Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Sky Above Pandemonium

by Sergei Servianov



Lieutenant Imoto Range was the perfect man.

From the moment I first saw her slumped in a raggedy chair, sleeping in some destroyed basement next to the front line, I knew that I'd found the focus that my article needed.

I'd already spent a week in Cairo, sending my editors in Tharsis ream after ream of feel-good propaganda about sweet young boys fighting the nasty hordes of the African Union. They weren't pleased. Pop Inferno prided itself on finding the offbeat among the banal. They weren't pretending we were free to write whatever we wanted. Press freedoms had been a joke on Earth ever since the Second Alien War and especially since the Generals' Rebellion. A Martian journalist could quickly find himself blasted back into space for publishing the wrong thing. But my editors weren't about to let me rewrite a few press releases and call it a day; they hadn't paid for my new brain to be used to record rubbish.

I sympathized. But Cairo wasn't exactly Luna: it was dusty, hot and barely standing. Two months of fighting between the Royal 43rd Army and the "Sword of Judah" Corps had turned block after block into bloody gravel.

And the fight had moved underground, into the sewers and cellars. I spent a lot of time trying to find reasons for why either side hadn't just vaporized the place with nukes. They were difficult to make, especially considering the limits of Terran technology, though surely all the resources that were disappearing into this hellhole on the Nile weren't greater than a couple of tac nukes?

Be that as it may, the Battle for Cairo showed no sign of ceasing and the fighting grew more ferocious with each day. Buildings toppled, smart bombs ripped through bunkers, and every step seemed lined with human remains. You couldn't blame the 43rd Army for going through its supply of Pep pills way quicker than expected.

I had full access to the frontline, which wasn't surprising, since the frontline was everywhere. Enemy troops often blasted the walls of underground cafeterias, infirmaries and rest areas. Sometimes they came in their exoskeletons, firing thousands of rounds in a few seconds, leaving thick trails of mines behind them. Sometimes, the Royalists would have enough time to fire anti-armor rockets. Used in such close quarters, the rocket's backblast scalded the firers and everyone around them. The crash-of-a-thousand hammers that burst through the bunkers whenever they went off was enough to leave me deaf for hours on end.

It was after one of these incidents -- after a transfer to new quarters -- that I met Lieutenant Imoto.

I was with yet another group of night raiders, creeping through the remains of an apartment block when we heard women's voices on the first floor. They echoed through the night with the strength of a theater witch's laughter. The first floor of the building hadn't been completely blown apart; a staging area for another attack, we reasoned. It could very well've been connected to an enemy tunnel system.

We crept through the hallways and came to a door. We listened closely and heard loud female voices chatting in People's Arabic, the lingua franca of the Twin Empire. The captain of the patrol knocked on the door and a short girl -- the edges of her blond hair visible under her big round helmet -- opened it with the manner of a hostess expecting guests.

"What the hell is this?" our sergeant said. "What're you doing here?"

"We're expecting an enemy unit to come through, sergeant. Be quiet," she said.

"Are you hopped up on Pep pills, corporal?! Have you been shooting up!" The sergeant was trembling. "Where the hell's your commanding officer?"

"Come right in."

She led us to the living room, which was illuminated by three strategically-positioned candles. Three women were drinking coffee out of a big plastic bottle on a ratty couch. The fourth woman was leaning against a cracked bookshelf. This woman was just as short as the one that had opened the door, about one meter fifty-three centimeters, though she seemed a lot taller. She had a gray scarf tucked into her brown uniform jacket, with -- I could hardly believe it -- faded gold aiguillettes dangling near her right breast pocket.

"Where're do hail from, lieutenant?!" the sergeant said with a perfunctory salute.

"Lieutenant Imoto Range, 8th Women's Sniper Platoon, 3rd Company, 57th Battalion," she said, barely looking at the sergeant.

"I didn't hear about this during the meeting."

"Ask your CO when you get back," Range said. "And you're much too loud, sergeant. A recon patrol is coming through here in an hour and we don't want to spook them away."

"Loud?" the sergeant lowered his voice. "You're loud. We could hear you from half a kilometer."

"Well, I guess your hearing must be exceptional. We'll be quieter from now on."

The sergeant flashed an annoyed glance at his three subordinates. "Let's go, guys."

"If you don't mind, sergeant," I said. "I'd like to stay here and interview the women."

"Go wild," he said and spit at the wall.

"I won't allow it," Range said. "I don't need some journalist getting my girls killed. Take him with you."

I put my palms together in front of my chest, "Please, I won't say a thing and you can shoot me if I get in your way."

"Fine," Range focused on me with the eyes of an amused mongoose. "But I won't think twice about putting a bullet through that mother brain of yours."

