In a world gone mad, our humanity can be our greatest asset--and greatest weapon.
The Japanese officer's head exploded in a spray of fine particles that looked gray-green through Sayla's scope.
As the headless corpse toppled to the pavement, the rest of the patrol--PacRim conscripts who tended to lose unit cohesion rapidly--scattered wildly into the darkness and rubble on either side of the street. They disappeared into the ruins before Sayla had a chance to draw a bead on another. One of the drawbacks of a magcoil-rifle was that it fired slowly. The battery-powered sniper rifles used magnetic rails rather than a chemical charge to propel a round. It was silent, flashless, and it threw slugs through a magnetized tube with a muzzle velocity over 1,700 meters per second. At that speed, the simple, cold-cracked iron balls exploded like small bombs on impact. A perfect sniper weapon, virtually useless for anything else.
Which was unfortunate, Sayla thought, because one of the Japs' big dogs had been with the patrol below. Bagging the dog would have been good, she told herself. Usually, if a dog was with a Japanese patrol, the officer led it. Oddly, another led this dog. A Rimmer? Had to be. Patrols never had more than one officer.
With a perfunctory wave at the surface-to-air missile unit perched on top of the building across the street, Sayla slung the coil-rifle over one shoulder and peered expectantly at the western horizon. A chopper was almost certainly already on its way from one of the helicopter carriers offshore. The SAM crew would wait until the chopper showed and then knock it down. Hopefully. Meanwhile, Patriot ground forces would move in and mop up the rest of the patrol.
Standard Japanese tactics were to send a patrol to draw fire and when the Patriots struck, send in a chopper to put rockets and mini-gun rounds into everything within a square block. It had worked, once. The Northern California Patriots had been losing the war. The Japs had been slowly pushing the Patriot lines back from the beaches. Then Patriot tactics changed, they stopped fighting the way the Japanese wanted, stopped engaging patrols head-on and heads up and figured out a better way.
It was simple math: There were millions of Rimmer conscripts but there were only so many Japanese officers.
Attrition was what officers called it. Snipers called it capping Japs. When the call went out for more snipers, Sayla left changing bedpans in field hospitals and volunteered.
Smiling, she made a mental note to carve a sixteenth notch in the rigid polystyrene of her rifle's stock, then she crabbed away from the edge of the building, crossed the rooftop, and dropped through a blast hole into the apartment below. Inside, she crouched still for a moment, listening for any sound in the dark. There wasn't much left of the apartment. There never was. It had been a moneygrubber's apartment. Between the rioting and the fighting, these were the kinds of places hardest hit.
Looking around the empty apartment, she supposed its 'grubber occupants had fled to Oregon. Or maybe not.
She remembered a carload of 'grubbers her Brigade of Allah had come on. She remembered their car, big and shiny, glittering in the light of torches and fires and stopped by sheer numbers as it smashed into the massed bodies of the Brigade. She remembered the man, shotgunned in the gut, then ripped to shreds by screaming Brothers and Sisters. She remembered the two women. And the girl. The girl had been about Sayla's age with blue eyes and shiny blond hair tied up in a thick braid.
The women and the girl weren't allowed to die as quickly, as easily, as had the man.
Men from the Nation of Islam and the Aztlan Coalition organized the Brigades and the Corps De Hidalgo. These men, who came into the streets after most of Oakland had already burned, called on the mobs to turn on their true enemies. Given specific targets and tasks, the rioting mobs became an army and had moved out of the Projects, out of the poor neighborhoods, the black and brown neighborhoods, into the moneygrubber neighborhoods. Sayla, her mother missing, probably dead, was swept up into a Brigade, made a Sister in the Nation of Islam, put to work in a field hospital.
Overwhelming the police and the National Guard, they fought the others then--the Christian militias, the White Aryan Resistance and the Korean and Chinese neighborhood protective forces. By the time real U.S. soldiers arrived, what TV was calling riots had become a war.
The Brigade leaders, the mullahs, said that many of the soldiers--white, African, Latino, Asian--refused to fire on other Americans, turned their rifles, their tanks, their helicopters instead on their commanders, or one another, then deserted and joined one side or the other.
