on our flanks must have opened up at the same time, because brilliant flashes blossomed over the snow several hundred meters away, toward the Irtysh River, and then from the opposite direction. Big push, I thought. There were thousands of them. Burger’s grenades—alternating between thermal gel and fléchettes—melted or punctured anything they hit, and the Russians reacted immediately; advance troops rose from their crawl and sprinted forward, firing at our bunker so that all we saw were lines of tracers leaping out of thin air.
“Right about… Ox said, “now.”
Sentry robots beeped to life at the appearance of moving targets. Metallic columns popped up from buried tubes across the entire front and sprayed explosive fléchettes, strafing and mowing like avenging angels as they sucked ammunition from bunker magazines far below.
“Crank up, Scout!” said Snyder. “What are you waiting for, man?”
I didn’t have time to think, not even like, Wait a second, I’m about to wipe someone I don’t even know. Didn’t happen. Those thoughts came only later, in nightmares. Daymares. As soon as my finger touched the trigger, a green sighting reticle appeared on my goggles, and I heard the tinkling of fléchettes as they fell through the flexi-belt and into the carbine. I didn’t feel a thing. No kick. The barrel magnets launched the fléchettes down and out so that all I saw was a line of red streaks—each one the tiny fleck of phosphorus that lit up when a fléchette hit air. I had time to think then. Time to think that it was beautiful, like fireworks, but just a few seconds later, there were no more targets and the sentries lowered slowly into their holes to leave me gasping for air and searching the horizon for something, anything, that might be trying to kill me.
“Grid clear,” said Ox.
Burger pulled his launcher in and slapped a new clip into its base. He probably thought it was over; we all did.
“Man,” I said. My finger ached. I didn’t realize I had been squeezing so hard, and smelled the sweat, the awful smell of terror and salt, inside my suit.
Suddenly a salvo of enemy grenades arced toward us. They came unexpectedly, and from the popping of their launchers, I guessed that some Russian troops had remained in the rear, motionless. The grenades hit directly on our position, most of them concentrated on Burger’s section, and thermal gel smoked as it tried to burn through the glass. I heard them then; the Russians screamed and it seemed like an entire army charged at us.
“What the fuck does that mean?” I asked.
“Oooo-rah means ‘kill,’ ” said Ox. “Pobieda means ‘victory.’ ”
A second wave rose from the rubble, and the sentries again sprang from their holes, picking them off easily. Windblown snow fell in gentle swirls as once more the front became quiet.
We didn’t say anything.
Our relief showed up later, and it took us about two hours to get down. Burger had bought it. One direct hit on his port burned through the tiny alloy door, and then a fléchette grenade followed to send a bunch of needles through his chest and out the back, opening a quarter-sized hole on either side, and I wondered if from the right angle you could look clear through. It took us longer than normal to descend, because it was hard to fit into the elevators with a corpse.
When we got back to the tunnels, I yanked off my helmet and threw up, my body trying to rid itself of the tobacco and drugs, but it was the memory I wanted to vomit out. We hadn’t even known that Burger had bought it—not until someone tapped him on the shoulder and he slumped over. On the way down in the elevator, his guts had started coming out of the hole, and for a moment I remembered my real job.
Burger would make some story.
The genetics came a few days after we lost Burger, and that word popped into my head again. “Pulitzer.” Nobody in the press had been this close. A hundred of them showed up in the tunnel, silent and eerie, all identical, all girls. Engineered.
I wished I had my holo unit as they passed in front of me. Beautifully deadly, and all grace. The girls had mustered out of the factories, ateliers, manufactured at a trickle for now, but it was a trickle that made a difference—one that even the Press Corps noticed. Since the Russians had shown up a year earlier, every action where we were able to retake the mine had involved the use of genetically engineered troops. Line units had entire legends built up around the Gs. “You should have seen them, man, just one squad of Gs wiped an entire battalion of Pops, moved like lightning on speed.”
They were probably about sixteen or seventeen years old, and their bald heads were nearly flawless, would have been if not for thick calluses formed by the friction of their hoods. These didn’t wear helmets for some reason. Maybe it was because they were too cool, like Amazons in formation, and they knew it. Instead the girls carried their lids like I had, on straps hanging from their belts, and they marched into the tunnel without a sound, silent phantoms in black armor.
“What’s all over their faces?” I asked. Their heads had been coated with something like grease, a dark green that hid most of their features.
“Thermal block,” Ox said. “Gs hate helmets worse than we do. Especially the ones near the end of their term. Thermal block cuts down on emissions. Not perfect, but they’re crazy anyway.”
“End of their term?”
He laughed and leaned his carbine against the wall. “The young Gs wipe the old ones when they turn eighteen. Honorable discharge. By then they’re too crazy to keep on the line, too far gone. At that point they’re sucking down tranq tabs like candy, and it doesn’t even faze ’em.”
“Yeah,” said Snyder. “But they’re here. Only one thing to do now.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Pucker,” Ox said. “And ask the captain if you can have another weapon. We’ll be pushing into the mines again, or else these chicks wouldn’t be here.”
One of the girls approached the captain and handed him a stack of tickets. Orders. He nodded, and everyone watched then, looking for some sign of our fate in the captain’s face, not willing to give up hope that maybe it was all a big mistake, maybe this time there’d be no push.
The girl returned to her group and on the way she passed me, close. Whatever they were, they smelled like girls, and for a second I felt like screaming, because if you closed your eyes and couldn’t see her, it smelled like she should have been sitting in school, driving guys crazy with a miniskirt. But she looked like a killer. That was subterrene; that was Kaz—where opposites existed simultaneously and just laughed at you, like, Yeah? So?
She sat against the wall and bowed her head with the rest of them.
“Now what are they doing?” I asked.
“Praying,” said Ox. “They’ve been fed some messed-up religion; it keeps them going.”
I grabbed my recorder and turned it on, just in time.
“Death and faith,” they said. The words were soft, sounded like a children’s choir, and filled the quiet tunnel with an echoing murmur. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven, earth, and death. I believe in warfare and destruction, his only children, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and taught through honorable suffering. I believe that death on the field is my proof, a sacrifice, to show that I remain among the faithful. The loyal. I believe in the atelier, the forgiveness of enemies brave enough to die, and the communion of sisterhood.”
I shut the recorder off. Somehow I felt dirty, because as part of the human race, I had helped create these things, monsters who prayed to death, wanted it. Animals.
“That’s beyond fucked up,” said Snyder. “Just when I think I wouldn’t mind getting it on with one or two of them, they have to spout that kind of crap.”
From the main exit tunnel we heard a high-pitched screeching. As the volume increased, I saw the Marines getting nervous. I hadn’t been there long, but long enough to know when something was up, and when Ox handed me a tin of zip, I took some without thinking, because who knew how much longer we’d get to keep our helmets off? The screeching made me wince, sounded like someone running hundred-foot metallic fingernails over a mammoth chalkboard, until the drugs kicked in and made everything OK.
Twenty minutes later, a fusion borer rolled into view. A team of engineers in orange jumpsuits manned the vehicle and jockeyed it against the north wall, its front end pointed at the Russian lines.
“Screw this,” said Ox.
The captain waved us over.
“Push is on.” He waited until the grumbling subsided. “Sappers are going to start digging in about twenty minutes. It’s roughly three klicks to Pop’s lines, so I figure you’ve got just under three days to write letters or grab some rack. But stay alert. Pops might try a topside infiltration, and if it works this time, we’ll be busy. Questions?”
Ox raised his hand. “Standard assault?”
The captain nodded. “Except for one thing. The Gs won’t be with us this time, not underground, anyway.”
“What the hell?” someone asked.
“Take it easy. Division has a bright idea about trying to screw Popov at his own game. We’ll start a barrage twenty-four hours before jump-off, to keep their heads down, and the Gs are going to use it as cover. They’ll move out topside and infiltrate the Russian positions from above at the same time we crash their lines underground. Wendell?”
I raised my hand.
“You coming with us?” he asked.
“Yeah, if that’s all right.”
“Whatever. Ox and Snyder, stay with Wendell in the rear, keep him safe. Dismissed.”
I looked at Ox and caught him staring at me like, What the hell, are you crazy? I didn’t know—maybe I was—but something told me that I had to see this. Stripes wanted a story, and I had to have one to write about. For at least that moment I wanted the Pulitzer so bad I could taste it, could almost see it floating in midair, and it made me forgot how much shit I was in. They could party subterrene all year if they wanted, but this was my last chance and I was going to get laid. I partied Pulitzer.
A few minutes later, the fusion borer ground to life. I still had my hood on, and the vision kit switched to infrared, showing the secondary coolant lines in glowing white. The thing looked like a cross between a lamprey and a freight train, a perfect cylinder with coolant and muck lines trailing behind it. Superheated water flowed through them. I was glad I had zipped, because in infrared, it looked really cool. Space-age. I wished I could be there when it punched through, to see the thing vent plasma into Russian tunnels so they couldn’t shoot at it. You can’t shoot at something when you’ve been charred beyond recognition.
The borer slammed into the wall. A rock face immediately melted and chunks broke off to land in a screaming grinder, which pulverized the blocks and sent them along with spent coolant water in a muddy mixture to the rear. It didn’t just scream; it laughed, banshee-style. I grinned widely, because the zip told me things—that the screeching was for me, announcing to the world that Scout was coming, while magma oozed over the ceramic sides of the machine, chilling instantly to glass against water-cooled skin.
