The mud looked up at him and grumbled, “Who the hell are you?”
The musty smell of the grass and ground clogged his nostrils as he strained for a single, clean breath and dug his fingers deep into the dirt. His eyelids quivered and strained to open while he felt himself mixing into the ground as blood and flesh sought refuge in the soil of the battlefield.
The whispered sizzle of a particle beam was followed by a smell like burning aftershave. Somewhere in the smoke, amid the staccato of clanking metal, something screamed an unrecognizable sound.
The mud drawled with a slow, familiar twang, “I’ll ask again ol’ buddy. Who the hell are you?” It always spoke with his voice.
“Trauma induced disassociation,” one of the Docs had explained.
It used to bother him, a long time ago; but since it never had anything new to talk about, he mostly learned to ignore it.
The air suddenly went silent, but for the constant thrum of his heartbeat rushing inside his ears. He peered through matted, bloody eyelids and surveyed the smoking field around him. Billows of gray and brown crawled like carrion creatures along the piles of unmoving bodies and he realized that again he was the last. Like so many times before, it was just him and the mud.
A mortar exploded somewhere to his left. His body rocked and he grimaced in unexpected pain. The extras hadn’t kicked in yet. He shivered.
“Hey!” the mud protested. “Do I come and mess your house like that?!”
The cool of the earth pressed against his stomach, and he probed with his fingers. They encountered an opening just abovehis navel and the sticky, wet warmth of his own blood covered his hand. The sensation sparked memory and the memory spilled into his thought.
“It’s a synthetic coagulant, Private,” Major Ghunda explained, as she withdrew the needle from his arm. “We’re going to include it with your weekly anti-rejection therapy for a while. We’re very excited about it and you’re so lucky to pilot its use.”
“So what does it do?” he asked her.
“And call me Kenny, Doc. All the docs do.”
She smiled and patted his hand. “It responds to trauma much faster than your human coagulating agents. If you are wounded, Kenny, this material will immediately begin forming a silicone coagulate at the injury site and slow the fluid flow.”
“Well, I guess that would be useful.” He shrugged.
She smiled again and shook her head. “I think you’ll appreciate it, although I hope you don’t have any use for it soon. Now let’s go over your latest test results. The latest transplants seem to be doing nicely.”
Her face faded from his consciousness and he absently pressed a palm against his stomach. Blood still trickled along the seam where his stomach had been ripped open by the fragments of the biod unit that had been standing in front of him just moments earlier. He could feel the rupture in his skin begin to seal over with a fresh silicone coating.
Bubbling and tiny popping sounds came from beneath his vest as the gel bled into the perforations of his chest and allowed him to take a full breath. He sucked air in grateful relief and tried to roll over.
A chorus of pain sang out from his legs and hips at the movement. He collapsed back into the earth, face first.
“I don’t know who you are,” the mud grumbled, “but you’re makin’ a mess. How long you gonna be here?”
He breathed in a lungful of dirt and coughed violently. The mud on his tongue was tinted with the metallic taste of blood and perspiration. His brain whirled with the continued pain until, finally, the extras began to work and his arms and legs grew numb. His consciousness slipped into a foggy gray haze, while the here and now became interspersed with more memories.
“The titanium hip joint is obsolete.” Captain Quarterstock sneered and waved his hands. “How long you been active anyway, Corporal? I can’t find your service date.”
Whenever one of the docs asked him that, Kenny grinned and replied, “I’ve lived a while Cap’n. And just call me Kenny, all the Docs do.”
“Kenny, huh? Well Kenny, we’re doing some extra upgrades this time around. Not just repair and redeploy. We’re replacing that old hip of yours with the latest in carbon composites. A nano-fiber structure grown on a matrix of bone tissue we cultivated from human donors. Hell, we’re even using the same materials in the new AI biod artillery units. Just like all your organ replacements. God couldn’t have designed it better.”
It was a bold statement which had seemed a bit blasphemous to Kenny’s Lutheran, mid-western, Kansas brain at the time. But since the Luminari invasion, there was no Kansas and only a few Lutherans. And since Kenny wasn’t one to generally question the Docs, he let the blasphemy pass without comment.
Another mortar explosion rocked his thoughts back to the present. He grimaced and gingerly ran his hand along his side and down to his damaged hip. Sure enough the metal joint was still in one piece. But the organic femur, shattered and useless now, felt like a bag of marbles as he placed his palm against it.
“Hey!” The mud seemed genuinely concerned now. “You all right? Do I know you?”
