It was raining under the dome in beautiful downtown Phobos City like it often did when the fighting was heavy. Discharging plasma weapons in the humid oxygen-rich artificial atmosphere started a chain reaction producing lightning and water. Some days it quelled the battle but not today.
Separated from my cadre, I ducked into a ruined storefront to regroup and catch a rare moment of quiet. I’d enlisted in the Freedom Defense Force at eighteen after hearing all the firebrand speeches about the need to fight terrorism at its source. They told me that if I didn’t fight them in their hometown, I’d be fighting them in mine.
I believed it and that’s how a kid from Earth’s Midwest Farming Unit ended up battling extremists who’d taken over the mining operation in the Stickney Crater on Mars’ moon. However, after two tours of continuous combat duty, at that moment, the only interests I felt like protecting were my own.
“SITREP.” The feminine voice interrupted my reverie. It was my onboard computer programmed to perform a maintenance check whenever it detected lack of movement and lack of chemical and plasma discharge. I’d named mine Lola because, well, because the soft mechanical voice was the only female companionship I had on this stupid hunk of rock.
“Come on, doll. I just want a minute off my feet,” I responded into my helmet mic.
Training won out. I knew Lola would keep prompting me until I field-checked my systems.
Quickly, I ran through the diagnostic.
“Start SITREP. Armor at 60 percent. Primary weapon at 50 percent. Secondary weapon, currently in field testing, code name Snapshot, at 100 percent. Vital signs within normal parameters. Nutrition and hydration supplies at twelve-hour level. Med systems are green light. I’ve had better days but Unit number Sinclair-788 does not need maintenance or resupply. I am five-by-five, Sweetie. End SITREP.”
Slapping the reset button on my chest plate, I looked around. It was just another ruined store, its walls pockmarked from plasma bursts. A bright poster on one wall was an incongruous splash of color in the gloom. I was reading about the different types of candy the store had once offered when I heard the faint, but distinct, hum of a gen-one energy rifle spooling up.
Son of a bitch, I thought. At 60 percent, there was no way my armor would stop more than one blast at this range and my primary weapon was clipped into its charging dock on my right thigh.
I was a dead man.
I turned. The politicians back home would have called him a threat to freedom and decency. My commander would have designated him as a target. Lola would have reduced him to coordinates and likely kill shots based on his infrared signature.
I just saw a guy about my age. His black-checked keffiyeh identified him as an insurgent. I knew from the briefings that the head scarves weren’t just an affectation. They made them of Astro-Lite, a fabric developed as heat insulation for low-orbit spacecraft. It could withstand a low-energy or distance hit long enough for the wearer to escape. The rest of his armor was cast-off and kludged FDF gear. However, even though his rifle was old, the row of green lights on the stock told me it was charged and ready to rock.
He didn’t shoot. Instead he looked me up and down, eyebrows raising as he checked out my second-skin bio-flex armor.
“So what now?” I asked, banking that he spoke English, the lingua-franca of Mars and the other colonies.
“What do you mean?” He replied in a well-accented and educated tone.
“I mean… do I go for my weapon and we have a shoot-out? In a room this small the winner would probably die from his own ricochet,” I said.
“That’s assuming you’re fast enough. Or we could just both sit here and have a smoke while we dry off,” he said, his face splitting into a white-toothed smile.
“You have cigarettes?” I said, my curiosity momentarily overcoming my caution. On a tiny moon, where every cubic centimeter of air had to be manufactured and paid for through heavy taxes, smoking was reserved for the very wealthy and very privileged.
“Real ones. We hijacked a freighter. We can kill each other later if that is God’s will. Right now, I need a break,” he said, pulling out his pack.
I took one and got a battered lighter from my personal kit.
“That is quite the antique. Does it work?” he asked, laughing.
“Like a Marine, Zippos are semper fi,” I said, lighting his smoke.
“Sorry, old joke. Always faithful. My great-great, hell, I don’t know how many greats, grandfather carried it on D-Day. I rigged it to work on a mini chip.”
His face was a question.
“D-Day. 1944 on the old calendar. Hitler. Saved the world. You sound educated. Didn’t they teach you anything in school?”
“I know that in 1187, old calendar, Saladin expelled the Christian Crusaders from Jerusalem and reclaimed it. You know, saved the world,” he said.
The smile took the bite off his words, but the gulf between our lives became a chasm. I fired up my cigarette, inhaled deeply, and welcomed the tingling sensation. Stims were great for long ops, but sometimes, nothing beat a smoke for leaving you relaxed and alert at the same time.
We sat in silence as rain leaked through a roof never intended to keep out water. It dripped and formed puddles, but our corner was dry. I noticed, though relaxed, he kept his finger near the trigger. My free hand was on the butt of my primary. We were ready to kill each other. Instead we smoked.
“Damn. CenCom’s pinging me,” I said, seeing the strobe on my forearm panel. “Unless we want my cadre showing up, I gotta go. Hey, thanks.”
“No problem, Sanchez-788.”
Startled, I said, “what’d you hear?”
“Give Lola my regards and get your primary charged. There’s a war going on, my friend.”
“But, I didn’t detect your infrared,” I said, harsh realization dawning.
Lighting another smoke, he gestured to my second-skin armor, “We all have secrets.”
“This isn’t going to get any easier, is it?”
“I am afraid not. But for today, as-salamu aleikum.”
I didn’t know the words, but understood the message, like those my grandmother whispered in my ear when I left Earth.
“Vaya con Dios,” I said, heading back into the rain.
Terri Lynn Coop is a lawyer by education, a writer by profession, and an unapologetic geek by choice. She has Chihuahuas, and she is the author of Devil's Deal, Book 1 in the Juliana Martin Mysteries. “Outside the Wire” originally appeared in Battlespace.