“Why are you here, Mag?”
The question comes without warning. No pleasant conversation leading up to it, nothing. It’s not like I’m not used to it. I think everyone in ArCorp has asked me at some point or another. In a world of specialists, I stand out – because I’m average.
I’m not a sniper, or a gunner, or a scout. I don’t drive a tank like it’s a sports car. I’m not special. All I do is go out every day and do my job.
Today is no different, and the only reason the question feels unusual is because of who is asking. Lissa is spectacular. I don’t think I’ve ever crushed as hard as I did the first time I was around her. That feeling is mostly gone now, buried beneath the afternoons spent sweating and bleeding under the same terrifyingly bright sun. Now she’s just a partner, or at least that’s what I tell myself. The delusions burn away like paper in a blast furnace when she speaks to me on a personal level.
“Well, I got on a ship, and it flew through space, and then it landed, and –“
She slugs me in the shoulder. Her paw is like an iron block and I feel the blow all the way through to my chest.
“You know what I mean, dickpuppet,” she says, shaking her head.
I shift the rifle a little on its sling and get it in a spot that doesn’t make my shoulder feel raw. That’ll last probably about another ten minutes.
“I go where the money is,” I tell her, but it’s an obvious lie. She doesn’t buy it. I guess my delivery really sucks.
“You could have had real money if you’d signed up for the airdrops on Sethyn,” she counters.
“At least that place has a real name.”
I step around one of those weird local cactus things. Sharp, barbed spines on them with a fiery toxin that make them about as much fun as reaching into a bucket full of broken glass to feel around for an arcing electrical wire. Sure, my boots should protect me, but seriously? Like I want to wander around through this whole sweep with that shit in my feet. Did I mention that I have shit for luck? Taking a risk like that is sure to bring something disastrous and stupid to the team.
She is quiet for a couple hundred more paces. Somewhere in the line behind us is Duggan, her partner for well over a year. I can tell she would rather be with him, but the Sarge has paired us together. Ordinarily I would be content just to march and get where we’re going, but I sense she wants to talk. I don’t really want to disappoint her.
“Petty criminal,” I confess, and she looks at me in sudden shock. Her sparkling eyes have gone wide and her mouth is open just enough to show those delicate points of white.
“I got caught stealing from a local Magistrate’s house. After his sec boys beat on me for a while, I got ‘volunteered’ for the local militia. I did okay there, and when the recruiter rolled through telling us how wonderful life was in the army, I raised my paw. I’ve done dumber things in life, but not many.”
“What did you steal?” she asks.
“Time,” I answer. She looks at me with one brow raised.
“Yeah. With his daughter.”
Her laughter is like a silken cloth caressing the pleasure center of my brain. Images flash through my head of hearing that laugh for the next twenty or so years. So much for the ‘crush is gone’ thing.
“That’s a great story,” she says after she stops giggling.
“Thanks. It got me a few years behind the butt of an L5.”
“Well, then it’s not all bad. You could have had that piece of shit 67 they used to issue.”
Now the talk turns comfortable. We’ve been here on this planet for a month and shared little more than six words. It’s because she wondered who I was. She’s not the only one. I wonder about that myself from time to time. What kind of mutt gets into a life like this because he can’t keep it in the sheath?
“So what’s your story?” I ask. She tightens up her grip on the rifle she carries and I think for a second that maybe I’ve touched a nerve, but it looks like a gesture of comfort for her. She treasures the rifle more than any prospective lover could expect, and it shows. We all get protective of our weapons in the field, but I think that her feelings for what she holds go beyond that.
“Typical, I guess. I wanted out of the home situation. Signed up to get away from my parents. They weren’t abusive or anything,” she hastens to tell me, and the expression on her face tells me she’s truthful here. She seems afraid that I’ll misunderstand her motives and lay blame somewhere.
“They just treated me like I was an inconvenience. By the time I was old enough for the militia, I knew the family’d be better off without me around, so I jetted. Signed up and went in with what I had on my back. The Combine came around after I’d been in for about a year. My scores caught the recruiter’s eye and he offered me a new bunk. Next thing, I’m hunkered down in a field snapping up Gun Bunnies. That’s how I met Duggan,” she adds, with a rearward jerk of the thumb.
