Hard Lines and Code

By the Pillars, who knows how long that woman has been fighting the good fight. She rushed the shield and came away with an answer for who she was. Shards, I’m still gaping in admiration. Does that sound trite or sarcastic?

She needs a break, that’s all I’m saying. But who’s gonna give it to you? To anyone? Okay, I just tallied it in my head: Thirteen pillarbracing years! When I enlisted she was a legend; a fantasy idol for the soldiers. That’s pretty old fashioned, I know.

Aaran Vanadyl looks blasted good in her prosthesis. A leg and arm, something for the men to fawn over and stop feeling so sorry for themselves about their own. Helps the poster model is beautiful. Oh, she is, but not in that untouchable way. She looks the marrying type, and that’s fine for most of us.

We’re all sick of Carso’s relentless war. Flakkit, when a prosthetic performs so well you hardly miss the body part it replaced they send you back into the brink, odds be damned. We’ve got kids and wives, family at home waitin’ on us to stop screaming and shouting about the blood and gore.

Memory implants don’t do nothin’ for a sleepless night, no matter what they tell ya. So there’s Aaran, again, sisterly-mother-neighbor-doll who’s not even asking to be the role model. She’s cute to me, but I don’t go for that metallic silvery-gold hair that’s some kinda Pillarsend to all the other guys.

I guess it’d be different if she were mean, or manipulative. Nah, she doesn’t tour, pep talk or rally, she’s just there. In your head, and somehow you heard something she said and it reminds you of home. Ah, yeah, well, there are the glyphs for us with brain implants. Aaran’s little slices of wisdom. No nonsense-get-your-gear-in-gear-buster, smilin’ like she was yours but knowing she’s not.

There’s Remy Therison for the guys who like leading men, but for me all there needs to be is Aaran. I owe her, too. Not in that generic way, but for my life. How she got on the front lines was anybody’s guess, but she was hurt, swingin’ a blade around like a pro. Cyborgs all over gettin’ diced and squished.

The sky was like something disowned: A shirt you paid for but vowed never to wear, purple green and swede. A swede shirt. Who’s dumb idea was that? Looking up into it gave you the unavoidable idea the whole air around you was fuzzy, and the taste in our mouths just reinforced the whole thing. The ground, where it wasn’t molten, arced up like a broken back over a thousand feet.

That was the hill we were taking. One antboot for Canor, two antboots for Canorkind. Had about five hundred soldiers in our unit, mostly squat troops in light armor and a few heavies: Two ton Nova cyborgs for tank melee and big combat. Anything us squats couldn’t shoot until it stopped moving. Yeah, I remember now: Aaran had some kinda code, something the uppity-ups thought might stop Carso in his digital tracks.

Didn’t work, of course, and they pushed us out of the compound we’d claimed, chunking and splitting my best buds as we retreated. They called us and told us to reclaim the hill, take the compound back for whatever, and we did. Aaran regrouped some heavies and our bravest for the job. We listened because she took the same risks and wasn’t precious about anything.

Except our behavior on the field. Look, I know its weird to talk POWs when they’re robots and androids and don’t give a shard about nothing, but Aaran’s idea of respect for anything that surrendered played well with the guys. We even traded some of theirs for some of ours down the road. Carso wasn’t really trying to kill us all.

Not yet, anyway.

It was talking to the robot POWs we began to have the idea they weren’t all fighting for the same reason. Yeah, what? Some kinda Rule had them moving together, but not what they wanted, or believed in, like we did. Things can get pretty shaky in your head when you’re jabberin’ with a tinpot and they begin to tell you they miss their own back home and you start thinkin’ of your family.

Look, it just was. War doesn’t make sense, but people do, and those robots were startin’ to sound like people. Three years we’d been at each other’s throats but no one was doin’ any winning. Maybe it was the worst stalemate in history. I dunno.

Yeah, I was sayin’ Aaran saved my life, right? True grit. See, the Crown has the shield up around Sketchline, Whitegraft and Barrowloft. More too, I was told. A dozen? Who knows. The shield doesn’t bother Carso much, until he can’t get his Nichemare inside.

Nichemare: Blasting drones with controlled concussion-blast explosives making for very versatile siege weapons. No matter the armor or wall, it’s going down. Carso wasn’t using nanomachines yet, either. So there we are, in the compound, nestled in and dressing our wounds. Eating, watching, waiting.

Aaran’s hurt and some switch is healin’ her up and repairing her leg. It’s not easy to watch someone you admire getting worked on like that, even if they’re not in any real trouble. Ten minutes pass, and we’re setting up watches so a few of us can get some rest. Never sleep, because on the battlefield there’s only one kind.

I get to thinkin’ maybe I might have a turn, but officers don’t rest, ever, so I prime another stim and start askin’ Aaran about Whitegraft. What’s it like where the Nichies can’t blow up everything? She smiles and winces, blood and dirt smeared on her face not quite cleaned off.

“Sure is nice to think someday we’d get to stop and breathe again,” she says, and I can’t see if she is crying, but I think so. It’s a brave sort of crying, hopeful, even, and I get to admiring her a little more. When I took watch, when I was holding my blade to my head, wondering if I’d accidentally discharge it through my brain, I decided not to.

Until she said those words to me, I didn’t think anyone so beautiful could be so real. All the rage, loss, pain and confusion kinda fused into one big point. If she felt the way I did for just a tick, then I had a reason to stay alive. Maybe out there in the world was someone like her who’d give me another reason to stay alive.

A month later Carso torched the surface of Canor, killing everyone I ever knew.

Except her, thank the Pillars.

- Cpt. Shore Cross, 283rd, Long Reach Division.