Act II, Scene 1 of 2100 CE
“I am, too.” She looked over at him from the driver’s seat of the Jeep and gave him a lopsided grin. “It’ll be fine. I think.”
He smiled at that—not at her doubt, but at her honesty. It was something they shared between them, an awkward, even tactless honesty that, to the wrong person, would garner some degree of irritation.
But not between them. Between the two of them, bare and, at times, painful honesty were virtues they each valued in the other—and anything less than that might as well be subversion. There were very few things that did not pass between them, each an open book, and never more so than when together. It was a strange sort of feeling, of suddenly and inexplicably syncing with someone, without much effort and in a seemingly natural rhythm.
She downshifted the Jeep as they rounded the corner off of Shore Drive and on to the beach access road that would take them to the restaurant. The road here was lined by townhomes and older two-story apartment blocks amid the scrub and dunes of the beach.
The Bayside Bar & Grille was a small establishment, capable of seating no more than forty people at any given time, and as a result, reservations were perpetually at a premium. Even as a native of the area, he had only had the opportunity to go there once as part of a larger party for his Senior Prom—the parents of the party’s organizer had apparently made the reservations on the day their son entered high school, and although an extreme example, the Bayside Bar & Grille was known to turn down requests from wealthy visiting VIPs in deference to their own celebrity. He could recall reading about one particular scandal in The Virginian-Pilot; a host of foreign dignitaries visiting the vast shipyards at Norfolk and Portsmouth were turned away at the door by the restaurant’s seventeen-year-old hostess. “If you don’t have a reservation, I don’t care if you’re the President, the Pope, or God, you’re not getting in.”
One positive result of the restaurant’s long list of reservations were the reserved parking spaces that came with them—in this case, a space reserved for their vehicle alongside the imposing silhouette of a large dual pickup truck. Alongside it, the Jeep looked like a toy, complete with its yellow and black color scheme and the appropriate number of aftermarket accoutrements common to children’s toys and hobbyist’s off-roaders alike.
She backed the Jeep into the space, bringing his side of the Jeep alongside the pickup. He hopped out and took a moment to study the larger vehicle beside them, forgetting to shut his door. The delay caught her attention. She came around and shut the door for him, before giving him an elbow to his ribs.
“Sorry,” he said absently, still looking over the pickup. “I don’t know if I like this truck.”
She turned to look the truck over.
“It’s a little over-the-top, for my taste. Like the meathead equivalent of a car.” He motioned from the pickup truck to the Jeep beside them. “This is much, much better—if you ask me.”
“That’s my dad’s truck,” she said flatly, and heartbeat later burst out laughing when she saw the look of pained realization cross his face. “And the Jeep is my mom’s.” She kept laughing, that wide, honest laugh of hers into which he wished he could have fallen and never emerged…
The host at the door smiled at them from behind the medical mask they wore covering their mouth and nose. “Motts?”
Her father’s last name.
“Hi! Yes, that’s right!” she responded.
In the few heartbeats between the host gathering their menus and leading them to their table, she turned to face him, taking his hand in hers. Their fingers found their accustomed grooves in each other’s hand, and when she leaned in towards him, it was as though time itself stood still.
“You’re my guy,” Julia said and kissed him.
Emile smiled, broad and honest—like he had not smiled since he was a child. “And you’re my girl.”
Running his tongue over his teeth, Emile noticed for the first time just how flat they had become. He had ground his teeth at times as a kid, but never in his sleep and always temporarily. This was a new and unwelcome development.
Over the ringing which had developed in his ears, he heard the radio crackle and hiss as Kobayashi worked at the comms gear, trying to pinpoint the signal they were tracking.
“Get the shit out of it,” Pataki hissed in the dark, scanning the buildings across the open lot they were facing.
“If you think you can do better, why don’t you try it?” Kobayashi responded in a low whisper.
Pataki only grumbled something under his breath in response.
It was just before local dawn and all of Ashland was sleeping. The locals had become accustomed to the nighttime raids and having Peacekeepers sleeping in the building next door, on their rooftop, or in abandoned structures. Their movements were monitored, even if the idea was to be discreet, but the locals would never admit to passing information to the enemy. They were smart enough to keep their distance and not bother the soldiers on their patrols, or even their so-called “downtime”—most of which was just spent sleeping.
