Hot Snap: A Future-Fantasy War Story, Part 4/4

And here we are, the final installment of “Hot Snap”! This story was a pleasure to write, and I hope it’s been a pleasure to read–no more waffling, let’s get to it!

(Previous Part Here)

***

And for the next two weeks, talk was effectively all they did.
Five days into their stay at the F.O.B., the Decon team arrived, booted everyone outside for two hours, and finally declared the barracks safe for unarmored occupation.
Michel decided to give Hamara the daily interview instead of waiting in line for the shower. Without the armor, he became 5’10 again. He smelled exactly like a man who hadn’t bathed in two weeks, as did everyone else. The journalist took it well, all things considered. He was definitely from out in the Domains proper. Michel hadn’t done enough social studies to write a list, but there was something quintessentially Japanese about the kid’s mannerisms.
“So,” Michel said, gaunt, pale and black-haired, “What’ll it be today? Training hijinks? Famous campaigns? Digging for covered-up war attrocities?”
“Personal history, if you don’t mind,” Ham said. Michel suppressed a smile.
“I was born and raised on Lutia. Corps brat, actually. My parents were careerists, but I figured I’d major in Philosophy.” Ham winced. “See, I got into college during that brief optimistic period around 3890 where everybody was plugging that hokey ‘follow your dreams’ bullshit again.”
“Forgive me for saying so, Sergeant, but you don’t seem like the kind of man who falls for that,” Ham said.
“Fool me twice,” Michel shrugged. “Smart people–not to say I’m one of them–con themselves all the time. When you’re smart, you naturally think things through before you say them. You think about the consequences: what’ll happen if people agree, what’ll happen if they don’t, or if they misunderstand. It’s so basic you assume it must be that way for everyone. And you’re smart enough to realize you don’t know everything others do. So when just about everyone’s spouting the same message at you, well,” Michel shrugged, “You figure you can’t be smarter than all of them put together. Besides, I always thought philosophy had that kinda romantic appeal. The first really great thinkers, the humans really trying to get the world around them, were all philosophers.”
“I, er,” Ham was clearly uncomfortable.
“Couldn’t make a living for shit,” Michel agreed. “You’re going to find that’s a theme with us, Ham. Jenner’s Autistic.” Out of her armor, the Private was much calmer despite a disciplinary hearing scheduled post-campaign. She hummed softly to herself, scratching at a pad. She paused, backed up, and modified her tune. “Social anxiety like you wouldn’t believe. But during our last deployment, part of her suit got slagged and melted into her chest.” Hamara looked at the rubbery tissue mapping Jenner’s body above her tank-top and shuddered.
“She kept firing and didn’t make a fucking sound over comms because Captain Marder needed clear channels to coordinate everybody. Hardest marine in this battalion, no contest. Beautiful singing voice–even after the burns–wrote great songs, but couldn’t get enough people to listen before her money ran out.”
“Huh,” Ham said, tapping this into his pad.
“And Irene? Well, you probably know Irene already from the propaganda run a few years back. She wanted to be a professional engraver.”
“The Florist, right,” Ham said.
“Mhm. Floral patterns for her own gear, but she can do just about anything. Better than most conventional artists, even, at least for detail and depth. But laser-etching made a comeback twenty years ago, right when she was trying to get started. Had those ultra-fine beams that didn’t leave slag.”
Darrows chiseled calmly at the crumple in her armor, working in a spore-engraving mimicking the ones outside. “Now, her work looks twice as good, easy. And every pattern’s unique, fitted to the fine geometry of whatever she’s working on. But the laser-etches are ten times cheaper. She thought she had a commission lined up to redo the filigree on this Civil-War era cavalry saber, really rich buyer, but the piece of shit never paid. So here she is.”
“Here she is,” Ham agreed.

***

A week later, the call came in: the Seshies were breaking off their skirmishes in the underground sector and fleeing southwest. The rest was over; back into the armor. A few days’ hurried briefings and revitalized drills put Michel and Darrows side-by-side in the forward trench with their respective squads.
They looked out on the second night post-alert, watching little pulses of light flare up and die out one after another on the horizon. Somewhere high above, a sensor frigate pinpointed Seshies in the open, or ones passing beneath a hole in a tunnel roof, and hellfire rained down. Every so often Michel traced a shimmer-bright fiery trail scorching downward.
It was an illusion. The shells had already hit when the trails appeared, but Michel enjoyed watching them. From this far away it was all light and color; the sound barely ever reached. There was an acrid, hot iron scent that came from magnetic accelerators; his suit wouldn’t let him smell it.

