Authors: M Orenda
He lies there, on a rack with a soft white mattress because Red Filter compartments don’t come without, and winces at the pain of ageing muscles worked over in the simulators, the ache of old joints, pieces of human machinery torn, broken and repaired too many times to remain perfectly still now, even during sleep.
Age. Maybe that’s part of it. But he knows there’s more.
“Awake,” he admits, and the chime shuts off. Dusky light filters in from the two simulated windows in his compartment, each offering equally commanding views, golden slices of the Valles Marineris Canyon taken from the top of Fort Liberty Tower.
Of course, he’s not in the tower.
He’s in a basement, at best, and real windows (if they were in a position to offer an outside view) would reflect a few meters of dark basalt, a perpetual night of olivine rock, its porous, potholed mass shot through with flecks of white crystal, or silvery blooms of cold iron.
Doesn’t matter. The compartments of average citizens all have the same artificial windows, which offer all the same selectable views, and it might be possible to tell something about a person who chooses the open plain over the towering ridges, or the clear night over the hazy glow, or the one who deviates and selects jungles with waterfalls on a planet that has neither.
Voss hasn’t selected anything beyond his own waking times. The compartment does what it does. It offers him food, and he refuses it most of the time. It makes environmental adjustments for whatever preferences it observes, and he couldn’t care less.
It offers soothing suggestions when he rips awake from a nightmare, and he curses under his breath, wishing he could punch it into permanent silence. The dreams aren’t a new thing, but the intrusion of another voice---with its idiotic preprogrammed wisdoms---is.
His previous tour at Fort Liberty had been short, and ceremonial, as a uniformed campaign ornament with all the appropriate medals, paraded around at the behest of Rhys Corporation, and housed in one of their Spartan quarters. No pretense of windows. No auto-attendant. The dreams came all the same, but he woke to silence, which was a luxury he didn’t fully appreciate at the time.
He gets the same dreams on Earth, but not often, because they simply never happen in full kit, flying through chop, when the seat’s bouncing, and every guy on the team is knocked out because the fight’s still a few hours away. They don’t happen between missions, when he’s training or planning, coaxing numbers out onto grids, waiting for the moment that green light comes.
Those are on-times, body and soul, and nothing hurts.
The aches and pains, the nightmares, that all happens when it’s quiet, when the air is too clean, and the mattress is too soft, and the sounds that are supposed to be there… aren’t.
So it happens in Red Filter with a frequency that borders on the insane, triggered by nothing, by glossy hallways, and shiny suits, and blank expressions, the blithe chatter of those who dance around in idiotic circles.
He endures the irony and the boredom during waking hours, but in sleep, the mind turns, taking him back to places that no longer exist. There are many to choose from, but the subconscious id favors an Earthbound fire base he left over a decade ago, set on cold stone ridge, under a murky sky and a milky crust of toxic snow, the wind howling through jagged crevices and over bleak outcrops.
The base itself is gone, its plywood barracks disassembled, protective bastions broken down and dragged away, his footprints among the hundred or so lost to time. And when he’s there, he’s usually alone, just listening to the wind, feeling the same ominous weight that the place always had.
Only sometimes, he’s not alone. He catches movement in his peripheral, but when he turns, there’s nothing there, or almost nothing. Shadowy forms, some hint of a helmet and a shoulder passing behind a bush, some part of a uniform, some quiet whisper to let him know the brothers he lost are still there, still doing what he told them to do, only they’re wondering where he is.
Occasionally, they cross into full view, not misshapen or bloodied, not with the merciless wounds he remembers, but tortured by time all the same, starved out, and grey, their uniforms tattered on skeletal frames, boots shredded apart, with sand sluicing through the open rips, as if their likenesses are formed from dust and will alone, and they’ve been trudging in circles searching for him---the man who was supposed to bring them home---and for the base that simply isn’t there. No racks for their wraithlike forms, no warmth around fires gone cold, no sustenance for stomachs spun with empty air… all of it gone, and not in the mists of victory, but because it was deprioritized, a block of line items crossed off a list of expenses.
That’s the reality he wakes to.
Every time, it takes a piece of him.
Every time, it gets harder to turn off the wake chime.
He pushes up, drops his bare feet to the stone tile and leans forward with his elbows on his knees, listening to thick sound of air hissing through filters, waiting for the mind to reorganize itself the way it always does.
He rubs his beard, its short growth silvered and broken by scars.
After a minute, he checks the open links on the small holo comm unit clamped around his wrist, scrolling past glowing green beads for Wyatt, and Gojo, and searching for Petra.
Lately, he’s checked that bead far more than he needs to, far more than what’s required to view the updates she seldom makes. He checks it knowing that he’s going to see no new records, no new locations, a frustrating lack of data. He checks it knowing that it’s some part duty, some part attraction, some part fascination with female train wrecks.
She’s used to living with threats. She knows how to keep herself alive. That’s what he uses to ease concern when she blinks out though it never really works, and the vulnerability he’s seen, and felt, in her doesn’t help.
Petra’s bead is dark. And she’s missed a check-in.
An alarm flashes through his auth link in holo. He selects it and the message scripts in shining letters, decoding swiftly as he reads it.
CATEGORY 5 SANDSTORM INBOUND.
MISSION LAUNCH TIME ADJUSTED.
MINUTES TO DEPARTURE: 30.