They were taking cover behind a low property wall, or what had been the foundations of a larger concrete wall—it was impossible to tell now. They were being shadowed in their movements by the other two fireteams of their section, one positioned perhaps two blocks ahead and to their left and the other a block and a half ahead and to the right. They had formed a sort of noose around the available avenues of escape as they closed on the suspected target, the small compound of buildings they were now observing. The signal they were following was intermittent and encrypted, transmitting in seemingly randomized bursts in the hope of avoiding detection by the Peacekeeping Forces.
A separate channel on their frequency burst through the static. “Anything?” Ace asked, her voice carrying a touch of annoyance at the delay.
Through the gloom, Emile glanced toward Kobayashi, whose youthful features were illuminated by the red light of the tablet in front of him. Kobayashi shook his head. “Negative. Still just empty static,” he responded over the radio. “We should be able to triangulate on the next transmission.”
There was a pause on the other end, and Emile could imagine Ace conferring with her teammates on whether or not to go in anyway. Strictly speaking, they were supposed to first authenticate the transmission from the building before assaulting it, but the intel on this had been fairly clear on which building it was…
“Roger that,” was the only response she gave. “Keep me informed.”
Emile turned down his volume as the relative silence of the section’s channel was in an instant replaced by the static of the open one they were monitoring. He leaned his against the cold concrete and stared across the vacant lot. Between their position and the buildings on the other side, there was nothing but shrubs and a large drainage ditch he could not see, but which he knew crossed the far half of the lot perpendicular to his field of view. If they were spotted in their crossing, it would take little more than a mediocre sniper or a guerilla with a machine gun to mow them down…
Emile flicked on the night vision on his optical sight and scanned across the lot. Besides a cat prowling in the darkness, he saw no other movement. The windows on the buildings across the way facing the lot were all boarded up without a single light showing among them. In the dark recesses of his mind, he considered taking a potshot at the cat or at one of the windows, just to see what reaction it would elicit.
The radio flared again, transmitting the garbled nonsense they were waiting for.
“Sierra Two,” Kobayashi cut in, “signal is confirmed. Location is accurate.”
“Roger that, we see it. Proceed to position two.”
Each of the fireteams gave their acknowledgement.
“Straight down the middle?” Pataki said.
“Fucking-A,” Lemont grumbled.
The four soldiers hefted their weapons and came to their feet. They spread apart, so as to be less vulnerable, and cleared the low wall into the open lot with little more than the sound their gear clattering against them. They advanced in a low crouch and kept their line staggered, so as to keep from appearing lined up from any direction. In the still night air, they were accompanied only by the sound of their boots crunching on dirt and the sound of their breathing. Every few feet, Emile would fight the urge to stop and check his surroundings more thoroughly, an instinct his instructors told him was the body’s way of avoiding danger. The buildings to either side were dark and silent.
Ahead in the darkness he could smell the ditch, and as they drew closer, he realized it was more than just an open ditch. It was instead what the locals called a cloaca, a fucking open-air sewer line.
Fucking shit creek.
Ignoring the fetid air around him, he leapt from the near bank across, landing hard on the far bank, but well clear of the viscous fluid below. His rifle raised itself more by instinct than will as he at once began scanning the far buildings again.
“Oh fuck,” he heard Pataki grumble behind him before also leaping across. His battle buddy landed lower on the bank, punctuated by the plop of a single boot landing wetly in the sludge. “Fucking great.”
A flicker of motion caught Emile’s eye as he scanned the rooftop. Just discernible in the low light was the dark silhouette of a person standing either facing them or facing away from them, its hands resting on its hips as it gazed down at something beside him, perhaps an A/C unit or—
“The transceiver,” he whispered to himself. He smacked the radio transmitter on his chest. “Sierra Two, I have a lock on the possible target. Transceiver in sight.”
Crawling up the bank alongside him, Pataki raised his own rifle to look.
“Rooftop, center building. Follow the edge of the roof…”
“I see him. What’s he doing? Can’t fucking see…”
“Just standing there.”
“Should we light him up?” Pataki suggested.
Emile waved him away. “Sierra Two, do you copy?”
“Yeah,” Ace responded, panting—she was running now. “Hold one.”
“Sierra Two,” came the third fireteam—the one absorbed from another section, “we are at position two.”
“Proceed, but hustle.”
In the exchange, Emile stole a quick glance over his back. Rather than find Kobayashi and Lemont working their way across the ditch, he instead turned to find Lemont set up with his machine gun alongside one of the shrubs growing on the other bank and Kobayashi sitting next to him, his rifle resting on his knee.
“What the fuck—get! Koby, Lemont—get the fuck across!” Emile sputtered.
