Used Armor Smell

A. P. Howell

January 1, 2023

Janot’s armor no longer had that new-armor smell.

New-armor smell was different from new-suit smell; was different from new-car smell and new-carpet smell. But all of those scents pinged something in the human brain, created a sense of purity. Said this was a new thing, recently created by complex industrial processes, but untouched by human hands. (Except technicians and installers and salespeople and logistics specialists and—it was always rumored, no matter what the usage hours buried in HUD settings claimed—an unlucky previous owner who’d hemorrhaged all over the interior.) The newness smelled of ownership, mastery, and exclusive rights.

The new-armor smell had faded, replaced by Janot’s own smell. Usually, it was undetectable. The armor did an excellent job of wicking away sweat and cycling the air (it still smelled like recycled air, but Janot couldn’t recall the last time e’d inhaled unmediated atmosphere). The armor’s plumbing was mated to Janot’s—no diapers, no drips, no offensive odors—and sometimes e missed the catheter while walking down a corridor to the toilet.

The armor was even good about cleaning vomit. Janot could smell it, however, and there were still bits splattered on eir faceplate, visible behind the urgent reds of the HUD. E could also smell the coppery scent of blood.

Couldn’t feel the arm at all, not since the whiteout pain of… seconds earlier? When shit happened, it happened fast. The HUD reported painkillers and stimulants and tourniquet protocols: bright bullet points that could be easily dismissed, distractions from survival. Janot tried to flex eir fingers and the gauntlet flexed in response.

Did e even have those fingers any more, or was the gauntlet just filled with red jelly, reacting to nervous impulses sent to a limb that no longer existed?

Beyond the HUD, beyond the faceplate, the world was dark and full of smoke and fire. Weapons fire, bright traceries crossing the sky to their terminus, and the orange-red evidence of atmospheric O2. Janot could only see eir unit with the HUD, and it showed fewer points of light than e liked. The enemy was completely invisible.

The armor’s systems gave Janot an instant’s warning before the igneous rock formation at eir back split and exploded outward. Time enough to lunge away, flattened to the ground. The new wave of red warnings indicated blunt force impacts, nothing to compromise the armor.

Janot tried to move. The arm e could feel and the arm e couldn’t both moved, no sign of exacerbated injury. One leg fine, one pinned under a hunk of rock that had melted along some of its surfaces and was hot enough there to do some minor damage to the armor. The angle was awkward but e rose to eir knees, arms and back pushing against the weight on eir calf and foot. It shifted—Janot felt it in the changing angle and saw it in the HUD, couldn’t feel it in the leg; it had either been protected by the armor or the pain masked by the meds. Janot wanted to check, but navigating the HUD’s menus seemed too complex a task.

Not a good sign. The sounds echoing in eir ears—not quite ringing, not quite a whine—clearly originated in Janot’s own skull.

Also a bad sign.

E was on eir feet, rifle grasped in both gauntlets, moving toward a highlighted position on the HUD’s map. Not a decision Janot had made, not a movement e had made. E cycled through readouts, almost at random, saw the spike in the armor’s processing. It was running very expensive calculations. The situational awareness built over the course of human evolution was difficult to replicate computationally, even with the expert training dumped into expert systems.

A painfully bright point lit up the HUD. The rifle snapped up. Janot registered the recoil, deadened by the armor, and then the disappearance of the bright point. E looked past the display, a reflex despite knowing the target wouldn’t be visible. Oily black smoke boiled in the air, but Janot’s attention was caught by the red speckling on the inside of the faceplate. Eir next exhalation added more.

E moved through the smoke, rifle ready to engage. That processing flare was back and growing stronger, the armor making decisions Janot couldn’t. (Wouldn’t? But no, the armor was doing what it was supposed to do—what e was supposed to do—moving toward the objective glowing on the map.)

E tried to feel the good arm, the good leg, the pinned leg, finally whatever was left of the bad arm. The way the skinsuit snagged against the armor when e lifted a leg, the pressure just above the knee, the place e tapped eir thumbnail against the gauntlet… nothing. Janot dug through menus in search of medical readouts. Was the system burying them so e wouldn’t be distracted? Not that it mattered. E couldn’t get a medevac in the middle of a firefight. The system was doing what it could, the processing graph burning into Janot’s retinas.

Another flare on the map and the armor took the shot. This time, something returned fire and pressure blossomed across Janot’s ribs. The armor took a second shot and the enemy disappeared from the HUD.

Janot could barely see that detail. The world beyond the faceplate blurred—some of that seemed like motion, the armor bearing em implacably forward, but Janot couldn’t tell for sure, eir sense of balance perhaps damaged with eir hearing. E tried to say something, even though there was no one to listen. E tasted more blood.

Janot couldn’t smell recycled air any more, or even vomit, only the smell of blood. The smell of emself, of desperation and hopelessness.

A. P. Howell holds a master's degree in history; her jobs have spanned the alphabet from archivist to webmaster. She lives with her husband, their two kids, and a pair of energetic pups. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines, podcasts, and anthologies, including Daily Science Fiction, Martian: The Magazine of Science Fiction Drabbles, Underland Arcana, Translunar Travelers Lounge, The NoSleep Podcast, XVIII: Stories of Mischief and Mayhem (Underland Press), and In Somnio: A Collection of Modern Gothic Horror (Tenebrous Press). Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Honorably Mentioned in Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year Volume Thirteen. “Used Armor Smell” was nominated for the Brave New Weird Award and Honorably Mentioned in Alex Woodroe’s Brave New Weird: The Best New Weird Horror 2022 (Tenebrous Press).

“Used Armor Smell” originally appeared in Dread Space.

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