The sergeant left with his men.

The women all gave me a few curious looks and proceeded to pass around their bottle of coffee without a second glance at me. I stood around for about five minutes feeling very self-conscious. Range used this time to put on a cap, roll up her sleeves, and drape a camouflage cloak over her shoulders.

Her every movement was filled with an otherworldly masculine elegance: rigid yet fluid, confident yet sensitive. It was like the pointy chin and small mouth underlined the feminine beauty behind the large shoulders (made even more massive by her uniform jacket). I couldn't help but feel that were this universe created by a woman, she would have no doubt made men in the image of Lieutenant Range.

After a few minutes, she checked her watch and took a few long breaths.

"Mira and Kaily, get outside. Assume formation 4 in the ruins south of here," Range said. "Rhi and Goenitz, climb to the fourth floor and cover them."

She went around the room and extinguished the candles with her gloved fingers.

The women stood up and stretched. They didn't seem too enthusiastic about leaving the warm living room for the chilly night outside. One by one they left, leaving Range and I alone in the darkness.

I sat on the couch. Range fell into a springy chair next to the bookcase.

"This is my first time meeting a Martian," she said in voice loud enough to startle me. "How're you even surviving down here? I heard you people couldn't stand to be on Earth for more than a few days. The radiation..."

"I went cyborg for this job."

"Quite the sacrifice for an adventure."

"Even paradise has its restless sons," I said. "My name is Lars Ulrich... Do you think we ought to be talking this loud? You said that..."

"We are the bait, you know."

"What?" I said. "For what?"

"For the patrol coming through," Range said. "You think we were just clowning around? That was a test. I'm sure they'll come to our voices like a mosquito flies towards light."

"That's... pretty risky, wouldn't you say?"

"I have faith in my girls, Lars."

"Even so..."

"Oh, quiet down. You came here to ask questions, so ask away." She focused on my face. "Your eyes aren't real, are they?"

"No, I've had recorders installed for the trip. It's standard for Martians going off-planet, a sort of black box in case I die. Works great for remembering story details when it comes time to file."

Range smiled, showing a row of straight, slightly cracked teeth. It was here that I noticed that her right eye, inky black like her left, gave off a strange luster.

"Heh, think of the intelligence that the enemy could get out of you. I'll make sure there isn't a single scrap of brain tissue left for them to recover, if it comes to that."

"Thanks. Coming here is looking better with every minute," I sucked on my teeth. "You're right eye isn't real either. I can tell."

"We've only just started doing it for snipers. We don't have as many resources to throw around as you extraterrestrial brats. With this eye, I can make out each individual flap of a fly's wings. If I plug into my rifle, I can fire a beam in the same millisecond that a target enters my sights," Range sighed. "You see too much with new eyes, though. The slightest change in a person's expression registers like a rocket launching."

"You could always have your old eye put back in."

"We aren't Martians, Lars. We don't coddle our citizens." She turned silent. "Tell me about Mars. We don't hear anything about it down here. I mean, I know about the Adelzukh Council and Immortal Diet.

"Well."

"What I want to know is," Range took a breath, "do people really not die there?"

"If they're rich and noble enough," I said. "Functional immortality hasn't come around to the lower classes yet."

"Though you -- with all your mods -- could live to be a hundred, right?" Range snickered. "People here are lucky to reach thirty without their teeth and hair falling out. And you have the nerve to look down on all of us."

"I wouldn't be here if I thought I was better than Earth."

"For you, this is just a picaresque adventure, something to brag about once you get back. The alien armada hasn't come back yet and you decadent bastards need something to pass the time."

Range was about to say something else but she closed her mouth and looked at the door. Hurried steps were approaching, becoming louder with each second. Range jumped to her feet and drew her pistol. The door came open and three of Range's subordinates burst through, dragging what looked like a giant bipedal sack of garbage through the doorway. They pushed the thing to the floor.

"Range, do we have any lights?" One of the girls yelled.

Range reached into her field bag and placed something on top of the bookcase. I was blinded.

"There was way more than a patrol out there!" It was one of the girl's voices. "Something like a platoon. We cut them down, but this thing took about ten beams and it's still breathing. It couldn't be one of those...things."

I regained my sight. There was a miniature sun blasting light from the far corner of the room. Range towered over the thing, which now appeared to be a half-metallic, half-slug weapons platform. The thing dripped beige slime. Range's eyes were wider than a tea saucer's.

"Crap, keep it in pain," she yelled and fired a round into the brown mass. "As soon as it can focus again it can screw our brains."

The gunshots rattled my ribcage.

"I thought it was rumors," a girl yelled to Range.

