“Okay, listen up, cockroaches!” The sergeant’s voice echoed in the docking bay. We had just trooped off the shuttle and it was still hissing behind us as it cooled down. The heat of it at our backs felt good in the chill of the tanker, prepped to enter outer orbit where the temperature would drop even further.
There were five of us, mainly reserves who’d never seen combat. I had seen combat. So had Hen beside me. They usually stuck the shocks with the reserves because war wasn’t like it used to be, they said. I gripped my left wrist, trying to steady it. There was still pain there where the scar was. That’s where they usually hit you, slicing at the wrist. Then you either bled out or you lost a hand. Either way you were out of combat. Or, if you got lucky, you were in the reserves. I got lucky, I guess.
“Gonna outlive the apocalypse,” Hen said beside me in a low pitched whisper. I laughed. It was an old joke and a tired laugh.
“It’s a standard drill,” the sergeant said, shooting us the stink-eye, but men like him, they played gentle around shocks. We were heroes, if you hadn’t heard. “Chammies in the northeast quadrant, arms-locker inaccessible. Standard issue guns,” he pointed to a crate beside him, “with half-charge.”
One of the reserves cursed under his breath. The sergeant got in his face and just stared at him a moment. Corks was a thin kid, with just a wisp of a pubescent mustache on his face. He got red from the neck of his uniform up to his hair with the sergeant up close.
“You say something, private?”
“I don’t think you heard me right. I said, did you say something, private?”
“Yes, sir.” But his voice faltered.
“You think this is some sorta game? This may be orbit today, but tomorrow you get called up to the rings, you got chammies jumpin a civvy ship, and you’re just pissing yourself, because your gun’s half-charged and you think you’re gonna die!”
Corks didn’t answer. There wasn’t really any right answer to something like that.
“Get your gun, private,” the sergeant ordered through gritted teeth.
The guns were standard issue, like the sergeant had said, which meant they were pretty weak to start with. You can say a war is on all you want, but unless the regents saw some money in it, it was the civvy ships who paid for the top guns so their guards, even if badly trained, had weapons to make up for that bad training. These guns, they had one trigger which was like to overheat as not, and one setting. Charge runs out fast on a gun like that. Starting with half-charge, you may as well not have a gun at all if you’re up against chammies.
“The point,” the sergeant drawled, his eye fixed on Corks who was trying to settle into a standard stance, “is that you know how to hand-to-hand with bastards like these if the need should ever arise.”
He scanned the rest of us, not quite looking Hen and me in the face. There was a chance he’d never seen combat himself. That would be my guess. Because it seemed sometimes, you know, that those who’d never fought often talked the loudest.
They didn’t look like they did in the articles, the apartments where Tep and I lived. It was one room where you ate and you watched your shows, and it was another room where you slept and you had sex. There was a closet with a flusher and water, but it wasn’t anything to brag about. We hadn’t ever bothered to put up the painted tiles we’d bought in the civvy market. There had been some plan at the time, I guess, to make our place look like some sorta show—tiles on the wall, plants hanging from the ceiling, and maybe some kinda rug to cover the floor. By the time we’d ported back, though, making out like kids the whole way, I think we’d really forgotten that plan.
It was hard, blending in. You never felt like you belonged there. Actual nonsim gravity, for one. It made you feel a little too stuck. We’d spent a lifetime in the rings. We were career military, and career military, well, we had bunks and maybe two minutes of privacy in a day. We had meals served us on plastic plates that smelled like onion. How were you meant to pick out your own food, to know what you felt like eating? I guess, really, there was never any question about whether we’d start up again in the reserves.
“Eyes on me,” Hen said once the door to the docking bay was sealed behind us, a little pop at the end. “Let’s not bunch this up, and maybe we can get outta here before food. Corks, you’re in the rear.”
He had the gall to look a little offended when Hen said that. I knocked him in the arm with my elbow, not really caring to be gentle. “Back.”
Hen looked at the other three of us. “Stag, Prita, flank. Sitha, with me.”
I could see what he was doing. We’d be in front, and between the two of us, would probably take out whatever the fake chammies threw at us. He wasn’t really in it for the training.
“Might work better for us to flank, Hen.”
