The Contractor’, Terry Grimwood

Illustration © 2009 Teresa Tunaley



i

 [ Illustration © 2009 Teresa Tunaley ] This was the dangerous moment, that less-than-one-second dead-spot, when armour and weaponry were deactivated and the neutra-shield brought to full strength. There were warnings of course, a feminine, soft-but-not-to-be-disregarded voice that oozed through the helmet communicator, overrode the Babel of orders and counted down the minutes to Leave Time. In the rage and chaos of battle, however, there was little a contract soldier could do to prepare.

Less than a second, long enough for a laser to lock on and slice dead armour and living flesh.

Soldier Nane was veteran enough to drop below the rim of his foxhole and foetus-curl in its belly the instant his final Leave Time warning was honeyed into his ear.

The rim of the hole erupted into a tempest of shattered earth. Un-deflected, a bounce bomb thudded into the mud beside him. Then exploded, dazzling turquoise, sun-hot, ripping the air with a million shards of razored steel, hurled against, and vaporised by Nane’s newly-powered neutra-shield.

Someone was screaming, one of his foxhole buddies, the insides of his belly, red, black through the shrapnel-torn hole in his armour and skin.

Nane pulled off his helmet and stood, the universal signal that his tachograph had switched his status from operational to leave-taker. A tired solder, said the tachograph’s makers, is a dangerous soldier. Smoke rolled across the war-ruined landscape, punctuated with explosions and fires and rising to merge with the swirls of grey-green chemocloud that roofed the Earth. Laser licked around him, any foul shots bent away by the shield.

Only leave-takers were shield-protected of course, because what was the use of a war in which one unit of contract soldiers couldn’t destroy an opposing one? Inter-corporate disputes could no longer be resolved. There would be endless stalemate. The idea was ludicrous, even to the soldiers themselves.

Nane looked down at the soldier with the torn guts. He wanted to press a healer-pack onto the gaping wound and give the poor bastard a chance, but the terms and conditions were clear; a leave-taker was an absolute non-participant who must abandon the battlefield immediately on the arrival of his or her replacement.

So where the hell was his replacement?

Nane was bored mindless by this campaign. His current employer, the Andrak Corporation, had become mired in an increasingly expensive war of attrition against NatStar Holdings over water supplies. So bored was Nane in fact, that he was considering an offer from NatStar. Desperate defensive actions and crazed counter-attacks were far more interesting than the inch-by-inch advances overseen by Andrak’s unimaginative project managers.

He glanced down into the foxhole again. The wounded man was still writhing in his own mud-slimed mess. Nane didn’t know his name. He had one of course. He had a whole universe inside him. But to Nane he was just another contractor, dying the way most contractors died. Nane wished suddenly that he could fuck the terms and conditions. His own helplessness choked him.

Just a healer-pack. An act of mercy—

“Nane, you lucky bastard!”

“Ward?” Nane shouted back across the scorched desolation of no-man’s land. “I should’ve known you’d be here.”

There was a loud, long laugh. Ward always laughed loud and long. Nane had known him since childhood, had fought in countless campaigns with him, both on the same and on opposing sides, like now. Work was work, friendship was friendship.

“Don’t bother with recCity,” Ward yelled, raising his voice above the hiss and crackle of laser fire. “I was there a couple of weeks ago; drank it dry—”

“—and fucked it to exhaustion.” Nane always finished this, one of Ward’s more mellow sayings.

Aircraft screamed overhead. A moment later the NatStar-held horizon was washed out by a tac-nuke detonation, its glare filtered by Nane’s neutra-shield. Jesus, Andrak must be desperate, tac-nukes were expensive, not only to buy but to clean up afterwards.

“Kill you later!” Nane shouted in Ward’s general direction.

He heard that long, loud laugh—

A volley of bounce bombs shrieked overhead and ploughed into the NatStar positions. Nane flinched back as Ward’s foxhole erupted into liquid flame.

Gobs of burning soil and molten flesh arced upwards then rained down to splash onto the torn ground and bounce wetly off Nane’s shield. He was only dimly aware of an Andrak assault unit as they rushed past him, anonymous in their armour, firing from the hip as they disappeared into the smoke-fogged NatStar line.

