Mornings start the same: calisthenics and exercise for you and your fellow soldiers — your muscles groaning against the weight of steel and the torsion of rubber. You feel the way your body strains against, and you love that feeling, and you love your body — your breath and heartbeat in your ears and lungs. Flexed arms in front of your eyes, long lines of reaching veins. Your thumbs pressing into your thighs — strong enough to hurt yourself, somehow, but you feel that pressure as a sort of completeness. You are a door latching shut.
And why wouldn’t you be? You are Earth’s apex organism — strength and perception and will all rolled into a moving, breathing, blood-pumping device of your own determination.
So, once again in the gray morning, you pull your uniform against your body, and you press into and under the rigid corners of your armor, and you form up at mess with the others. Together you take the food and the vitamins and the amphetamines. Your teeth press together, and when the sun finally comes over the horizon, your eyes take in the light too brightly. Your thoughts press together too tightly, but the thoughts are all fundamentally the same: I am we, and they are not.
Guns are rattling in their cages and the wheels of the transport are grinding leveled earth beneath them. This was Milwaukee, once. Now it is a black field spreading out for miles in every direction. This is what Cincinnati and Minneapolis looked like too, but Milwaukee-beneath-the-storm is where you’ve been stationed for months, combatting their daily incursions.
The cargo door opens, your adrenaline spikes, and you spill out in sequence, with the shouting of the Sergeant cross-cancelled by the never-ending wind. But it doesn’t matter; her orders will be the same as any orders ever are. Your rifle is loaded and cleaned — you saw to that in your bunk, and again in the transport. Your rituals are observed, complete, and routine.
There’s the hiss of overhead rockets and the pounding of boots in your ears. The landscape is flat and dotted by black bubbles where they race out — lanky gray things, chinless, with wide eyes and wobbling legs from the sudden pull of gravity. Their weapons are small and shining in the sun through the clouds. Their green arcing lasers and the white flashes from their machines leave black lines in the scorched grass. There are perfect hemispheres four feet deep where the earth and your fellow soldiers once were.
You are racing — your mind and your body, your bullets and your breath. Your enemies are filled with black goo and oily viscera, and you are rendering that wherever you move. The amphetamines have taken you over and your body is a clenched fist.
Time has dilated completely, meaninglessly. You have one of them in your hands, your spent rifle pressed against its long neck. There is a fractional moment where you can still feel the resistance in its soft muscles, but you push through it until you see the light change in its black eyes. And you fall to ground beside it and your body shakes with exhaustion.
Back at base, observing the evening rituals. Mess, again. There are loud voices and shining smiles — soldiers telling stories, though the stories are all the same, and they are always the same. There are fewer soldiers every evening, but new ones arrive every day. You tell yourself that one day the new recruits will simply be turned away — that’s why you’re here. One day there will either be no fight, or no more soldiers.
Clenched jaws and rigid shoulders. The dose of counter-agent needed to combat the amphetamines never seems quite right. The mind and body never feel wholly recovered, and the pills taste like cream soda masking onions.
But the counter-agent brings about euphoria and goodwill. You find your way to his bunk and you both spend an uncertain amount of time gently feeling the static ends of the thick, short hair of each other’s heads. You kiss for a while. Your lips are dry and your teeth feel like crumbling marzipan. And then you sleep.
In your dream you are swimming in a black lake. It is cold. You are alone, here. This is the only place that you are alone. You recognize that this is a place within yourself. This is where you’re afraid.
Matthew Lavin is a speculative fiction writer. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two dogs.