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Dead Men Walking
By Jeremy Szal
It’s not easy to live inside the armor, but between getting my skin peeled away like wet paper by the razorstorms and my bones shredded to chalk, it’s an easy choice. You get used to it after the first two or three months, but only just.
I gripped the cold metal of my rifle, my HUD simultaneously scanning for hostiles and displaying the weather conditions on Shaar. Today all hell had frozen over. Just like yesterday. And the day before. The world was grey, the land sculpted into rough shapes by the razorstorms. It was trying to do the same to my fireteam, shards pelting against our armor and stripping away flakes of poly-metal. Loose stones crunched underneath my heavy boots, wet gravel sparkling in the watery light. It reminded me of the cuttem nuts I used to chew as a kid. Just the thought of proper food made my mouth water. You don’t need to eat inside this thing: the nutrients pump in what you need through the right tubes and take out what you don’t through others. Of course, it’s the getting hooked up to the catheter that hurts more than anything.
The exhaust fans were at full blast, fighting off the bitter cold. Trouble was, they were doing their job too well. Sweat snaked down my back, pooled under my arms. I rolled my burning shoulders, glanced back at the rest of my fireteam marching up the hill, hugging rifles to their chests like babies. It was pointless venturing out in these storms. No one wanted to go, but Commander Geary had asked it of me.
And Commander Geary isn’t a man you say no to.
Even with the power armor doing most of the work, my legs ached from the long trek up the mountain. This wasn’t our standard gravity or oxygen. It’d take generations to adjust to that. This is where the colonists had the leg up – they’d had centuries to adapt to the raw conditions here, living independently on the rim of the galaxy.
I peered over the edge of the precipice. At the bottom was one of the many settlements scattered around Shaar, flanked by an armored palisade. In these storms, it was as dead as we expected.
I heard muffled breathing as someone approached within range of my helmet-mic. ‘You okay, Ramez?’ Jo asked. She hefted a heavy hand on my shoulder. ‘Been a bit worried since…well, you know.’
I grunted a response. It’d been the end of a long day, one that hadn’t been good to begin with. We’d run into some rebels smuggling stolen arms into their village. Couldn’t tell you who started firing first. I just remember getting a chest full of hot metal, the impact spinning me a down the cliff and tumbling against solid rock.
Our armor repaired minor injuries with self-applying biofoam, antibodies and a side-helping of morphine for the pain, but the fall had broken several important things with complicated names. I was rushed back to base for surgery and shot full of osteopaths. It seemed to have gone smoothly, and they didn’t waste any time strapping me back inside the suit and shoving me out the door.
Way I figured it; this was probably Geary’s idea of punishment for taking a free holiday over in surgery. I elected not to remind him that I’d been unconscious. After a few years of getting a boot up your arse and slammed into the mud, you learn when to keep your trap shut.
The razorstorm started to lessen up, dying down to the occasional flake. I mentally commanded my armor to hone in on the settlement. The visor zoomed in like I was standing a few metres away. I swept over the cluster of houses, their roofs and supports designed to withstand the harsh environment. People emerged, checking to see that it was safe to venture out. Children bundled up in thick clothes played in the market square, men using tractors to clear the winding paths of glistening rock shards, allowing families to make their way to natural hot springs.
Sometimes, I wondered why anyone wanted to live in this hellhole, light years away from other colonies. Stuff like this reminded me why. They enjoyed the isolation, the independence of it. Cut off from the sprawling cities and busy lifestyle, the rigid immigration laws and work permits and education fees.
But worth fighting the Union for? God no.
I motioned the rest of the fireteam over. They were good men, most of the time. Northam who said too much and Oshiro who said too little.
‘You’ve never had bacon?’ Northam was saying to Oshiro. ‘What’s wrong with you, man?’
Oshiro had carved the number 13 on the shoulder plate on his armor as a superstitious joke, and it caught the milky light as he shrugged. ‘Couldn’t afford the expensive meats where I grew up.’
