“So, can we talk about-” Washi began again.
“No,” Peregrine said. The pair moved at the head of the column through thick “jungle,” the mushrooms, stalks and clumps of foamy material so dense in places that they were constantly faced with the choice of blowing a hole through or doubling back. For now, they chose to double back. Fusion grenades made a lot of noise, a lot of light, and most importantly for a small force behind enemy lines, they were scarce. There was a lot of doubling back.
“Are we seriously doing this?” Washi said. “We’re really going to go through this whole song and dance from every story ever where there’s some deep secret and you’re just trying to pretend we didn’t see it?”
“And you keep bringing up that I’m pretending I didn’t see it as if repeatedly addressing the fact will change it, yes,” Peregrine said. “Hirosuke, we’re in the middle of a warzone. Yeah, no DeFeds on satellite,” he paused to gently push some foam away from himself. Misfit Gauze, that was the name. The stuff wasn’t seem toxic, carnivorous or otherwise harmful, but it did try to latch onto people as they passed to form symbiotic bonds. Supposedly it’d help heal the host’s wounds, but it also cause odd brain changes. Everything from a craving for lima beans to positively absurd libido. “No DeFeds on satellite,” he started over, “but this is not a good time to start talking about ghosts and blood that’s afraid of its body.” The satellite cover was a sudden gift from Desham. The incident in Carrwey made him “twitchy”. Peregrine was pretty sure Carrwey, somehow, was just an excuse. That made this Lieutenant Williks a hell of a lot more important.
“Hey Cap, ‘s it true this Milf Gauze makes sex better?” one of the Raptors asked. Peregrine turned to the woman and offered the very deadest in a long line of deadpan looks.
“I cannot comment on that, other than to acknowledge that increased drive is a possible side effect of the organism,” Peregrine said. “Whether pleasure is increased, decreased, neutral, or so intense you’d actually fuck your brains out are variables I cannot account for, and which would be quite beside the point when you’re drummed out for fraternization.” He found himself seized by the need to shoot someone, likely himself. You’re overreacting, chap, he thought. Heat, stress, that Commonwealth boy talking about how he’ll castrate DeFed corpse we find and–
“Sawyer!” He snapped. “Make a damned decision. You can put one testicle in his eye and one in his mouth but you can’t have it both ways!” The column burst into the hideous laughter of people trying too hard not to care. Peregrine didn’t stop them.
Faking it was enough for now.
“Hey, Sir, pretty sure there’s nothing in company code about fucking around,” Duman said.
“That’s right, Sergeant, but as mission leader I have final say as to what constitutes a threat to the operation,” Peregrine said. “Need I repeat the ancient parable of the rifle and the gun?”
“Eh?” Duman stopped.
“Legend says it’s an old Earther proverb,” Peregrine explained, wishing for a machete and the freedom to use it without worrying if a given mushroom bled acid. “Washi, drop your pants.” His partner threw up a finger and mimed a throat-slicing gesture. “Anyway, the rifle is the rifle. The gun is a cock. Stems from a barbaric era in warfare when women didn’t have the equal right to getting shot repeatedly for diplomatic reasons.”
To his eternal regret, this sparked a debate as to what “weapon” his female operatives carried. By the time they stopped for the day in a cave (one of the few planned stops on the mission), his unit had concluded that the female side of the equation represented less a weapon in its own right and more so a firing pit to which guns were deployed. Duman was determined to be a mortar and pit both, despite her growling that “This hermaphrodite thing is not going to be a running joke.” That, of course, doomed her to the running joke.
Peregrine consulted his datapad and sent Private freckle-tenor and three others to scavenge a species of fungal column which vaguely matched wood in its flammability and lack of poisonous byproduct. That accomplished, Peregrine found a quiet corner and set to grooming his mustache. The ends were starting to uncurl, and if that happened he might start to look vaguely trustworthy.
Washi drew his dagger and held it to the light. Normally he was thankful to have a through-tempered piece. If he heard one more asshole quip about “grorious nippon steel” (one of a million Earther jokes they all repeated without knowing why) he might defect. But before this fire, the dagger’s even grind and clear mirror polish suddenly made it seem featureless. That should’ve given it a sense of purity, the utilitarian look you always associated with a true soldier’s weapon. Instead it just made it look like it was stealing its identity from the environment. It reflected the rough yellow cave walls, the other Raptors. the mushrooms in the cave, stalagmites and stalactites. Even the ridgeline and edge just made the body of the knife look like the outlines of a drawing someone forgot to fill in.
Who am I? I mean, I’m a Raptor, right? No, Raptor’s just a job. For me, anyway. If we are what we do, I guess I’m a Raptor, but that’s not all of it. Is it? This is way too Japanese of me, he thought, although he honestly had no idea if that was true. His family was as far removed from the actual Japan as Peregrine was from the actual UK, or Duman from wherever the hell Duman was supposed to be from. That’s when he noticed two sky-blue eyes staring out of the dagger at him. Without asking permission, Duman sat down next to him.
“So, your first name’s Hirosuke.”