Duggan is a lifer, and no doubt of that. Some Folk dream of retiring and leaving the killing behind. Some are a little more devoted to their craft. Duggan makes the most of what he is, I suppose, and he’s a killing machine. I don’t mind dropping a toothie, mind you. It’s just part of the job. Duggan, though? He lives for it. I doubt he has any outside interests or anything. He’s got kill marks all over him, and he would never blend into that mythical ‘polite society’ thing.
“We were on Ixxat,” Lissa continues. “Duggan’s running an MG, keeping lines of rabbits down. The toothies send a team of squirrels around the flank to silence him. I caught their advance and set up position behind him; started popping one nutmouth after another. Everyone they sent got put down. Eventually we started working together. He maintains the automatics, and I keep the distance threats from getting close enough to be an issue.”
“I didn’t think we had a dedicated sniper. That’s what they told me, anyway.”
“Oh, I’m not one,” she says, although I see her happiness at being compared to one. “I’m just good at long shots.”
“Yeah. I hear you regularly pull off seven hundred meters.”
“Who’s been talking?”
“You know how it is. Word gets around.”
“Good optics and an amazing weapon,” she says with a wink. “I can’t do the klick-and-a-half-all-day stuff that a true sniper can, but at seven, I can make reliable kills. Much past nine, and I’m hoping like hell I can tag ‘em. It’s like training, right? Where they made you make five hundred with the L5. They know in the field you’ll be inside of three most all the time.”
“Most of my days were within a hundred. That was on the days when they weren’t in my lap.” I look down into the waist-high grass we’re cutting through. It feels kind of good brushing against my lower legs. Soothing, somehow.
“Gara,” she says with a shudder. “I hate having them that close.”
“Me too. It just happens that way. I wind up in the middle of them and then the shooting starts.”
“Have you spent much time talking to Sergeant Sharn?”
“I’ve spoken more to you on this march than I’ve spoken to anyone since landfall,” I admit. Her brow arches again.
“Shy, are we?”
“Not really. I just do my job and go home, you know?”
She nods and I can see in her eyes that she knows. I’ve seen that look before on Folk who have been in it. It’s that look that tells you, I’ve been where you are and I know what you’re thinking, but having someone else around doesn’t automatically mean they’re going to disappear. Yeah, sometimes they do, but it’s not guaranteed. It’s okay to let someone in.
“Well, he has a thing for getting in real close,” she adds. “You know, like paws-on kind of close.”
“I much prefer not touching their kind. Takes forever to get the stink out.”
“Right? That’s why I like to keep them at range.”
“Can’t say as I disagree with that idea. With any luck I’ll just get to sit back and hand you magazines.”
“You should come hang out with us some night,” she offers suddenly. She sounds surprisingly sincere, and I can tell it was a spur of the moment decision to, in essence, ask me out.
“I don’t get out much,” I hear myself reply, and if I could kick myself in the face for that, I would. About a dozen times.
“First drink is on me.”
I shake away the image of body shots inspired by her last comment and shuffle the rifle again, flipping it on the sling so that it hangs over my right shoulder and points to the ground. I’m trying to think of something witty to say, something that won’t come out like, “Ogglebooglewogwog” if I manage to speak at all.
“I should warn you,” she continues, looking directly at me as she walks. “I don’t give up easy.”
“Then you should know I’m from a backwater town and I have really cheap tastes. That whole ‘first drink’ thing might end up costing you three seconds’ pay.”
She smiles and is about to reply.
The ‘click’ is a tiny snick of metal on metal that barely carries to our ears but seems somehow to echo loud as thunder. My hands are in motion, swinging up the rifle and mounting it to my shoulder as my eyes sweep the surrounding area for the toothies. I feel the cold rush of adrenaline through my veins and I am ready for whatever comes.
Or so I think. The muted whimpering sound from my left draws me up short and I turn to see Lissa standing stock-still and looking down at her foot. The clicking sound makes sense now.
“Pressure release. Don’t move,” I tell her. The words are unnecessary. She knows the drill as well as I do. They’re just something I can do.
I touch the microphone feed on my headset, breaking a radio silence that has existed since the third step off the transport four hours ago.
“Mines, mines, mines,” I chant in a husky voice that I hope isn’t a scream. “I say again: Mines. Lissa is on one.”
“Lissa?” Duggan responds. Anything else he has to say is covered by Sergeant Sharn. His frequency locks out the lower-ranking turtle.
“Full stop. Defensive stance. Mag, what can you tell me?”
“Pressure release,” I repeat. I’m kneeling now, and brushing away some of the thick yellow sand. I can see part of the device beneath her foot. I look up into her eyes, smiling in the most reassuring manner I can. I can deal with mines, but this situation was not what I wanted.