I had the same story. The orphanage I’d been dumped in wasn’t too fond of feeding us. We were lucky if we got the synthesized stuff. It tasted like plastic, but it was the only thing around and it didn’t stop us from fighting like dogs over it. The scars are still there, buried deep beneath my suit.
‘We’ll have it one of these days,’ Northam was saying, his armor plates grinding as he gestured. ‘One of those thick, juicy slabs with fat thick as rubber.’
‘And hashbrowns,’ Jo was saying, stretching her arms. ‘Don’t forget the hashbrowns.’
‘Yeah yeah, them too.’
I smiled. It was nice to banter about it, although we knew we’d never get those luxuries here. I kept looking down at the settlement until Northam approached. ‘We’ve got to go down there? Come on, Ray. My legs are gonna be the death of me.’
Jo laughed. ‘Union men never die, remember?’
It was an old saying, back when we didn’t have our armor and the death rates were much higher. You couldn’t tell the folks back home that, of course. Had to keep up the morale. So Union men hadn’t ever officially been declared deceased, even if someone got their brains splattered out like crushed tomatoes. Although I don’t even think that anyone under Geary’s wing had been killed. People said it was his command, but in reality it’s this armor that keeps us alive. Keeps us breathing.
I started the descent, clambering for purchase on the brittle stone. I didn’t need to turn around to know the fireteam was following.
We picked our way along the cliff’s lip, foamy waves slapping the moss-slathered rocks far below. There was a rumble as a heap of pebbles started sliding down the cliff. A gawky figure was scuttling down the scree towards the village, monocular in hand.
Northam chortled. ‘I think our cover’s blown.’
‘It’s just a kid,’ muttered Oshiro, slinging the rifle on his back.
‘We’re not trying to hide,’ I reminded them. Monde was one of the few settlements that hadn’t welcomed us with a spray of bullets. That wasn’t to say that they didn’t hate the Union for coming and trying to colonize occupied land, but they had the brains not to open fire.
We were getting the usual stares, some in awe of our high-tech gear, others seething with unconcealed hate. Children were ordered back inside in low voices, stealing back glances and grinning ear to ear. A grizzled man in a padded jacket approached. ‘What do you want?’
The fingers twitching in the direction of his pistol didn’t escape my notice. ‘You heard anything from the other settlements?’ I asked. I tried to step into his shoes – a hard working family man staring up at an interloper, armed and armored. ‘Anything at all?’
‘Like what?’ he asked.
I didn’t need to remind him part of our bargain included little titbits they managed to snag. We had peace and they passed on gossip. ‘Any trouble that’s been brewing.’
A shake of the head. ‘Nothing. We don’t want anything to do with ‘em.’
I wanted to believe him. I truly did. But that wasn’t my job.
A woman sauntered up, black hair whipping about. ‘I’ve heard something,’ she said, staring at me dead in the eye despite the mirrored visor. ‘It’s Illium. They spoke about making bombs. Lots of bombs. They wanted to plant them at your base.’
A chill wormed its way into my body and seeped into my blood. Ah. And here I thought this would be an easy stroll.
‘Where’s Illium?’ I asked. Settlements were strewn all over Shaar, some of them out in the open, some buried deep in a labyrinth of underground caverns.
I didn’t miss the glance the two of them shared. Another twitch of the fingers. A few whispers, eyes darting our way. Weighing up our lives against their children’s lives? My muscles tensed against the skintight armor. The tension was so thick I could almost taste it. Surely they weren’t so stupid as to open fire…
The woman gave the crowd another glance, then forwarded the co-ordinates to my HUD. A blue cube pinpointed the location on my map.
I muttered a thank you, sharing the data with the fireteam as I crunched back across the gravel. I could feel their eyes drilling holes into me and I didn’t blame them. I hadn’t been a fan of the Union when I was a kid back on New Valeran. I was an angry guy, always getting into scrapes, stealing for the thrill of it, sniffing out trouble with the law simply because I could.
