Blistering tongues of immolated fuel spewed from the dropship, sculpting the sterile mudscape into a smear of ragged sumps and ridges as it touched down. Seconds later, the rear hatch fell open and shat 2nd Platoon into the mire.
Mort Louka stumbled into his first taste of the war, then sank straight to his knees with an audible slurp. As he struggled to unfuck himself, an enormous hand grabbed him by the back of his cammies.
“Step to, Private,” a stone-faced Corporal Pataba grumbled, liberating him from his predicament and his boots in the same motion.
Now in his socks, Mort glanced over his shoulder in search of his waylaid shitkickers, but his view was blocked by the jostling queue of determined Marines on his soggy heels. Unwilling to be the cause of Platoon’s delay, Mort abandoned his boots and crawled out of the way on his hands and knees.
A few arduous body-lengths later, he tried standing again. His right foot immediately plunged back into the muck and he grimaced in pain as a rock sliced open the side of his sole, spilling its sanguine contents. He managed to wrench himself free and limped after the rest of his fire team, trailing blood and mud and confidence.
“What’s the name of this planet again?” he asked Pataba when he’d caught up, trying to cover for his rookie clumsiness. “Meemaw?”
PFC Krev, tasked as force multiplier and somehow walking on top of the sludge at his left flank with the M440, snickered. “That’s right, Boot,” he said, his deep-set eyes slinking in the shadows of contiguous eyebrows. “They named this place after your grandma. It’s wet and dirty, just like she is.”
“Limos,” Corporal Pataba said. “Named for the Greek goddess of famine.” His dark, weathered face wrinkled to a bitter smile. “Only thing that grows here is the casualty list.”
“Should’ve named it after the goddess of mud,” Private Redmond muttered from ready position up front.
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Mort nodded in agreement. Other than the deploying fire teams of 2nd platoon and an occasional glimpse of the rest of Charlie Company or their emptying dropships, mud was the only thing on the menu.
On the human one, at least.
As it turned out, the Chokes had a menu of their own, and it featured 7th Marines as the soup du jour.
Mort snapped out of the memory, uncertain how long he’d been lost in it. His mind did that now, dropping him without warning into a past he’d just as soon forget as punishment for the smallest of rests. It couldn’t be trusted. Neither could he. That’s why the Corps had sent him back.
He gazed across the patchwork sward that undulated all around him, captivated by its tidal rhythms. Limos looked different now. Death had brought it to life.
A crimson stalk pushed up from an inky patch of chokegrass at his bare feet, betraying the final resting place of an alien soldier. And a pretty good one, too, based on the enveloping sprays of wild garlic—the Choke bastard must’ve taken an entire squad of Marines with it.
Careful to get the roots as well, Mort ripped the crimson stalk from the vivid, carmine soil and stuffed it into the incinerator-bound bag he carried over his shoulder. The offending weed, which the xeno-taxonomy binder called blood thyme, featured hair-like projections that injected a nasty toxin into anything unlucky enough to brush against it. Without his bionic arms and their self-sterilization abilities, Mort would’ve been in for a world of hurt.
The chokegrass surrounding the uprooted blood thyme was still too short from his last mow to cut again, but Mort noticed aphids climbing on it, so he sprinkled some powdered tilapia fertilizer over top in the name of terrestrial progress. Another month and the dead Choke’s stain on the land would be forgotten, blotted out by the inexorable march of the human race.
Satisfied with his work, Mort moved on to the next skirmish in the war for Limos, now called Demeter thanks to some forward-thinking brainiac up the chain of command.
The soldiers here had long since stopped hemorrhaging their blood and guts and tears into the soil, but the land remembered. Only Mort, and those like him, could make it forget.
If only he could do the same for himself.
Against regulations, Mort wore no boots. Such a choice was inherently dangerous, but the hyperawareness it demanded both soothed his mind and helped him spot any diminutive Choke plants that he may have otherwise missed.
He walked on—never looking more than a yard ahead and making sure to keep the flamboyant hillock of earthly wildflowers and absurd tendrils of manwort that loomed in the hazy distance ever at his back—until he spotted something metallic in the foliage at his feet.
Seven spent cartridges of 5.56. Primitive, yes, but also better than beam weapons at penetrating Choke armor.
He scooped up the archaic brass from the base of an eight foot ellipse of false oat-grass and inspected it. The original shine of the cartridges had been scoured toward matte by ubiquitous Choke microbes with a taste for metal, but their shape was unmistakable.
After stuffing the brass into his empty hip pack, Mort stretched his aching back and raised his face to Demeter’s dropping sun, allowing a rare breeze of tranquility to wash over him. It had been several weeks since he’d found any metal on the forty acre parcel he’d been tasked with cleansing; this discovery was a godsend.
The absence of new finds of metal and bone and a general reduction in the Choke plant population had raised big questions of what would happen when his task was complete. Would they move him to a new parcel? Perhaps closer to the flowery hillock that he couldn’t possibly face? Perhaps to the place itself?
But the cluster of brass had given him a reprieve. Seven cartridges. Seven! A find like that had to mean that much more work remained before he needed to worry about a change.
As per his routine, he worked until the sun sank below the horizon and the sky darkened to a deep bruise before forcing his bare feet toward his lonely CHU—a repurposed dropship dragged into place for his exclusive use and called containerized housing. Before crossing the threshold to the misery within, he headed around back to dump the day’s finds.
The 5.56 echoed as it struck the bottom of the empty scrap can, and the Choke flora—his third bag of the stuff for the day—barely filled the incinerator halfway up, rounding out a pitiful haul for the week. He wondered if Mejia would have anything to say to him when she made her pickup the next day. The work was getting thinner, no matter how much he tried to convince himself otherwise. At some point, somebody up the chain was going to notice.
If he were smart, he’d take the next few days off and let the weeds grow into something formidable, but he couldn’t do that to himself. To stand still was to be bombarded by horrors of both thought and memory. The forced idleness of night was bad enough—he refused to give the past room to creep in during the daylight hours as well.
Reaching back into the scrap can, he retrieved two of the spent brass jackets. He rolled them around the palm of one of his replacement hands—a pallid, pristine facsimile that moved and looked almost normal, if one didn’t notice the tanned, weathered flesh that abutted it.
He squeezed his fingers into a fist, feeling the movement and the pressure, yet also the falsity. His new hands were imposters, consolations, memorials. They belonged to the Corps—he was but a conditional caretaker. Dischargees didn’t get replacement arms—they got stumps and a work deferment waiting for them back in protected space. He’d pass.
With a dismissive grunt, Mort threw the brass into the deepening darkness of the parcel. As long as there was something to find out there, they couldn’t move him. They couldn’t force him any closer to the terrifying nosegay on the hillock. They just couldn’t.
Inside his CHU, Mort hit the switch that illuminated the end of the hollowed-out dropship that contained the kitchen and multipurpose table. There were other lights, but he liked to keep them off. They made everything too visible. Without them, he could almost forget the previous life of his home. He could almost forget the sour stench of vomit and the nervous anticipation of the condemned as they descended to their fate, and he with them.
Mort threw himself into his tableside chair and sighed. He snatched up one of Smudge’s weathered books from the small shelf of poetry and culinary tomes behind his head and glanced at the cover. Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman.
He leafed through the rough paper pages, disgusted by the paradoxical scent of sweet vanilla and musty decay, until he came at last to a spot of broken spine. Handwritten text crowded the margins and squeezed its way beneath underlined print. This one must’ve been a favorite of his predecessor.
Mort zeroed in on a circled section near the top and read it aloud:
“O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?”
Mort peeked over his shoulder at the rusty brown stain sullying the worn mattress of his stripped bunk.
“Damn, Smudge,” he said to it. “You had a darkness in you. No wonder you offed yourself.”
He read a little more:
“Now I am terrified at the earth! it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,”
Mort massaged his furrowed brow with thumb and forefinger. Why was he doing this gardening work? Why hadn’t he gone AWOL after his rehab? For hands? For purpose? For revenge? He wouldn’t see any of the fruits of his efforts. By the time the Choke residue had been cleansed and fecund human settlements took hold on Demeter, he would be long gone. Or long dead. What was the point of working toward the future? He had no future. He was damaged, broken, rudderless. The best he could hope for was to pass time and keep one step ahead of his demons.
“Now I am terrified at the earth!”
He lived five minutes at a time. Where was the future in that? Once, he had lived for something more than himself. He couldn’t remember what it was, but it was something. He wanted that sense of purpose back, but he knew he couldn’t have it.
“Now I am terrified…”
He squeezed his hands into fists. He should be able to get over this. He should be able to concentrate. And sleep. And smile. But he couldn’t.
“Now I am—“
Mort stood knee-deep in sludge. He’d lost his rifle. Redmond had already split.
A triad formation of Choke air cover screamed overhead. Seconds later, their payloads broke through the guttural tenor of pitched battle in a series of concussive detonations. Warm, comforting piss streamed down his leg.
With his bladder empty, Mort located his weapon and turned toward Krev’s overwatch position as ordered.
The mud fought him every step of the protracted bound up the hillock, sucking at his socks and then bare toes as the muck did its best to undress him. Even at its worst, however, it could do no more than had been done to the lone figure of PFC Krev, skylining Mort’s destination and flinging out all the covering fire he could muster.
When he reached his side, Mort saw that the PFC had been stripped of his cammies and issued a new uniform of weeping wounds and cauterized scabs shellacked in drying mud.
“About time you showed up,” Krev shouted between bursts of the M440, oblivious to his injuries. “I’m about black on ammo. Thought it was gonna end up being my big, swinging cock against the whole Choke army down there.” He fired off another burst. “And that wouldn’t be fair for the Chokes.”
Mort swallowed hard. The ammo!
Fearing he’d lost it in the same blast that had waylaid his rifle and discombobulated the team, his hands leapt to his chest.
He breathed a sigh of relief. Two ammo belts crisscrossed his torso.
As Krev’s M440 went dry, Mort passed him one of the belts and then surveyed the battlefield spread out before them.
Several ranks of Choke infantry—immediately catalogued by his brain as three-legged, headless Minotaurs wrapped in obsidian shells—clustered behind an imposing line of polygonal armored skiffs gliding across the sloppy plain below as if on ice. The majority of Bravo Company engaged them. Mortar squads lobbed ineffective ordinance shoulder to shoulder with machine gunners desperately scratching the shallowest of depressions into the flat, open terrain. Under the pathetic protection of Krev and his light machine gun, Alpha Company maneuvered toward the makeshift defense, ready to fill in the flanks and support Bravo’s anti-armor capability. Most of Charlie held back in reserve.
A fresh burst from Krev’s weapon drew Mort’s attention back to the PFC. Nude, caked in mud, and spewing vengeance, he looked every bit the golem, born from mud to destroy man’s enemies.
Mort dropped to his belly and scratched at the muck beneath him—not to create his own golem, but to get as far away from the carnage and danger as possible. If he could only dig deep enough, perhaps there was still time to save himself.
“That’s right,” Krev said to him. “Get low. They’re about to take a run at us.”
Mort glanced up from his pathetic scrape just in time to witness the entire line of Choke armor vomit a simultaneous barrage of explosive shells. He drove his face straight back down into the wet muck. It seeped up his nose and into his mouth, forming a thick and suffocating seal. Only after the concussive wrath of the Choke volley had been met by return fire from PFC Krev did he raise his head.
He should’ve kept his face in the mud.
Mort threw the book across the room and leapt to his feet. He needed to get his mind on something else. But it was pitch dark outside, and would stay that way for the next ten hours.
His stomach grumbled. Was he hungry? He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten.
