A soldier contends with the toll of war on a distant planet.
Every morning, I wake up with the words that were drilled into my head in basic: “Your armor is your protection. Your unit is your home.”
They run through my mind as I stand in formation with my platoon, at a base whose name I can’t remember. We’re too tired from the war to care about straight lines. The armored figures surrounding me are recognizable despite the identical shapes, people I’ve stood with through training and deployment to the bottom of this god-forsaken gravity well. We had all wondered if we would live to see this day, our decommissioning at the end.
“Pla-toon! Hut!” We snap to attention reflexively at our captain’s order, producing an impressive clap of metal against concrete prefab that echoes against the walls of the building. One last step before we can go home. I feel my palms begin to sweat, despite my cool, metal skin covering me.
The blast from an enemy grenade ripped into the wall above me. I ducked, shielding my face as the explosion blew out the concrete and metal supports. Debris rained down into the makeshift hole that my platoon and I had used for our foxhole and I heard Sardarsky swearing as a jagged chunk of concrete the size of my head glanced off of the back of his shoulders.
“You good?” I shouted to Sardarsky as I shook off pebbles clanking off my armored skin. For a brief second, I was worried that the debris would scratch the flawless finish to my newly issued kit, but that was cut short as more gunshots cracked from across the street, spraying us in a new layer of powdered masonry. I ducked down again.
Sardarsky flashed me a thumbs-up as the dusty shower ended. I smiled as I raised my head over the edge of our foxhole. My suit’s AI-assisted vision helped me scan the windows of the tall buildings on either side of us with each brief glimpse, looking for the telltale blink of light or flash in color from the masonry to a soldier’s uniform. I watched the gaps from behind the sights of my gun, eyes darting from window to window.
Gunfire pockmarked the wall as an unseen soldier joined the fight, and we ducked, reflexively. “Sardarsky!” I shouted. “Cover the street!”
The soldier signaled back an acknowledgement as he and three other soldiers of his fire team peeled off from our line and moved across the street. I gestured to my own team of three, and we crept carefully down the sidewalk on the other side, taking cover in the rubble.
I caught a glint off of the wrong end of a telescopic gun sight and instinctively froze as my suit’s heads-up display flared a warning. The flash of a shot signaled a round coming down at my head. Time slowed to a crawl. My armor constricted around the back of my neck to save my spinal column from the sudden compression and I heard a metallic clank and felt a pressure against my skull as it flexed slightly to take the strike and dissipate the energy to the underlying gel layer. I dropped down onto a knee with the impact.
I regained my footing and brought my gun back up, sighting in the enemy soldier looking down at me. He looked surprised as I dropped him with a shot of my own.
I sat frozen for a moment as the gunshots echoed away and the only thing that I could hear was my breathing in the helmet.
“I’m alive.” I whispered to myself. My heart leapt in my chest as I processed that it was true. I touched my metal-clad fingers to my head where the bullet had impacted, feeling a small groove. I worked the words around in my mouth. I was still alive, and I felt invincible.
I looked to check Sardarsky, and found that a heavy caliber round had reduced him and his armor to fragments. My hands started to shake that night.
I shiver at the first glimpse of the sterile room as I make my way into the Armor/Logistics compound, marveling at how small the specialist is as I walk up to him. He looks bored as I step up to his station, a semicircular array of tables, lights and containers. Tools hang from the ceiling on their cords, and the bright white lights overhead lend a mechanical look to the room. I don’t like it, and I feel my skin crawl as I walk forward.
“Step into the center of the station,” he orders me, indifferently. I’m suddenly angry at him, knowing that I could do any number of things that would irreparably harm the man in less than a second. The impulse scares me as it races across my mind, and I hang my arms at my sides. I wonder, for a second, if I thought like this before the war. I can’t remember. I comply with his order.
The tech moves behind me, and I hear a buzzing and sudden release of pressure as he begins to dismantle me. He works quickly, and in an astonishing amount of time, he’s freed the individual components that form the helmet around my head. The dome is the first to go, and cool air leaks in around my face as the seals are broken. I look down at the workbench and catch sight of the shallow dent on the top-right-front piece sitting in front of me, a small reminder of where I should have fallen and never come back up.
We were exhausted after the end of the Rainy Season Campaign. The jungle grabbed at us from every direction as we marched single file through the dense underbrush toward our transport out of the region. We were fifty days away from our last base, our last re-fit, and our last decent meal.
The campaign’s scars were carved heavily on our surfaces, and as we walked, I realized that I didn’t hear my armor anymore, and didn’t have to think about where the rest of my platoon-mates walked around me. We were finally headed back to base, away from the short nights and the intense action that defined the front, relieved for the break. We were no longer the green soldiers we were when we landed planet-side, two years ago, eager for action and a taste of battle. Now, we just wanted to go home.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Sir.” Garnan’s voice buzzed in my headset, as I turned to look at him, a scarred and pitted figure. He had a chip taken out of the lip over his visor, a cluster of scratches where he had been shot at close range with a flechette gun. Looking in the reflection of his helmet’s face, I realized that I couldn’t remember what his real face looked like. “Thank you,” he told me, breaking my train of thought as I stared at the reflection. “You saved us—me—so many times over the last month. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
I smiled, knowing that he’d be unable to see it, and placed my hand on his shoulder. “You’ve done the same for me. I …” I faltered. He flashed me a familiar thumbs-up and I could picture his face. He trotted off to rejoin his place in the line. Suddenly, he was gone. I blinked and found myself lying face up next to a tree, unable to move, the explosion ringing in my ears.
