The petrol leaks, dripping small craters into cool sand. The smell burns up inside Elliot’s nose. There’s a half-man lying at his feet, blurry in the dark. He is breathing hard. He is staring upward. There’s no starlight, but the sand glistens radioactive and Beasley provides some light where he stands beside Elliot, his skin glowing like a tribal god.
Beasley switches the petrol can to his other hand. “It wouldn’t be like doing it to a human,” he says.
The sky has no stars.
Sometimes Elliot forgets there are only two of them on base now, only him and Beasley. This morning when they made their rounds and scoured the rusty underside of the hover, it seemed like there should have been a third person rustling fabric or coughing or making some sort of noise to break the hungover quiet.
The outpost is lonely and it’s been lonelier in the three days since Tolliver’s jawbone blew through his brain and cut all his strings at once. Tolliver is now an empty bunk with fatigues and personal items bundled on its gritty sheets. Some of the herders, the ones who bartered marijuana and thumb drives of bad porn with him, they’ve built a little cairn out on the edge of the camp. Elliot goes to look at it sometimes where it hunches like a stubborn child against shrieky desert wind, and his eyes water but he thinks it is probably from the sand.
Beasley, when he is drunk, he says that it should have been him who died, because Tolliver was not a regular shit-sniffing bastard like the rest of us. Elliot misses him when he brews coffee black and chokes it down because Tolliver told him by the end of tour he would love that stuff like a synth loves sludge.
Coffee was a necessary thing this morning, to clear through the lingering gin haze and peel back the corner of Elliot’s headache. He does not remember much of the previous night, but that is not unusual. At the outpost, there is not much else to do but maintain the equipment and check in with the drones and drink until the pitted dunes seem more friendly, more like a sandbox. Days are monotonous and they drip like sweat.
That’s why it was such a surprise when a synth, who they figured later was cut off from his wedge and wandering, blew Tolliver’s face out with an anti-materiel rifle and then dropped the two herders arguing beside him for good measure. The Machine States were not supposed to be sending troops in this far. What could they want with dust, Beasley often asked. Elliot told him that they wanted silicates to build themselves brains the size of whales, but he didn’t really know.
Beasley and Elliot felt Tolliver’s signature drop right off the net, and then a drone showed them the bird’s eye view of his caved-in head and they picked up their religiously maintained rifles. Adrenaline had to bully through overgrown paths and Elliot felt his hands shake a few times as they traded bullets with the synth, holed up on the crest of a dune, but eventually Beasley clipped him. Then the synth must have bled out on the spot and they must have disposed of the body, but Elliot does not really remember because he mostly remembers the spiky black flies that danced all over Tolliver’s ruined face.
Elliot’s head does not feel right this morning. Beasley shares the report. There has been some small miscalculation of the rations. There is a charred spot out east of the camp, where it looks like some herders might have started a fire, but there are no tracks around it. Beasley is not curious. Neither is Elliot. His head does not feel right. The morning duties are done, so he goes to see the doctor.
The doctor is a pixelated face on the inside of his goggles. It can look either friendly or mildly concerned.
“Good morning, private.”
“Didn’t sleep well.”
“If you require a soporific—”
“Your bloodscan at 0300 hours showed a high alcohol content. It may be possible that—”
“It’s not that. I feel like I have holes in my head. And then the dreams keep flashing in.”
“You are under a great deal of duress, private. The recent death of corporal Tolliver has made an impact on your emotional and psychological health.”
“When did I log in here last?”
“That is not a medical query.”
“I can’t see it on my net. When did I log in?”
“I have a counselling simulation that might—”
“Did I slash something?”
“Neural modifiers were accessed at 0452 hours.”
“I am not sure that is advisable, private.”
Beasley drags the synth squirming over the crest of the dune. Pale sand is sticking to the synth’s sweat like powdered sugar and up his leg it is going syrupy red. Elliot stows his gun and shambles up the embankment, head still rushing from the firefight.
“He’s alive,” Beasley says. He drops the synth like you drop a snake, then slides back over the crest to get the rifle. Dust worms to the back of Elliot’s throat. He flips the synth over and puts his hands in a stock. The synth looks like a man. His doughy face has red bristles of beard poking through and his bare skin is sun-scorched. He is babbling in some Finnish derivative but the translation wetware in Elliot’s head is used to the herders’ tribal talk so it’s hard to pick out anything but profanity.
Beasley reappears with the synth’s rifle, a sleek wicked-looking silver thing with prongs for a neural interface. Elliot wants, irrationally, to smash it to pieces. Tolliver’s keeled-over corpse is still stamped hard behind his retinas.
“We’ll throw him in the hover,” Elliot says.
Beasley spits out grit and saliva. It smacks the sand beside the synth’s damp head. Beasley looks like a shaved lion. In the clips he sometimes shows off, the ones where he has a daughter latched around his neck, his hair is a thick dreadlocked mess. Now the mane is gone but the hooded eyes and sharp cheekbones are still savannah.
They drag the synth down the dune and dump him in the hover. Then they fire it up, churning small sandstorms, and crawl back to where three bodies are sun-rotting. The two locals were bringing some dispute over an airdrop claim and now their relatives will have to carry it on for them. Elliot pulls a solar phone from one of their sashes and tells it to call until someone responds. He does not know about burial rites, so he drapes a plastic tarp over the pair of them.