Hungry or not, cooking was the exact sort of busy work he needed. Over the course of his second stint planetside, he’d julienned and braised his way through all of Smudge’s culinary books several times over. Kitchen work turned out to be a reliable path through the interminable night.
From the icebox, he dug out some mutton and rabbit reared on one of Demeter’s few cleansed parcels and supplemented it with vegetables grown on another. Then he started in on some hot-water pastry—banging and kneading and working the dough, relying on the repetition of movement to center his thoughts on task over tangent.
When the meat pie he envisioned was finally ready for baking, he burned through some more time cutting intricate shapes of leaf and game out of the dough for adornment. Then he crushed them into a giant ball, which he rolled out and shaped again. Anything to bring the dawn closer.
At last, he could delay no longer and shoved the pie into the countertop oven he’d inherited from Smudge.
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His foot tapped. His fingers drummed. He cracked his neck. Then he was back up, ready to bake a cake. Or pickles! He could make pickles! No—bread!
He’d caught some wild yeast and had been propagating it in a jar. There was no telling whether it was human or Choke yeast, but he figured it didn’t really matter. Despite the best efforts of his fellow gardeners, the ewes and hares in his pie had probably snacked on a bit of chokegrass or bittervetch at some point and the veggies must’ve grown in soil tainted by at least a ribbon of carmine. If he stayed here long enough, he just might start turning into one of the bastards himself.
The pie came out of the oven before the bread had finished its first proof. It needed to rest for a few minutes before he dug in, so he spent the time biting at the craggy, broken skin of his chapped lips, you can take care of your skin in a healthy way just use under eye masks.
When the pie was ready, he cut a thick slice and sat with it at the table. The pungent essences of marjoram and rosemary rode into his nostrils on an updraft of hot steam, complemented by the lean gaminess of the proteins and a fortifying undercurrent of grassy, pastured butter and pork fat.
Mort broke through the crust, collecting a heaping forkful of the moist and fragrant filling and shoving it into his mouth. According to his nose, it should’ve been delicious.
To be fair, it wasn’t bad either—it simply didn’t taste like anything. Nothing did anymore. It wasn’t the food’s fault. It was his.
He chewed and chewed, but the bolus of gluten and animal protein in his mouth never seemed ready for a swallow. After finally forcing it down with a drink of water, his stomach growled, pleading for more calories and faster, but his gag reflex wouldn’t cooperate. He took another bite anyway, then stood up and paced around the decommissioned dropship, chewing. Maybe the movement would make things easier.
After putting the mouthful down with another drink, he returned his barely disturbed plate to the kitchen, disgusted. Inside a cabinet sat the blender he’d acquired a few months earlier. He pulled it out and tossed the rest of his meal inside with a few cups of water, then processed it into a dun puree. It wasn’t very appealing, but, then again, no food was anymore.
After drinking his tepid, glutinous meal, he packed up the rest of his pie in the icebox and rolled out the leavened bread for its second rise.
To keep his brain occupied until the bread was ready for baking, he ripped two pages from the back of Smudge’s depressing book of poems and tried forming them into animals like the head shrinker at the sanatorium had taught him. Despite a valiant effort, his creations resolved as they always did, becoming polygonal Choke armor and its accompanying air cover.
Finally, his loaf of bread was good to go. He opened the oven door, ready to insert the twice-risen dough, when the alarm on his wrist went off. Time for bed.
Mort closed the oven door, turned it off, and dumped the fetal bread into the waste receptacle. He could’ve stuck it in the icebox and cooked it off in the morning, but he knew better than to expect anything of the future. Better to end each day with a period, just in case the next sentence never came.
After executing his nightly hygiene routine, Mort slipped into bed. And there he lay, swaddled in blankets and mostly dry sheets as tight as he could manage. The light was out. It was almost comfortable. He closed his eyes.
“I don’t get this place,” PFC Krev said, struggling along beside Mort as Charlie 1/7 advanced on their target. “We’re knee deep in mud and I don’t smell a damn thing. Shouldn’t it stink? You know, like a swamp?”
Redmond sniffed the air. “Reminds me of the wet saw I used before the war. Like cut stone.”
“Geosmin,” Mort said, still limping from his wounded foot.
“Geosmin. That’s the stuff that makes mud smell like mud. It comes from bacteria in the soil. If this planet’s really dead, the aroma wouldn’t be what you’d expect.”
The team slowed to a halt. All eyes swiveled toward Mort.
“Where’d you learn all that?” Corporal Pataba asked at last.
Mort shrugged. “School.” They seemed to want something more personal, but he wasn’t willing to give it. Not on his first mission. That was just asking for it. “And the smell of rain on dry ground? That’s called petrichor,” he said instead.
Krev scoffed. “Well, all your fancy schooling ain’t worth shit against the Chokes. Unless you plan on boring them to death…”
A shriek in the air.
Before he could shout, Mort was airborne, twisting and flailing and breathless.
And then he was on his feet, staggering in the mud toward a recumbent and bloody Redmond.
“Troops in contact!” A chorus of voices shrieked in his ear. He tore out his comms and cast them aside as he slid into place beside the Private.
She cleared her throat, blinking rapidly in his arms. “What?” she said, blood filling her eyes from a pulsing head wound. “What?”
Things weren’t great, but they could’ve been worse. The blast shredded Redmond’s cammies, but, other than her head, she leaked more mud than blood.
“Nothing bleeds like a head,” Mort muttered, recalling his brief medic training as he searched his pack for a pressure bandage. Once he found one, he propped the Private’s head on his knee and wiped away the blood.
“Cold.” Her smile evolved toward dumb curiosity. “You really do…”
The shallow, three-inch gash leaked like a sieve through her matted hair. Certainly not a fatal wound, Mort decided, despite her suddenly fixed and dilated eyes. Must’ve been shock.
As he tried to apply the bandage, Redmond’s head slipped from his knee on a slick of blood. He grabbed her by the armpits and jerked her onto his lap to better access the wound.
Her torso came easy, but the lower half of her body stayed put. Mort stared at her legs for a moment, unable to reconcile them or the coil of glistening, pink ropes that tied them to her heaving chest.
Firm hands seized his collar and jerked him to his feet.
“She’s gone,” Pataba shouted as he shoved Mort toward a nearby rise. “Get on overwatch with Krev.”
Mort stumbled forward, but, once again, the Corporal grabbed him.
“Retrieve your rifle, Private,” Pataba said, manhandling him in line with the weapon and starting him off again with a push.
Mort convulsed back into reality. His blankets were off, crumpled on the floor. The bottom sheet clung to his back, stinking of cold sweat.
He peeled himself free and stood up, clad in nothing but his undershorts and the sebum of terror.
His rifle slept in bed beside him. He grabbed it and bounded out the front door.
A suffocating, nocturnal mist clung to the faint running lights that enveloped the CHU at its corners. Mort scrambled into the darkness beyond it, unconcerned with the dangers lurking underfoot.
As the light of the CHU dwindled behind him, he stumbled and collapsed into a shallow depression. A hastily scratched foxhole, most likely. His parcel teemed with them.
He lay in the furrow, listening. The night was alive with terrestrial insects—as far as he knew, there were no Choke bugs of visible size on Demeter any more, pesticides working where herbicides had not. He held his rifle in front of him, aiming it into the nebulous darkness. Collected moisture at the bottom of the little sink slapped against his naked belly as he wiggled for a comfortable position. He pressed his face into the bristly grass, then harder, hoping to reach the mud that once protected him.
In a past life, he would’ve basked in the reaffirming perfume of earthy geosmin, but those memories had been overwritten by the great palimpsest of war. Now, the fertile terroir stank of dreams deferred and promise broken. These were his fellow Marines—reduced from human to humus and fed to the future.
He longed for the sterile days of Limos, the innocence of cut stone, when the price of land had not been loss. But the Chokes had chosen war and humanity was only too willing to oblige them. When the fighting was over and the star systems were counted, perhaps the only true winner would be Demeter, brought into being by the compost of war. That is, unless it had preferred to stay Limos. No one had asked it, after all.
A quick movement a few meters in front of him drew Mort’s attention and two rounds from his rifle. The action was instinctual and euphoric.
With the thunderous reports still ringing in his ears, he scrambled to his feet and tracked down his prey.
A rat. Fat and mangled.
Mort returned to the foxhole with his prize and flopped onto his belly, rifle at the ready. The rat smelled of mud and shit and blood, overpowering the stench of the surrounding humus. It was nice, familiar—reminiscent of the wish-pennies he used to fish from his grandparents’ pond as a youth. Most of all, it reminded him of Redmond.
Without much thought, he smeared the ruptured neck of the carcass across his cheeks. Basking in its perfume, he pointed his rifle into the darkness, waiting. He was alert. He was ready.
He fell asleep.
Mort had his eyes on Redmond up front when the Private stopped and scooped up a fistful of mud.
“What’s she doing?” Mort asked PFC Krev.
Krev grinned. “She’s a quarter Haida Indian. Probably going to turn around and tell us exactly where that Choke gun is in a second.”
Redmond turned around, holding the mud aloft. “I found it!” she shouted.
“See?” Krev said, nudging Mort as they headed over with Pataba.
“What exactly did you find?” the Corporal asked when they reached her.
Redmond held out her fistful of mud. “The POO we’re looking for…”
Krev bent in half, laughing, and Pataba shook his head with a rare smirk. “Better check your Marine Corps manual,” he said. “We’re looking for a Point of Origin site—not whatever that is in your hand.”
“Then what am I supposed to do with this?” Redmond asked, feigning a frown as the sterile mud slipped through her fingers.
Krev slapped Mort on the back. “Give it to Boot here. He’s used to eating shit.”
The team broke into raucous laughter at Mort’s expense, but the joke vanished just as quickly into a stuttering staccato of distant Choke artillery fire.
“Sounds like the gun we’re after,” Pataba said.
Redmond picked up two more handfuls of mud. “I’m gonna make one of those golems you’re always talking about, Krev,” she said. “We can use all the help we can get, I think.”
As she shaped the muck in her hands to something nearing a homunculus, Mort turned to PFC Krev.
“What’s a golem?” he asked.
“Padow!” Krev replied, brandishing his fists. Tattooed onto three fingers of one hand and two on the other were several strange symbols.
Mort squinted at them. “Is that Thai?” he asked.
“No it’s not Thai,” Krev said, frowning. “It’s Hebrew.”
“What does it say?”
“Right hand says ’emet,’ which means truth. Left hand drops one letter, aleph, and says ‘met,’ which means death.”
“And what does that have to do with Redmond’s mud doll?”
Pataba groaned, but Krev smiled. “I’m glad you asked,” he said. “In Jewish mysticism, a mud warrior called a golem can be brought to life to destroy your enemies. All you gotta do is carve the right letters on its forehead and shazam, you got an angry pet. You start off by writing ‘met.’ Death. When you add aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and indicative of the oneness of God, it spells ’emet,’ truth, and the thing comes to life. When you’re done with it, you remove the oneness of God and it becomes death, a pile of ordinary mud.”
“So you fancy yourself a golem?” Mort asked, nodding at the tattooed knuckles. “That you’re tasked by God to destroy the Chokes?”
“No. Not God. This golem serves a higher power—the United States Marine Corps!” He swung his right fist—“where truth of purpose”—then his left—“means the death of our enemies. Oorah!”
The Choke gun thundered in the distance again and Mort scooped up his own handful of mud.
“What are you doing? Krev asked.
“Making my own golem,” Mort replied with a smile. “Redmond’s right. Another hundred just like you and we can’t lose.”
When Mort woke up, hours later, the parcel was still dark and he still smelled like a dying Redmond. Unwilling to spend the entire night outside like a madman, he returned to his bed—without washing off the rat. It was an aromatherapeutic salve, a spell of protection, a tonic against despair.