He looked at me like I’d somehow stepped on his pride, all clenched jaw. “They’ll just bunch us up.”
“Yeah, and what? You’re gonna bleed? Come on, it’s drill. Someone oughta get drilled.”
He grumbled a bit, and pointed with his gun. “Stag and Prita in front then.”
There was a look on their face, something between fear and excitement. Something kinda sad. Stag was a broad guy and when he moved ahead of me, all I could see was the swath of his insulated back. Hen and I split to either side and just a bit back, but before we did, he hissed in my ear, like it was joke. That’s what he thought, I’m thinking. “What, you getting all motherly?” I shoved him off with the butt of my gun.
The corridor off of the bay wasn’t too long. There was a door straight ahead and it looked clear to there.
“What’s the code?” Prita asked, an edge of panic in her voice, like she’d forgotten everything she’d ever learned.
“It’s a drill, Prita,” I said. “Brake it. Take a breath.”
She looked back at me, startled as if she’d never heard my voice before. “I can’t remember.” She had the gasping look on her face like she’d just dropped her wedding ring down the sewage drain.
“Standard military ship,” Hen barked impatiently.
She shook her head as if to clear it, but Stag was stepping in. He punched the code. The door groaned open. I guess I couldn’t expect any of the ships back in the yard to be up to snuff. The floor lurched beneath us. We were in orbit.
“Brake it,” I shouted while snapping the switch on my own suit. It was something you said when you were trying to calm someone down, yeah, but really it meant you needed to brake your suit in prep for leaving the gravity-field. The others did it too, though Prita almost left the floor before she’d managed.
“Damn,” Hen shouted at them. “You’d all be dead by now if we were in the rings. Chammies, they grow up in anti-gravity, they eat it, they breathe it. If you can’t brake it before those bastards come at you, you’re dead. They have your face off.”
“They don’t do that, Hen, you know that.”
He looked at me. “What’s up your suit, Sitha? You got something with me? These recruits think they’re face is going to be some chammie’s dinner—how will that hurt?”
“Here, stop,” I said. “What do you know?” I looked at Prita, Corks, and Stag. “What do you know about chammies?”
“Peregrinus sapiens,” Stag said, surprising me. He had a small grin on his face. “I had some time at the academy before I signed up.”
“Other than your academic bullshit, what do you know?”
“Time’s running,” Hen muttered.
“What do you know?”
Prita, she looked at me like I was some girl in her primary she had feelings for, shy and sorta scared. But when she spoke, she knew stuff. “They’re chameleons,” she said. “They blend into their environments. They’re fast. Faster than any Earth mammal we’ve tracked. They’re intelligent. They can read you.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” I said. “And they’ve been traveling space longer.”
“They’re carnivorous,” Corks spoke up.
I smiled. “Yeah, but so are you, Corks.”
“I don’t eat meat.”
“Shiiiiit,” Hen interrupted. “Sitha, can we get this moving?”
I looked at him and tickled the trigger of my gun. He grinned back, a little crazy. “You got the hots for me, girl?”
“Stag, Prita, you’re still front.” I tucked my gun close up under my armpit. “And Hen?”
He glanced at me, sidestepping his way to Stag’s left.
“You gotta stop asking for it,” I said.
Tep and I were most often together, but sometimes even if you’re close, you need time alone. When he needed it, he went to drinks. When I needed it, I stayed back in the apartment, and I read the articles. They had full, glossy pages. They were expensive, made for those who could afford paper. Artificial paper, of course. That shit don’t grow on trees.
I read all about what it was for, living on the ground. They seemed to think it was something about looking at the stars rather than being in them. It seemed that ever since Earth got its own asteroid belt, all you ever wanted to do was try and see what you could see through that. Down to the patterns of the rugs and the pictures on the tiles, it was stars. Which was kinda weird to read about when you had been stationed in the rings for all your life before.
When they knocked on my door, I was thinking about that. My feet felt sorta stuck to the floor as I moved.
“What do you want?” I said as I opened it. No one comes to the door anymore unless it’s a kid seeking trouble. So that’s why I said what I did when I opened it.
“Sitha?” It was a couple of men, uniformed.
“That’s what they call me,” I said, talking slow. It was the most human I’d ever felt, looking at them and not knowing what they were going to say next.