The army wasn't there long. A week after the American soldiers were gone, the Japanese invaded California.
The mullahs said the war had spread to other parts of the country: New England, Florida, Texas, New York, even Idaho, Montana, and Alaska. They said the Japanese were only part of a U.N. peacekeeping force along with Eurotrash and Imperial Russians. Sayla had never seen anything on the other end of her scope that wasn't either Japanese or a Rimmer, though. Talk was that blue hat Eurotrash were in Florida and New York while the Russians had landed in Texas and Alaska. In California, the Japs were keeping the peace, but their arrival had pulled NoCal's battling factions together. They said the Japs were even worse than the White Aryans and the Californian Asians. The mullahs said NoCal had to solve its own problems and the Japs had no business here.
Sayla started at the unmistakable rip of a chopper's minigun. It must already have been somewhere nearby to have arrived so quickly, she thought.
She sprinted through the apartment and out the shattered doorway into a broad, empty hallway. Seeing no movement in the gloomy hallway, she dashed for the stairs she knew lay at the far end. The Jap chopper would blast everything in a five hundred meter circle. It would try to find the SAM emplacement before it found them.
And they would try to kill the sniper.
At the hiss of rocket fire she dove for the relative safety of the stairwell's reinforced concrete. A flash erupted behind her. The air seemed to crumple inward. A pounding concussion filled the hallway, lifting and pushing her.
She tried to maintain her footing, almost succeeded when the second rocket hit. Her feet slipped from beneath her. She felt herself falling. With a detached calm she noted that her coil-rifle was probably wrecked. Then a blank grayness, like the sky over the ocean before an autumn storm, closed over her.
Sayla moved and it felt as if someone were trying to saw her head in half just above her nose. She moved again, sending an even greater pain racing up her left arm.
Clenching her teeth, she levered herself into a sitting position with her right arm. Nothing was visible. It was as if her head was inside a black sack. Feeling around her with her good arm, she realized she wasn't in the stairwell. How much time had passed? She cocked her head and listened. Nothing. No gunfire, no choppers. She examined her aching head with her right hand, found dried blood, and matted hair. She might have a concussion, she thought.
Gingerly, she felt along the length of her injured arm. It was difficult to tell for sure, but she thought the break was just below her elbow. Grinding her teeth against the agony, she gently lifted her left arm with the right and stuffed her swollen hand into a space between two buttons on her fatigue blouse. Snipers wore black fatigues and Sayla was glad she didn't have to wear the aba and chador worn by other women of the Nation of Islam. A chador had no buttons. She sat back, gulping air, and made a quick inventory: She couldn't find her coil-rifle and the holster at her belt was missing its flat, ten-millimeter pistol. Her hand dropped to one boot, found the small dagger still seated in its scabbard. Sayla knew nothing about fighting with a knife, but its presence was comforting nonetheless.
Leaning back again, she decided she'd find her rifle, then make her way down to the street. It wouldn't be easy going, but she couldn't just stay there. No one would risk trying to find one lost sniper who was probably dead anyhow.
"You cannot get out," a man's voice said mildly from somewhere within the gloom.
Sayla's ragged breathing ceased. Her pain seemed to spiral down to a tiny point in her gut. She squinted sharply into the darkness, and her hand shot back to the dagger in her boot. Quickly, she drew the small blade from its spring-held seat.
"It is all right. You need not be... afraid," the voice said again.
"W-who's that?" Sayla managed. "You a Scabber?" Scabbers, scavengers who hadn't been able--or willing--to leave the war zone, were mostly harmless. Sometimes, they even helped Patriots.
She swallowed. "You a Patriot?" she asked, doubtfully.
"No, not that either," the voice answered quietly.
"Jesus Christ," she whispered. "Y-you a fuckin' Rimmer?"
"No," the voice answered just as quietly, but more forcefully.
The breath squeezed from her lungs.
"A Jap." The words escaped with her breath and seemed to push her deeper into the darkness she hoped would swallow her.
"Do not be afraid," he said. "My leg is broken. And I lost my weapons when the rockets struck this place."
I'll kill him.
