The delicious tang of fresh blood soaks my rig, my skin, my being—I welcome it. We're the victors this time, slaughtering, dismembering units at their points of articulation. Living or manufactured, the opposition is singly labeled as units in my tactical display: red targets, red anger—red death.
“Gamma 3 RTB. Gamma 3 RTB. Acknowledge.” The annoying voice clamors for attention, cutting through my battle haze, interrupting my task.
RTB, return to base. I don’t want to leave the outlands yet. I want to stay here, at the bottom of this churned dirt chasm where the bodies of my friends and foes mingle, souls dream dancing like puppets in death’s delight. For me, there are needs, personal needs unfulfilled. My battle-buddy waits patiently while I carve out a backbone knuckle from the last of those I’ve dispatched. Then we will RTB.
“Let’s go, Tinker. I don’t want to miss chow again.” My Battle Buddy sits on the humped-up edge of a small crater, a dent in the floor of our mini-battlefield. I hadn’t noticed before but he's missing an arm up to the shoulder. After collecting my last trophy, I geared down. Seven: five humans, two mechs. My rattle-bag has room for more, but I only take from my personal kills. No reanimation for those suckers. Too much spinal damage after I’m through with them. Our current enemy uses re-an on their dead, making them the guts of mechs. They’re not much in a mobile fight, but can be deadly when hunkered down in emplacements.
When I was a raw unit, injected into the fight, the horror and fear of war during close battle shook me. If you live long enough, you can get past that. It’s the first step toward long-term survival, the first step toward listening to the reptilian part of your brain. Once you share the barbarian mindset, like those who sacked Rome half a dozen times over a thousand years, you feel immortal—Vandals, Goths, Visigoths. A version of Valhalla awaits. I understand and share their old desires and lusts, their need to rip open the soft underbelly of civilization, to make sausage casings from the guts, goblets from the skulls. Rome was sacked the final time by the Ruwall Corporation in 2918. I was there: a child of ten, made an orphan, scooped up, trained, prepared to fight a long way from Earth.
“Need any help?” I asked Bax. The missing arm would throw him off balance, that and the happy juice his rig is pushing into his bloodstream. I’ll dip into some of that when we get closer to base, safe from counter-attacks. We’re all addicted to the stuff.
“I’m good, Tink. Could use help with the power packs, though.”
“Ah, what the hell. Let’s just toast ’em. Call it battle damage, so we don’t have to lug them to the transport.”
“Good by me,” he says, smiling. “Everything’s good by me right now. Which way, buddy boy?”
“Just follow my back.” In his condition, that's the most complex instruction he’ll be able to follow.
Years ago, I got the name Tinker from the stuff I’d do during off hours or when we'd get three a day. It started when I attempted to fix my rig rather than turn it in for repairs. It became a hobby when I began disassembling scrap tech from the bins behind the main encampment, wherever we happened to be. The stuff that seemed interesting went back to the barracks into my allotted one-cubic meter storage space. Never did fix much, but I did learn the ins and outs of the pieces-parts. Other troopers asked me to find things to replace worn or sticking parts of rigs or weapons that still showed functional lifetime use, those not jigged up enough for authorized repairs by the technicians.
After the transport landed at the base, Bax followed me into the company's fine dining area under a canvas-roofed pre-fab. His concern is more about battle-induced hunger than injuries.
“Hey, you guys need to get out of your rigs before you can eat in here.” The maître d’ to this military chow hall, the head cook, is an asshole. I point to Baxter’s stump where his missing arm was previously attached, stub now tightly covered in hard-foam, kept raw for grafting by his rig.
“Look shit head, we took our weapon pods off. Do you want my buddy here to bleed out all over your shiny deck? No? I didn’t think so.” He saw my red pig-sticker still strapped to my waist, smelled the sink of battle on us. We shouldered past the bastard to get our share of the slop-glop before it was all gone.
By the time I get back to quarters, our officer had updated the tote boards in the common room. Two columns: Us and Them. Number killed and number euthanized post-battle. We terminate our own, those too mangled for further use—a strain on resources if kept alive, we’re told. While still in the field, the lucky ones get override consent from their officer to check out on their own—large doses of joy juice take them quickly and happily on their final voyage. The few severely damaged troopers who somehow manage to straggle in are evaluated then separated. Being taken out back has a horrifying meaning for the still conscious ones.
Baxter was shunted off for either a painful, fast regrow or ceramic tech graft. Most opt for the regrow, fearing an incremental, creeping morph into an artificial walking corpse. In three days, he’ll be worse than new, but able to fight again.
Officers are just noises in my comm unit. Currently, we have a UD, an up-drifter, one of the well connected, doing her short time on the line to earn some chops, always hanging back until we’re done, chalking up easy kills, easy termination of the disabled, disarmed, powered down wounded. No honor in that, no satisfaction. I don’t give a shit. She’ll be gone soon, just like the trail of others before her. I never learn their names, never let their orders get in the way of a righteous kill sweep. The officers have a tempered fear of us, especially in a fight—they stay in the transports, deceiving themselves.
A whisper, a slight nudge. “Tinker, wake up … Be quiet.”
Whoever it is doesn’t need to remind me to remain still when woken from a deep sleep. The natural response has been harshly trained out of us. When sleeping bivouacked, or in a hole, you don’t want to do anything to alert nearby enemy patrols. My eyes open slowly, controlled; my head swivels toward the whisperer: Tommy, the oldest in our company.
“Sammy’s back. We’re leaving.”
“All of us?”
“Most. Had to dead a few who didn't like the idea. We got Baxter too. Grab what you want. No tech with trackers, no comms.”
“They’re going too.”
“Sixty degrees, twenty clicks to the transports.”
As I rolled out, I asked, “Ours or theirs?”
“Theirs. Now get a move on, you’re the last. Better grub, better treatment, and companionship await, trooper.”
What the hell? I never did hold any love for Exo-Standard Corporation, none of us do. Sammy had been reported KIA to the officers. We gave him an unauthorized mission to make contact with the enemy. I guess he found a soldier’s dream—food, facilities, fun, and sex.
We’ve all heard the rumors. Agri-Tech is a bigger and better corporation. They even allow their troops to take annual leave on Earth. I wonder what it’s like back there now. I’d like to see a cow again.