The rest of the night passed like any other. He slept, or didn’t. Dozed, or didn’t. Whatever the meat, the bread of his shit sandwich of a life was going to bed and getting up when his alarm told him to. When it finally, mercifully rang, he headed straight for the shower.
After twelve minutes of hygiene—the longest he could stretch the task without his mind wandering—it was time for breakfast. Unfortunately, he’d burned through the last of his supplies while trying to distract himself over the past week, so he broke his fast with a leftover meat pie smoothie. Four minutes. Then there was nothing left to do but kit up and get to work.
Outside, the enduring nocturnal mist clung to the ground in a typical morning fog that painted the landscape in dew and brought the rest of the world in close. Mort enjoyed mornings most—there was a whole day’s work between him and the torture of his idle nights, sure, but also because the hillock was obscured by the blanketing haze. For a few hours, it may as well have not existed.
Mort walked into the comforting swaddle of his parcel, basking in the prickly moisture of the shaggy grasses beneath his calloused feet. A deep breath brought the humidity into his lungs, filling the broken cracks of his insides with its thickness.
Then he froze, realizing he’d been walking without paying attention to where he was stepping again. He glanced down, beneath his descending sole, and spotted a spiky patch of breatherfew. A smile creased his face. If he’d finished that step, he would’ve finished himself too—breatherfew’s hobbies included the complete paralysis of the human diaphragm.
He backtracked a step or two and then knelt down to scuff up the deadly plant with the invulnerable fingers of his bionic arms. As he did so, one of the spent cartridges he’d tossed out the night before rolled out from between the bristles. He pocketed it, sprinkled some fish powder, and moved on.
After an hour of continuous work, the wind shifted to reveal the heralding bells of a pair of oxen extemporizing a ditty with two creaking wheels and a diatribe of muffled human expletives. It was Sergeant Mejia, headed down the rough, denuded road for her weekly exchange and inspection.
Mort stopped what he was doing and ambled over to the waste cans behind his CHU to wait for the Sergeant and her cart.
“How’s it going, Louka?” Mejia asked when she finally pulled up. Though she’d opted for cammies over a full-on bunny suit, she also wore a disposable respirator. Beneath it was the large and lumpy face of an aberrant potato. Her ears looked more like cauliflower.
“Fine, Sarge. Just getting my work on.”
“Yeah, well, I wish you’d wear a respirator to do it. I can get you a real nice one—not that standard issue crap—for the right price. There’s no telling what kind of junk all those Choke weeds are spewing into the air.”
Mort took a deep, dramatic breath. “Seems all right to me. Been doing this for a full season and I’m none the worse for wear.”
“Just be careful,” she said.
As if to punctuate her words, one of the oxen dropped a hot mess of steaming shit onto the bare patch of lifeless dirt below it. The pile drew Mort’s eyes. Six months and it would be a respectable tuft of alfalfa.
“What you got for me today?” the Sergeant asked, getting back to business. “Another half load?”
Mort shrugged. “More or less.”
“Guess you’re about done here then.”
“Not necessarily,” Mort said, scrambling for the scrap can. He snatched out the empty jackets from inside and held them out for Mejia. “I found these yesterday afternoon.”
The Sergeant glanced at the jackets in his bionic palm, then her own naked fingers. “These things clean?” she asked.
Mort nodded and Mejia accepted the brass.
“5.56,” she said, stating the obvious. “Don’t see how this’ll change anything though. Your parcel’s played out.”
Mort remembered the cartridge in his pocket. The one covered in breatherfew oil. It would shut the Sergeant up real quick.
“I’ve got one more,” he said, producing the jacket.
Mejia reached for it, completely trusting.
“I found it in a breatherfew patch…”
She jerked her hand back. “Jesus Christ, Louka. You trying to frag my ass? Stick it in the back with the biohazard.”
Mort trudged over to the bed of the cart and play-acted dropping the round into the requisite container. He’d dump it somewhere in the parcel later instead as proof of work still needing to be done. Someone higher up than Mejia might buy it.
Pocketing the tainted brass, he turned to empty the incinerator ash trap and spotted something impossible behind the wagon out of the corner of his eye.
“What the hell is that?” he asked, nearly tripping on his own bare feet.
Mejia dropped to the ground from her seat and walked back to Mort with a grin.
“That’s your new best friend,” she said, tugging at the rope that connected it to the back of the cart.
It was roughly the size of a lamb, but otherwise looked absolutely nothing like a sheep. Its main body, which sat flat to the ground, reminded Mort of a slug, but was scaled and articulated like a snake. Attached to the front of it was some sort of head, chitinous and insectoid, with two symmetrical horns and an improbable chin trimmed in quivering strands of mucus.
“Again. What the hell is that?”
“We call him Artie. Artie the Choke goat. And he’s all yours.”
“You know. Like an artichoke.”
“No. Not that. Why is it all mine?”
“These Choke goats only eat Choke plants. Command wants you out and reconning a virgin parcel to move to, but they don’t want yours reverting while you’re gone. That’s where Artie comes in. Let him loose in your parcel and he’ll do all your work for you, freeing you up for your new orders.”
Mort reached into his pocket and squeezed the deadly breatherfew cartridge. Was it too late to murder Mejia?
“Where did it come from?” he asked instead.
“Echo 2/6 liberated five of these fuckers from a Choke stronghold on Dido. Command’s keeping four to breed or something, but they gave us one to utilize and observe.”
“How long has it been on Limos?”
“Demeter, you mean. Got here yesterday. Threw up twice and then started operating as advertised, so the Colonel ordered it dispatched to you.”
Mejia handed Mort the end of Artie’s tether, the other side of which was wrapped around the little guy’s horns.
“Wait,” Mort said. “What’s to stop it from running off?”
Mejia pointed to a thick, metal band on the thing’s left horn. “If he strays over the boundary of your parcel, he’ll get a nasty shock.”
“And what about its droppings? Won’t it fertilize the whole parcel in carmine?”
The Sergeant deployed Mort’s weekly supplies to the ground with the tug of a lever and then hopped back up into her seat. “They pick out a spot they like and stick with it. Scoop it and stow it, Louka.”
As Mort opened his mouth to reply, a warm and rough wetness enveloped one of his hands. Realizing that it was inside Artie’s mouth, he ripped the hand free and glared at Mejia, his face wrinkled in disgust.
“You didn’t tell me this thing bites!”
“He’s not biting you. He’s just saying hello. Think of him like a dog. He even likes belly rubs.”
Mort glanced down at the the scaly snake body and pondered how it might expose its belly for a rub.
When he looked up again, Mejia was rolling away. The Sergeant shouted over her shoulder, “If you run into any problems with Artie, call direct to HQ.”
Mort stared after her for a moment, then tugged on the goat’s tether. “Come on, you Choke bastard,” he said. “Let’s see what you can do.”
The hideous little thing undulated along at Mort’s side on a slack tether as he led it deeper into the parcel. Curious, he dropped the rope. Artie stuck with him. It wasn’t until Mort released the tether from its horns that Artie finally wandered off on its own into the dwindling Choke foliage.
As the little alien goat quietly and efficiently went about its task, Mort popped a squat and watched in rapt attention. Ignoring the earthly plants as a source of sustenance, the thing pushed through them and zeroed in on solely Choke flora, which it gobbled up roots and all.
Mort shook his head. The little bugger would have the whole job done in a matter of days, if that long. He considered grabbing his rifle from the CHU and sending the upstart straight to Choke heaven there and then, but decided it would be a one-way ticket to a summary court-martial and the subsequent confiscation of his hands.
Disgusted, he tossed the shell casing from his pocket into a nearby strip of chokegrass—still determined that, to the right person, it could provide a reason for him to stay.
After that, all he could do was stare at Artie while the little bastard ate him out of his routine and into an uncertain future. Stare, and allow his mind to wander.
Mort drew a bead on a target breaking toward their fortified hillock on all three legs and squeezed his trigger. A miss. And another. The bastard was too quick. Pataba fired a cluster of grenade rounds, but at a different target. There were too many of them. Thousands, teeming like angry wasps. They were going to get through.
At the last second, PFC Krev spotted the Choke soldier gunning for them and swung his M440 in line, but too late. Mort managed one final, wild shot that wasn’t even close and watched in surprise as the alien ran right past them.
He and Krev didn’t even have time to share a look of surprise before the rest of the onrushing Choke horde swung their hind legs forward in unison and unleashed a torrent of reaction bolts from the weapons strapped to them.
Mort dropped flat to his scrape with his head turned toward PFC Krev, who promptly folded in half and shattered like a toppled ceramic.
An instant later, the Chokes overran them. Mort shoved his face in the mud. From there, all he could do was listen as the unsettling gurgle that gave the enemy their name washed over him. He squealed in pain as he took a crushing Choke foot to his shoulder and another to his calf. Finally, after a punishing few moments of relentless stampede, the gurgle rolled on, diminishing behind him amid a hail of gunfire.
Something warm and rough and wet closed around his hand and Mort slipped back into the present. It was Artie’s slimy mouth again, but this time Mort was in no hurry to escape it. It felt good, calming. His hand began to tingle.
Artie was the first to break the connection. It released Mort and then slithered in a tight circle to put a foot or so of space between them. Mort watched as the little guy’s scales stretched to reveal an opaque membrane beneath and its whole body bloated toward round. When the bulging stopped, Artie rocked back and forth a few times and then tumbled onto its back to expose its pale underbody.
“Do you want a belly rub?” Mort asked.
Something inside Artie’s chitinous head squeaked and a series of bubbles emerged from its mouthparts, rolling down the mucilaginous strands beneath its chin and popping into nothingness.
Mort took that as a yes.
Artie’s undercarriage was sleek and smooth and quite unlike the distended armor covering the rest of the little guy’s body. It felt good to Mort as he caressed it, but also inauthentic, owing to the electronic nervous system of his imitation arms. Struck by a sudden inspiration, Mort withdrew his bionic hand and replaced it with the top of his bare foot.
The second the naked skin of his foot brushed across the silky underscales, a deep relaxation washed over Mort. He collapsed onto his back in a patch of prickly sedge.
For the first time since basic, he wept.
He could go back home, back to school. He could start a family. He could make a difference.
Ten minutes later, it was all over.
The weight clutched at his neck, dragging him to the dirt. Artie munched on a spray of earthsbane in the distance, oblivious.
Mort wiped the snot from his nose and scratched the drying tears from his cheeks.
He saw Krev bend in half and shatter. He felt the Choke infantry stomping him into the mud, Pataba’s thunderous demise, Redmond sunder in his hands.
What if his aim had been better? Would Krev have survived? If he hadn’t been distracting Redmond, would she have made it? Surely, there must’ve been something he could have done differently to bring the rest of his team home alive.
Mort tightened his guts and squeezed his jaw, trying to force more of the cathartic tears, but nothing came. His body shook and flushed, but the attempt only made him feel worse. He glanced up and spotted Artie slithering toward him. When it arrived, the Choke goat puffed up and rolled onto its back, offering Mort another hit of relief.
Mort stared at the soft, inviting underbelly and felt the pull of need. He remembered the sample bottle of homebrew ethyl that Mejia had given him a while back, along with the reason he’d never cracked its seal. The path it opened. That’s what got Smudge, they say.
“No, Artie,” he said. “It’ll only make things worse.”
In truth, he wasn’t so much afraid of the slippery slope of addiction as the optimistic vision of a possible future that the little bastard had shown him. It was cruel. It was impossible.
Artie rolled upright and deflated with a series of squeaks and farts, then chowed down on a nearby patch of chokegrass as if he hadn’t even been rebuffed. Mort wished he could get over things as quickly as the little guy. He wished his life were as simple as eating, shitting, and getting belly rubs.
