“Next Right Action” by Marisa Wolf
Pirra had been conscious for all of an hour, and enjoyed exactly none of it.
She’d been strapped into a jumpseat under acceleration since she’d woken up—and before, evidentially—and as there’d been no one to tell them what was happening, Pirra and Gace had told each other the transport ship must be making its final approach to their destination.
Why they were the only ones in jumpseats, when they’d been put under with twenty of their former classmates, was anyone’s guess.
Not anyone’s guess, she corrected. Just hers and Gace's. There was no one else around to care.
A large jolt, then the ship shuddered to stillness on the ground, and Pirra did not throw up. Her stomach twisted and attempted to climb her throat, but she set her shoulders, breathed out through her nose, and unfastened the safety harness.
“How long 'til they clear us, you think?” Gace leaned her head against the jumpseat across the way and studied the smooth ceiling above them with the calm Pirra strove for.
“We live here now.” Pirra’s voice emerged steadily, as though she couldn’t feel each individual coil of her intestines writhe with whatever soup of chemicals her own biology and the ostensible flight doc had conspired to create in waking her up. “They trained us and went to the cost of throwing us across systems to let us rot on a landing field.”
“I mean, sure.” Gace’s laugh, as careless as it had been in the safety of their barracks on KX-Prime made Pirra hate her a little. Was her fellow trainee—graduate, fire take it—truly so relaxed? Not swallowing back the burn of digestive acid? Not holding her expression so still a tension headache was climbing the back of her skull? Not—
Pirra focused on her breathing, the in and out, and reminded herself of who and where she was.
Pirra Derale, fully graduated Specialist, Interstellar Defense Corps. Guarantor of her family’s prosperity. Defender of the civilized planets against the overreach of the United Colonial Forces. One of the tiniest fraction of the IDC’s population recruited for the safety of everything she’d ever known.
So what if she was so far from home she couldn’t spot it in the sky with a telescope? It was there. She was here. And her being here would make them safer there and—and her thoughts were spiraling again. Facts.
Pirra was a soldier. She was recruited, and she was trained, and she’d been found worthy enough to send to an active front for her first assignment. She wasn’t going to worry about why only two of them were left in the holding bay of the Kanamede. She wasn’t going to throw up on her uniform, or her one remaining friend, or the spotless metal floor of the ship.
They were unconscious for the entirety of transit, however long that might have been in real time, so her body’s complaints were due to the aftereffects of the drugs to keep her asleep and wake her up. Probably some adrenaline.
Not fear or worry or concern or nerves or—Pirra wasn’t the type. She was ready.
She swallowed twice more and realized Gace was staring at her.
“Do we just let ourselves out, you think?” Gace’s quick smile was meant to be reassuring probably, not mocking. Her hand hovered over her own harness, though she didn’t unclip it. “IDC standard control panel over there, we can probably be trusted to open a door.”
The face of their last combat instructor hovered in her thoughts, accompanied by his tone that disapproved all their life choices. “Canaro might have something to say about that.”
Gace laughed again, and simultaneously they deepened their voices in a much practiced imitation of the trainer. “The second you think you have an idea, stop, drop, and slam your head into a wall, bits.”
The phrase went along with such gems as "You don’t know enough to think," and "Save it for up the line." Herok Canaro, IDC Combat Engineer, had made those three points the foundation of his barked orders countless cycles before Pirra, Gace, and the rest of their operational class had passed through him.
“Bits.” Pirra shifted in her seat, examining the seamless walls for nonexistent interest. The loading bay existed to keep conscious passengers separate from the ship, and consisted of two rows of ten jumpseats, an exterior wall that unfastened to serve as a ramp for ease of loading and unloading, and very little else. She remembered it clearly from her arrival on the Kanamede, which had been two hours or forty cycles ago. “That’s us. Such important little bits of the effort we can sit unattended on some landing pad for who knows how long.”
“You are not unattended.”
The voice came from no discernible direction. Unmarked walls around them gave no evidence of a speaker, and no comm had been slipped against her ear when she wasn’t looking. Her eyes snapped toward Gace, but her compatriot stared straight up without blinking.