One particularly large trail yielded a towering thermonuclear fireball. Their helmet feeds tinted against the flash; seconds later, the shockwave rocked them in place and overloaded their audio sensors.
“Somebody’s about to lose her captaincy,” Darrows said. “No way OrCom authorized a strike that size.” She watched the dying light for a few seconds. “Can you shoot people with their hands in the air, Gavin? I’m not sure I can. That’s not war anymore.”
“I don’t think they’ll surrender, not most of them,” Michel said, cycling through his suit’s vision modes for the hell of it. “A lot will run straight into us. Assuming the parasites don’t finish them all first. All this running from the big guns doesn’t leave much energy for their immune systems.” And in the course of one question, I realize I’m a coward.

“Optimistic. ‘Everybody dies pointlessly,” Darrows said. “Sounds like a bad horror film.”
“Just like war?” Michel asked.
“That’s my line, Gavin,” Darrows answered.
“It’s everybody’s line, Irene,” he said. “It’s everybody’s line, out here.” They watched the last light-puffs in silence. A few animal-shapes cavorted in divots up the pass to the northeast, dodging spores. Some insect, or creature that sang night like an insect, kept a constant rolling thrum.

“Probably ought to turn in,” Michel said. “If I stay out here much longer I’ll start waxing existential. Some crap about how humans are trying to be everywhere so we don’t have to think about disappearing.”

“God, sounds painful. Private Harrow’s caught something, don’t ask me how. I took over his watch.” Darrows glanced at him. “I said it’s because we need one person on the line with ‘arrow’ in the name. The poor bastard coughed up some lung for that shitty joke.”
Each night after, the explosions crawled closer. Reports came in about large Seshie units escaping the guns. Rumors wafted that OrCom might change their minds: drop the hammer and order a saturation bombardment with the behemoth guns usually held back for ship-to-ship. They’d turn the entire northeastern countryside to a sea of molten nothing.
OrCom never did.

***

Two weeks after the alert, Michel saw the first enemy advance. A few scouts tore south across the plains on bulky, outdated hoverbikes and tumbled into dusty wrecks under fire from the trenches. Michel himself hefted his rifle and squeezed its trigger at one man who fell shortly after, but so many slugs shredded him no one person could claim the kill. Private Jenner dashed out to search the corpses; she came back seconds later with a satchel. There was a stain on it that might be blood. Michel’s suit analyzed it: stale beer.  

Michel extracted sheets from the satchel, careful not to tear them with his power-armored fingers. They were written in this rebellion’s simplistic code-language. All they’d done was swap the places of every other letter in the alphabet; Michel’s suit sorted it in three seconds and projected the translation on his vision. This group of Seshies requested help from their friends in the southwest.

“Take this back to Battalion HQ,” he ordered Jenner, and she did. That done, he returned to what Darrows called a Sergeant’s natural purpose: standing hands-on-hips, gazing stoically in the enemy’s general direction. Sometimes Michel’s eyes drifted to the Seshie he might’ve shot. He stopped doing that when a maggot-thing popped the guerilla’s right eye, leading a torrent of its kin.

That night Michel finally heard the distant barrage. Within a few hours Fleet gave up: the blasts were too close to friendly positions. At two hours from dawn the forward listening post reported enemy movement, and Michel ordered the two men manning it to fall back. There was no response, but the two marines came pounding up through the undergrowth a fractured minute later. They slid into the trench next to Michel and added their own gun barrels to his.
“You know, Gavin, this all started over a trade embargo,” Darrows muttered to him. They stood at the forward trench’s lip, rifles leaning on elbows leaning on packed dirt and stacked rocks, aiming into darkness.

“Save the philosophy for after the shooting,” Michel said. The void stares back, but can it return fire? his hypocrite brain wondered. A cold knot formed in his stomach that he knew well.
Activate thermals,” he ordered. In the night, the land grew cool enough for body heat to stand out. Against the dim blue around, a spotted ocean of white-orange human-shapes creeped forward. Sometimes, when their heat signatures changed enough, Michel swore they looked like spores.

The enemy passed the outer scanners, and the order came to hold fire. They passed into the first clearing, shuffling and resting guns on shoulders. Some staggered, many hacked and wheezed, none looked fighting-strong.
“Hey, guys, anybody out here?” a glow-figure called.
“Shut up, Grisky, you fucking moron,” another hissed. “We don’t know if the Feds have drones or nanomachines or some shit listening in!”
The Marines held silence. Only when the first enemy columns approached the forward trench, and some looked quizzically at the shapes ahead, and wondered aloud about the too-barren dirt they treaded, did the order come to open fire.
A rippling light-wall reached out, tracers splitting from its body and lashing human shapes. The first three ranks toppled, reeds in a hot gale.