He groaned and squeezed the sub-dermal contact between his fingers that would activate the beacon. He closed his eyes and recalled the first time he’d completed that motion.
“Suppose my hands were hurt, Doc?” he asked the tall, lanky female surgeon whose name he could never remember.
“How would the beacon work?”
“That’s why the auxiliary unit is in your neck, Kenny, right here.” She reached behind his head and pressed a bump at the base of his skull. His skin tingled as her fingers brushed his neck. She jumped back in surprise and looked at him through narrowed eyes.
“How long have you been active anyway, Kenny?”
He grinned. “Aw, I’ve lived a while.”
She ignored his grin and stared intently at the data pad in her hands, and her eyebrows squirmed anxiously. “No, really,” she insisted, “how long have you been active? Your medical records don’t show your service initiation date. There’s nothing here until after the second Bio-gain campaign.”
He scratched his head and shrugged. “I don’t know about that, but I came in the Corps when the Luminari first invaded.”
Her eyes widened. “But you’d have to be …”
“I was just a kid. Mom and Dad and the rest of the town were taken in the first Collection. Missed me, though. I was shootin’ cats out in the scrapyard across Turner’s Creek. The platoon of Marines that found me took me in and kinda adopted me. They taught me all about soldiering and showed me how to stay alive. I guess I never really enlisted. The Corps just sorta joined me.”
Her lips pursed, as her gaze scanned up and down his body. “That’s amazing, Kenny.”
“I don’t think it’s so amazing.” He shook his head. “Anyway, it’s been a long war and all of them guys are dead and dust. When can I get back to my unit? They’ll be needing me back.”
She stepped forward and brushed his leg with her hip. “You’re probably one of the few who’ve seen the entire war first hand. Not like the soldiers here now. They’re just overpaid mechanics that send out others to do their killing for them.”
“Well, ma’am, I have done some fighting. I been in over a hundred skirmishes and even fought in the counteroffensive to retake Washington. But don’t get down on the Docs, ma’am. I mean, without them we wouldn’t have a chance in this war. Why, I wouldn’t even be here. I’d be dead a hundred and seven times over.”
“Well, Kenny, One Oh Seven, you deserve a medal!” She tossed the data pad aside and smiled. “But since the Service doesn’t give out medals anymore, maybe we can reward you a better way.” She squeezed his thigh and moved closer.
The memory scattered as the ground began to hum beneath him. A Luminari Chariot entered the sector and began to clear away the battlefield debris, alien and Terran alike. Kenny slowly reached to his belt for a plasma grenade, holding his breath as the humming grew louder and louder. He released the safety and clutched the trigger until it felt like the Chariot was almost on top of him, then he tossed the grenade in the direction of the approaching sound. He heard it clank against metal and a flash and pop followed, as the plasma sparked and fried the electronic components of anything within a three meter radius. The Chariot groaned as its wheels ground to a halt, then turned silent.
He lay back and tried to recapture the memory of the tall, lanky female surgeon. He wished he could remember her name, but it eluded him completely. It was too long ago and one name among a million crowded into his memory. He’d seen too many of the Docs to recall each and every one. And nobody ever stayed around long. The Luminari took care of that. Only the mud had been with him through all the years–wherever he went, it was there.
“I recognize you now,” the mud muttered. “Long time no see, buddy. Not in the best shape today are we?”
He felt up and down his body, trying to find some wound or injury his extras had missed and stopped when he reached the side of his face. A large section of the right skull was absent and he felt the soft tissue of his brain along with thin strands of wire and plastic exposed and open to the elements. He touched one of the wires and his vision was immediately filled with sparkles and lightning flashes of impossible colors. He moaned in surprise and fear until, finally, the light show faded.
He took a slow cleansing breath and tried to lie still, remembering once more. “I don’t like this,” Captain Yueng growled. “No, Kenny, I don’t like putting this thing in you.” Captain Yueng was the oldest Doc he’d met in his service with the Corps. His sharp nose and deep set eyes were framed by a webbed collage of wrinkles with flashes of white in his thick, otherwise jet black hair. He never smiled, but Kenny liked him the best of all the Docs.
“Well, you know me, Doc,” he answered and shrugged. “Kenny One Twenty-Nine, just servin’ my country. Don’t you think it’ll work?”
“Oh, I know it will. The trigger is when your biometrics indicate serious trauma. The low energy EM pulse will block your pain receptors.”
“That seems like it’d be handy in the field. I know lots of times when I get downed it hurts a lot.”
