My feet found the ground and I bent at the knees, bouncing forward on a hopping run meant to keep me from having to roll with the force of my landing. I was already disengaging the straps in case the terrain forced me into such a spin, I could hear my dad’s gruff voice in my head, “Rennie, it takes some serious bioware to repair a snapped neck cuz some poor fragged orcbait forgot to unsnap his rig.”
A glance overhead revealed the shadowy descent of my crewmates. I was actually surprised to count out all of them. As Donegar hit the dirt near me in a perfectly executed military move, knee planted, gun raised, small target ready to engage, I admitted to myself that I didn’t expect the rest of them to follow. Him, sure. He had the soul-sucked look of a man who was better off not remembering the things his mind had locked away. I had met many like him in that military psych-ward.
I shook my head away from those dark memories to find a bit of amusement in watching the teenagers hit the ground. Shade did alright, considering. His movements mimicked a surfer’s and with a chuckle I realized he was quite literally trying to skateboard out of the sky. Funny how muscle memory worked. Donegar’s mind might not be willing to remember but his body certainly did. Much like the street kid trying to make his way into the unknown by skating. Beside him, Stallion stumbled gracefully, unused to the way the parachute dragged at you, still tethered to the winds. His eyes darted about wildly in the darkness and I bet a platinum cred stick that I didn’t want to be able to see what he could. I hoped he was smart enough to stay away from the magic here where everything was tainted by insect juice.
I’d missed Wesley’s landing. One minute I was watching the rest of the guys and the next the dwarf was beside me. Not good. I really needed to be more aware of my surroundings. Especially here.
With that thought, I dropped to a secured crouch and flipped on my low light vision with a rapid series of blinks meant to code it up in my cybered eyes. And what I saw was…
Pieces of me flinging outward in every direction. I felt my connection to my sanity come unraveled as if someone had taken my mind and thrown it like a ball of yarn down a set of stairs. I shut down hard. Fast. Willed everything around me to go still and silent.
We were in a playground.
We’d landed in a fragging playground. The rusted swing set beside me mocked the searing agony in my chest. I felt hollowed out. Shrapnel laced with memories.
Had Axel stopped here with AJ? Was this where they were on that day that he’d gotten the message that they were quarantined? I could see his white blonde head ducked over the small figure of our toddler. I could picture his kind eyes as he pushed our son in the swing.
I’d been fragging pissed. Hot holy hell had I been angry when he’d called. His face appearing on my Comms, as he had explained, “there were people in need. It was supposed to be a quick stop. I was just delivering supplies and blessings.” He’d put AJ’s little face in the picture to advert the attention from my simmering resentment. His church commitments always came first.
I’d been cold. Dismissive: “I guess I’ll just eat dinner by myself then. Again. Get him out of there before he catches something.”
He’d caught something. They’d all caught something. An infestation that had wiped out this entire region. My son had died here. My husband had died here. And I’d refused to say I love you when I ended the call.
“Rennie?” The way it was asked I could tell it was not the first time they’d said my name. In fact, as I pulled myself from the dark tumult of my mind I realized that the entire group was looking at me. “you good?”
“Right.” I nodded sharply and acted like I hadn’t just been caught staring into the darkness like a madwoman. “Donegar take the lead. Let’s get in and get out. We’re on a timeline people.”
They were not pleased at my briskness. Stallion and Shade shared a look that clearly said what they were thinking. It wasn’t like we weren’t all aware of the pressure of that deadline. They didn’t need me to tell them. If we didn’t get the package and get it back to the chopper there would be no ride out of this hellish place. Part of me wondered if that would be such a bad ending? To die where they had. To go out stomping bugs with my last breath.
As Donegar took the lead and we fell in behind with weapons at the ready I realized the selfishness of my thoughts. My crew hadn’t come here to die. They’d come here to complete a mission. A mission that I had led us into with the negotiations with “Fifi.” As soon as she’d mentioned the CZ I’d upped the price to a ridiculous number, demanded transportation and even weaponry hoping to make the trip too costly for her. She’d not balked. Hell, she hadn’t even really blinked. Frack, there was no way we could back out of this, not without losing a serious amount of reputation cred that we’d just finished establishing. At least that was the argument I’d given when we accepted the job. It’s what I told them.
But was it the truth? Had I taken the job because there’d been no choice or because I was on a suicide mission?
I glanced around at my crew and realized if I had then I had murdered them all just as clearly as if I’d leveled my sniper rifle at their heads and popped them like cherries.
And that made me a monster worse than the damn insects.