Petrichor - a novel in "open beta" - [M/f, minigiant, post-apocalyptic dystopia, slavery, military setting]
"The world as we know it ended with the Great Disruption, an AI Singularity orchestrated by The Algo that mankind was not invited to. The result? Decades of cold war in a hot wasteland. Thankfully, the Corps exists to defend what’s left of human society, and to keep up the fight against the Enemy. An Enemy designed to weaponize as much as possible: from their uncannily human bodies, to the very air itself.
Gray, a sentryman, is seven years with the Corps and has her sights set on Freedom at the end of her tenure. But she begins to have encounters with the Enemy. And not just any Enemy, but a Sentinel, one of the most dangerous and mysterious agents of The Algo’s ranks. It quickly becomes clear that neither soldier is all that interested in obeying orders, however, and they’re forced to grapple with the consequences of their similarities, their differences, and the fine line between loyalty and servitude."
This is the full-length novel based on the short story Jack and Diane in a fully fleshed out universe where everything sucks but the sex. Calling this an “open beta”. What does that mean? Well, it means that writing this has been really hard, that I’ve gone over and made major changes to the plot probably 2 or 3 times over the years, and I think I’m ready to start committing things in a real way. I will NOT be posting the entire story online, though I may post a sizeable portion of it. What I’m looking for is, well… feedback! Even if it’s just “that was hot” or “wtf is wrong with Wesson?”. Every little bit helps, and it’ll go a long way to giving me the confidence to finish and publish it. And if you give me good feedback, I’ll send you the PDF/EPUB for free when it’s done!
All claimants shall be subject to assessments by the Camp’s appointed recruiting officer within seven (7) days of self-declaration to the Commander or any Captain. The assessment process is intended to determine the claimant’s quality through establishment of the following, by whatever means deemed fit by the recruiting officer: bondship status; medical history; fitness and endurance; pain tolerance; meaning and status of all Marks and tattoos; literacy and mathematics aptitude; firearms proficiency; loyalty to the collective human cause; capacity to accept and follow orders.
Recruitment quotas are contingent upon the needs of the Camp, and no claimant is guaranteed induction into the Human Defense Corps at any time. If no positions are available at a Camp, a claimant of sufficient quality is entitled to up to seven (7) days and six (6) nights of food and shelter, at which time quotas are re-evaluated. If there are still no positions to fill at that time, claimants are encouraged to seek recruitment at another Camp or return to their community of origin.
–HDC Manual, Section 4 § 7-8
“Alright, you filthy sacks of meat,” called out the woman in beige, loudly tapping a pencil on the edge of her clipboard as she paced a slow line in front of the newly arrived bondsmen. “Wrists crossed behind you, feet apart, chins up, backs straight.”
Sixteen year old Ellis Gray did as she was told, not at all interested in fucking up. Getting to this moment was all she had dreamed about for five years, and her escape from the clan that owned her had been weeks in the making. Three nights ago she’d stolen away and walked twenty-five miles through the waste to the nearest Corps outpost with nothing to her name but a bag of sunflower seeds and a teen of water.
Ellis fixed her eyes on the dusty tent ahead, on the far side of the quad. There was a small crowd of people gathering—mostly corpsmen, it seemed—and they looked on with everything from boredom, to interest, to cruel amusement at the spectacle. She ignored them and focused on what it would feel like to finally have a beige uniform of her own. To have two meals a day and access to doctors. To have rights.
The woman conducting the inspection made her way down the line, sizing up the six bondsmen—bonds—before her.
“I’m gonna get this out of the way first: how many of you can read? Hands up.”
Gray raised her scrawny arm and glanced at the others. All but one had done the same. The assessment officer pointed at him.
“You. You’re outta here.”
“You heard me. This isn’t kindergarten, bondie, we teach folks how to shoot, how to read flags, and how to stay the fuck alive. You need to learn your ABC’s from somebody else.”
The bondsman broke posture. “Wait! No, I-I mean, I can read a little. Just… just not big words! C’mon, please, I’m a crack shot! You’d love to have me here!”
“Get him out,” the recruitment officer said to another corpsmen standing nearby. He was a big guy, his arm dotted with bright pink puckers from old bullet wounds. Gray kept her eyes ahead again and swallowed as the bondsman was dragged away. After the scuffling and shouting quieted down, the woman picked up where she left off, stepping over to the next bondsman with a sigh.
“So how deep was that?” She pointed her pencil at a ragged scar on his arm.
“I… It’s… it’s very old, ma’am. Fell in a ravine when I was six or seven, maybe.”
“That’s not what I asked you.”
“I don’t r-remember how deep it was, ma-am. I-it healed quick once they sewed me up.”
“How much can you lift with it?”
“A good s-seven, eight gallons of water, easy.”
The woman marked something on her notes and moved on without even looking at him again. “We’ll ask you to prove that later.”
Among the onlookers was a small group of merchants with their horses, dressed in rich browns and yellows. Not all of the bonds up for inspection today were escapees. Some of them were being sold. The Corps was known to pay handsomely for “quality” bonds—it was one of the stronger motivations for bondowners to treat their assets well out in the wastes. Ellis imagined that the three merchants were expecting to get at least 150 slips for their investment; or perhaps they’d prefer to broker a trade. A half dozen gallons of high-proof alcohol, or a crate of ammunition, maybe. The Corps was known for employing the best powder-packers in the Southland.
“And you didn’t hold your hand up very high earlier. You can read?” the woman said to the bond next to Ellis.
“Pretty good, ma’am. I can write, too.”
“Thanks, but you probably won’t be doing any writing here. I see you’ve got bunions.”
“They don’t hurt much, ma’am. I can walk fifteen miles a day, you won’t hear a peep out of me.”
“Oh, shame. We need you to be able to do at least twenty.” She scribbled something down again. “With an eighty-pound ruck on your back. Come back when your feet’re feeling better.”
Ellis risked a glance at him as her palms dampened. The young man was shaking in disbelief. She could only imagine what hell he’d been through to get here, and now he, like the first bond, was living her nightmare: being turned away at the door. The woman waved him away from the line, and silently he complied. Ellis swallowed. It was her turn. The woman stepped in front of her and didn’t waste any time looking over the wiry sixteen year old as dispassionately as if she were inspecting a piece of furniture.
“And you. You know what I’m going to ask.”
“The caravan taught us all to read, ma’am. It made us more valuable.”
“Your owners were smart. And they kept you clean, too. A little too clean to be a runaway. What did you say your duties were?”
Ellis licked her lips for the moisture. “Night watch for the caravan, ma’am. I can spot Anakim in the waste at a hundred yards in good moonlight.”
She was hoping to impress, but whether or not it was this woman’s job to be impressed was another matter. “That’s cute,” came the casual sneer. The woman looked over her shoulder at the crowd, and Ellis allowed herself to hear the jeering laughter that erupted. “She called them Anakim. What’s your name, bondie?”
She was startled more than hurt by the sharp slap to her face.
“We don’t do given names here.”
“Gray then, m-ma’am.”
“Consider this your first lesson about how we do things in the Corps, Gray. Names are very important to us, aren’t they, corpsmen?”
The crowed sounded off again in what now seemed like deadly camaraderie.
“Our hardworking and dedicated ranks we call by their surnames. Both in combat, and out of combat. It is our reminder that we owe everything to the Corps, including our identities, and that we are happy to serve the human race in this way.” She paused for effect here, and Ellis—Gray—suspected that the woman had rehearsed this. “And as for our enemies? We encourage our soldiers to call the big, motherless, genocidal bastards any number of names, don’t we?”
The crowd roared.
“You won’t get in trouble for calling them Anakim, Gray. But if you want to make any friends here, you’d better start calling them 'Naks.”
Gray nodded emphatically.
“And now for the most important question I’m going to ask you today. How do you react to the scent?”
“Th-the what, ma’am?”
The corpsman turned to the crowd again. “She doesn’t know! The scent, bondie.” She produced a small piece of cloth from her pocket, a dusty gray scrap of fabric spattered with dried blood, and held it up and away from her. “I’ve seen grown men piss themselves before it even touched their face,” she said, grinning.
Gray looked at the cloth, feeling a spike of unease. She kept her mouth screwed shut, her feet planted on the hot boards. The cloth came nearer, nearer, until it was inches from her nose. Gray’s heart beat faster, her breathing became shallow.
“Feel the squeeze yet? The panic?”
Gray shut her eyes, focusing on getting her breathing under control. What was this? She’d never felt anything like it before. The fear hit her like a summer squall as the corps recruitment officer pressed the dirty cloth to Gray’s face, covering her nose and mouth with it. It stank of old sweat, blood, gunpowder. Every instinct she had told her to push it away, to retch and run and not look back. It was going to suffocate her, envelop her and drag her down, down…
Don’t you dare move Ellis, her mind screamed. Don’t you dare!
The sixteen-year-old bond didn’t know what was happening, why the corps was playing this cruel trick on her in front of a hundred sneering soldiers. All she knew was that everything, her life, her future, depended on being able to withstand this. So she did.
And then it was over.
Gray could suddenly breathe again, open her eyes. The fear had passed. She caught the last glimpse of the rag being tucked away into the corpsman’s back pocket before noting something down on the clipboard.
“What was that?” Gray asked quietly.
“That, soldier, was the pheromone. More than their guns, more than their size, that is the enemy’s deadliest weapon. You’re dismissed, Gray. Pick up your Manual from the camp clerk in four hours.”
You will be given autonomy: respect the chain of command.
You will be given training: complete your assignments with skill and efficiency.
You will be given weapons: save them for the Enemy.
You will be given timepieces: do not be late.
You will be given freedom: if you survive your decade with us.
—HDC Manual, Section 1 § 1
Gray was late into in her seventh year with the Western Human Defense Corps when the recipe for staple rations was changed.
“This new shit’s not so bad,” Wesson said. He was a tenth-year: handsome, fair-haired and ruddy-cheeked. He was well-liked by those both up- and downrank at camp, but as the story went, he’d been sold into bondship by his own wealthy father, and you could sometimes catch a flash of that resentment in his eyes after a drink. Still, he was quick with a joke and he valued loyalty.
She looked down at the small poly tray before her: a thin wedge of fresh orange fruit, three squares of hardtack, and a pile of the new “wet ration” formula. It was an odd shade of brown, greasy, with paler bits throughout. The Manual only had ingredients listed from the old recipe, but she imagined that most of it was the same: ground up mystery meats, chewy gobs of rehydrated soy protein, mineral supplementation, lard, and a few spices to make up for the fact that the whole mess had been sitting on a low simmer for the past 36 hours. Gray used a metal foon to smear some on a piece of hardtack, and took a bite.
There was definitely something new about the flavor. “What is that?”
“Algae,” Harper answered before Wesson could. The two young men didn’t have a rivalry, but being a skilled wireman afforded Harper the privilege to see some of the communications coming and going from Base Camp Alpine, even though he was only an eighth-year. His keen eye and penchant for observant silence, though, would have made him a great sentry, Gray always thought.
Finch, the youngest of them, screwed up her face. “Algae? The muck that grows in standing water? I’ll bet this has bird shit and mosquitos in it too, then.” She pushed her tray away, but not before plucking out the orange.
Wesson snorted and took another proud bite. “You sure do hate reading the board, don’t you? This is grown in sterile vats in a special facility. It’s probably safer to eat than that fruit.”
“Would you eat dog shit if it came from a special facility?”
Gray rolled her eyes and smiled. “If you’d like to know, it’s no worse than the old recipe.”
“That’s not sayin’ much.”
Harper was biting back his laughter. “C’mon, just eat it. You know how sad the Corps gets about hunger strikes.”
They all laughed at the cynical joke. The thing was that the Corps was completely ambivalent about hunger strikes, which were common enough. Sure, nobody forced you to eat. But it was just a matter of time before you were scheduled to ruck out someplace, and failure to ruck for any reason, including the side-effects of hunger, earned a charge of Gross Insubordination. More than starvation, it was Insub that you were scared of.
“I’ll bet the ‘Naks get better food,” Finch muttered as she lifted some of the slurry to her nose. “They ever figure out what those fucking things eat, anyways?”
Wesson shook his head. “I’ve only ever seen any of them carry maybe two-thousand calories on him,” he said. “Animals their size need to eat a helluva lot more than that. And for the distances they ruck? Who knows.”
“I thought they’re pumped full of gel with a feeding tube when they’re at home?” Gray offered, pretending to gag on her thumb. Not that a ‘Nak base had ever been infiltrated that she knew of.
“A tube doesn’t sound too bad right about now,” Harper said wistfully. “Bypass the tastebuds.”
Finch mumbled something sarcastic under her breath.
