Peltry stares at the window, watching reflections of the scenery wash past in the double pained glass. The cityscape beyond her elbow is tinged yellow by the late afternoon sun filtering through smog and pollution, reminding her of something a great distance away. Reflexively curling her hand into a fist, Peltry watches what should be the tendons in her wrist move in response. Beneath the well-simulated flesh lies what was once biology. Now wrapped in carbon nanotube and titanium plate, little of what she was born with remains. Sighing, she turns from the occasional unwanted twitching of her left hand and back to the perpetual tide of concrete blasting silently past the train. Spiraling into deeper thought, Peltry calculates the amount of time remaining until the train arrives at her destination and begins a countdown to the drop.
"Hey, Mila. Over here.” The voice is familiar, one that stops Peltry in her tracks at the bottom of the stairs leading from the platform. Turning, she finds the boy has matured from the pause she had forced on him after leaving. Seeing the face again is like suddenly jumping into the second hour of a movie after having watched the first five minutes. The base character is the same, but it has somehow moved into a different orbit since the last time she had been home.
“Naka, you look good.” Trying to force a smile over her face, she turns and walks the short distance separating the two. Embracing lightly, Peltry pulls away first and flushes after wondering if the new implants are imparting too much force and therefore a false emotion into the gesture. “Thanks for picking me up.”
“No problem. How was your trip?” He says, sidestepping her to pick up the large green bag that she had deposited on the sidewalk. Stenciled on the side are a series of cryptic numbers and designations, the only thing clear to him out of the alphabet soup of military jargon was her name. Hefting the bag, Naka finds the weight nearly intolerable but does his best to smile anyway. “Whatcha got in here? Lead bricks?”
“Something like that. Trip went okay.”
“Luna was fine,” temporarily disoriented by the amount of new construction in what had been a familiar neighborhood, Peltry waves a finger at the small parking lot near the base of the train station stairs. “Car?”
“Yeah, over there. The blue one.” With that, he smiles again and begins lurching forward toward a nondescript vehicle at one end of the parking lot. “You look good, Mom is a little scared though.”
“Scared?” Peltry inquires in earnest, there is little to be had by reverting to subterfuge at this point. “Like how?”
“I don’t know, scared that you wouldn’t be the same Mila or something,” they drop into the parking lot via a short step, the smell of asphalt cooling in the summer afternoon washing over them. Pausing mid-sentence, he screws his face into something far more adult than Peltry remembered him being able to muster. “You know how she is. You’ve been gone a long time, I think that after we heard about what was going on. I mean with The War and all.”
"The War?" She snickers in disbelief, almost disgusted, "is that all we're referring to it as these days?"
"Mila, people don't know what to call it anymore." Slipping into a pause as they pull up to a red traffic signal, Naka shakes his head and begins speaking again only when the light turns green "whatever it has become it isn't what it got started about."
"Oh, so that makes it okay for people to fuck with the troops that are coming home? We were drafted, it's not like I volunteered for this. I mean fuck, you think I asked to get a pile of wires and junk stuffed into my head so that I can run some big robot and kill shit?
"Nobody's saying that you guys didn't get the short end of the stick," he says defensively.
"Really. You don't say. Did you vote
"Yeah," he replies sheepishly, earning him a glare from his passenger. There had been a considerable backlash against people that had voted in the election, the incumbents going so far as saying there was no reason to participate since Things Were Going So Well.
"Good, at least you have a right to bitch. Look, some of my parts are,” Peltry pauses and changes the wording of what she is trying to say, “the outside is a little different but it is the same me.”
“Mila, a lot of the soldiers that have come back.” The word soldier comes from him with an emphasis that almost makes it an epithet. “They haven’t been adjusting well to being home.”
“Yeah, we were briefed on that. All I want to do anyway is just go home.”
“Yeah Naka. Home,” Peltry manages just as the knot begins to form in her throat and tears form at the corners of her eyes. “I've been waiting for this for eight damn years and all I want is to just want to go home.”
“So,” he says after they have been driving for several minutes. Reaching over, Naka presses a button on the car stereo that reduces the pounding music to a tolerable level. “What was it like?”
“What was what like?” Peltry responds. Clicking a button on the armrest drives the window down to admit a steady stream of exhaust-tinged air. There is something entirely refreshing about the reality of it, far removed from the trance-like state of the suit sensor feeds.
"The suits. What were they like?”
“Different. You’re aware of what is going on around you, and you can feel things outside the suit and inside of it at the same time. There was one time.” Stopping short, Peltry catches the building tide of momentum with a sudden blankness of memory. She can tell that there was something there, something very important, but it was cloaked in a gray fog that she could not penetrate. “Look, if I try to talk about what happened I can’t remember it. They engineered the wipe like that on purpose. We can remember if the right people ask us or if we want to, but if we try to remember and then talk about it then we can’t.”
“So no war stories?” Naka says, simultaneously disappointed and cautious.