A shudder wrenched down her spine before her brain caught on—it was the partly human consciousness that powered the ship itself, talking to them. This was no regular interplanetary ship—they’d gone system to system, from the civilized heart of the IDC out to the wilds of the UCF, which meant one of the most precious of IDC’s resources had enabled it—an Aulien, the intermingled consciousness of machine and person, becoming both or neither, that guided ships through the jumppoints.
“Uh . . . thank you.” Pirra narrowly managed to keep the last word from skewing upward in a question. Augmented Intelligence, she emphasized in the safety of her own brain. The AuIn, for awkward short. Not Aulien. They probably didn’t like nicknames. Were they human enough to have likes? “Do you have an update on our disembarking?”
“Are you not happy to be here?” The harmonics of the voice changed, a note that made her eardrums fold in on themselves. Was it a threat? A tease? Could machine-human brains comprehend the idea of teasing?
She flexed her jaw to ease the pressure, failed, and hoped she wasn’t visibly wincing. “You have been an excellent host, but you came all this way so we could do the work we were trained for.” Was she being too careful? Would the hybrid think she was condescending to it? Was she condescending to it? She cut a glance toward Gace, who widened her eyes slightly and dipped her chin a fraction.
Gace had no idea either. They were the only two humans on a ship that may or may not choose to . . .
Pirra bit down on the inside of her mouth. Her thoughts were all over the place, and yet unable to find someplace helpful. If the not-quite-human intelligence that ran the ship had marked them for death, it would have been done. And while rumors were rampant about the never-seen maybe-creatures that enabled intersystem travel, she’d never heard of them summarily killing fellow IDC troops. Whole ships lost to mystery tragedies, but not one or two picked off here and there.
Though why only two of them were remaining for some last delivery—
Act like you have the sense they gave the moons, Derale. With studied care, Pirra folded back the loose buckles of her harness and stretched to her feet. Gace stared at her, hands half-lifted to her own harness.
“So thank you for the work you did to get us here. Are they ready for us, or should we do some recovery exercises while we wait?” There. Her words didn’t wobble at all.
Act as though the world made sense. Take the next right action available to you. Continue until you’re through or dead.
It wasn’t advice Canaro might have approved of, but her father’s words had kept her from freezing in fear uncountable times since leaving the relative safety of her home for the sprawling dangers of the galaxy, and it was better than huddling in her chair waiting for yet more of the unknown to come for her.
The animating force behind the ship didn’t answer, so she moved into the first form of her longer series of stretches. Before she finished the second move, Gace unfastened and joined her.
They didn’t die.
“Wasn’t very likely anyway,” she muttered, and Gace made a noise low in her throat that indicated they were on the same page. Or Gace was considering how crazy Pirra was.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to wonder.
By the time they finished three full sets of the routine, Pirra’s innards no longer attempted to become outtards, and the last remnants of the bile burning the back of her throat had faded.
The next time she caught Gace’s gaze, the other woman mouthed, "Now what?" and before Pirra could summon an answer from her vast expanse of "no idea," the ship thrummed around them.
They both pivoted, Pirra facing the exterior hatch and Gace the smaller door leading to the rest of the ship. A moment later two large clunks heralded the opening of the wall to the new world they’d arrived on, and Pirra straightened to attention.
“Welcome to Discar, new—” The male speaker hesitated the barest moment when the near-empty bay revealed itself to him, but recovered without a flicker to his expression. “Grunts.” His gaze passed over them, as though there might be other newly delivered IDC trained Specialists hiding under a jumpseat. “Need anything before you leave the Kanamede behind?”
For a wild moment, Pirra considered craning her head back to ask the Aulien if they’d miss her, but she didn’t need the man tasked with greeting them to think one of his two new soldiers was headcracked.
Gace answered instead of apparently pondering dumb things to do, her voice as neutral as his. “Everything is on our person, sir.”
“That’s the way of it.” He nodded sharply and gestured for them to disembark. “I’m your Lead Two, Liden Hyrax. For the hour or so you get guided, I’m your guy.”
