I flip through the pre-fall medical manual for the fourth time today, reciting its passages to myself like a religious cultist recites scripture. All this information is hard to take in for my still-developing mind, so I have to repeat it. Which I have. Day in and day out, for the past six years.
The leader and sniper of the squad, Villaneuve, taps me on the shoulder in a comforting manner.
“Good to see you’re freshin’ up before the mission, newbie.”
“Yes, sir.” I reply nervously, feeling frustation due to my concentration being disrupted. “But, if you do not mind, I am trying to focus myself on the mission.”
“That’s good, but you look like youre gonna freak out any second.”
“I believe it to be a perfectly natural reaction, with what is out there.” My breathing is audibly tense. The logs on the Pandoravirus were my greatest nightmare, growing up. How it warped the human body and mind, how cunning and adaptive it was, regardless of our haven’s attempts at adapting in return. It was like the pre-fall myths of monstrous creatures, made all too real.
Yet I had to learn about it, for humanities’ sake. For Synedrion’s sake.
“Fair enough, but you gotta steel yourself, for our sake. Deep breaths.”
I took his advice to heart, closing my eyes and trying to get my mind off of what horrors awaited. My thoughts wander to the beauty of our haven's park, how I would spend study breaks under one of the trees, contemplating the latest fiction's Ive read or watched in the community theatre. I remembered my fantasies of wanting to be an actor in these movies, I certainly had the looks and impeccable grooming for them.
But desperate times call for less civilized careers.
My breathing has steadied, I check the clock on my AR display to find I have been soothing my nerves for five whole minutes.
“See? That better?” Villaneuve asked me.
“Yes. Yes sir.”
“Do ya remember combat training?”
“Yes. Conserve ammunition. Ammunition is only slightly less precious than human life.”
“And only slightly less rare.”
I put my manual back into my pack, focus shifting toward examining my extraneous limbs, courtesy of the rig I was wearing. Synedrion’s dress code was lax, so each militia member personalized their armor. I, personally, opted for what I thought would be an intimidating black and orange ensemble. The logs said that mutants can sense us even with their heads removed, so camouflage is more a fashion choice than anything practical.
After several moments of silence, the intercom came on. It was the pilot. “Alright, boys. ETA 5-minutes.”
This was it. My first, and hopefully not last mission. I unhooked the shotgun on my chestplate, a weapon issued to me specifically, so I “would not miss”.
“Hey, kid. Don’t worry too much. Just hang in the back and learn from us, alright?”
Yes. This was a good plan. Learning through observation, with minimal participation on my part. Less…fatal mistakes might occur.
A sudden lowering sensation can be felt in our craft. We have arrived.
The other two technicians, the Daedalus twins, take point, drawing their rifles and searching the area with myself going in after, Villaneuve going last.
“Coast is clear.” One of the pointmen whispers, motioning for myself and the sniper to emerge.
As I step out , I feel my interest piqued, finally seeing a landscape that is not my own, yet I felt like I cannot not relax myself, even with the conspicuous absence of the viruses’ flesh constructs.
We are on a grassy field, in the midst of what my knowledge tells me is an alpine region. “Bavaria”, the briefing called it. While our landing craft takes off, my attention is turned to my surroundings, their sheer unmutated beauty. Not even the grey skies above us blemish it.
“Awright, team.” Villaneuve spoke up. “The views’ nice, but we got a job to do. Target is said to be a short walk from here. ‘Bout over there.” He says while pointing East. “Let’s get a move on.”
“Sir, yes sir.” I proclaimed with a salute, eager to please.
“No need to be so impersonal with me, newbie. Call me “comrade”.”
“Yes, Comrade. Lead the way.”
We start walking toward our destination, I keep my shotgun close and my eyes open, doing my best not to let the scenery distract me. The sounds I hear, from twigs snapping to birds chirping, are fascinating to finally hear outside of archival footage.
Yet, like an eager child, I am still having this urge to ask our leader if I am doing well. During my early combat training, I kept asking the trainer “Is this good enough?” “Am I doing it right?”, and while I stopped asking after he told me to, I still would, and do get the desire.
Maybe asking just once will not hurt?
I tense up slightly, words having difficulty escaping my mouth, before eventually managing to utter “V-Villaneuve?”
“Am I…doing well? So far?”
“You’re attitudes’ normal for your age. Just keep practicin’, and don’t worry about it. Understand?”
“Yes si-comrade.” I reflexively chastise myself for the slip before remembering what Villaneuve just said, incorporating it into my mind for future reference.
After about half an hour, according to my display, we reach our destination. We come to face a pair of large blast doors hidden within the forest, unmarked with only a biometric scan panel on it’s right.
