Rest was impossible in the Weanoc’s jarring flight pattern, but not for Jamie. It had been weeks of two-hour naps, hugging her rifle like a lover in the Jeep, that had pushed her to complete and utter exhaustion. It didn’t matter where she was, she was going to sleep.
Jamie shot awake at the vibrations of the landing gear striking down on the hard surface of the heliport. Her hand bolted for the .410 handgun.
“Easy down, Custom!” The crew-chief shouted, causing Jamie to reestablish with reality, and she released. “Damn, you’ve been in the jungle too long!” Jamie was too embarrassed to respond.
When the ramp slammed down a hand-painted signed said it all: Welcome to Wireless Ridge Forward Operating Base. The Last of the Line.
“Chief, is that right?!”
“Yeah, FOB is it, the last military base.” The remains of Jamie’s long-range patrol unit gathered their gear and stepped into a very different base than the one they left two months ago.
Where once there had been thick blanket of trees below the heliport was now a deep trench network filled with sounds of flechette machine guns.
“Damn, the war’s bad here too.” Beth sighed.
“Stop looking,” nudged Nicky, “it’s bad karma.” He motioned the group to check in, and there standing on two metal legs behind the desk, was a bitter reminder of the true cost of this war.
“Corporal Jaren,” she tapped on a PDA computer, “this is all that remains of your LRRP unit? The five of you?” She pointed to the dirty soldiers. “What about your CO?”
Jamie made a face, “KIA.” The clerk continued to update her tablet.
“Your orders are as follows: 48 hours of R&R, then you’re absorbed into the FOB defense detail.” Jamie, Beth, Nicky, Tom, and Mariam all looked at one another with confusion.
“We were told that the situation here was desperate-”
The clerk waved her hand, cutting Jamie off. “You owe another LRRP team for the R&R. We were getting our asses kicked until they napalmed an underground breeding chamber.” The clerk shrugged her shoulders.
“Wish we could have watched them bastards burn slow.” Tom said as he walked away with a rubbing of dry gears.
“Chow?” Asked Jamie to the rest of the team.
“Chow.” They answered, and with tired feet, they walked through the chaos of the base in a haze of weariness. Jamie watched people rushing with boxes of flechettes to the trenches, and coming the other way from earthworks were bloodied and broken bodies.
Waves of guilt suddenly shot through her. Seeing the clerk with the metal legs, those wounded soldiers, and a few others with artificial limbs. Jamie was whole, no missing arm or leg sliced off by Nix claw. No, all of her scars were internal.
When they descended into dining hall, it was packed; but they were allowed to cut in line as a sign of respect. Jamie heard the chatter as they hunted for an open table. Wireless Ridge and the city of Vickers were close to defeat. The talk told her that the spirit of defiance was broken here; all of these soldiers were just waiting for the end.
The depressing conditions of the base made eating hard, Jamie was a Custom. This moon was her only home, and she couldn’t retreat, there was no were to go. She had been altered on the way here, to fight like those things did. The Nix breeders bio-engineered their warriors for each world, and with the staggering Terran colonial losses, the military started the Li-Tieguai program. It was the government’s attempt to follow the Nix’s example and custom-design soldiers for their environments. Jamie stared at her back of her hand, she had never got used to her camouflaged skin.
While the others talked and shoveled hot food into her mouths, Jamie was becoming more depressed. The jungle, she couldn’t dwell on it, but now she was scared. As she witnessed the desperate situation here, she wondered what would happen to her if the moon was lost to the Nix?
She took a bite of her cake and suddenly dropped her fork as a long buried memory screamed back. It was the same kind of cake Jamie’s mother made for her 18th birthday. The draft collectors came for her before she gotten a second piece and while she watched the others eat theirs, it occurred to Jamie that she would never see her mother again. It was like, in her mind, that every cake was now a lie. Earth was now an alien world. It was them or us, a war of pure survival. It was that fucking simple.
Jamie pushed her plate away in disgust. “I’m going back to the barracks.”
“Jamie! What the hell?!” Mariam protested. “C’mon don’t leave!”
“Can I have your food?” Tom called out as she walked away.
She found her old barracks, stripped off the dirty hardsuit, took a real shower, and then flopped down on some soft sheets. Just before sleep overtook her, she prayed that she wouldn’t dream about war.