“Thank you for flying IDC Interstellar. We hope you enjoy your assignment.”
Neither Hyrax nor Gace reacted with so much as a twitch, leaving Pirra to conclude the message had been directed solely at her. Of all the impossibilities presented by the IDC’s bottle grown Auliens, this, for no reason in particular, sent a shiver down her spine, each vertebrae wrenching in a different direction. She lagged a step behind, letting Gace’s introduction to Hyrax provide cover for an under her breath response.
“Can’t say I want to do it again some time.” Pirra bit her cheek as the alarming urge to smile grew in the echo of her shudder. Interstellar IDC. That had to be a joke. Auliens could joke. Hyrax was saying something to Gace as she hopped from ship to planet, and Pirra risked an amendment, “But maybe it could be fun.”
There was no further targeted communication, and she shifted her attention to collecting first impressions of Discar rather than wondering on matters far, far above her pay grade.
This was only the third planet she’d ever stepped on. Funny, maybe, to be part of a system-spanning war and have such a limited view of it, but she had no interest in Command, and their need to understand and design interplanetary conflict at scale. Home for nearly twenty cycles, then KX-Prime, where she’d trained, was a rock with little enough to get it more than a letter designation, and now Discar, home of one of the oldest active fronts of the war. UCF had colonized half of the planet, per its agreement with the IDC, back when the organizations recognized such things as agreements and terms. Some unclear point later, the value of the fungal clouds became known—Pirra scanned the empty yellow-orange sky, but there were none currently above her—and the United Colonials Forces seized the entirety of the planet to maximize their profits. IDC had landed troops not long later, and so it had been for tens of cycles.
Discar certainly didn’t seem to offer much beyond the richness of its floating bacterial—animal?—life. The faint light of its far off star left everything washed out, gray-green ground cover past the landing pads, faded paving, a hazy shadow of what could be tree life off in the distance. The truck waiting for them was cleaned to IDC precision, but the base ahead of them was squat and drab. A rambling affair, indicative of being built quick and then encrusted over time. Perhaps it had been meant to be temporary cycles ago, but the spread of buildings, and the investment indicated by the visible weaponry spoke of permanency.
Hyrax gestured to the truck and Pirra slid into the back without waiting to negotiate with Gace on who’d sit up front. Let her have the face time with Lead Two, while Pirra could get herself together again. It was unlikely they’d be moved from this assignment for their length of service, given the ongoing activity on Discar and the ruinous cost of moving troops through enemy territory. Worth it to reposition some of the elite, perhaps, but not a Specialist.
“Are those Charons? They look different than the ones on KX.”
“Training beats have the near-decommissioned equipment. Not like any of you are going to fly one, eh.” Hyrax made a noise that perhaps was meant to be a laugh. “Unless you’re hiding a port under your heads.”
Gace’s laugh was easy, casual. “Nah, I was born, not grown. Recruited halfway through school. Pirra too,” she added after a beat.
Pirra had let her thoughts stray too far along a different path—considering the troops that were meant to fly the IDC’s best jets. And control their formidable ground assault vehicles. And—this, as they rounded a corner and put eyes on the base’s central tower—operate the enormous base defense artilleries. There were versions for ordinary humans for ground and air—but the elite systems, with their drone swarms, anti-drone frequencies, and overall speed and precision, needed more than human reaction and processing times.
Like with the Kanamede, engineered soldiers, grown with artificial intelligence programs at least partially embedded in their brains—reliable details were scarce—were the answer. The AI Troops did the heavy lifting on planet- and station- based fighting, as the Auliens were tasked to space battles in addition to transportation. Normal people, like she and Gace, and presumably Hyrax, filled in the cracks. Logistics, information, infantry when needed.
“Pirra’s also usually more talkative,” Gace prompted, and Pirra dropped back into the moment at hand.
“Sorry. Somehow I’m tired despite sleeping for the last three to sixty days.”