The thought filled Sayla's head like the flash of a detonating rocket. But how? Her left arm was useless. Her only weapon, the knife, seemed ridiculously tiny. And what if he was lying? Japs lied all the time. Everybody knew that.
"The only door to this place is buried beneath much rubble. The hallway roof has collapsed, I think."
She shouldn't believe him, she knew. But why would he be there if he could escape? Even on a broken leg she knew she'd find some way to keep moving. Wouldn't a Jap? And why was she still alive? Why hadn't he--?
"I wish to surrender," the Japanese said from inside his part of the darkness, almost in answer to Sayla's unspoken questions. "To you."
She stared silently into the empty blackness, unsure of her hearing.
"Do you understand? I wish to surrender."
Surrender? Japs don't surrender, she told herself. Wasn't it a part of their religion, or something? A CIO had spoken to her unit about it one time, had said something about how a Japanese who surrendered would never get into Jap heaven. The mullahs said things like that, too. Dying in battle was a ticket to heaven, they said.
"Japs don't surrender," Sayla croaked.
He laughed. A soft, low, sad sound.
"Is this what they tell you? That we do not surrender?" he finally said.
"Yes," he said and then laughed again. "I suppose they do," he went on. "Everyone knows things about you Americans, too."
"I ain't ever seen a Jap prisoner," she said defiantly. "Plenty o' Rimmers. No Japs, though."
"Why do you think that is?"
What a stupid question, Sayla thought and was about to say so. "'Cause Japs don't surrender," she repeated.
He laughed, again. The sound made her blink as if against a cool gust of wind off the ocean.
By his voice she could tell he was shaking his head. "Others, perhaps. It is the religion of many. They believe to die for the Emperor will guarantee their entry to..." he paused. "...you would know it as heaven. I do not. Believe."
"I used to believe in humanity, in the faith, hope, and glory of being human," he said. "But I have lost my faith. I don't know what glory is. We are taught that war is glory. My father says this teaching is new and old at the same time."
Sayla said nothing. How could something be new and old? Why was the Jap telling her all this?
"All then that remains is hope, yes? Hope of something beyond...." He did not speak for a long moment. "Can I hope for a place beyond all this horror and sadness?" he finally said, his voice lower and rougher. "I don't know."
Sounds came to Sayla, cutting the darkness, spreading it apart. In the darkness the Jap was sobbing.
Japs didn't surrender. Everybody knew. And Japs sure as hell didn't cry.
She didn't cry. Even when loss and fear washed over her like a dual tide, and she longed to have back things she couldn't quite remember and to forget things she could, the tears stayed away.
She sat, listening to the Japanese soldier softly weeping, the two of them separated by the empty wall of darkness.
The popping of small arms fire startled Sayla; she'd fallen asleep. Eyes wide, she peered desperately into the dark. It was difficult to tell for sure, but it sounded as if the firefight outside was moving closer.
"They are moving this way," a voice came out of the dark room before her, echoing her thoughts.
The Japanese soldier. Hadn't she dreamed of him, dreamed his face? She squinted into the dark, backtracing the path of his voice.
"Your friends," the Japanese said. "They will be happy to find you, I think. Happy to find me, too. I think."
"Yeah, man," Sayla said, the words rasping in her dry throat. "Be plenty happy to find me. But you're gonna be one dead--"
The words had come to her almost automatically. So many times she had sat with other Patriots, talking trash about what they would do if they got their hands on a Japanese soldier. But three hundred meters was as close as Sayla ever came to a Japanese. At sniping range, death was a colorless, soundless image. Her fingers loosened on her knife.
"Yes, I suppose they will," he replied quietly. "Surely it is not often you Americans find an Imperial Japanese officer. Alive. Not many come here anymore. Only those who have not pleased their superiors."
What he said made sense. Then another thought occurred to her: She'd killed a Jap officer. This one, the one she'd somehow missed, must have been leading--
"Dog?" She spoke unconsciously, her fingers tightening around the knife again.
"Yes." He said immediately. "She is with me."
A sharp coldness, like a bullet of ice, seemed to punch a hole right through her chest. The big dogs were new to the war. Everybody knew the animals alerted Jap patrols to the presence of a Patriot ambush. Capping Japs required greater distance, more caution now. But the two hundred pound dogs could kill, too.
