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It always began with an explosion.
Any explosion – any one of the hundred or more he had survived.
The explosion would lock him in, trap him, make him a prisoner of his sleeping mind. In the real world, he was safe in bed with a woman curled close beside him. Vel’s cousin, Lea, her body warm and sated. But it was not enough. The moment sleep claimed him the explosion would still come, shredding his sanity. Then the nightmare would run on, making him relive each episode, as vivid as life. Every thought, sensation, feeling, image, as clear as it had been at the time, pursuing him remorselessly until he could – somehow – scramble back to consciousness from the relentless abuse of sleep….
An explosion crumpling the building to his right as if it were paper.
Three more blasts in quick succession, the last close enough to spew out a lethal hail of masonry. The kinetic shielding on his armaments belt protected him so the rubble bounced away, but the screaming beside him was cut off abruptly. What had been two human beings a moment before, was now a pulped mess.
A shattering silence followed. He could see troops advancing – eight – and five more still in cover behind them according to the Lattice screen. With three bursts he dropped two of the nearest, the rest scattered for cover.
“Leader Four-Delta from Prime. Withdraw immediately.”
The voice in his ears at last.
Relaying the order to his three surviving team members, Jaz put down covering fire as they retreated. The Lattice was pounding him with information through his scalp implanted data-port, faster than he could absorb it: numbers and location of the enemy, their armaments, expected movements, ground plans, suggested paths he could take. More.
“Leader Four-Delta from Prime. Lattice is showing you are surrounded. We are unable to support. Repeat. Unable to support.” A pause, before the voice added: “You’re on your own out there, Jaz.”
Snarling the word, he focused on keeping up covering fire. He knew they were surrounded. He could see what was going on. The handful of Special Legion troops he had been given for this job were being sacrificed – a feint – so the rest of his unit could hit the main enemy base largely unopposed. Except of course no one had told him that. It crossed his mind to wonder who he had pissed off enough so they chose him for this suicide run. If – when – he got out of this he would find out and make them pay. Then the thought occurred that it was probably nothing personal at all. When you were living out a death sentence, you shouldn’t be too surprised to be treated as completely expendable.
A sudden blossom of light caught one of the three whose retreat Jaz was covering. It impacted in the centre of the spine and the figure’s arms went wide, briefly embracing air that was suddenly red with a haze of vaporised blood, flesh and entrails. Jaz swore and pulled a grenade loose from his belt, sending it in a skilful parabola back towards the enemy to cover his own retreat.
Another of his surviving team went down to a sniper shot, but the third was trying to offer what covering fire she could from behind a partially demolished building and was being pretty effective. He ran, rolled, then vaulted the lowest part of the wall, crouching beside her, checking Lattice screens, looking for any way out for them.
More blasts exploded on either side and the world disintegrated. Finding himself suddenly under a pile of tumbling masonry, Jaz shook free of it like a wet dog shedding water. But beside him one arm was all that was visible from beneath the rubble – that and the blood.
He started running again.
Watching the environment.
Watching the screens.
Checking the Lattice data overlays.
A movement on the screen broke the profile of the low rise building beside him, some kind of accommodation block. Appearing on screen: ground-plans, elevations, positions of people, their predicted paths. The data projected into his visual field, augmenting his reality. He turned, raking fire across the facade. A figure fell and a fusillade of energy fire came his way from the building.
Lattice visual was showing him six men in there. Lattice data telling him they were armed with anti-mech heavy weaponry, which he knew they would now be turning on him. The energy threshold of his kinetic shield would be zero defence against that kind of power. Lattice data flashed up a helpful message warning him of the over-ride risk. Better late than never. He cancelled it and pumped more of the adrenalin based cocktail of drugs through the intravenous clip fixed into his torso. Speed was his only defence now and not much of one.
His whole focus on making that speed.
The buildings ended in a high wall and as he made the final sprint towards it, he tried to decide between tracking along it for a break or scaling it and risking exposure. Checking Lattice screens for the information he needed to inform the decision. A close burn sent him diving into the last available cover before the wall but –
The screens all went dark and a mild voice was speaking calmly in his ear:
“You are not logged on to the Lattice. Please be aware when the countdown hits zero your brain implants will self-destruct – you are not -”
Fuck the bastards.
He cancelled the voice and ignored the timer as its chilling digits counted down his heartbeats on the edge of his visual field. There was nothing he could do. The coms drone has been pulled out leaving him to die. For a moment he felt the futility of fighting. They had abandoned him, he was not going to get out this time.
Then he heard it.
Distant sounds of a fire-fight.
Jaz felt an almost dizzying rush of relief – these were the sounds of death that offered him some small hope of life. A moment later he was up and running.
Freeing the climbing line on the belt, he fired the grapnel, barely waiting for it to impact before swarming up the high wall. He felt incredibly vulnerable – naked to the guns behind. Then he was flattening himself, sliding over the top, dropping down and sprinting.
The trace of light caught in his peripheral vision, making him break into an evasive diving roll. He saw, not felt, the next splash of energy. The shock of it impacted afterwards, horrific and crippling, tearing out his strength and will.
He hit the ground and stayed down, unable to rise, unable to think, his consciousness hollowed out by the pain.
The smell of the dark ground beneath his face, tasting musty and sweet – an alien soil. The beat of his heart timing the steady flick of numbers that counted down to the moment oblivion would devour him.
Something moving, lifting him, an arm under his shoulder. A voice – his brother’s voice – Avilon Revid.
“Let’s get you out of here.”
….. waking was always sudden and never easy.
Like ripping away flesh.
Then came the disorientation as the two worlds of the past and present battled for supremacy.
Which was real?
His mind was still caught in the snare of memory, vividly relived. He could feel the cold sweat on his body and the hammering of his heart. A face, vague in the darkness, Avilon’s? Then another voice, familiar and feminine, full of concern and compassion:
“You got it bad tonight?”
The face shifted, the features softening into Lea’s. She was there for him as she had been the last time and the time before that. And he knew then, with a sudden certainty, she would be there for him every night he needed her. He reached out and her arms slipped around him drawing him close, holding him as he sobbed in relief, like a frightened child.
A Fortune’s Fools short story by E.M. Swift-Hook.
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