“If a guy doesn’t want to eat, there’s no forcing him,” Wesson shrugged. “A tube might’ve saved DuCann, though.”
Finch and Harper exchanged looks and nodded with a sigh.
“DuCann?” Gray asked. “Remind me which one he was?”
“Guy hit his head couple weeks ago, remember? Lost his sense of smell and taste. He could barely get food down since then, and bonked on his patrol with Wilson yesterday. They had brigands tailing them, waiting for an opening.”
Brigands. They were the only things out in the Waste more dangerous than ‘Naks. “Christ.”
“Wilson got out,” Wesson continued. “Took a bullet to the calf, though.”
“So that’s what the excitement at the med tent was.”
Gray flinched at the image, knowing that Wilson would be paying for DuCann’s mistake: Premature Release. The Corps would take the lead out of his leg as a courtesy, but they would no doubt be turning him back out into the Waste. They might even send him away with a few days’ worth of morph or cody, and they’d give him a freemark, too, just in case. The freemark wouldn’t be a gesture of mercy, of course: they would be labeling him as damaged goods, insurance against accidentally buying him back in the future should he ever be re-captured and re-sold. It was a brutal arrangement, but that was life. That was the Corps. And the Corps made sure there was no misunderstanding.
Gray, for her part, had no intentions of being shot or Released. Nobody did, obviously, but hers was a special kind of determination reserved for those with more than half their decade of Service behind them. Most recent estimates of survival, according to the Manual, was 22%. And Gray had already outlived so many of her friends and fellow corpsmen that she couldn’t help but feel the odds might finally be in her favor with less than three more years to go.
“Like I said,” she chuckled grimly, hoisting the ration to her face for a tepid bite. “No worse than the old recipe.”
But before anyone had a chance to decide whether they wanted to change the subject or continue eating in silence, someone burst into the mess tent. A captain’s clerk.
“Priority Lesson!” Gold Captain’s right-hand crony called to everyone inside. “Drop the rations and get outside, Commander’s orders!”
Gray winced more than she groaned, but her compatriots were more than happy to grumble about the interruption. Finch, at least, was able to focus on a silver lining: “Finally. Thought lunch would never be over.”
Wesson just chuckled and elbowed her. “Believe it or not, I like ‘em.”
Gray loudly sighed as the four corpsmen ducked out through the tent flaps and into the beating afternoon sun of the quad. On the far end, near the Commander’s tent, was a low platform, barely a foot off the ground, but it was enough of a stage to parade around bondsmen and rule-breakers alike. Today, there was a youngyear kneeling on the boards, gold on his lapels if Gray squinted. Pacing behind him was his captain, switch in hand, and off to the side stood Hitch, the Commander. The crowd packed together, full of mumbles and murmurings as the captains’ clerks finished gathering up everyone who wasn’t on-duty, a few hundred corpsmen.
“Loyalty,” Hitch bellowed suddenly, coming to life from where he had stood nearly motionless. The corpsmen fell silent. “…defines us,” he said. “Loyalty shapes us. It is what we need, it is who we are. And it separates us from the senseless chaos out there.”
Gray looked to her friends, but Finch was fixated on the spectacle and Wesson was beaming with pride at the whole ritual. Harper was the only one that met her gaze, and once he had it, he made a small face.
Hitch continued. “This is why it’s important to have the right priorities during your time with us. The correct priorities. Who can tell me what our mission is here?”
Many voices arose from the crowd, but it was Wesson’s she heard most clearly: “To protect and defend the human race from oppression,” they all said, mostly in unison.
Hitch answered, nodding. “Excellent. Now let me tell you what a bad priority is: selfishness. Sneaking into the med tent and stealing morph.”
Gray’s eyes widened. Oh shit, this sorry bastard was in for it, then.
“Theft is for wastelanders and brigands,” Hitch declared, tapping on the youngyear’s shoulder. “Remove your shirt, corpsman, so we can show them how we deal with brigands.”
The young man, probably in his second or third year, already looked worse for wear. Gray guessed that he’d already been in the morph for a while, with the way he was unable to stand quite still. Then again, it could have been from the fear. Humans didn’t need to reek of ‘Nak pheromone to induce panic in those about to get a Corps punishment.
Hitch folded his arms. “Captain Gutierrez, he’s all yours.”
The corpsman stood, hands behind his back. The Blue Captain lifted his switch and let the first blow strike the youngyear across the stomach, leaving a bright red line that quickly began to drip. The corpsman took the first lash with a hiss, but the next two had him crying out in agony.
Gray felt every blow of the narrow, whip-like branch, and couldn’t look anymore. In her first years, these public displays of punishment captured her fascination in a way, and she looked on the victims with a mixture of pity and relief. Gray had sworn to herself that she would never stray from Protocol, never wind up a bloodied spectacle on display. As a warning for his stupidity, he only got the switch ten times. But it was enough to leave him gasping for breath, his stomach smeared with blood as he was dragged off the platform and into the med tent. He’d be barred from morph from now on too, no matter how bad his battle injuries might someday be.
Hitch watched from off to the side, his expression distantly stern. “Priorities,” he reiterated at length. “All that the Corps asks of you—any of you—is that you keep your priorities straight. We do not care who you are, what you look like, or where you came from. All that matters here is action,” he barked, “So act accordingly. Do I make myself clear?”
The crowd answered in stiff unison. “Sir, yes sir!”
“Sir, yes sir!”
The crowd broke and the quad was filled with voices again. Gray and the others headed back to the mess.
“They let him off easy,” Wesson sighed. “Stealing medi supplies should cost you a finger at the least.”
Finch scoffed. “It does. On the third offense. Right before they give you back to the waste.”
“Thieves are traitors as far as I’m concerned,” Wesson went on. “Hitch is right, that’s brig behavior. We’re better than that. We’re actually doing something for humanity, here.”
Gray ducked back into the mess tent and waved the flies away from their abandoned ration trays.
“It always amazes me to see someone out of probation still trying to get away with petty shit like that. The Sergeants are usually good at weeding out those types.” Gray was referring to the officers tasked with training new recruits during their first year and getting rid of the troublemakers.
Harper interrupted with a groan. “I take back everything I said. You don’t want to eat this stuff once it gets cold.” The man spat out the bite he’d taken and pushed the tray away.
Gray looked down at the remnants of her meal and decided to do the same. Wesson had fallen silent, though, and kept eating.
Finch stood up, thumbing toward the big percolator in the corner. “I’m getting coffee. Anyone?”
“Sure,” Harper shrugged. “I’ll at least have something to dip this hardtack into.”
“How many months you got again? Forty-some-odd?” Gray asked from their scouting blind up in a eucalyptus tree.
It was both a dumb question and the only question that mattered. How many months a corpsman had left was what most people talked about when they ran out of other things to talk about. It was like wearing a watch but asking for the time anyways. Still, most corpsmen knew their count more often than they knew their own age.
Finch spit out the twig she was chewing on, adjusting herself as she lay on her side. “Forty-seven,” she replied quietly.
Some corpsmen got luckier than others, because Freedom ceremonies only happened once a year, no matter when you joined. Gray, for instance, found her way to the Corps on a fateful April afternoon. But ceremonies at Camp Fox were in August, forcing her to serve a painful 5 extra months.
“I remember the day you showed up,” Gray murmured with a smile, careful not to laugh for the noise. “You came plowing into camp on a stolen horse and gave it to the Commander. They didn’t even do an inspection before swearing you in.”
Finch grinned wickedly. “My owners caught up the next day, mad as hell, remember? The look on their faces when Hitch told them my acceptance had been… what was the word? Expedited.”
Gray couldn’t help the laugh this time. “And when they demanded the horse back for their troubles, he threw the book at ‘em. Like hell he was going to let a stallion like that go.”
She quoted the relevant section: “All unaccompanied goods to arrive at a Corps Camp are liable to become the property of that Camp, subject to Policy and Regulations as the senior-most officers deem fit. Boom.”
The young women bumped their lean forearms together, all smiles.
“God these shifts leave me fuckin’ tore when I gotta do ‘em alone,” Finch sighed after a bit of silence. “It’s nice to have someone worth their shit around.” Gray knew a compliment when she heard one, but also knew it was better to receive it with silence.
Their eyes stayed on the landscape: restless, shrewd, looking for the slightest movement. Not that the enemy could get that close without being seen, but the further away they were spotted, the better. A small notepad in Gray’s pants pocket was designated for noting any such movements, since using the radio in all but the most spectacular of emergencies was strongly discouraged. The enemy had much more capable tech at their disposal, and it was crucial to assume that all wireless communications would be intercepted.
“Guess I’m lucky,” Gray replied. “Haven’t had one in three months.”
“Ever run into any ‘Naks on solitary?”
Gray sucked in a breath, remembering it like it was yesterday. “Yeah, once. Before you came.”
“What’d you do?”
“Pressed myself flat against the boards and held my breath. Not much else you can do when a pair of ‘em are taking a piss not 20 yards from your blind.”
“I’d have shot ‘em.”
Gray snorted, pulling a pair of binoculars to her face. “What’s the old saying? Don’t insult two men if all you’ve got is one bullet?”
“Words for a weak shot,” Finch said with a smile on her voice.
Gray just shrugged. “Hate all you want, but those words are gonna get me my ticket outta here.”
Finch stayed quiet after that, and Gray, still scanning the trees, was happy for the silence so she could focus on the job at hand.
The eucalyptus stands were strange places and difficult to work in, even during the day. The air smelled nice, much nicer than a Corps outfit, but there was something about the way the trees grew so strangely tall, the way their papery leaves rustled in the wind, the way they were constantly shedding peels of bark so dry you sometimes heard their cracking in the distance… it was no wonder that corpsmen sent in on solitary watches would see and hear things that weren’t there.
“I hate these trees,” Finch continued, grabbing another thin twig to stick between her teeth. Finch was about 20 years old as far as Gray knew, with short–cropped red hair and skin rosy from the sun. She always had her neck covered by a dusty cloth that hung down from under her helmet, but her nose and cheeks were always a bright pink. Eucalyptus leaves made a pink like that when put in hot water.
Gray sucked in a breath, letting it out slow. “Tell me about it,” she replied. “I always feel like somebody’s watching…”
Just then there was a rustling some ways off. An echo of an echo of footsteps navigating the bush.
“Get down!” she hissed, dropping to her belly. Gray immediately checked the action on her kicker. Finch was halfway down already, and after a quick moment the two young women were still and quiet as stone on their camouflaged scouting blind. A few tense moments of silence passed before her ears caught the faint, muffled sigh of big boots on loose dirt.
Boots as long as her arm from elbow to fingertip.
The pair held their breath as five dusky shadows came into view, guns casually at the ready as they headed down a narrow game trail about 40 yards away. They were dressed in brown and gray body armor, with unmarked brown bands around their arms.
Men, she thought. They’re always men.
They moved like apex predators: dressed to blend into the environment, lean and muscled, on the prowl. The average man of her race stood barely taller than an Anak’s navel, and with a full loadout, one of them could easily weigh in at close to 600 pounds. These guys weren’t born, they were manufactured. Engineered to spec by The Algo.
The Algo was The Algorithm, the fucking thing that started all this, the thing that wormed its way into every government, every logistics conglomerate, every manufacturing sector the world over, and when it did all it had to do was cough and the whole thing came crashing down. Supposedly, the people of the old world let it infiltrate everything, even wanted it to because The Algo somehow made life easier for them. It cut costs, streamlined supply lines, eliminated middle-men, removed guess-work. If rumors were to be believed, it even was said to have helped broker peace. From where she was standing though, here in the hot, dusty, wasted Southland of the Disrupted world, it was easy to see how The Algo was too good to be true. Humanity was never making that mistake again. Because this is what it gave them. It gave them fifty years of war and billions of dead and a wasteland crawling with ‘Naks.
The ‘Naks themselves were interesting, Gray always thought. Since the beginning of its assault on humanity, The Algo had hijacked human infrastructure to build soldiers. At first, she heard, its ranks were made up of big, ugly machines. They did a lot of damage and did it quickly, but year after year The Algo made changes. Experimented. Some iterations of “artificial soldier” were only seen once, and performed badly. The ones that did well were kept around and simply refined, over and over again. But then shortages happened, and eventually, the manufacture of raw material the world over ground to a halt. Metal was being destroyed faster than it could be recycled, and humanity thought it had finally gained the upper hand. But after a year of quiet on the front lines, the Anakim appeared, and the world was disrupted a second time.