“Well it’s not sleep.” Hyrax glanced at her in the mirror, then regaled them with his impressions of the "shut-off juice" used to keep soldiers unconscious in transit. Pirra didn’t fully tune back in until he pulled the truck to a stop outside a round building on the far side of the central tower.
He entered a code he didn’t share on the pad outside the door, and they walked into nondescript halls even more nondescript than training's. There wasn’t a single identifying mark—not the patterned stripes of home, not the painted designs of KX’s buildings—to mar the featureless fabricated walls. Lights ran in strips above, steady and cool.
They strode through the halls, and she did her best to file Lead Two’s short directions to orient herself in case this truly was all the orienting they were to receive.
“Cafeteria and galley is down there, you’ll have set hours to use it or work it.”
“Workout spaces are two turns to the left.”
“Armory is down that hall—it’s not to be entered unless there’s an alarm or you have orders or it’s after morning.”
Gace opened her mouth, but before either of them could ask for clarification on that one, he pointed behind them. “Training bays are in the ring around the tower.”
Act as though the world made sense—surely they’d get more of a download before they had their first duty assignment.
They turned into a larger corridor, the walls wide enough for at least six people to walk shoulder to shoulder.
Lead Two rattled off more facts about Discar, mostly disparaging about its colonial population and the nearby city, but something nagged underneath Pirra’s hearing. Not quite a hum, but a—
Vibration, she realized. Someone approaching. Someones, for her to hear it despite the clear path straight ahead.
Within a few strides, a door slid open farther down the wall, and a crowd appeared.
Not a crowd, she corrected herself. Five individuals. It seemed like more in the sudden shift from empty hall to company.
She waited for Hyrax’s brief update on these new fellows—that they’d meet them later, or they were the last Specialists to arrive, with the good behavior to be made up of more than two—but it didn’t come. Her gaze snagged on the group as they walked down the corridor toward her trio, some detritus telling her consciousness to pay attention even though she could see what—
They walked in unison, which wasn’t wrong. She and Gace had fallen into step with Lead Two despite no march being called. But this was . . . not that. The five individuals swung their arms at the exact same rate, same angle to their bodies, same distance from their torsos. They moved their heads, slight but visible motions, as though one or another of them were saying something, and they all turned to look at once. Their mouths didn’t move. No one spoke. But the air around her thickened, and a buzz at the back of her neck made her scratch at the knob on the top of her spine before she realized nothing was there.
They were all bald—not the close cut of Hyrax’s bristle or the shortened styles she and Gace sported. Smooth as her ancient great-grandfather, or the lake on a windless day. And though they were certainly individuals—differing skin tones, heights, builds—the five were more alike than different. Something in the eyes. Or the lack of expression.
She registered the small gray metal at the base of one’s ear, then noted they all had the same embedded port, and it finally all fell together.
Not quite human. She’d known it, but now she felt it, and had to remind herself they started off just like so many other normal humans in uncertain environments. Plain children like her were maintained in artificial environments too, science serving to ensure healthy babies even when mothers had to be otherwise occupied. But.
A very large but. Something else there, introduced when their brains were still developing. Machines. Like the ship that had brought her here, neither human nor artificial, but some haunting combination of the two. Artificial intelligence that had no love for humans, but held up their part of the war effort because they were programmed for it. She said nothing while the group paused, though found it hard to tear her eyes from them.
For their part, the cluster of humanish soldiers murmured a discordant conglomeration of what might have been greetings, didn’t look directly at Pirra, Gace, or Hyrax, and didn’t break pace. There was room enough that no one brushed shoulders, but it was a near thing.
“Eights,” Hyrax muttered, slurring the more formal designation—AIT—into a number.
That, Pirra retained, though probably knowing where the base’s few amenities were would have been more helpful.
“What am I supposed to do with two!” Leashed calm, not a roar, but the voice hit Pirra like a blow all the same.
Hyrax’s softer reply was too muffled for her to make out, and a sidelong look at Gace indicated their hearing was frustratingly at the same level.
“I got orders for a full formation from Command, and this—this is Discar, not a bleeding dusty hind end, it’s an active front, and why they think the moons of flippity-doo-ma-gee . . . ” The voice dropped to a lower level, and Pirra couldn’t tell if the nonsense at the end was another language or a result of her ears trying to fill in some meaning to noise.
