“For fuck’s sake, Hanstad, get those missiles back online already!” Corporal Skye Larkins shouted, jerking the dropship to one side, narrowly avoiding the incoming fighter as it fired a burst of shells at them.
“They’re done for!” Private Hanstad shouted back. “One of the pods took a hit, and it’s not responding to anything!”
“What about the other one?”
“Used everything in it. All we have left is the nose gun.”
It was tempting to scream at Hanstad that he was completely useless, but she knew that wouldn’t get them anywhere.
“If we don’t leave the atmosphere now, we’re not leaving this planet, period,” Hanstad said.
“You tell me how we’re doing that, smartass! I don’t even know if we can get this damn thing back to the Scott with all the fucking hits we took,” Larkins snapped. “The Scott’s going to have to come to us!” She reached for her radio. “Norman Scott, Skylark. Respond.”
“Skylark, Norman Scott,” their ship’s android caretaker answered. “What’s your situation?”
“We’ve taken heavy fire and can’t break atmosphere. We need you to bring the ship in for us to dock, now!”
“Roger,” the android replied. “Stand by.”
“Not like there’s much else we can do,” Larkins growled. “Hanstad, where the fuck did that fighter go?”
“Unknown. It’s not showing up on sensors.”
“I’m getting us up as high as I can so we’re not out here a second longer than we have to be. We’ve been out here longer than we should have been anyway. Fucking Sloan should’ve had everyone pull out as soon as they got attacked on the ground instead of trying to be the fucking hero!”
The shape of the Norman Scott loomed overhead, and Larkins made a break for it. “Hanstad, get the docking autopilot ready!”
There was a pause as her copilot worked, before he answered, “Autopilot locked on!”
They were only a few hundred yards below the ship now. The autopilot kicked in, overriding the controls and guiding them on a path to take them into the landing bay.
Something screamed by them, and Larkins briefly saw the shape of an alien fighter craft, jet-black in color. The cockpit was a hemispherical glass-like bubble. The pilot couldn’t be seen, as the cockpit was obscured by a yellow glow. Then the craft disappeared into a cloud.
“Shit! Hanstad, get ready on the-” Larkins didn’t have a chance to finish her order. The cockpit canopy exploded in a shower of glass as another burst of autocannon shells slammed into it. Glass slivers slashed into Larkins’ face and she yelled in pain as the wind rushed in, buffeting her around in her seat.
“Hanstad!” she shouted as the fighter zipped past them again. “Hanstad!”
When he didn’t reply, she whipped around, looking over her shoulder, and instantly almost vomited. Hanstad, or what was left of him, was slumped back in his seat. His face and chest were completely torn apart, making him completely unrecognizable. The console in front of him and the entire wall behind were both covered in blood and fragments of internal organs, and a pool of blood was forming on the floor underneath and around his seat. Even Hanstad’s helmet had been shredded, and she realized that the shells that had pierced the canopy had struck him directly. He never had a chance.
Knowing there was nothing she could do for him, she whirled back around to her console as the dropship was caught by the docking clamps and pulled into the hangar bay. “Get us out of here, Bishop!” she snapped into the radio.
“Affirmative, leaving atmosphere,” the android replied.
Larkins shut down the idling engines as the hangar bay doors closed underneath the ship, and the docking clamps lowered it to the floor. She slumped limply in her chair, and for a moment, there was dead silence. She put her hands slowly up to her face, feeling the blood running down her cheeks from the cuts the broken canopy fragments had inflicted.
A minute passed, and she still couldn’t bring herself to move. Then the cockpit door opened, and Sergeant Sloan demanded from behind her, “Larkins, what the fuck happ-”
The sergeant stopped in the middle of the word when she saw Hanstad’s body, and after a moment of stunned silence, she let out a curse of disgust. “Report, Corporal,” she demanded.
Larkins dropped her head back, looking at the ceiling. “Hanstad is dead, I’m still here, we’re back on the Scott. There’s your fucking report.” She really didn’t know what else Sloan wanted from her. There was nothing more to say.
Sloan turned to the open door, calling, “Stein, Wilderman, get up here.”
The medic and the smartgunner crowded into the cockpit, both men letting out noises of shock and disgust when they saw Hanstad’s body.
“Get him out of here and into a body bag,” Sloan ordered. They gingerly unstrapped him while Larkins and Sloan looked on, and together, they carried the decimated body out of the cockpit. Sloan followed behind them, pausing and turning to take one last look around the blood-splattered cockpit. “Larkins, get this mess cleaned up. Now.”