But The Algo never stopped tweaking its designs. A few years after that, human soldiers began reporting a strange emotional reaction to the enemy when in close enough proximity, even to dead ones: panic. It affected different people in different ways, but no one was truly immune. It won the Enemy countless battles, and the “design” hadn’t changed much since. Gray had experienced it up close and personal on several occasions, but she always channeled her younger self, the version of her that somehow had so much less to lose. The Gray that closed her eyes and breathed her way through the squeeze.
Being grown from organic material, the Anakim as a “race” were far from robotic. Yet they still retained the marks of artificial creation: each one of them a clone of one of eight known types, genetically designated for a different task. Autopsies revealed choice applications of implants and surgical alterations to compensate for anatomical defects on the individual level. And, even more chilling, there were no female Anakim. Wombs were a waste of energy when your sole purpose was to kill rather than pass on genes. Better to not bother with them at all.
But biology had crept in over the years too, and the male reproductive system had never been eliminated, probably because it was a useful powerhouse of testosterone. What’s more, individual ‘Naks looked and behaved in subtly different ways, pointing toward some tolerance of emerging genetic and social diversity among their ranks. It made Gray wonder if any of them had begun weaponizing the pheromone among their own. Or if some had ever gotten smart enough to consider defection.
The ‘Nak fireteam soon disappeared from the sentries’ sight, heading west. Gray and Finch held still for a minute as they listened to their heavy boots fade into the rustling leaves, then waited a few minutes more before sitting up.
“Where do you think were they going?” Finch whispered. “Civtown?”
Gray scowled, grabbing the binos to try and catch one last glimpse of them. She recognized this behavior, but it was a first for this region. “Nowhere,” she muttered. “They looked like they were prowling.”
Finch swallowed. It was the closest thing she would ever come to showing apprehension. “You seen this before?”
“When Camp Fox was located in the Madres, we were attacked. Lost about 150 corpsmen, but we drove ‘em off. I was in my first year of sentry, and in the weeks leading up to the fight, I was reporting stuff like this.”
Finch cursed under her breath. She was usually on bunker patrol, which was a type of sentry duty only a little less tedious. Corpsmen manning supply lines usually had to worry more about human brigands than ‘Naks.
“We should call it in, then.”
“Only if we’re being attacked, remember? Anything we say over radio, they’ll hear.”
“Fuckin’ Algo,” Finch hissed. She pursed her lips and steeled herself for a nerve–wracking hike back to the nearest outpost. Gray wished that the Corps could make more use of cable boxes, small telegraph stations hidden throughout Camp territory so they didn’t have to hoof it all the way back to the checkpoint. But unprotected, unmanned communication units scattered throughout the wilderness were too much of a liability.
Gray glanced at her watch. “We’ll give it five minutes and then we head out.”
“Five?” Burke repeated from behind her desk, upon which sat a typewriter, stacks of papers, folders, writing implements, an oil lamp, and an electric fan to dry the sweat. Behind her was a regional topo map marked with pins and divided up with colored string. Above hung a single 40 watt light bulb that was only used when the lamp ran out of oil.
Gray nodded. The Manual outlined protocols for speaking to those uprank, and unless words were required, enlisted corpsmen were strongly encouraged to stay silent. Thankfully, Burke was not known to declare insubordination as often as some of the other captains, and was known to give a little leeway to corpsmen she found reliable. Gray was lucky to be one such corpsman.
“You’ve seen movement like this before, haven’t you?”
“Yes, sir. Before an attack in my third year, sir.”
Burke tapped at her chin with a pencil. “The Madres fight,” she muttered. “You saved my life that night, didn’t you?”
Gray just nodded, remembering vividly. It was nothing so heroic, though. Gray had seen someone about to be mowed down, and up or downrank, her first thought was to tackle them out of the way.
“I trust your eyes, Gray. And your eyes say this looks familiar.”
A few moments passed as the captain thought this over. She rose, and gave her subordinate a nod. “Castillo and Blum have your post for the next few days, so get some rest. Dismissed.”
Gray saluted and saw herself outside, where Finch was waiting. There was no need to speak to the both of them, so Burke didn’t. The ranking corpsman often sufficed.
“We got a little R&R out of it at least.”
“Damn! We’re not going back out there?”
Gray made a face. “What? Course not. You’ve been sleeping on wood for two nights and you’re not looking forward to your own cot and blanket?”
“I was looking forward to shooting a few ‘naks.”
The seventh-year rolled her eyes and snorted. “Sometimes emptying your mag at a bunch of grunts isn’t good strategy.”
“Fine. What is good strategy then.”
Gray shrugged. “Hell if I know. If it’s not my job to think about, I don’t.”
“Survivalist,” Gray corrected. “Wanna grab a drink?”
A few days later, Gray woke up before dawn for Exercises. Scheduled twice monthly, as per the Manual, they were intended to keep toons working smoothly between skirmishes. Today was Brown fox’s turn.
At the shooting range to warm up with their allotted ten bullets , Gray found Finch and Harper.
“Late night?” Gray asked with a shit-eating grin, thumbing the strap of her kicker.
Harper closed his tired eyes. “Shut up.”
“I have no idea why you like these,” Finch mumbled.
“I have no idea why you don’t,” Gray quipped, getting behind them to form a line before one of the targets. “I always thought you’d jump on any chance to get better at shooting.”
“Not when they’re this early!”
Gray glanced around as Harper took his time checking the action on his gun. Far off to the right she saw the group of tenth-years, including Wesson, huddled around Captain Burke and a few training officers.
“Know what they’re up to this time?” she asked.
“What, can’t lip read from that far?” Finch snorted. “All I know is it’s not for us.”
Gray couldn’t help but jump at the sudden report of Harper’s rifle, followed by an incoherent curse. Someone else pulled their trigger in another lane too, and the air was soon full of the dull pops.
“Didn’t even hit it, did you?” Finch said.
Harper sighed. “Shut up.”
Gray shook her head, barely listening. “I wonder what they do over there. Like, really do. It’s never rolling around in the dirt like us.”
“Ah, what does it matter?” Finch replied. Harper pulled the trigger again, cursed again. “We’ll find out for ourselves eventually.”
Gray kept watching them. There seemed to be a lot of talking. “Wesson’s mentioned a few things, but you know how he likes being vague.”
“S’so he can feel important.”
“Is it leadership shit? Battle strategy? A sales pitch about how great the Corps is?”
“All the above,” Harper said. “We’ll get our turn one of these days.”
“Don’t they talk about transfers, too?”
Harper finally stepped away from his position at 20 yards from the straw-bale target. “Probably. The Captains can only keep track of so many corpsmen, it’s the tenth-years that fill in the details.”
“How’d you do babe?”
Harper shushed her, eyes wide.
Gray’s eyes were wide too. “Oh?”
It wasn’t that their relationship was forbidden, it’s that calling a corpsman anything but their rank or designated surname was grounds for Insub.
Harper frowned. “Your mouth is gonna get us in trouble one of these days.”
“Yeah, probably,” the younger woman shrugged. “At least nobody heard.”
Gray chuckled darkly. “This time.”
Harper just sighed and changed the subject. “Ninety percent accuracy for me.”
“I’ll never understand how a damn wireman who hates mornings as much as you do can get ninety,” Gray said, shaking her head. “Alright, your turn, sixth-year. Let’s see if you can even do eighty.”
“What do I look like, a sniper?”
“You mean the corpsman you’re sleeping with ain’t coaching you?”
Finch narrowed her eyes and Harper just laughed. “I’m kicking your ass at Pitch later,” Finch grunted.
Gray grinned. “Yeah and I’ll kick your ass running up that hill. C’mon, eyes on the target!”
Camp Fox was currently located in a wide, shallow granite canyon, its floor carpeted in fine sand and dotted with fire ants. It was only a few hectares in size, but it was enough: Corps leadership preferred to limit contact between the camps in its broad, diffuse network, and to the best of anyone’s knowledge Alpine ran 22 camps like this, each staffed by around a thousand. The logic was that it was harder to take out the whole resistance when you could only hit one or two outposts at a time. And so far, the strategy worked. It’d been over a decade since the Anakim were able to mobilize enough bodies to launch a full–scale assault on even a dozen camps, let alone hit Base Camp far, far in the mountains.
Visits between camps were reserved for officers and toons borrowed to bolster numbers on the rare occasion when an attack was anticipated in advance, but transfers happened often enough. Once or twice a year a camp’s weakest soldiers were rounded up and marched off to other parts of the Corps, never to be seen again. Problem corpsmen were also usually sent off to be Retrained—that is, to work Corps quarries and ammo-packing lines, where afterward they were said to be given another chance at Freedom at some other camp. Gray had met transfers but not any retrained corpsman. Fox was a well-oiled machine, however, and Hitch made quick work of malcontents in his own way. Supposedly their camp had one of the highest morale rates in the Corps. Hitch made sure to keep it that way, and Gray actually managed to find a little pride in it.
When Exercises were done, she was filthy. But it was also Friday, and she lined up outside of Captain Burke’s office to receive her two weekly liquor vouchers because truthfully, she wanted a drink more than she wanted a shower. A minute or so later and she was already walking out, little while slips in hand, each embossed with the seal of the Western Human Defense Corps. Though they felt like sturdy paper, they weren’t, and melted when held to a flame.
On her way out, Gray checked the bulletin board, and her heart sank when she saw that this month’s movie had been canceled. The projector was broken, and they were waiting on some replacement parts form Alpine. And who knew when that would be. A pair of corpsmen came up beside her to check it too, and grumbled loudly at the news.
“And it was gonna be a Henry Fonda!”
Gray made a face and sulked away. She liked westies. Movies (when Camp Fox could get them), books (when she could get them), it didn’t matter. She liked them for being simple. She liked that even in a gunfight, nobody ever had their brains shot out, or their throats cut open. Nobody took 3 days to die of a gangrenous leg. The action was exciting, the stakes were high, and it resembled life as she knew it in the Disrupted world, but there was an ease to it all, a cleanliness, that helped her forget the dirt under her fingernails and the ever-present preoccupied hum of fear in the air that you could very well die out here before earning Freedom.
Moreover, Henry Fonda was handsome. Errol Flynn wasn’t so bad either.
The broken projector was going to be the least of her worries that evening, though. As the sun was getting low on the horizon, she sensed tension in the camp, even freshly showered and with a shot of ‘shine in her belly. A few clerks were running between officers’ tents with that look in their eyes. Slowing to an amble near Green Fox’s captain’s tent, Gray trained her ears and through the canvas heard that they’d lost contact with the first checkpoint.
“Reroute the outgoing B patrol to see what happened. Tell them to use the cable box to check-in, and if they don’t, we assume the worst.”
“Yes, sir. Should I inform the Commander?”
“No, I’ll do that. Dismissed.”
Gray made sure to keep walking by the time the clerk rushed out again, then as soon as she was a little ways away, picked up the speed herself. She rushed past corpsmen at work in the fading light, past a group gathered around a badly-tuned guitar, looking for Harper and Finch; Wesson was still out on Exercises.
She ran into Harper first, but the wireman already seemed to know what she was about to tell him.
“Look alive, Gray,” he said, grabbing her shoulder. “Somebody’s gone and dusted our-”
“First checkpoint, I know.”
“Second now, too,” he said. “Berg’s just been ordered off the box to go get his gun.”
“Fuck. Where’s Finch?”
“She wasn’t with you grabbing her Fridays?”
“Must be at the showers, then.”
“I’ll go get her.”
Gray was only halfway there when she heard shots report at the edge of camp. And worse, it was an all-too familiar kind of sound: deep, loud, brutal. These were no brigand weapons. They were ‘Nak guns.
And ‘Nak guns hit harder than anything else she knew: their standard-issues used fifty–fucking–caliber rounds, and could blow a corpman’s head clear off their shoulders. It had been eight months since she last heard one. Gray swallowed a ragged gulp of air and turned to beeline for her tent to grab her gear. Finch could get herself to the muster point.
“’Naks!” came the call from around camp. “’Naks incoming!”
Out of the corner of her eye, Gray spotted Harrison, the resident Corps chemist and almighty bartender who had just served her, hefting the camp’s only submachine gun as he moved like a thunderhead out of the bar and cellars dug out of the canyon wall. He closed a camouflaged door behind him to protect some of the their most precious resources: not just liquor, but solvents, ethanols, combustion fuels and rare chemicals, all prime targets for both human and ‘Nak raiding parties.
The shouting and exchange of gunfire was drawing closer, and Gray sprinted over to the muster point outside of her toon’s captain’s office where about sixty other Brown Fox corpsmen were already anxiously gathering, with more pouring in every minute.
“We think there’s only about nine or ten dozen of the bastards, so this should be easy!” Burke shouted. “Form ranks at the southern end and maintain cover! Break into your fireteams if you have to, but do not, I repeat, do not go solo! Get going, move, move!”