“You’re going to want to come with us.”
Their faces were so solemn but also sort of filled with a man’s joy in grim duty.
“I don’t understand.”
“Your partner, Tep,” I started nodding as if they needed confirmation of that. “He’s been killed.”
Grief sort of hits me slow. It’s a good quality in career military. But it also meant that in that moment there was nothing I could feel but curiosity.
“Show me,” I said.
They nodded now, as if this was what you expected when you came to the door of a woman who killed things for a living.
“Hold up,” Hen said, impatient. “If you’ve got the computer, you should use it.” He pointed with a showgirl’s grace to the panel on the wall. Prita and Stag retraced their steps.
He looked at me, but he was kinda unsettled now. He rolled his eyes when I didn’t say anything. “If you think you can train them better, go for it.”
“No,” I said. “No. Best you take it.”
Prita remembered the code this time. She waited while the computer loaded a gridwork of the ship, each level in a different fluorescent color. Overlapped, it looked like a drawing with a child’s crayons. It was slow. The ship was definitely due to be junked.
“Northeast quadrant the sergeant said,” Stag said over her shoulder, eyes squinted at the screen.
“Read any life forms?” Corks asked.
“Brake it,” she said, her voice breathy and nervous. Then she tapped on the screen. It zoomed in on the quadrant. “Yeah, there are chammies there.”
“So we should take ‘em?” Stag said, somewhere between a question and a statement.
“Don’t ask me,” Hen answered. “They’re your chammies.” He loaded sarcasm on the word like gravy on potatoes.
Stag looked at each of his fellow reserves and nodded. “Come on,” he said.
We followed, turning down a corridor branch on our right hand. There was a rumbling sound somewhere deep in the engines and a strip of red lights began blinking at the top of the walls.
“Brace yourselves,” Hen yelled at them.
Stag and Prita looked back at us, not understanding. Corks had already pushed himself up against the wall.
“Brace yourselves,” Hen repeated, pushing them roughly against the walls as well. Which meant he was unbraced and when the corridor started to shake like a poorly-built house in an earthquake, he was stumbling to find footing.
“What is it?” Prita asked.
“If you weren’t in the reserves,” I said, “you’d be in the rings. Showers are fairly regular things out there.”
“You’d all be dead by now if we were in the rings,” Hen repeated his mantra.
“Keep moving,” I said, talking over him.
They walked forward gingerly, one hand leaning on the wall. We felt like a bunch of rocks in a tumbler.
“The chammies,” Corks shouted from behind, because the simulation program was starting to make the pinging sound you’d hear in the rings during a real shower, “they thrown off by this?”
I shook my head and kept moving forward.
“It was a bar fight?” I asked, because that didn’t sound like Tep. Tep drank, but he drank in the way a man does when he wants to savor the taste of something.
But he was lying there spread-eagled on the floor of the bar. The bartender had closed it down and there was a ring of bar stools pulled out around Tep like a strange sort of yellow tape. I could smell the iron whiskey that Tep liked, not because it was that good, but because it was what you drank in the rings. He was dressed in civvy gear which still looked strange to me, a vacuumed jacket and slacks.
“I’m sorry, Sitha,” the bartender said like he was apologizing for a spill. But his face looked upset.
“What happened, Rally?”
“I’m not sure.” His hands wandered over the taps. “I heard loud voices, and then one of them had a slitter out. I didn’t see his face. Not a regular, I don’t think. Tep was shouting back just as loud.” He let his breath out with a long sigh. “I don’t know, Sitha, and I’m sorry.”
“He was using a slitter,” I said, wondering, and knelt down near Tep. He was on his back, his hands were sorta raised up over his head. And the pool of blood, what there was, was under his arm.
“Tep,” I said as if I was waiting to hear an answer. I put a hand on his shoulder and the way he felt still sent a chill up my arm.
“Military-issued,” one of the cops said. He showed me where, on the floor, an open slitter was lying. It had a hair-thin razor blade used in hand-to-hand combat. “And I’m guessing, based on the wounds, that the perp was military-trained. Dressed him up like a chammie.”
I put both hands on Tep’s side and pushed him over on his back. There was a smell of metal. His skin looked yellow. Both his wrists were slit.