“Looks like a Frilltac Nine,” I report. “I’ll take a look at it.” I lay a comforting paw on her lower leg and use my other to cut off the transmitter. Not only do I not need to have the chatter distracting me, I don’t want any of them to hear anything said. The things Folk say when they truly believe they are about to die can be embarrassing if they don’t.
“I’ll get you out of here, Lissa,” I promise.
“Do it and all the drinks are on me,” she says, trying not to stutter. I see her swallowing again and again.
“Well, that’s not much of an offer. Remember? I’m cheap.” I lean over to blow against the dust, sending a cloud of it into my nose and eyes. Whoever planted the Nine was smart. There’s a blob of adhesive covering the hole where I could have safed the device with a wire. Did I mention I have shit for luck?
The first bullet hits her in the chest, just above the line of her breasts. I can hear it hammer into her armor and then she is toppling backward, unable to keep her balance. The sound of the shot rolls in behind the impact, low and loud. Without thinking, I grab her foot and press it as hard as I can to the fuse, throwing my own weight atop it as I hear her body hit the ground. She makes a strange, creaking noise as she fights to regain her breath. As she twists to fight the sudden pain, I keep wrestling her foot.
“Lissa, stop!” I tell her. Her boot is trying to slip from my grasp. “Stop moving or you’ll kill us both!”
Around us the entire force has opened up in a comforting display of weapons fire, and I can hear the sharper reports of toothies answering with shots of their own. I focus on the task at paw, blocking out all the sounds as best I can.
She is breathing again, with a thick wheezing noise as part of it. Based on the shot I heard, it’s got to hurt a lot. Probably dented the sheathing of her armor. She has stopped fighting me, and for that I’m grateful. I change my grip and lever my body into a partial rise, lifting my bulk away from the hole I have made. It takes a moment to get back to the semi-clear access I had before, and working with only one paw makes it even harder.
“M-Mag?” she chokes out.
“No. You’re not gonna die, so the answer is no.”
I hear her wheeze. Faster and shallower than before. She is starting to hyperventilate, and I can tell she’s about to speak again. I cut her off.
“Too many times. Too damned many times, Lissa. Always asked to get a final message to a sister, or a husband, or a fellow troop. Not this time,” I say, digging in my pocket. With a snick, the switchblade flicks open and I set to work on the adhesive.
“This time,” I continue, prying at the blob. It starts to give way and then cracks. A chunk falls away and I redouble my attack – on it as well as on my plans. “We’re making it home. I’m gonna take you out and we’re gonna have a drink. We’re gonna talk. I’m gonna tell you shitty jokes and you’re gonna laugh even though they suck. And then I’m gonna walk you home and when we get there, I’m gonna kiss you goodnight, and I don’t give two fucks if Duggan himself is standing there. Even he isn’t stopping me.”
The plug snaps free and I yelp out in elation. I paw around in my pouches until I find the little pack of spare parts. There’s a spring in there that should do the trick quite nicely. I rip the pack open with my teeth and the contents scatter into the dirt. I can taste the yellow dust as I grip one end of the spring in my teeth to straighten it. It has a metallic flavor, but I guess that could be from the spring I’m chewing on.
“You’d better,” I hear from Lissa as I slide the stiffened wire into the safety. It goes through to the other side and my confidence goes up a thousand points. I don’t have the specialized knowledge that a demo crew would, but I do know my job. I bend the wire so it can’t come back out. If I’m successful, at least no one else will have to worry about this particular little banger.
I shove Lissa’s foot away with all the force I can muster. If the Nine goes off she should be protected by me being in position above the explosion. A second that feels like an eternity later and I whoop in triumph.
“Get up and get in the fight, soldier,” I tell her, pointing to her rifle.
She grabs me by the strap over my left shoulder and drags me close. I taste her breath for the second before her lips touch mine. There is no deep passion, no promise of undying love, but there is a feeling that passes between us in the brief contact. I know for sure the crush is alive and well, just as much as she is.
“I didn’t want to wait,” she says.
Before I can answer, the barrel of her rifle passes by my head and my world becomes a blur of sound as she cooks it off. Behind me, the rabbit she has shot falls aside with an empty space where its brain was.
I roll over, shoulder the rifle, and rise into a crouch, seeing a dozen of the toothies popped up from their hidey holes. I flip off the safety and go to work.