Sticky sweat trickled down Geo’s neck as he inched forward. Tracking Pa is like tracking a rattler, he thought. He didn’t want to sneak up, startle, and risk being attacked.
Shifting his backpack and rifle, Geo applied more of Pa’s home-brewed mosquito ointment and cursed the suffocating heat. It was hard to visualize how last winter’s snows seemed like they would never end. Pa called it the worst winter in South Appalachia in the two decades since the Second Civil War. Now, being outdoors was like sitting too close to a campfire. Why can’t the weather settle somewhere in between?
Geo eased forward, careful to keep leaves from crunching beneath his worn leather boots. Across a clearing stood the village of Pumpkin Patch with a dozen log cabins. No sign of Pa. Had he gone inside?
Dense, saturated air carried the stench of rotting food, oils, and other refuse. Civ city-folk from Knoxville dumped their garbage on the Appalachian side of the border to evade their own tight environmental regulations. This close to the barrier, locals scavenged dumpsites for anything they could use. Despite their poverty, they opened their homes to travelers, though with border tensions rising, it was risky to approach unannounced.
A large hand grabbed Geo’s shoulder and shoved him down behind a clump of yellow forsythia.
“I told you to wait at home.” Pa’s whisper thundered in Geo’s ears.
Geo seethed inside but tempered his voice. “I’m nineteen, Pa. I want to see more of the world than our glen.”
“Most of it’s not worth seeing. Besides, if Thane Edwards and his Rangers draft you, you’ll see a lot you won’t like. Look beyond the village in the woods.”
Geo raised his binoculars and spotted a dull black mechanical exoskeleton, one of Civ’s Mechanized Female Warriors. “A mech?”
“Careful. They work in threes.”
Mosquitoes buzzed as Geo picked up the scent of mech hydraulic oils and perfumed sweat. A different hum hovered overhead. He raised his rifle and sighted a Civ drone with thin body and wide wings. It swooped over the borderlands and into the clearing. Before Geo could shoot, Pa lowered the barrel. The pilotless plane dropped its load of incendiaries, climbed, and disappeared above the treetops. Explosions burst in all directions, spewing orange flames and setting cabins ablaze. It was the second attack on villages helping refugees since the last full moon.
With the swiftness of wolves, three black insect-like mechs sprinted into the clearing and encircled the village. Geo wanted to see the faces of the girls inside the mechanical suits, to know his enemy.
He started to rise. “We have to help the villagers.”
Pa’s tanned arm pushed him down. “Too late. Look in the woods to the left.”
The beefy men were almost invisible in camouflage. “Rangers? Why don’t they help?” Villagers’ land tithes supported the Appalachian Rangers who were supposed to protect against Civ mech attacks.
The air filled with smoke and crackled like a campfire. Yet the Rangers didn’t plunge in, didn’t fire a shot, and Pa’s powerful arm held Geo down.
Three bearded men, wearing rags scavenged from dumpsites, emerged from a flaming cabin. They fired rifles into the nearest mech, to no avail. Geo knew from experience with a variety of homegrown weapons that even armor-piercing shells didn’t stop mechs. You had to strike a vulnerable spot in their black-coated titanium-polymer shields.
Dozens of men flew out of other burning cabins and fired on all three mechs, stunning them for an instant before the mechs sprayed machine pellets that shredded men’s guts. Riddled with shot, men splayed across the clearing. More followed. Still, Rangers didn’t intervene.
It was like shooting chickens in a pen. The villagers didn’t stand a chance.
“We have to help, Pa.”
Pa tugged Geo toward the narrow path away from the village. “We can’t.”
Three boys not much younger than Geo sprinted from the nearest cabin.
Geo yanked free of Pa and fired his .50 cal into the nearest mech, aiming for where the helmet fastened to the neck-plate. That stunned the mech for a moment, while a slender boy ran and reached the cover of woods. Geo waved him toward Pa, dropped a remote controlled grenade, and kicked leaves over it. He fired a second shot at the mech’s faceplate hinge as two bigger boys reached the path.
The mech spun and fired a volley, missed. Geo sprinted down the path, urging the boys along.
When Geo caught up, Pa grabbed him by the collar. “This is why I don’t bring you. Think before you act. Now go. I’ll provide a diversion.”
“I’m not leaving you, Pa.” Geo steadied his rifle.
A mech entered the woods, shoving shrubs and tree limbs away from her bloated mechanical shell.