Mort watched Artie nibble away, content of purpose and free of worry, edging closer to a glint in the black grass that he quickly recognized as danger.
“Don’t eat that!” Mort shrieked, diving for the shell casing and scooping it up before Artie’s slobbery mouthparts could get near it.
The Choke goat puffed up in panic at the outburst and rolled onto its back as Mort looked for a safer spot to dump the brass. Removing it from the parcel outright was out of the question, so he settled on a solitary clump of jewelweed, the only specimen of its kind on his acreage. The blushing orange flowers made it easily discernible from afar and the earthly origin of the plant would keep Artie away from it.
Mort watched Artie a bit closer after that, making sure that his intel was correct and the little guy really did only have a taste for its native foodstuffs. Mejia’s word held up—Artie consumed solely Choke flora, avoiding even the smallest trace of earthly vegetation.
Its movements were almost balletic as it skirted and slithered and grazed.
The stench of drifting ammonia sullied the air, borne from the fresh craters that riddled the partially-fortified Marines of Alpha and Bravo Companies and swept up the small hillock to Mort and beyond.
Taking the opportunity offered by their side’s barrage, the bunching Choke infantry broke from behind their armored skiffs and charged the stunned defensive line before them. The bastards were quick, crossing the muddy field at an inhuman clip and reaching the hasty human scrapes before the occupying Marines could reorganize for a proper defense.
“They’re so fast,” Mort shouted, firing off a few token shots from his rifle. “How are they that fast? Why didn’t anybody tell me they were that fast?”
But the Chokes, shooting on the run and seemingly at random, were much less coherent in their tactics than the rapidly-reorganizing Marines. They had speed and numbers, true, but apparently no idea what to do after overrunning their enemy.
“Watch,” PFC Krev said.
When the tip of the Choke charge reached the last line of defenders, the bastards halted their advance and scattered, breaking off to tackle the surviving Marines with the serrated fists of their prehensile hind legs in overwhelming numbers. Moments later—between increasingly sporadic reports of conventional arms—the wind shifted, bringing with it a new sound. Cracking, like a forest of old trees toppling all at once. The Chokes had stopped moving, sheltering in place among the scrapes and human casualties.
“What are they doing?” Mort asked, unable to see any more detail over the distance.
“They’re eating them.”
“You heard me. Fuckers burn so much energy in turbo mode that they have to keep eating throughout or they’ll drop dead.”
“You mean they really are maneaters? I thought that was just talk…”
Mort tried and failed to find the words, eventually settling on a whispered, “Why didn’t anybody tell me?”
He was back in the parcel. Artie held its head in the air nearby, its attention trained on Mort, but quickly returned to a budding scatter of deathistle when it determined that everything was okay.
It was clear to Mort that watching Artie go about its business was too close to idleness, and all the terrors that came along with it. He could help the little goat do its job, but that would only cleanse the parcel that much faster, so he dismissed the idea. Also out was the consideration of trying to stay busy inside the CHU. Nights were bad enough without them encroaching on the days. No, Mort realized, he would have to follow his orders and sniff out a new parcel. At least it would keep his mind busy.
And so, after wrapping a piece of meat pie in a tattered rag for the road and leaving Artie to its fun, he headed for the line of overgrowth that indicated the start of his neighbor’s parcel. He could’ve chosen the safe, denuded road for his travels like Mejia, but the boredom would’ve been an invitation to past horrors.
After he’d carefully marked his first few steps into a swaying ribbon of cocksfoot, Mort heard a heavy gust of wind whipping up at his back. In appreciation of the sensation of Demeter’s planetary breath on his cheeks, he turned to face it. But the wind was dead. The sound, he quickly discovered, came from the little Choke goat that slithered toward him at Choke speed.
Mort shook at the sight, reminded of the sprinting abilities of Choke infantry. He wondered if Artie would need to eat immediately afterwards. And if it had a taste for human limbs.
PFC Krev’s next burst of fire, which tore through human corpse and hungry Choke alike, was joined by like-minded fire to either side as what Mort assumed was the rest of Charlie Company took up position on their flanks.
The line of armored skiffs countered with another volley, this one aimed squarely at the bump of ridge that included Mort and Krev’s diminutive rise.
Though spared the worst, the concussions thundered in Mort’s throat and guts until he blew acrid chunks into the saturated muck beneath his chin. He wiped the hanging strings of saliva and sick from his mouth and returned to scanning the sector in front of him.
As if summoned by the exploding ordinance, the Choke infantry abandoned their grisly meal amongst the scrapes and scrambled for the hillock, ignoring the surviving handful of soldiers free to pick at them from their midst.
At the same time, Corporal Pataba reappeared, sliding into the mud at Mort’s side and scaring the shit out of him. The Corporal fired two successive grenade rounds at the approaching horde and then shouted, “How we doing, boys?”
“Stuck in a Charlie Foxtrot,” Krev replied, firing off a string of rounds.
Pataba’s hand flew to his earpiece. “Looks like this clusterfuck’s about to get unfucked,” he said. “Creeping barrage inbound, boys! Let’s give them a taste of their own medicine!
Before Mort could ask what a creeping barrage was, a cat’s cradle of friendly artillery screamed over their heads, past the charging Choke infantry, and straight into the skiffs, which promptly disappeared into a wall of fire and smoke.
Two more barrages followed the first, but the onrushing Choke infantry paid no attention to the devastation behind them, instead dedicating all their energy to impossible speed. Mort fired two rounds, dropping one of the bastards at a hundred yards, but there was no cause for celebration. Even with Krev and Pataba and all the riflemen of Charlie Company burning through them, the tide of Choke soldiers, though thinning, was certain to reach them.
When Artie reached the start of the overgrowth, it squealed and recoiled as the device on its horn activated. An instant later, it puffed up and rolled onto its back, terrified.
“It’s okay, buddy,” Mort said, remaining on his side of the invisible fence. “You gotta stay here, but I’ll be back.”
Artie deflated with the usual farts and squeals and proceeded to slide up and down the perimeter line, bubbling from its mouthparts as it searched in vain for a way through.
The sight of it made Mort feel uncomfortable, so he turned his back on the little guy and waded deeper into the unruly geoxenic heath of the neighboring parcel. After skirting a nasty spray of blood thyme a few minutes later, he glanced over his shoulder at Artie and was relieved to see the little guy back at work eating its fill.
Mort made his careful way through the heath, focusing all his energy and a resurgent concentration on the avoidance of any fatal missteps. After a while, he spotted the neighboring parcel’s CHU in the distance.
Someone in a full bunny suit leaned against its metal wall in the shade, taking a midmorning rest. Fresh meat, no doubt. Even at range, Mort could see that the sleeves on the suit were rolled up and taped in place at the elbow. The Corps had an absolute fetish for assigning amputees to gardening duty—the imitation limbs afforded full sensation without the dangers of skin contact.
Mort didn’t head over. He didn’t talk to any of his neighbors anymore. Not since he’d discovered the previous occupant of the parcel opposite, PFC Mata, dead in a spray of manwort. There was no point in meeting anyone new if they were just going to die.
The scent memory of cut stone and wish-pennies flashed to mind and Mort bent in half, gagging. The intestinal ropes that held Private Redmond together were so pink. So wet. So shiny.
He forced himself vertical and spat the lubricating drool from his mouth. Then he moved on, rededicating himself to the task at hand.
After a dozen or so parcels of chaotic, competitive heath, Mort reached a swath of cultivated land and decided to take a break. He was exhausted, but content. He’d been concentrating for two hours straight, and without any unpleasant memories cropping up. All he needed to do, it seemed, was put his life on the line, and he could be a functional human being again.
As he sat in a soft patch of darnel, gazing at the swaying veldt of safe, cleansed land before him, Mort’s stomach rumbled. He carefully unfolded the tattered rag he carried and produced the slice of meat pie. Even unwarmed, it smelled as good as it looked—its meaty richness emboldened by the fertile breeze rising from the veldt.
He took a bite and raised his face to the sky in appreciation. It was delicious. Three bites later, it was gone.
Flush with calories, Mort brushed off his lap wit the rag and headed into the cleansed grassland, now planted in rye. At first, he continued paying careful attention to his foot placement, but it soon became evident that this parcel was completely devoid of Choke flora.
A whisper of wind played by, rocking the crops surrounding him. Quickly, a gust whipped up, raising the whisper to a shouted lament of the million dead interred underfoot.
His stomach grumbled again, but now not from hunger. From distaste. The pie he’d inhaled a few minutes earlier sat in his gut like a rock.
Every square inch of arable land on Demeter grew from a compost of human death and disfigurement. The wheat for the flour, the meat from the pasture, all begotten from it. He was a cannibal, living off their flesh, their sacrifice.
And yet, there was something else to the flavor—a subtle trace of ammonia. A taste of Choke. For they too were in the land, despoiling all through their defeat.
Mort once again saw Krev at the top of the hillock, naked and covered in mud. He was a golem, human vengeance incarnate, sent by God to vanquish man’s enemies.
Then he was in pieces. Broken.
God had lost.
Bile stirred in Mort’s stomach, rose to the back of his tongue. With a heave, he puked all over his feet.
His throat burned and his mouth tasted terrible, but he was suddenly empty. It felt good to be empty. Now his stomach matched the rest of him.
But he had a new problem. He was alone in the middle of nowhere with no danger to distract him from his thoughts. He could head back to the heath and wander his way to the late afternoon, but, on some level, he still followed orders. Even if he hated the idea, he needed to find a new parcel. At least it gave him a goal.
And so he ran.
Beyond the rye, prickly cleansed grasses poked into his soles as he sprinted, grounding him through the pain. Then came the burning in his legs. And lungs. Yet still he ran. Sweat beaded on his forehead, streamed down his back, but he ran. He ran until the world melted and he staggered. Until he collapsed.
In an instant, Mort was back beside Pataba, face down in the muck while the Chokes trampled him. The golem was in pieces. Redmond was two sacks of meat sewn together by an elaborate stitchwork of perfectly pink sausages.
Mort sat up. His pants were wet, warm, and stank of piss. There were no Chokes around. No bodies. No friends but the children of friends, growing as false oats and solitary sedges at his flanks.
He dug up a handful of mud and held it to his nose. Geosmin. Earthly bacteria. The legacy of sacrifice.
The horrifying stench tethered him to place through time. He was on Demeter, not Limos. Not anymore. They’d won the battle. The Chokes were on the run, banished from the system as Limos had been banished and replaced by Demeter.
He glanced at his surroundings. The plants were patchy, but they were here—his fellow Marines, reborn. Beyond them stood a barren landscape, pure and unspoiled by death and decay. He stood up and scrambled headlong into its sterility.
The mud squeezed between his toes as he ran, ensconcing them in desolation. He ran until he spotted something in the distance that didn’t belong. Something mortal. He approached it and then collapsed onto his knees as recognition and exhaustion seized him.
He’d found a pair of boots.
On closer inspection, it was a single boot, constructed of full grain leather and half-buried in the narrow rain shadow of a cluster of anomalous knolls. Mort scratched through the fuzzy lichen that clung to it, born from the residue of bacteria and sebum and skin cells that lingered within. He clawed at the ground, digging, inviting desolate Limos beneath his fingernails to feed.
The boot was mostly uncovered by the time he discovered its mate, fully entombed in the soil beside it. Mort dug them both up, cleared them of dirt inside and out, tucked them under his arm. He knew better than to wear them.
Mort inspected the lining of the boots, found a name tag for the unfortunate bastard who had become uncoupled from his soles.
“Mort Louka,” he mumbled, decoding the faded lettering.
It took him a moment to realize he’d spoken his own name.