His fault.

He had distracted Ward, just long enough for the bounce bombs to get through.

His fault...

Nane stared at the ruin where Ward had died, unable to move his focus back to the battle, to the watch for his replacement. Something had torn inside him, just as brutally as that poor bastard was torn at the gut down there in the foxhole.

He was feeling and that was wrong. Thoughts and feelings were soldier-killers.

But he couldn’t stop.

Fuck and hell he couldn’t stop feeling...

He stood motionless as more assault units swept by, a mind-numbed rock around which wave on wave of soldiers eddied on their way to war.

ii

recCity was a 500 floor pyramid of glass, steel, concrete, flesh, alcohol, and dissolution. Its roots were in the broken, exhausted earth and its peak scraped the boiling swirl of chemocloud under which man lived, breathed and scrabbled for existence. recCity was light and noise, vision and sensation, the place where contract soldiers forgot the wars and civilian pleasure-seekers risked their lives.

In a nameless club on recCity’s fifteenth floor, Soldier Nane drank beer and popped chemicals while an electro-band pumped nihilistic rhythms into, and bleak memories out of, the war-burnt minds of the dancers crushed around him. Above his head, the club’s teasers smeared vaginal fluid over the glass ceiling as they writhed through their endless, drug-fuelled siren dance. Teasers were cheap, a buffet of delights, available for a set price and to be enjoyed for as long as the libido could stand it.

Nane reached for the white narco-caps in the help-yourself bowl on the bar and tried not to look at the woman again.

He looked.

The woman sat alone at a table on the next tier, near the entrance to the teaser buffet. She played nervously with a glass of rose, anxious-looking, not having a good time. The woman had red hair, a fine-featured, pale-skinned face, wore a tight, emerald sheath and was not a whore. Nane had no proof of that, but he could tell. Like most contract soldiers, Nane was an expert on whores.

Nane brought a narco-cap to his lips. Oblivion was called for. Thoughts and feelings were ruining his leave, and the woman up there would only stir up a fresh batch of them. He was better off with the teasers.

He looked at the woman again.

Go to her...

No, he would make a fool of himself. He was used to talking to soldiers, prostitutes and barmen, but not women. Women-type-women.

He tried to concentrate on getting the barman’s attention for a re-fill to wash down the caplet.

The woman drained her glass, a dainty gesture. She was leaving, any moment now. Her body was poised, ready to stand. Nane knew body language. Knowing body language helped keep him alive.

She slid back her chair, picked up her bag—

Nane moved fast, eyes locked on some point above the woman’s shimmering, tumble of red hair.

I should walk right past her, go to the teasers...

Nane barged through the tangled knots of drunks, dancers and drunken dancers, ignoring their curses and threats. There was no one here for him to be afraid of, except the woman. He was afraid of the woman.

She was on her feet, coat over her arm, searching for the exit and looking frightened.

I’ll look after you...

Trajectory carefully planned, paths merging, accidental collision.

“Sorry...” too gruff and loud.

She answered, eyes locked on his.

“What?” Nane yelled back at her. “I can’t hear...”

“I said it’s okay.”

She didn’t move, neither did Nane. They stood front-to-front, crammed close by the crowd.

“I’d like to dance with you,” Nane said, loud again. It sounded like an order, a battlefield command. People turned to stare.

The woman frowned, studied him.

Then smiled.

And nodded.

Later, they leaned on the great balcony, staring out across the glittering sweep of recCity. Its landscapes and structures were delineated by a starfield of artificial light, its heartbeat was the discordant thud of music.

“I’d given up,” the woman said.

“On what?”

“You were staring at me all night, but you never made a move or even smiled.”

Nane shrugged. He didn’t know how to answer. Women didn’t usually talk to him like this. They normally sighed and moaned and told him how handsome he was and how big...

“I’m Eva,” said the woman. Soft name. As good to say as its owner had been to dance with, light, warm, every touch and movement electric.

“I’m Soldier Nane.”

