Sarge knew before I did, of course, but I still had to take him the transfer orders. I didn’t know how to feel on my way to the officers’ mess. I would miss my unit and I would miss my Sarge, but it was an honor, everyone said, to get shifted up to Incisive Maneuvers.
To work with the Cyborg.
The Merchant of Death.
There’s all kinds of names get floated around for him. Sarge calls him by his rank.
“So you’re with Petty Officer Cox,” he said, taking my half-rolled screen and pushing his thumb against it without hardly reading. He didn’t give it back right away. “That’s an honor,” he said. “Everyone been telling you that, I imagine.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
Sarge stared off into space. “High fatality rate in Maneuvers,” he said. “Everyone been telling you that?”
“Some,” I said, because my boy Hans told me I was good as dead going in with the Tinman, said his cousin’s cousin only lasted a couple months in IM. His breath was all commissary rum when he told me that and he cried a little.
“My advice is to stick close to him,” Sarge said, no need to explain who “him” was. “But not too close. He’s not like you and me. He doesn’t think like you and me. All right?”
“He’s a hero, isn’t he?” I asked. “I mean, decorated and all. Eight hundred kills or so.” I’d looked them up: 839 confirmed ghosts and maybe double that never got tagged. The Merchant of Death’s not human, like Sarge said.
“He’s a hero,” Sarge said. “He’s damn near a god. I seen him, once, in action on Pentecost. Took out an artillery nest single-handed. Must have capped a dozen soldiers and did the operators, too. Just slaughtered them.” He paused again. “When you’re a god, you don’t think of people the same way. All right?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, not sure what I was agreeing to. The Petty Officer was a legend, and the more enemy dead, the better.
“Good luck, Private.” Sarge threw a loose salute. “Dismissed.”
• • • •
Two days after that, the handler took me down to the shooting range to meet the Cyborg for myself. I’d seen the spliced-up combat footage from propaganda holos, and I’d seen him a few times from a good ways off, back when we first launched.
But seeing him up close was different. He was big as a freighter, a tower of armor that shifted and whispered against itself, all the little smart plates moving and interlocking. His face was armored, too, with a single convex sensor suite glowing like a sun. I still sometimes wonder what he looks like underneath, but I know the armor’s not meant to come off. Not ever.
He was shooting a submachine gun one-handed, knees locked, arm straight and drifting target to target, burst after burst, each one dead fucking center. Not human, I reminded myself.
“This is Mendoza’s replacement,” the handler said, meaning me. “Private Berenson. Top of his class. Top third of his class. He’ll be dropping with you when we hit Caldron.” The handler had a way of not quite looking at the Tinman—the Petty Officer, I should say—when he spoke. “I trust you’ll get him up to speed.”
The Petty Officer turned his blank face at me. “Give me your weapon,” he said, with a voice that was feathered with speech synthesizer and higher than I expected.
I didn’t have my rifle, of course, only my sidearm, a little snub-nosed pistol. “Sir,” I said, and I clicked off its mag and handed it over, since he was my direct superior and all, and direct superiors sometimes want to see you maintain your kit well.
The Petty Officer took the pistol and fired it straight up at the ceiling without bothering to advise us. The swellies in my eardrums kicked in fast enough to damp the noise, but I still flinched. He fired again, and again, not bothering to aim, until it clacked empty. I looked up to see the slugs hovering in a little circle up there, caught by the grav field, and wondered dimly if I’d get them back.
He handed me my pistol, his gauntleted hand dwarfing mine, and said nothing.
I was pissed that he’d gone done me like that, wasting a clip for no reason, but I felt stupid, too, like I should have realized it was some kind of test. I threw a stiff salute and then the handler hurried me away so the Petty Officer could get back to his shooting.
“It’s a lesson, see,” the handler said eagerly. “Everything he does, there’s a reason. If you look. There has to be.” But he had an almost manic look in his eye when he said it. “That was a lesson about the importance of valuing your sidearm. And about trust. Trust can get you killed, see.”
“Yeah,” I said, even though I was thinking I should at least be able to trust my superior fucking officer. “I see. It’s a lesson.”
