A short story by Rohan O’Duill.
Gared stared at the blue-grey of the metal ceiling. They could just make out the bolts and joints that held the station together, illuminated from the kitchenette by the rehydrator’s fluorescent clock. Insomnia was their new obsession—their body required sleep, but they couldn’t face the horror it brought.
How strange to think that they once envied the simple lives of the civilians on the station. Not that Gared ever wanted to feel the terror of waiting inside a missile launcher again. But at least there had been some happiness in that past life.
A low, ominous vibration started beside their head and steadily grew to a crescendo with gentle lapping wave noises from old Earth. An alarm designed to slowly and peacefully lull you from the sleep you weren’t having.
Gared swung themselves from their bed, using the handles placed above them, and positioned their leg stumps into the waiting artificial limbs. The mechanisms engaged, clamping tight as they stood and moved gingerly across the apartment. It had been six months now, but still, it took a few minutes every morning to re-acclimate to the robotic legs.
They made it into the bathroom and attached the apparatus to relieve themselves. Their legs were not the only things to have been affected after being hit by that railgun round. As they brushed their teeth, Gared’s reflection stared back at them morosely. Their sallow skin looked pale and blotchy, the bags under their eyes hanging lower every day, only being held up by the chub emerging in their cheeks.
A marine had no option but to be fit and toned. There was too much training to end up any other way, no matter how much you ate or drank. This life was different—there was no 06:00 alarm, no commander to kick your ass if you were late or if you weren’t putting the work in. Now they were on their own.
Their watch had a dozen or so messages from Gared’s fellow marines. But Gared left them hanging there, unanswered, in some kind of message purgatory. They had started to type replies to every one of them, but something had stopped them pressing send.
Fear? Shame? Anger? The meds? The beers?
All of the above?
Gared had it all, and worst of all, today, they had to talk about it. Keeping their invalid’s subsidy required weekly therapy. Weekly torture, more like! That know-it-all bitch, probing into their mind, while she spent her whole life sitting in a comfy chair. How the hell could she ever even imagine what they had been through? But deep down, they had to admit that therapy was working, the episodes were getting fewer, and their moods were not quite so polar.
They pulled their t-shirt on and looked at the sad little belly that was emerging through the tight black material. They needed to start working out. Their refusal to buy larger clothes and put up with the snug fit in the hope of getting to the gym was one tiny victory in this battle.
They emerged from their small apartment into a run-down part of the station. Telstat Neptune Station was state of the art, but seedy and dubious areas appeared everywhere that humans congregated. There must be a need within everyone for something not quite so shiny. Gared’s veterans pension would have allowed for something in a more upmarket quarter, but living here made it less likely to run into anyone from their old life.
‘I feel that we have made enough progress to get you back to work. Congratulations, Gared.’
Well, isn’t that swell. What the hell am I supposed to work at now?
‘That is good news. Thanks for all your help, Doctor.’ It was hard to step out of military conditioning. Always defer to anyone in a position of power, and tell them how great they are. That way, they might not fuck them over so quickly.
‘I will get the paperwork started. Have you thought about what you would like to do in the next stage of your career?’
Oh yes, I have been planning this since I was a child. After I got my legs blown off, I always wanted to become a fucking ballet dancer.
‘I am not sure what else I would be good at.’ Gared shrugged their broad shoulders and stared past the doctor absent-mindedly at the sculpture sitting on the shelf behind her. ‘Perhaps something creative.’
‘Well, I am not sure how many creative jobs there are on the station. But there is an opening for an office administrator in a small travel agency that I could recommend you for?’
‘I was thinking that it might also do you some good to get involved with a youth programme. Many veterans in your position volunteer to work with troubled teens—help to steer them in the right direction. What do you think?’
Gared turned their stare back to the doctor, her perfectly smooth skin, her genetically modified blue eyes, and those brunette locks framing her high cheekbones and Grecian nose. They would love to give her a good smack, maybe break that nose, let her live with at least one imperfection.
‘Can I put that on hold? Not sure I am ready for that yet.’
‘Of course, we can chat about it again. Whenever you are ready.’
‘Again?’ Gared grimaced. ‘We’re not done?’