Then I heard they were looking to expand the colonies and retaking the ones that had wriggled out of their grasp. The pay was good, it’d get me free board, and a man’s got to eat. After spending half my life in poverty, it feels good to be a leader. Feeling the power and potential at my fingertips, giving commands and having them obeyed. Turns out that I’m good at leading, and I rose through the ranks quickly. But nothing compared to seeing my fireteam’s easy nods and relaxed body posture when I drew near, knowing that no matter where we went, these guys had my back. Trusted me to call the shots.
I put in a call over to Commander Geary. He unfolded onscreen, gunmetal-grey eyes swimming around in their sockets. ‘What do you have for me?’ His cold, calculating face was at odds with his warm and father-like voice, as if speaking to a favourite son. A man of contradictions.
‘Sir, the folks over at Monde say there’s a potential bomb over at Illium.’ I gave him a moment to digest that. ‘Possibly planning to plant them at our base.’
Geary’s grey eyes narrowed. An instant, final decision made. ‘Get over there at once. Permission to use lethal force if you must. We can’t risk losing any of our own.’ Those grey, dark eyes fixed on me like restraining bolts. ‘Union men don’t die, Ramez. Remember that.’
And that was it. He was never really one for chats.
My HUD indicated everyone had digested the data. I relayed the conversation with Geary. ‘Everyone ready?’
‘Stoked,’ Oshiro said, polishing his rifle like he was lost in some perverse fantasy. Who knew what went on beneath that visor? I’d known them for months, considered them family. Yet I’d never seen any of their faces. I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Some masks are better left where they are.
Jo shifted her broad shoulders. ‘Lead on, Ray.’
And I did, marching down a gigantic slab of bedrock, ocean water surging around our feet. The waves collided with stone, leaped into the air, and I wished I could feel the spray on my face.
This time it was Northam and Jo who were arguing. Something about what aliens would look like if we discovered them. The blistering wind carried fragments of their conversation my way as we trudged across the slabs of cliffs and long stretches of glossy black sand. Not for the first time, I wished the terrain wasn’t so sloped and hostile that it’d be possible to use a buggy that’d carry us all our armor.
Oshiro was puffing away next to me, careful not to engage in the debate. I took a moment to stretch. My muscles seemed to be dipped in molten lead, my arms, legs and shoulders aching. I was coated in another layer of sticky sweat, and my entire body was cramped and chaffed. I rubbed the nape of my neck with a heavy arm, the best I’d come to scratching an itch in this suit. You might just get used to wearing this armor, but it’s never easy. Or comfortable.
Northam and Jo were just discussing the likelihood of aliens probing us humans into submission when a spire of black stone shattered. Rocks exploded all over us. I hugged the ground, the echoes of a thundering crack dying out through the cliffs. My HUD showed everyone’s heart rate climbing by the moment. ‘Sniper!’ Jo hissed.
My joints locked up, immobilizing me. I checked that my fireteam was unhurt as I counted the seconds by. Jo hugged the rock, scraping away grit as she edged along, careful not to get her head blown off. I snapped back into motion and slowly, slowly dragged myself forward. A twinkle in the distance. I zoomed in through the crevice. There. A figure was swaddled up in thick furs, brandishing an angular sniper rifle. Our shooter. My HUD instantly honed in, surrounding his face with a target reticule. Clear shot. I blinked in surprise. That only happened when we started aiming, lining up a hit. I tried to call off it off, but it remained on-screen.
The figure knew we were watching, and confirmed as much with a fingered salute that means the one thing, no matter where you were. I almost laughed at the juvenileness of the gesture before I ducked back behind the rocks. The reticule disappeared as quickly as it had come. Probably just a glitch.
On inspecting the shots, we found that rounds had burned through the rock and burst them open like shrapnel. Some kind of explosive round.
‘Look.’ Jo nodded towards where the bullets had landed. ‘It was nowhere near us. He had time to line up the shot. He could have picked us off clean. Bastard was just trying to scare us.’
‘That’s one hell of a way to do it,’ I muttered. But she was right. If the shooter wanted us dead we would be. It was a warning. Marking their territory.
The threat of storms thundered in the distance. I didn’t think we’d be used for target practice again, but it always paid to be ready. Charging straight in wouldn’t be smart, either. Especially if the chatter about bombs turned out to be true. ‘We’ll take the roundabout way,’ I told my fireteam, reconfiguring our pathway on the HUD. ‘Scope the area, make sure we’re not falling into ambush.’