He studied the surrounding terrain, looking for any other sign of life. He found it not far away. Purslane. A small, scattered line of it, leading more or less back the way he’d come.
If they were his boots, then that meant the purslane had fed on his blood. Limos had stolen his ichor.
He wanted it back.
Mort dropped to his knees and ripped the closest clump of purslane from its roots. He tore the succulent leaves from their red stems with his teeth and chewed them. Tart, peppery liquid exploded against his tongue, dripping from the corners of his mouth. He picked the stems clean, denying Demeter his body, taking it back. But it still held some of him in the stems. So he ate them too, forcing down the herbaceous, astringent stalks.
Then he moved on to the next clump. And the next. Until his stomach was rigid and distended. But still there was more.
Tears streamed down his face. He had to eat it all. He glanced at his bionic arms. He was incomplete, broken. If only he could track down what was missing he could make himself whole again.
Mort forced down more of the slimy leaves, more bitter stems. His stomach gurgled, then lurched. He vomited all over himself, all over the ground, returning himself to the hungry planet.
But that wouldn’t do.
He scooped up a handful and brought it to his lips, then hesitated.
What was wrong with him? Had he gone mad? About to eat his own vomit, and for what? To regrow his arms? To regain a holistic sanity? That was crazy.
Mort wiped his hand on the ground beside his puddle of spew. In a few months, it might be a spray of peony or nasturtium. He was fertilizer, nothing more. One big sack of shit.
It was time for him to go home, he realized. Back to his parcel. He needed grounding, and this was not the place for it.
With the old boots of his old, complete self tucked under a damp armpit, he turned around and trudged back toward heath and home.
After navigating the minefield of safe, cleansed grassland and finding himself once more before the deadly geoxenic heath, Mort breathed a sigh of relief. The worst was over. Now, with his life on the line, he could concentrate again.
Despite the peace it provided, the meticulousness required for traversing the heath was exhausting. Still, the second Mort spotted his CHU in the distance, thoughts of rest and recuperation were furthest from his mind. More than anything, and to his great surprise, he couldn’t wait to be reunited with Artie.
The sun was setting as he stepped out of the neighboring rough and into his familiar, well-maintained landscape. He spotted the area that Artie had been chewing on that morning, now delineated by vibrant tufts of earthly vegetation and carmine ruts that had lately nurtured Choke weeds. Artie, however, was nowhere to be seen.
After a short, frantic search, Mort found the little guy snoozing in the deepening shadows of the makeshift porch, flopped on its side.
“What are you doing, you lazy lump?” Mort asked it.
Artie deflated a bit with a gurgle and a fart and rolled onto its other side.
Mort sat beside it and caressed its splayed scales with his imitation hands.
“I missed you,” he said.
Bubbles escaped from Artie’s mouth, along with a tentative whine.
“Yeah, it was a tough day for me too,” Mort said. He held out his boots. “But I found these again, at least.”
Recalling the recovery of his shitkickers, he also recalled the trail of purslane begotten from his blood. But it wasn’t his legacy, he realized. At least not that of the broken him. No, it was the legacy of the old Mort Louka. The whole Mort Louka, with dreams and arms and friends.
And he’d tried to eat it.
Guilt grabbed Mort by the throat. He looked up from Artie, into the dwindling chiaroscuro of the neighboring heath. He should run to it, embrace it, end his suffering in its toxic embrace.
Instead, he brushed off his foot and brought the naked skin to Artie’s belly. He took a deep breath as they touched, ready for the flood of euphoria.
But none came. Artie’s belly was dry and cold.
Disappointed, Mort stormed into his CHU, slamming the door behind him.
He paced around the tight quarters, trying in vain to hold back the insistent memories. Artie’s medicinal narcotic had proved itself nothing but snake oil.
He needed something to do, so he inventoried the supplies that Mejia had dropped off earlier. There was enough to make a strawberry galette.
After banging together a dough and sticking it in the icebox to chill, Mort realized it was time to eat something. There were a few slices of game pie left, so he tossed one in the blender with some thinning water and engaged the squealing motor. The liquid sloshed into turbidity, then slowly incorporated into the solids, creating a utilitarian union of foodstuffs.
When it was ready, Mort shut down the motor, then cocked his head. The machine was no longer running, but the whining of its efforts lingered in his ears. It took him a confused moment to realize that the noise was coming from outside.
Mort threw open the door to the CHU and scrambled onto the porch. As he emerged, he heard the sound again and followed it to its source.
The poor little guy was right where Mort had left it, bubbling from the mouth and teetering from side to side on its bloated body beneath the glaring lights.
He nudged it with the tip of a toe. The Choke goat whined again, so he knelt at its side.
“You feeling sick, buddy?” he asked, caressing Artie’s scales. “Did you eat something that didn’t agree with you?”
It was too dark to go scouring the parcel for possible poisons, but from what he’d seen earlier, Artie had left the human plants alone in favor of the Choke stuff, and it should know which of that was safe to eat. Mort dropped his hand to the little guy’s belly. It was still cold, still bloated. Mort’s thoughts drifted back to the last pet he’d owned, a hamster named Leroy. Two weeks into their cohabitation, Leroy had given birth to five squirming babies and been promptly renamed Lorraine.
Mort palpated the goat’s abdomen. Was Artie really an Arlene? Was this whimpering pain simply xenic childbirth?
Whatever was happening to Artie, Mort decided, was worth sending up the chain of command.
He headed back into the CHU and called HQ on the handset, but he may as well not have bothered. Nobody there knew what to do, or even if Artie’s behavior indicated a problem. The only thing they could agree on was that the veterinarian, the only person who might be able to help, was currently drunk off his ass and inoperative. They urged Mort to call back in the morning.
After disconnecting, Mort wandered back to the porch to see about making Artie a bit more comfortable. The goat was cold. Like Redmond had been.
He shook away the unwanted memories and headed back inside for some supplies. When Mejia had first dropped Artie off, the little guy had been warm and moist, so Mort decided to try to reproduce that state. He found a few extra blankets and stuffed them against Artie’s sides, then filled a mug with warm water.
The goat looked uncomfortable, so Mort propped its head on his lap while he sponged the water onto the little guy’s abdomen. For a few minutes, Mort found this good, fulfilling work, but boredom soon set in. With it came the dark thoughts.
He saw Artie in two halves, held together by glistening strings of pink sausages, babbling about the cold.
He’d treated the wound on her head. She was going to get better. He’d saved her. But he hadn’t. The head wound was a lie; the sausages, truth. Limos knew it. Limos was already absorbing her ichor, composting it to present a future blossom, its floral sweetness the stench of death, of loss, of waste.
Mort jumped to his feet, letting Artie’s head loll to one side. He ran into the CHU, to the distracting kitchen. He couldn’t look at Artie. He couldn’t help Artie. He couldn’t help anyone, least of all himself.
He pulled the dough from the icebox, rolled it into a crust, sliced the strawberries with a shaking hand. He had to stay busy.
While the galette baked, he paced the inside walls. One foot in front of the other. Focus on the steps. Ignore the whimpering outside.
When the dessert was done, Mort forced himself to bed without eating any of it. More than anything, he needed to sleep. He needed the morning to come so he could get back to work.
But he didn’t sleep. He lay there, listening to Artie’s whimpers. Listening to Redmond’s whimpers. Seeing Krev, the golem, break into pieces. Watching Pataba’s disappearing act. Damning the drunk veterinarian.
That gave Mort an idea: Mejia’s homebrew ethyl. Mort had made it a point to stay away from the stuff. Addiction preyed on ex-soldiers, he knew. He wasn’t going to give that demon a way in.
But drunk and inoperative sounded like just what he needed. He walked to the sink, opened the cabinet at his knee. The bottle was there, sealed. The fluid within appeared clear and innocuous.
He popped the top and took a drink. It burned. He relished the pain, took another swig. Then another. When it caught up to him, it caught hard. He staggered to bed, flopped on his face. And slept. For the first time in forever, he slept.
Something seized the back of Mort’s collar and jerked him to his feet. Away from the mud. Away from the bloody shards of Krev’s ruined golem.
He turned his rifle onto the culprit, which turned out to be Pataba.
“On me!” the Corporal shouted, then scrambled down the hillock toward the remnants of Alpha and Bravo Companies.
Mort stared at him, dumbfounded, until he noticed the surviving reserves of Charlie Company stumbling down the hill with him. His eyes darted to the wall of amorphous armor, now finally visible again. What he saw brightened his spirits considerably. Along the entire line, any skiff not pummeled into oblivion by the artillery was currently engaged by a surprising number of surviving anti-armor troops from Bravo Company, who were handily picking them apart.
With a whoop, Mort chased after Pataba. Beyond that line of broken armor, through gyrating wisps of smoke and steam, he could pick out hints of Choke fortifications. The POO site, no doubt, but also something more. Something big.
Fresh friendly artillery screamed over his head, hitting the distant redoubt and reporting its rage back to them a few seconds later. Gunfire echoed behind them as the engagement between Choke and human infantry wore on.
Mort forgot about Krev and Redmond and the horrors of war and licked his lips, ready to draw more Choke blood.
“Get some!” somebody screamed.
“Oorah!” he offered in return, running down from the hillock in his bare, bleeding feet.
A triad of Choke air cover shrieked from its fortress, no doubt to punish the Marine artillery. Before they were even overhead, two of the fast movers vaporized at the pointy end of friendly missiles and the third took a hit and dropped out of the sky.
Right toward Mort.
There was no time to react. It was in the air and then it wasn’t, smashing into Corporal Pataba and throwing Mort backwards into blackness and quiet.
Mort woke to a headache and an insufferable squeal outside. He glanced at the clock. Five hours until daybreak.
He pulled the blanket over his head with a groan, but the thin material was no match for Artie’s incessant cries. He squeezed his eyes shut, willing sleep to return, willing the planet to rotate away from idleness. But the damn thing kept whining.
He staggered out to the porch, his head still swirling from the ethyl. The little bastard was just where he’d left it, bloated and cold and dry. And loud as hell.
Mort knelt at Artie’s side and covered the thing’s bubbling mouth with his fake hand.
“You’ve got to quiet down,” he said. “I need to sleep.”
But Artie didn’t quiet down. If anything, its cries grew louder. After a moment, Mort noticed that the plaintive whimpers were coming from the gaps in its splayed scales rather than its bubbling mouth.
Mort clamped down on a few of the scales with his hands, muffling the sound a bit, but they popped back into place as soon as he let go. He glanced through the open door of the CHU, at the bed. He’d finally managed to get some decent sleep, after all this time, and the little bastard had fucked it up.
“Shut the hell up!” he shouted at Artie.
He scowled at the pathetic thing. It didn’t belong here. It was Choke, and everything Choke deserved extermination. They’d killed his kind, his friends. They’d taken his arms. They’d ruined him. Their very corpses corrupted the land. They were a pox on the universe, and Artie was a collaborator.
Mort scooped up the pathetic creature and walked it into the parcel. The simpering goat was surprisingly light for its size, which only added to its pitifulness.
When Mort reached the small depression where he’d spent the night before, he dumped Artie into it.
“Scream all you want now,” he said, then walked back to the CHU.
It was cruel, he knew, but he didn’t care. The safest thing for the little guy was for Mort and his anger to find some way to sleep until morning.
Back inside, Mort took a few more swigs of ethyl and sat on the side of his bed. He rubbed his hands across his overgrown face and listened. To silence. He sighed and fell onto his back, the mattress breaking his fall. He felt drained, exhausted even. He relaxed his body, determined to drift off.
And then there it was, on the extreme edge of his senses. A peep. A call. A plea.
That fucking goat.