If he wanted to kill her, the dog was as good as any rifle or pistol. Maybe better. In the dark, the dog wouldn't miss.
"I'm finding a way outta here," she announced, struggling to her feet, keeping her back to the wall. "You go ahead 'n sic your dog on me if you want." She stood in a half-crouch, pointing the tiny knife into the dark, preparing for the Jap's command, the animal's attack.
"Yes. I understand. You should not... trust me," the Japanese soldier said after a moment. "The doorway is to your right. This room has no windows. A utility room, I think." He was quiet again, then went on. "I could not kill you. I have lost my weapons, and my dog," he drew a deep, wavering breath. "She is dying."
Sayla paused and considered this. She liked dogs, would often take scraps of food to the feral dogs that lived beyond Company's perimeter. It made her sick when other Patriots would use the pathetic strays for target practice. Was the Jap lying?
"What's wrong with it?"
"Hit. A bullet, I think. In her lower abdomen."
She'd seen gut shot soldiers in hospital. It was bad. Always.
Grunting against the pain, she stuffed her useless arm deeper into the space between the buttons on her shirt. She moved to her right, inching along the wall and feeling for the door with her good arm.
Her fingers found the doorframe and she reached across the cool expanse of steel door to find a heavy round knob. The Jap had said the door was blocked. Japs lied. But the door was where he'd said it would be.
Sayla twisted the doorknob and pushed. Nothing. She put her right shoulder into it and it gave a half-inch, but no more. The Jap hadn't lied. Something was blocking the door from the other side.
"I am ashamed I cannot help you," the Japanese said quietly.
Anger rose in her at his words, pushing the pain aside. "Well, maybe you shoulda thought that before you decided to invade my country," she said. "Things was just fine before--" A quiet, high-pitched sound cut her words short. It took a moment for Sayla to identify the sound. The dog.
Words, Japanese words in a soothing tone followed the dog's whining out of the darkness.
"I got some medic training," Sayla said. "Maybe I can take a look at it. The dog, I mean."
"Could you?" said the voice in the darkness.
She started toward the sound of his voice then stopped. This is crazy, she thought. She had no idea what was really there in the dark. Maybe the Jap had a knife, just wanted her to get close. Why would she help a Jap dog?
"If you can't move," she asked, testing, "how'd you know where the door is?"
"It is the way I came here with you. Before the second rocket barrage collapsed the ceiling."
She grunted again. "You brought me here? How? I mean, if your leg's all busted up?" And why?
"I had to do something. The helicopter was coming back. This room is in the center of the building. It is the most safe place."
Gunfire erupted again somewhere outside and Sayla stopped moving. Why was it taking them so long to clean up the Jap patrol? Why did he help her?
"I had to do something," the Japanese officer repeated. "I could not let you die."
"I could not," he whispered from the darkness.
Why not? That's what she would have done, had she found him unconscious in the rubble.
"Huh," she grunted.
"You were so helpless," he said. "And so beautiful."
"Can you tell me your name?"
"What?" She snapped, squinting into the dark. Why would a Jap soldier want to know her name?
Beautiful, the man's word repeated itself in her mind. She forced her eyes to narrow with the suspicion she knew she had to maintain. "Look, I might, might look at your dog, but there's no way you're gonna know my name," she said. "No way."
"Yes, of course," he said quietly. "I understand."
She grunted and inched forward. The pain in her arm had subsided. She thought it might not be a break, only a fracture. "Say something so I know where to go," she said.
"Would you like to know my name?" The Japanese called softly from the darkness.
She stopped, peering incredulously into the darkness.
"I don't care what your name is," she barked. You'll be dead soon.
"Yes. I suppose it does not matter," he said, as if in realization of the truth she'd almost spoken.
She waited for him to say more. After a moment, when he didn't, she shuffled cautiously across the floor again. She had no idea why she was doing this for this Jap officer. And a Jap dog. Gut shot, the dog would be dead soon. Even if it lived a while, when the Patriots finally found her they'd cap the dog.
"They will kill her. I know."
The words drifted on the darkness and for a moment Sayla again thought she'd spoken her thoughts.