Ox had zipped too. It was full-on; I could see it in the way he slouched. “God bless the engineers, for it is they who make subterrene slick.”
“That’s some of the coolest shit I’ve ever seen,” said Snyder.
“Wow.” We all said it at the same time and then collapsed, laughing.
Once the borer had pushed into the northern wall, we waited. I thought that by now the Marines would be used to it—thought that even I’d be used to it. But nobody was—you couldn’t get used to it—and I began to suspect that the more you experienced the line, the less capable you were of waiting. Eskimos had a thousand words for snow. Marines had about two thousand to describe time; I heard them over and over, like mantras. Crap time, rack time, grab-ass-and-jerk time. But this was the worst kind, the one that Marines hated the most, because it moved slowest, gave you a chance to think about what waited for you, to write emails and death letters. This was push time. Anyone who had booze drank it. Ox, Snyder, and I stayed zipped while we were awake, which was most of the time. Only the genetics seemed unaffected, just sitting there. Statues. Once in a while, one or two would jack into the waste ports or slap in a fresh fuel cell, but other than that, they stared at the wall.
“I need a beer,” I said. The borer was long gone, and we could barely hear it screeching now.
“Why didn’t you say so? I have one more.” Snyder rummaged through his pack and produced a can, tossing it to me.
“I don’t want to take your last one.”
“Nah,” he said. “Take it, man. I’ll get plenty when I rotate to Shymkent. You’re with us now. Crank fire.”
“Stay on me,” Ox said. I wasn’t going to argue. I had a carbine again and it felt strange, like I was eight and playing make-believe soldier.
We had marched two and a half klicks of the attack tunnel, heading north through no-man’s-land. I imagined Marines across the front doing the same. When we headed in, the genetics had gone topside and we felt the Marine barrage, heard it get louder as we approached Pop’s territory. But we didn’t care. That was Pop’s problem. In less than twenty minutes, if our Gs weren’t detected, they would drop in from above at the same time our fusion borer punched through, and then Mr. Popovich would have two more problems.
The order came over the headset. “Hold.”
“Christ,” said Ox. “You all right, Snyder?”
Snyder didn’t say anything but reached up and tapped the side of his helmet, where he had written something new: Angel of Death.
“What happens now?” I asked.
“Well, there’s always a chance that Pops will stealth bore and try to wipe us from the rear.”
Ox sounded like he was laughing but I couldn’t tell. “Take it easy. There’s another group behind us about a klick, ready to deal if they try it. For now, we wait. You anxious to get shot?”
“I want to go home,” I said.
“Don’t we all.”
We didn’t have long to wait. I didn’t even know it had happened until ahead of me I heard what sounded like firecrackers, something far-off and dreamlike, as if Chinese New Year had arrived early. Then someone’s voice came over the headset—not the captain’s; a voice I didn’t recognize.
The Marines in front of me surged forward. One second I was in the tunnel, so scared I couldn’t move; the next second I was in hell and everything drifted, so slowly that I had time to wonder how I got there. It must have taken ages for me to move in. I mean, it had to have; there were a thousand men in front of me. But then, before I knew it, Ox and Snyder were on either side and we broke into the Russian positions, where the two of them threw me to the ground. It knocked the wind out of me. At first Ox thought I had been hit, because I couldn’t talk and just lay there, but after a few seconds, I breathed again and gave him the thumbs-up.
“Wind knocked out of me.”
“Christ,” he said. “Stay down.”
Another world. The Russians had extinguished their lamps, so I saw everything in shades of green and white, except when thermal flashes overloaded my vision kit with every grenade burst. I couldn’t figure out where I was. It looked like a sandbag pit, but once I got used to seeing through the goggles, it became clear that we’d landed on top of dead Marines, who were so close that I read the names stenciled on their armor and saw flecks of tissue and blood pasted to the inside of their faceplates. The dead protected me. The dead liked me, whispered that they’d take care of everything.
We had punched into the mine itself, and in front of us a huge hangar stretched beyond my vision range. It looked like the Marines had spread themselves out in a rough semicircle and were pushing forward, one group leapfrogging over another, and eventually the reporter got the worst of me, too stupid to be scared. I prairie-dogged it—poked my head up to get a better view—when a swarm of fléchettes nearly took it off, whining past my temple.
“Stay down!” said Ox.
Snyder looked at me and—I shit you not—popped his lid. Took it off in the middle of the firefight.
“What the hell are you doing?” Ox asked.
“I can see,” he said. “I see now, man, for the first time.” Snyder pulled out his tin and zipped. “It’s unreal, Ox, you should try it. Invincible. I don’t care what the captain said. Scout can take care of himself. Let’s go crank.”
“Put your helmet on. Come on. I mean, what the…?”
Snyder spat on the back of a dead Marine and then grinned. I didn’t know what to do. It seemed crazy, but at the same time it seemed normal, because the whole place was insane, something I had never experienced, so who was I to say what wasn’t normal?
“Nah,” he said, “I can’t see with it on. But now I do.”
A grenade landed behind him and I saw a fléchette punch through Snyder’s shoulder, sending a few drops of blood my way. It didn’t affect him. He just smiled at the hole, looked up, and started singing. There was no tune, but it must have sounded right to him, because he started singing more loudly, a series of random notes that formed some screwed-up song. Kaz had claimed Snyder as its own. Ox must have suspected there was no way to pull him back into our world, and he couldn’t have tried anyway, because as soon as Snyder paused to breathe, the Russians counterattacked.
“Pobieda!” They were so close that the scream sounded like a roar.
“Oooo-rah!” Snyder said. “Pobieda! Man, that’s the shit, why don’t we have words like that?”
I howled like a little girl. Something had hit me, my ass felt like it was on fire, and suddenly in my suit I smelled burning flesh.
Ox started laughing. “You’re hit.”
“Aw, man,” I said, tasting the fear and getting cold with it. “Shit, shit. Where? How bad?”
“Relax. You got splashed with a little thermal gel is all. On your ass.”
Let down. Relief. We both laughed then and couldn’t stop. I felt the Russians coming, heard the change in tone of the commands being barked over the coms net, but somehow being splashed in the rear with thermal gel made it bearable.
I was still laughing when Ox went quiet. He pulled himself over to Snyder and shook him, kept shaking him for a minute, but he was gone. Snyder had absorbed most of the thermal gel that had hit me, and one entire side of his armor was missing, along with a wide swath of skin, so we saw muscles twitching. Electrical impulses were the only things left.
“At least he’s not singing,” said Ox, trying to be cool. But I could tell it had hit him. He just lay there, curled up as close to Snyder’s remains as possible, and then sobbed while he held the guy’s head against his shoulder.
Normally, I would have been concerned only with my injury and screw the dead. Worry about the living, about me. But all I could think of now was that Snyder had given me his last beer. I felt it then, can pinpoint the instant when Kaz took me and refused to let go, drawing me down into the depths of subterrene so that I could never really leave.
I popped my helmet. The smell was like nothing I had experienced before. Imagine taking everything in a house—the family, the furniture, the carpets, even the dog and cat—and shoving it all into a bonfire along with a thousand liters of fuel alcohol. That’s the smell of war in subterrene, and with every breath I inhaled some of Snyder.
I grabbed his tin and zipped.
“Check it,” said Ox. He popped his lid and joined me—children of Kaz. We both lay there on our backs, our heads resting on Snyder’s armor, and looked up at the ceiling as red tracers zinged overhead and flashes of brilliant grenade light went off like strobes.
I got splashed a couple more times, and so did Ox. We both caught a few fléchettes, and a ricochet took half my right ear off, but I didn’t even feel it; I was too zipped up. Ox even pulled out his player and cranked music. He thought that Snyder had been trying to sing an old, old song, “Kids in America,” but I didn’t know the song, or any kids, and besides, it had all been so whacked that I hadn’t bothered to really try to figure out what he was singing. We lay there for what felt like hours, not even noticing when the firing died off.
“Holy shit.” A corpsman looked down at us. He seemed far away and his eyes went wide, so we must have been hit worse than we thought, but there was no way to tell; we didn’t feel a thing. “Stretchers!”
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Is the war over?”
Ox started giggling and the corpsman just looked at us like we were crazy. “For you guys it is. Besides, Russians pulled out. Gs pushed them back ten klicks.”
Once they loaded us onto stretchers, Ox turned his head to look at me. “Man. You’re all bloody. I think your ear is missing.”
“What’s that?” I said. “I can’t hear you, I lost an ear.”
Man, did we laugh at that. So hard it hurt my stomach. Then the corpsman injected me with something and the world turned off, went black so that I couldn’t see a thing, but just before I went totally under, I had the strangest thought.
Screw the Pulitzer.
Headaches. Hallucinations. Snyder and Burger came to see me every day and stood there all bloody and messed as they grinned because they knew there was nothing I could do, nothing to be done about phantoms in my mind, the products of withdrawal. Ox had been sent to a field hospital closer to the lines, while they’d sent me with the bad cases to Shymkent for a month in bed and recuperation. Two weeks of that was because I kept screaming, wouldn’t shut up. The doctors didn’t know about a la canona, the lack of drugs that makes your skin turn inside out, and they thought I was a psych case, so when the day for my release arrived, one of them said I was supposed to get in touch with Bandar ‘Abbas because they had called my editor’s desk concerning my mental state. “Great,” I’d said. “I’ll get right on that.”
“Haloo!” the doorman to my hotel greeted me on my return. “Welcome bag, mister!”
“Yeah, you too.”