Michel’s mind felt separate from his body. His hands pulled the trigger, now they primed a grenade, now they threw it, now they fired again, now reloaded. A Seshie bayonet skidded off his armor, his rifle-butt answered with skull-sundering force, and a burst dropped two figures leaping into the trench. It was a battle of bits and pieces none of which could function if they looked at their role in the machine.
Bodies piled up before the trenches. Whump, whump, whump, a cloth-swaddled bass drum.
The artillery on the northwest peak lobbed shells just forward of Michel’s position, incendiaries that lit the night and half-blinded him before he shut the thermals off. The screaming continued long after the flames died down. A canister salvo from the southeast peak burst into hissing flechettes, thousands upon thousands of fire-glinting metal shards. Hundreds of Seshies collapsed in a second. A bullet skimmed off his left boot, hit the ground and bounded up into the thigh of a marine further down the trench. It sparked into useless shrapnel against his armor.
The marine rifles barked on, a steady-rattling crackle of magnetized metal drawing in, then throwing itself out again. For maybe half an hour they butchered the first few waves while the artillery blasted holes in the approaching tide. During a few seconds’ lull, Michel stared out at horizon-glows and white-light flickers past one peak, then the other. How many battalions exactly like his, slaughtering how many panicked insurgent groups just like these? Then the enemy pressed forward in a shouting mass, and spilled into the trenches. Michel emptied his rifle again, and they wouldn’t give him room to reload it.
He seized it by the barrel and laid about, half a ton of man, alloys and artificial muscle sweeping with hurricane force. He crushed two or three at a swing, seized bare heads in one hand and splattered them. Someone pulled a grenade off him and dropped it, pinless, at his feet. Michel watched glowing fragments speckle the air around him. The other grenades on his hip went off, spraying death in overlapping spirals around him. Limbs flew every which way, dozens of Seshies dropped. His armor was only scratched, and he splattered a groaning figure’s head under his left bootheel.
He checked out after that; people became inertia against his rifle butt, every movement became a matter of passing the time. Some distant part of him said, this is wrong, these are humans too, it shouldn’t be like this, like going for a walk.

Eventually the enemy fire tapered off. Shouts of surrender echoed from smoldering night, and the rifles fell silent for a few  minutes. Michel looked at the bodies around him. He seemed to have lost his rifle at some point; he went looking for it while the rest of the battalion rounded up the Seshie prisoners into three long ranks.
He was still looking for it when the Marines, true to OrCom’s will, opened up on the thousand or so survivors. Firing simultaneously, the rail-rifle’s thunder drowned out screams of outrage and for mercy, of pain and for justice.
In ten seconds the three ranks lay flat.

***

Hamara looked out over the corpses the next morning, mounds tumbled on every contour of the land. He didn’t have to try hard for gruesome shots, just walk another few feet until he found a good one. Injuries he’d always thought rare were commonplace with so many dead. He’d even stopped feeling guilty about thinking of “looking for a good one.” How can I possibly explain this? he thought.

He found a man whose nose had been neatly removed by a canister flechette and pinned through the temporal lobe of a woman thirty feet away, a kid who couldn’t have been more than fifteen disemboweled by shards from a combat knife shattered when someone took a direct hit from a grenade, an entire group who all seemed to have been shot in the head trying to drag the same man to safety. His flesh, charred by the incendiaries, was peeled off in twenty places where they tried to get a grip on him. Hamara took the photos, but what was the point?
And the ranks of the executed… he wasn’t sure he believed those himself. Humans couldn’t do that. Humans could not do that.
He found Sergeant Michel staring out at the killing fields. His gold-green-black armor was almost completely visible. The remaining cloaked patches wavered, like tiny fabric-scraps taut to the wind. Over both was ash, dust, and so much sickened-red humanity.
“A final interview, Sergeant?” he asked. The Marine nodded, and they returned to the barracks. The airlock decontaminated them both, and they stepped in. Support personnel bustled about, packing up, preparing the prefab for disposal. Michel stepped back to the long table, now empty of food, and pried his helmet off.
Before Hamara could speak, Michel said, “You need to make them hear.” Michel’s eyes were frantic, and new sweat joined the night’s battle-grime.
“Sergeant,” Hamara said, slowly, ” I can’t make people listen.”
“You know some people, and they know some people, right?” Michel said. “I’m not asking you to fix it yourself, or even be the one who starts the people who fix it going. Just try.” He paused at thumping from outside.
Darrows cycled through the airlock, fully suited. “Michel, we have to go. There’s–” she glanced at Hamara, “–something not for civilian ears.” Michel looked at him one last time.
Hamara looked back. “Okay,” he lied.

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