The handler nodded, almost relieved-looking. “I’ll introduce you to the rest of the squad now.”
• • • •
I’d been hoping for some vets, the tired grim kind who can tell you how things work, tell you how to survive, most of all tell me about the Petty Officer. But the rest of the squad was near fresh as I was. They’d only been called up to Incisive Maneuvers a few weeks ago. The last squad had taken full casualties, apart from the Petty Officer, of course. Some kind of weapons malfunction. An overcooked grenade, I think, with the warning circuitry fried.
The whole squad gone, just like that.
“We’re just along to soak up a few bullets,” Derozan, one of the Privates, said in the mess. All of us on the new IM squad—the suicide squad, some people were calling it—had gravitated together. “If the Tinman tries to put me on point, I’m telling him to stick it up his metal ass.”
That didn’t sit right with me. “He knows what he’s doing,” I said. “Look at his completion rate.”
“Look at the casualties,” Derozan argued, dishing the last of his protein slop onto someone else’s tray. “You think it’s just coincidence he’s the only one left from the first IM squad?”
“You can’t blame him for surviving shit that would kill a human,” I said. “He isn’t. Remember?”
“Yeah,” Derozan said. “That’s why I don’t trust him.”
And I remember I thought back to the pistol, the never-relinquish-your-weapon thing, and wondered if he’d done it to Derozan, too.
• • • •
We made planetfall a few weeks later. I knew the squad well enough by then, and we’d done plenty of sim time together, getting coordinated, getting in combat synch. Sometimes the Petty Officer ran the sims with us, more often he didn’t. Even with all the drills and sims, I still didn’t feel ready for combat. Not even close. I had to take a big old nervous shit before we loaded up into the dropship.
The Petty Officer climbed in last, not bothering to get strapped, just reaching up and bracing himself with a handhold. He stared around at each of us in turn, but I thought he stared longer at me than anyone else.
“Finally,” he said. “No more dialogue. Just action.”
We got his gist, and by that point our intravenous feeds were kicking in, pumping us up with combat chemicals. We all gave him an ooh-rah, even Derozan. Then the dropship was undocking and we were heading down to Caldron’s smaller continent, where the Coalition were dug in deepest. They had shields up to prevent orbital bombardment, but not for long. Not with the Petty Officer leading us right to the main generator.
Entering the atmosphere shook us like pennies in a jar, but then we smoothed out, swooped in low over terraformed forest valley. The chemicals were doing their thing, making me less scared, more angry, but in a cold, clear, ready-for-action way.
The dropship dumped us close as it could get to the edge of the Coalition forces and detached a little six-man hover to take us the rest of the way. I debarked, checking my gear, holding my chest-plate in place for the jump so it wouldn’t slam my chin. Just how I’d drilled it a thousand times. Then my boots were on the dirt and the dropship was thundering away.
Private Neumann, who was specced for driving, had the top scores and all, slid into the driver seat of the hover while the rest of us climbed aboard.
Except the Petty Officer didn’t. He walked to the driver side and stared at Neumann. “I want to drive,” he said.
In the back of the hover, we swapped looks. The Petty Officer had wired up reflexes and all, but he looked like he would barely fit behind the steering column, and Neumann had been assigned driver before we dropped.
“I want to drive,” the Petty Officer repeated, his voice cool, almost melodic.
“Sir,” Neumann said, with his face going red under his helmet, and he clambered into the back with the rest of us. The Petty Officer jammed into the driver’s seat and opened the throttle. We shot away like a rocket, and I ended up slamming my chin on my chest-plate anyways.
• • • •
I can’t say I remember much of that first mission, of the actual combat, the tensed-up waits behind cover and dashes in between, the aim and fire. There’s been too many missions since.
I do remember seeing the Petty Officer in action for the first time was like seeing God. His personal shields swallowed up bullets and bolts and spat them back out; his rifle cracked over and over and every single shot seemed to hit skull. He saw things before they happened, saw things happening behind us. Saw everything. The first patrol we ran up on, he deaded them both before the rest of us could even rise and aim.
