Rain falls on Szerszen, washing blood from the streets.
Twenty-seven seconds after drop, grav-chute still attached, the flood of data over comms is paralysing. Recycled air sits stale and heavy on his nostrils until he rips the visor from his face. Vomit sears his throat, then splatters on ferrocrete.
Fresh smells come fast. Bile. Ozone. Scorched flesh. His knees shake and he hurls again.
A sandy-haired boy about his age slumps behind a stack of crude sandbags—still wearing an expression of faint surprise. Seared-black plasma wounds mark a spray from hip to shoulder.
He looks away. The rifle is heavy in his hands and memories play in frantic loops. Fast recruitment. Faster training. The giddy high of atmo-jump and the hang-time, endless seconds when a sandy-haired head pops from behind cover and he fires and fires and fires and—
CHARLIE-7: REGROUP WITH SQUAD
Static buzzes. Orders repeat three times before his response—transcript flashing across the visor in his hand. He has no choice.
The others can’t see him. Not like this.
He raises the visor to his mouth so the comms-net can’t record his expression. “Roger,” he says, “Charlie-7 responding.”
Rain covers his tears as it whirls wine-dark eddies toward the gutters. It is the first thing he’ll never be able to forget. Charlie-4 notices his pale face, his averted gaze, and offers a ration pack that tastes of copper and char.
It is the Spring he learns to kill.
Beyond the barricade, the crowd roars. Sweat drips inside his ceramite armour. Yesterday’s rain evaporates as distorted haze. Facing the wall of sound and the stones and the broken bottles, he dreams of a day he can escape the blistering sun. It never comes.
No one agrees why the protests started. Failed hearts and minds. Occupation and inevitable backlash. Unclear campaign objectives.
Pundits keep the engagement carousel forever spinning. Ten-thousand arguments cycle through the comms, day on day, like rain-swept blood towards a gutter.
No one knows why the protests started, but he’ll never forget how they end.
An explosion lifts the control point in a cloud of dust and debris. Hearing inverts, plunging him underwater. Vision returns in flashes.
A half-foot deep crater. Screaming faces pulled wide. Running figures and severed limbs and Charlie-4’s body crumpled against him. He shakes their shoulder. They don’t respond. That hollow echo spreads from ears to chest.
When pop-ups report hostiles among the crowd, he doesn’t question them. Coated in his squads’ gore, his head still rings, drowning thought. In the burning heat, the rifle is snug against his shoulder for the first time. He takes aim and kills, kills, kills.
It is the Summer he learns to hate.
Grav-drives twist the clouds to corkscrew fractals. War spreads, and Squad Charlie drifts in its current. City to city. Then towns. Villages. Forests.
Hurry up and wait. In the long lulls of nothing at all, he unmoors, reality made unreal, the deep smell of earth and the soft rain dripping on fallen leaves never quite enough to mask the blood it washes away.
Each burst of violence—of hot heads and ion trails and stacked bodies—feels a little more like home. A little more purpose coded in the white-noise blare of comms and the shockwaves that pound in place of his heart. Boredom returns to squash it flat. In those interstitial spaces, stress wears his skin like a half-strung marionette; a restless need that itches through flesh and snaps at the world until direction returns once more. Sleep disrupts among recursions of new places and old orders.
He doesn’t mind. It’s less painful than dreams.
The storms reach them in a nameless valley. They shelter under plas-fab, listening to the screams of a planet not their own. Trees tower like Szerszen’s hab-blocks, watching with knotted eyes. The new Charlie-4 hands him a ration pack. Time bends and overlaps. He is the only one remaining, though he cannot recall each change.
A suit comes calling as the winds lull. “You’ve been noticed,” they say, “would you like to really make a difference?”
He looks at nine strangers and sees dead friends. “Sir, yes sir,” he says.
It is the Autumn he starts to slip.
High in the mountains, snowdrift shrouds cover evidence. Ragged tents burn scarlet to the pop-pop-pop of cooked ammo, and a village burns with them. The air is tinged with ammonia, acrid smoke, pain.
The last survivor flees. Their footsteps catch in drifts. Their snatched breath blows clouds. He watches their back through the head-up zoom. They have sandy hair, and he knows their singed clothes aren’t enough for the cold. He could let them go, and nothing would change.
The plasma rifle whines. A discharge snap echoes down the slopes.
The body pitches, and falls—another entry on a list he tries not to count.
A week later, in the cafe of a town swollen with refugees, comms buzz, and relief at new direction freezes on his lips.
RETURN TO SZERSZEN. AWAIT CONTACT.
Block on block of window frames cry shattered glass. Power comes in fits and starts like a broken faucet. Streetlights flicker. Figures scurry door-to-door, diving between the pools.
Wraithlike, he flits through barricades manned by sentry turrets and swarmed drones. For new recruits, their Charlie-4 might not have to die. He’s never been so tired. He’s never been so alone.
From the northwest vantage of a warehouse loft, he sights a crude stack of sandbags that haven’t been cleared. The blood is long gone, but it’s all he can see. Weeks pass in the company of ghosts. Silhouettes creep to and from the basement lab opposite, unaware of the spectres in their midst.
His handler requests coordinates and thanks him for his service.
084638609 T: -27s DANGER CLOSE
Missiles break atmo like star-bright rainfall. Clouds part, and he remembers looking down before that first jump. From up there, maybe nothing has changed.
It is the Winter he learns to die.