"I know if your people find us first, they will. But she is in such pain," he said again. "She does not show it, of course," he went on, "dogs are that way. I know. I raise dogs where I live with my family. Lived. Before."
His voice emptied into the darkness. Sayla waited a moment, shrugged her annoyance with this talkative Japanese, and with herself for listening.
"They will kill her," the Japanese said again. "And they will kill me."
Yeah, well, everybody dies, Sayla thought. Another dead Jap meant nothing to her.
Sounds from outside diverted her attention. She cocked her head, listening intently.
Relief washed over her. The clean up squad was closing in. But a sound, a high-pitched whine laid over a low rumble, was unfamiliar. She frantically searched her memory trying to make sense of it.
"ACTTs," the Japanese said.
"What?" The term didn't register.
"Air-cushion troop transports," he said. "Hovercraft."
"Hover...?" The word was unfamiliar. "We got nothing like that." Small arms' fire popped outside.
"No," the Japanese said, after a moment. "They are part of a push. It is why a second officer... why I was with the patrol. We were a, you would call it a 'point' patrol."
His words made no sense to her. A Jap patrol was just a Jap patrol, she told herself, always the same. He had to be lying.
"Point? For what?" she demanded.
"An amphibious column. The ACTTs. Thousands of U.N. Coalition forces, Rimmers mostly, will have come ashore by now. By air, by ACTT, by amphibious craft.
"The people have grown impatient with fighting you Americans," he went on. "Families grow weary of the funerals. So many dead. We were told it would be easy, that you were so busy fighting one another the... pacification would be a matter of months." He was silent again, and she didn't speak. "But it has been three years and we are barely off the beaches and there have been so many dead. So many."
His voice had changed, sounding choked and strained. Sayla thought he might be crying again.
"And so we push again, but with no hope for success, nor for an end. Imperial command knows this. Command only wants a good appearance for the U.N. before we abandon this war."
She stood a pace or two from where the darkness separated her from a reality she hadn't even considered. What was this Japanese officer telling her?
From within the dark, a deep sobbing answered her voiceless question, growing stronger until it eroded and crumbled the black wall between them. Memories of nights on the floor of the field hospital sparked behind her eyes. She saw again the maimed and dying, heard the moans and the screams, recalled other sobbing young soldiers.
She blinked in the darkness, wanted to move, to follow the sound of his tears. But she couldn't. She could only stand in the darkness listening to the sounds of war outside coming nearer, nearer, passing by leaving her alone, leaving them alone.
The dog whined, a high, watery sound followed by a deep, shuddering breath. Sayla knew the Japanese officer held the animal's broad, flat head in his lap, but even this close she couldn't see him.
She turned her blind attention back to the dog. Jap dogs were--what was the word?--genealtered, she recalled from a half-remembered field briefing. Never having been this close to one, she hadn't realized how truly huge they were. Touching the animal's flank she marveled at the thick solidity. The dogs were also much faster than normal dogs, moving with an odd fluidity. Watching them through her night scope, they'd always reminded her more of cats than dogs.
"Synaptic augmentation," she remembered the briefing officer telling her unit. "A part of every mammal's nervous system is something called a synapse," the woman had told them in the monotone of one who'd spoken the same words many times before.
"Like an electrical relay, a synapse routes commands from the brain to the body. The brain gives the command; the synapse relays the message to the body. This means," she went on, "the time between thought and action has been shortened. Mind you, it was a small amount of time to begin with, but now, with these dogs, it's even less. So they're not like little Fi-Fi and Spot were back home." she'd said, casting dull eyes over the dozen or so young grunts. "They're more like machines. Remember that," she'd finished, her voice finally rising with emphasis.
This machine's life, Sayla thought, was escaping through a fist-sized hole in its gut.
The Jap officer held the animal still, whispering in Japanese while she knelt beside it, probed around its wound with her fingers. She could do nothing.
"I--I'm sorry," she found herself saying, surprised at her own words. She truly was sorry about the dog, sorry for the man.
"My family has a farm," he said in answer. "We live by a river in what you call occupied western China. We raise fish and corn. And I raise herd dogs. For cattle and sheep. That's why they gave her to me. I know about dogs."
