Snakes That Rattle

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Her eyes snapped open with the sound of the blast overhead. Orange and red blossoms exploded against the early evening sky, muted by the dust on her canopy window and mingled with white specks floating only through her vision. It made everything both colorful and confusing.

Debris stretched out beneath her, and the occasional rocket hissed through the air in the distance. The war might be over. That might be automatic fire from machines not sensible enough to know that everyone was dead, she couldn't tell. She could barely tell if she was alive or dead, herself. Her body felt warm but the air just above her exposed skin felt ice cold, as though someone had cranked the temperature controls inside her BioInterface Offense Suit down as far as they would go and left them there. And she could only concentrate on one thing at a time. Focusing on how cold the air was dimmed the lights and muted the noise. Focusing on the sound of gunfire made her vision go gray.

After another couple of breaths she closed her eyes and shut everything out for a moment, and only then she began to move. It was harder than she expected, muscles stiff and unresponsive, everything tingled as though she'd just woken up from a long sleep. One finger twitched, then two, then her wrist turned and her hand gripped the cushioned grab-bar just above her head. Half her rigging had come detached, and it was difficult to even tell which way she was oriented. Upside-down? Sideways? Must be sideways, the open window showed roughly equal parts of ground and sky and though the orientation was off, it looked about right for half passed out on the floor after a bender. Instead of a shower wall, rocks filled her ground-level vision, and red dust caked over the viewplate.

The lights flickered in the cockpit. That accounted for some of the bright flashes earlier, at least. "HUD display." Nothing. "Display status." Still nothing. Her fingers clenched at the thought that there might not be enough juice left in her BIOsystem unit to move, let alone get her out of there.

"Radio on," she said, before she realized that no power meant no radio too. Damn. "I need to get out of here."

That was the first step. The next step was remembering which side the ejection lever was on. And then hoping she wasn't balanced on the edge of a cliff.

Her rigging was so shot she didn't bother shutting it down properly, just yanked the wires out of their electrode patches until she was free. The emergency ejection lever was above the right-hand grab bar, which she normally thought was a bad idea given how many cadets ejected themselves in a panic reaching for the wrong thing. Right now, she appreciated that. One good pull and her canopy popped, first the outer shell and then the inner cockpit cover opening up and falling away. She could see the terrain outside now, hear the howling winds. The missiles had stopped, though. No explosions.

Hannah crawled out of the Bio-Interface unit onto the ground and pulled herself up to her feet with aching, trembling limbs and wires still dangling from her suit.

Outside the wind blew hard enough to send her staggering back against her unit when she stepped out of the shelter of its body. She wriggled her upper body back into the cockpit enough to dig around and find a spare rag to tie over her face against the dust that blew everywhere, in her eyes, in her mouth. When she could breathe again she looked around. There were no giant forms standing anywhere around her. There were several dust-covered lumps that might have been rocks or toppled BIOsystems.

"Oh, you bastards." Hannah shook her head, turning a slow three-quarters circle as she tried to see if any of her team was still upright. Upright was better than prone, closer to alive. Maybe. "You utter bastards." She couldn't tell if she meant her team, for falling, or the enemy for shooting them down.

The gunfire had died entirely away. Or faded into the background behind the wind. Impossible to tell in this terrain how far away everyone was, and with her power supply gone her sensors couldn't tell either. So she was cut off. The idea filled her with very little in the way of terror, more of a kind of giddy relief.

Something beeped, knocking her out of this strange new world in which she was alone with the carcasses of war machines. After the fourth repetition she realized what it was. "Battery backup supply."

Crawling into the cockpit for the third time, she found the backup battery supply almost knocked loose from its housing. The cable connecting it to the emergency beacon had been half torn away, but enough power ran to it for the beacon to kick on automatically once it stopped detecting routine power flow without proper shutdown protocols. Her hands scrabbled at the back panel of the cockpit till she could pry out the maintenance kit there. A couple quick wraps of electrical tape would hold the cord in place.

By the time she crawled out of the cockpit again she wondered if she wanted to do that. But it was reflex by now, take care of the wounded, stay by the dead for pickup. Send up the beacon, stay where you are so they can find you. Hannah didn't want them to find her. She liked this solitude, on this stormy continent in the middle of the Simoom Everlasting. If no one picked her up, she and the rest of the team could make some kind of monument to the useless battle that had taken place here.