My suite seemed smaller. I breathed through my nose, trying to catch a whiff of Marines, alcohol, something, but all I got was Shymkent and sulfur from the coal-burning power plant. Civilization.
I reached once more out of reflex for my tin—Snyder’s tin—and then remembered. It was at the mine. My suite melted around me and I was right back there, wallowing in the dead and shaking from the explosions. I just went with it, prayed for it to end—God, bring me back to the real world and save me from Kaz. Or send me back to subterrene.
When the hallucination was over, the sun had set and only the telephone message indicator lit the room.
“I gotta get away from straight.” There wasn’t anyone there, but talking made me feel better, like the sounds of my own voice would keep me company. I’d do the phone call. Make the desk think that it was my injuries that messed me up, that the doc didn’t know what he was talking about. I’d lost an ear, for Christ’s sake, and the desk wouldn’t understand that I needed to be wired up, to re-submerge and escape from the sun and snow. To get loose. The Marine supply base was on the north side of the city, and that friendly supply sergeant was in there somewhere. Straight was all wrong, I thought, and I needed Pavlodar, dreamed in subterrene green—the only way. I didn’t know why, but I had this crazy thought going through my head and couldn’t get rid of it: if I didn’t get back to the line with Ox, the ghosts of Snyder and Burger would haunt me forever.
A tired voice answered the phone after I punched in. “Erikson.”
“Hey, Phil, it’s Sc… Wendell.”
“Jesus!” He sounded awake now. “My head case at the front, you going to assemble a story that makes sense for once? I hear you finally went psychotic.”
“Look, I don’t know what the docs told you but I’m fine. I got shot, and they must have given me something that was past its shelf life. I’ll have the story for you—”
He cut me off in midsentence. “Just shut up. People around here are already talking about it, and we have a pool to guess how long it’ll be before you crash. I didn’t want to send you there; Jackson or Martha should have gotten that posting. I don’t know who’s pulling strings for you up top, but I swear to shit, your ass is mine from now on. Get me the story before tomorrow morning, or you’re done.”
“I’ll have a draft emailed to you in two hours. Look, it won’t even be rough. I’ll give it to you polished.” The lie came to me then, easily, like all of them did. “You won’t be able to reach me once I send it, though. I have a chance to get back on the line.”
“Screw that,” he said. “Screw another promise from the wonder kid. I’ll believe it when I see it, so get it to me.”
Phil didn’t say goodbye; he just hung up. The laptop’s glare blinded me for a second, until my eyes adjusted, and I stared. Blank. I couldn’t remember a damn thing about what I had done, where I had been. There was a vague feeling of terror and of horrible things, but also a sense that if I sat there long enough and relaxed, it would all come back in a wave of shit. It did. I wrote the story while crying, in an hour, and, after sending it, thought about what it would take to make it all go away. I was going back to Pavlodar.
As I walked out the door, my phone started ringing. It was probably Phil, I figured, pissed off about a period I had forgotten, so I shut the door and left.
Son of two parents: reporting and subterrene. I needed the story, needed to see the war, like some psycho Peeping Tom with an addiction to scoping out unsuspecting housewives—only my addiction was watching death in its million forms. Kaz gave me clarity, focus, because it made everything simple. No ass grabbing at the watercooler, no having to worry about shitbags breaking into your computer and stealing your contacts, your research, your story. The irony of subterrene was that it provided the intangible and priceless: decency. Gestures that weren’t only gestures, like Ox’s holding Snyder’s head because it had totally mangled his state, or Snyder’s tossing me a beer because somehow I’d become one of them—worth his last can. Then, just as quickly, Kaz took it away, leaving you with its aftertaste, enough to get you hooked on guys like Snyder and Burger before ripping them from your grasp, as if to say, Ah-ah-ah, not too much, I want you coming back for more. And you would. I knew I would. Decency was like a drug to someone like me, someone who almost never got to see it and who rarely showed it except in trade to screw you over.
I remember running into a Special Forces guy sitting on the side of the road when I first got to Kaz. He didn’t even look at me. So I walked up to him and laid on my slickest rap, the one I used to hit some source, pry out the information with finesse. He looked at me then and smiled, said really quietly, “You’ll find out, Kaz will suck you in, won’t let go. And you’ll go down smiling like we all do, because there is no world anymore. Except Kaz.” I didn’t get it back then, and didn’t really take it now, but thought I did, only it never became clear until much later what the guy had really been saying. This was only the beginning of a mind trip. Call it false clarity on the way down, a misguided belief that crept in on my way out of the hotel to fool me into thinking I had it all figured out: you smiled at the war because it took war to show you good shit, to show you human beings. Back then, I thought that was the answer.
The walk to the north side of Shymkent went quickly and it took only an hour to find someone at the Marine supply depot willing to deal. Zip. I bought a month’s worth. The train station wasn’t too far, so I hit it, trying to move fast enough to keep from freezing, and on the way thought about how I would get north.
As soon as I stepped onto the station platform, a colonel slapped me on the back.
“Yeah, Colonel. Wendell. How’d you know?”
He lit a cigar and blew the smoke over his shoulder. “I thought I recognized you, saw you in Pavlodar. Can’t wait to see your piece on my Marines, son.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, “I just gave it to my bureau. Headed back to Pavlodar now.”
“That might be a problem,” he said.
“Only genetics are being allowed transit passes to the northern sector.” The colonel thought for a second. “But I could get you in with them.”
The idea made me shiver. I remembered what I had seen of them, innocent murderers. “Sir, I don’t have a combat suit and it’s freezing.”
“I’ll be back in a second, to bring you a suit.” He pulled me toward a passenger car and helped me get inside. “Get in, hang tight.”
I had my pack and sat on it, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, and when they did, I nearly freaked.
Wall-to-wall betties, all around me—genetics—who stared at me with a vacant, I-could-kill-you-or-screw-you-and-not-care-about-either look.
The suit didn’t fit right. Getting into the undersuit in front of those chicks was another hassle, a tale of embarrassment that I’m sure would have been hilarious to Ox if he had been there. Forty of them, watching me deal with the hoses, my face red.
Horses—they were like horses or mules. It occurred to me after sealing the suit and hanging my helmet that these girls were low, way down in the order of things, lower than grunts. Draft animals. The military had taken a passenger car and ripped everything out except the steam heat and a samovar so they could cram as many bodies in as possible, stack Gs like vertical cordwood one layer thick.
I cracked my first tin, then smelled it. Like a summer vacation, the first bit went in easy, hit all the right mental spots, and I melted from the inside, grinned for the first time since leaving Shymkent—until the girl across from me grinned back. That killed it. I just wanted to zip, to ignore the fact that I had been shoved into a train full of Gs, and never thought the things would actually talk to me. Who knew they smiled?
“You wish for the line,” she said. The others glanced up then, curious.
I nodded. “Yeah. I left a friend there.”
“I left many friends there, sisters. I miss the line too. It is where we find our best selves.”
“Baby, you have no idea how much I understand that.” It took me a second to figure out why they looked so different this time. “Don’t you guys usually wear thermal block?”
She touched her face, like she wasn’t sure whether she had any on. “Some do, but we all wear helmets in combat. Time enough for thermal block, time for everything. I remember you.”
She reached out and placed her hand on mine. It screwed me up. These things weren’t acting like I thought they would, and it became hard to reconcile that this was a killing machine with her touching my hand, making small talk.
“Do not fear. You are the first man who has ever advanced with us into glory. I remember you from our last action in Pavlodar. You stared at me and I thought you were ugly.” I had to spit, so I did, on the floor in front of me.
“Why did you do that?” she asked.
“It’s zip.” But I could tell she didn’t get it, because her face scrunched, so I tried something different. “Like tranq tabs.”
She got that and brushed her hand across my beard, the one I had grown on the line. “We think you are so interesting.”
That was all it took. I changed my mind on the spot, had to grin at how easy a sell I was, because it didn’t take much to get me to change my mind. Sexy, they really were. In a train and without the crap on their faces, it was different from the last time. I thought, Man, if you guys had any clue how freaky this is for me, you wouldn’t come any closer and would give me a second to normalize. Beautiful. Check it, you’d think that without hair and in a combat suit they couldn’t be beautiful, but they were. Like perfectly wired athletes, a high school track team gone bad, and all with the same chiseled face. I didn’t care that they were totally bald. It didn’t matter in Kaz.
“Thanks,” I said. “Interesting is better than ugly.”
Man, I was tired. I hadn’t rested since getting out of the hospital, and it began to catch up. They weren’t really human. So I didn’t care when they saw me spit the zip out, and cared even less when I realized that as I’d fallen asleep, I had said something to the girl, the one who had done the talking.
“You are beautiful. Just unreal, and thanks for being so normal this time. Like a girl.”
I dreamed. A psychotherapist sat across from me on the train and laughed while he spat out words, which landed on the wooden floor and shattered into droplets of mercury, disappearing through cracks. Only the weak-minded crumble after just one time on the line, the cowards and shit-for-brains. There is a word for people like you, but I hesitate to use it, because it implies that you are human when in fact you’ve never been anything of the sort, have you, Oscar? You’re a parasite. A mosquito that buzzes around and annoys people, sucking them dry and then moving on to the next victim, the next meal. Anyway, the word is old and perhaps overused, and there are actually several different terms for this kind of person, but I like this word: “narcissistic.”
She woke me by whispering in my ear. “My name is Bridgette.”
The train had stopped. “Are we there?”
“Pavlodar? Yes. Come. It is for death and faith.”