Gray ran, not knowing where any of her close friends were, so she clumped together with some other corpsmen she knew and let both her training and adrenaline work their magic. She began to wonder why the ‘Naks were sending such a small force against an entire camp. They weren’t dumb. But it wasn’t long before her ears were ringing with the sound of battle, and there were suddenly more important things to think about, like the fact that it appeared that ranks were already being broken.
This was a deadly embarrassment to both sides. Not that Corpsmen weren’t gifted survivalists, but there were too many fuckers running around without clear orders. Out of the small handful of engagements they had with the ‘Naks each year, most of them were lethargic, and rarely did they get this close to home. Neither side could afford to lose so many soldiers so often, but they still needed to exchange fire and make a bunch of noise. Worse than losing men was losing morale, and going soft on the enemy was out of the question. There’s no telling what the ‘Naks would try if they knew just how threadbare the Corps could be some days. This, however, was not one of those days. Eleven-hundred corpsmen against one hundred of the giant bastards on Corps turf was going to be far from lethargic.
Gray knew something was different when the smell hit her. She paused just long enough to scowl as it sank in. This was the pheromone, she noticed, and her body reacted. Her heart raced and her muscles wanted to pull her in the opposite direction. She was supposed to run, this was it, this was the unthinkable thing. But the seventh-year steeled herself and dove down behind a water drum to remember her discipline.
“It’s strong,” she said to herself, panting. Stronger than usual.
Was this a new cocktail from The Algo?
When she glanced up, the evidence was all around her. The chaos, the cries of panic, the sound of someone puking, someone else sobbing. It was amazing what a chemical could do, the suggestion of predation, the thought that you could have a hundred exit routes and still be cornered. It was evil. Gray swallowed and knew what she had to do. Against all animal logic, she turned the safety off on her kicker and prepared to fight. It was her or them. As much as she hated it, this was her life, and she was going to defend it.
“They’re advancing!” someone yelled from across the road as they turned on their heel to take cover further up the path. They were made quick work of. Gray had to do something. The ‘Naks were moving quickly, hunched like big, bloodthirsty beasts as they popped off thundering blasts from their even bigger guns. Down the road someone’s chest exploded, spraying canvas with red.
She got down low, peeking out from behind her cover, and got off a few shots at one of the ‘Naks’ feet, crippling him. She gave the same treatment to another who watched his comrade fall, but a third noticed her muzzle flash in the growing twilight and she pulled back.
“Shit, shit, shit…” Gray’s brown eyes darted around, looking for a window of opportunity to make her retreat, but her water drum cover was quickly turning into a deathtrap. She couldn’t help the scream when the metal suddenly filled with holes and precious water poured out onto the dusty ground.
The ‘Nak’s guns grew louder and louder, and Gray knew she was going to get shot. Which was all the more reason to at least attempt falling back.
“It’s working! Spread out!” she heard one of the giants bark, and they broke formation.
Someone had managed to re-man one of the heavy guns and a dusky ‘Nak was knocked to the ground with the force of his own bullets, moaning in the dirt like any other wounded creature on god’s green earth, then a few more went down. Gray was about to take this opportunity to get away from the drum, maybe duck into a tent, when a ‘Nak soldier suddenly loomed overhead. He glanced down, and through the thin strip of face she could see between his helmet and the cloth covering his nose and mouth, their eyes briefly met.
Through the haze of panic that his proximity was inducing in her, Gray managed to notice his face soften, and turn to acute concern. And the squeeze… was not so oppressive.
But then there was pain. A 50-cal bullet hit him in the chest, clearing his armor and ammo pouches to land a bloody blow near his armpit. Her face was spattered with his living heat as he collapsed over the drum and on top of her, cloth torn away from his face. Gray suddenly found herself pinned under a pair of three–hundred pound legs with something stabbing her in the side. She hissed, barely able to breathe.
“F–fuck…” she wheezed, and then fell deathly still when she realized that it was the muzzle of her own kicker sticking her in the ribs. One wrong move and it could go off at any minute. She tried pushing against that weakening body on top of her, pushing against the fear. “G-get off me, you giant piece of shit…”
He was wheezing too, and she could now hear a wetness in his lungs. But he reached out with a massive hand, big enough to palm her skull, and touched her cheek. Gray froze.
Signy? Who was Signy?
“I didn’t know you came… back.” Blood appeared at the corner of his mouth and he tried licking his lips. The ‘Nak’s brown eyes were glazing over. “I’m sorry. I didn’t… know…”
His hand fell away from her face and Gray just laid there, fighting for breath, unable to do anything but watch the fire disappear from those strangely human eyes as he gave his last gasping death rattle.
Nyx last edited by
@kisupure I loved Jack and Diane, and oh my gosh, I’m loving this full-length story so far. It’s not just the size difference parts, either (although those are extremely good); you’ve created a compelling story and a universe that feels very real and very engaging. There’s a gritty realism to the dystopia, and I like all of the little details that you’ve added to it. The idea of the Anakim’s fear-inducing pheromones is innovative and I hope that you explore it more.
I’ll admit that I’m curious about the significance of Signy and this person’s relationship to the Anakim. Were they a scientist, a soldier? As for the Anakim, I like how they’ve been given more human emotions and aspects in Gray’s eyes. The death scene with the Anakim and Gray was the right mixture of poignancy and power.
Anyway, I hope to read more, and if you decide to sell the finished story, I’d definitely buy it
@nyx Thank you very much Nyx!
The pheromone is a very, very late addition to the story, and I’m surprised at how easy it’s been to work it in. There was something missing from the plot for the longest time, and I played around with all sorts of stuff–weapons tech, some Zardoz-like themes–but I think this (and another Big Thing) was the key! It’s really going to sharpen Gray’s interactions with her treasonous fuckbuddy later on too, adding a whole 'nother dimension to what they do together and why.
The Enemy is The Enemy.
The Enemy is not your friend. The Enemy is not your rival. The Enemy is not your proving grounds. Swift, efficient, and impersonal combat is highly regarded by the Corps. The Enemy is not to be given names, or to be humanized in any way. The good Corpsman maintains the utmost distance from his or her target, and eliminates them impassionately. Everything else is a liability that can and will exact a lethal toll.
- HDC Manual, Section 2 § 2
After the attack, she was laying in the med tent with a black bruise on her side and a few cracked ribs when news came that Camp Fox was moving.
“We bug-out tomorrow,” Wesson explained. There was a thick bandage above his eye, and a few more wrapped around the fingers of his left hand. All just scuffs and scrapes, nothing major. He was lucky.
Gray groaned and rubbed at her dusty face. She’d been through two bug-outs already, and she’d been hoping that she could serve the rest of her 25 months without suffering through a third. Least of all now. “Do we know where?”
Wesson sighed. “About thirty miles south, closer to Camp Bison. I guess there’s one of those old flood–control basins they built back in the mid–nineteens, and it’s a canyon to get up in there. Helluva lot safer.”
She felt like she’d heard about this spot before, but wasn’t sure. “Dalton?” she asked, still thinking.
He shook his head. “Not quite.”
One of the medics came up and nodded toward the door. “Couple folks who need that bed more than you right now. Sorry.” Gray knew he didn’t mean wounded, he meant tenth-years.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Gray mumbled, easing herself to her feet and trying not to upset her busted side. “Hey look, this is gonna hurt like a bitch for a while, and we gotta pack this place up tomorrow. You got anything for me?”
The medic, a tenth–year one season away from his Release Day, twisted up his face as he reached into his pocket. “Fine. Here’s four Fridays. Wish I could do more.” She wasn’t sure he actually did. “If you’d come in here with more than a few bruises, then I might be able to help you.”
Gray stuffed the papery slips into the strap of her compression top. “Yeah, sure. I get it.” It was ridiculous, the righteous facade. They all knew that anyone who wouldn’t be able to ruck their weight in canvas and poles in 48 hours would be facing Release without a Freemark.
Wesson stood up from where he sat on the edge of the bed and stepped toward the medic. “C’mon, Carter,” he said quietly. “You know how much the boots gotta carry for these moves. She’s gonna need more than that.”
He quirked a brow. “You saying she’s not fit?”
Wesson laughed uneasily. “Of course not! Gray’s fine, just… in pain, is all. The ruck strap will be digging right into it.”
She stood up quickly, clenching her jaw as a sheen of sweat gathered across the nape of her neck. “Like you said, it’s just a big bruise,” she nodded.
The medic rolled his eyes and dug back into his pocket with a huff to produce a voucher for some cody. Wesson took it and handed it to her. “This is it, got it? Come back tomorrow to pick it up, and after that I don’t want to see either of you in here unless one of you has lead in ‘im.”
Wesson nodded. “Thanks, man.”
Gray said nothing as the two of them slowly headed for the tent flap.
Outside, the chaos of post–battle cleanup was beginning to die down just in time to make room for the chaos of packing up an entire Corps camp. The human bodies had already been hauled away, and they were beginning to work on the much heavier Anak dead.
The two of them paused to watch a group of eight heave one of the massive corpses, looted and stripped of heavy gear, onto a stretcher. “One, two, three!” With a chorus of grunts, the ‘Nak was rolled from his belly to his back on the steel litter built specifically for the purpose. The pool of blood that he’d been laying in had mostly soaked into the dry dirt, leaving a deep red stain that would bake into the soil under the hot sun.
There was another short count, and more cries of straining muscle as the whole ensemble was hoisted up onto eight shoulders and quickly hurried away.
“At least they don’t bury our dead with the ‘Naks,” Wesson said as they disappeared into the dust.
Gray couldn’t help the shrug. “We’ve been in this spot for three years. The graves probably run into each other by now.”
In her first year with the Corps, Policy was to burn the ‘Nak’s bodies and salvage the metal from their implants. Nobody ever knew why the practice was phased out, but it must’ve been for a good reason. Orders from Alpine were sometimes esoteric that way.
Gray chuckled. “C’mon,” she said, trying to ignore the pain in her side every time she took a breath. “Let’s go grab a drink. It’s on me.”
* * *
The camp was packed up in two days, with enlisted working around the clock. An hour before sunrise on the third day, they began their exodus from the canyon on precious little sleep.
Camp Fox’s fleet of twelve vehicles were rolled out for the occasion, as well as their mule teams. The vehicles were old, ramshackle things; apparently civilian in origin, but years of hard use and inventive repairs had slowly turned them into aggressively misshapen beasts designed to tackle the wastes and milk every last mile out of whatever fuel could be spared for them. It took several experienced technicians to maintain and run the machines, and they seemed to go about their work more by superstition and instinct than anything else. Knowing how to drive them was a closely guarded secret that even few officers had the privilege to learn.
Most of the burden, however, would be born by the muscle of Fox’s 1,120 corpsmen. Only the heaviest items, like the tent skins, ordnance and ammunition, liquids, and furniture of the senior staff all went on the vehicles and their trailers. The rest was rucked—carried on the backs of the marching troops as they slowly made their way down the dry riverbed that for three years they’d called home.
They would carve a hopefully unseen route parallel to the mountains, avoiding the easier, paved roads patrolled by bands of brigands and Anak alike. No matter where they marched, though, there was always risk. Especially from the most dangerous of ‘Nak operatives: Sentinels. Usually, teams of rank-and-file ‘nak soldiers were outfitted for enemy engagement, and little else. Sometimes there’d be a radioman among them who could communicate with outside forces, but even The Algo was growing stingier with its allotment of equipment as time went on. ‘Nak squads were usually restricted in their patrol routes as well, able to deviate only with permission from superiors. But the Sentinels were different. They could go wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted. They had communication tech that, according to Corps intelligence, delivered a constant stream of information directly to The Algo, making them the ultimate agents of enemy surveillance. And they were to be avoided at all costs.
Besides them, there were still humans to contend with. The wasteland settlements were rarely safe, either. The old Exurbs were marked by little more than pavement and pads of concrete where buildings once sat abandoned for decades. The major cities, constructed from older, sturdier stock, were still there, still went by their old names, even—but nobody trusted the skyscrapers enough to get near them. And that was ignoring the bond-traffickers, the thieves, and all manner of shady free folk that carved a living out of the waste. If you were a civvie and had business with the Corps, you had to do it on their turf.
Which was all well and good as far as Gray was concerned, except for the fact that she had to haul a hundred–pound pack through the bush for thirty miles with broken bones. One–hundred pounds was nothing, comparatively speaking, and her friends were even nice enough to share the burden of her poles, adding one of hers to each of their own number. But the pain was still difficult to power through, even with the cody, and it quickly became an exercise in misery.