“Unusual way to kill a man,” the cop kept going. “Maybe—was your partner a hemophiliac?”
I looked up at him, then back at Tep’s face, all haggard and slack-jawed. You weren’t supposed to die in your bar. But maybe it would have been the same if we’d stayed in combat instead of taking this new assignment. Like I said, that’s where they hit you in hand-to-hand, when the guns were out of charge. “I don’t know.” I could smell the fluid from his nerve sac, leaking into the blood, transparent like egg whites.
“It may be that the fight was going on longer than it seemed,” Rally added in his two-cents. “They were fighting hard after the shouting. And it was hard getting people to clear out, so it was a bit before I could get to him.”
“We’re going to get a doctor up here for post-mortem.” Maybe because of the way I was acting, they seemed to have forgotten that I was the bereaved. They were talking like I wouldn’t care if I heard about my partner being cut up.
“No doctor,” I said. He looked at me, questioning. “Religious observance.”
It seemed that reason worked. They turned to each other and there was whispering. Religion introduces a certain respect into some kinds of circumstances.
“You didn’t see who it was, Rally?” My grief was catching up with me, moving sluggish through my veins.
He shook his head and tried to reach a hand across the bar to hold my hand or pat my shoulder. I moved out of reach.
“That’s alright, Rally,” I said. “I’ll find him myself.”
The simulated shower was over. We stopped outside the supply locker in the northeast quadrant.
“They’ve got to be in there,” Corks whispered. His voice was bordering on shrill.
“Here, listen up,” Hen said. “You’ve got maybe one good volley in the guns. Sweep them high and then low. Sometimes the chammies stay close to the ground.”
“And when the guns are dead?” Prita asked.
“Then fall back on your damned training. It’s a quicker kill anyways if you hit them right across the wrists.” Hen held up his hands, baring his wrist between the gloves and the arms of his suit. “You hit the nerve sac and they’re dead before they hit the ground.” He was walking, and stopped in front of each of them to tap them on the helmet. “It’s like getting hit in the brain,” he said. They flinched nervously under his tapping finger.
“But if it’s a simulation, won’t they have suits on? How will we do that?”
Hen threw back his chin in aggravation.
“Well, obviously you’re not going to kill your fellow idiots. You do as I say, though, and you’ll trigger the sensors they’ve got built in and the sergeant will see you know what you’re doing. Here’s my fervent wish that their suits are as thick as your heads.”
“I think I’m ready,” Stag said.
“Really? You’ve only been standing outside the supply locker for ten minutes. If you were in the rings—” he began.
“They know, Hen,” I snapped. “Let them go.” Then I stepped back to where he stood and spoke a bit more quietly.
“And we ought to let them go in by themselves if they’re ever going to learn anything.”
“Fine by me,” he grunted. “I wanna see how fast they die.”
“Go, go, go!” Stag was screaming. He punched in the code as he yelled. Prita was standing at the ready as the door groaned open. There was a flash of light and the smell of gas as guns began to fire from inside.
Corks bent over as if might throw up. “Get in there,” I shoved him.
Despite the noise and the smell from the locker, Hen and I felt sort of isolated out in the corridor. I looked at him. He was holding his gun loosely, one finger looped near the trigger, but it was at his leg, not up.
“I think you fight dirty, Hen.”
He lifted his head. He smiled as if he thought this was me flirting.
“Dirty as they come,” he popped his lips on the last word.
“Did you know?”
“Hmm?” He sensed the shift in tone. He wasn’t a bad fighter after all. His instincts were slow, but not like the reserves.
“Did you know that the man you killed in Rally’s bar was my partner? Because I think that would be kinda low, Hen, if you were coming onto the woman whose guy you killed.”
“Sitha.” He was thinking, buying time.
I just stood still, watching.
“I never meant to kill no one.” He was pulling his gun up. He held it steady under his arm.
“Not then, maybe,” I said. “But it’s hard to care on that score.” I paused and when he said nothing, I continued. “Given the circumstances.”
Someone screamed inside the locker. The sounds of guns had faded. Whatever was happening in the fight, it was down to hand-to-hand combat.
“I’m faster than you, Hen.” I shifted my own gun.
“Like hell.” But he waited, which was strange.