‘Getting back to work is just the first step. There are lots more steps still to be taken on your journey.’
You do realise you are talking to someone with no legs or feet?
‘OK, I will see you next week.’ Gared got up to leave—the thought of getting back to work, back to reality, was a scary one, but a tiny sliver of hope infected them. This called for a little celebration.
Most of O’Riordan’s regulars were old-timers, retired from a maintenance or service job where they had toiled away their better years. Gared stood at the bar—their legs didn’t get tired, and it was easier getting to the washroom that way. Each trip to the toilet was enough of an ordeal in and of itself.
Most of the patrons hadn’t much to say for themselves other than telling the same nonsense stories every day, but there was one kid who wanted to be a marine, and she clung to Gared like an attachment arm. She had failed her first attempt at the marine intake exam, and for some reason, believed that hanging out with Gared would help her pass the next one.
‘Hey Marine, what you drinking?’ Vreni’s thick spacer accent called out as she approached the bar.
‘A fine triple distilled whiskey all the way from good old Ireland.’
‘I’ll have a beer, Vreni.’
The girl swiped for two beers and seated herself at the adjacent stool.
‘Hey Johny,’ she shouted caustically at the barman as he poured the beers. ‘Will you stick on a rerun of last month’s Cold Rush, so me and my comrade here can discuss tactics.’
Gared grimaced and shook his head in Johny’s direction, behind Vreni’s back.
‘That’s the latest episode of Nigh Beats; there would be a feckin riot if I turned that off. Get a hold of yourself, young one.’ Johny said as he placed the beers in front of them.
‘Thank you,’ Gared said with genuine relief in their voice.
Vreni, turning her stool, looked keenly up at them. Gared stared forwards at the holo.
‘Looks like Jordan is digging Brad the Zombie up again. Haven’t they done this episode before?’
‘They have done every story a million times at this stage.’ The attempt at steering the conversation away from the military didn’t last long.
‘So the next intake is coming up in two weeks. Do you think you could get one of your old buddies to hook me up in a military sim to get some training in?’
‘I keep telling you, Vreni, it’s not training you need. That comes when you get the gig. It is attitude you need to work on. You’re too keen and too quick to anger.’
‘Frack you, cyberdick.’
‘Thanks for proving my point. Why the hell do you want to be a marine anyway?’
‘Well, it’s not like anyone is lining up to employ me, I sucked at school, and I am almost as ugly as my dad.’
Gared half snorted before catching themselves. ‘You’re not ugly, Vreni. You’re a classic spacer, skinny and lythe.’
Vreni looked away, had they embarrassed this brash young woman?
‘Believe me, if I could have got another job at your age, I would have jumped at it.’
‘What should I do then, seeing as you’re so smart?’
‘I have a few old friends in important places. I could get you into an engineering apprenticeship, and you might still get to go out into The Cold, only you wouldn’t be getting shot into the middle of a battle.
‘Really?’ Vreni sipped on her beer, mulling over the offer.
‘Yes, but the same thing is going to apply there as with the marines. You need to work on your behaviour. Also, you drink too much.’
‘You’re one to talk.’
Gared shook their head and gave a disapproving intake of breath through their nose.
‘You have to stop that backchat. That’s your biggest problem. Remember to keep your mouth shut. Do that, and I will get you a job with a decent wage and a pension. Just give up on this obsession with becoming a marine.’
‘I can do that.’ Vreni smiled. It wasn’t a good look on her—too much crazy in it. But hey, that was going to be her boss’s problem, not Gared’s.
The first day in the office had been hell in space. They had no idea a job could be so tedious—hours of scanning through application forms for mistakes and double-checking the twenty digit ident codes. The banning of A.I. after the war had meant every process had to have human oversight. What a load of shite.
The contrast to life as a marine could not have been starker. Why had the Doc found them this job when she knew they had been struggling with concentration? Had she done this to punish them?
Gared knew straight away why there was a position open in the company. The owner was a prick. Frank Gortin was short for a spacer, with a badly receding hairline which he wouldn’t just accept and shave. Combined with pinched eyes, a potbelly and a smile that stretched into a growl. He barked out instructions like Gared was a bold child. Even their drill sergeant hadn’t been so condescending.