“So Base Two didn’t get an update?” Gace murmured, sidling close enough to Pirra that her words were barely above the sound of her breathing.
“And the rest of our group went to . . . some moons?”
They shrugged at each other and were quiet long enough before they were summoned that their expressions were perfectly guilt-free.
Introductions were brief—Base Two had their course list and training scores, and didn’t seem interested in hearing much from them past confirmation they also didn’t know where the rest of their fellow graduates went.
“I’m keeping you with Lead Hyrax for the next rotation. Your next assignment will be based on his report, so handle your shit.”
“Yes sir,” they chorused, and that was the end of their first interview with a Command officer. Pirra figured it could have been worse, and chose not to search Hyrax’s face for hints of his opinion on his new responsibilities.
He brought them to the quartermaster first, which went far more smoothly. The man had been prepared for twenty new assignees, and so squared two away in minutes. The only hiccup had been the weaponry.
“An SH-45?” Pirra twisted the gun to the side, inspecting its odd joinery and long stock. “I thought those were decommissioned in—”
“You trained on ST-6’s?” At her nod the quartermaster, Kerrins, tapped his nose. “Won’t feel much different in action. The SH’s are classics, sure, but what they don’t do is jam on the fungal crumbs this planet loves seeding into all the nooks and crannies.”
Despite knowing better almost immediately, Pirra held her breath. Kerrins laughed, though the sound wasn’t nearly as mocking as it could have been. “You got shot up en route with all the juices to keep your lungs clear of it, so keep breathing. It’s the equipment that struggles, and the SH is the most reliable thing you’ve got—minus the blades, of course. Shouldn’t have much need for those, but better have it and not need it, than need it and go bleeding out about it.”
Not terrible advice. Pirra resolved to add it to her list, somewhere after her father’s and before Canaro’s.
Pirra stopped being afraid of the Interstellar Defense Corps’ elite Artificial Intelligence Troops the day she had to clean up after their party.
The latest class of AITs had arrived only a few weeks after she and Gace—long enough to see, if not meet, the older enhanced troops every few days. Long enough to know they were referred to as Eights instead of AITs, probably for the same reason all the IDC liked to shorten and acronym things. If the Eights had their own rationale, they certainly weren’t sharing it with the likes of Pirra.
She’d been content to stay out of the way and keep them on their extraordinary pedestal, but currently her boots were covered in their detritus, and she was all too aware of their humanity.
“Is this alcohol or vomit?” Gace asked from across the shuttle bay. “Ohhh never mind. It’s both. Of course it’s both!” Her fellow Specialist made a low noise somewhere between gag and snort, and Pirra busied herself kicking sticky receptacles into a trash bag to keep from answering in kind.
Truth be told, her stomach was contemplating protesting the whole endeavor, and distraction was her top priority.
“This isn’t what I thought we’d get when IDC recruited me,” she called back once she was reasonably certain only words would emerge from her mouth.
“Pirra, you’re in the top ten percent of your class.” Gace deepened her voice to a perfect impression of a holonet announcer’s pitch. “Why further your studies and take your chances in finding a fulfilling career, when you can travel the stars and clean up after pukey new graduates?”
“Save your family!” Pirra replied, her tone nearly as good as Gace’s. “Get stuck to an exciting array of floors on new planets!”
“I mean, we did get to a new planet.”
Pirra pulled her boot loose from a particularly congealed patch of former liquid with an audible squelching rip. She breathed through her mouth to spare her sense of smell, and reached for a mop. “Discar is, in fact, a new planet. And KX-Prime was a whole other planet. So that’s three for me. But it’s still mops, not some kind of ultrasonic laser thing that does the cleaning for us.”
“If we get the worst of it out, the automated cleaners can do the rest.”
“But the worst of it is the worst of it, Gace.” Pirra indulged herself in imagining the shower she would treat herself to after this, but it only made her present reality worse. “And by the time we’re done, the assignment ceremony will be over.”