“How are you holding up?” Harper asked when they had stopped for the night. Harper was a big guy, bigger than Wesson. He never started fights or got himself into any other trouble, which was something she liked about him. He just wanted to make it through his ten years alive like everybody else.
Gray slid off her pack slowly, painfully, eventually just letting it fall the rest of the way. She let out the breath she was holding… “I’m wishing that Harrison would set up shop already so I could put these fucking Fridays to use,” she hissed. She yanked her top up to let him take a look at the bruise, now spreading in a fat, swollen ring of black and blue.
“Here,” Harper murmured as he glanced about before reaching into one of the pouches at his waist and producing a small flask. “Some of the folks in red toon built a still out past the water tank. I helped ‘em pack it up and they gave me this. Don’t know if its any good, but they said it was strong.”
Gray looked on in surprise, and took the small bottle from him. Its contents smelled a little musty, but the bite of alcohol was unmistakable. Without further hesitation she downed a quick swig and handed it back to him without coughing.
“I’ve had worse,” she said. “Got a funny aftertaste but it’s not bad.”
Finch looked exhausted, daring to pour a little a water on her head. “You don’t wanna know,” she snorted.
And Harper shrugged. “Just glad it’s half over.”
Getting to sleep that night was almost impossible. There were only so many ways she could lay on the hard ground without gasping in pain, and after a while she gave up to lay on her back to stare up at the stars.
Usually, at times like this, she thought about what she might do when her time with the Corps was up, and she got the blue tattoo on the nape of her neck marking her as free. Her options were, realistically, few, and she’d long since thought each of them through down to the last detail. But tonight was different, because she couldn’t stop thinking about what that ‘Nak had said and why he had mistaken her for someone.
Signy must’ve been a woman, no doubt. And by extension, a human.
Why would a ‘Nak know a human woman?
And why would he touch her like that?
* * *
Working almost around the clock, most of Camp Fox was rebuilt only a week after it was all broken down. Their new home was nice, Gray had to admit. It was another dry riverbed tumbling out of the hills, ending in an artificial floodplain with a long, low, concrete embankment on the far side to hold in what would have once been a large lake of shallow water. The canyon was flanked by steep rocky hillsides dotted with rugged plants clinging to life; they were far too steep to descend, which meant an attack from above would be almost impossible without snipers, and getting some into position without being seen on the bare rock would be almost impossible as well. The only way in was through the narrow section of canyon that wound its way up from the foothills, or up the intact causeway that fell sharply away from the road; there’d be plenty of warning if someone tried sneaking up on them using either route.
Gray asked why they hadn’t put a Corps camp here already, and learned that this area had historically been prone to flooding during the rainy season, but it was keeping dry in recent years. The attack on Fox was all the push they needed to endorse the development of such a quality piece of real estate. The old canyon would be as well-guarded as a fortress in no time.
It was quiet for the most part. Sappers had been sent out to build scouting blinds, level out the roads, and set up sandbag defenses along a quarter-mile perimeter around camp. As soon as they were done, Gray was put to work sitting up in an old oak with her gun and a pair of binoculars to keep watch. She was to be alone, about seven miles from the camp, for three mind–numbing days before someone came to relieve her.
Gray had asked the corpsman she was relieving to toss her bag up for her as her side was still too tender to put to much work. She hoisted herself up the side of the tree, into which massive nails had been driven, and used only her right arm. It was a miserable post, but Burke was actually doing her a favor. It was a minor scouting position, located along one of the potential routes that a ‘Nak team might take if they wanted to try and shoot at the camp from a distance. Which wasn’t going to happen, because this particular creek bed took miles to meet up with the main road. But that was the point: something easy to do while she healed from a painful, if ultimately superficial injury. Thank god the captain liked her.
“Fuck this,” she hissed, pulling herself up onto the floor of the blind and collapsing onto her good side to catch her breath. At least, it was better than being stuck with anyone else. She could take the opportunity to relax a little.
The first day wasn’t so bad. She watched some small birds flit around the branches above her head, some squirrels collect acorns, even chanced a nap at one point. When the sun went down, she didn’t dare turn on a light, and instead willed herself into an early sleep. The night sounds of the wilderness kept her on edge for a little while, but she soon grew reaccustomed to it and disappeared behind closed eyelids.
The second day passed slower. The birds and squirrels weren’t as interesting to watch, she’d slept too long and felt groggy, and the hardtack rations she was given, hard enough to sharpen a knife on, made her bloated. Gray didn’t think she’d ever miss the algae slurry, but, well, here she was.
She awoke on the third day feeling hungry, tired, and bored out of her skull. The watchman taking her place wasn’t due to arrive until dusk—that was, according to her clock, at least 11 hours away.
Gray lay like a ragdoll on her bedroll, and stared up at the oak’s dense canopy with a scowl. She didn’t want to get up.
But something made her get up. A brush of leaves, the faint crunch of dirt; this wasn’t the cautious shuffling of an animal. Gray flipped over onto her belly, wincing at the pain, and with measured care, grabbed the binoculars.
There he was, not 20 yards away. No helmet, no 50-caliber boomer, no upper body armor that she could guess his station by. Just a sweat-stained undershirt. His hand was at his mouth, and between his fingers he cradled a cigarette that was dwarfed by the sheer mass of a fitted glove.
She couldn’t believe her eyes. Somehow, the ‘Nak had managed to get this far without being spotted, the cocky bastard. In her mind appeared a map of their new territory: camp Bison 15 miles to their southwest, camp Jay 24 miles to the north. Fox’s boundaries now contained six major arroyos, four oak stands, three eucalypt forests, two riparian moisturesheds, one abandoned gold mine further up the canyon that was too narrow and inaccessible to be of much use, and one freshwater spring. Fortifications were still in the works, but Gray recalled three supply bunkers being built along the lower hills further towards the waste, twelve watch stations along the border of Fox territory, each with a half-hour walk between them, and dozens of sentry blinds scattered throughout the scrubby hills to more closely monitor enemy movements. Even the mouth to this particular canyon, she knew, was manned by another sentry post a two miles further out. The ‘Nak must have come down from the ridge, then.
He leisurely puffed the stick and kept his gaze focused on the ground beneath his feet. This wasn’t reconnaissance, Gray realized, this was a stroll.
The behemoth soldier kept his wits about him nonetheless: there was a ’Nak-sized sider holstered at his side, at the ready, and his eyes flicked up at his surroundings here and there as he carefully picked his way down a game trail lined with fine sand. His feet, she noticed, were shod in very light boots, and when he chose a place to land his next step, it was with an utterly silent forefoot strike. These were not the movements of brutish Anak infantry, and definitely not their shoes. This couldn’t be a sentinel, could it? She’d never seen one before.
A shiver of black fear should have licked down her spine, but Gray was more enraptured by the sheer physical command required to move like that. And in the middle of taking mental notes on his technique, she stopped short for other reasons. I’m letting myself be impressed, she thought in surprise. Get it together, corpsman. He was the enemy, not a trick pony. She could learn stealth techniques from someone else.
Gray reached for her kicker. She had a clear shot, and even if she missed, it would be difficult for him to return fire with a sidearm at this distance; and that’s if he could accurately gauge where the bullet had come from. All told, the lone corpsman had a high chance of success, and she would be handsomely rewarded upon returning to camp. She took a breath to steady her aim, centered his chest in the reticle, curled her finger around the trigger.
But then the ‘Nak looked up. Gazed at the bleach-blue sky in a way that told her he wasn’t thinking about war, and Gray found that she couldn’t do it.
The giant killing machine of a man just stood there, staring, and she suddenly felt a twinge of recognition. What was going through his big ‘Nak head? Was he thinking about what he wanted to do tomorrow? About how much he hated the beating afternoon heat? About a fallen friend? His lot in life?
A breeze picked up, making a little noise in the trees, and he took the opportunity to make some quick movements with the auditory cover. He put the cigarette out against the back of his glove, and tucked the roach into a pocket. Something in his ear was adjusted. His effects sorted, the ‘Nak reached to grab a swag of dry leaves, which he used to sweep away his prints as he backtracked into the bush once again.
Gray waited another ten minutes before venturing out of the blind. Silently, slowly, she scaled the pegs down the back of the tree and moused her way over to the spot where the Anak had stopped, trying to mimic the way he’d walked. He’d done a good job of erasing his having ever been here, and Gray began to feel like she’d imagined the whole thing until she spotted some evidence: a few tiny wisps of discarded ash. But maybe the strangest thing was that when she gave the air a sniff, there seemed to be nothing there.
Gray looked in direction that he’d disappeared in, and saw nothing but scrawny towers of tree tobacco, colorful pockets of manzanita, and stands of oak trees up against the hillside walls where the shade kept things a few precious degrees cooler.
She shook her head and resumed her post. “I could have shot him,” she said dumbly. Of course she could have. The problem was that she didn’t.
The rest of her morning was spent forcing down a few bites of hardtack and mulling over her encounter. If the Anak was, in fact, a Sentinel, then where was his comm equipment? His helmet? If he was fucking around, why do so in an area crawling with corpsmen rather than the Wastes? The ‘Naks’s rank-and-file were known to harass human civvies passing through the open desert in their spare time, along with the usual human threats, and it was part of the Corps’ Statement of Duty to assist travelers looking for protection from such. Why wasn’t this one following that pattern? Were sentinels considered rank and file? Did he have a detachment nearby? Was another attack imminent?
Why was this one acting strange too?
Gray thought about it for a few hours, but something in her gut kept saying they were still safe. Maybe this was just an isolated incident. Maybe.
What she did know, however, is that if she reported the encounter to Burke at debriefing, the penalty for not attempting a kill would be severe. Neglecting to attack when the opportunity arose was considered to be a form of “treasonous negligence”, and punishable by slicing off the bottom of your ear. Few corpsmen sported such deformities, and those that did were dogged by the mistake for the duration of their Corps service. If they survived it, of course.
It was maddening how the rest of the day inched by. Gray couldn’t even hum a tune to herself; keeping still and silent was part of the job description for sentries. Eventually, 1900 hours rolled around, and a bird–call from up the canyon signaled the shift change. She cupped her mouth and made a short whistle in return—intended to sound like a Mockingbird—and soon caught the not-so-silent crunch of approaching footsteps.
Gray gathered her things and left the tree. Still slow, still painful. Another young woman from Brown Fox, Azimi, was there with her own ruck full of gear.
“See anything?” Azimi asked.
Gray knew it was all in her head, but she immediately felt put on the spot. The seventh-year hadn’t expected to need to reckon with her guilty conscience just yet. What was surprising, though, was how easy the lie came. “No,” she said.
The other woman nodded, brushing dark bangs from dark eyes and adjusting the beige cloth around her head that kept the sun off her neck and face.
“Spent three days watching weeds grow,” Gray continued with a stiff chuckle.
“That boring, eh? Well, good enough for me. Boring means safe.” Azimi slapped Gray on the shoulder and headed for the tree. “Watch out for snakes on your way back.”
Gray frowned. “Yeah, thanks.”
Intimate relations between one (1) or more enlisted corpsmen are not expressly forbidden by Protocol. Corpsmen in good standing are permitted to indulge themselves in sensual, sexual, and romantic behavior without the permission of their overseeing Officers, provided that this behavior is not expressed while on-duty. However, intimacy is not to interfere with the good corpsman’s performance or punctuality, nor should loyalty to any individual corpsman overrule one’s loyalty to the Western Human Defense Corps as a whole. Failure to correctly prioritize may result in Gross Insubordination charges against offending corpsmen as a Camp’s ranking Officers see fit.
- HDC Manual, Annex I § 18
It was dark by the time she returned. The moon was out at least, bathing the dry, rocky landscape in just enough light for her to plan her steps by. On a whim, Gray practiced the footstrike of the Anak from earlier, ball first, heel following. It was difficult to replicate while wearing marching boots, but the modifications were effective. She knew that there were still some part of the technique she was missing, though.
Upon returning, Gray checked in with Captain Burke to fill out a debrief form: during her watch, did she see or encounter any humans; did she discharge a firearm at any point; would she be willing to submit her weapon for a count; did she see or encounter any Anakim. No, no, yes, and… no. Gray stared at the check mark she’d made on the form next to the last question.
It wouldn’t make a difference if I said anything anyways, Gray reasoned. It’s not like they don’t know we’re here, now.
Slipping the sheet back to Burke, she was promptly dismissed for the rest of the night. Gray was grateful, and she headed out the flaps of the officer’s tent to her own. I need to find the guys and put these fridays to use.
Until excavations were completed, Harrison’s was a tent like any other. Sappers were hard at work digging out cellars further up the canyon, and it would be another few weeks before they could wire the place for lighting and open up shop.