They picked her up off the surface. A drop-ship lowered its platform and disgorged a team of medics, who went around popping canopies, crawling like insects over the bodies of her teammates. She looked around while they did, watched them come closer, from insects to shadows to people. Her neck and shoulders creaked as she turned to try and see everything at once. They didn't pull out any bodies. "You have to get them out of there," she heard herself saying. The high wind made it hard to speak with parched, stinging lips. "They could be stuck, you need to get them out of there..."

One of the medics, barely a face at all behind the helmet, turned her by the shoulders and steered her towards the drop platform. "We're working on it, you need to get up to the med-ship. Come on, watch your step." Hands on her shoulders, pushing her to walk, one foot in front of the other, a little faster than she could cope with right now. She tripped at the edge of the platform itself. The medic looked her up and down, reading aloud the data scrolling across the medical HUD on the inside of the helmet. "Mild concussion, 2% likelihood of permanent damage with no repeat injury in the next ten days. Moderate to severe shock developing, core temperature one and a half degrees below normal..."

The winds stopped with a clank and a hiss of the seal in the riser area. Then a hiss as the door closed behind her, hands still on her shoulders directing her to walk. Behind her, she heard the platform descend again. "...mild dehydration compounding muscle impairment..."

The litany of symptoms followed her down the hall to the triage area, where she was instructed to lie down and try to relax her limbs. Medical wing gave her the creeps. "I'd relax more if you kept this place a little heated." No one answered.

Far too soon she heard the hum of the drop-ship lifting off, going into motion again. "Wait, where's everyone else?"

The medic working on her pushed her back down onto the bed. "Lie still, you have a concussion." A gloved hand beckoned someone beyond her field of vision to come and stand over her, too. "Just lie still..."

"No, you left them back there, you left... you have to go back for them." They were medics. They weren't soldiers or pilots or corpsmen, they didn't understand. They had never had to depend on each other to the same degree, hadn't been woken up at the stupid hours of the morning to grab their gear and be out in twenty minutes to go charging off at a single snapped order. They didn't understand.

Hannah's legs thrashed over the edge as she tried to get up, to move towards flight control. Two medics now, one hand on each shoulder, both of them pushing her back down. One pinprick, one touch of icy gel, she didn't know which was what but she did know that in the next breath she started to feel sleepy and nauseous. "You can't leave them down there, they're injured, they need help. You have to listen..." Bile roared out of her mouth and splattered all over the floor, saturating the frigid air with acrid, half-digested food smell that stood out more vividly for the contrast. Rich and hearty, too.

Her strength gave out microseconds later, and she sank to the floor between the arms of the two medics, still protesting.

"What model was she driving?"

"Sidewinder. Three years old, still pretty good but they just can't compete with the latest tech. Have you seen the new MC-135? Packing bunker-busters? They'll fire them straight at the BIOS units, a Sidewinder isn't fast enough to dodge that. They're gone inside of a minute."

Their voices sounded muffled and far away, echoing like they were under water. If she was still in the medical wing she should have heard beeping, the movements of bodies in thick and swishing lab coats, liquid-filled plastic bags and the metal rolling sound of equipment carts. Everything was damped down. Quiet.

"Then she shouldn't have survived."

"Target sights were off, maybe, she only got clipped. It took out one leg and knocked her over, looks like the second shell went right over the chestpiece."

She was in an incubation chamber, under sedation and on a nutrient drip. Easier to stick a person in a tube and reintroduce them to sensory input slowly, was the new thinking, rather than to subject a traumatized soldier to the sometimes difficult stimuli of a medical bay. And it made them easier to care for. Hannah would have struggled if she'd had the energy, but the drip kept her sedated and detached, apathetic in her limbs while her mind beat against the outer walls of her body, screaming for her unit and her team.

Nothing happened. No one came. If the medics looked at her display they didn't notice any increase in brain activity, body temperature, heart rate. She didn't know if there would be any, as disconnected as she felt from what she physically could and couldn't do. She had to wait to be decanted.

When it happened it came in a rush of fluid and muscle contractions, turned upright and dumped from one floor through a spray-cleanse chute, into a saline tank. They gave her at most five minutes in there before they flushed her and the water out to be recycled, bundled her up again in blankets. The whole time they talked to her and about her, but none of the words reached her. None of it was relevant.

The lights dimmed from the first burst of brightness to something more tolerable; no, they'd put her in a room. Her own room, a small chamber with the walls now dimmed to 90% opacity. "There, that's better."

A medic. Her medic. The one assigned to her case. She had a case, and a case number, and a log in there somewhere of all her injuries that she couldn't take stock of for herself. She also was naked. "What's better?" she asked, teeth chattering. She pulled herself up onto the bed and wrapped her arms around her knees, huddling in on herself.

