…And prepared with love for your immediate consumption. Again, this piece was written for entry in Chuck Wendig’s Short Fiction Challenge over at terribleminds. Do be so good as to read more below the cut:
Dog Star Palace
Sean Patrick Doyle
I can't remember fighting these things before—but that doesn't mean much lately. They're bug men. Bipedal cockroaches with long stick-limbs that end in pincers like hedge clippers, and iridescent carapaces that shine silver in the cold, white glow of Sirius-A outside the orbital station's observation ports. They have furious little eyes and mouths stuffed full of white feathery membranes—like lace.
You don't want to know what the lace does when it touches your skin.
It's always bug men. Before today, three of the non-human races I've been in combat against have been insectoid. God apparently skipped out on militant, expansionist dog people and upright, sentient koala bears.
My rifle sputters, spraying gas-fed two-millimeter caseless needles across the solarium at a rate of thirty-six rounds per second. Air friction and barrel heat renders each bullet semi-molten when it hits, and most of my ammunition ends up as gunmetal starbursts on the exoskeleton of my target. One slices into the bug's eye, though, and dances around inside of its brain pan until the monster slumps to the floor.
I'm Cicero Wells. Sergeant. Planetary Confederation Armed Forces. My serial number is...I don't...My memory is full of holes lately.
It's eerily quiet in the lounge. Our rifles don't make much noise, the bugs charging us don't seem to vocalize at all, and the rug is a plush deep pile. Everyone in the squad stopped talking when we set the bomb ten minutes ago. The only regular sounds are the tearing of flesh and the screaming when one of us dies.
There are three of us left—each fighting to make it to the end of the countdown at our backs. Don't know why. The shuttle dumped its power core as soon as we touched the airlock. There's no evac coming. The cruisers hanging in space outside the big viewports above me are only here to make sure this entire station gets exposed to vacuum. We go when the bomb does and there's no disarming it.
We all fight anyway.
I'm too goddamned good to be on this mission. Playing exterminator on some colonial governor's private cathouse. Dying at it. It's ridiculous.
In seven years of active-duty service, I've participated in thirty-eight combat missions on ten worlds and four orbital facilities. I have forty-seven confirmed kills across five non-human species. Six, if we're counting political dissidents as non-human. I'm the kind of soldier that military historians pop boners over and enthusiasts write fan-fiction about.
I don't belong in any fucking suicide squad.
Every other bastard dying in this room knows why they're here. They screwed up, and dying gloriously is how they redeem themselves in the eyes of the Confederation. To my right, Chavez is affixing a bayonet to her rifle. She's the last surviving member of my fire-team and, before this assignment, she tied a length of para-cord around her superior officer's neck and hung him from a flagpole because he tried to rape her.
I can't blame her. And I can't blame her for getting up and rushing at the nearest alien; ramming the point of her bayonet past the bug's soft, feathery membranes and twisting the stock of the rifle until its head pops off.
The three nearest creatures turn on her and begin ripping her apart. She's laughing as they work. Right until she starts screaming.
My record isn't surviving contact with this mission, but I suppose it wasn't expected to. Nothing else was.
Maybe there's something there. Something in my record that I can't remember because of all the...How many surgeries was it? Why put me through them at all?
At my back, Barnes says something and it's so much like being slapped that I miss it completely. I'm in the battle-haze, and I've kind of forgotten about words. I empty my clip and turn to ask him to repeat himself, but he's occupied. One of the bugs is in the middle of eviscerating him.
Barnes was on shore leave when a kid picked his pocket. Barnes caught the kid and beat him to death in the street outside of a night club. Technically, he's our commander, but I keep forgetting to salute. He gurgles at me as he dies.
Man, fuck that guy.
The bug that's ripping into Barnes looks at me and pushes off. It's badly hurt. I drop my rifle and start to unshoulder another one that has ammo in it. I've been carrying spares.
I've been reloading these things for years, but I just can't get the hang of it ever since...
The bug lurches at me, knocking me back onto the floor and pressing down on me. I put one hand up to push back and get a fist full of membrane.
...Ever since I woke up? That's not right. I know this part, but it always hurts.
The flesh of my hand runs and melds. My fingers fuse into a crooked claw. The pain is terrible. I'm already medicated because I'm experiencing chronic, unexplained pain—
I know exactly why I hurt.
—to begin with, but it's finally my turn to start screaming.
The dying bug sucks at my hand until my hypothalamus tells my nociceptors to fuck off. It gives me distance. In the quiet that follows, the timer on the bomb chirps as it ticks to five seconds.
I look up past the bug's head to the hard, bright point of Sirius above me, and let myself remember. I won't understand why I'm here—What I did that was so wrong, or why I might have done it. That part of me is just gone and, soon, so will the rest of me. Like before.
Six months ago, I put a bullet through the roof of my mouth and died.
Three weeks ago, I woke up again.
I don't know why the Confederation rebuilt me. Why they went to the trouble and expense.
I can't remember why I killed myself.
It's just gone.
Thanks for reading, everyone! I’ll be back over the next couple of days with some follow-up posts about the writing and editing of this piece, so be sure to look for that.