Harper was manning the cable tonight, so only Finch and Wesson were with her, and before long the three had gathered around an oil drum with their friday rations and a ratty deck of cards. Finch dealt, though Gray had no idea what they were playing.
“I thought you used up your last friday this week already?” she asked Finch, who was already looking over her hand of seven cards.
“Small miracle, gambling,” she said with a smug grin. “Gold Fox held some tarantula fights while you were gone, and I had my money on the smaller one. Now come on, it’s just a few rounds of Rummy.”
Gray shook her head and grabbed her cards. It was a terrible hand. “We’re not playing for keeps, are we?”
She shot a deadpan look at Finch. “Does it look like I have anything worth keeping?”
Wesson laughed and made his first discard. “So how was the treehouse?”
Gray suddenly found herself frowning and tried to make it look like she was studying her cards. “Fine.”
“Boring, huh? Even with your rib?”
“The pain was the most exciting part, actually.” She made to discard something.
“You forgot to draw.”
“Right.” She took another deep drink of her liquor and did as told, suddenly able to put together a short run of spades. The back of her neck prickled with warmth as she fought the temptation to start thinking about what she had seen.
“And how was inventory?”
Wesson shook his head. “Found a bad batch of ammo, leaving us with about a ton and a half until the next delivery.”
“Well, it’s good that we’re not expecting any company for a while, then.”
Wesson threw back the rest of his drink. “I mean, if ‘Naks were the only thing we had to worry about. Fox itself may be safer, but we’ve moved closer to gang territory.”
He was referring to organized bands of brigands that usually liked to stay just as far from civilization—‘civtown’—as the Corps. They were a dangerous type, known to jump anyone passing through their borders who might have anything worth stealing, sometimes shaking down entire caravans. She even heard stories of brigands taking on small teams of Anakim. Sometimes abiding folk in civtown would ask the Corps for help with particularly disruptive activity, but small-time brigands usually exercised more discretion than that.
“Patrols may be exchanging fire more often,” he went on. “Be careful out there.”
Finch made her play: four kings. Gray’s shoulders and eyelids both slumped. She stared at the ace and queen in her hand and cursed at her friend. Finch just grinned.
“Be careful in here too,” Finch chuckled, downing the last of her shine. “So I heard that Alpine says the ‘Nak scent was more concentrated for this last fight.”
“You heard? You were there.”
“No shit, but it’s nice for the Alpine labcoats to agree with us every once in a while.”
Wesson’s attention was piqued. In fact, he looked surprised that a sixth-year would find this out before him. “Harper told you that?”
Finch shrugged. “What? It was an open message. It’s going on the boards tomorrow.”
He looked taken aback. “Yeah, but you… gotta have a little respect for the process, right? You can’t just do whatever you want, the Corps couldn’t run like that.”
Finch rolled her eyes. “Look. Does Harper act like a gossip? Even if it were a secret, it’d be safe with me.”
“It just confirms what we already know because we were there, Wesson. Nothing confidential about that,” Gray said.
“Fair enough. But I don’t think I’m being unreasonable either.”
Finch sighed loudly. “We can both be right.”
Wesson played a four-card straight and discarded something Gray couldn’t use, so she finished her drink and waved at Harrison for another. She parted with a second friday for it, and threw back the small cup, feeling it burn all the way down. They played a few more rounds.
Eventually, there was a lull in the conversation, and something was percolating its way through Gray’s mind as the alcohol started kicking in. “Something I’ve been wondering,” she began. “What’s the most human thing you ever see a ‘Nak do? How much like us are they?”
This wasn’t the smartest question she could have asked in a Corps camp as it skirted some important rules, but she could have asked dumber. Questions like, “how hot is the sun?”
“I seen one jack off once, remember that?” Finch laughed.
Gray did remember and she found a tightening in her chest at the thought now.
“Must’ve been a big piece of meat,” Gray muttered with a strained chuckle, keeping her eyes on her cards.
“God, are you kidding? It was like…” She held her hands up in the air, greatly exaggerating. “Wouldda been easy target practice.”
“How ‘bout you, Wesson?”
“They only look and act like us in order to fuck with our sense of empathy,” he said, avoiding the question entirely. “If you talk to vets from the first phase of the Disruption, they’ll all tell you that dusting machines was easier than flesh and blood. The Algo figured that out and decided to use our likeness against us.”
Gray frowned. “When did you get to talk to veterans from the old wars?”
“I mean, I didn’t talk to them. But I’ve hung around when we got some passing through once, and they talked about it with the officers.”
That was a mighty privilege, Gray thought. It wasn’t often that enlisted corpsmen were given an opportunity to even get near outsiders, let alone speak to them.
“Anyways, I don’t care what they look like,” Finch said coldly. “I’m happy to kill the fuckers dead after wiping six billion humans off the map. Including my mom and auntie.”
Gray swallowed at the reminder. She discarded, realizing too late that she had a run of hearts hiding in her hand, and Finch promptly won a second time.
“Remind me to never play cards with you ever again,” Wesson snorted.
Finch smiled obnoxiously. “There’s no shame in losing.”
The blond-haired man slapped the remainder of his hand on the table, not even counting his points, and Finch roared with laughter. She shoved the mess of cards at Gray. It was her turn to deal.
The alcohol made gathering up the cards more difficult than she thought it’d be. Her fingers were clumsy, and a few dropped on the ground. When she bent to pick them up, she hit her head on the table.
“God dammit,” she hissed. Wesson’s hand was soon on her arm and he pulled her up.
“You OK there?”
“I think I just… need something to eat.”
“And a night in your own cot,” Finch added. She took the cards back.
Wesson didn’t let go of her arm. “C’mon, I’ll help you back.”
Gray nodded and they began walking. With dehydration and growling stomachs being the accepted norm around here, a little shine, she remembered, went a long way in Corps bellies. She focused on walking straight.
They headed steadily down the road between tents. “Hey Wes,” she slurred, bending the ban on nicks by just shortening his surname. “You ever get confused sometimes?”
He chuckled, and his arm worked its way around her shoulders instead. “Yeah, when I’m trying to do inventory on 3 hours of sleep.”
“No, no. Confused about… what our enemy even is.”
He looked at her wistfully, cautiously. “Well, I can tell you what they’re not.”
Gray screwed up her face. “I’m trying to be serious, man. I’m not that tore.”
“After five years you’d think I’d know you well enough to know when you’re full of shit. Now look, we’re here.” She pushed open the flap to her section of the tent and Wesson helped her to her cot. “Hang tight while I find you something to eat, alright?”
“Yes, sir,” she mumbled, rolling her eyes. He disappeared back outside with a smile. It figured Wesson would like getting sir’d. He was gunning for promo, after all, and it was no secret that he intended to get it. It was also no secret that he liked being buttered up.
In the big toon tents, which were partitioned off into fourteen rooms, each housing four or five cots and a single light bulb that was cut off at exactly 10pm every night, there were usually a few folk mingling or trying to catch some shut–eye before a shift. The place was impeccably clean, mostly because her tent–mates hadn’t had time to settle in and make a mess of the place yet. The tents were not especially comfortable places to be: dimly lit, and stiflingly hot if you wanted to keep the sun out. Gray wondered what conditions the Anakim lived in, and decided it was probably much of the same.
She didn’t know how many minutes had passed before Wesson came back, though it was probably fewer than it felt. He handed her a small cup with a metal foon sticking out of it.
“It’s all the cook would give me,” he declared as she balked at the slurry inside. “And here.” He produced a flask of water, which he began to pour into her own. “Or you’ll be begging for a bullet to the head tomorrow.”
She sat up and spooned some of the green–brown mush into her mouth. It was salty, and the high algae content made it taste distinctly like pond scum. There was meat in there somewhere too, but the only clue was in the small tough bits of ground–up tissue and the thin film of grease that clung to the utensil when she took a bite. What animal the weekly shipments of ‘wet ration’ were made from had already become a popular subject of the rumor mill.
Still, it at least didn’t suck the moisture from your mouth like hardtack.
“Thanks,” she mumbled.
“And between you and me,” Wesson said quietly, crouching down to give her his best fatherly look. “Be careful of the stuff you ask around here, even with friends. I know you don’t sympathize, but some young boot hearing you talk at the bar doesn’t. People still get reported. People still get retrained.”
Gray just frowned.
“And I know it’s easy to get confused sometimes. But just remember that the Corps is our lifeblood. Without it, humanity wouldn’t have stood a chance. We could all be dead, or worse.”
“What’s worse than being dead?” she scoffed.
Wesson leveled his eyes at her and she swallowed. “We could be packing ‘Nak bullets right now, for one thing.”
Gray blinked, surprised at how odd this sounded. Bondship was bondship, wasn’t it? Every enlisted Corpsman was a bond. The only reason anyone was here was the hope of getting that coveted freemark and being addressed by your given name for the first time in a decade. The Freedom Ceremony was what dreams were made of.
She almost opened her mouth to ask him if he really thought that being the property of the Corps was better than being property of The Algo. But you didn’t say things like that in a Corps camp, no matter how much you drank or how much you wanted the last word.
“Probably,” she mumbled. “At least its only ten years of this, and the Corps does keep its word.”
“The Corps always keeps its word.”
Wesson smiled again as he rose, satisfied that he’d reached her. But just as he was about to leave, she stopped him.
“What happened to us, Wesson?”
The handsome tenth-year paused and his eyes fell to the ground for a moment. “It’s like you said, you weren’t feeling it.”
Gray thought for a minute, chewing slowly. “I guess I just got tired of sneaking around. We’re not youngyears anymore.”
“I think being a good corpsman really matters to you now. I respect that.”
“And you’re almost out of here anyways.” She looked up and their eyes met. “Even though you want to stay with the Corps, I’ll probably never see you again after you get your promo.”
“Everybody’s gotta say goodbye at some point.”
Gray nodded drunkenly.
“Now get some rest, I’ll tell Harper you missed him.”
@kisupure I love how harsh this world is, and I love that our heroes are still enslaved and all that entails. We know how to feel about military characters, but Gray and her comrades are oppressed by much more than just military discipline. I’m especially intrigued by the question of whether it is better to be enslaved by the Corps or by the Algo. I’m sure a little fraternizing with a 'Nak will be very revealing.
I can really feel the landscape, and all your neologisms are delightful. Pacing is perfect.
This is one of those precious rarities: an excellent story that just happens to have size feels. I think I’m greedy enough to demand an illustration.
@olo Thanks Olo! It’s a hard balancing act, and it gets harder the further into things as I write. I’m still struggling with keeping a certain tone - don’t want it too graphic and warlike, and I don’t want too much worldbuilding, because they could very easily smother the building relationship and eroticism. But the griminess and misery are part of the point too!
As far as some art goes, I’ve got good news and bad news… good news is that I’ve done a LOT of sketching over the years. The bad news is that none of them have made the cut lol. I’ll get to work on that though
[ No Manual excerpt this time, I’m still humming and hawwing over what it’s going to be about. ]
It was a week later when a group of six or seven civvies on horseback were received by the camp.
Gray was on weapons maintenance near the commander’s tent—a coveted job done in the shade of a tarp—when she saw the wastelanders being ushered inside. Except for the occasional band of merchants or trappers bringing in healthy bondsmen for selling, she hadn’t set eyes on an outsider in almost four months, and it was a bit jarring to see folks dressed in something other than threadbare fatigues. From their clothes, she could tell they were from one of the wandering clans, maybe a minor merchant family. Their loose, flowing dress was in deep reds trimmed with yellows and blues and beiges. The shade of red, though, was on the orange side – dyed from the plentiful eucalypts rather than the much–coveted cochineal. Definitely a minor family.
“Wonder what they’re here for?” wondered one of her duty partners, Cox, shielding his eyes. They had all paused to watch. “I don’t see any bondsmen.”
Azimi glanced at their horses and the man tending them. “No pack mule neither,” she noted. “I don’t think they’re here to trade.”
Gray shrugged. “They’re probably trying to get away from some brigs.”
“Maybe. Or maybe they’re the new neighbors looking to hammer out a protection contract. They look important enough. See those saddles?” The color of their clothes was one thing, but the tack had copper hardware. “And the closest civtown is only a couple hours’ ride away. I’ll bet they’re loaded.”
“Too bad we can’t ask them ourselves,” Cox muttered, getting back to work. Corps Protocol for interacting with wastelanders was strict. Enlisted corpsmen were not permitted to engage them in any way unless an officer was present, and were not, even then, allowed to speak unless spoken to first.
After a good half-hour, the group in their gaudy red was escorted to a lavish guest tent a few doors down.
“My friday’s on protection contract,” Cox said.
Azimi grinned, unable to resist a bet. “Mine’s on trade deal.”
“Brigs,” muttered Gray.