She had begun to stand when I noticed that we were the only ones left in the car, and I grabbed her hand. “Wait. I’ve heard that phrase before. Why do you guys say that, death and faith?”
“Because it is time. It is the end of my term. Tomorrow I turn eighteen and today I die. These are good things. Without death or faith, I am nothing; with both, everything.”
She helped me up and I was about to grab my bag when she kissed me, quick and awkward, an eighth-grade kiss from the shy girl in the front row who didn’t have clue one about holding hands. Swear to God, it was cool.
“I… she began. She shouldered her Maxwell and slid a grenade into her combat harness. “I needed to do that, before my discharge. We wonder what it is like to kiss and I can tell them now. It will help when their time comes. Follow me, because one of my sisters, Kim, acquired a Russian Maxwell for you. Without your Maxwell, you can’t be perfect.”
Those kinked-up stories we all told about the Gs and how they were crazy and all messed to hell, they were part right, but now I could see where they missed. The Gs weren’t crazy, not exactly. I hooked up for dinner once with a lieutenant colonel from the Army, a real manicure-and-polish guy, who wore a pair of old-style automatic pistols—chemically propelled rounds, which were about as useless against armor as thrown flowers. I wouldn’t have wasted time with him except for one thing. He’d been there since day one, on the trip from Bandar, the landing, and D-day. There was a story there, I figured, one for which I’d whore myself.
The guy laughed as if Bandar had been spring break in college when he was younger. “Wendell, you really should have been there, strapped it all on and gotten into the shit a little earlier. It felt like Caesar and the Rubicon, and you can quote me on that.”
“Why should I have been there, Colonel?”
He laced both hands behind his head and leaned back. “Well, all of a sudden, these APCs come out of nowhere—I mean balls out and screaming up the beach—headed straight for about a thousand enemy prisoners. Fucking things ran right over them. Those Iranian boys—what was left of them—looked like ketchup mixed with sand, spaghetti, and purple eggplant. I would have been pissed, but the APCs missed my guys entirely, so I figured… who cares?”
“Nah,” he said, raising his beer in toast. “Genetics. The APCs were filled with, and driven by, our Gs. To the wonders of science, and to hell with the Russians—along with all who stand in our way. Although without Popov, you and I would have no war. The genetics may be lunatics, but at least they’re our lunatics and God bless them.”
Kim and Bridgette stood outside the railcar waiting for me, and as soon as I dropped to the ground, Kim handed me a Maxwell and then kissed me. They all lined up after that, one after another, and did the same. Twisted. You’d think it would have been sweet, like having a huge harem, but no way; it wasn’t the same as when Bridgette did it. By the time they finished, I must have kissed a whole battalion, too many to see as they filled the rail yard, and I had to fight to keep from crying. Not cool, not after I realized what was happening.
The colonel had got it all wrong. They weren’t crazy, not from their perspective. Gs just were. The factories designed and raised them that way, but nobody had bothered to get rid of other instincts, and now they had to deal with being part human. Hey, Kim, I got me a hundred confirmed. How many did you kill today? I don’t know, Bridgette. I forgot because I was thinking about what it would be like to have kids. How did they deal with that?
As soon as they broke into a trot, Bridgette waved for me to catch up. “Come, it is a nice day for combat. What is your name?”
She laughed before slipping her helmet on. “Scout. We like you, Scout, and I like you especially. Hurry. We lost communications with Third Marine less than a week ago, and Division suspects something went wrong. Today, before dying, we will see about Russians.”
Pavlodar brought it back. They were funny things, memories.
General Margaret Jensen, commanding officer, First Armored Division, had set up her HQ in Aktau in a hotel that had a brothel on the ground floor and overlooked the Caspian Sea. On my first visit there, I thought I had the wrong place. I walked around the block again, just to check, because Aktau had some messed-up system—a leftover from the old Soviet Union days—where there were no street names, just block and building numbers. Turned out I’d had the right location in the first place.
The hotel was filled with hookers. Wall-to-wall, unbelievably hot betties, with skinny bodies and an Eastern sensibility when it came to makeup—that more was always better. But despite their smiles, you could tell they were off, just as dirty as the rest of Kaz. Most were sad, their grins concealing pitted, rotten souls, and they didn’t want to be there, but as long as they were, they sure as shit didn’t want us there, and every time I turned around, I suspected that those chicks gave me the finger.
On that particular day, the general was in her suite, which had been converted into a radio room and tracking station, stuffed with computers and holo-displays. She sat behind a huge desk with two hookers on her lap.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
“So, what do your readers want to know?” she asked. The general had a plate of Vienna sausages, which she fed to the girls, one at a time.
“Ma’am, we got a report that for the first time since this started, you’re seeing action at Group West, that Popov launched a major armored offensive.”
“Probes,” she said. “That’s it. Pops knows we’ll kick his ass back to the Urals if he tries anything in force.”
The general didn’t know about my visit to her hospital. I had already interviewed her tankers, who had just been flown in from south of Saykhin near the Russian border. One of them was charred from head to toe, and assured me that the fight was on, two divisions of Russian armor headed south, and I gathered from his sobbing and attempts to chew off his own tongue that he wasn’t confident about kicking anyone back to the Urals. That wasn’t a probe.
“My sources say different. First Armored is collapsing, and you have plans to move your HQ eastward, before the Caspian sector is isolated, cut off.”
Her face went dead white and she ordered the hookers out. I had a cousin who was a cop. He always told me never to be afraid of someone who was angry and red in the face—that was normal. Only the truly whacked got pale when pissed, and you were supposed to run if you ever saw that.
She waited until the two girls left. “Shithead, whose side are you on?”
The general pulled out a sidearm, a fléchette pistol, and pointed it at my head. “You put any of the shit in your rag and I’ll find you. Wipe your shit from here to Almaty. Get out.”
I ran. Kaz was that messed sometimes, each sector like a fiefdom where a general called the shots, got to decide what to believe, often making decisions completely disconnected from conditions at the front. With video feeds and instant coms, it was hard to imagine how that could be, but it was. Some called it the human factor. An inability to see real-time information for what it was, as if commanders’ minds had a filter that changed the data into Picasso-like pictures except with no tether to reality. Later I found out that General Jensen had been arrested for trying to send girls back to her home in the States so her girlfriend there could sell them to pimps. White slaves. That betty had way more than a screwed-up filter; Kaz had nothing to do with it. She was fucked before subterrene.
This time around, the Pavlodar line reminded me of that, of Aktau and the hotel, a forgotten land, disconnected from the world and isolated, left on its own to mutate into whatever it chose. The tunnel Bridgette and I moved into was part of the Marines’ sector, and men sat on crates or lounged on the tunnel floor amid meter-high piles of ration packs, spent hoppers, and broken equipment. They had given up on pumping suit waste into wall ports. Human filth caked their legs where it had fallen from their dump valves, and piles of it collected on the floor. This wasn’t the Pavlodar I had left.
A captain greeted us, his accent foreign, but at the time it didn’t seem strange; plenty of foreigners fought with us, hoping for American citizenship. “Welcome to Pavlodar!” he said.
I let the Gs do their thing and went to talk to a sergeant.
“Top, what outfit is this?”
He looked up, barely moving. “First Battalion, Third Marine.”
“Where’s First Marine?”
“Other side of the city, about three or four klicks west. Who are you?”
“He’s not a friggin’ G,” another one said. “That’s good.”
I slumped against the wall and popped my lid. Needed it bad. I grabbed my tin, packed it, and scooped a massive pinch before noticing that my teeth had begun to hurt. Who cared? Soon I wouldn’t feel anything.
“Scout, civilian reporter with Stripes.”
“Oh man,” the sergeant said. Suddenly he was awake, animated. “You should have been here yesterday, we pushed and got our asses kicked, didn’t even have time to blow our tunnels, just plugged ’em. I lost half my guys, woulda made some story.”
I looked where he pointed. A huge circular alloy plug had been sealed into the north wall, blocking what had once been an attack tunnel, and was the only thing between us and an empty passage—one that ran straight to the Russians.
“When did you guys lose coms?” I asked.
The sergeant and his men looked at each other like I was crazy. “What are you talking about?”
“That’s why the Gs are here, said they lost communication with Third Marine a few days ago. There’s an entire division of genetics spreading out across the lines right now.”
“Man, that’s off,” said the sergeant. “I don’t know who told you that but we’ve been in communication the whole time. I was just back at Battalion yesterday, all normal. Either someone got it backwards, or that’s just a story they told the Gs. What’re they like?”
“What?” I asked.
“The Gs. You came in with ’em?”
I nodded. The zip had kicked in by then and I grinned like a madman. “Wild.”
If I hadn’t been wired to the gills, I might have been able to figure out that everything was wrong. Didn’t fit. But I didn’t care anymore; I was back in subterrene, rock walls on every side so that nothing could hurt me.
Dan Wodzinski. Greatest reporter who ever lived. He blew a head vein when he found out that I’d got the nod for subterrene, for the line, and he didn’t try to hide it. We got piss drunk in the hotel, the bartender shaking his head until he left the bottle so he wouldn’t have to keep pouring. Dan had covered the Syrian Campaign back in ’45. He went in with the Special Forces when they first inserted behind the lines, and was practically a movie star, the Supreme Chancellor of the Press Corps, the one we all wanted to be. We hated and loved him at the same time, because he knew he was good but was so damn generous with his experiences—handed them out like candy to anyone who wanted a taste. That made it worse. It would have been easier to handle him if he had been good and a total prick, but because he was gracious about it, everyone assumed that he was a world-class jerk-off, not your garden variety.