Larkins stared at her in shock. Clean up of this kind was for androids. It was Bishop’s job, not hers. Human personnel were supposed to be exempt from this type of work for the sake of their own mental health. That, and she could still feel the blood trickling down her own face.
“Sergeant,” she protested weakly, “I’m injured.”
Sloan grabbed her face roughly, turning her head from one side to the other, inspecting the cuts. “Grow a pair,” she growled. “Just a few little fucking scratches. You don’t need a damn medic and an infirmary bed.”
She released Larkins and stepped back towards the door, looking at her watch. “It’s 1538 hours. I’m going to be back here in exactly one hour and I want this fucking mess gone and this cockpit as clean as it was the day this ship came off the assembly line. I’ll get Collins to replace the canopy and get the rest of the damage repaired tomorrow. Get to it.”
She turned and stormed out of the cockpit, leaving Larkins slumped against the back of her seat staring after her. When Sloan was gone, Larkins turned to look at the copilot’s seat, and the image of Hanstad’s body hit her again, the few seconds where she had turned and seen his body playing on repeat in her mind just as if it was happening in reality. Every time the memory ended, it looped again, and again, over and over. A deafening ringing rose up in her ears, drowning out the pounding of her heart and her short, gasping breaths as she collapsed into an awkward sitting position on the floor, squeezing her eyes shut and trying to block out the memory. Focus, damn it. Don’t think about it, don’t feel anything. It’s not going to do you any good. She struggled to get herself under control, not wanting to feel anything, or acknowledge the horror and sickness entwining her insides. Dealing with emotions was for weak people and cowards. She could control it. She had to, for her own good.
It took several minutes, but eventually she was able to get to her feet, swaying slightly as she tried to balance on her own. Numbly, she exited the dropship into the hangar bay. Everyone else had already left, and there was no one around. Feeling as if she was walking along outside her own body, Larkins opened one of the supply lockers and began taking out cleaning supplies. She knew there were safety procedures that were supposed to be followed. With all the blood and body parts, the cockpit was technically a hazmat situation. But she didn’t care. She just wanted to get it over with.
Back in the cockpit, she began wiping up the blood, throwing each soaked cloth into a bag as it became useless, and spraying the bottle of cleaning agent to help clean up what was left behind. She had only made it partway through the cockpit when the flashbacks started again. She fell backwards into a sitting position, leaning against the wall as the images of Hanstad forced themselves on her once more. She was sitting perfectly still, but she felt like she was being violently slammed back and forth inside her own body. Her stomach lurched and she forced herself to her feet, making for the door as she realized she wasn’t going to be able to keep down its contents anymore. Completely disoriented, she staggered through the dropship’s cargo bay, and then, only halfway through, the vertigo and her stomach got the better of her and she collapsed onto her hands and knees as everything came up. Even when there was nothing left in her stomach, the dry heaves continued, her stomach clenching agonizingly as if it was trying to force itself out her throat as well.
Finally, the agony stopped and she had just enough strength left to push herself off to one side of the mess she had made as she collapsed onto her side, squeezing her eyes shut again. She felt the wet heat of tears forcing themselves out and running down her cheeks as she tried to regain control of herself. Don’t do this. You need to be better than this. You have to be stronger.
She didn’t know how long she laid there for, the trauma of what she had witnessed and the shock to her body making time seem irrelevant. Finally, she felt strong enough to force herself up to a sitting position. She wiped the mix of blood and tears off of her face, and looked down at the floor. Another fucking mess to clean up.
She was just putting the cleaning supplies away when Sloan came down to the bay to inspect the dropship. The sergeant looked around critically, and Larkins waited for her to find the one mistake, the one speck of blood she had missed. But Sloan only said, “Get showered and prepped for cryo. You have fifteen minutes.”
Everyone else was already waiting in the cryo room when Larkins arrived. No one said anything to her, and she didn’t try to talk to any of them. Her Reconnaissance In Force Team wasn’t as tightly knit as most, and it certainly wasn’t as well-run. Sloan was a hard sergeant, and she always pushed her troops to their limits. Most of the other ten members of the unit had one or two friends, and that was it. Except it was only nine now, with Hanstad gone.
Hanstad had been the only one who ever talked to her about something other than business. What possessed him to do so was more than she’d ever understand. She had certainly made no effort to reciprocate, and she wouldn’t say they had been close at all. They hadn’t been friends.
Friends. That was something Larkins had never had, not in all twenty-eight years of her life. She had never been interested. When she was young, just starting elementary school, no one had been able to understand why. Her parents and teachers were confused, and several theories had been tossed around. There had been visits to specialists and therapists, trying to figure out what stopped her from interacting with other children. No one had been able to come up with a definite answer, and finally, they had all given up and hoped that she would change as she got older.