Luckily for F.G. Travel, they had no competition on the station. They either booked people onto the long haul two-year journey back to Mars and Earth or else on the single pleasure cruiser that departed every four days in its so-called deluxe orbit of Neptune. The only difference from the station’s orbit was that the luxury cruiser had windows and passed close by a few moons, along with an all-you-can-eat buffet and bar.
Frank spent most of the day sitting in his office on the holo. The man never did any work— as far as Gared could see he was never even logged into the system.
‘Could you bring me in an americano, Soldier?’
Frank seemed to find it amusing to refer to Gared as “Soldier”. The only joke that Gared could see was that the coffee machine was closer to Frank’s office than to Gared’s desk, yet the lazy bastard couldn’t get up and press the button himself.
Gared purposefully took their time at the machine and waddled into Frank’s office with the coffee sloshing around in the cup. Sitting down all day made Gared stiff and unsteady on their legs.
‘Still getting the hang of the prosthetics?’
I should rip you in half and see how you get on with them, arseface.
‘Good job that there isn’t much requirement for running around in this office, eh?’
‘I tell you what, Soldier. I am in a good mood today, so why not take off early. I won’t dock you or anything.’
That ten minutes extra will no doubt change the course of my life, you charitable fuckwit.
‘See you tomorrow, Soldier,’ Frank said with a chuckle as Gared turned to leave. Gared took a deep breath and tried to calm their mind. But it wasn’t working, no pub tonight—too dangerous in this mood.
They walked the thirty minutes back to their apartment, trying to remember the calming techniques that the doctor had taught them. But every time they got their breathing under control and reached that happy place—it was invaded by Frank and his fucking virus of a voice.
Gared threw their blazer onto the bed and crashed down into the kitchen chair, almost smashing the metal frame, forgetting for a moment the weight of the robotic legs. They sat forward with their head in their hands and prayed. They had never been religious, but they were running out of options. After a few minutes, they also ran out of words to offer up.
And just like that, the doorbell rang. Was God actually that responsive?
Vreni stood in the doorway.
‘What’s up, Marine?’
‘Not a great time, Vreni. You OK?’
‘Yeah, I got some good news. I wanted to say thanks. ’
Gared took a deep breath, gathered themselves—Vreni didn’t need to see them like this.
‘That engineering job came through?’
‘Yeah, it did, but I turned it down. I passed the marine intake exam, and I am starting at the academy in two days. All thanks to your advice.’
Gared grimaced for a second before pushing the anger deep down inside and turning it into a smile.
‘That’s good news, Vreni. Congrats.’
She stepped into the apartment.
‘I eh, got you a present to say thanks for coaching me over the past few months.’
‘You didn’t have to get me anything, Vreni.’ And they really wished she hadn’t.
‘Well, I just robbed it, really, from my dad’s stash. He deals them.’ She slipped a small bright green wrapper into Gared’s hand. ‘They are called paradise, should help you get some time away from all this.’ Vreni gestured around the sparse apartment.
Rage prickled in Gared’s throat, but they choked it down. They took the pill and placed it on the table—Vreni stood there awkwardly waiting for them to say something. Gared tried to get their mind back into gear—what would a regular person say right now.
‘You will make a great Marine, Vreni. Next Leave you get—beers are on me.’
Vreni leaned in and hugged them uncomfortably. It was all they could do to keep a lid on the pressurised pot of anger and anxiety that rumbled through their whole body.
‘See you next time, Marine.’
‘Next time, Vreni.’
The door zoomed shut as Vreni’s figure disappeared into the gloomy corridor. Gared turned back to the table, tears welling in their eyes, breathing ragged. The only friend they had managed to make would probably get herself iced before they could get another beer together. Why didn’t she take their advice?
‘Stupid girl,’ they shouted, smashing their fists off the small kitchen table.
The pill bounced and rolled before coming to a stop between their elbows, the neon green wrapper shone up at them. Paradise!
Carefully they picked it up and looked at it intently, like a prisoner who had just found a hole in the fence, freedom calling but a kill zone to run through first.
Fuck it. It wasn’t the first kill zone they would have run. They peeled the wrapper and found a disappointingly cream speckled pill inside the dazzling packaging.