“You goddamn rube!” he said. “Man, I can’t believe you got the nod, serves me right for going freelance, no machine to bribe the right people anymore.”
“Are you insinuating that I had to buy my way to the line?”
“Yep. You couldn’t write your way out of a bad romance novel. No way. You could eat my ’puter, and you still wouldn’t be able to shit a sentence as good as my worst.”
He got all serious then. Stared off in the distance, same look I saw on that Special Forces guy on the road—somewhere else, in a different world, channeling demons and ghosts.
“It’ll end badly,” he said.
“Don’t give me that crap. I don’t want to hear it.”
He shook his head. “Nah, not you. You’ll be fine, go get some. I’m talking about the war. Even if we win, it’ll end badly.”
“I don’t follow.”
“The genetics. We played with nature and soon we’ll get it shoved in our faces, rammed into our bungholes whether we like it or not.”
He must have seen the confusion on my face, read it.
“How long do you think it’ll be before Popov makes his own genetics?” Dan asked.
I didn’t know how even to start answering that one.
That was a long time ago, but when I woke up in the tunnel, I remembered it. Bridgette had found me slumped over, and I had forgotten to take out my zip before passing out. Luckily, I had taken off my helmet. A puddle of puke had dried around my head, and as soon as I sat up, I dry heaved, and the tunnel wouldn’t stop spinning. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that the edge was still off, everything smooth, and I did my best to wipe my face with an empty ration pack.
“You are ill,” she said.
“Nah, I’m OK.”
“We attack soon.” She pointed to the tunnel plug and I saw a team of sappers working plasma torches, cutting through while a forklift waited to catch it. “I thought you might want to come, to share.”
I kissed her. She was real close to me, and her breath was incredible, feminine. It had been a long time, and I was so gone that I just did it without thinking, not considering that maybe she didn’t want to kiss someone who had just puked. But she kissed me back. And when it was over, she smiled.
“I will miss you, Scout.”
Bridgette stood and hesitated before leaving. “Remember me. It will be nice to leave this place and know that we will be remembered.”
“Yeah. I won’t forget, kid.”
When the plug fell out with a clang, Bridgette moved into the tunnel with the others and it screwed with me. I didn’t want her to go.
The fact was that although I didn’t see it, the downward slide had begun long before, a transformation in which the human part of me had begun to dissolve to be replaced by a hybrid thing, part earth and part war, a shift that was clear only in retrospect, maybe looking back when you hit sixty years old. Bridgette reminded me of the old Oscar—before Kaz. She had a light in her face that said nothing about what she had been designed to do, because it was the glow of someone young who still had things to experience, the same things I had taken for granted or forgotten, and her presence reminded me of them. Bridgette made you forget where you were.
“Get some,” the sergeant said.
“I can’t believe you’d even touch one of those things. Gs and reporters screwing. Now I’ve seen it all.”
It finally started to break through then, that something wasn’t right. These weren’t the Marines I remembered; they were nothing like Ox, and I wished he was there, actually missed Burger and Snyder too, wanted their corpses to show up and keep me from having to look at the sergeant.
I stood and moved toward the attack tunnel, slipping on my hood to see in the darkness. Screw the Maxwell, I thought. It was too heavy.
The captain stood near the tunnel entrance and nodded at me.
“Welcome to Pavlodar!” he said again. “No weapon?”
“Nah—I’m a reporter, with Stripes.”
“I haven’t heard of this,” he said.
“You haven’t heard of Stars and Stripes?” I asked. It was all wrong, and even through the zip, it started to tingle, the pucker starting early. “Where are you from?”
“Poland. I joined up last year so I could get my citizenship.”
I had to get out of there. It was too amped up, even for me, and there wasn’t anything in particular that got me on edge; it was more a feeling that somewhere in my subconscious an internal computer had crunched the numbers while I wasn’t looking and now sent me a message that it couldn’t divide by zero. The girls had vanished into the tunnel, but I thought if I walked after them, I might get to the Russian lines in time to see it. To get some, or at least get away from the captain.
That’s when the shit started.
“You can’t go there,” he said. The guy was grinning and it occurred to me that he was too young. Like a teenager. The vision hood had concealed it from a distance, but now that he was close, it was obvious and crazy. He grabbed my arm with one hand and nearly broke my wrist in a grip so strong it was like nothing I had felt before; then he lifted a carbine with his free hand.
The others never had a chance. Fléchettes ripped through the Marines, cutting some of them in half, and none of them even got to return fire; they weren’t ready. A couple started running toward the exit tunnel, and the captain let go of me so he could steady his aim and cut them down.
It was slow. A plasma torch lay on the floor and I grabbed it, no clue how to turn it on, but guessing it involved the red button on its side, and while I fumbled, he aimed at the running Marines carefully. I heard the shots, like a spray bottle.
The plasma torch hissed, nearly cutting my fingers off, and I saw the captain smile again as he swung the carbine toward the noise. He didn’t even scream. The torch cut through his midsection. It cauterized everything, so there was no blood, but his two halves glared white on my infrared and then slowly faded as they cooled. He coughed once before the tunnel went quiet.
Dan’s words ran through my head again. How long do you think it’ll be before Popov makes his own genetics?
I was so dead and knew it, but for some reason I ran after her, into the tunnel, when every part of me screamed, Run the other way.
They were way ahead. I sprinted for as long as I could, then stopped to button on my lid before hitting it again. Pops must have been jamming us. Static filled my coms, and with relays I should have been reading the Gs clear, even from the far end of the tunnel, but the girls didn’t click in until I’d moved almost a kilometer. The static cleared, replaced by her voice, but then again, all of them had her voice.
“There will be a moment of reckoning,” one of them said, “and He will look down and judge, not our thoughts or words but our actions. Eternal life for the warrior, certain death for our enemies.”
They all chanted then, low and reverent. “We were made in their image and we will die for their salvation.”
The girls were somewhere up ahead. I heard one’s voice echo through the tunnel when she yelled, “Fire, fire, fire,” and then I saw them, crouching, stiff and tight with weapons pointed downrange. Not the ones I had kissed back at the train; these were different organisms, made of bone and ceramic that had been stitched tight so that when they blew the next tunnel plug, the group filed through a narrow gap, into Popov’s burrow, not even hesitating.
One at the rear turned and straightened.
“It’s a trap!”
The gas bloom flashed, so brightly that even though I didn’t hear or feel it, its glare forced liquid crystals in my goggles to align—to frost over and keep me from getting flash burns. Plasma illuminated everything, like a tiny sun. The realization hit me at the same time the pressure wave did: the Russians had used artillery underground, probably manned by Popov’s Gs, and I wouldn’t feel a thing.
By the time the overpressure hit, my goggles still hadn’t cleared, so I felt only the sensation of being lifted off my feet. Then something collided with me. Finally my goggles went transparent again, and I saw the tunnel walls whiz by, another body floating next to mine until we both hit the floor, sliding for a hundred feet.
Her helmet had shattered and blood came from both nostrils, but she blinked. Alive.
She nodded. “What happened?”
“Popov has genetics. One of them infiltrated back in the tunnels, the captain. This whole thing was a trap. Pops cut off coms and arranged it so Third Marine thought they were communicating with the rear. They wanted you guys to come.”
Bridgette blinked, then sat up. “I have to go back. My sisters.”
“Are you nuts? You’re the only one left.”
“It is not a choice,” she said. “I am at the end; it is time.”
“Screw that.” I grabbed her wrist and pulled, putting her arm around my shoulders until she got steady. When I started leading her toward the rear, I had a guess why I did it—why I wanted to save her. The zip was out, gone for now, so everything was clear and made me realize that I didn’t have many friends. Not among the living. This wasn’t about my attraction to her. I didn’t care if she was a G or a dog; I couldn’t take any more, at least not now, didn’t want to inherit another ghost.
The Russians shouted from behind us. “Pobieda!”
“I’ll die anyway,” said Bridgette, matter-of-factly. “As soon as we return to Shymkent, it will be over for me. Discharged. There’s no difference.”
“There is to me,” I said. “We can get you out. Down to Bandar. From there you can go to Sri Lanka, Argentina, anywhere.”
We heard footsteps from the Russian lines and I saw her think, some cold calculus of war ticking through a machinelike brain.
“You,” said Bridgette, “are too slow.”
She slung her carbine and grabbed my arm, and at the same time Bridgette started dragging me like a sack, I thought, Man, she is mad hot. Exotic. Even with Pops on our ass, she was still beautiful enough to take my mind off everything else.
Or maybe my mind was gone.
You couldn’t get a sense of how empty the steppes were until you saw them from the ground, alone and in the open. We had cruised through Pavlodar’s ruins and stopped at the south side on a small hill, and when I looked out over the emptiness, it nearly made me cry. Snow covered the grasslands in a dirty gray layer, stretching toward a horizon that was a slightly darker gray. It was the first I had seen infinite. Somewhere out there lived Burger and Snyder, prowling and searching for me with all the time in the world, not wanting me to rest or forget that I was almost ready to hang out with them, if only I’d die and get it over with.
There was no thought of stories or Pultizers anymore; everything had been distilled down to three needs: to move south, to stay low, and to get wired up. Aboveground, you spent most of your time trying to ignore the facts that you had a bull’s-eye painted on your back and that attack could come from any direction, anytime; aboveground, you spent all your time wishing for the underground, for fungus and waste that signaled a kind of safety only moles and Marines really understood. It was the second time I’d felt it—the sensation that I was horribly exposed and that somewhere overhead were Russian eyes that bored into my soul because I had become so obvious, outlined against a backdrop of snow.
