Petrichor #1

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!”

“Again.”

“Sir, yes sir!”

“Dismissed!”

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.

Anakim. ‘Naks.

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.”

“Yes, sir.”

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.

“Well?”

“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.”

“Coward.”

“Survivalist,” Gray corrected. “Wanna grab a drink?”

“Yeah, whatever.”

* * *

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 a week to agonizingly 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 get dusted 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 the Green Fox 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?”

“No.”

“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…”

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.