What he was saying meant nothing to Sayla. All she knew of the Japanese was that they were here, in California. She knew nothing of China, nothing of farms and cattle and sheep.
"She is not like my dogs," he said. "But a dog is still a dog, I think. No matter what. Inside it cannot be changed from what it really is."
"They ain't much like our dogs, either," Sayla agreed.
"No," he answered.
"I don't even know why you have to have them here," Sayla said. He didn't answer her, was silent a long time.
"Because we are losing this war--another war--to you Americans, and dogs do not come home in plastic sacks," he finally said, his voice a low whisper she had to strain to hear. "Because no one mourns a dog's death."
He fell silent again, and Sayla was too stunned by his words to speak. Patriot brass always said the Japs were losing, but no one really believed. There were just too many of them, too many Rimmers. Sayla wasn't even sure she knew what winning--or losing--the war meant. Like the ruins and the firebases, the dead and the wounded, the war just was.
"I can't do anything for her, for your dog," Sayla said.
"I know," the man said, his voice a bare whisper in the dark. "But it is good, I think, that we are here with her, now. Don't you?"
She said nothing, only nodded in the dark. The dog's short, thick fur was soft on her hand. Beneath her fingers, the dog was warm and breathing and dying. No, not at all like a machine, she decided, not at all like the target viewed in the flat green cast of her night scope.
When the dog drew a final choking breath and its hulking chest fell still, Sayla expected the Jap to cry again. She could hear the man's hand rubbing through the animal's heavy coat, but nothing more. She opened her mouth, then closed it.
Then, as if from far away, she heard the choking sobs she'd been expecting. Only they were coming from the wrong place and a stinging warmth was in her eyes, in her throat. A hand closed over hers across the dog's fur and she didn't pull away.
It was a long time before her tears stopped.
Sayla closed her eyes and listened to distant thunder. The sound reminded her of the winter storms when she was a kid. She remembered lying awake at night listening to the thunder that dulled the sharp sounds of the seemingly endless slums of Oakland. Images gathered in her mind, images of a little girl rising early after such storms, eating her breakfast cereal on a tenement's front stoop, staring in wonder at the misty, empty streets washed clean of their usual dirtiness.
She opened her eyes. There was no thunder. And the street was littered with the rubble of war. Mocking real thunder, rumbling Japanese naval artillery rounds rhythmically sought their targets somewhere far to the North.
Above, silvery light had begun to push the stars from the night sky. The Japanese officer's heavy warmth pressed into Sayla's right side. Somehow, his closeness didn't bother her.
He was feverish, exhausted, weak. Some rapid infection had entered his body where bone had torn through the flesh of his leg. He was completely weaponless and had even discarded his tactical armor. She could take her small knife and cut his throat.
But she wouldn't kill him, was instead trying to save him.
Unable to stand unaided, he had to drape one arm over her shoulders and use a broom handle cane beneath the other. With her good hand, Sayla grasped his wrist and pushed up against his arm. He was only slightly taller and weighed less than her.
"Shhh," she whispered when the movement caused him to cry out. "You gotta be quiet. They're gonna find us for sure, otherwise. We gotta get to Brigade, can't let a unit find us." The fighting had moved out of their area, but she was sure someone--Japanese or Patriot didn't matter--would still be near.
She'd heard the small command unit was staged somewhere in the hills above Oakland. It wouldn't, she felt sure, be too difficult to find. She couldn't go back to her firebase. They would kill him. But at Brigade, they were smart. That was where Cultural Information Officers and such came from, after all. They'd want this Jap alive.
"Yes. Quiet. I understand." His words came slowly, almost matching the fall of distant artillery rounds.
He's dying. The thought echoed in her head like a ricochet. Before they had, together, pried the door open, and escaped the dark utility room, Sayla had splinted and wrapped his leg. But she could do nothing more. He'd lost his medpack, and she had no meds. But if she could get him to Brigade, they'd take care of him. Once the Japs left, after the war, they'd let him go home, wouldn't they?
Sayla could say nothing for a moment. While she'd worked on his leg, he'd spoken of his home, of the fast river, fields of wild flowers stretching endlessly toward high, snowy mountains. No war, he'd told her, no soldiers, no ruined cities. It was difficult to imagine such a place.