Geo fired into the neck-plate. The mech stopped and raised her weapons. He wondered if this was how David felt when he faced Goliath. After all, Civs were like Sodom and Gomorrah with their godless wicked ways: dishonoring their men, destroying the sanctity of marriage, denying the one true God, at least according to Thane Edwards’ broadcasts.
Geo jumped off the path and triggered his two-phase grenade. The first explosion blasted up like a shotgun, spewing shrapnel into the mech’s most vulnerable spot, the groin-plate. Even though the titanium-polymer plate could withstand the blast, its clasp and hinges were poor quality, allowing the plate to shift and drop.
The first charge weakened the grenade’s phase-two protective coating and ignited a fuse. The second explosion spewed pellets into the mech-plate opening. The mech froze and toppled forward without firing a shot. Geo said a prayer for the mech girl.
Another mech stood behind her downed companion. She had a clear shot at him yet she didn’t raise her weapons. With no effective weapon of his own, Geo stared back. Then he shook himself and disappeared into the brush.
* * *
Sweltering in the oppressive heat of another global warming day, nineteen-year-old Lieutenant Annabelle Scott entered the concrete bunker of the mech base east of her Knoxville home. She carried a plastic body bag with the remains of Karen, a sweet new recruit Annabelle had helped train. The explosion had liquefied Karen’s torso, spilling her onto the ground like vomit. With the help of Lieutenant Dara Moore, Annabelle had scooped what residue she could off the dirt path. Oh, how she wanted to strangle the boy who did this.
Willing away tears, she tugged off her helmet and shucked her mech gear to escape the sauna within. She would have maintenance check the air conditioner, though she knew the answer: it wasn’t designed for oppressive heat.
While Dara rushed off to clean up and change, Annabelle lingered. She and Karen had planned to sneak away to an illicit party to let off steam. Now there would be no party for Karen, because a filthy Outlander had liquidated her. Despite three years in mech service, and countless funerals, Annabelle couldn’t help feeling each loss rip away part of her soul. Yet, she couldn’t force herself to kill the boy who did this.
Commander Samantha Hernandez approached and gave Annabelle a hug. “Don’t blame yourself, Lieutenant. You couldn’t have anticipated the rebel ambush.”
The hug was comforting, though it seemed odd coming from a husky Hispanic with facial scars from the Second Civil War and a body honed by weightlifting and kung fu. Sam wiped her brow. “The mission was a success. Outlanders will think twice before harboring runaways and poaching wildlife. Get cleaned up for the briefing.”
Mission guilt suffocated Annabelle like her water-boarding training. Before the drones swooped in, she had recognized Bret Shaw with someone who might have been his son, George, the one who killed Karen. Three fugitives escaped, Karen was dead, and Annabelle failed to shoot. That wasn’t success.
Leaving Karen’s mech suit and scooped-up remains on a concrete slab for autopsy, Annabelle went to wash up. She vowed not to vent with sister warriors. Their warrior ethic didn’t permit questioning missions or tactics. Grumbling could land her back in psych reconditioning, and she’d had enough for three lifetimes.
In the locker room, Dara was stripping out of sweat-soaked undergarments. A tall, thickly-muscled amazon the other girls looked up to, this fierce warrior was clearheaded in battle but far too bossy. She hugged Annabelle, intertwining her frizzy brown hair with Annabelle’s sagging blonde curls. “I want to put all Outlanders through a meat grinder for what they did to Karen.”
Annabelle pulled away; Dara’s hugs were unwelcome.
Dara grabbed a towel. “You know I’ve got your back.”
“Thanks.” Annabelle yanked off her top, dropped her blue uniform trousers, and shivered.
“Karen would want us to celebrate her life, not drown ourselves in sorrow.” With a towel over her shoulders, Dara helped Annabelle with her sweaty bra.
Annabelle ripped her bra off, while being careful not to antagonize a sister warrior. “I’m exhausted.” Plus, she couldn’t take another mission if it meant watching friends die. She bit that one back.
She grabbed a towel, and followed Dara into the showers. She set the dials to cool, let water cascade over her, and hoped it would wash away the guilt. It didn’t.
“You and me against the world,” Dara said. “Come to the party tonight.”
“I promised a night with Janine.”
“Sisters are always welcome.” Dara scowled. “Shake out of it. You can’t let the others see even a flicker of weakness.”
Annabelle forced a smile. Peer pressure was a powerful tool, though lack of private time had her aching to flee into the wilderness, even to the Outland. She turned off the water, toweled dry, and longed to blow off steam.
* * *
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