Tolliver gets a bag. The neoprene sticks to itself in the heat and they have to wrestle him into it, like barracks horseplay, but instead of laughing and swearing at them Tolliver is silent except for bits of his skull that rasp against each other. Elliot jams air fresheners up his nose while they work and offers some to Beasley. They put Tolliver through contortions until he fits inside. They wave the flies away with pointless ferocity. The bag is streaked with red and grey by the time they heft Tolliver and carry him to the hover.
The synth is groaning and coughing in the back. Elliot spits without really aiming and it hits him in the ear.
“He didn’t bleed out.”
“I advise you not to continue, private.”
“How many times have I slashed?”
“I am not authorized to answer that.”
They put him in the shed for processing. The doctor shows Elliot how to clean out the synth’s leg, which was only grazed, and then they plug his head into a reader to see where he’s been and what he knows. Beasley could have guarded the shed from the outside, but when Elliot comes back an hour later, after a long broken talk with the families of the deceased, he is not outside.
Beasley snaps upright at once and Elliot tries not to see the tips of his ears dyed bright red or the breath bobbing like a slug in his throat. The synth has new bruises. Elliot unsnaps the reader from his head and starts to play it in his goggles. Beasley steps back against the wall and stands with his arms tightly folded, so the tattoos seem to wriggle under his skin.
Elliot fast-forwards through a dry march, clouds of dust puffing up around his ankles.
“I’m sorry,” Beasley says. He means for the bruises.
Elliot fast-forwards through a sandstorm, a net malfunction that cuts him off from the unit.
“I just had to do something, you know?” Beasley snuffles. The sound turns Elliot’s stomach. “Tolliver, man.”
Elliot looks down a sniper scope, exhales, and pulls the trigger. He rewinds. Plays it again.
“They grow them in vats, right?” Beasley’s voice is shaking. “Big slimy tanks.” He sounds like he will break soon. He crouches beside the synth and Elliot doesn’t stop him. “Where’s your barcode, synth?” he asks. “Where’d they stamp you?”
“I won’t report it,” Elliot says, even though there is nobody to report to, not really.
“I’m sorry,” Beasley says, and now he is crying.
Elliot swings his boot and catches the synth in the side. The gasp sounds like meat. “There,” he says, retracting his aching foot. “We’re both culpable now. I won’t report it.”
He slings an awkward arm around Beasley’s shoulder and they leave the shed.
“Show me last night.”
Silence for a beat. Elliot shifts the goggles on the bridge of his nose.
They finally bury Tolliver out behind the camp and then Beasley and Elliot drink. They dangle their legs off the hover, slugging from metallic-tasting gin, and they talk about how the tour will be over in a few weeks and Tolliver, he came so damn close.
“Looks like a gene-job,” Elliot says, because he’s been thinking about it.
“Yeah. Some Neanderthal, maybe.” Elliot drinks. “For the muscle tone.”
“Yeah.” Beasley rubs at his face. “Think there are any real people left in the Machine States?”
“If there are, they regret it all now.”
“Deal with the devil.”
“Deal with the devil,” Elliot echoes. “It’s messed up. We make drones and now the mechs are making meat.”
“They know it scares us,” Beasley says, drunk-serious. He snorts. “Well, not scares us. They don’t scare me. They make me want to vomit.”
“You think, uh, you think they really have metal bones?”
“There’d only be one way to know,” says Beasley. His eyes are hard plastic. Elliot does not reply, but they drink and drink and soon they are stumbling back to the camp, to the shed, where a thin coughing slides under the locked door. Elliot’s world is slantwise. They haul the synth out of shed and into the hover. They take him out of the camp.
“The stop-rewind controls are in your viewfinding unit.”
Elliot doesn’t stop it.
The petrol leaks, dripping small craters into cool sand. The synth is beached at their feet with his breath whistling in and out of scabby lips. He is staring up at the black sky. There’s no starlight, but the dunes are soaked with phosphates and so the stuff glistens at night like powdered bone.
Beasley pulls the scarf down around his neck. “It wouldn’t be like doing it to a human,” he says. His skin glows in ribbons, the bioluminescent tattoos he has to cover with black grease for night ops, but this is not an op and there’s no protocol for this.
Elliot thinks of the body, the cement-sack weight of it in the spattered plastic sheath and the tingling of air fresheners jammed up his nose. He thinks of the flies on Tolliver’s face.
The sky has no eyes.
“Your hippocampus did not fabricate strong replacements for the erased memories. In these cases, fragments can resurface during sleep.”
“You’re lying. You’re not authorized to slash something like that.”
“Your tour ends in twenty-two days and the prisoner’s information has already been processed. It was in the best interests of your psychological well-being—”
Elliot does not hear because he is tearing the goggles free from his face and stumbling out of the tent to vomit sour into the sand with a burnt-flesh smell in his nose. His drunken head is shattered and he feels the ghost of Tolliver’s hand, no, Beasley’s hand on his shoulder, and Beasley’s voice whispering that it’s okay, because we can slash it, we’ll both slash it, I didn’t think it would be like that.
“Elliot?” Beasley is standing by the hover with concern in his bright clear eyes.
“Sick,” Elliot says.
Beasley laughs. “Never could handle your gin,” he says.
Elliot plunges his slimed hands down under the sand, the way the herders do, and rubs and rubs.
Rich Larson lives in Edmonton, Alberta. His work has appeared in Word Riot, YARN, Prick of the Spindle, and The Claremont Review. His story, “Like Any Other Star,” appeared in AE #7.