“Sierra Two, he’s moving,” Pataki said into the radio. “Permission to take him.”
Emile spun around, raising his rifle.
“Hold, hold,” Ace bit back. “Almost there. Three—”
Whatever she was about to say was cut off by the sudden cacophony of small arms fire as the right side of the building lit with the light of muzzle flashes.
“Ah fuck.” Emile fired at where the silhouette had just been.
“Taking fire!” Ace shouted into the radio. “We need help!”
The dirt before the ditch began to explode as some of the muzzle flashes turned on them.
“Light them up!” Emile shouted over the din. Behind him he heard Kobayashi cursing as he scrambled down the ditch for cover, while Lemont just opened up with the buzzing of his machine gun.
“Jesus! Jesus!” Ace was screaming—Emile could hear it across the open lot.
In response, Pataki lobbed off two 30mm grenades from the grenade launcher he carried. They flashed like fireworks, one consuming the spot where they had seen the silhouette, while the other landed further to the right, taking a corner of the roof with it.
But the fire kept coming, and as the new threat registered, so too did the ground all around them explode anew with misses. He saw with unusual clarity every round strike as the world seemed to slow around him. He had time to hear the distinct screaming of pain as Ace took a round, he saw Pataki drop another 30mm round in the haste to reload, and then Kobayashi sloshing up next to him, covered head to toe in shit, but adding his own voice to the fight.
He ducked against the hail of bullets and looked back. The machine gun was no longer buzzing, and in the dim twilight he could just make out Lemont. The kid was curled up behind what remained of the shrub he had been using for cover, the branches literally coming apart around him. He screamed, not the sound of a wound, but that wrenching sound people make when they realize they are about to die.
“Cover!” Emile screamed and felt himself propelled back across the ditch. He landed harder than before, the air knocked from his lungs like a bellyflop in a pool, but even gasping he felt his legs will themselves forward on their own accord, sending him bounding over the embankment and to his teammate. Standing out from cover, Emile lifted the other soldier by his collar and lifting him, threw the younger man towards the ditch, kicking the machine gun after him before dropping back into the ditch himself.
They landed in a wet heap at the bottom as shit and slime coated them. A sharp pain stabbed into his ribs where he had landed atop the machine gun, but he ignored the pain to instead slap the other soldier across the face with a surprisingly satisfying wet smack of shit. “You stupid fuck, are you alive?”
Lemont blinked in disbelief. “What?”
“That’s a yes!” Emile shoved the machine gun in the other’s hands. “Get the fuck up there!”
Scrambling back up the embankment, Emile heard himself scream—another sort of scream, separate from that of agony or fear. It was a sound he had never heard before, something base and animalistic. It emanated from deep within him, and all he could think about was how fucking stupid this plan had been and how much he wanted to fucking kill the enemy.
He followed thought with action and set up running across the remaining part of the clearing as quickly as his feet could carry him. As he ran, he first tossed a hand grenade onto the rooftop before firing into the windows, shooting at anywhere he had seen muzzle flashes. He was distantly aware of someone shouting his name somewhere behind him, but when he looked back all he saw were the others following in his wake, firing as they came.
Ignoring the distraction of his name, he slammed himself against the side of the building and ran along its side toward Ace’s position. He poured bursts of fire anywhere he saw shadows or movement without verifying who they were, because every one of them was going to kill him if he did not kill them first—
He tripped over something, landing flat on his face, biting his lower lip in the process. When he turned to see what had obstructed his advance, he saw the figure of a young woman lying before him, her face contorted in agony—and it was only when she cursed him that he recognized her as Ace. Writing in pain, she clung to a wound on her left leg that gushed blood from between her fingers.
Emile fumbled with his gear, slime making his fingers slip on the pouch with his first aid kit. But a moment later the others were there. Pataki shoved him aside, shouting, “You trying to kill her? The amount of shit on you, she’ll die from a staph infection before she bleeds out.”
And then, everything was normal again—everyone moved at a normal pace again. The night was silent once more, but for the calls of the third fireteam clearing the building. In another instant, which might easily have been hours, the other half of the platoon arrived, along with Master Sergeant Reltic and their medic, Doc Price.
Reltic took a long look at Ace, before turning his attention on Emile, who found himself sitting on the ground in silence. “You look like shit,” the master sergeant said ruefully.
Emile only heard what he said with half an ear. All he could hear were Ace’s screams, now moans, and even after she flatlined, her screaming was all he could hear.
Continues in Corolla.
Part of 2100 CE.