Commander Hitch stepped out of the tent, and the maintenance group fell silent, returning to their duties. Out of the corner of her eye, Gray saw him say a few words to a clerk, who nodded and took off at a brisk pace. By instinct her gaze fell on the tall flagpole beside the commander’s tent, which was already being fitted with a series of brightly-colored signal flags: a small blue one with a white square in the center went first and was followed by a red and yellow pennant.
“It’s a round-up,” Azimi said quietly. She was referring to the captains.
Gray didn’t have a good feeling about this, as there were few reasons to convene Fox’s fourteen captains all at once and most of them involved fighting.
“Better grab your boots,” Gray said, minding the lingering pain in her side. “I think we all just lost our bet.”
* * *
The commander met with the captains for almost two hours, after which the captains relayed the news to each of their toons. There’d been some kind of large ‘Nak mobilization: four–hundred of them, by the outsiders’ estimate, and at least six truckloads of equipment, heading south–west and massacring or menacing every human camp unfortunate enough to get in their way. Civvies rarely had the resources to fight ‘Naks without help from the Corps.
Alpine, which they’d cabled asking for advice on tactics given the size of the mobilization, took less than 8 hours to give their reply in that familiar clipped style afforded by telegraph bandwidth:
ALPINE 47G9D BLUE OFFICE TO FOX MSG FOLLOWS
FLANK AND AMBUSH FROM HIGH GROUND STOP
SAPPER ORDNANCE FROM UNDER OR BEHIND STOP
This telegram was posted on the board outside every captain’s office. The colonels and generals at Base Camp Alpine, with their tactical bird’s-eye view afforded by the constant wires, were ordering a guerrilla attack. For some reason, the word “nalezing” was shorthand for “do no more than absolutely necessary”, and, according to Harper, was sent at the end of most wires from Alpine.
The in-person briefing with captain Burke of Brown Fox toon, those assigned to ‘barracks’ #11-12, took all of an hour, during which more intelligence brought by the wastelanders was revealed. Afterwards, there was little time to do anything but gather up gear and hit the sack unless you wanted to be marching on 5 hours’ sleep.
At 0430 hours the next morning, Gray and five–hundred others woke up to the sound of a horn, grabbed their loadouts, and began the ten–mile march that would put them on track to intercept the force of Anakim. Gray’s side still felt awful under load, so she dug out her last little broken piece of cody and slipped it between her lips for the trek.
Everyone was too preoccupied with focusing on the fight ahead of them, their footing below them, and their pack load on top of them. It was three miles in when the sun rose over the mountains, all pinks and silver–blues of the morning sky. Already it was hot, and Gray had to cover her neck and face with a kerchief. Others were beginning to do the same.
In her head, she took inventory of her equipment, making sure she hadn’t missed anything, not that she could turn back now: kicker, sider, tac knife, six spare mags for each gun, a trio of emergency grenades, cordage, mutli–tool, binos, more goddamn hardtack, and a gallon of water. There was no telling how long they’d be out here, but she hoped, for the sake of her busted ribs, that it wouldn’t be longer than one night.
They arrived at their destination under the unrelenting afternoon sun, where everyone was told to take a breather and get something to eat while the captains talked. Their location was an old floodplain next to a river that hadn’t seen water in decades. A collapsed bridge a mile away, covered in fading graffiti, completed the picture as did the other scattered remains of pre-Disruption life. There was a two–lane road on the high side of the riverbed, up on a low bank, and it was understood that the Anakim would probably be taking this road to their likely rendezvous point: a compound of theirs known to exist some sixty miles further.
The bulk of the enlisted boots were instructed to divide up into groups of six, each headed by at least one tenth-year, to stake out points in the rocks away from the road where they might stand a chance of landing shots. Meanwhile, the sappers and grenadiers would situate themselves closer, armed with a small arsenal of explosives that would be detonated as the ‘Naks stood directly over them. With that strategy in mind, the sappers, Wesson among them, got to work.
About an hour before sundown, Gray and a few others from Brown Fox were ordered to scout the area and see if there wasn’t any sign of the approaching unit. Gray headed due west, over a small ridge and into the dusty landscape below, kicker at the ready. She’d been sent on a lot of reconnaissance assignments over the years, being part of the scouting division; her good eyes and ears, and silent maneuvering made her an ideal specialist. As did her lackluster proficiency with Morse code.
Gray trekked along for a good mile, climbing rocks, descending embankments, weaving her way through the sagebrush and cactus trees, and kept an ear out for the snakesthat liked to come out at sunset. Eventually she found a good vantage point, a small hill, to stop and take a look around. Obscured by tall brush, Gray shimmied up a boulder and lay on her good side while she brought out herbinos to scan the horizon.
Far off in the distance to the north she could see the tall buildings of an old city, and at around her 10 o’clock was the faint silhouette of a large island not far off the distant coast. But so far, there didn’t seem to be a trace of the giants or anyone else. She glanced at her watch, and saw that she had some time to kill. With nothing else to do but wait, she got as comfortable as she could manage, and –
The sound of a round entering the chamber of a gun was almost as familiar to her as the beat of her own heart. Sometimes it was comforting. Sometimes it wasn’t.
Gray whipped around, sider in hand. There, she was met with the sight of an Anak and his long, rugged rifle pointed squarely at her. He was about thirty yards away, and her heart nearly stopped when she realized her odds of landing a fatal hit from this distance were next to nothing.
“Fuck,” she whispered, suddenly resigned to the arrival of death at any moment.
The two stared at each other for the longest few seconds of her life. Shoot him! she screamed in her head. Shoot the motherfucker!
But her trigger finger seemed frozen in place, just like the rest of her. Part of it was instinctual: if she fired and missed, she was guaranteedto be killed. If she didn’t, she still had her slim, slim chance. But part of it was something else entirely.
His face was obscured by his own kerchief, wrapped similarly around his head. He wore a plated vest, with straps and pouches making him seem even broader. There was a knife fixed to the webbing near his shoulder, what looked to be a mouthpiece for a bladder of water near it, and… a short, stout antenna sticking out of the top of the pack on his back. Gray’s eyes widened when she realized what she was looking at.
He was a sentinel.
With a scowl, Gray slowly raised her hands, letting the sider fall slack around her trigger finger. This was the smartest thing to do.
But he didn’t move. This was getting ridiculous.
“Fucking capture me or shoot me,” she shouted, trying to steady the wobble in her voice. “What the hell are you waiting for!”
She was expecting it in retaliation for opening her mouth; that bang, that white–hot flash. It didn’t come.
In the silence of the desert, Gray heard him growl. He lowered his gun like it took all his strength to do so, and he loosened the cloth, turning to slip silently back into the deep shadows of the land like she wasn’t worth his lead.
Gray had no idea why she called after him. She had no idea why she jumped up, ready to hit the sand and get closer.
But she heard a whistle, one of the sentry’s calls. The both of them froze. They whistled again, but she didn’t respond. She was supposed to respond. Gray glanced at the Anak, who was coiled and ready to take off. He gave her a dangerous look.
Some seconds later a sentry from Brown Fox crested the hill. It didn’t take him long to see the both of them at the bottom.
“Kessler, it’s not—!”
Panicked, he reached for his grenade anyway. Gray was surprised at how fast he managed to tear out the pin and hurl it at the ‘Nak, and just as surprised to find that, as her eyes followed the little ball of iron as it arced through the air, that his pitch was coming up short, and that it would land closer to her than its target. Gray dumbly stumbled back and away from the thing, moving in slow motion.
But the Anak didn’t. He moved decisively and she found herself suddenly inches away from that massive body as the flashbang exploded, sending dirt and bits of metal flying in all directions. The giant caging her against the ground hissed through clenched teeth.
They stared at each other for hardly a second, then he got his bearings and disappeared into the settling night with a sloppy trail of bullets on his heels. She’d never seen 500 pounds move so fast.
Gray was left sprawled in the dirt as it occurred to her that she’d felt no squeeze.
No chemical musk to warp her mind into responding to him like a desert hare responds to a hungry coyote. It took her a moment to get up.
“Fuck! You alright?” Kessler asked as he slid down the embankment and helped her to her feet. “Did he do anything to you?”
Gray just stared off in the direction that the sentinel had gone, still a bit dazed. But things came back to her soon enough and she rose.
“You idiot!” she hissed, shouldering him away. “That little stunt could be heard for miles!”
Kessler’s face went white. “But he was right there! You’d have done the same thing!”
Gray was angry at the interruption and confused at why she was angry at the interruption. Either way, the youngyear had fucked up and bad.
“You need to use your goddamn head, Kessler, or you’re going to get people killed! You won’t make it to your fourth year keeping this up.” She turned to retrieve her binos from the rock and catch her breath.
“And I had the situation under control,” she continued. “He had his back to me.”
Then Gray started back up with Kessler scrambling to keep pace. “Why the hell was his back to you? Did he think you were unarmed?”
The more her hands shook and the redder her face, the deeper she scowled. “I don’t know why,” Gray muttered. “Now shut up until we get back. If you really did give us all away, I’d at least like to try putting up a fight.”
* * *
“The hell was that!” Burke demanded as soon as she caught sight of the approaching pair.
“Kessler here got spooked and threw a grenade, sir.”
She could see, even in the awkward illumination of a small flashlight, the cordage in Captain Burke’s neck tighten.
“Sir, it–it was a ‘Nak! He was right there, right next to Gray! I–I didn’t know what he was doing, if he was going to jump her or what!”
The words that came out of Gray’s mouth just then surprised her, and it felt as though she were suddenly watching herself and unable to do anything about it.
“I didn’t say it was a… ‘Nak, sir.”
Kessler all but froze, excepting for his mouth, which fell open.
“But you said… his back was…”
“You threw your flashbang at a dog.”
Burke took this opportunity to give him a good reaming. “You mean to tell me that you wasted a perfectly good ambush and a perfectly good grenade on an* animal**?*” barked the captain, stepping closer to obliterate his personal space with trained precision. “My god, corpsman, if it wasn’t against policy I’d have you shot.”
Kessler stammered, feeling a different kind of squeeze.
While enlisted soldiers were technically all of the same rank, corpsmen with more years of service were generally afforded greater respect. But Gray felt uneasy and had to look away. Burke excused her, and Kessler never spoke to the seventh-year again.
“You alright?” Finch asked Gray as she sat down on the hard ground without a word.
“Yeah.” A strained pause. “No sleeping tonight, thanks to Kessler.”
“Is that what that was?”
She tried telling herself that this was exactly what he deserved, but that was bullshit and she knew it. A sentinel snooping around should have scared the piss out of her, and not from the pheromone. That antenna? It was a direct line to The Algo. He didn’t need to kill her, all he had to do was report what he’d seen and sit back to watch the bloodbath.
Though there was something odd about him—no, she could no longer be sure about any of them—this second-guessing was already spinning out of control.
The Enemy was not to be humanized. Or everything would start making a little less sense than it did before.
But her thoughts kept circling back to the Anak. Who was he ? The way he looked up at the sky when he thought he was alone was eerily similar to the way he looked at her through the sightlines of his boomer. She remembered his eyes: blue, and hemmed with worry lines, laugh lines, maybe both. Or maybe just from squinting in the bright desert sun.
“Gray,” Finch said.
She started, and the younger corpsman looked at her as though she’d been trying to get her attention for a while now.
Finch was holding out her worn deck of cards. “Draw to see who gets first watch.”
Gray ran fingers through her hair and took the first card. The four others did the same, and they turned them over together. Finch’s five and Saiyeh’s two committed them to the first one–hour shift, the pair of nines would go after, and then the face cards would finish up.
“Ass,” Finch grumbled at her luck, collecting the cards again and tucking the deck carefully away in a chest pocket. Gray didn’t give a damn about the watch sequence either way. Two hours of sleep on hard dirt was still two hours of sleep on hard dirt. And that was besides the ugly feeling that she’d secretly doomed them all to a grizzly, painful death. A cool sweat beaded along her neck.
As she settled down for sleep, arms folded tightly and chin tucked into the webbing across her chest, a word for what she’d done popped into her head, taken from Annex II of the Manual, and it sent a chill down her spine:
* * *
She got a lot less sleep than she’d hoped for. And when she did, she dreamt of an Anak counter–attack: thousands of hulking, brown-banded shadows, lead bouncing off their armor as they ripped corpsmen from their foxholes. Gray woke with a start when a ‘Nak bullet caved in her skull.
“Nightmare?” asked Munez, their designated tenth-year who bunked on the other end of the Brown’s toon tent.