Soldier? Don’t you have a first name, Nane?” The woman chuckled. The rhyme was funny to Nane as well, the way everything was funny to him at this moment.

“We’re only given one name.”

“But your family—”

“You don’t know much about soldiers.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Then what are you doing in recCity?”

“My boss owns a brothel chain, he’s looking to open a new outlet here. I’m a PA. I organise his life.”

“And he leaves you to fend for yourself at night?”

“This is the first time I’ve left my hotel. I was too scared before and I was pretty scared tonight.”

You don’t have to be scared anymore...

“So, why didn’t your family give you a first name?” Eva said.

“Worker families can’t afford more than one kid. They sell any surplus offspring to the military corporations, who re-name us with something easy to shout out on the parade ground.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

Nane shrugged. “I was a baby. I don’t remember anything except military school. Other soldiers—” Like Ward, and the poor bastard dying in my foxhole. “—they’re my family.”

“You’re one of the oldest soldiers I’ve seen around here.”

I don’t know how old I am. I don’t know anything...

Eva looked at him. “I guess that means you’re good at your job.”

“Just careful.”

He almost told her about Ward at that moment, but stopped himself in time. You didn’t tell civilians about the wars. And you never told anyone how you felt.

“Have you ever thought of retiring?”

Yes, this time he had, which was why he had been shovelling in the narco-caps, to keep such crazy thoughts at bay...

“The manufactories would drive me insane.”

“It doesn’t have to be the manufactories—”

“Who else wants used-up soldiers?”

“You could join an intersteller survey company, get off the planet.”

And travel space in a rammer? Who the hell would want to do that?

They would take him of course. The search for resources was desperate. There had to be good planets out there somewhere, ripe for the picking, to be claimed, deflowered and fought over.

“Why do you care, Eva, I’m just a soldier?”

“It would be a shame if... you know...”

“A shame?” Nane was puzzled. Death or maiming was a hazard of the job, the shadow he had towed around since his childhood in the corporate war school. “I don’t understand...”

“Just a shame,” Eva said. She was looking at him, her emerald green eyes tearing layer after layer of gnarled flesh from his heart. He touched her face then drew her tightly to himself and kissed her mouth.

iii

The nightmare was of red and black, of smoke and flame, of a spiralling screaming hell that spun about him faster and faster and from which Ward shrieked his name as blood poured from the chaos-coloured walls of the whirlwind—

“Nane...” Someone was trying to hold him down. A woman...Eva, Eva was here, in his hotel pod, naked in his bed. “Nane, what’s wrong?”

“Dreams,” Nane answered then regretted it instantly. You didn’t admit the bad or fearsome. You swallowed every pain and hurt, locked it tight lest it distract and kill you.

“About the wars?”

Nane nodded. He had opened the lid now, no point trying to hide.

“Something happened didn’t it?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It does.”

“Why do you want to know? Are you a headhunter?”

Say no. Tell me I’m not being honey-trapped...

“I’m a PA, that’s all. And...and I care about you.”

You’re one of the last who do because even Ward is dead now...

Nane hesitated, a dangerous question tangled in his throat. “If...if I retired, and if I went out to the colonies. Would...” He tried again. “Would you come with me?”

“You don’t know me. I don’t know you. I...”

“There isn’t time for people to know each other.”

“Not in your world Nane. I understand that. Mine is different, mundane, slow.”

“Dead.”

This time the pause was long. Nane panicked, perhaps he had gone too far, spoken out of turn.

“Yes,” Eva said at last. “Yes, it’s dead.”

Nane felt her head move on his chest, her hair brush his skin, sensed her looking up at him in the dark. “You would give up a whole life for me Nane, for someone you’ve only just met?”

“Yes, I would.”

“Maybe...” Eva sounded hesitant, unsure. “Maybe I’ll think about it. No harm in thinking is there?”

iv

Wall breached, concrete shattered.

Nane was on his feet and into the billow of dust-heavy smoke.

Through.

Into the NatStar compound.

Lasers lashed from the main office block, fingered the ruin that surrounded it, scrabbled through debris and mud in a desperate search for flesh to burn.

Now, go, now, now, now...