Thirty is tight though they’ve already been briefed, and the mission is straight-forward. A transport op. Fly the secret girl, Niri, to the secret bio-research facility, BIOSTAT, located 400 klicks west down the canyon, and then provide extra security during her indoctrination process… whatever that is.
Simple, but simple things get complicated.
His team is still picking shrapnel out of their armor from the last attack initiated by the group of unnamed subversives who want the girl dead. Their motivation is still a little fuzzy. She’s a medical breakthrough, with a foreign bacterial element in her blood, and a great scientific destiny ahead of her, and he supposes that someone was bound to have a problem with that.
No big surprise there.
Whoever they are, they’ve attacked without warning before, and they’ll do so again. So, it’s the kind of complication that takes time to pack for.
“Shit,” he mutters, pushing up from the bed and reaching for his uniform.
It’s Red Filter tech, solid black and tighter than fatigues, temperature and fluid regulating, with a high collar reminiscent of Rhys Corporation dress blacks, only meant for fitting under the weight of armor.
And just like that… nothing hurts.
The extreme environment rifles get slung for the trip out, weapons specifically designed for low temps, with heavy lubricants, and computer-assisted sighting to switch between close and distance shooting in the low-drag environment. The standard assault rifles go too, with suppressors, for the controlled environment inside stations, along with a submachine gun, pistols, EMP grenades, frag grenades, stacks of extra magazines, and knives… the shuffle of lethal equipment set to the rip of zippers and the clack of case latches.
Gojo has his comm tech, drones and skeetos, tool kits, hack units, various bits of junk he found in supply cabinets and ‘requisitioned’ without paperwork.
Logan’s medical ruck now has warning labels, because he’s updated it with high-end Red Filter field and surgical supplies, the best of everything, and who knows what that does when it gets shot.
“Hey Col,” Wyatt, the team sniper, elbows him, grinning, his scalp freshly shaved, tattoos scrolling just above his collar. “You sleeping yet?”
It’s a joke, and an old one, referring to Voss inside his sphere, the near-silent mode he slips into when he’s focused on what might come at them next, tracking all the elements in play, and where they are in terms of the mission. It’s more like juggling knives than sleeping, but Wyatt is Wyatt.
“Getting there,” Voss says.
“Yeah, well… betcha didn’t know that President Wexler has a daughter.” Wyatt says this as if it has no significance, when clearly it might. His eyes are now focused on a handful of range cards. “A director of… something. You know, something important, blah, blah.”
“Interesting,” Voss says, checking his pistol.
“So that makes this a good idea?”
“Not really framing it in terms of good or bad,” Wyatt grins, giving a half-shrug under his armor. “Life experience, maybe.”
“I remember a few of those.”
Wyatt shakes his head, packing his cards. “Now hold up, you can’t blame me for that last female at Ticonderoga. She was blonde… but who knew she’d turn into a complete psycho?”
Everyone, Voss thinks, sliding his pistol into his side-holster.
“Okay,” Wyatt admits, as if he’d said it out loud. “But it’s not like I planned it. Crazy bitches are drawn to death dealers and barrel-chested hard dicks, and that is a scientific fact. It was true back home, and the effects are triple here… even on the normal ones. You see how these women look at us when they’re allowed to? We’re from Earth, straight from the wastelands, the trash, and the muck, they’ve only ever seen in filtered vid. What’s not to love? We’re forged in full G, bro, musclebound motherfuckers, stronger and more innately hostile, than any of the man-bitches they’ve got here in Red Filter. These girls don’t think they like all the tats and scars, but they do. You got tattoos? Got beat, shot a few times? Almost killed? You’re getting laid here, you lucky son-of-a-bitch. These women have never seen that shit before.”
Voss looks at him. “The president’s
“Yeah.” Wyatt sucks air through his teeth, unrepentant. “She’s got a unique thing… like cold. She toured the training camp the other day, with a bunch of suits, and she was pure ice, pretending like she wasn’t impressed, when clearly she was… well, at least with me.”
“So this is a challenge?”
“Thought your new recruits would be challenge enough.”
Wyatt’s expression sours. He glances over at the three NRM guards attached to the team, enthusiastic trainees fumbling with their weapons. One of them can’t get the zipper on his gear bag to close.
“Yeah, those vagina marauders,” he mutters. “Look at those dumb fucks. Muzzle sweeping each other’s faces every time they attempt to clear a compartment. I swear the more I yell, the harder they fail. If anyone’s going to shoot down our aircraft, it’s going to be those assholes fighting over a seat.”
Gojo laughs outright.
Logan cracks a smile, his ruck strapped up, assault weapon slung, suit waiting for his helmet lock-in.
In the adjoining hangar, three newly minted skimmer gunships are spooling up, their advanced engines crackling on start-up then issuing that distinct
warning, that solid electrical hum that sounds so wrong it raised the hair on the back of Voss’s neck the first few times he heard it.
“Time,” Voss says, grabbing his helmet, his equipment.
“Pukes One, Two, and Three… MOVE!” Wyatt shouts at his recruits.
They start hauling gear.
The air inside the hangar stings, kept barely above freezing at night. The pilots are still running through their checklists, flipping switches inside their angled cockpits, power singing through their ships metal like silvery adrenaline.
Loading ramps lower with a staggered hiss, jump seats waiting, cargo holds glowing dark crimson. Ground crews signal back and forth amid the glare of hangar lights. Warning beacons pulse from the darkness outside. Dust swirls against the clear membrane of atmosphere shielding that protects the aircraft bay, its energy crackling against the dark sky.