“Did you really want to see it? The Eights will go jet, tank, or defense artillery, we’ll catch sight of them from afar, and nothing about it will affect our day-to-day life.”
“It’d be nice. I thought we’d get a big assignment to-do once our orientation was done, but—” Pirra caught the twitch of self-pity in her voice and bit down against the next words.
“Not much to do for two of us.”
“At least we get to go to Bandry City next.”
Bandry City was perfectly lovely until it started exploding.
Pirra had been there two days, attached to a unit that had been resupplying from various neutral parties, and, Pirra realized quite belatedly, gathering intel.
There were likely circumstances under which she’d be proud of figuring that out, but in this case a shopkeeper had locked eyes with her Lead, mouthed, “It’s happening,” and slammed a beast of a blast door down between them.
Then something so loud happened she only registered it by the absence of sound following. After a breathless moment, a muffled ringing had stabbed into one of her ear drums, and then she was unconscious.
There hadn’t been enough preparation on lack of consciousness in her training. Idly, as she’d woken up propped against the crumbling stone of what once had been a building, she wondered if it would have helped.
But that had been hours and several explosions ago, and currently she and her four compatriots were spread out low inside a former specialty shop. It smelled of chocolate and cordite, which made her nose itch but wasn’t wholly unpleasant. Her ear protection and helmet combined to keep her ears from melting off her skull, and the ringing had ebbed to something she could function with.
Not ideal, but she had to take each next action available to her until she was through, or dead.
Dead wasn’t usually such a clear and present option, granted, but dwelling on the fact wasn’t going to make it easier.
“We’re to press forward to target, zone B-F8. Backup is en route.” Hyrax straightened slowly, keeping his body angled against a thick display case. “No updates on what resistance is out there, so meantime we’re on our own.”
Groans from strategic points around the shop, and Pirra shifted to catch Gace’s eyeline. This had been meant to be an ease-in assignment, help them get their feet under them. Then again, Discar was an active front. Ease-in just meant they weren’t thrown in front of a bunch of UCF goons and told to dance.
Pirra pressed a hand to the base of her skull—concussion or no, she had to get her shit together before they left the dubious safety of their shelter.
“Mask up. We don’t know what these colonial rejects have past the big booms.” Hyrax lifted his own, fastening it to one half of his helmet. “Comms urgent only. If you get separated, two clicks for proof of life every twenty minutes, but proceed to target.”
The additional information appeared to be for her and Gace’s benefit, given his steady eye contact to first one, then the other of them. Though Hyrax’s team had been larger several hours ago, so maybe additional detail steadied him as well. Pirra couldn’t consider the faces not with them, not yet.
Chatter to a minimum. Prepare for anything. Don’t die.
Canaro would probably have something pithy and rude to add, but she didn’t need his voice in her head at that moment.
Act as though the world makes sense. Take the next right action open to you. Until you’re through, or you’re dead.
She got up, and went through the door on Hyrax’s signal.
She didn’t die.
The next stretch of time compressed into a stutter shock of images—long stretches of nothing, sprinting down an open space, back against a corner, ducking into a pile of debris, eyes heavy after too long of quiet, the rapid thump of muffled impacts too close to consider.
Then a moment apart, crystal clarity, edges bright, time molten slow.
Clear, Hyrax signaled, sending Gace ahead. Torrunce covered from the other side of the square.
Pirra didn’t register the crack until Gace had already stumbled, tipping forward. Her own body tensed, one leg moving without volition, as though she could sprint into the square and stop Gace from falling. As though she could block the repeated blasts kicking up blood and dirt in the middle of a pockmarked park in broken city.
As though the world made sense.
Hyrax snapped out an arm, but she’d already halted her own motion. Gace was flat on the ground, not a twitch to protect herself from repeated fire.
Pirra couldn’t look away, couldn’t stop memorizing the scene, so focused she didn’t so much as flinch when an enormous THWOOM echoed from behind them.
“Tank!” Hyrax snapped, and they fell in. Those who remained. Not Gace. Torrunce signaled from across the way: Friendly.