"Let's move," she said, forcing herself back on-task. "We're perfect together, huh," she said, concentrating on her footing. "My busted left arm, your busted right leg? Perfect.
"Now you gotta try and keep that busted leg straight so..." She trailed off when she felt his hand touching her chin, pulling her face up.
"Thank you," he said, so near she felt the heat of his breath across her cheeks, her lips.
"Yeah," she said, pulling back, confused. She moved again to help him. They worked together to lever him upright. She threw her weight forward, then back, pulling as he struggled to his feet.
"My book," he whispered hoarsely.
"My book. It has fallen from my pocket. Will you please help me find it?"
"Book? What kinda book?"
"It is..." he said, his voice dropping to a whisper then rising again as he spoke:
"One moment in Annihilation's waste,
One moment of the Well of Life to taste--
The Stars are setting, and the caravan
Starts for the dawn of Nothing...
For in and out, above, about, below,
'Tis naught but a magic shadow-show,
Play'd in a box whose candle is the Sun,
'Round which we phantom figures come and go."
He was silent then and she stood swaying slightly in the rhythms of his voice. His words seemed physical things, swirling about her, in the dim light.
"Poetry," he said. "Very old. The book was a gift from my mother. I was to study poetry at university."
Sayla shrugged and helped him to lean against a protruding mass of concrete. She dropped back onto her haunches, peered into the night darkened rubble and moved her hand to and fro until her fingers found the small square. "I got it," she said. "Here." She held it out to him as she stood.
"Would you keep it for me?"
"You just keep it," she said, thrusting the small book away. "I can't even read."
"Yes, but," his voice trailed off again. "You remember," he said, "when we spoke of faith, hope, and glory?"
"Yeah, sure, you were talking about religion--"
"No. I was speaking of humanity."
A feathery lightness brushed one cheek and thinking it a cobweb, she reached to brush it away. Then she realized it was him, his fingers gently stroking her face.
"Please," he said quietly, desperately grasping her hand. "Keep my book. For me."
She could only stare at him, unmoving among the ruins and destruction that rose up around them, swallowed them in the endlessness of this war.
And as if from far away across the flower covered meadow, drifting on cool morning breezes she thought she heard a voice, his voice whisper: Faith, hope, and glory, he whispered over and over. Faith. Hope. Glory.
"Freeze, motherfuckers, freeze!" The voice screamed out of a collapsed building blocking the street before them.
It was almost a relief. They'd traveled fewer than a dozen blocks and Sayla was wondering how they'd go much farther. She was okay, but the Jap officer was rough. It was all the two of them could do to slowly edge around every obstruction in their path. This mountain of crumbling brick and concrete looked impassable.
"Hands up, up!" the voice screamed.
She closed her eyes briefly, tightly, then opened them, and slowly raised her good arm.
"H-- He's not armed," she whispered back. He isn't like the others, she wanted to say. He's different, she wanted to shout.
"I'm a Patriot," she finally called out. "He's my prisoner,"
"Hands up, Patriot," the voice screamed back. "And stand away from your prisoner. Stand. Away!"
Then a deeper, more measured voice took over for the first. "Do it, Sister. You got no way of knowing what you got there. No way, little Sister. Put your hands up. And stand away."
"Now, Patriot," the other voice screamed.
Sayla stared into the rubble, her mind racing, wondering if the owner of the second voice might understand as surely the screaming man could not. Beside her, the Jap officer tottered on his makeshift crutch. He stepped a pace or two away from her raising one arm high and the other as high as possible.
"I can only raise my right arm," she called back. "His leg's busted. Neither of us is armed," she added.
"That's fine, little Sister," the second voice called back. "But you still got to step away from your prisoner. That's an order, Patriot."
She swallowed against the lump in her throat. They could see he was crippled. Why didn't they just come and get him?
"He's a officer," she shouted. "He knows things, he can tell us all about..." Her mind groped in a darkness more suffocating than that in the laundry room and she felt engulfed by a foreign fear.