The path to the generator, the last-minute swap when our primary detonator bugged out, the cover fire and the retreat and the big, beautiful explosion—I remember it in little pieces.
What happened after the mission, when we were getting back into the camouflaged hover, I remember clear as day. We were all riding the adrenaline high, all jazzed up that we’d taken the generator. Close enough to extraction to start feeling good.
“Those Coalie fuckers are waking up to hellfire,” Derozan said, hellfire being what we call an orbital bombardment. He settled back in the hover and grinned. “Wipe them right off the map.”
The rest of us Privates whooped, cheered a little. The Petty Officer didn’t.
“There’s going to be another generator,” he said. “There’s always another generator. Another checkpoint. Another op. It’s all a game. We’re just playing a game.” I’d been about to climb into the hover, but he reached out an arm and stopped me. I saw something glinting in his big metal hand. “Here’s another game,” the Petty Officer said. “Catch.”
He lobbed the cooked grenade right underneath the hover’s engine block. It was the closest I’d ever been to a ’nade going off, and the swellies in my ears didn’t do shit. The hover erupted in a fireball, spitting big shards of metal off in every direction, and nobody inside had time to dive out. I would’ve been dead too, if it weren’t for the Petty Officer’s personal shield enveloping me. Even so I felt the shockwave deep in my bones.
My ears were still ringing as he looked through the wreckage, the charred bodies. I could feel piss trickling down my leg.
“What will you tell them in the field report?” the Petty Officer asked. I looked at the mangled meat that had been my squad, our squad, only moments ago. I realized the Petty Officer had swiped my sidearm away from me, was holding it up to my temple. Maybe I should have made him kill me then.
“I’ll tell them there was a weapons malfunction,” I said quietly.
“A big one,” the Petty Officer agreed.
• • • •
The squad were scraped up by a medroid, to be bagged and identified and maybe sent back to their families in pieces. I got a commendation for bravery. The Petty Officer got another completed mission under his belt.
The squad was full again the very next week. Young and eager and yanked up hard from the low ranks, just how I had been. There were more missions to complete. I went to Sarge, to beg for a transfer, to tell him what had happened, but he cut me off before I could confess. His eyes had never looked so old as they did then. I knew I wouldn’t get a transfer. I knew now there was only one way out of IM, and I figured the next mission would be my last.
But it wasn’t. Not the next one either. Eventually they all started to blur together. Raids, counterstrikes, infiltration, sabotage. Everything always ended in gunfire, in shredded bodies, in unexpected casualties. Other squad members fell and were replaced and I stopped learning their names. I survived.
I survived because the Petty Officer protected me. Dozens of times. He blew out the skull of a cloaked enemy soldier who had a combat knife nearly to my neck. He pinned me to the ground to shield me from a fire grenade. He carried me when shrapnel splintered through both my shins.
I thought he was doing it to torture me. Making me watch my new squad mates die over and over from his recklessness. His uncalled grenades, his unpredictable suppressing fire.
Sometimes other things, too. I saw him break Grigor’s neck with the butt of his rifle, walking up so casually behind him and then driving it down so hard and so precise. I remember the sound of the bone crunching. He told me later that Grigor had been too far gone for medical attention, even though Grigor had only stopped to wrap a muzzle burn on his arm.
But we always completed the mission, even if the Petty Officer and me were the only ones alive at the end of it. He always killed more of the enemy, a hundred times more, and that was enough for Command.
And me, I was losing my mind. Nightmares I couldn’t drug away. Sweats. I was almost as legendary as the Petty Officer himself, now. The one who always lived. But in most ways, I was a ghost. People never spoke to me anymore; people avoided my eyes. I told myself there had to be a reason for what the Petty Officer did. A lesson. But what kind of lesson was worth killing our own men? It took me a long time to figure it out:
The Petty Officer didn’t believe in the war. He wasn’t trying to beat the Coalition. He was trying to beat Command. He was trying to prove a point the only way he knew how. It didn’t matter if the Petty Officer killed theirs or ours. Everyone had been dead since the moment they were drafted. All of us, dead walking.