“Mako actual, Mako seven-seven.” The sterile voice over the radio is hers. She knows that because inside the suit she can feel her mouth moving, the dry air pushing past vocal cords and into the small space. Bulbous arms painted in a mottled beige and khaki color swing a massive rifle in the direction of the contacts, an armored finger four times larger than Peltry’s constricts on the trigger. In response, a smooth flow of massive blasts comes from the end of the weapon, empty shells cascading out of the ejection port in time with the firing sequence. “Mako seven-seven, contact, bursting position.”
“Mako seven-seven, you are weak and unreadable. Say again.” The voice comes over the communications link in a bass-heavy machine voice. More contacts appear in her vision and without thinking, the left arm arcs over her back and brings a second, smaller weapon to bear on the incoming forces.
“Mako actual, Mako seven-seven requesting extraction. Position may be branched.” Jumping, Peltry fires the maneuvering jets in the suit’s back to push her farther away from the incoming enemy. Now within range, they have started to fire back with lighter weaponry. Although not lethal at this extended range, there are enough that they will be eventually and the distance between them is shortening rapidly.
As she slams back to the surface and crouches in preparation for another leap backwards, it occurs to Peltry that they may be trying to catch her in some sort of pincer maneuver. A quick scan of satellite imagery confirms as much. Without warning, a massive blow knocks her down and to the left as alarms begin to sound inside the suit in response to the damage. Now in pain, Peltry switches off the external feed and glances around the cockpit. Dark crimson spreads around a small patch in her suit liner from where a small fragment of shrapnel punched through the outer armor.
Switching back, Peltry dumps dead magazines from both weapons, blows smoke and chaff grenades from the suit shoulder launchers, and jumps again onto a rocky ledge overlooking the advancing enemy. “Mako actual, Mako seven-seven I’ve been hulled and need extraction now.”
“Mako seven-seven, extraction ETA five mikes.” Fresh magazines into both rifles, she realizes that at this rate of consumption she has two and a half or three minutes of ammunition remaining. Screaming to no one inside the suit, Peltry squeezes the trigger and sends a stream of projectiles into the swarm of targets massing in front of her.
“Mila stop. Calm down, you’re okay.” She recognizes the strangled voice, knows that it is something about which she needs to be concerned. The waking dream suddenly shatters like sheet glass, leaving her firmly back in reality and dizzied by the transition.
“Oh shit.” Gasping, she releases Naka from the stranglehold and watches as he crumples, coughing gratefully, to the floor. “Naka, Naka I’m sorry.”
“No, s’ok. They warned us about it.” He says in a raspy voice. Scattered around them are the sheets from the futon in her room, early morning sun streaming through the open window. Rolling, he sits heavily on the floor of the room and looks up at her while rubbing at a reddening neck. “I shoulda known better than to come in here without waking you up first.”
“They?” Flushing with an abrupt chill, Peltry tries and fails to shake off the sensation of having irreparably broken something important. “They warned you about what?”
“About the fact that after you were discharged you would probably have some residuals, that we should be careful around you for the first few weeks.”
“Oh.” Hanging her head in abject shame, Peltry slumps into a kneeling position on the floor. “Look. Fuck, I don't know anything anymore.”
“Mila, it’s okay,” he says, hesitantly extending his hand to touch the top of her leg. Recoiling as if stung, he stares at her with renewed intensity. “You’re cold.”
“Freezing actually,” she replies with a weak smile that rapidly fades in response to his genuinely horrified expression. “Oh, that. It’s the prosthetics.”
“You feel like you’re dead.” Speaking in a defeated tone, Naka closes his eyes and flops back to lay flat on the floor. “I guess you are though, nearly not enough to salvage, they said.”
“What else did they say, Naka?” Peltry doesn’t know what to expect, half of her wants to hear the story and the other half just wishes she could forget completely. “Did they tell you what happened to me?”
“Not officially. I got one of the Marine reps to tell me that they peeled your suit like a grape. That they tore you up pretty bad. That no one expected you to make it, but he did. Said you were a real fighter. A ‘Marine’s Marine,’ is what he called you.”
“Huh.” Peltry says, remembering but not speaking. They had indeed, cut through the outer armor easily. She had been shrieking over the radios to anyone that would listen when the inner hull was breeched and they began grabbing with combat manipulators at whatever was within reach. The suit had pumped her full of meds at that point; the rest came as a sort of fever nightmare. Fragmented images of delicate biology ruined by mechanical advantage came and went in brief flashes.
As she tried to put words to the memories they would fade and force her again into silence. The memories would only come when she said nothing, committing her to replaying the event in an internal loop. The memory wipe had been particularly effective, and as they had said in the recovery room she would be able to remember on her own but she could never speak of what she had seen.
“Mila,” Naka speaks in a voice weighed heavy with sorrow. “Mila, Mom says you got to move out. This is the third time. You’re scaring her.”
“So Mila Peltry.” The man says in a half-statement, half-questioning tone.
“Yes sir.” After responding, she glances around the neatly organized office. The man sits behind a wooden desk in front of her examining a set of data suspended in space between the two of them.
