This flashback is from my sci-fi war novel, Endgame. In the story, sniper Captain June Vereeth and her colleagues have survived a cataclysmic explosion. Now they have to travel the hostile environs of an uninhabited icy world, as their sworn enemies get closer.
Trapped overnight in a cave–with a blizzard outside–Vereeth has a few moments to lament a violent past.
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In the dream, my four cousins—Bodie and his triplet sisters—lead me through a swamp. We have to cross a river on small wooden platforms. It’s smelly and hot. Lily pads, muck and weeds in the dark water. I don’t like the place. Julia picks up on it and urges me on. Something gives me the creeps. Why am I, as an adult, letting my younger cousins take me through here? Where are we going? This is not near their home on Jadge.
We hop from one platform to the next, crossing the water. The smell gets worse—swamp rot. A combination of storm-cell heat, long grass and insect-friendly ooze. I hear crickets among my cousins’ laughter, as it must be almost dinnertime. I’m the last in the group. Lorelei giggles, dancing on a platform. It suddenly bucks beneath her. She screams but keeps her balance. I feel something on my ankle, so I move faster. Everyone does. A sense of terror drops on us.
Ahead of me, a huge greenish shark leaps from the water across our path. Panic and crying. Bodie and Hannah change direction, another way across. All eyes rove for the shark, flashing to where it disappeared under the mucky surface. The kids hop faster across the platforms, scared beyond belief. They outrace me.
It’s after me—I sense it. The thing circles around and pursues me. My path to safety gets longer, stretching out of reach. I hear it leap from the water and crush the platform right behind me. It’s up again, roaring. It reeks of old fish. I race on. From a safe spot on shore—they found a route that I’ve missed—the kids scream my name. The larger platform I land on tilts down, backward. It’s pulling me back. The beast is behind me, roaring. Swamp water’s in my hair, soaking my shirt. I’m going to fall back into the shark’s horrible maw.
In my grip is a rifle, my uncle’s old rifle. I can just turn and end this creature.
But I don’t. Never.
The dream. It was all I could think about on the 21st of Bullah, 772. The day I first took a life. That was about a year before the Metlahva bombing, in the third round of the so-called Smuggler Wars.
Crime syndicates and gangs were not a new invention. But in the previous forty years their domain had expanded and their methods had gotten more severe. They’d become a threat to many free peoples. Some of their tactics were un-Human, to say the least. Special Forces were called in quite often. Old Joffe once joked that he’d spent half his life fighting two particular networks on various worlds.
I was ready, and I wasn’t. Command sent a team of us to an outpost orbiting Tchushkolarya. Intelligence said a Frozen Rings faction was going to hijack a shipment of a Tchushkin medicine. It was going to hospitals on Rhyosh, where a plague had crippled thousands of children. Something to do with growth plates, reportedly very painful. Because of the medicine’s chemical structure, it could also be used to make a powerful aphrodisiac. The Frozen Rings were the party people. If you went to an all-night dance party, chances are they had supplied a lot of the fun. Who cares about sick kids when the money is flowing and the underwear flying?
At the outpost, a firefight broke out. I was on the perimeter for support, up in the catwalk of a loading bay. I watched a gang member—a Pashunderran woman—point a rocket launcher at three Security soldiers behind a crate. It was instinct—aim and nullify the threat. I shot her through the side of the head. As she whipped back, her brain destroyed, the dyed-gold spikes of her gelled hair curled strangely. It was as if the very discharge from my weapon was something her hair couldn’t comprehend, fried into submissive change. When the woman fell over, the rocket launcher rolled out of her grasp and her left boot twitched. I hit two more gangsters before the fight ended. They told me I’d get a medal, that I’d saved a lot of lives and helped kids get their medicine.
I spent the rest of that day trying not to throw up, with the unwelcome stink of old fish wafting up my nose.
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