Moments later a rumble, a vibration, the ground flowing up from the base of her feet, through her knees. She felt it along her spine, couldn’t possibly hear it, not with the repeated THWOOM THWOOM THWOOM. The top of the building to their left evaporated. Too late for Gace. A temporary reprieve for the rest of them.
Torrunce sprinted back to them, low and fast.
Pirra followed Hyrax. She kept her head on a swivel, or meant to, but no one shot at them. Not that she noticed.
Around a corner, then another, the vibration so big her feet were fuzzy, the THWOOM so constant it stopped registering, a matte gray-black enormity appeared, barreling forward over treads that took a mortar as she watched, healed as they approached, whole when they arrived.
IDC. Eight. As close to safety as they had, in this moment.
They stayed close to the back, taking out ground level threats that came for them, or their tank. The turrets moved constantly, blowing up a building or a sniper nest or a collection of bodies before Pirra registered such things were there. At one point one of the turrets took a direct hit, folded away, but the tank barreled onward.
A unit of UCF charged—charged a tank head on, maybe they all had concussions—and Pirra shot one, clean, saw them fall. Watched without blinking as the tank rolled over it and its fellows, like they were no different from the rest of the debris strewn in their path.
Bits of the war effort.
Square by square, they moved forward. Cleared the city.
New target: A UCF installation on the other side of Bandry, nestled under one of Discar’s “mountains”—a towering mud pile reaching into the lower atmosphere.
The tank sped ahead, a dip of the turret in acknowledgment. Pirra waved back without thinking, opened her mouth to make a joke about it to Gace, snapped her teeth back together instead.
Torrunce secured them a vehicle, so they weren’t far behind "their" tank. Charon jets screamed overhead, and like the tanks, were more felt than heard. The battle of the mud pile was well and truly joined by the time they got there, and Pirra didn’t argue when Hyrax told her to stay close.
She followed his orders without thinking too hard about what they meant. Canaro would be proud. Perhaps even without a concussion she would have found it hard to make sense of the chaos—the best she could tell, they were doing what they could to keep any UCF grounders from flanking the tanks that had charged the installation, only to be met with black and red mottled UCF tanks.
At no point did she tilt her head back to register what the jets were doing—her head stayed at one angle and shifted on that plane or the throbbing would make her useless—but various portions of the mountain exploded outward at irregular intervals, so they were getting their hits in.
At some point, an unknown number of minutes or hours or days in, Hyrax screamed an abrupt halt on their charge. Pirra didn’t have to crane her head back like the people around her—her peripheral was enough to see the jet plummeting to the ground, deadly symmetry disrupted. But even as it fell, as small human figures rushed to get out of its path, its path . . . shifted.
Impossibly, the jet wrenched itself from its steep descent into a curve, and Pirra lifted a hand. Useless, but acknowledging the Eight’s incredible save—only it wasn’t a save at all, or not for the jet.
Rolling at speeds even a superhuman couldn’t survive, the plummeting jet still crashed. But instead of plowing through unimportant humans, bits of the fights, it impacted between two of the UCF’s tanks.
Pirra couldn’t register what was exploding. The world, possibly, and she was on the ground—had she fallen? Had Hyrax tackled her? Did the shock wave meet her so fast?—before the third cataclysm happened. Discar’s faint light intensified, and each blade of gray green plant life outlined itself in blinding yellow red. She squeezed her eyes shut, because despite her best efforts, the world did not, in fact, make sense. There were no more right next actions. Death was coming for her.
Pirra breathed in, and out, and in again. Her lungs were still functional. Head questionable, but that was a later problem. It took a moment to identify which limbs were which, but she got her arms under her and shoved. Something lightened, and then a moment later a hand bunched in her jacket helped her leverage upright.
She staggered, but she was on her feet. Not dead.
Just in time to watch the mud pile mountain slowly lean forward. Like Gace, its momentum tipped forward, until it was unrecoverable.