“Eight years, in the Marines.” Clicking a button on the desk, the display winks out and the man resumes focusing on her face. “See much combat, did you?”
“Not sure.” The attempt to separate experience into separate allotments of time spent in combat and time not spent in combat turns her brain into the usual pile of useless mush. “They wiped me pretty good. I know what units I was assigned to, those are all a part of the file. I am missing some time though.”
“How much?” He asks, leaning over on his desk and slowly turning a pen through his fingers. “It’s important.”
“About three and a half years.”
“I know.” Sighing lightly, Peltry begins to wish that she had not committed herself to this course of action. “More than I’d prefer.”
“Ms. Peltry,” he says after several seconds of uncomfortable silence.
“Forgive me for being brutally honest, but I don’t think that I can be of any real help to you.” Casting a downward glance at the desk, the man gently sets the polished gold pen that had been slowly rotating through his fingers back onto the paper blotter on top of the desk. “Normally, we can find employment for veterans with a relative degree of ease. They typically retain most of the skills that they acquire while in the service. You on the other hand, are a combat unit.”
"Okay, so?" she replies, tersely.
"Looking at your file, which you released to our agency, you spent an inordinate amount of time in Special Operations Group. That and the nature of your disability." There is the word for which she had been waiting, the big stupid default explanation for all the ills in her world. “Quite frankly, the Department of Veterans Affairs can’t help you with employment or residential placement.”
“So you’re saying I’m basically screwed,” Peltry spits venomously.
“Well, let’s not get hasty here.” A fake smile of conciliation flashes across the man’s face that immediately begins to fade when he realizes that this one is not going to buy the usual line. “Honestly, I can understand that you are a little frustrated at your situation.”
“No, I really don’t think that you do at all.” Screaming, Peltry stands suddenly, reaches back and sends the chair that she had been sitting on crashing against one wall. “I’ve got nowhere to go, asshole. I can’t get a job, can’t get a place, can’t go back in the Corps. What do you suggest I do? Go hide out in a fucking dumpster and wait to die?”
“Ms. Peltry, if you could calm down for a moment.” The functionary dribbles in an attempt to stem the growing tide of anger in front of him. He would have a better chance of diverting a tsunami by telling it to fuck off in a direct and assertive tone.
“Calm down?” Hair begins to stand on the back of her neck as the rush begins to come on completely. This is the place. Peltry can see her hands moving with the same fluid grace of the power suit, a sensation of strength amplified by central nervous system stimulants begins to course through her body. Taking a heavy step toward the desk, her hands slowly curl into fists. “You want me to calm down. Tell you what, butt fuck. I’m going to stick your head square up your fucking ass so you can eat the line of shit you just tried to sell me.”
Without thinking about the movement, Peltry surges forward and seizes one corner of the desk with her right arm. Flipping the object toward the floor to ceiling window next to her, drawers fall from their places to disgorge a stream of papers, pens, widgets, and the flotsam one accumulates working in an office onto the floor. The desk continues a short arc, smashes through the glass and tumbles out of sight. Half a second of silence follows before a splintering report mixed with screeching car tires and horns is heard.
Taking another step forward Peltry grins at the man, never having taken her eyes off his the entire time. “You cocksuckers. You civilian crack smoking bone yodeling fuckwits made me and now you want to drop me like a hot goddamned rock because I might not be able to play well with the other children? Fuck you, pal.”
“Ms. Peltry.” Ashen faced, the man stammers out her name and manages to point toward the door at the rear of the office. “Ms. Peltry, I’m going to give you five minutes to leave the building. After that, I am calling security.”
“Don’t do me any fucking favors, dick brain.” It takes a grand total of two minutes to make it out of the lobby.
The two cops are standing at the entrance to the culvert. Inverted before them, the great trapezoidal opening looms like a gaping maw about to swallow them into the nearly tangible darkness. They are gesturing, Peltry guesses that they are arguing about who is going to walk into the hole first. She brings the compact field glasses to her face and reading their lips finds that she is correct, there is a heated debated going on over seniority and the application of that in terms of walking into dark creepy places. Smiling, Peltry shoulders her pack and moves off into the woods. As she walks along three other shadows join her camouflaged figure, the four of them eventually spreading out to avoid making too much of a presence in one part of the scene.
Eighteen months have passed since she threw a desk through the window of the Veteran’s Affairs office. In the intervening time, Peltry had managed to become something of a celebrity among the recently returned. Increasingly large numbers began to go looking for the woman who finally put a public face on what they could not say, speak of that which they could not.
They have been using the culvert for some months as a pick-up point for ‘new recruits’ as Peltry called them. That was until the police showed instead of another of their number, thereby confirming the collective suspicion about people looking for them and wanting more than a casual conversation.
“So.” The silent mass of humanity sits in front of Peltry in the growing darkness; they are waiting for the sun to set completely before moving on. He is a massive man, made larger by post-combat surgery to repair a wound that should have killed instantly. “Where we go from here?”
“We go home.”