"You, for one thing. They never keep these things warm enough." Not a question. He pulled the blanket out from behind and under her, wrapped it around her shoulders. "They'll bring you some clothes in a minute. What do you remember?"

Everything. She remembered everything. Coming over the ridge and into what was supposed to be a shallow trench but was instead a sheer drop off, further than even the BIOS units could tolerate safely. And then Commander Mikkelson ordering them back to the last position of cover right before the drones or planes or whatever they were came screeching over the horizon and the missiles firing. Airborne units, and not the Thunderbolts and Shriekers she was used to. They they landed in a cloud of gravel and dust kicked up by their propulsors; they fired before her Sidewinder could turn around.

She got off a couple of lucky shots, close enough to the rear edge of the unit to be able to fire wild in a fair sized arc without being in danger of hitting any of her team but then something took out her legs and she fell against the edge of the cliff, hitting her head and knocking herself out.

"Not much." Hannah tried to stretch her lips into a smile but it felt disconnected, psychotic, so she stopped. "Um. I remember they hit me with a couple of missiles."

"The legs of your unit were smashed to hell and gone. I'm surprised you didn't have nerve damage from the bio-feedback." The medic wrapped his fingers around her arm, warm flesh under hypoallergenic plasticloth pressed against cool skin over muscles that didn't feel like hers. "Can you feel all your fingers and toes, all your extremities?"

"I... yes? It feels funny..."

"Like you're not really moving your limbs?" She nodded. "That's a product of the isolation tank and the shock, it'll pass. Wiggle your fingers for me." She wiggled. "Now your toes."

One command led into another. Turn her head left, then right, look into this light as it shone into her eyeball, then disappeared and came back. Extend her leg, then her arm, touch her nose, till she didn't know how much time had passed between the blanket and the medic leaving. After another unknown length of time she slipped off the bed, padded around the narrow room on her bare feet with the blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She felt the ship moving through space under her feet even though they said it was impossible. Through the air, through space, it all felt like the same thing.

She had never been alone as she felt now. Not since joining up, at any rate. In her BIOS unit there was the endless hum and whir. And the ability to chatter to her team, all she had to do was turn her head a little to the left and speak and someone's voice would sound in her ear. Usually the commander's, telling them to keep the lines clear.

In the barracks there was a little more room per bunk than this medical bunk, but not much. No walls separating them. They showered together, ate together, bunked together all in the same 250 square meter area on the drop-ship. They serviced their machines in the hangar two and three at the same time, firing insults back and forth, throwing their equipment to each other. Someone asked for a particular wrench or a bolt gun, it got tossed from one unit to the other as they straddled the neck joint of the helmet.

Hannah wondered what would happen to her BIOS unit now, to all of theirs. Some were irreparable, but the ones that could still be operated could be patched back up, it would be easier than assigning them new systems.

But there was no more them. There was no more unit. There would be no more Sidewinders or Drakken 250s or Ghost Bears, because there were no pilots to run them. She had to remember that.

Her fingers clenched in the fabric of the blanket, twisting the rough fiber around and rubbing it against her skin. Everything happened quick in the field, too quick to process. They trained you so that you got used to making split-second decisions, so that when time slowed and reflexes took over you made better choices instead of inexperienced ones, but it wasn't always enough. Sometimes all you could do was stand there and watch, when everything went so wrong it was completely out of your field. Which led her plodding straight back to the curiosity, what had it been like for Commander Mikkelson? Had he seen the shot that killed him?

"Lieutenant Commander?" The medic's voice drifted in from underwater again. She didn't know if she was standing or sinking to the floor. "Shit. She's collapsing again..."

Two weeks ago they had huddled under the blankets in their quarters in the barracks, everybody else asleep or pretending to be asleep and the lights dimmed low. Assignments to be handed down later that week, maybe later that same day, and rumor had it that the front line had shifted again. She asked him what would happen if the front line shifted their way.

"Then we'll be on the front line, I guess."

Hannah frowned. "Never been on the front line, before." Not this kind of front line. A formally declared war was rare enough, this one had broken out in her second off-world deployment. And until now they'd been running patrols in rough areas, areas that weren't as secure as they looked on paper and needed a careful eye kept on them. And she knew that dealing with guerrillas and insurgents could be just as dangerous as being at the forefront of a battle, but that didn't mean she felt ready for it.

