I leaned back to admire my handiwork, rubbing the pad of my thumb over the freshly carved place where once there lived a letter “L”, before slipping my knife back into the sheath on my harness and rubbing my tired eyes. The glowing dots on my watch read 0830, meaning I had about an hour left to live, maybe less.
I’d set up camp in the decapitated wing of what used to be a hospital, but I needed to get moving soon. There was no protection from Her behind these waterlogged walls and peeling plaster, which fell away from warped studs like the skin of a geriatric, showcasing the gray orgy of dead rats within. She’d find me here just as easy as anywhere else.
This abandoned city in the center of a war zone is a living monument to the fallen, a string of ears to replace Her pearls. There was no sense in denying this. To the contrary, I let Her know that I knew that She knew we were doomed, by inscribing my name, rank, and serial number in broad letters on the remaining wall using soot from last night’s chem-fire. Supposedly it’s not as easy to kill something once you know it has a name, but I don’t think She got that particular memo.
I wrapped the sling tight around my hand and cradled the big tube in my arms, chambering a round before deactivating the safety with a gentle beep. The scope whined to life, my dominant eye bathed in red. Information crowded the tiny screen, distances, directions; electronic best guesses at what this, that, or the other heat signatures might be. There weren’t many left. Vermin, mainly.
I scanned a block of relatively untouched buildings further down the street, cutting the pie with my back against the far wall, sticking to the shadows and thinking invisible thoughts in the hopes that She couldn’t read minds as well. We’d been playing this game for days now; She, out of spite I suppose, my fallen teammates from their cavalier and ultimately flawed sense of invulnerability, and me, with my ever-ebbing hope of making it out of here alive. The spectral ‘She’ stood between me and an unguarded waterfront, between me and any road out of town. She held all the cards, and I hated Her for it.
To complicate matters, I was running out of ammo, and already out of food. The radio was in pieces – She’d taken care of that two days ago. Besides, there was no one left to call. One by one, they’d all stopped answering: Dr. Livingstone and Two-Step were the first to go, followed by Bones the medic, then Sloppy Seconds and Mahjong Mushroom, the heavy gunner team. At least I found their bodies. Lt. Voodoo just up and vanished, probably shot or panicked to death. Either way, I was the last one alive.
I tried not to think about what it would feel like if one of Her SmartRounds were to actually hit me. We’re trading the same stuff; a ceramic-nylon composite lined with shallow fins designed to send it spinning out of the barrel. It’s got to reach 120 revs before arming, which keeps newbies like me from blowing myself or my team into smoking bits of dog food should the round accidentally strike a target too close to our position. Without the full revs, the round is a dud.
And that’s how I found out ‘She’ is a She.
I was creeping along the waterfront yesterday morning, looking for food and another route out of town, some narrow exit my then-unseen assailant might not have considered, when I heard that too-familiar whistling sound of an incoming round approaching like a singing telegram from God. I was hidden from view but my cover was lousy. I was surrounded on three sides by the rusted hulks of two large trucks and an old bus gridlocked in a permanent traffic jam. If that round hit anywhere close to me, the blast was going to bounce me around this miniature Death Valley like a pinball! I ran like hell for a broken storefront window and dove through at the last second, hoping any soft parts not protected by my armor would miss the jagged glass. I tried not to think about that moment of split-infinity when I’d feel the tip of the projectile part my hair, split my skull, and kick apart my brains like cattle in an abattoir.
My eyes were closed, and my mouth was open to ease the force of the blast. The next few seconds of my life were among the most horrifying. And so imagine my surprise when I heard the sound of a preemie strike the ground in front of the store with a dull tell-tale ring, bounce a few times, and come to a complete stop.
And nothing else.
No deafening boom, no welcoming trumpets, no heavenly choir. Moments passed before I raised my head to confirm the all-clear. The shell was resting on the doorstep in front of me, neat as you please, voided.
I’d seen the shots used on Two-Step and Dr. Livingstone. They were clean, well-executed, methodical, and they reeked of professionalism. How could the shooter have missed me? It was then that I noticed the writing on the shell:
YOU HAVE 24 HOURS
The message was written in clear, crisp letters. In lipstick, no less.
My blood ran cold. I hurried into the street and pressed my eye to the scope, wildly sweeping the surrounding buildings for what I already knew I’d find.
There, on the sixth floor window of an old hotel down the street, I saw movement. I zoomed in as tight as I could and that’s when I saw the mocking white triangle of cotton, the under-curves of baby-fat buttocks filling the tiny screen of my scope in a sexless, electric red.
First She scared the crap out of me, and now She was mooning me. My jaw fell open. I was so stunned I didn’t even think to squeeze the trigger. I had Her dead to rights, and missed the shot. She must have known that as well, because She vanished a second later.
I wasn’t as afraid of the unknown gun with the dead-eye aim before, but this action was designed to set me against myself, and She knew it. They’d covered this in basic, during P.I.S.C.E.S. training: Psychological Intelligence Schemes Crafted to Expedite Surrender.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the battlefield is no place for a poet or a romantic. It is no place for a girl, and before any of you female recruits come charging up here intent on gutting me nuts to neck with your pretty pink K-bars, hear me out. Before the Smart Round, before tanks, machine guns, before mustard gas, landmines, catapults, swords, arrows, flaming jars of cat shit, poisoned water supplies or polished mirrors, one weapon, one weapon has always existed. It renders the hardened heart of a battle-ready soldier useless, clouds his mind, and makes his trigger finger hesitate in that most crucial moment. That weapon, ladies and gentlemen, is, was, and evermore shall be, sex — the first true weapon of mass destruction.”
My adversary had a face – or at least an ass – and now I was hesitant to kill Her. As a man, I’d been taught to never hit a woman, that women deserved special treatment; protection, chivalry, flowers and compliments, even when they told you they didn’t want them, because secretly they were hoping you’d do it anyway. I’d rather sneak out of town around Her than have to put a round through Her. And She knew it.
My watch read 0929. Time was short. Now, having slow-motion sweat-stepped my way to the ground floor of the hospital, probing every loose board with the toe of my boot for fear of tattling my position with a deafening pop, I eased the fire escape door open a careful inch and peered out. Pre-dawn fog and low light obscured the path to heavy cover; a infant jungle that once served as the city park was an easy fifty yards away. No more, no less.
If I could reach the tree line, I could cross the park before the sun broke through the skyline and take it all the way to the river. From there, I could find something that floated, lash myself to the bottom of it, and breathe through a length of rubber tubing in my med kit. Just another piece of flotsam, moving down stream. Fifty yards. My watch said I had less than a minute to go, and I had a feeling She was punctual.
I took a deep breath, counted to three, and eased the door a little more. A squeak from a long-neglected hinge groaned in protest, and as I cleared the doorway hell-bent for the woods, something powerful punched the door right behind me, filling the space I’d previously occupied with the kind of explosions that ripple through your body and shift your molecules sideways.
I ran like hell, trying not to remember how long it took me to ram the slide open, extract a spent shell, thumb in a fresh round, slam the slide home, get the weapon back to my shoulder, and engage the scope on a moving target. I held the record in Basic – five seconds flat. How many of those had I already spent?
I zigged and zagged like crazy, my heart pounding, my feet slapping the pavement like concrete slippers. The sheltering green of the park was getting closer and I poured it on, spending everything I’d been saving, my legs exploding like pistons, arms churning like mad. The trees were getting closer! I was going to make it…!