I coughed, my lungs unable to expand fully in my protectively constricted armored skin. “Unlock! Dammit, let me move!” I shouted at my suit, before I felt it relax around my limbs, allowing me to sit up. I looked around for my rifle before I found that my suit had clamped down on it, keeping it in my hand as I flew through the air away from the explosion. I brought the weapon up, ready to counter whatever was coming out at us. Nothing appeared out of the underbrush. The forest was silent.
Pain radiated from my ribs as I moved, and I saw that a piece of metal protruded out at an odd angle. I gripped it in my hand and pulled it out. I gasped at the shock of pain that radiated away from the puncture and could feel the heat of the air leak in, a damp, alien warmth. I stood, trying to get my bearings as my head spun. The trees around me were shattered from the shrapnel. I coughed again, and as I doubled over, I caught a glimpse of armor through the trees.
Garnan was lying several meters away, partially embedded in the roots of a tree. I ran over to him, ignoring the warnings that the AI displayed in my HUD and the pain in my ribs. I skidded to a stop at his side, and my insides froze. The explosion had shattered his suit: the lower part of his chest and torso had fragmented, with plates and pieces torn away from the blast. His right leg was missing, and there wasn’t much left of his left one. I pulled him gently out of the roots and cradled his body in my arms
“Specialist, come on, we’ve got to get to cover.” I told him. “Garnan, let’s go!” He was heavy in my arms, and I realized that he was never going to walk away again.
His eyes remained locked forward, staring deadly into the forest canopy.
I hadn’t slept well after that.
The tech runs down the list of parts as he pulls them away from me. I look over and see that they’re neatly packed away in preformed cases. I wonder if they’re the same cases that came to me when we first arrived at this planet, green troopers fresh from training. My armor seemed so much larger then, clean, perfect. Now, sitting in the case, it was scarred and battered.
Another piece comes away, and I feel my breath catch in my throat.
“You’re missing a piece here. Serial number should be”—he consults a holographic manual that he calls up from somewhere on the desk—“ICA-43298.” He holds his hands apart to indicate its size. “Small piece, hand plate?”
I shake my head.
He sighs and touches the holo. The missing piece turns red as his fingertips pass through it. “Logistics will dock you for the part.”
I don’t care.
Peters bought it when we were sent to an enemy spacecraft that crashed behind our lines. We picked our way over rocks and steep ravines as an overhead drone guided us along, guns slung over our backs.
It was an orbiter, and it had just blown a major hole in our lines from the edge of the atmosphere before someone tagged it with a surface-to-air missile. It was a million in one shot, forcing it out of its perch above us. We were told to check for survivors. We growled—nothing could have survived, and if they did, we didn’t want to get killed on a recovery mission. We set off regardless.
Orders were orders.
Peters went first, rifle raised up to cover our front as she took point. Scattered fires, fueled by the ship’s propellant, raged around us. The crew was dead, incinerated in the blast. We checked over the ship and set charges to complete the ship’s destruction before retreating to a safe distance.
The ship blossomed into a brilliant fireball. We cheered at the explosion, and got up to leave. Peters turned to look back at the crater, and promptly fell over. We later found that a fragment of the explosion had arched up and pierced her suit. I had nightmares every time I closed my eyes.
The tech tosses a large piece from my chest assembly onto the workstation from where he stands. It lands with a loud clang and I jump involuntarily. He either doesn’t notice, or ignores the movement as he moves on to the next piece.
“Shit,” he swears from behind me. I want to leave this tiny room with its bright lights.
I feel him tug at another piece, prying away at something out of sight. “Hey, go easy,” I finally tell him.
The war was over.
We could hardly believe the news as we gathered around the briefing screen in our outpost. The planetary government had issued an ultimatum to their fighters: lay down all arms and cooperate with our forces. After a long five years of continual fighting, it was finally over. I knew that Sardarsky, Garnan and Peters were gone, long packed up into a box, but I glance over to where they would have been sitting, and wish that I could celebrate with them.
“Per the surrender terms, we’re going to be pulling most of our units off the line. Armored Infantry is going to be brought out first, followed by other units as we draw down over the next couple of months,” our new captain told us once we’d all gathered around.
“Report to Armor Control for decontamination and processing. From that point …”
I tuned out the captain’s voice as she outlined the rest of the timeline for our departure, still trying to process the news. The war that had consumed us, that had killed everyone around me, that had left us alone and surrounded by ghosts, was over, with a simple announcement. I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting.
I am dressed in the clothing that had been given to me after the technician took the rest of my suit away from me. It was vacuum-packed in a tight plastic wrapper to save space on the transport ship and it smelled sterile, reeking of the manufacturer’s chemicals from back home, light years away. The clothes feel baggy on my frame, and as I walk, I feel as though I’m pulling a sail through the wind. I feel naked without my armor shell. I feel alone.
The technician retracts his tools without a word, and I step out from the middle of the workstation. The fragments of my armor are scattered around the flat surface, their scarred and battered finishes contrasting with the sterile room. The sergeant ignores me, beginning to clean up the pieces by placing them into readymade bins. I stop and watch for a moment as my armor vanishes into the cases, piece by piece. He points me back out to the parade square where I had stood alone in formation earlier, surrounded by the ghosts of my fallen comrades.
I think back to the mantra that got me through the fighting; everything has been stripped away: my skin, my friends, and my home. I feel vulnerable, and I freeze as I approach the door. I begin to fragment, and my hand brushes the armored hand plate that I palmed.
I take a breath and walk out the door.