He combed his fingers through her close-cropped hair, rubbed her back. "You'll do fine. It's just like what we've been doing, only there's more direct shooting. Less popping up from cover, more vehicle-to-vehicle combat."

"I guess I can do that." They all trained in vehicle to vehicle combat as part of flight school, even if the odds of a pilot encountering anti-v combat were slim. Better now than they had been when she enlisted, though.

"I know you can. You're one of the best trained in this unit, and you've been tuning up everyone's systems, so right now you have a better idea of our capabilities than we do," he chuckled, and behind that sentence she heard the command to put together a packet for the briefing tomorrow on problem areas and what everyone had to look out for in the field. "We've been well rested and we're well equipped. We'll do okay."

She didn't want him to reassure her like that, make her feel like a rookie when she had a couple deployments under her belt, so she kissed him to make him stop. The last time they'd had leisure time at night for real lovemaking and not a quick touch in a hall closet had been before they left. Not that there hadn't been downtime since then, but they were trying to maintain the semblance of propriety. Commanders did not sleep with their subordinates, even though everybody knew it.

Sometimes, she wondered why the rest of the team put up with it. Sometimes she wondered why he kept on; Tomas was so disciplined and in control in other ways. It didn't affect team cohesion, as far as she could tell. She received no benefits, unless one counted having a lover slightly more often than the rest of the team, got no special shifts or favors from the galley, was excused from nothing and no bad behavior was tolerated. Because of that, she was still one of the team. Just, one of the team who could be found in the commander's bunk instead of her own, some mornings.

Her fingers dug into his shoulders; she clamped her jaw shut on the sounds. He never said a word, not when they were like this. His breath puffed hot and fast against her cheek.

And afterwards he held her until she drifted, when he nudged her back awake so she could slip over to her own bunk to the left. At least to maintain the pretense of separation, the polite fiction that they weren't breaking three different regulations.

The Commander snored softly after a little while, but now that she was awake she stayed awake staring at the bunk above. Pretense of separation didn't bother her, nor did the fact that he returned to his home and his wife when they were back on base. The fact that it didn't bother her did bother her, in a nagging sense that she thought she should feel something.

She did, too. She felt something every time the Commander came into a room after a day's out scouting. She felt something when he looked at her as a man and not as a commander, she felt something when they lay together, before or afterwards, in the middle of the night.

So it wasn't that she didn't feel anything, that she was doing this for physical pleasure alone. But she didn't know how to measure or judge what she did feel, and when, and why.

Voices above her head swam like water in her ears. "There, we've got her back." She hadn't known she'd been gone until just then. How bad was it?

Her body felt heavy and thick, but no sharp pains anywhere, just the dull aches of muscles over-stimulated. Bruises where the wires and edges of the paneling pressed against her legs, little burns smaller than her pinky nail where the electrode patches took a hit.

The others looked worse, she figured. They'd taken more hits. Why hadn't she gone down with them, though? She was on the outside of the formation, she should have taken more hits, why wasn't she dead, too? Was she dead? Was this all just a dream? Did dead people dream?

Bodies in lab coats and gloves all wearing the same impersonal face. They arranged her dead limbs on the table until she could move them on her own, and then they took their readings and left. She spent a couple of minutes staring at the ceiling and wiggling her fingers and toes to remind her that she was conscious again and could move. She sat up and took stock of her bruises and burns.

No, she decided. She wasn't dead, because even if dead people dreamed and the lab coats had been part of a dream, she wouldn't be dreaming every tiny burn from the electrodes in the exact place where they would be.

Hannah slid off the table and walked the circumference of the room, feeling the smooth texture of the floor just rough enough to provide traction for unsteady feet. It was too small and empty, and too big and bright to be a cockpit. If it were a cockpit she would have a nervesuit, and she would be connected and seeing the world in lines of green and yellow and blue light against whatever dust caked on the windows.

Open palm to the wall, but the opacity didn't lessen and she forgot how to open the door. So it was just an open palm slamming against the wall, the blanket around her shoulders reminding her of how naked she was, shouting for them to let her out. Let her go back to her unit. In between remembering that they were gone, they were all gone, or at least they had to be even if she hadn't seen the bodies or they would let her talk to them again, right? Wouldn't they? They would have housed them all in the same medical wing, they wouldn't have lifted off without recovering the other pilots, the other bodies, but if they were alive and injured that meant they were out there on the other side of that door and her thoughts chased themselves around and around again until the medic came rushing back in the door to spray an ice-cold hypodermic on the back of her shoulder and catch her when her muscles stopped working, shortly before she lost consciousness again.

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