A round of helmeted nods as they automatically filed into our practiced formation, each angle covered as we traversed the cliffs. The familiar position, the closeness of my fireteam at my back reassured me. Lent me focus and protection.
But walking through this empty landscape, the whispering wind sweeping crusty flakes and stony shards across the curved rocks like thousands of rattling dice, I wasn’t sure I was going to be permitted that luxury for too much longer.
A couple of hours later my HUD beeped. We were getting close. It had been a long walk, fabric rubbing against chafed skin that had just started to heal. There’s never enough padding in these suits.
‘Let’s get a closer look first,’ I said over the comms. I wouldn’t put it past the villagers to send us on a wild goose chase for the hell of it. But assumptions like that get you killed.
I ended up with Jo, crawling forward on our bellies. Oshiro and Northam had gone for a bit of scouting, tagging items of interest so we could get a three-dee layout of the land.
I peered over the lip of the rock. Illium was larger than Monde. Much larger. And busier. There had to be several hundred people here. Roaming around, chatting to friends and playing some sort of hologame. Bulky, carmine-coloured drones scythed about, helical appendages drilling away at a rock surface.
And then I saw the shooter.
The sniper rifle was leaning against a metal pole, the man himself nursing a steaming thermos. The furred hood had been thrown back, revealing a face as callous and harsh as the world around it. But there was also weariness there. A man tired after a hard day’s work, longing for his bed and his family.
Didn’t matter. He’d fired at four Union soldiers.
A shout burst below us. A scout on the opposite ledge, fingering out our hiding spot.
‘Time to go.’ I picked my way down with the others following. A claxon whined, the skirl stirring people into action. They hustled their children inside, slamming the doors shut. Others came sprinting forward, armed with the occasional pistol. I commanded the fireteam to halt as they reached the bottom, rifles at the ready.
Both sides shuffled uneasily, fingers twitching with tension as we faced each other off. Someone I assumed to be the leader marched forward, so thin and fragile I half-expected the wind to bowl him over. ‘What are you doing here?’ He was practically spitting with rage. ‘Coming here with those tin suits and guns. Threatening us.’
‘Let’s calm down,’ I replied, eyeing the armed men behind him. More growls, the susurration of feet coughing up dirt and black dust.
‘Sodding bastards. Planting a flag on our land, thinking you can take everything.’ Now he actually did spit. A few behind him cheered. ‘We want nothing to do with the Union.’
I wasn’t about to debate intergalactic politics here with a dozen guns shoved in my face. I’d be leaving that to Geary. ‘Do you have a bomb?’
He twisted knife-thin lips. ‘What?’
‘Ramez!’ Northam’s weapon swivelled around, aiming up to a small rock ledge jutting out from the cliff. The sniper was there, weapon locked and loaded. Others shouted in alarm, the air filled with the cocking of weapons.
‘Leave,’ he barked. ‘Now.’
I indicated to the sniper. The guns followed. ‘He fired at us when we were coming here.’ Sudden nausea washed over me. The suit seemed to flare up, internal gears whirling against my muscles.
‘Burke,’ shouted the leader, ‘you fool!’
‘Have you got a supply of explosives?’ Every word seemed to be a challenge – something I had to fishhook up my throat and out of my mouth.
‘Enough with the questions!’
‘Get them out of here!’
‘Go back to your planet!’
‘Don’t you dare!’ Jo stepped forward, her weapon trained on someone who’d been edging towards a shotgun.
‘Of course we have explosives,’ the leader hissed.
We all stiffened.
‘You do?’ The tension was cranking up, blossoming in the air. It was hard to breathe. My chest was tight as a spring. I wanted nothing more than to rip the armor away, peel it from my skin. Free myself from its grip. I swallowed a mouthful of sticky saliva, blinked away sour sweat. ‘What for?’
‘To build our homes, you fool. Blow holes in the caves so we can move underground and get away from the razorstorms. We’ve been doing it for decades.’