I had no idea that the Union had alien weapons at its disposal. We all knew that ships had crashed on Earth during the Second Alien War, but there was barely anything left of them. Martian intelligence had confirmed as much.

"Rhi, blitz HQ," Range said, a clip dropping from her pistol. "Tell them we've got one of these things captured. The Unees are going to be back for this thing any second."

She bent over the thing, reloaded and began firing at closer range.

####

I was in a field with blooming flowers. The sweet honey smell was overpowering. I have never tasted air as delicious as the air beneath this azure sky. A fickle breeze wafted through the folds of my threadbare coat.

Range was next to me. Sitting bowlegged on the grass. Her helmet was gone and her black hair seemed to turn white under the margarine-colored sun.

"We're dead, you know," she whispered, her voice echoing through the endless garden.

"Pardon?"

"We're dead. This is a psyche attack. Who knows what's going on with our bodies now."

I hadn't thought about that.

"There must've been something in Cairo for them... something worth using the few Alien weapons in their arsenal," she leaned back and slumped into the grass. "Well, we'll never know now. Enjoy it while you can, Lars. Those who have survived these attacks beg to die afterwards."

I sat down. There was a long, sentimental silence.

I closed my eyes and leaned back. When I opened them again I was in an auditorium. It looked like a high school theater. It was completely packed with men in black tunics with gold buttons and women in plain dresses. There was a girl in a white wig on the stage dressed in gaudy aristocrat's clothes: frilly shirt, white tights, and a hussar's jacket. She was definitely younger and made-up, but I instantly recognized the pointy chin and etched cheekbones. It was Range.

She stood with her back straight, arms out, and chest forward. She was singing and singing very well. The voice was deep and full of rage, belting out a list grievances to the Martians in People's Arabic. Her raw masculinity was like a typhoon dragging the entire audience into that most comforting and hazy of locations: the imagined, glorious past.

And then we were on Mars. Meaning teenage Range and I. I was sitting on the Lomonosov Bridge, watching the rockets enter and leave the spaceport. It was close to twilight and the rockets looked like thunderbolts hurled at each other by dueling gods.

Range was leaning against the bridge railing.

"So this is Mars."

"I used to spend days on this bridge, hoping that I'd one day be able to live without wishing I was on one of those rockets."

"It's not like how I imagined it. I thought it would be a bit more grand."

Her eyes seemed to swallow the landscape with the relish of a man eating fresh meat for the first time in years. To me, the landscape looked gray-dull as usual; row upon row of tenement housing, long white, green, and pink towers silhouetting against the beige Martian sky.

"I guess you got your dream," she finally said.

"Where the hell are we, really? Do you have any idea?"

"I don't really understand it all, but certain Alien-derived weapons can incapacitate entire armies. You heard about the 68th, right?"

"Well, yeah. Those dudes that turned crazy guerilla a couple of years back?"

"Right. Nuclear weapons are getting sparse these days, especially with you Martians blocking their manufacture on Earth. We're all fighting with what we have these days and these mental neutron bombs seem to be the next big thing in the Union."

"Seems like a rather roundabout way of going about things."

"You fight with what you have." Range shrugged. "Mustard gas is coming back into fashion, I hear."

We were in a trench. These shifts in time and location were becoming tiresome. They came as spontaneously as a TV switching channels and were just as random in their programming. Range was still a teenager. She was in a worn brown uniform, with a sniper rifle stretched across her lap.

"Here we go again," I said. "Where are we?"

"This is one of my first battles. I forget which one."

"You've been in that many?"

"Too many to count." She stood up and motioned me to follow her.

Range didn't bother crouching, or even glancing at the opposing trench half a kilometer away. After taking a few steps, she paused and looked at the black steel sky of Earth. It looked like something that could swallow planets whole, a depressing inversion of the majesty of a nebula. Range didn't say anything.

Range turned her head and marched on. She led me to a burrow and climbed in. I followed her. The stench made me think of worms and dead meat. She crawled towards a faint circle of light and then disappeared into it. I followed.

We ended up in a cramped little hole with a single light bulb and two filthy mattresses. She fell onto the one on the left, bouncing a little on the springs.

"How long are we going to keep doing this?" I said.

"As long as it takes." She sighed. "This can on forever. That's what I read."

"Man."

"Well, they'll get some nice juicy stories out of that brain of yours, though. Those brain miners won't feel like they wasted their time, no way."

"What the hell do we do for now?"

She looked at me and stifled a laugh. "Get to know each other, of course. There's more than one version of Pandemonium in this icy solar system and the one we got tickets to is far from the worst."

THE END


© 2011 Sergei Servianov

Bio: Sergei Servianov's story "The Memory Miners" appeared in the October 2010 issue of Encounters magazine.

E-mail: Sergei Servianov

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