But she hadn’t. In fact, as she grew older and watched how people interacted with each other, and the drama that invariably followed, she grew more and more apathetic to the idea. She didn’t need those kinds of complications in her life. There were better things to focus on.
One time, and only one time after elementary school, someone had tried to get through to her. One of her classmates in her junior year of high school had approached her with an offer to join him and some of the others on an evening out. There was nothing wrong with him, and no reason for her to refuse, but she had just stared at him wordlessly for several moments, completely uninterested and slightly disgusted, before pushing past him and going on her way.
Eventually, at nineteen, bored with her shoe store job, she had turned her focus to the Marines. She had gone through basic and Special Forces flight school, and made it into the 14th Regiment’s second RIFT. That had been her assignment for the last eight and a half years. Some of the original members had been killed off or been discharged after injuries, while some were still around. But that made no difference to her. She didn’t know the ones who had been around since the beginning of her assignment any better than she knew the newer members. She didn’t care to get to know any of them.
Sometimes it puzzled her as to why. She knew it wasn’t normal to feel so apathetic towards other people. Humans were supposed to be social, and have a desire to be around others. But she didn’t. Not really, at least. Sometimes, like during lunch at school, or in training, she had looked at a group of students or cadets gathered together, talking and laughing, and there had been a tiny part of her whispering for her to go and join them. But there was another part of her telling her to keep her distance, and no matter how hard that one part of her tried to encourage her to socialize, the other part always won out.
The “why” wasn’t as big of an issue to her as it used to be. Throughout her sophomore and junior years of high school, the constant conversations behind her back, even among her own family, about what was wrong with her, had beaten her down badly. She knew the way she was wasn’t right.
As Larkins stripped down to her undershirt and boxers, she looked down at the scars on her arms and legs. That was the result of listening too closely to other people’s opinions. She had let what they said get in her head and tell her that someone like her shouldn’t exist. Something about her was fundamentally flawed, and she needed to be punished, hurt for it. The pocket knife she had been given for her fifteenth birthday became the instrument of that punishment.
She didn’t remember when the first time was that she ran the sharp edge of the blade over her palm, pressing down until it sliced the skin and made the blood run freely. She only knew that it hadn’t been the last time, or anywhere close to the last. Some of the scars had faded in the twelve years since, so she couldn’t even remember how many times she had done it in the year that followed. But she vividly remembered the first sting of pain, and her gasp of shock and disbelief that she had really done that to herself, mixed with a sick, weird sensation of relief. It was both the pain and relief that drove her to do it again and again, feeling as if the pain was the penalty for being the way she was, and the relief was a tiny bit of forgiveness.
Eventually, though, she had stopped thinking that way. A year passed, and she began to realize that the pain wasn’t helping her. It wasn’t fixing her, or making her any closer to normal. All it was doing was adding more and more scars to her body, putting her at greater and greater risk of being caught and probably forced into getting some kind of therapy. So she stopped. Not all at once; the pain and relief had become too much a part of her life by then. But gradually, over the course of a month, she slowed down. The cuts became smaller and less frequent until, on her seventeenth birthday, she gouged the tip of the blade into her palm right in the center of the very first scar, just deep enough for a single drop of blood to squeeze out onto the blade. She had held the knife up level with her eyes, staring at the dot of dark red on the tip for a long time before wiping it on her pants, closing the blade, and tucking the knife back in her pocket. That had been the end of that habit.
Now, she realized that what people said didn’t matter. Maybe there was something seriously wrong with her. But it probably wasn’t something that could be fixed. Even if it was, she didn’t think she wanted it to be. What would change, anyway? I go to a few bullshit therapy sessions and suddenly I’m all smiles and warm and soft inside? I know how to make friends and feel happy? Fuck that. What was happiness anyway? Larkins asked herself that question again as she waited for Bishop to come around and prep her cryo tube. She knew what content was. She had been content for most of her life. Content with who she was, content with her situation, content to be completely alone all the time. But happiness was foreign to her. She simply didn’t know what it felt like. She wanted to, but she didn’t know how. And that part of her that refused to let her connect with other people kept telling her that they were one and the same; if she wanted to be happy, she had to open up to people, and that was something she would never do. She didn’t want that, and if she had to sacrifice happiness in the process, that was a price she’d have to pay.
I’m fucking dark today. It was fitting, she supposed, given what had happened. At least her reflections had given her a distraction from seeing Hanstad’s body over and over again in her mind. As the cryo tube closed over her and she felt herself begin to drift off, she allowed herself the luxury of wishing for peaceful dreams, or better yet, no dreams at all.