"Permission to stay with the prisoner back to Brigade!" she called out. But where to, then? Where would he go then? Her visions of a shining river and snowy mountains receded into enveloping blackness.
"Permission denied, Patriot," the first voice called back instantly. "Stand. Away."
"You must do as he commands," he whispered from beside her.
She turned and the fear twisted within, contorting her face with indecision. "I'm afraid. Of what they're going to do."
"Yes. I am afraid, too."
Her jaw worked silently, and her eyes traveled over his features, his eyes. "No," she whispered. "No," she said as the tears came, the still unfamiliar wetness startling her. "I won't. I can't." She whispered and stepped not away, but nearer to him across the few paces separating them.
When his head exploded it was as if she were atop a building again, at night, and viewing things through the gray-green of her scope. A yawning space seemed suddenly to appear between them and his head disappeared in a colorless spray.
Sniper's silence filled her ears and a movement down the street caught her eye. With startling clarity she saw an arm rise and give a single short wave from the top of a building.
The dead Jap crumpled to the ground and she knew she had to move, had to bug out before the chopper came. She feared it might be too late, though. The silence had been replaced by a distant, horrifying scream like that of rockets raining endlessly from the sky.
It rested in the palm of her good hand, a cracked cerocrystaline blob festooned with thousands of fibers. They might wonder what had happened to the implant, wonder what had become of her, but Sayla no longer cared.
On a high point looking west across the empty ocean she stood, thinking over what they had told her. The Company shrink had said she couldn't believe anything the Jap officer had said about himself, his family. Or about her.
The Jap had just wanted to make her believe he was her friend. With one friend he might infiltrate, was the word the shrink had used.
Another Jap like this, her sniper commander added, had come in with a girl in a unit down at Monterey. They'd taken the two of them to a comm bunker. The girl was carrying the Jap's med pack. Only it wasn't a med pack. It was--and here he paused, glancing sideways at the shrink. It was a battlefield tactical nuke, he went on finally, not explaining further.
Everything about the Jap officer was unreal, they told her. Like the dogs, they told her, he'd been altered, his synapses enhanced, his adrenal gland enlarged. The rifle butt-shaped bruise on his lower leg was unmistakable, the shrink said. The Jap had broken his own leg. The Patriot psychologist had shaken his head in fascination. Barely human, her commander had muttered. Barely human.
"And this device," the shrink had said of the glittering object in his hand, "is similar to devices found inside the dogs' skulls." In a dog, he had explained, it was an active governor. The device would prompt the dog on a huge array of commands and eradicate the animal's resistance, even blunting its survival instinct.
"In a man," the shrink said, speaking more to himself than Sayla, "it's grown in the thalamus and operates on other levels, as well. It analyzes supraliminal data from its host's senses. It's an empathic amplifier. It magnifies the natural human ability to read others' emotions from little cues in voice, movement, expression, even smell.
"The host," the shrink went on, staring in fascination at the thing, "can then act on sensual cues received from his target, magnified a hundred-fold." He'd turned to her then, blinking as if remembering she was present. "With this in his head, that Jap could almost read your mind."
But it wasn't her mind he had read.
And he'd never tried to hurt her; they hadn't found explosives hidden on him.
In one quick motion she cast the device away and watched it fall to the sea, its fibers mimicking the motions of life. She stood staring after it for a long time. Then she reached into her breast pocket and retrieved the book, looked down on the small black space in her hand.
"Faith, hope, and glory," Sayla whispered, remembering a soft touch in the dark. Then she thumbed the brass hasp open and looked west over the water recalling his words. 'One moment of the Well of Life to taste--and the caravan/Starts for the dawn of Nothing...'
She lifted the book's cover.
And looked into an instant of burning brightness that rivaled the sun's. What Sayla had been, what had been Sayla, was gone.
JM Schell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a resident of the Denver area. He currently directs marketing and advertising for his family's successful mortgage company. He is a former professional private investigator and professional gambler. He is a member and past president of the 27 year-old Northern Colorado Writers Workshop, which is home to speculative fiction authors Connie Willis, Ed Bryant, John Stith, Wil McCarthy, P.D. Cacek, and others.
InterText Copyright © 1991-2000 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 9, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1999 JM Schell.