It danced around the palm of their shaking hand before they threw it down their throat.
Gered waited with their suit in rigid mode as the loading arms fixed onto them and lifted the two-tonne suit off the ground before rotating it and loading them feet first into the silo. They could feel the flux of the magnetic fields as the silo powered up, ready to spit them into space. The launch music started up. It was a compulsory part of the sequence as the deadening silence in the tube freaked out the mind when your body was accelerated to thirty thousand kilometres an hour in a couple of hundred meters. But the song was wrong. The suit must have been glitching. The song was familiar, it sounded like commander Mint’s launch song. Something was off about their suit.
The smell of the protective gas stuck to the roof of their mouth as it was pumped in under pressure to counteract the G-forces during acceleration.
The countdown hit zero, and the top of their head smashed up into the cushioned helmet, their stomach somersaulted as the tube pumped them out into The Cold. They slowly peeled their eyelids back as the G-forces subsided. Frack, they were smack bang in the middle of a dogfight. Dozens of drone fighter ships whizzed around them like deranged bluebottles trying to escape a fly trap. Why the hell had the carrier spat them out in the middle of this mayhem. They checked the radar and couldn’t pick up any of their squad’s signatures, just hundreds of fighter ships shooting the shit out of each other. This wasn’t going to end well.
‘Mission control, I need an update on Alpha squad. I seem to be off track.’
Static silence was all that came back through their comms.
Gared pulled up the forward-facing camera on the viewscreen, trying to get a glimpse of the target asteroid through the frenzy of drone ships. A gap opened up—they weren’t heading for an asteroid. They were heading towards Earth. How the hell had they ended in the inner system? They had no memory of the two years it would have taken to get here.
This was big trouble—Gared had lived their whole life in space. They hadn’t trained or taken the meds that would allow their body to survive in natural gravity for any length of time. Even in their suit, this was going to be hell on Earth.
All of a sudden, they cleared the maelstrom of the drone ships and shrapnel. They scanned around for their team and spotted a mech a klick or so away. Zooming in on their display revealed an all too familiar enemy mech. How could they ever forget that black and silver suit, modded to look like some transformer from old Earth entertainment?
Before they could react, red flame licked up the side of their suit as they began to enter the atmosphere. All Gared’s readouts went dead as the suit automatically entered re-entry mode and fired thrusters to correct their trajectory.
Gared felt a pull at their shoulder as something clamped onto them. That Ganges mech must have snuck up on them.
‘God damn you, Gared, you are getting slow,’ they muttered to themselves as they took a deep breath before swinging a left hook across their shoulder. Their attacker released them, and Gared was on them, blind from the re-entry flames, swinging haymakers like they were going out of fashion. The rage engulfed them totally—there would be only one winner this time. They felt a strange sense of peacefulness as their vision started to clear and their attacker lay in a bloody pulp on the ground.
Gared tried to wipe the blood from their eyes, but it just made it worse. The satisfaction at their victory was replaced by panic as they realised where they were. They looked around at the travel agency office, the bloody mess underneath them must have been Frank. How could this have happened? How could they fix this?
Through blood-stained vision, they pulled up their contact list on their watch and dialled Mint. She didn’t answer, so they dialled again, and then again.
‘What the hell, Gared? I’m in the middle of a class.’
‘I need you, Commander.’
‘Not one word for six months, and now you need me in the middle of a battle sim with my students.’
‘I think I killed someone.’
‘Drop a pin, I’m on my way.’
Gared stood stationary, staring at the motionless body until Mint turned up, ten minutes later, breathing hard.
She gave Gared that look—the one that could cut you in two—before she ran to the body and felt for a pulse.
‘He is alive, fucknuts. What the hell happened?’
‘I dunno, I think I was asleep, a nightmare, I didn’t wake til after….’
‘The medics are on their way, and there is no way I can get you out of this one. You can run now, get your go bag and try to get off station, or you can stay and face the music. You got about thirty seconds to decide.’
Gared looked at their hands as they tried in vain to wipe the blood from them.
‘Running isn’t an option for me anymore, Commander.’
Read more about the author Rohan O’Duill HERE.