“Me and every other boy in my town, yeah,” he said. They sat there for about a full minute, a pale woman with auburn hair and a paler man with black hair, both weatherbeaten, both scarred. Duman’s was the more warlike face, broader and hawk-nosed. If they exchanged lips, her full ones for his thinner set, they’d be near perfect opposites.
“Do you want to… um…”
Please don’t say fuck. Washi had never regretted a way of thinking more fully. Exchanged lips, fucksakes. Not that Duman was unattractive. Actually, in the fire’s glow-
“…talk about that? Your hometown? I’d talk about mine but I didn’t really have a town.” The redirection saved him from a deeply awkward set of fantasies with a deeply awkward reality.
Washi raised an eyebrow. “So how the hell’d you survive?” This made two switches of topic in one minute.
“We have a lot of small homes where I come from,” Duman said. “Somehow it worked out. Things are safer there than they are out here.”
“So why are you here?” Washi said.
“Because things are safer at home than they are out here,” Duman repeated.
“C’mon, Duman,” God that rhyme sounds stupid, “Don’t kid around.” She stared at him blankly. “You’re serious. You’re an altruist? On Savar?”
“Someone has to be, right?”
“No, they don’t,” Washi laughed. “Not that I’m a die hard cynic or anything, that’s too much work. But- sorry, what’s your name again?”
“Shit, no wonder you never use that. ‘Anelle Duman.’ You sound like a space opera squeeze.”
“And here I trusted you,” she said. “Gonna give that to the grunts, Sergeant Nakajima? Let them snicker it behind my back?”
“Only if you make me.”
“Right. About your hometown?”
“Alright, alright.” Washi realized that he had an audience: the other Raptors and the Wealthy soldiers were moving closer to the fire with their meals. “Well, I’d love to sell you some shit about how I was best friends with this pure-hearted shrine maiden growing up.” He had no idea what a shrine maiden was, but the joke was hereditary anyway. “That there was this traditional Japanese temple a block from my family’s little paper house and we bowed to the Samurai every morning so they didn’t take our heads off. This is Savar, though, so… y’know.” He paused for the chuckles of people who knew too well. “Truth is I was raised in the southernmost bit of the Defederated Association. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but the southern part’s okay. Mom’s a gunsmith, Dad runs errands for the local Boss and occasionally sells himself on the street. And no, I don’t have that backwards.”
They weren’t sure how to react to that.
“Now, every boy in the neighborhood was officially named Hirosuke, and every girl was officially named Kimiri. I’m not joking, we kept our real names private until we turned 18. The reason for that is whenever the Boss said he wanted somebody’s son or somebody’s daughter as a hitman or a drug runner or a whore, we could always say they were just killed in the gang wars. We averaged one dead a week, so as long as the family laid low for a while he eventually forgot. Didn’t help the second family he went after, but it made us feel like we were in control a bit more.” He shrugged. “My name’s actually Hirosuke, so every goddamn time my mother called for me I thought for sure we’d been found out and I was going to die. When I found out the Raptors would actually pay me on top of not making me a sex slave, well,” he shrugged. “You see how pretty my face is.”
“Wait, so where’d the cyborg stuff come in?” Duman asked.
“Well, that’s where this gets weird. See, I had a run-in with Tarse-”
“Hiro,” Peregrine cut in. “Not tonight. Save that one for the return. That’s the kind of story I don’t want them dealing with ’til after we’ve fought Tarse and run.”
“Guess I’ll go, then,” freckle-tenor said. One of the Wealthy soldiers made a quip and Duman elbowed him. You didn’t joke over your buddy’s life story in the field; you might end up being the only one left to tell it. “I was born in the Wavelands. I-I know it looks like I just got weened,” the uproarious laughter here made him blush, but he kept on, “but I’m actually 22. I’m our Salvager, see. If we manage to grab anything from Tarse, I’m supposed to snag it and try to figure out how we can copy it. Anyway, we didn’t have any gangs to deal with on the Wavelands. Kinda wish we did. Tsunamis don’t take bribes, you know?”
Peregrine finished shaving and checked his reflection in the mirror. He realized with a start that it’d been a week since he’d last seen it. People could joke about narcissism, but he’d learned you needed to see yourself looking back from time to time. It was the best way to avoid denial. The handlebar mustache carefully upturned at the ends, the broad forehead and sharp jaw were the same. The wrinkles, bags under the eyes and sunken set of his features all seemed a little more pronounced. Every hollow spot on his face looked just a bit hollower than last time, as if something were pulling the skin back to expose the skull. Death, soullessness, call it what you would: it was the look of a man with too many secrets eating him alive. It also made his most sincere smiles seem like sneers. If an old-fashioned strongman and the conniving villain of a third-rate opera fused and put on a tank-top, they’d be him.
Maybe it was time to tell Washi about the journal. He wasn’t sure he wanted to come back from this one, even if he could. That reminded him, and he strode up to the fire.
“Been meaning to tell you all this, kept slipping my mind. Tarse wants the Lieutenant. Now, I don’t know why they want her, but Desham’s contacts say they’ve sent a serious hardass to bring her back. A cyborg sniper, current gen and decorated like a DeFed brothel.” Peregrine paused. “His codename is Basilisk, and I have every reason to believe he’s earned it.”
There wasn’t much stomach for swapping origin stories after that.