We heard the sound of engines and dropped facedown into a shallow depression. Marine APCs roared from underground hangars and sped southward, their turbines whining as they bounced over the broken terrain like eight-wheeled beetles. Behind the APCs, swarms of Marines ran from the exits and filled the steppes as they sprinted after them, trying to keep up.
“It is still winter,” said Bridgette.
“In 1942 the Germans invaded Russia and were forced to retreat. It was winter then, and many Germans died from the cold, and so will those men, the Marines. Let’s move. The clouds are low and for now we won’t have to worry about aircraft.”
From behind us I heard the thumping of big guns, followed by the blasts of plasma over the lines we had just vacated. I didn’t need more convincing, and we pushed through the snow.
“You’re full of good thoughts, huh?” I asked.
“I do not understand.”
“That story about 1942. It’s depressing.”
She cocked her head, but I saw her face now through her broken helmet. It had that scrunched-up look of I-don’t-get-it. “It just… is. It is fact. We will have a hard time moving through this snow, over twelve hundred kilometers to Shymkent. One can assume that Popov will follow, and I would imagine that by now our rear forces are dismantling artillery for retrograde. There is no depression. Just fact and necessity.” Bridgette looked up at the clouds and then at me. “What is the temperature?”
I checked my heads-up display. “Zero F.”
“It will snow soon. We need to find shelter.”
The static had returned on my headset and I tried switching channels but couldn’t get anything. “We’re still being jammed.”
Bridgette just nodded and smiled. Way cool.
I’d had a breakdown back in D.C. Kept it quiet and just sort of disappeared for a while after calling in sick. Ten days. I curled up in my apartment and cried, positive that if I moved, something bad would happen, that they’d come and get me—who wasn’t exactly clear, but they would, I was sure—as payback for all the mistakes I had made, people I had screwed. It went away on its own. Thirty pounds lighter and somewhat dirtier than before, I got up and barely made it to the shower, where I passed out. So I’ve always had crazy in me, mostly dormant.
After that episode, I started seeing a shrink out in Bethesda—didn’t want to, had to. What did you do when you didn’t trust your own mind? I expected it to ambush me—grab me in the middle of an interview, turn me into a blabbering schizo, and make me rip my clothes off to run down the street naked. The shrink said Kaz was a bad idea.
“Why?” I asked.
“Look at your past. Rock climbing. High-risk sexual liaisons. Drugs, and not just pills; I’m talking intravenous. Drinking to the point of self-destruction. Oscar, Kazakhstan is just another way to put yourself in harm’s way so that you won’t have to kill yourself; someone else can do it for you. I think you should reconsider and think about treatment at a facility.”
“To hell with you,” I said, paid her, and left. But looking back, I realize she was right. Death scared me but at the same time I wanted it, because life was too painful and the only thing that had taken that pain away was subterrene, Kaz, because I was too much of a coward to hang myself or put a gun in my mouth. I thought about ending it, though, all the time. But now? In the open, on the run, I felt like the only thing between me and total collapse was zip, but part of me wanted to collapse, to give Pops his chance at catching us so it could be over. It was the easy way out.
Bridgette had run out of tranq tabs. She started crying, and as we sat under the burned-out hulk of an APC, she shook.
“I can see them,” she said. “Kim and my sisters. They want me to go with them.”
I snapped my tin to pack it and held it out to her.
“You said it was like tranq tabs. What is it?”
I explained and she snatched the tin from my hand, making me smile. I thought of that day with Ox and the others and repeated their advice. “Spit. Whatever you do, don’t swallow. And these doses are lower than what you’re used to, but hopefully the nicotine will do you some good too.”
After a moment she sighed and rested her head against the APC. “Why do you smile at me?”
“That suit,” I said. “It’s totally melted and obviously not a Marine suit. They’ll see you coming a mile away. If we’re going to try and get you south, hide who you are so you can get out of the war, we’ll have to get a replacement.”
“You want me to stay with you. Alive.”
I couldn’t bring myself to kiss her, not with that crap in her mouth, but I wanted to. “Yes. I’ll get you a suit.”
We had found the corpse of a Marine corporal outside the APC, a guy who’d killed himself with a Maxwell shot to the head, and I didn’t spend more than a millisecond wondering why he had done it—kind of made sense to me, a last demonstration that he still had control over destiny. His armor was intact. I ducked into the snowfall and enjoyed the soft quiet as I dragged him out of the carapace, getting it ready for her, hoping that it would fit, because she was smaller than most Marines. Getting him out was tough. The guy had stiffened and cold only made it worse, forcing me to snap both his arms to bend them into the right angles. I dragged the armor under the wreckage and dropped it in front of her.
“Get in,” I said.
She grinned. When Bridgette slid from her suit, I marveled, thanked God for what she was. Perfect. Precise. Everything curvy about a girl that you could imagine, but all of it dangerously fluid. I grinned back at her. I think I drooled when I forgot about my zip, and we cracked up.
“How does it fit?” I asked when she had finished.
“Loose. But it will function. How do I seem?”
We’d have to start moving again in a few hours, so we spat out the zip and lay down together, huddled in a corner of the APC, where she rested her head on my shoulder. I don’t think I slept; I didn’t want to. I just wanted to breathe girl for a while.
A few days later a thick layer of ice and snow collapsed underfoot as we marched, and both of us fell through, hitting a rock floor about twenty feet below. There hadn’t been enough time even to yell. Once my vision kit adjusted, I saw that we had fallen down a narrow access shaft and into an abandoned tunnel, making me think it was probably an old artillery position. In front of us the chamber stretched into darkness but headed in the right direction, south. It felt good to be underground again, superslick and in control.
She nearly wiped them. Bridgette flicked off her safety and swung her Maxwell in a blur when a group of four Marines rose from behind a pile of rubble.
“O’Brian?” one of them asked.
I froze. O’BRIAN had been stenciled in white on the right side of Bridgette’s suit so you could see it for miles.
“Holy Christ!” the man said. “It is you, what the hell?”
“You know this guy?” another one asked.
“Yeah, Lieutenant, guy from my platoon.”
The Marine slapped her on the shoulder and I saw his name: Bauer. “Man, it’s good to see you. I thought all of Dog Company got wiped. What happened?”
Bridgette stood still for a moment. “I got out,” she said finally.
One good thing about being in a suit, about being buttoned tight: the speakers were for shit. You couldn’t recognize voices. I wouldn’t have known it was a girl if it weren’t for the fact that I did know it was a girl, and as soon as I heard what she sounded like, I went loose, trying my best to breathe out slowly so my relief wouldn’t be obvious.
“ ‘I got out,’ ” said Bauer. “Shit. So did I, but I had to get away from a battalion of Russian Gs to do it. Who’s this?” he asked, pointing his Maxwell at me.
“Oscar Wendell, with Stars and Stripes,” I said.
“A reporter?” the lieutenant asked. “Out here?”
“Yeah,” I said, “what are you gonna do?”
They all laughed and I relaxed a little when Bauer shouldered his carbine.
“You got one hell of a story now,” said the lieutenant. “Pops is heading south, probably just ten klicks north of us, and he’s pissed. Gonna take it all back. Command net just broadcast a sector-wide recall, telling us to stuff grass, leaves, anything between our undersuits and carapace. Fuel cells dragging everywhere and the weather’s too shitty for resupply, so I hope you brought your long johns.”
I had no clue what in the hell a long john was, but got the rest of it and shivered, already cold at the thought. My current fuel cell had about a day or two left of power, and I didn’t want to think about it, tried to find anything to say, and felt embarrassed and out of place as soon as the words came out. “At least the weather’s keeping their drones grounded,” I said, and they all just stared at me.
We marched. Nobody felt like talking, least of all me, but there was something in the air. Not just the anticipation of Popov’s coming. That was a given, and the thought constantly ran through my mind in an undercurrent of gut-wrenching fear. This was something else: the idea that she was a G, walking in a Marine suit—the suit of a Marine who had been a friend to these guys. Sooner or later she might have to take off her helmet and they’d see what she was, which would lead to the next question: “What did you do with our friend?” And because she was a G, they’d assume that she’d killed him. It was going to be bad. I knew it, and I tasted it.
The tunnel broke into a large underground hangar, empty except for a small scout car that had two doors near the front and an open ramp at the rear. The Marines popped their helmets with a hiss.
“Phew,” one said. “Some luck for a change. Let’s see if this rattrap works.”
I noticed Bauer staring at Bridgette, waiting for something. “Come on, get that helmet off,” he said. “The scout car will shield our therms if it works. You need to conserve, man, unless you got a pack full of spare fuel cells.”
My palms got slippery. Sweat on the palms and no spit almost made me laugh, because by now they were familiar, my long-lost cousins: Fear and Kaz.
“No,” she said.
“ ‘No’? What, are you nuts? Your fuel cells are already draining, they won’t last as long as it’ll take to reach Shymkent. We may have to go as far as Tashkent if Pops breaks the southern line.”
Bridgette didn’t move. I was too strung out on terror to say anything, but with what might happen next, I thought I’d better keep my own lid on.
“What’s wrong?” Bauer asked.
“Nothing.” With one hand on her carbine, she popped her helmet, and they all went slack-jawed.
“That ain’t O’Brian,” the lieutenant said.
Bridgette raised her weapon and dropped into a crouch. “Please. Do not move.”