Hyrax dragged her back to a vehicle—the one they’d arrived in, another one, she was never sure—but she couldn’t tear her eyes off the falling monstrosity. Off the one tank, matte gray black, missing a turret, firing at the enemy until it was swallowed by the mountain.
Pirra didn’t expect to mourn Eights with the same weight she mourned Gace. She didn’t even know them, beyond knowing too much about some of their drinking—and expelling—habits.
Every time she closed her eyes, she didn’t see the explosions, or the man she shot, or the bodies under the treads of the tank. She saw the mud pile mountain of Discar slide in slow motion over a matte grey-black tank. She saw a Charon break the laws of physics to wrench its shot-down free fall enough to take out two UCF tanks in its fiery wreck. She saw Gace, eyes dull. Eight or Specialist, they were all human enough to die for the cause.
Being trained for it hadn’t made it easier. The world didn’t make sense.
But what choice did she have? She pretended it did, so she could drag herself forward.
Hyrax delivered Base Two’s summons personally, which was . . . not nice. Not surprising. But of enough interest that it rippled the cloud dulling her perceptions. She followed him to Base Two’s office, and for only the second time since she’d arrived on Discar, she stepped inside.
“I have a new assignment for you, Derale.”
Pirra folded her hands at the small of her back and blinked without quite meeting his eyes.
He opened his mouth, closed it, made a noise that was sigh or curse, and sat in his chair, gesturing her to do the same across from him.
After a moment, she complied, her mind slow to register his offer and her body slower to follow.
“I’m putting together a team.” He leaned his elbows on the desk between them, and waited until she met his gaze. She stared at space between his nose and forehead, but it seemed to do what he wanted. “You’re going to train with the techs that keep the Eights functional.”
He didn’t say anything for so long she realized he probably wanted a reaction. She took a steadying breath or three and forced her eyes to meet his properly, dipped her chin in acknowledgment, if not agreement.
“You should know techs retire to specific IDC locations, and that means you probably won’t go home again. You should also know your retirement will be about the best IDC provides.”
Tell that to Gace. The words were so loud in her head she was surprised she didn’t say it out loud. With a sharp reminder to once again get her shit together, Pirra focused fully on Base Two.
“And yeah you’re going to have to deal with Eights all the time, but hells above, it could be worse.”
Bandry City. The mountain. It could.
“Why?” Was that her voice? Rusty and croaked? She cleared her throat and repeated it, sounding more like herself.
“There’s something strange going on and we need you to—” He laughed, and it almost seemed normal. She wiped the shock from her expression and found half her mouth trying to curve up in a smile.
“No, Pirra. It’s a good assignment. We’re down techs, and I can’t afford to wait for resupply that may or may not come. You’ve got the scores, and you’ve got the temperament. It’s not any safer than any other job—Discar’s still the front, and more often than not I have to send techs out in the field to get to the Eights. It’s not always pretty.”
“I didn’t sign up for pretty,” she replied, which had the benefit of sounding good, whether or not it was entirely true.
“Good.” He leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms. “Tech hub is level two, west wing. Get down there—your new Lead is waiting.”
“It’s a training shift?”
“You want one?”
She shook her head, and found to her surprise that that was true.
“Good. Base Actual just got some weird ass report from a forest on the far side of that shit show mountain disaster. We gotta send techs to see what’s recoverable out there. You’re officially their backup.”
“Cover the techs, learn on the job?” Pirra meant it to be a statement, demonstrating her agreement, but it skewed up slightly on the end. Back out in the field was better than roaming the base. Wasn’t it?
“Cover the techs. Learn on the job.”
That made sense.
The world would make sense.
Pirra wasn’t through, and she wasn’t dead, so she took the next right action open to her.
And she went.
Copyright © 2024 by Marisa Wolf
Marisa Wolf is a second-generation nerd who started writing genre stories at six. At least one was good enough to be laminated, and she's been chasing that high ever since. Over the years, she's taught middle school, been headbutted by an alligator, earned a black belt in tae kwon do, and finally decided to finish all those half-finished stories in her head.
She lives in an RV with her husband and their two absurd rescue dogs, so it's anyone's guess as to where in the country she is.