‘What absolute bull,’ hissed Northam, tightening the grip around his rifle. ‘They’re lying!’
My armor gave a convulsive shiver and I couldn’t help but stagger, legs threatening to buckle. I was wrapped inside a vortex of static. My breathing was shallow and fast, my heartbeat drumming against my ribs. Through my fizzling HUD I saw them adjust their aim directly towards me in unison, all clamoring to shout the loudest. My fireteam yelled in response, ordering them back. My skull was pounding, but somehow I couldn’t raise my hands to press them against my head. I could only stand there, still as a statue as both sides exchanged threats, weapons focused on each other and held by trembling hands.
I tried to order them to stand down. Tried to get them to see reason. But I was trapped, frozen in space. Locked off from interacting with the world. The armor wouldn’t release me no matter how hard I struggled.
And then it happened.
One of the kids must have gotten loose. He came sprinting down the pathway with his mother in pursuit, bawling his eyes out. Crying for daddy. My fireteam twisted towards the noise on a reflex, pointing their guns, the kid’s screams echoing through the cliffs.
I knew what was going to happen next, but couldn’t do a damn thing.
The kid’s father snapped. Fired off a round that pinged on Northam’s leg guard.
I didn’t speak. I didn’t even open my mouth. But my suit barked a word using my voice. Just one word, but that was all it took. ‘Fire.’
I could do nothing but watch as my fireteam obeyed, spitting out a blaze of bullets, wreathing the area with smoke as fast as the breeze could carry it off. Rocks exploded and stacked pallets shattered into splinters. People staggering back and falling under the wave of gunfire. Blood spattering on rocks, spraying out in chunky spurts. Shots were fired back, tearing near my helmet. Screams rippled out, empty shells clattering to the ground. My blood froze, my heart jackhammering against my ribcage.
But I could nothing but watch, held tight by the armor.
And in a few seconds it was over.
The armor released me. I collapsed to the ground, spraying dust. The rancid air reeked of death. There was faint crying as they mourned their dead and clutched at their bleeding wounds, shredded guts and shattered bones. Scarlet dribbling between shaking fingers. At least a dozen lay dead. At a command that I didn’t give. A command that my armor gave.
A hand pressed on my back. I didn’t have the willpower to shrug it off. ‘You okay, Ramez?’ Jo asked. Her voice was quivery, like it was just managing to hold something dark back.
My mouth was full of saw-dust, but I managed to cough out a no.
How the hell was I going to explain this?
I looked up again at the dead and dying. These people living comfortable lives, happy lives. Until we showed up and kicked them into the mud.
I straightened up, skin clammy with a cold sweat. ‘Find their bombs,’ I croaked. ‘Then we go.’
As it turned out, Geary wanted to see me the moment we got back to base. That was fine. I was planning on having a chat with him myself.
I stormed down the corridor into Geary’s room, eggheads and other techies scrambling out of the way before they got jostled by my hulking armor. ‘How you doing, son?’ The man himself gave me a look I could only describe as sympathetic. He looked so petty and pathetic in his little chair. ‘Pretty tough out there today.’
I blinked. ‘How—’
‘I saw it all.’ Geary stood. Even now, I registered that he was a head shorter than me. ‘A decision was made that you didn’t have the balls for.’
‘My suit.’ My hand curled into a fist. ‘That was you?’
‘You know our policies, son. The Union comes first. Always has. Always will.’
‘But those people.’ I couldn’t be hearing this. ‘They weren’t a threat.’
‘We didn’t know for certain. Had to be sure.’ He fixed me with those nasty grey eyes of his. ‘I gotta admit, I’m disappointed in you, son.’
‘I’m happy to disappoint you, sir.’ I spat the last word through gritted teeth, gestured to my armor. ‘You don’t own me. I’d rather die than be a slave. I’m done. I’m taking this off. Get me out of it.’
‘You don’t get it, do you?’ Geary’s gunmetal grey eyes rested on me with eerily nonchalance. ‘You’re already dead, son.’