“I know son, and I can only imagine how bad it is sometimes.” Yueng furrowed his brow and patted Kenny on the shoulder. “But that pain is there by design. It lets you know when to stop and take care of business.”
“I ain’t sure what you mean, Doc. Takin’ care of business means winnin’ this war, don’t it? Seems like anything that helps us do that is a good thing. Y’know things ain’t goin’ so great for us. They need guys like me up there.”
Yueng frowned. “I know and we’re doing all we can to help, but what we’re doing … what we’ve done. I don’t … it seems like an awful price to pay.”
Kenny liked Yueng but didn’t always understand him. “Well, Doc, I don’t know what you mean. I watched lots of friends pay a bigger price. I watched it until they ain’t nobody left hardly but me. Seems like I been blessed somehow and it don’t seem right to give up. I gotta get back to the line in three days, so if you’re gonna do it …” He shrugged, as the Captain eased him back onto the cot.
Now as he lay motionless on the ground and his body was embraced in a cocoon of numbness, he began to understand what Yueng had meant. He felt like he could just leap up from the ground and run off to the medical pod.
“Well, why donchya do it?” the mud asked.
But Kenny One Forty-Nine knew better. If he moved or lifted his head, he could twist open his stomach again, or cause bone fragments to erupt through his thigh, or spill his brains onto the ground. No, he would lie there and either die or get picked up by the clean-up crew.
He relaxed and waited for what seemed like hours until, finally, he heard an excited voice approaching.
“Here, over here! The transponder’s from this one!”
“Okay, I see him,” another voice followed. “Let’s hurry and get it and get out of here. We’ve only got a few hours before we have to fall back to the pulse shelters.”
“I know that. Here, secure its spine and we can turn it over.”
He felt the steady, practiced hands grip him. “Unit designate: K-NE V149. Multiple fragment entries, but the seals are all holding. P and R are stable. I…wait…oh shit. That’s not good.”
“Look at this, Corbin. His head is half blown off. Can we fix that?”
“I don’t know. He’s still functioning, isn’t he?”
“Yeah. Biometic log indicates salvageable. I … Damn!”
“What is it?”
“Look at the service stamp on this hip joint. The date is over a hundred years old!”
“You’re shittin’ me.”
“No, really. According to this, this old timer was in service back when human soldiers were still fighting! How is that possible?”
“Wow! Hey… You don’t think he’s …?”
“Let me do a deep tissue scan. Hmmm. I’ll be damned! He’s human! Human with over seventy percent bio-gain grafts!”
“What is a human doing with that much tech in him? And why is he out here?”
“I don’t know, but it … I mean … he is.”
“What should we do? I mean there’s not what, a few thousand humans left alive? Oh man, somebody’s gonna get their ass handed for this, and we don’t have time for this. The closest pulse shelter is thirty klicks away. This has to be some mistake.”
The mud laughed. “You’re a wonder ain’t you boy! Them tech-heads can’t get their heads out of their waste ducts long enough to know what to do about you.”
“It’s no mistake,” Corbin growled. “We’ve got to get him back to Evac Station. Let them sort out the record keeping. Then we can get to the shelter.”
“Hey, soldier!” Kenny felt synthetic hands pat gently against his chest. “Can you hear me?”
He started to nod and lift his hand, but felt those same hands binding him firmly. Instead he muttered a weak, “Yeah.”
“Can you tell us your name soldier?”
“Kenny,” he answered, “Kenny…One-Fifty, now I guess.”
“Well, Kenny One-Fifty, I’m Corbin and this is Dotson. We’re going to get you back to the base and get you all fixed up. Then you’re getting evacuated to the last shuttle off of Earth.”
“Off … Earth?” Kenny muttered.
“Yeah. Earth is being evacuated,” Corbin answered. “The humans have fallen back to Proxima Terra and in about five hours they’re going to nuke every Luminari base on this planet.”
“Yeah,” Dotson added. “You’re lucky you were injured so badly. Otherwise we might not have recognized you for human. We have to evac you with the rest of your people. We bios can handle the radiation, but it would kill you.”
“Lucky,” Kenny One-Fifty muttered, as he felt himself being lifted.
“Right,” Corbin said, “the fight’s moved off-world and the humans are taking it all the way to the Luminari home world. Now, let’s get you to the evac station as quick as we can. Then it’s off to Proxima Terra and Station Big Horn. You’ve been in the service a long time, soldier. I bet you got lots of buddies waiting up there for you.”
“No.” Kenny’s voice crackled and was barely a whisper. “No buddies, no more, just me and the mud.”
The mud looked up and whispered, “I’ll miss ya, bud.”