But the Petty Officer didn’t want me dead. I tried to figure that out, too. I thought of all the times he’d saved me, and the other things. How he sometimes stood too close to me, hulking over my shoulder, sighting around like he was hiding behind me—I thought it was only a joke, his cruel kind of joke, but maybe it was something else.
And sometimes he stared. He would stand in front of me and stare. I had learned to keep my face blank, to wait, to not fidget too much, and eventually he always turned away and the mission went on. He didn’t think how we did, Sarge had said.
Maybe he loved me. The thought made me sick in my stomach, but at the same time my joints went all loose and watery. Maybe I loved him, too. I had dreamt about him, about his huge dark presence, always nearby, always watching.
I had dreamt seeing his body once, all scarred and pale and naked, the way people said he would look underneath the armor. Maybe that meant I loved him. I had never been one for buggering around, except one time on a really lonely long haul, but with the Petty Officer it would be different.
He wasn’t a man, not really. He wasn’t even a human anymore. Maybe he was trying to make me the same way.
• • • •
Another world, another mission. The Petty Officer was squatting in a stream, anchored to the slippery rock by the weight of his armor. He’d been peering down into the sparkling clear water for the past five, six minutes.
The rest of the squad was jumpy, lighting up smokes, scuffing circles in the dirt, checking and rechecking their weapons. The fresh ones stared at the Petty Officer, wondering what the fuck he was doing when we had a dropzone blinking urgent red in our headgear.
I wasn’t jumpy. I was sitting back against a nice moss-slick boulder, perfectly calm, because everything he did had a reason.
“Private. To me.”
The command crackled in my helmet. I got up off the rock and waded into the stream, feeling the collective gaze of the squad on my back. Some of them jealous, sure. Most of them confused.
“Yes, sir?” I said, once I was close, but not too close, more than an arm’s length away.
“You understand, don’t you, Private.” The Petty Officer turned his head towards me. “If we don’t stop and look at the river, if we don’t enjoy the little touches, the artistry, it’s disrespectful. Disrespectful to whoever made the river.”
“I’m very respectful, sir,” I said, and I squatted down, too, even though the cold water snuck up to my crotch and clung there.
“I know you are, Private,” he said. “Maybe that’s why I picked you.”
He stared down into the stream again, and I looked, too. Saw how the sun dappled the surface, how sediment shifted in the flowing current.
For at least a moment, I understood.
• • • •
The last body went down and my motion tracker jittered clear, but I stayed low a second longer to be sure, to let the smoky room settle and my adrenaline ebb away. The Petty Officer racked his rifle and strode right out of cover. He never waited.
I’d asked him, once, if he had any fear of dying left.
“I’ve died a hundred times,” he’d said back. “You just never remember.”
Sometimes the things he said were so beautiful, so strange, that they made my lungs catch.
There was a big fucker laid out by the control panel, gargling blood. His burnished red armor was riddled all over with bullet holes—we must have emptied a dozen clips into him before he went down. He’d fought hard. I get the Coalition insignias mixed up, but I think the gold swatch meant a Lieutenant.
The Petty Officer stopped over him. I thought he was going to pick up the dropped burner rifle and have a look at it. He does that. Picks them up, turns them over, scorches a few marks in the wall and then discards them.
But he didn’t. He started adjusting his armor, switching off the magnetic seal on his abdomen plate, then the cod-piece, setting them both down beside the Lieutenant’s twitching body with two loud thunks.
“Something slip through, sir?” I asked.
The Petty Officer ignored me, reaching a gloved hand down to his crotch to peel back the black skinsuit. His cock flopped out like a thick bruise-colored worm. Nothing like in my dream.
“Watch this,” the Petty Officer said.
I knew I should be confirming kills, securing the doors, sending Command the all-clear. But I was stuck rooted to the floor. The rest of the squad was, too, all of us watching, none of us speaking.