“Alright, newbie. Time to earn your keep. Rip that door right open.”
“Yes, comrade!” I nervously approach the metallic barrier, my mech arms flipping into active position, setting them to plasma cutter mode by focusing. I start cutting in, teeth gritting beneath my mask while I do my best to not think on what might be on the other side.
I slice a person-sized hole into the bunker doors, and as I do so, something catches my eye. A bloody, membranous mass slips through as soon as I cut to the other end. I look in concern towards Villaneuve, who merely motions me to continue.
My breathing gets strained as I finish making the hole, stepping back as the metal crashes onto the grass, the mass covering its other side completely. As precaution, I draw my shotgun and stand aside let the two other techs take point, as before.
Yet, they both look hesistant, and do not move. I turn to them, waiting for them to get a move on.
“Chief, should we scrub the mission?” One of the Daedalus twins, "Dae" spoke up, a trace of fear in his voice. “Intel said nothing about Pee-Vee being here.”
“Damn, need to rethink this.“
Before I could hear Villa's change of plan, I hear rapid skittering from the other side of the blast door, I quickly train my weapon on the hole and fire at whatever comes out. Horror fills me as I underestimate the quadripedal creatures' height, my shot going wide while it's shark-like teeth rapidly latch onto my right elbow. I scream in primal horror and pain, too busy panicking to use my mech arms against the being that is holding onto my limb like a vice, penetrating my armor and digging in. As my eyes meet its lack thereof, and I see how the flesh on my arm is torn into and my bones are crushed like an aluminum can , I feel a sudden wet sensation in my lower uniform while my screams turn blood-curdling.
The tech's respond quickly and open fire, sending the creatures’ innards splattering all over the remaining bunker door with assault rifle fire, while its jaw is still clamped tight.
I collapse to the floor, getting to see the yellow stain on my lower half as I drop my weapon and clutch the sad, flattened remains of my right arm.
“Marten-5! Marten-5! Request immediate evac! We got a downed rookie, possible infection!”
While Villaneuve radio's for my extraction, Daedalus rushes to me, Dae keeping a raised weapon pointed at the hole, while Dalus sets to looking over my injury, before quickly swatting my healthy arm away. Before I could even blink, a plasma torch slices off and cauterizes my limb, the pain and terror reaching a point that I can feel shock setting in, my vision blurring and turning black…
After…an indeterminate amount of time, I awake, an unnatural, metallic feeling having replaced the soft and fleshy one in my right arm. I nervously open my eyes to find myself on a hospital bed, in a patient gown, Villaneuve out of armor, two armed citizens and a technician watching over me.
“Hey, he’s wakin’ up!” The tech shouted, the makeshift guards raising their weapons at me while Villaneuve leaned in, and I got to see his half-acid burned face with cataract up close, a look of sadness on it.
“Damn it. I’m sorry, newbie. I made a rookie mistake this time. I didn’t watch your back.”
I raise my right arm at him, only for the sight and realization of the cybernetic replacement to fully set in, my eyes transfixed on it.
I manage to stutter out “I-it is my fault. I...misjudged the shot.”
“Don’t say that shit, kid. Itl’ only make ya feel worse.”
I think back to what happened, the pain, the wetting. How…horrific it all was.
“If you like, we can let you go, live with your parents again. No need to have anything like that happen again.”
On one hand, the offer felt tempting as I thought back, and looked at what had become of my once silky smooth arm, now replaced with a skeletal, black metal facsimile.
On the other hand, I remembered how Villa told me that these mistakes were normal for my age, and how competently they dispatched my mutilator.
And I did not feel like abandoning humanity in its time of need.
“I…have a duty. To Synedrion, to humanity. I cannot abandon it.”
“You sure about this? Pee-Vee can do a whole lot worse than that.”
“I should let you think on it.”
“I…want to help…”
“Think on it. Okay?”
“No sign of infection.” The tech replied, the two guards lowering their weapons upon hearing this, while he set about removing whatever catheter I was strapped to.
Villa held my still-organic left hand, the warmth of his skin on mine feeling soothing to me.
“This is rough work, Marc. Remember to consider this.”
“I…want to help. If…if it gets me hurt, I do not care so long as I help humanity.”
The Sniper sighs, before replying “Rest for now. Wel’ talk when youre feelin’ better. Aight?”
He and the makeshift detail walk off, the technician remaining with an indifferent expression as I rested, gaze shifting toward the white ceiling…
As I think about it amidst the monotonous beeping of the heart monitor, Villa’s injury doesn’t stop him from still being an excellent sniper.
So why should mine?