“Motherfucker,” said one of the others. “Motherfucker.”
“Don’t do it,” said Bridgette.
The guy started lifting the barrel of his grenade launcher and I dove to the ground, waiting for what I knew would come next: a shit storm of a firefight with nowhere to hide, so you could only pray for some way to get small. The man didn’t listen. If only he’d listened, thought for a second before acting like an asshole, he might have lived a bit longer; maybe Bridgette wouldn’t have done anything to them. For a second I wondered: if she could do it to them, to friendlies, would she do it to me? First came the sound of a spray, then the firecrackers of fléchettes breaking the sound barrier, snapping through ceramic and slamming into the rock walls beyond. But the man hadn’t listened. I opened my eyes and found that all of them had bought it, although one was trying to crawl away, barely alive.
“Whiskey seven, this is Talon one-five,” the lieutenant said.
I was about to go to him when she rested a boot on his neck and fired into his head.
“I am sorry,” she said to me. “I had to. It would have been the end for both of us—for you because you helped me—and these men were too stupid to make it south if I had let them live. It was a tactical decision.”
But she didn’t have to say sorry, not to me. I didn’t give a shit, not about the stupid. It was over for them; they were lucky. Popov wouldn’t get to catch them in the open and drop thermal gel, toy with them a little before sending Gs to finish the job. Truth be told, I felt nothing. Empty. I even got it when Bridgette started popping their fuel cells, pushing them into a pack that she ripped from the lieutenant’s dead hand, because what else was there to do? The dead didn’t need fuel cells; the dead were at home in the cold. She waved me over after throwing her helmet into the back of the scout car.
I didn’t like feeling nothing. Wanted something. So I kissed her there, among the silent Marines, and heard our ceramic chests click. The thought of two insects getting it on kind of killed the moment for me, but not for her; there was something new in Bridgette that I hadn’t seen. She was hungry, wouldn’t let me go until she had finished, and when she had, Bridgette leaned over to press her mouth against my ear.
“I need you.”
It took us a while to get out of our armor, and we shivered, but she had started the scout car and it was warm by the time we were ready to screw. And after we finished in the car, we just lay there. Did it again later, with Popov bearing down and not even a second thought except for fuck it. She didn’t know anything; I had to teach her. But she was perfect—dug it and made me feel so cool about everything.
That was when my calculus clicked, when I figured out why it felt like a gut wound once she gunned the car to head south again. I loved that betty. It was easy to fall in love, because neither of us was likely to live long anyway. I thought that the realization would make me feel better, like, Don’t worry, just feel it now because it might be over tomorrow, but it didn’t. I had to zip before I started bawling. Kaz had antibodies for anyone who started to feel good, and sent battles to scream in at a moment’s notice and chew on anyone who began to feel happy.
All we had for now, to keep the feeling, was zip.
From the top of a low hill, I saw them, a slow-moving mass of retreating soldiers, stretched like a wide green snake across the steppes. There was no point in avoiding them. We had used up most of the spare fuel cells, and the car had run out of juice a few hours earlier, so our only chance was to hook up—join them in a last push to friendly lines and a supply depot. I hadn’t thought much about what I was going to do to get her out of Kaz, make it safely, but we were close now and I’d have to think of something before they took her from me. Bridgette shouldered the carbine and wiped her faceplate clear of ice, and ten minutes later we joined the column.
Sometimes, Kaz was really banged up, in a trippy, what-are-the-odds kind of way. Seriously. As soon as we entered the column, I heard a voice asking if someone wanted to trade for a chicken curry.
“All I’ve got is this French shit,” I said. “Wine-poached salmon.”
It was him. Only Ox hated chicken curry; it was the one pack worth eating as far as most Marines were concerned, but not him. He tackled me. At first Bridgette thought he was attacking, and dropped into some fighting stance as she leveled that damn carbine, but I waved her off.
Ox didn’t even know how close it had been. “You little shit, you stupid rube!”
“What the hell are you doing here?” I asked. “Thought you’d still be in the hospital or on light duty, rear-style for a while.”
He looked away. It was hard to tell, since he was buttoned, but I’d been at it long enough and realized it was the wrong question. A killer question. “You know how it is, Scout. I had to get back.” That was all he had to say, and I knew what he meant.
Ox didn’t realize that Bridgette was with me, and I didn’t push it, didn’t want to risk another scene. But as we walked, trudging through snowdrifts, I noticed her acting funny. First the snowfall started to lighten and she got all twitchy, unslinging her carbine and smacking the ice from its barrel while looking rearward. A few minutes later, she stopped and stared at the ground.
“What’s wrong with that guy?” Ox asked. “He with you?”
I stopped too and was about to whisper to her that she needed to start acting normal, when she grabbed my harness. “Move.”
I moved, followed her out into the nowhere, pushing through chest-high snow that hadn’t been packed down by a column of men, so it was incredibly hard going. Like torture. I was in one of those nightmares you’d see on shitty holos, where a character ran but didn’t get anywhere.
“Come on, Ox,” I said. He knew me well enough to listen, and followed.
When we had gotten about a hundred meters away from the column, she dove into the snow and motioned for us to get down. I hit it and then slapped her ankle.
“Look.” Bridgette held out her hand and for a moment I didn’t see anything, but then, all of a sudden, it was there. Her shadow. The weather had begun to clear and that would mean only one thing.
“Aw, mother of… said Ox. “Scout, make sure that chill can is on. And chameleon skins.”
The chill can sat below the suit exhaust, cooled it to the same temperature as ambient so we’d be invisible on thermal sensors. Mine was fine, and there was power enough for a short time with chameleon skins. Then I saw it. A group of Russian drones flew overhead, supersonic, so that we didn’t hear anything until the boom cracked and shook the ground, covering us in a minor avalanche that only got worse when the bombs fell, over and over. I tried digging. Wanted to get underground so badly that nothing else mattered. Eventually my gauntlets hit dirt, frozen solid into concrete with no way to get through, but I couldn’t stop and found out it was over only when Bridgette and Ox pulled me up, the tips of my gauntlets sanded flat.
A few minutes later it started snowing again. I don’t know how many guys bought it in that attack, but we walked over them for a couple of hours, on a road paved by corpses.
Ox went down one day out from Shymkent. At first he just looked tired, like everyone else, and I almost didn’t notice when he dropped his carbine. It seemed normal. I was so tired that I felt asleep on my feet, my muscles beyond screaming and at the verge of quitting, so I would have dropped the Maxwell ages earlier. But then I heard him laugh. Ox started hitting the buckles on his carapace, one at a time, opening them so that he could get out—until I grabbed his wrist.
“What the shit are you doing?”
“I’m so hot,” he said. “Gotta get out of this suit.” His words slurred and I didn’t notice that Bridgette was right next to me.
She put her hand on my shoulder. “Hypothermia. Symptoms include lethargy, disorientation, euphoria, hallucination. Then death.”
It had gotten dark and the column came to a halt, which was good because I had to stay there, to keep Ox from unbuttoning while she watched. But it was bad because with the night, temperatures would drop even further.
“I’m so tired,” he said. “Just let me sleep for a while.”
After that, he fell over, and I couldn’t wake him up.
“What are they doing?” asked Bridgette, pointing.
Several of the Marines had collected webbing, ration packs, and other flammable material and threw them into a pile. Atop this they placed several frozen corpses. Then one of the men pulled the caps off three flares and tossed them on top so that the flash overloaded my infrared.
“Bonfire,” I said.
Men gathered around it, jockeying for position as they loosened their armor—to enable the heat to penetrate more quickly. I was about to drag Ox closer when I heard someone shout.
“Goddamn it!” An Army colonel pushed into the circle. “Put that shit out now, you’ll draw fire.”
“Screw you,” someone said, a Marine. “They can’t send aircraft through this shit, and even if they could, let ’em. The weather’s killing my men.”
“Captain, you listen to my orders or so help me God—”
The Marine drew his fléchette pistol and fired. He pointed at two of his men, who then liberated the dead colonel of his suit, tossing the already freezing corpse onto the flames.
Bridgette cocked her head, and I smiled. The last few days had been so bad and I was so tired that I had forgotten what she looked like, hadn’t seen her face since the scout car. That one gesture brought it back. I pulled her into the snow next to me.
“I think that the captain was right to do that,” she said.
“I do too.”
“Do you want to know what else I think, Scout?”
“Sure,” I said. “Love to know.”
“I think that you and these men are not so different from me and my sisters. Come. We need to get your friend near the fire.”
The closest thing I’d ever had to a real friend in Shymkent was Pete German, a freelance photographer. We went everywhere together, arrived in country at the same time. It was good, because I needed a photographer; the guy from Stripes had gotten appendicitis and had to leave, and they didn’t know when a replacement would arrive. So I picked up Pete.
He was one of those shits that caused trouble. Anywhere, every time. One night we got completely wasted and decided to hit the USO show in Shymkent’s downtown rubble, a real blowout with some comedian from the States. Pete was gay, and I think he had a crush on me, because he kept trying to get me loaded, always had the best drugs and wouldn’t share with anyone except me. I’d have to fight him off at the end of the night, though, remind him that I hadn’t yet joined the team.