The Petty Officer crouched down and guided his cock onto the Lieutenant’s sweaty forehead. The man’s face twisted. Confusion and shock, then rage and horror. Blood burbled out of his lips and he made a desperate swing with his one arm that was still intact, but the Petty Officer knocked it away like a fly. He squatted and straightened, slapping his cock and balls against the dying man’s face. My stomach heaved.
“Sir, fucking stop, please fucking stop,” someone babbled. One of the fresh ones.
The Lieutenant gave a low animal moan. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t. The Petty Officer squatted down again and again. I realized I could end it. All of it. His abdomen was gloved in nothing but soft black skinsuit. One frag, cooked and lobbed gently underneath him, just how he’d done to the hover all those eons ago. The shrapnel would shred his cock and his stomach both to pieces. He was still human enough to die.
But there had to be a reason. He was showing me this for a reason.
A single gunshot cracked the air. I whirled and saw Hernandez, a two-weeker who never spoke, cupping his pistol in both hands.
The Lieutenant finally slumped, strings cut by the precise bullet in his brain. The Petty Officer wordlessly wiped the spatter of gore off his cock and tucked himself away. He didn’t so much as look at Hernandez, but I knew Hernandez had signed his own death warrant.
• • • •
It happened in the corridor. The Petty Officer spun on his heel and ripped his pistol off his hip in one motion, capping Hernandez with a single bullet. The two fresh recruits rounded on him without a second’s hesitation and I realized they must have back-chattered, must have discussed it with Hernandez on a channel they’d hidden from the Petty Officer and from me, too. Even so, they were both dead before they could get more than a couple shots off.
I stared down at the bodies, at the three bullets in three shattered craniums, while the Petty Officer’s shielding recharged with an electric hum. I could have ended it all back in the control room. Now there were three more dead squad mates. And there would be three more dead after them, and after them, and forever.
“This will be hard to explain,” I said, feeling hollowed out.
“We won’t explain it,” the Petty Officer said. “We’re not going to the pick-up zone. We’re going our own way. You’re coming with me.”
There was a reason for everything. The Petty Officer had had to kill them so he could go AWOL. So the both of us could. He hadn’t been desecrating a dying soldier. He’d been desecrating the rank, desecrating authority, defying the men upstairs who sent us to our deaths.
And now we were escaping together.
“I love you,” I said, to test out the words in my mouth. They didn’t feel true, not yet, but maybe they would eventually.
The Petty Officer looked at me for a long moment. “Gay,” he said, but he motioned for me to follow him out into the starry night.
• • • •
We cut through the wilderness, away from enemy lines, away from ours, too. I had never seen the Petty Officer like this before. He was giddy, like a little kid almost, sprinting ahead through the forest and then sprinting back to dance circles around me. He would fire his rifle off into the bush at random. Once he tried to spray letters into the trunk of a massive tree. One night he showed me his dog tags, the old world vestige stamped with his name and number: Harrison Cox 969. But to me he was still the Petty Officer. Always would be, I figured.
By the time we made it to the coast, I was sick and exhausted. The Petty Officer had no need for sleep and hated waiting for me to wake up. And even heavier than the physical wear and tear was the realization: We’d gone AWOL, and Command was going to come after us. The Petty Officer’s armor alone was worth more than a dropship, and with him inside, more valuable than any weapon ever created.
The only thing I could do was follow the Petty Officer. And trust him.
“Why do you do that?” I asked. “It’s not any faster than jogging.”
He was leaping again, bounding along the surf in big two-footed jumps, sending up clods of sand and water. It was beautiful, in a way. Sometimes it seemed like he could float there in the air forever.
He looked back at me. “It feels faster,” he said.
I finally let my rifle fall into the sand. I unstrapped my chest-plate and dropped that, too. I didn’t need them anymore. I was following the Petty Officer. With my weary legs screaming, I ran, gathered, jumped. Not nearly as high as him, but high enough. High enough to feel almost light, with the wind whipping at my face, with the smell of the sea in my nose. The sand was soft underneath my boots.
The Petty Officer leapt along the beach, and I leapt after him, through the foamy surf, laughing and laughing with tears pouring down my dirty face.