Mort leapt out of bed, grabbed his rifle and a blanket for the body, and was out the door.
He stomped through the yard, unaffected by the chance of a wayward weed ending him. It would be a blessing. Eternal sleep.
As he pushed through the brush, Mort heard Artie louder and louder. The little bastard should’ve known better than to antagonize him. It should’ve known when to shut the hell up.
Mort arrived at the depression and threw the blanket to the ground. Then he leveled his weapon right in Artie’s stupid, needy face.
Fury frothed at the corners of his mouth. His lips curled. The rifle shook in his imitation hands.
Artie screamed. Mort slipped his finger over the trigger.
He relaxed his quivering muscles, lowered the rifle, and took a deep breath. The rage escaped with a protracted exhalation.
Mort took one hand off of his weapon and reached out for the little guy. Artie quieted and stretched for the hand, then took it in its sloppy, viscous mouth.
Tears moistened Mort’s cheeks. He didn’t know if Artie was simply trying to save itself or to make him feel better, but he didn’t care. He threw his rifle into a nearby clump of orchard grass, rearming the ghost of an unknown soldier, and hunkered down beside Artie, who curled in against him with a murmur.
Mort dragged the blanket over them both. He wrapped an arm around the goat, felt the rising vibration of sound coming from between the splayed scales. This time, however, the noise didn’t antagonize him. It calmed him.
He let out a whimper of his own and promptly fell asleep.
The morning was warm and humidan insulating ward between heaven and dirt.
Mort peeled back a blanket resplendent in dew, exposing Artie and him to Demeter’s breath. The goat had deflated overnight and no longer whimpered. Mort caressed its back, pleased. The scales were warm and wet, just what he’d been shooting for.
He stood up and Artie followed suit. Together, they ambled out of the depression and into a sprawling patch of fescue.
“Feeling better, buddy?” Mort asked, forgetting the emotions of the previous night.
Artie bubbled from its mouth while Mort directed it toward a tender regrowth of chokegrass. The little guy undulated over and dragged its mucilaginous whiskers across the inky groundcover, but balked at eating it.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Mort asked.
Scarcely had he the words out of his mouth when Artie puffed back into rotundity and pitched onto his side.
“Guess not,” Mort said, picking up the alien goat and trundling it toward the CHU.
He set Artie—now whimpering again—down on the porch and retrieved the handheld comm from inside. By the time he returned to Artie, the veterinarian was already on the line, sounding chipper and unimpeded from last night’s binge.
“This is Sook,” he said. “What have you done to my goat?”
Mort laid out the symptoms and the timeline.
Sook sighed. “Warm and wet is just as bad as cold and dry. Maybe worse. Warm and dry is the goal.” A pause, then, “How are its droppings?”
“I don’t know,” Mort said.
“You don’t know because you don’t know what you’re looking for or you don’t know because it hasn’t been pooping?”
“I don’t know.”
“Right. Take a look at its backside. You may have to manually disimpact it.”
“What? I’m not sticking my hand up that thing’s ass…”
Mort rolled the bloated goat until he could see the target area.
“I don’t see a blockage,” he said. “Just more bubbles.”
The vet sighed again. “Sounds like a poisoning to me,” he said. “Has it eaten anything of earthly origin?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Well, you need to check.”
Mort stepped into the parcel. As he made his way toward the area where Artie had been munching the day before, he remembered his other hypothesis. “Is it possible that Artie… that this thing… is pregnant and in labor right now? I had this hamster, Leroy—“
“But how do you—“
“It’s sterile. That’s why they sent it out here in the first place. It was useless for their breeding program, so they shipped it to Demeter.”
Mort shook his head. Is that what this planet was? A dumping ground for the infirm and undesirable?
“So what am I looking for?” he asked.
“Anything earthly that looks trampled or chewed on…”
Mort noted the carmine ruts Artie had opened up the day before, but such disturbances precisely skirted any earthly plants. He walked along the track, checking and double checking any potential toxins on the way. And then he stopped.
At the end of the tilled path, he spotted a familiar plant. Jewelweed. Trampled.
He shuffled over to it, taking his time, hoping his eyes had deceived him. When he reached it, however, there was no doubt. He probed the slimed and matted remains with his imitation fingertips, unable to find the spent brass he’d dumped there as an insurance policy against eviction.
Reluctantly, he keyed the comm.
“I think I found something,” he told Sook.
“What?” the vet asked.
“Looks like it ate a cartridge casing in with some jewelweed.”
“Impossible. Why would it eat metal? And why would it have anything to do with a plant like jewelweed?”
“The casing had breatherfew smeared all over it. Maybe that confused the poor little guy.”
“Breatherfew? I thought you said it was in with jewelweed…”
“It was. But I found it the first time in with the breatherfew. Then I dumped it in with the jewelweed.”
“Why in the hell would you—“
“Just drop it, all right? Would eating metal do this to Artie… err, to the goat?”
Mort scratched at some earthly soil with a toe. “So how do we fix it?”
“Or, rather, we can’t. You said it’s bubbling from both ends, right?”
“Then it’s already too far through the digestive process to extract through the mouth. Surgery would be the only way.”
“Then let’s do that.”
“Can’t. These buggers don’t survive anesthesia. You killed it, Louka. I’ll send Mejia out for the body tomorrow. That should be enough time. Sook out.”
Mort sank to the ground. A ripple drove down his spine and wrapped itself around his ribs.
He thought he’d saved the little guy from a death by rifle the night before, but he hadn’t saved anything.
A rustle behind him grabbed his attention. Pushing through a tuft of xenic foliage, deflated and trying its best, was Artie, making its pathetic way toward Mort. Toward its unstable friend.
Mort stared at the little guy, trying to visualize the spent cylinder poisoning it from within, and took a shuddering, involuntary breath. Even empty, the brass could still kill. Reincarnated as toxic plants, the dead Chokes could do the same. Was there no end to this war?
He gazed at a nearby patch of carmine soil that Artie had exposed the day before. The color came from the high metal content of composted Choke bodies, he knew. Choke plants loved metal. They thrived on it. Even their microbes did. That’s why the brasses on Demeter weren’t shiny, but matte. They were being eaten, transmuted into soil amendments by invisible teeth. The same thing would be happening to the cartridge in Artie’s guts, but the process was way too slow to help the little guy. It had hours, not decades. If Mort wanted to help Artie, he’d need an entire field of the stuff.
He froze—paralyzed by a thought, a hope.
In addition to microbes, certain Choke plants could fix metals, enriching the carmine soil. He didn’t know of any species that could consume a spent round in a matter of hours, but he knew where to look.
Spurred on by the power of possibility, Mort leapt to his feet and sprinted for the CHU. Once inside, he tore open the xeno-taxonomy book and flipped to the requisite table.
Choler peas, earthsbane, retchvetch—they all ranked as “low” for metal-fixation, along with the majority of entries. There were a handful of “medium” as well, but only one “high.”
Mort had never heard of it, so he leafed to the noted page. After a ravenous skim, he learned that it only grew where excessive amounts of both metal and nutrients mixed. Hence, the carnage. The appearance of manwort indicated a location of suitable growth habitat.
He closed the book and shuffled to the open doorway of the CHU. Leaning against the jamb, he stared into the hazy distance.
At a hillock, sprinkled in the telltale turquoise of manwort. A hillock, smothered in terror and death and hate. A hillock, the last place he wanted to go. Artie’s last hope.
The air stank of pungent alkalinity and agony. Thunderous paroxysms of spent rage pummeled the muddy desolation. Mort lay on his back, staring up into a slate sky scratched white by trails of tracer and scramjet.
“Pataba!” he shouted, listening for a lull in the chaos and the Corporal’s response.
But when the scream of battle finally paused for a breath, the only sound he heard above the growl of tinnitus was that of his childhood hamster lapping at its water bottle. Such an observation didn’t strike him as particularly odd or notable. More pressing was just how thirsty the memory of that water bottle made him feel. He licked his cracked lips and probed for a handful of water in the mucky dents surrounding him.
His left arm, however, refused to cooperate. As he thought about it, he realized that he couldn’t feel it at all. Panicked, he twisted to one side.
Directly into a Choke soldier.
The bastard balanced between its two front legs and prehensile club tail in a squat, chowing down on Mort’s arm with its dirty undermouth. Several blue-black tongues studded in serrated crystals flashed beneath the crimson lips of its irised vent, flaying his deadened arm before his eyes.
Blessed with an autonomic burst of adrenaline, Mort snapped into a sitting position and threw his right fist at a soft spot of articulation in the Choke’s obsidian shell as hard as he could.
Unfortunately, as hard as he could was not at all.
Before he could even turn to verify what he knew to be true, that his right arm was no longer attached, he collapsed onto his back in a swirl of vertigo. The sound of his hamster at the water bottle returned, but he now knew it for what it was: the rending tongues of a dirty Choke.
His heart hammered in his chest, but not from fear. He felt nothing on an emotional level, instead retreating to his brief medic training. Taken together, he knew what the combination of dizziness, tachycardia, and thirst meant.
He was bleeding to death.
Mort jerked back to the present and closed his open mouth. He was still against the jamb of his CHU, still staring at the distant hillock. He shook his head. There was no telling if he’d find any carnage roses up there, and even less that they would do any good if he did. Why should he risk going up there, facing those traumas, on a fool’s errand for a dying head of Choke livestock?
Artie whined—a pathetic, bleating sound that drew Mort’s ire. He should just end the bastard. That’s what the Chokes would’ve done to a dog or a cow or a Marine. Mort imagined his rifle back in his hands, pointed at Artie the night before. He had spared the little guy, but why?
He thought back to his childhood hamster, Leroy/Lorraine. Shortly after it had given birth, Leroy/Lorraine had grown weird hair and stopped eating. Mort had begged and bargained, but his stepdad had popped the hamster’s neck anyway, just like that. As if Mort’s little friend had meant nothing.
Mort had laid his hamster to rest in a hole in the front yard, wrapped in a paper towel. A year later, dandelions sprouted on the spot. His stepdad snuffed them out with herbicide.
Blood rushed to Mort’s head. His mom’s husband had prepared him for war, the Corps had taught him the rules, and the Chokes had reinforced it all. Life was fragile and meaningless and cold—and if he left Artie to die, he would be complicit in that reality. But, if he did the ridiculous and stormed the hillock for the sake of an insignificant alien, perhaps he could begin rewriting what had once seemed indelible into a palimpsest of mercy over rage.
His mind made up, Mort returned the portable comm to its recharging station in the CHU and headed for the wardrobe. Inside were several pristine bunny suits, still in their plastic. He tore one open and slipped it on. The hillock lay beyond the geoxenic heath, in an untamed thicket of supersized vegetation at the heart of the battle. The sporadic, immature Choke flowers of his and the adjoining parcels, and even the pioneering sprays of the heath, were safe enough to breathe around naturally, but the highly fertilized bramble he was about to face might not be. He needed to be prepared.
He shoved his feet into his old boots, still caked in dried soil and a film of pioneering lichen, then sealed them to the suit with an expeditious layering of tape. He peeled back the sleeves, drawing them two-thirds of the way up his bionic arms, and then taped them in place as well. Next up, he donned the soft helmet and engaged the respiratory filters. Then, insulated against the outside world, he headed out, with Artie tucked under one arm and the binder on Choke plant taxonomy clutched in the other.
He abhorred returning to the hillock, to the last resting place of his arms and Krev and Pataba and Choke and Marine alike. If it had to be done—and, for Artie’s sake, it did—he was glad he could do it with the distance the suit provided. He wouldn’t have been able to face the place naked.
As he stomped through the heath, unconcerned by the defanged villains at his feet, his mind found room to wander. At first, the dread of the fast approaching hillock tempered this tendency, but the distraction didn’t last.