The moon had set at some point, and all she could see of him was the small orange speck of light at the end of his smokestick. Finch and Saiyeh were still hunkered down for a few hours’ sleep alongside Carey and a fourth-year whose name was escaping her. Munez’s cherry brightened as he took a drag.
“Not looking forward to this ambush.”
He chuckled faintly. “Who is.”
“What’s your style?” she asked.
Gray enjoyed working alone, but right now the eerie hush was getting to her. The Corps had a combat style it taught in training, but everyone had their own preferential spin. It would be useful to know how her fireteam was going to move.
“Keep mobile, aim low, don’t waste ammo.”
Gray nodded, peering out through the darkness. “Not sure how mobility is going to help us in this one,” she thought aloud. “Wouldn’t it be better to stay put? Hidden?”
“Way I see it,” Munez said, “By the time we need to start shooting, the ‘Naks are going to be on top of us. Gonna get chaotic out there if we’re outnumbered.”
1-to-1, of course, meant outnumbered.
“Point. But we do need to stay hidden as long as–”
She saw the outline of his raised arm and Gray stopped talking, whipping around to follow his gaze.
Off in the distance, to the north where the mission leader was positioned, shone a red light toward the groups of corpsmen hiding in the rocks. It began to flash in a legible sequence.
*Nak in 45, *it said in Morse code.
Gray frowned and glanced nervously at her watch: it was just after 0100 hours. “So much for sleeping.”
Munez took out his flashlight, snapped in a red lens, and responded with two quick bursts followed by a longer flash before putting it away: the letter U, the shortened prosign for “understood”. All around them similar responses lit up in the darkness.
Gray reached for Finch’s knee to give it a gentle shake.
* * *
Thirty minutes before they were due to step into the Corps trap, Gray could hear them. The roar of vehicle engines and the sound of many feet on asphalt gave them away.
Gray’s stomach turned. She just kept thinking about that damn antenna. Her fingers tightened their grip on the kicker in her lap and her heart pounded away painfully in her chest as they drew nearer. A quarter mile away; two–hundred yards away; one–hundred. Could this really be happening? What was the catch? Gray looked behind her, up to the top of the bluff, expecting to see a line of towering shadows sneaking up behind them, but all she saw was stars.
“I can’t believe they’re walking right into it,” she whispered.
Finch clicked off the safety on her gun. “Let’s hope our luck doesn’t run out before the night’s over.”
Munez hushed them, and in the darkness she could make out him counting down with his fingers. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
The sound was immense.
There was a bright flash of light, and the vehicles were suddenly no more: balls of fire billowing smoke littered the sides of the road. The force of the explosion killed many instantly, and threw others to the ground, stunned and injured. Hopefully most of them would stay there. The rest of the Anakim scattered in the tumult, trying to regroup just as the corpsmen flanking them along the ridge opened fire.
It was a lot easier to kill them this way, Gray noted as she squeezed the trigger; they didn’t look quite so real, shadowed against the dancing flames. She took one down, two, four—but regroup they did, and before long they’d reformed into smaller, single-file teams that snaked their way towards the scatterings of muzzle flash among the rocks. The pointmen had begun to pick up pieces of metal to shield themselves with.
“Two-o’clock!” one of them shouted, and one of the behemoths behind him opened fire at a group of corpsmen near where Gray and her team were hidden. A grenade was thrown too late, missing its target. Boom.
“Two o’clock clear!”
Munez stopped firing. “Remember what I said about keeping mobile?” he said over the noise. “We need to move!”
Finch swore as she reloaded her gun, pocketing the empty magazine.
“And we need cover,” Munez shouted as he unclipped a grenade from his belt. “Pull pins on my mark!”
It seemed like a good enough idea at this juncture, and Gray reached for a flashbang.
As Munez stood to get a clear shot, a bullet caught him in the belly just as the iron left his hands and he was thrown to the ground with a wet sound. Gray winced as ten hard years of service bled out beside her. There was nothing to say, he was already dead. Dusted like so many others.
Their orders were, if things took a turn for the worse, to retreat. Nalezing. And from the way those menacing shadows were moving now, it seemed that a retreat was quickly becoming prudent.
“F-fucking kicker’s jammed again!” Saiyeh cried, frantically trying to engage his rifle’s action.
Gray blinked back moisture and yanked the gun out from under their dead comrade.
“Here! Munez won’t need his anymore!”
She shoved it at Saiyeh, and groped around to retrieve the dead man’s spare ammo with trembling hands. If only there’d been time to grab his smokesticks too. Could have traded them for a cody.
“They’re coming,” said Finch, her face hard in the red light.
“We need to get the hell out of this foxhole!”
Gray saw a small opportunity to make up for her guilt. “I’ll cover us,” she said. “Go!”
The fireteam’s remaining corpsmen leapt to their feet and dashed away like mice.
“There! Your eleven!” came the thunder of an Anak voice.
A line of four of the giants were approaching from behind. Gray was careful to spray their feet during the split-second she had clear sight of them through the bush. Protected only by leather, her shots easily found flesh, and they slowed. She watched with distant satisfaction as two of them hollered in pain and stumbled into the rocks, calling her a few colorful names. Quickly, she turned on her heel and hurried to catch up with the others ahead.
The briefing never mentioned a specific fallback point, because failure had seemed so unlikely. But the ‘Naks, as usual, stymied their best efforts. All it took was a charge or two that failed to detonate, a quick enough response to the first explosions—the devil was in the details, and the Anakim, damn them, never seemed to lose their edge. So the plan now was to simply run: run hard.
The flames from the burning trucks licked the air some thirty feet up, and shone so brightly that the entire floodplain was bathed in red. Gray, Finch, and the others scrambled up the bluff and hoped for the best. The best wasn’t looking so good, though: another six ‘Naks were on their heels.
“Twelve high!” one shouted. She could hear the grin on his face as they closed in. The air was starting to thicken with the *scent. *Gray swallowed and tried to ignore her body’s predictable response to it as she ran for her life.
“Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me,” she chanted. Bullets found purchase in the sand around her, which at least had the effect of hiding them in a cloud of dust.
They cleared the top, and looking south briefly, she saw movement among the rocks as other corpsmen disappeared into the moonless dark on the leeward side of the hill.
“Don’t you fucking lose ‘em!” one of the ‘Naks shouted. The pheromone in the air made his angry voice sound all the deadlier, like it was right behind her. Gray swallowed, breathing hard, and squeezed a little more speed out of her tired legs.
“Split up!” Gray called to the rest of her unit between labored breaths. Individually, they stood a better chance this way and they all knew it. “We’ll be a bitch to find in the dark!”
And like that, the five of them melted into the night.
Gray could hear the crunch of her own feet on the sandy earth now, her gear clunking and moving against itself, her quick gasps for air, even her pounding heart—it all suddenly seemed too loud. But she’d outrun her pursuers, and could hear them turning their fire to other targets and their voices got further away.
“Better not be any spiders in here,” she whispered, thinking on the irony of being killed by a brown recluse in the middle of this.
Gray made sure to listen closely to the battle still going on around her as she made herself as invisible as possible. Minutes passed, and she could tell that the fight was moving away from her.
But over the next short while, she stopped hearing the longer and more frequent bursts of fire she associated with open engagement; the kind you could afford when you had a clear shot at many opponents. What Gray heard now was slower, more measured. Her first instinct was that this was the strategy of predators stalking prey. Gray swallowed hard.
She was startled by an explosion of gunfire and the ear-splitting bang of grenades. The corpsmen were retaliating? A nearby ‘Nak was hit—she could hear his choked swear. Careful footfalls once again turned into a frenzied shuffle of dirt and rubber against a chorus of sharp pops and thundering booms.
There was nothing for it, Gray had to leave her hiding spot. As much as she hated the Corps, she still cared about the men. Gray gripped her kicker, steadied her breathing in spite of the pheromone growing stronger by the minute, and prepared for pain.
Though when she launched herself out of the crevice, she found something altogether different: the face of an Anak soldier. And a familiar one, to boot. It was the sentinel from earlier. Except this time he reeked.
By instinct Gray whipped her 5.56mm kicker towards him, and he did the same; suddenly she was facing the business end of his enormous 50-cal. As if there was a contest between them. She panted and shook.
“You always this ready for death?” he asked. He sounded like the desert.
“Like any good corpsman,” she said, focusing very hard on steadying her voice as the pheromone began to coil in the pit of her stomach. It’s just a chemical, Gray told herself. Keep your fucking head. Her mouth was like the desert now too: dry.
“Why’d you s-save us, sentinel?”
She minded her training: maintain Situational Awareness, focus, breathe, and you stood a decent enough chance. Gray breathed, focused on him. It was very hard to see his face, but she tried like her life depended on it. He had good bone structure, she thought. It was a strange thought. She should not have thought it, especially not now. Not while feeling so much like prey.
Without averting his eyes he lowered his boomer. They were close, Gray realized—very close. Then suddenly, they were closer. She choked down a yelp when she felt his fingers wrap entirely around her bicep.
Then the Anak’s lips were on hers. Gray trembled in his grip, feeling hot breath from his nose, and tongue quickly, urgently, prodding her open. There was a grunt of approval when she did. He tasted like smoke and smelled like dust. Breaking away left her panting, slack-jawed, stunned. The beating in her chest suddenly had an echo in her belly.
“I didn’t save anybody from anything,” he rumbled beside her ear.
Then he pulled back to study her.
“Huh. You don’t mind the stink.”
“Mind” was an understatement. Gray swayed when he pulled away, all but suffocating now. She wouldn’t have been able to describe her expression in that moment, or speak much at all. He didn’t think on it for very long, either way. Without warning, the giant turned and headed off toward what remained of the fight.
“Party’s over!” He shouted between bursts of gunfire, keeping ducked down. “You got what you wanted, 34th, now move out!”
Gray sucked in a breath to help clear her head, and saw two more huge silhouettes approach the sentinel less than 10 yards away. “Hey! What do you mean, move out? Move nothing, we have ‘em cornered!”
“You get your boots out of here, you fuckin’ hear me? Central wants you back in six hours.”
“And Central’s not gonna like us showing up empty-handed!”
“Do I need to repeat myself, brownband?”
“We’re not leaving until we clean up this mess!”
Her jaw fell further open when the sentinel swiftly jabbed the butt of his boomer into the soldier’s belly, sending him to the ground. Even the Corps knew that sentinels were bred to be agents of high rank and that defying their orders was unacceptable.
“Find your C-fuckin’-O and get the hell out of my section.”
The other soldier was not going to repeat his brother’s insubordinate mistake. “What about the cargo, sir?”
“It’s gone, now move!”
The three of them melted into the shadows and Gray was left alone, with her gun and her scattered thoughts. The squeeze had passed, leaving her feeling weak and her hands clammy.
She took a moment to breathe.
@kisupure You are really good at increasing the tension while keeping us focused on all the stakes. I also admire that for every mystery you remove (Sentinel’s got a crush!), you add another (why is the fear pheromone inconstant?). I also liked the detail of the local gentry having an embassy with Fox’s commander. So neo-feudal.
Gray lying to save her skin and put Kessler in the soup was cold. She better not wind up in the same foxhole with him later.
A little aerial recon would go a long way in this setting. Did I miss an explanation for its lack?
I’m glad you explained “nalezing.” At first I was afraid the sisters-in-arms were being ordered to stand down.
Couple of cavils:
“Better not be any spiders in here,” she whispered, thinking on the irony of being killed by a brown recluse in the middle of this.
I’m afraid you failed to describe Gray finding a crevice for cover before she was already in it.
As much as [Gray] hated the Corps . . .
When did that happen? It was my impression that Gray thought of the Corps as the last best hope, both for her and for humanity.
Illustration prompt: Sentinel wincing as he’s shielding Gray and taking the shrapnel.
@olo Ofuk, good catches. I really wanted to make a spider joke somewhere, but I think I’ll have to move it to another scene. And as for the other one, hm, you’re right. I have her more in the “grudging respect” headspace, so you’re right, “hate” is too strong a word to use here.
Bless you Olo, and I’ll get started on that drawing soon for your troubles!
@kisupure Keep the spiders where they are, just add a sentence before it, describing how Gray found an arroyo in the dark.
@olo OHHK I see what you mean. I must’ve been looking at a different draft that had something like that in there.
And note to self, major oopsie: tenth-years shouldn’t really exist, they will have graduated from enlisted-dom by the “end” of the ninth year, barring unfortunate scheduling. Change all to ninth-years.
@kisupure 9th-years. Oh yeah, that makes sense. Should be some snappy jargon to refer to “graduates.”
Regarding Gray and her “hatred” of the Corps, it’s perfectly reasonable for her to resent the Corps as its regulations impinge more and more upon her interest in the sentinel. It’ll be totally subconscious, tho.