01 June 2012
By Curtis C. Chen
"Beacon!" The familiar, pulsating light pattern flashed across the left side of Semira's visor. "You see it, soldier? Beacon! Just over the ridge! Now move!"
Riddam didn't move. Semira shifted her weight and slid down the slope, bringing a cloud of fine dust with her. It wasn't until the next bombardment ignited a new set of fireballs that she saw why Riddam wasn't moving.
The armor had saved their lives on more than one occasion. It wasn't just weaponry, or defensive equipment; it also cleaned water, identified toxins in local flora, and processed and stored waste so hostile forces couldn't track the unit by their organic residue. But when push came to shove, it was still just a suit of armor.
Riddam's entire right side had been crushed by an enemy drone. Semira couldn't believe she hadn't heard the crash, but the evidence was right there, smashed into the hillside: gnarled metal beneath a cracked ceramic shell, detonation sensors in the nose melted into a black lump.
She flattened against the hill, lying above the wreckage and perpendicular to Riddam, their helmets close together. Riddam still had her lance pointed upward, and her eyes continued scanning the sky, but Semira knew that unfocused look. The armor sealed itself around any life-threatening injuries until a medic could unlock it, and it also pumped painkillers into the soldier's body until overriden.
"Here's what's going to happen now," Semira said. "I'm going to pull you out of this hole. We're going to get over this fucking hill. We're going to make it to that beacon. And we're going home."
Riddam chuckled. Her eyes were thin rings of pale green circling bottomless black holes. "Thanks for the pep talk, Chief," she said, "but I only got one arm and one leg right now. You go ahead. I'll catch up after my limbs grow back, okay?"
Semira grabbed Riddam's shoulder plate and yanked. She moved, but not much. "Put down the lance and push, goddammit."
"Don't be stupid, Chief."
"That's an order!"
"Well, I'll see you at the court-martial, then."
Riddam turned her head, and Semira saw the other side of her face: red and black and other colors that sat wrong against Riddam's pale skin. She might have been pretty, in another time and place. Semira suddenly realized she'd never seen Riddam outside the armor.
Semira gritted her teeth. "You're going to fucking make me live with this, you little bitch?"
Riddam stared back, her expression unreadable. "Woof, woof."
It took Semira a moment to remember how to laugh. "You really want those to be your last words, soldier?"
Riddam smiled. "Meet you on the other side, Chief. Hoo-rah."
Semira climbed over the hill. She didn't look back. Even after she reached the beacon, even after the pod lifted off, she didn't look back.
She didn't want to know what she had left behind. And she regretted that decision for the rest of her life.
Image: Flowers! by HJ Media Studios, April, 2010