Suddenly, he lay on his back, armless and bleeding out. The Choke squatted beside him, munching, refueling for another charge. Then gunshots, reinforcements, the Army bringing up the rear as usual. Ammonia. Rescue. Rehab. Redeployment.
Mort shook his head, returning to the present. Such reminiscences would only get worse as his looming target drew nearer, he knew. He needed something else to occupy his attention. A game, perhaps.
His eyes, protected and reassured beneath the soft helmet, drifted over the nearby terrain and he found that he could read it as a sort of battle map. Here, the scattered, parallel lines of a failed retrograde peel written in bachelor’s button and New Jersey tea. There, a last stand of willow saplings defying a funneling channel of well-fed deathistle.
Mort kept at the game for a while, until the euphemism finally ruptured and he sat down with Artie amongst the graves. For that’s what they were. This whole planet was a cemetery. So eager was the military to press its advantage after winning Limos that they abandoned the raw materials of that victory.
Oh, the strategic metals of wreckage and fallen arms were recovered, but the spent skins of lost Marines were left to succor barren Limos, to nurse it into Demeter.
During his rehab, the shrinks had told Mort that his fallen squad mates were the lucky ones. They were at peace. Their war was over. Only he and the rest of the survivors continued to suffer. But it was a lie.
Demeter lived on the blood of Marines. And, in a sense, the murdered Marines lived on in Demeter. Borne again into battle with the Chokes, an eternal conflict between the resurrected. Demeter was a Marine now, their union baptized in blood and pain. That Marine was under fire by the invasive Choke plants—ever at war, with only Mort and his fellow ruined golems to protect it.
Mort closed his eyes and raised his arms, allowing the breath of vital Demeter to play against them. Someday he too would die. Maybe being buried here wouldn’t be so bad.
When he opened his eyes, he spotted several shooting flower clusters of summersweet nearby—particolored in pinks and creams. Though his sealed suit blocked the aroma, his nose remembered days of youth and unburdened glee, when the sweet scent filled his lungs on trips down to his grandparents’ pond. But above that, a new, heavier memory—so heavy that it crushed the lightness of his halcyon days to a forgotten whisper. The party had become a wake.
The sweetness cloyed in his mind, choking him. It was no longer the perfume of happier days, but the stench of Redmond dead in his arms. Of crying, broken families who would wait forever for their loved ones to never return.
The Chokes had ruined flowers for him. A link to the cradle, severed for him forever.
Though even on Earth, the cost of life had been death. The cost of beauty, horror. For the humus of birth relied on the ashes of death. Who had died for Mort to be born? His great-grandparents? Presidents and emperors? Vagrants and cobblers? He’d have refused to pay the cost, but no one had ever asked him.
Mort wandered over to the plant and fingered one of its complicated flower clusters.
“Who were you, summersweet?” he mumbled inside his suit. “Did you die for kind or credit? Easy or hard?”
Mort glanced up. The hillock loomed above him. He froze at the sight.
Krev’s golem skylined its apex, firing the M440 into certain defeat. Pataba stood at Mort’s side, reminding him to retrieve his rifle. That would put Redmond…
His eyes dropped to the summersweet plant. To two summersweet plants, actually—linked by the pink, sausage-like flowers of a diminutive foxtail amaranth.
Recognition seized him and Mort collapsed at Redmond’s grave. Tears streamed down his face, fogging up the inside of his mask. Nausea shuddered in his throat.
He rolled his hands into fists and looked for something to pummel. He found Artie, whimpering and inflated, so he crawled after the bastard. Artie didn’t belong here. It was Choke. It had killed Redmond.
His stepdad and the Corps were right. Death to the weak and nonhuman.
Mort searched the ground for a weapon. It didn’t take long to find an unspent BMG cartridge that the scavenge sweep had missed. Mort gripped it in a fist and raised it above Artie’s helpless body, primed for murder.
Artie deflated in a thunderous, belching fart. Mort started at the sound, then bolted, spurred on by a conspiracy of place and mindset. Krev needed him at the hillock.
As he ran, bile burned in the back of his throat. A few more steps and it erupted, overflowing down his chin and soiling the inside of his suit. Yet still he stumbled forward, wading through the mud, struggling to reach the golem with the machine gun.
When he crested the summit, the whole of the battlefield opened before him. Scores of entrenched Marines engaged in futile combat against an unending tide of bloodthirsty Chokes. The teeming masses broke against, then inundated the hasty foxholes. An impervious line of adamantine armor blanketed the sky with ordnance beneath the screaming teeth of hungry air cover.
Mort vomited again, spewing his terror across the inside of his face shield, obfuscating the world behind wriggling streams of acid and chunk. The stench was febrile and noxious, suffocating. He dropped to his knees. The Chokes were coming. Krev needed him for a few minutes before he broke into bloody pieces. Pataba too.
But he couldn’t help them if he couldn’t see them. He clawed at the tape sealing his helmet to his suit, breathless, terrified. He had to get out.
His fingertips found an edge and he exploited it, unwinding his way toward freedom. When he’d run out of raw material to unwind, he tore off the soft helmet, plunging out of sour hypoxia and into the cool, quenching breath of Demeter.
Three thirsty inhalations of the endemic perfume and the raging battle vanished before his eyes. Gone were the formations and maneuvers and bottlenecks of mass death, replaced by a kaleidoscope of blossoming meadowland that swept down the declivity in front of him, ending in a wispy haze of transpired vapor.
He expected a tortured pall in the air at the very least, but there was nothing–as if he were not standing atop the open-skied deathbed of scores of thousands. As if the battle had never happened.
But it had happened. For without that gift of death, Limos would never have become Demeter. He should never forget that precious donation, leached from the recent past as a present to a thriving future of play and plenty.
For the first time, Mort noticed that he stood up to his armpits in a herbaceous melange of geoxenic foison. The rustling bramble of the hillock, whipped into motion around him at the behest of another roiling gust of wind, blew its sweet bouquet across his nostrils. Not the cloying, charnel sweet of composted human suffering, nor the fetid, acrid perfume of the Choke efflorescence, but a new aroma. The true breath of a waxing Demeter.
He inhaled deeply, absorbing hearty alien pollens and unstudied compounds that in turn triggered synapses and chemical releases in novel ways among his tissues.
Suddenly, Mort saw the sprawling paradise before him for what it was—Choke and human, forever fused down to the bedrock of an infant ecosystem consecrated in a pool of ichor and abbreviated lives on both sides.
Demeter was as much a reborn Choke soldier as a Marine—indeed, some inexorably linked hybrid of the two. Whether Chokes had mothers or not, he didn’t know, but they certainly had dreams, or why else this war? Those dreams, like their human counterparts, now rested in the soil, birthing a union of opposites.
The only way to properly honor the sacrifice of the dead of both species was to let their cost be worth the return. The world after needed to be forged into a world worthy of all the death that created it. Mort would cultivate it—on his own if need be. That would be his gift to Redmond, to Krev, to Pataba, to the Choke soldier who had eaten his arms. Were they alive, they likely wouldn’t understand his present, but he’d give it nonetheless.
But first, the carnage rose.
Mort slinked through the bramble, parting curtains of swaying needlegrass and brittle manwort, climbing over tangles of barberry and under briars of blood thyme. He knew where Krev had fallen to pieces, where his own arms had abandoned him, but he could find nothing in the undergrowth to denote those sacrifices. There was too much death on the hillock to differentiate side or individual.
Finally, beyond a thicket of benign chokewillow, he found his target.
He found the carnage rose.
Several of them, in fact.
The taxonomy binder had warned against expecting something in diabolical black or sanguine crimson, teeming with inhospitable thorns and deadly toxins. Instead, he spotted a clumping mound of smooth and solitary gray stems capped in nondescript ivory blossoms kissed by a fine rim of faintest rust.
A rustling in the nearby vegetation garnered Mort’s eye. It was Artie, deflated and pushing its awkward way through a spray of cocksfoot.
Mort motioned the little guy toward the carnage rose.
“Come on,” he said. “This’ll make you all better, I hope.”
But Artie wouldn’t move. He only bubbled and shook in place.
Mort snapped off one of the stems and brought it over to the goat. Artie dragged his mucus whiskers across the bloom, then took a tentative bite.
“Good job,” Mort said. “Now a little more.”
Artie bubbled and turned its head away. Mort followed the movement with the stem, pushing it at the goat’s slimy mouth, but Artie whined and threatened inflation with a sharp fart, so he desisted.
“Still no appetite?” Mort asked, petting Artie’s warm, moist back.
He knew what the little guy was going through. He thought back to the game pie he’d been eating over the last few days. Sometimes, no matter how appealing food smelled, the only way to get it down was to liquefy and drink.
Mort didn’t know which part of the carnage rose plant would prove most medicinal for Artie, if it did at all, so he uprooted the whole thing, revealing the vibrant carmine of Choke soil beneath.
He scratched up a handful of the red soil. It was moist, and conformed to the topography of his fist.
Taken by an idea, he scuffed up a nearby patch of heather with the tip of his boot. The humus he exposed was dark brown and still moist from the overnight rains. Earthly. He took a scoop.
Then, holding the ideal soils of the two rival species in either hand, Mort pressed his palms together, fusing them into one. When he released the pressure, they crumbled apart, so he called Artie over. The little goat undulated to his side and Mort ran the dirt under its mucilaginous whiskers, saturating the soil in its viscous wetness.
When the amalgam in his hands finally held together, Mort shaped a pair of rough arms and legs for it. Then a head. After he’d finished, he held a piebald homunculus in his hands. All that remained was the finishing touch.
For the first time in as long as he could remember, he delved into the past on purpose, recalling the exact lines of Krev’s tattoos. And that was it. He didn’t see the PFC falling to pieces, or Redmond’s guts, or an endless army of maneaters—just the tattoos. Exactly what he wanted to and nothing more.
With the lines of the Hebrew letters fresh in his mind, Mort scratched the word “met” onto the doll’s chest with a nearby stalk of marjoram. Death. Then, with the gift of aleph, life, “met” became “emet,” death became truth, and the invocation was completed.
Demeter now had a proper protector. A defender of this new union, galvanized by the life of disparates become equal.
Satisfied, Mort left the fledgling golem behind at the hillock. He stuffed the binder and as much carnage rose as would fit into his upturned helmet, then, with it under one arm and Artie under the other, descended from the lush rise.
As he passed by Redmond’s final resting place on the way back to the CHU, he let his fingertips brush across the flower clusters of her summersweet. Several of the blossoms fell off at his touch. He picked a few of them up and slipped them into his helmet for posterity, but left the rest where they lay. They were just that much more food for the next generation of life spawned from Redmond’s reorganized molecules.
The walk back down to the parcel was one of joy and communion for Mort. Echoes of human and Choke alike stood shoulder to shoulder in this brave new world. Thyme to blood thyme. Feverfew to breatherfew. Thistle to deathistle. Their pollens mingled in the air, their soils at ground, perfuming the bastard, Demeter, with the breath of legitimacy. A scent of its own. A scent of hope.
A hope obliterated at the perimeter of Mort’s impeccable homestead.
As soon as he saw his parcel—deprived of a unified parity, defined by thriving oat and fleeting, ragged chokegrass, by brown over red, by geosmin over xenosmin—he wept, salting the fruits of his ignorant labors with dripping tears.
But there was no time to waste. Artie whimpered under his arm.
Mort brought the Choke goat straight into the CHU and nestled him onto the bed, then pulled out the blender from its spot in the kitchen. He stuffed the glass jar with as much of the carnage rose as would fit, added some water, and hit the button.