‘What?’ I made to move forward, but I found myself grounded, locked in place. The armor shuddered, tingling up my spine and biting into my flesh. Metal and chrome clamped hard around my twitching muscles.
‘That accident of yours. It damaged your spinal cord and broke too many things.’ Geary circled me like a buyer at a showcase. ‘It would have killed you. You’d be a potato, son. We did what we had to do.’
Geary fingered a remote. A hefty reflective sheet slid down from the ceiling to my left. My armor turned me to face it. A whirling sound thrummed in my ears as my suit shifted. The thumbnail plates on my chest parted, exposing bare dark skin underneath, glistened with sweat.
Except it wasn’t bare skin. My body had been studded with glossy metal. Wires wormed in and out of my chest. Flesh was divided by thin lines of steel, as if I had been pulled apart and knitted back together again like a puzzle. Broad straps over my shoulders, locking me in. The interior armor was covered with pink-purple tendrils, pawing at my flesh. The armor on my arms peeled back, bones toughened with steel of gunmetal grey, veins pumping with something that was too red, too vibrant.
And finally. My helmet melted away, revealing what should have been a skull, but instead showcased thousands of minuscule cables, flicking lights and tiny gears, latched to my brain and wiring me into the armor’s motor functions. It had become a part of my body, permanently.
‘It was our only chance to save you, son,’ Geary was saying, rapping his knuckles against my heaving chest. ‘The suit was the only thing that could save you, the only thing that packed enough juice to keep you living.’ The plates were folding back up and pressing tight against my skin. The windows of my prison cell slamming shut.
‘Why?’ I spread my arms. ‘Why?’
‘We couldn’t lose you, son. You’re the perfect success story: street rat turned Union soldier. Your fireteam would follow you to hell and back. Union men never die, Ramez. Not on my watch. And certainly not you.’
‘You son of a bitch!’ The words passed my lips but weren’t spoken, weren’t broadcasted. I was muzzled, unable to speak and fastened in place like an ant in amber.
‘We needed a leader, Ramez. One with your reputation and one who will do exactly what needs to be done, no matter the cost.’ He gestured to me, his prize pig. ‘And now we have one.’
I was suddenly able to speak again. ‘Pull the plug,’ I croaked. ‘This isn’t living.’ I spread my arms, arms that no longer belonged to me. ‘I’m a freak.’
Geary shook his head. ‘Sorry, son. You’ll stay here and do your duty for the Union as long as we need you. You’re dead. And the dead don’t make decisions.’
I didn’t bother telling him he couldn’t do this, he already had. I’d be forever locked to this throbbing bundle of flesh and metal and armor and nerves. I’d never feel the wetness of the ocean on my face, never be truly a part of my fireteam. Never get to taste bacon with them.
‘We’ve had a scout report. A settlement’s had a truck load of artillery shipped in. See to it. Your next assignment will come shortly afterwards.’ The armor jerked, machine contorting flesh and wrestling me out of the room. I was powerless to stop it. Geary lingered in the doorway. ‘One day you’ll thank me. You’ll see.’
Then he was gone.
As I marched down the hallway, forever strapped in my armored prison, I wondered which one of us was actually doing the walking. A bitter laugh coughed from my lungs. Or was it a sob? But it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered anymore. I was dead.
A dead man walking.
This story originally appeared in Abyss & Apex Magazine.
Edited by Tochukwu Okafor
Jeremy Szal was born in 1995 and was raised by wild dingoes, which should explain a lot. He spent his childhood exploring beaches, bookstores, and the limits of people’s patience. He’s the author of over forty science-fiction short stories. His debut novel, Stormblood, a dark space opera about a drug made from the DNA of extinct aliens that makes users permanently addicted to adrenaline and aggression, is out now from Gollancz as the first of a trilogy. He was the editor for the Hugo-winning StarShipSofa until 2020 and has a BA in Film Studies and Creative Writing from UNSW. He carves out a living in Sydney, Australia with his family. He loves watching weird movies, collecting boutique gins, exploring cities, cold weather, and dark humor. Find him at JeremySzal.com or on Twitter @JeremySzal.