Across torn, smouldering asphalt, eyes fixed on the NatStar entrance. Someone down, to Nane’s the right, a torso and head cartwheeled bloodily

across his path.

Too far to run. Defensive fire too heavy, too meshed.

Afraid. Jesus, I’m afraid...

Nane had never been afraid before. Not like this.

His head was full of Eva, her voice, the feel of her, the want of her, taking too much space, too much energy.

Run, come on, run you stupid bastard, run and weave, drop, fire, run, weave, drop, fire, run...

Figures suddenly swarmed from the NatStar entrance, Last Stand Syndrome. There was no one more loyal than an employee, born in the company hospital, housed in the company pod-tower, educated at the company academy. You lived for your company and if called upon, fought and died for it.

Nane’s assault unit opened fire.

It was brief, though messy.

In, now, go, go...

Leaping and stumbling over freshly massacred employees.

Another Andrak casualty, a glimpsed, oily explosion.

Entrance.

Toss in a handful of gut-rippers, down, blast, the rattle of shrapnel, screams, smoke.

In, in in...

 [ Illustration © 2009 Teresa Tunaley ] Reception area, shattered, burning. Four, no five gut-ripped corpses. Four employees and a contractor who had lost her helmet, Nane saw long, blood-stained blonde hair and recognised Illins. He hadn’t fought with, or against, her for many years but once met, Illins was never forgotten.

More Andrak contractors ran into reception. An officer signalled Nane towards the smoke-obscured, glass stairs.

Didn’t want to go there. It would be defended, stairs always were.

So fucking what? It was his job wasn’t it. So go, now.

Eva again, touching his face.

Will you come with me Eva? Will you? After this?

The officer screamed orders and invective into Nane’s helmet.

What the fuck is wrong with you? Go, you bastard, up the fucking stairs. Go. Now.

Up, tired and aching, weaving towards the stairs, jumping over the bodies, debris, into the smoke and up.

Cautious now, one tread at a time. Laser humming, thumb on trigger.

Tense. Waiting for the shot. That shot. The final shot...

Landing.

“Clear.” Boots trampled the glass treads behind him.

Corridor to the left. Relatively untouched though smoke-misted. Too many doors.

First door, boot-smashed. Empty but for desks and chairs and the melted corpses of scuttled computers.

More boot-smashes, heard not seen, shouts of “Clear!” No firing closer than the muffled crump and crackle of the main battle outside.

Next door. Tense, laser ready.

Smash.

In.

Large glass table, ringed by chairs, conference room—

Figure.

Armoured, no helmet. Red hair. Pale skinned—

Jesus... Fuck... No...

Impact.

Driving Nane back against the wall.

He crumpled, shivering but unable to move. A nerve-stinger. NatStar wanted a prisoner, a hostage perhaps. Humiliation burned through him more intensely than any pain. He dragged his thousand ton head up to watch Eva work her way towards him.

“Should’ve known,” Though formed in his head, the words came out as a gurgle from slack tongue and lips.

He saw her insignia then.

Jesus, they were on the same fucking side...

“I lied.” She sounded genuinely regretful. “I’m contracted to Andrak’s HR unit. They’re worried about you Nane. Hesitations were detected from the moment that bounce bomb hit your foxhole, they worsened when Ward died. We needed confirmation, that was my job. You’ve been letting thoughts and feelings get in the way.”

No harm in thinking is there?

“You’ve become a liability.” Nane saw then that she held a brightly glowing wand. Oh Christ, no, she was going to decommission him.

Move... Come on, move...Nothing will fucking move...

Decommissioning meant the manufactories, mind-death, an incomprehensible outer darkness...

“I really am sorry Nane,” Eva crouched beside him and swung the tip of the wand round to aim it at the decom socket situated on the right shoulder of Nane’s armour. “I actually liked you.”

And I loved you.

A little movement was all he needed, just a finger, just an inch. Jesus, it hurt...

Her face was close to his visor, furrowed now with concentration. The wand shook slightly. Nane saw a tear spill from her green, green eye, sensed her hesitation—

Too many thoughts and feelings, Eva.

—and fired.


© 2009, Terry Grimwood

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