The blades spun, slapping at the root ball and foaming up the liquid, but stubbornly refused to incorporate. He added a bit more water, then urged it back into action. This time, the rose disappeared into the water with a ululating growl and was quickly chewed into a murky gray purée.
Mort carried the blender jar to Artie and held it in front of the little guy’s bubbling mouth. The goat dropped its mucilaginous whiskers inside, tasting the carnage rose purée. It even took a little in its mouth, but quickly spat it back out.
“Come on, Artie,” Mort said. “You can do it.”
Mort scooped up a handful of the stuff and held it in front of Artie’s mouth. The goat refused it.
A despondent rage bubbled up inside Mort. The scent memory of the unified perfume on the hillock was fading, and the effects on his physiology with it. He remembered the feeling of communion, of epiphany, on an intellectual level, but no longer experienced it as a visceral truth. Had it only been pharmacological happenstance? Was the unity of human and Choke nothing but a narcotic delusion, a drug-addled gestalt? Just another lie?
He scowled at Artie. “Take your goddamn medicine!” he shouted.
Artie recoiled at the sound.
“Don’t you know what’s good for you?”
Mort shoved the slop, now dripping between his fingers, into the goat’s idiotic, alien face. Artie turned away, whining.
“Just eat it, you piece of shit! Eat it or I’ll shove it down your fucking throat, you ungrateful bastard! I hiked all the way to the top of that hillock. I faced my demons. For you. And you won’t even save your own miserable life? I ought to beat you to death with my bare hands, you goddamn Choke!”
Mort’s fingers curled into fists, squishing the purée through their gaps. He glanced at the last quarter of ethyl beckoning from the nearby bottle, then the rusty residue of Smudge peeking out from beneath a disheveled bedsheet. Perhaps his predecessor had been right. Perhaps blowing one’s head off was the sanest reaction to this place. Mort tried to recall where he’d left his rifle.
As his thoughts turned toward nihilism, something slimy enveloped one of Mort’s hands. He peered down. It was Artie, stretching to the edge of the bed in an effort to make him feel better.
Mort smiled, the gesture shattering his negative feedback loop. He loosened his fist, then chuckled as the goat probed its topography. Suddenly, he realized that Artie wasn’t just trying to salve his mental pains, but was actually slurping up the purée.
When it had cleaned the mashed up carnage rose from his hand, Mort slipped free of the little guy’s mouth and dug a fresh scoop from the blender jar. Without so much as dragging its whiskers across the medicine, Artie slurped Mort’s palm clean. They repeated this maneuver several times, until the purée was half gone and Artie finally groaned in contentment, curling into a crescent.
Mort hopped onto the bed beside it. He pulled Artie close, spooning the serpentine goat and caressing the warm, moist surface of its scaly side. And there he lay, content, until Artie twisted to nuzzle his hand.
Mort took the gesture as a sign of resurgent hunger and collected another scoop from the blender jar, which Artie promptly scarfed down. Only when the jar had been emptied did Artie finally settle down, this time for the night.
Again Mort spooned the little guy, who was feeling drier by the moment. The medicine was working.
And then, something even more miraculous happened. Mort fell asleep.
The next morning—for Mort and Artie had slept through day and night and on past the subsequent sunrise—Mort stretched his static muscles and stumbled into the kitchen. He snapped off an intact stem of carnage rose and brought it to the Choke goat, interested to see if it were healthy enough to eat solid food now.
When Artie refused it, Mort patted its head, which was now completely dry.
“That’s okay,” he said, heading for the blender. “We can do a liquid diet until you’re back on your feet. Or whatever you have.”
Mort heard a clunk behind him and pivoted to see Artie on the ground, slithering for the closed CHU door. When the little guy reached it, it turned its head toward Mort and whimpered.
“You want to go out?” he asked, walking over.
The second the door swung open, Artie shot through it, undulating across the porch and into the parcel proper. When Mort finally caught up to it, the little goat had stopped in a patch of young chokegrass. It dragged its tasting whiskers across the fresh growth, then turned its head both ways, as if scanning the air. It gurgled, and, for a moment, Mort half-expected it to explosively inflate. Instead, it raised its hind end and excreted a curling, split trail of vibrant carmine manure.
After it was finished, Artie made three prideful loops around its creation, then took a bite of chokegrass, ready to fill itself back up.
A sound in the distance drew Mort’s gaze and he spotted Mejia’s wagon drawing near, so he ambled over to meet up with the Sergeant in the usual spot. There was a second figure in the wagon, he soon discovered, clad in full bunny suit and helmet. Mejia, as usual, wore drab cammies and a basic respirator.
When they arrived, the figure in the full suit looked Mort up and down and then alighted from the wagon.
“PFC Louka?” the man inside asked.
“I’m Lieutenant Sook. I’m here for the carcass.”
Mort pointed into the parcel, unable to suppress a grin. “The carcass is having breakfast right now. You’re gonna have to wait a few minutes.”
The eyes on the other side of the helmet’s viewport widened. “You mean it’s still alive? What… how… but that’s impossible. You said it was bubbling out of both ends…”
Mort again gestured into the yard. “See for yourself,” he said.
Sook scrambled past him, stopping when he picked out the shape of Artie, still munching on the chokegrass.
“How’d you do it, Louka?”
“I knew that certain Choke plants digested metal, and the carnage rose most of all. So I collected some specimens and fed them to the little bugger.” Mort shrugged. “It worked.”
Sook shook his head in disbelief. For the next few minutes, the three of them watched the Choke goat eat in silence.
Finally, Sook said, “I’d still like to take it back to the clinic for a few days.”
“Probably a good idea,” Mort said. He motioned across the parcel. “Artie!”
The little guy broke from the tail end of its breakfast and slithered straight over to Mort.
“It comes when called?” Sook asked, incredulous.
“Seems that way,” Mort replied.
“And what about its stool?”
“Red as red can be.”
“Do you have a specimen? I only need a teaspoon…”
Mort nodded and pointed out its location. “Knock yourself out.”
The lieutenant retrieved a sample bag from the wagon and practically skipped straight for the carmine poo.
Mort glanced up at a frowning Mejia.
“Command says you’re done here, Louka,” she said. “That little goat was a prime piece of tech and you damn near killed it in a day. They’re moving you out.”
Mort stared at the ground. “Off planet?” he asked.
Mejia laughed. “It’s punishment they’re after, so you’re staying here. No place worse than Demeter at the moment if you ask me. Well, maybe the Front, but you’re combat ineffective. They don’t let looney birds like you at the tip of the spear.”
“So where am I headed?”
“Mud city,” Mejia replied. “There’s a parcel back in the mustering zone, where you lot first made planetfall to liberate this armpit. Not much there. A couple little plants, some lichen. Less than a day’s bushwhack from here, but somehow still the ass end of nowhere. Or as you’ll call it, home.”
Mort grinned. “No place I’d rather be,” he said.
Mort lay on his cot, studying the pinpricks of light that punctured the roof of his tent. After a stretch that quickly became a grimace, he sat up and coughed, banishing the unfamiliar sluggishness that accompanied unbroken sleep.
His eyes locked on the single-burner camp stove propped atop a dwindling case of canned beans and wheat protein in the corner.
“The breakfast of champions,” he mumbled to himself.
After powering down a hot can of calories, he slipped through the tent’s entry flap and debouched into the relative desolation of his exile.
The morning was cool and wet from another night of gentle rain. Mort’s toes sank into the top inch of drying mud as he made his way to the freshly replenished cistern. He rinsed himself off and then peeled back the enormous tarp that protected his drying mud bricks from the nocturnal rains.
He scanned the company of bricks, 192 in all, lain in perfect rows, subdivided into platoons and squads and fire teams and individuals. Facing them were another 192 bricks under a second tarp, but of a slightly different hue. Redder.
Though mothered by the same loamy rise, the brown bricks had been amended with rye and straw and earthly grasses, while those in the red ranks had been reinforced by wild Choke grasses from the adjacent heath. Mort planned to alternate them in the construction of his new hovel.
Command wasn’t about to drag a CHU through the unbroken country surrounding his new parcel, so the construction of his new quarters was up to him. The bricks had been five days in the making. One more day and they would be dry enough to seal and lay. In the meantime, he could begin his real project.
Mort headed down the slope, one of many low hills created by the landing of their dropships on Limos a lifetime ago. He skirted the hole that had once held his abandoned boots and knelt down amongst the purslane that had gained purchase on the land thanks to the blood of his younger self.
He scraped a wide rectangle around the feeble plants, clearing the top layer of mud and exposing the unscented, barren soil below. From there, he dug down another six inches with his hands, disturbing the soil in preparation for the next step.
A whispering scrape drew his attention over a shoulder and he smiled. Slithering along the thin layer of mud, straight toward him, was Artie.
“Hey, buddy,” Mort said as the little goat sidled up to him.
He petted its head—now free of the band which confined it to a single parcel—and then let his hand trail down its scaly back. Artie gurgled and then inflated, rolling over to expose its belly. Mort caressed it with his replacement hands. After a moment, Artie scooted itself toward his bare foot.
“No thanks,” Mort said, remembering the tranquilizing effect of the little guy’s belly. “Don’t need it.”
Artie deflated with an extended fart and made its way over to the boot hole. When it reached it, it raised up its hindquarters and dropped its daily poo right into the hole.
“Much appreciated,” Mort said.
Artie slithered in two circles and then returned for more love.
Mort had brought Artie’s carmine manure with him from the old parcel and deposited it in the hole for future use. Somehow Artie, freshly reassigned to a nearby spot, had caught wind of this occurrence and registered Mort’s boot hole as its new toilet. Every morning since then, the alien goat had appeared to do its business and say hello to Mort.
After they’d visited for a while, Mort gave Artie a final pat and sent him on his way. Artie’s new handler didn’t like the little guy to be gone too long. She didn’t like it to be gone at all, but Artie wouldn’t poop anywhere else, so Command let it slide.
After Artie had gone, Mort collected the nutritious contents of the little guy’s toilet and sprinkled them across the disturbed soil of the rectangle, then did the same with his tilapia powder and the few pieces of spent brass he’d smuggled over from his old parcel. After all three amendments were in place, he tilled them into the soil.
It was ready.
Mort washed his hands at the cistern and then headed back to the tent. After a quick search of his duffel, he found Smudge’s old paper book of depressing poems and brought it out to the nascent garden.
Standing above the freshly tilled soil, he let the tome fall open. There, between a pair of random pages, he’d pressed two blossoms—one of carnage rose and the other, Redmond’s summersweet. He shook the seeds free from the flowers, then let them cascade along the binding of the book into his bionic palm. As he held the seeds of Demeter’s unified future in his hand, he hesitated.
A gentle breeze tickled the coarse hairs of his unkempt beard, its scent registering as neither the lifeless powdered rock of his initial deployment nor the festering halitosis of its aftermath, but rather a paradoxically pleasant combination of the two. It was Demeter’s own breath, casting seed and spore and the offerings of its dead as it alone saw fit.
Mort glanced at the contents of his hand and shook his head. Who was he to dictate a design to a planetary god?
He returned the seeds to the book, then snapped it shut and glanced at the fertile patch between his bare feet. He’d cultivate this place, create a foundation, but the rest was up to Demeter.
Mort dropped to his knees and extended his index finger to the ground. Remembering the few characters of Hebrew with which he was familiar, he added life to death and created truth.
Copyright 2018 Brian Koukol
About the Author
Brian Koukol, raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, now makes his home among the salt breezes and open spaces of California’s Central Coast. A lifelong battle with muscular dystrophy has informed the majority of his work, which is written with the aid of voice recognition software. His words have appeared in The Delmarva Review, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Phantaxis Magazine, amongst other places. Visit his author website: www.briankoukol.com