I shot once over his head which made him jump to one side, but I was there before him. I took a handful of his suit in my fist and I thumped him up against the wall of the corridor. The smell of molten metal burned in both our noses from where the gun had blasted the wall. I rammed the gun, still hot, down on his other hand and he dropped his own weapon. My wrist was throbbing.
“The first time I was ever on a civvy ship,” I said, my nose almost touching his, “I learned something important, Hen.”
The docking bay was filled with some sort of gas the moment we bored our way in through the hull. The guards inside were wearing masks and a few of them were holding guns. Most of them, though, were waiting, hunched down low, hands out in front, gripping slitters. I immediately tumbled forward, coming out of my roll directly in front of the first guard. I reached for his wrist as I lunged upwards, carrying his hand and the slitter far over my head. I twisted my hand and there was the sound of bones crunching. The slitter fell from his hand.
Whatever the gas was meant to do, it did not affect us. Vision was impaired, but neurologically we were fine. We fight silently, so the sounds we heard were the hollow thumps of men falling to the ground or the sound of their breath leaving their lungs in labored gasps. Tep was near me. I could sense him and there was a comfort in that. We fight more as a unit than I’ve heard men speculate. It’s just not an organization we have to shout about to keep intact.
The man I had hold of died quickly. But there was another right behind him. He came in low and slashed upwards, cutting across my wrist, just below the sac. I hissed in pain. Tep felt that. The pain was hard to take, but I jerked around, snapping the slitter out of the new guy’s hand.
Then it was time. Most of us retreated, back through the hole in the hull, and I think the gas ended up really helping us, covering over what I had to do. We had strict orders from the commanding unit, and we weren’t meant to question it. There was a knot in my gut from the thought of it. We’d been given no explanation for the order, no reasoning behind this infiltration. Just an order to wait. Tep and I were close, a unit that worked well even alone and cut off from all that we knew. I often wondered later whether we’d been forgotten, whether we’d become too human in our separation.
Tep and I lay as still as we could near the men we had killed. There was shouting coming down the corridors. We could hear it faintly through the bay doors. There was a tingling in my veins and my skin tightened around me. My wrist was warm which only increased the pain.
I was quiet though. And when the men came pouring through the bay doors, I was one of the first victims up on the stretchers.
“You got to hide yourself well, Hen,” I let my gun drop to the floor which seemed to unnerve him more than anything else. I think he pissed himself. “if you’re going to kill something.”
I flicked the toggle at the neck of his suit and peeled back the insulating layer. The thin cloth shirt he wore underneath was soaked with sweat. I held him tight by the shoulder and pushed him down until he was sitting limp against the wall and I was crouched in front of him. I picked up the gun again and pressed the barrel against his chest, just under the shoulder bone, right over his heart.
I was angry and I could feel it affecting the chems under the epidermal layer of my skin. I’m not quite sure what Hen saw but he opened his mouth, gasping, and tried to speak. It seemed like his tongue was choking him.
I pulled the trigger. The heat from the blast felt like hot sun on my face. There was a smell of charred flesh. I stood up. I kicked my gun toward the opposite wall of the corridor. Hen’s head had dropped to his chest.
“What happened?” Corks stumbled out of the locker and stopped, panting, putting his hands on his knees and bending over. Prita and Stag followed close behind him. I could hear men taking off their suits inside the locker and laughing. It seemed the simulation was over.
“I don’t know,” I turned my head to them. “Which one of you can’t shoot a gun straight?”
“Is he dead?” Prita’s question was one of the most humorous I had heard that day, but I had no trouble keeping my smile hidden.
“What happens when your heart stops beating?” Perhaps there was something sort of enjoyable in harassing them.
“I don’t understand. Why was his suit open?” Corks dragged himself closer, but he still looked afraid to get too near the body.
“He’s an idiot and said he needed to get a breather waiting on you.”
“Oh, shit,” Stag looked back into the locker and then again at Hen. “We need to get a medic. We need to call the sergeant.”
I tapped my ear, reminding Stag of his comlink. It was for the best that Hen had been like he was to them. There wasn’t anyone here bending over him and wanting to touch him and thinking already of how to kill the one who shot him.
“Yeah, call the sergeant,” I said. “Tell him you’re ready to face real chammies.”