On the night of the USO thing, we popped about ten pills each—ecstasy, meth, and I can’t remember what else—for what he called an on-the-town appetizer, arranged on a plate with a bottle of vodka to wash. We got beyond wasted that night. After getting there, Pete couldn’t keep his shit straight and started screaming at the performers, accusing them of stealing his cameras just before he stumbled onto the stage. That was when he puked. We had just eaten spaghetti for dinner and it came out undigested, like guts and blood, all over the comedian’s shirt and the whole place got quiet. Then Pete said, in a serious voice, “I think you’ve been shot.” Pete got more laughs than the comedian, because all the troops in the audience gave him a standing ovation as the MPs dragged him out.
He bought it the next day. I got him out of jail, and we walked past an abandoned phosphorus plant, the structures rusted and sad remnants of a time gone by. I could almost sense it a millisecond before it happened, as if my ears felt the pressure change just before picking up the sound. Boom. Kazakh insurgents touched off a bomb, probably thought we were military. The blast took off half of Pete’s head and sent me across the street, where I landed in the dirt before shaking it off to discover that my friend had been scattered across the road in about ten pieces. At the time I thought it was especially bad because I hadn’t gotten a chance to say goodbye. But it wasn’t. Getting to say goodbye made things worse; I just hadn’t learned that yet, wouldn’t learn it until Bridgette and I got Ox back to Shymkent.
We saw ground fighting for the first time in weeks. She carried Ox by the shoulders and I had his legs, both of us stumbling and trying to stay awake. A few klicks away from us, on either side, plasma thundered, and I saw the brilliant globes of light burst upward from the steppes, Popov trying to cut off our escape, pinching inward from the east and west so that we were moving through a narrow gap about a mile across. I was about to suggest to Bridgette that we drop Ox for a rest when a loud cheer made me look up. We had made it. A few minutes later we passed the outer observation posts, and then the ruins of Shymkent’s suburbs, home free.
A loudspeaker broadcast a continuous automated message, which got louder as we made our way into the city. “Arriving troops, report to the assignment center at Hotel Dostyk. Follow the signs marked in blue. There you will be reattached to your units and given orders. Wounded, report to the hospital at town center. Follow the markers in red. Arriving troops, report to the assignment center at Hotel Dostyk…
There were a Marine APC and a group of corpsmen on one side of the street, and we veered toward them to drop Ox at their feet.
“Take him,” said Bridgette.
“What’s wrong with him?” one asked.
“Frostbite and hypothermia,” I said. Like it mattered; the guy was hurting and it was their job. I nearly lost my shit waiting for them to move, but two of the Marines grabbed Ox and carried him to the APC.
“Move up to the relocation center, and fast,” one of them said. “Popov is only a few klicks out.”
Bridgette saw a pair of MPs approaching and dragged me into an alley, where she popped her lid and then mine. We kissed, and I couldn’t imagine that she liked it, because after spending all this time in my suit, I was rancid. But I liked it and wouldn’t let go, so she finally had to push me away to breathe. Then we did it again. It was weird, gentle; I barely felt her tongue brush against mine.
“I’m so happy to have met you,” she said.
Bridgette was crying. I had an awful feeling then, like I didn’t get it but something major was about to happen. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s time for me to go. I love you.”
I remember what I said next; it will be etched in my gray matter forever. “I love you too. Let’s get married and have kids. A hundred Bridgettes, all with killer instincts and dead-on aim.”
She cracked up at that—half laughing and half crying while she wiped the tears from her eyes, unable to look at me. Then Bridgette shook her head. “I can’t have children, Scout, don’t be stupid. They didn’t design us that way.”
And that was the last thing she said. That was how she said goodbye, just before she walked over to the MPs. I stood there, in shock, unable even to move. Maybe I was too tired, but I don’t think I ever anticipated what she would do that day, not after spending all that time retreating through Kaz, keeping me together, making it in the scout car like mad teenagers. She walked over and said something, and the MPs drew down on her, put a few fléchettes right through her forehead. When she collapsed, I lost it. Screamed. I ran across the street and threw myself at them, just before one of them slammed the butt of his carbine into my head to keep his buddy from being strangled.
Once I recovered from the MP’s butt-shot to my head, I found out that Phil Erikson at the Bandar desk had gotten my Kaz tickets yanked. The MPs actually drove me to the airfield to put me on the next transport flight out of Tashkent to the States. Apparently, the story I had sent Phil wasn’t a story at all. I swear I don’t remember doing this, but I typed “fuck you” about ten thousand times and slapped on a title: “What I Like About Doing Phil Erikson up the Ass,” by Scout. That last phone call—the one I had ignored on my way out the door—was him, calling to tell me I had been fired.
Still, having a friend in Brussels High Command helped a lot. It was even better because this guy was a Marine general, a hard charger who spent half his time in Kaz scoring dope, and the other half sniping Popovs from the front line. A military genius. General Nathan Urqhart was a small man, stout, like a midget, only bigger and with a barrel chest, and his kids, every Marine in the theater, loved him. I loved him too, because for all his shortcomings, the guy had his war bonnet on straight, knew the drill, and had subterrene in his veins.
Before I met him, one of his aides pulled me aside and gave me some advice.
“Don’t call him this at first,” he said, “but after you’ve developed rapport with the general, you should suggest that he needs a nickname.”
“A nickname?” I asked. I mean, come on. What the shit was this guy angling at?
“Yeah—the general digs them. Keeps waiting for someone to compare him to Chesty Puller.” I think the aide must have seen my blank face. Like, Uh… what? “You know, Chesty? Famous Marine from the twentieth century?”
“Nope,” I said. “Drawing a blank over here.”
The guy looked like he was about to take a dump on me, right there in the staff room. “Never mind. Who cares if you know who Chesty is? What’s important is that the general thinks you do. Just say something like he reminds you of that hard-ass in the twentieth century, blah, blah.”
Blah, blah was something I understood. Perfectly. Blah, blah I could do; I was a reporter, for Christ’s sake. “Not a problem,” I said. “And thanks.”
I should have bought him a drink, because with God as my witness, the second I actually did it, the instant I suggested to General Urqhart that he was like old Chesty, I owned the guy. When I put the comparison in one of my stories, I could have screwed his daughter and he would have asked how it was, could he get me a beer? The old son of a bitch made it a point to put me up in his Bandar HQ every time he was in the area—five star and any chick I wanted—as long as I promised to go everywhere with him, like I was writing his biography or something. Did I do it? Hell yes, I did it. Of all the self-serving prick officers I encountered in Kaz, General Urqhart was the only prick who at least reserved part of his mental energy for caring about Marines. So when he found out what that pair of Army MPs had done, he took a big verbal crap, right on their CO’s face, and came to see me himself.
I cried on the plane as it sat on the tarmac, and not even zip made it better. I just missed her, couldn’t get Bridgette out of my head.
Suddenly the whine of the transport engines died, and I saw a ramp being wheeled out to the main hatch. When it popped open, old Chesty himself burst into the plane, and the MPs who had arrested me followed him in, unable to look me in the eye.
“Goddamn it to hell!” he said. He liked to bellow, and just hearing it made me feel a little better, like being on the good side of a war god. “Jesus, son, what happened to you?”
“Pavlodar. I was on the retreat, and these shit sacks”—I pointed at the MPs—“wouldn’t even let me shower.”
General Urqhart looked at the men and said quietly, “Get out of my sight.”
They did. Once we were the only two people on the entire transport, the general sat beside me, putting his arm around my shoulder. “What’s this about a genetic?”
I told him. I couldn’t not tell him; I had to get it out to keep it from eating through my gut, and by the end of it, my shirt was soaked from tears.
He just sat there quietly for a second and then grinned. “That there is some fucked-up shit, Wendell. I haven’t tried genetics, and sure as shit haven’t tried zip—is it good?”
“Well then, son.” He stood and lifted me to my feet. “It’s been a while since I’ve been a line Marine, but I know one when I see one. You’ve changed. No more normal civilian life. A guy like you has a hard time reinserting into the world, and if I’m guessing right, the last thing you want is a ride back to the States. Am I right?”
Like I said, the guy was a real genius. Omniscient. I nodded again.
“Well, I may have an idea. You want another assignment, to stay in Kaz?”
“Please, General.” I wiped my nose, felt like a little kid.
He pushed me toward the hatch and then outside. At the bottom of the ramp, the general spoke to me quietly, his shit-eating grin getting wider by the second. “We’re counterattacking. Pops overextended and we were ready for it. Ten more factories came online a few years ago, so we’ve been building up two divisions of genetics in reserve. They were ready to jump from Uzbekistan the moment Popov hit us.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
He lit what looked like a cigar, but I could smell the weed, sweet and heavy. “It means we’ll be back at the mines in a couple of weeks. And beyond. Boy, do I have a posting for someone in as fucked-up a state as you.” The general handed me a ticket. “Report to the reassignment center at oh-eight-hundred tomorrow for DOD duty as our civilian historian. I’ll make sure to get orders for your buddy Ox to join you there. You’ll be going somewhere quiet, with no women in sight, so you’ll have time to wind down and get some of that shit out of your brain.”
I didn’t know what to say. I just stood there and did some weird sobbing thing.
“It’s OK, son. Kaz is a nasty mistress and no thanks are necessary. I’m doing it for one reason: you can’t avoid the world forever but you’re not ready to return to it. Not yet. This’ll be over someday, and if you don’t find a way to deal, nothing will work. Ever. Use the time to ease out, son, let it all go if you can.”
When he left, I collapsed on the side of the airstrip and thought about her. I could still smell Bridgette and knew that I had meant it when I had said we should have kids—wanted her that badly.
But Kaz had wanted her too.
Excerpted from Germline by McCarthy, T.C. Copyright © 2011 by McCarthy, T.C.. Excerpted by permission.
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