Attrition

He was standing at attention, but staring down at the floor, lost in thought. He hadn’t heard his name.

The General repeated, “Lieutenant Asche.”

“Ma’am.”

“I’m told that you were the only member of your unit to reach your objective, and single-handedly destroyed it. You must be very proud.” She turned to take the medal box from her aide-de-camp.

“I suppose so, Ma’am.”

“You suppose so?” She looked amused as she pulled the award from its box, smoothed out the ribbon, prepared to hang it around his neck. “Why wouldn’t you be proud?”

He opened his mouth, paused, said nothing.

“Out with it, Lieutenant.”

“It was… the target was a crèche, General. A Woolie crèche.” He couldn’t meet her eyes as he spoke. “No military value at all. Just… babies.”

“Woolies gestate twice as fast as humans, did you know that, Lieutenant Asche? And they’re four times as likely to bear multiples.” She stepped a bit closer, placed the ribbon over his head and around his neck, speaking quietly. “If we’re going to win this thing, we’ve got to do what’s necessary. It’s a numbers game, Lieutenant.”

She winked, stepped back, saluted him smartly, moved on to the next soldier.

Just Maybe Worth It

She runs things, the whole Lows from the Hook all the way down to the Five Ways. Her boys, man, they called the Faces ‘cept they ‘aint got none, all masks and shit, all covered up, so nobody can know ‘em to the Eyes.

You ask her for something, you best know what it is you want, and what you willing to give up for it, because she can make it hurt, even just for fun, just to prove she can, or she can give it free just as easy, just to prove she can.

There been dudes who say they’ve had her, but they don’t last long. Either they lie and she punish them or she just don’t leave no exes. So brother, don’t bark up that tree, know what I’m saying? She throw you out, you hit every branch on the way down, you don’t get up after.

Retrieval

I can’t believe you, she said. I can’t believe you did this to me. To us.

It had been early evening, then, the sun low on the horizon surrounded by streaks of red and orange as if to frame her anger with a complementary background, the light glinting off her ring as it sailed from her hand out into the featureless water. Now, it was early morning, days later, almost a week; the rented yacht long gone, replaced by a dinghy with an outboard four-stroke motor.

I’m sorry, okay? I over-reacted. I should have trusted you. Her voice was chastened, humbled, pleading. What do we do?

He leapt from the boat into the water, no mask or tanks, head down and eyes open, trying to find that lost glint against the deep blue darkness.

It’s still down there… somewhere down there is my ring. She took his hand. Please, John?

Drink Up, Dreamers

“It’s halfway up the landing legs now.”

She stared out the viewport. The only part of the colony still visible, ironically, was the flattened metal bulb of the water tower. All the gravel paths, the prefab housing, the crops, the animal pens… “We landed on a hill.”

“Yes we did. But it’s halfway up the legs anyway. About four four more feet and it’s at the bottom of the engine cones. If we’re going to lift off it’s gotta be now.”

“How much fuel do we have loaded? How far can we—”

“There’s enough for the computer to get us to the high ground to the East. After that… dunno.” He got a faraway look in his eye. “We’d have to dry out and repair the ISPP unit. Tanks should still be good, unless they get damaged by debris while they’re underwater. Then it’s a matter of getting the fuel to the new landing site. We’d have to mount the spare tank on one of the caterpillar chassis. Lot of work.”

She rubbed her eyes. “Let’s get everyone strapped in.”

“Burt and Maise are still unaccounted for, we—”

“If they’re still alive, they’ll see us. Strap in. We’re taking off.”

Cry When It’s Over

Hide from the dead people. Keep hiding, even when they’re close. Run only when you have to. Always have an escape plan. Look for ways you can go because you’re little that they can’t because they’re big: gaps in fences, holes in walls, windows left partway open.

If you get cornered, slide down the storm drain and wait for night. Move away through the drain without splashing. Come out somewhere else.

Eat when you can, even if you’re not hungry. Food goes bad. If it smells bad, don’t eat it. Stuff that’s bad for you lasts longer. Drink when you can, even if you’re not thirsty. Don’t drink dirty water, sip the dew from the big leaves in the mornings.

Don’t cry. You make noise when you cry, you close your eyes when you cry, and your eyes can never be closed. Look around, be aware, know what’s coming. Survive.

Forced Entry

“I said we were safer, not safe.”

Fleet pulled at the restraints, gave up, leaned his head back so that it was in contact with hers. “You’re supposed to be able to warn me about this sort of thing, Mandy.”

“This one wasn’t specific,” she protested. “I just saw the chairs, back to back, empty, like when they brought us in. Anyway, Dreamland One didn’t predict it either, so be mad at him.”

“He’ll just say ‘insufficient input’, and tell us to be more careful.”

“How long do you think they’re going to make us wait?”

“No idea.”

“I only ask because I have to pee.”

“Listen, I told you not to drink that whole—”

A metal door creaked open, and an older gentleman in an impeccable Italian suit sauntered in. “I hope you’re comfortable.”

“Is that sarcasm or irony? I can never keep straight which is which. What do you think, honey?”

Mandy shrugged. “I’d bet it’s irony, but it’s been a long time since English class.”

“You two are made for each other. The very souls of wit. But let me tell you what happens now.” The man walked slowly around and leaned over in front of Fleet, so that they were face-to-face. “Now is when you tell me how to penetrate Dreamland’s defenses. Now is…” motes of dust were beginning to fall past his glasses, between their faces; he looked up.

“That’s actually not what’s going to happen. Your ceiling is about to fall apart.”

“That’ll crush you as well, you won’t—”

“I’m not doing it. That’s way more juice than I have. That’s Rapture.” Fleet smiled. “Anyway, it won’t collapse, it’s just going to turn to dust little by little, until we’re hip-deep in it, and then she’s going to come down inside to kill you.”

Do You Still Feel The Pain

“Daniel?” She called down the hallway, then walked down it peering through doorways until she found him. “Daniel, I’ve made dinner. Do you want some?”

“I’m having fish.”

“Have you caught anything yet?”

“No but I will.”

It was rushed out, as if to head off any questioning of his eventual success. “Well, that’s fine, but maybe you could come eat something to tide you over until they start biting?”

“Don’t want to miss any. Don’t want to.”

“All right, suit yourself.” She paused. “Can I at least bring you a plate?”

He didn’t respond; he jiggled the rod and watched the disturbed water bounce around the bowl. She walked back to the kitchen, took his plate from the table, began spooning little garlic potatoes onto it, one by one, eventually moving on to the green beans. By the time she reached for the salad tongs, she was fighting tears.

The Old Brookville Store

“I swear to you, as sure as I’m standing here, it’s still there.” The man’s finger rested on the map, halfway down a side road none of them knew. “Little mom-and-pop grocery, even has a pump around the side. Used to fill up there sometimes when my wife forgot to get gas—”

“And it hasn’t been hit?”

“Only the locals really know it’s there. And they’re all dead,” he sputtered out a nervous laugh, “or undead.”

“Why aren’t you holed up in there right now, if it’s so well-stocked?”

“It’s a fishbowl.” His eyes darted around, found no comprehension on their faces. “Glass front. I’ve seen them push in big windows like that, shatter ‘em just on pressure alone.”

“All right.”

“Anyway, I’m alone. No gun. I can’t fight, all I can do is run. If there’s one in there, or more than one, what would I do about it? But you fellas, you—”

“Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re waiting here, handcuffed. A couple of my guys are going to recon the place. If everything checks out, you get to stay, and you get a share of the haul. If you’re lying — and I mean, about anything — you’re dead.”