(From the Banned in 2025 stories)

“First Sergeant Yung!” Captain Ponzi’s voice wasn’t the bark of a DI but it did carry weight.

“Present, sir!” The shouts echoed through the crisp ocean air.

Yung saw, practically felt, the intense scrutiny his CO measured him with. The men had built a bond over a course of months. It wasn’t one of love or even respect particularly as much as pure trust. Battle did that, if nothing else. “Report to the command tent in fifteen minutes.”

“Affirmative, sir.” Yung turned to his line of troops and watched them finish the last round of calisthenics. “Platoon attention.”

 The soldiers snapped into their lines, crisply.

“Break into your fireteams and hit the Rotation. I want to see asses and elbows, now!” The Rotation was a series of simulations including live fire and they had to pass it to leave Basic. The regimen was designed to build teamwork and broke more than one recruit back to the beginning of training. He knew that his platoon had it down and they were now working to finish it in record time.

He thought about all of the reasons that Ponzi would be calling him to the tent. It wasn’t unusual for it to happen; he usually just waited until a freer time of day to do it. Shrugging to himself, Yung straightened his urban camo fatigue jacket and made sure his patrol cap sat snugly. You didn’t see the boss without looking your best.

Ten minutes later he stood in front of the “tent”. It was a more permanent structure than the name implied. Made of titanium alloy and the latest ballistic resistant fibers, it was sturdy and could easily hold its compliment of fifteen support personnel. In an emergency evac it could be broken down in two minutes by a fireteam of four.

The slit doorway parted under gentle hand pressure and he strode down the center aisle flanked by soldiers at desks. The captain’s was the last in the left column. His hand snapped to the brim of his cap and he waited for the return salute.

“Have a seat sergeant.” Privacy was a commodity that wasn’t available in the field. He picked up the report on his desk and pretended to scan it. “Your last medical eval was a week ago?”

“Yes sir.”

 He put the report down. “I’ve got some bad news. I’m afraid that you have the Pox.” Blue eyes searched Yung’s expression for any change and alarmingly found none.

“Yes sir. I had a feeling that would be the case.” He’d begun feeling run down in the morning and noticed numbness and tingling in his finger tips. That could have been anything until he saw a black dot on the base of his right heel. That was how the disease, that had wiped out massive numbers of Earth’s population twenty years ago, began.

The dots would spread rapidly over your body and break into pustules after a few days. By the end, a week to ten days at most, you would be free from pain as your nervous system shut down completely but you would have infected who knows how many hundreds. It was like some bastard combination of leprosy and the black plague, cooked up, said some, by a government lab. Which government didn’t really matter at this point. Thanks to a serum they developed far too late though it no longer had to be contagious, but it was still a death sentence. Treatments could let you live as long as a month depending on how strong you were.

Captain Ponzi leaned forward. “You know what this means, don’t you, Yung?”

He was a little annoyed by the lieutenant’s concerned parent façade and a touch insulted by the question. “Reassignment to the field…sir.” In his mind, there was sense in getting angry with the disease. These days it only popped up in about one out of every thousand people. The warmth of anger in his belly came not from that, but from the idea of spending his last days knee deep in muck fighting a battle that he had decided could never be won.

Yung had been in the field infantry since he was pressed into service three years ago. Even though he was a bit out of his prime, population shortage being what it was they didn’t care. He’d done well and advanced to the rank of First Sergeant. Training other young men to die wouldn’t have been his first choice, but it was better than the alternative.

The older man leaned back in his chair. “Well you’re taking this well Yung, damn well. Yes, we’ll be sending you to the front lines and you’ll get the honor of an increase in rank. The covert ops we’ll send you on will be of great service to our country.” He smiled. “Naturally this will also mean that any survivors you have will be receiving an officer’s death benefits.”

Yung stood and saluted. It kept him from breaking the officer’s jaw. The smugness of his smile and the fact that he should know that Yung had no surviving family, at least none that the government would recognize, nearly pushed him over. “Thank you sir. It will be an honor”

Ponzi stood and returned the salute. “Excellent.” He looked a bit uncertain, as though he saw the coils of anger squirming in Yung’s brain. “Report to me in forty-eight hours. That will give you time to get the treatments and then you’ll be shipped out.”

He would have slammed a door but their tents didn’t come so equipped. “Be damned if I’ll die on someone else’s terms” he muttered. In the old days of an all volunteer military he understood that was part of the package. Even in this army everything you did was at someone else’s orders, but once he had scrapped the last of the battlefield muck from his boots he promised himself that he would die when he was good and ready.

The treatments would put him out of commission for a day and a half at least so if he was to go AWOL then it would have to be before that. He knew exactly where he wanted to go and even knew the best way to get there, but he’d need to learn a little about the security and layout. There was someone on the outside who could get him the information and it probably wouldn’t even cost him.

Escaping would be difficult because security would know that he now had no reason to go off base. It was by no means impossible though. Training on infiltrating enemy bases could easily be turned on its head.

 His bunkmate, SFC Reese, was on leave so he had the place to himself. He stalked the twelve by twelve enclosure and thought about the best way to handle things as the afternoon crept into night.

By the time Taps had blown he had his kit ready. It didn’t amount to much; his rifle wouldn’t work if he was off base so his only weapon was an eight inch long ceramic and titanium battle knife. Some basic rations and a sleeping bag weighed down the base of his pack and he had filled the reservoir in it with potable water infused with things to keep him going. Sleep would be something he wouldn’t be seeing any time soon. Fifty meters of climbing rope made from ultra light monofilament and a second skin parka sat on top of everything, vital if he had to pass through the mountains on foot. His clothes had been stripped of all insignia and he carried no identity chit other than the one branded on his back. Once free of the base no one should see him as anything more than a well groomed drifter and a day or two on the road would take care of that.

After waiting until lights out, an interminable fifteen minutes, he slipped out of his tent and made his way towards the back. There was a chill in the air and a salty tang that he would miss. This part of the south west quadrant was beautiful in the fall. He shut down the aesthetic part of his brain with sheer will. Now was not the time to dwell on death and change.

The south side of camp was the least likely to be patrolled heavily as they relied on a natural cliff face dropping twenty meters to a river for a boundary. There was no fence surrounding the camp, only roving guard patrols. If he was spotted at all then he would be brought in and likely terminated after a brief interrogation. A shadow was the only indication that he passed by tents filled with sleeping soldiers. He would miss his “babes” but he knew that every one would kill him if they had to and the brass would have no problems finding a veteran to fill his boots.

The cliff’s edge was only a half dozen meters away when he heard something scraping on stone. An eye blink later, he was flattened to the ground against the base of the mess. Filtered moonlight cast a shadow big enough for him to squeeze into. Two shapes moved down the avenue that made its way around the base. His left hand rested on the knife’s butt, ready to draw it. Sweat began to form under his arms at the thought of having to bring down one of his own. He would do it, make no mistake, but it would hurt.

They came and went without incident. He didn’t envy them, but allowed himself a flicker of a smile knowing the ass chewing they would get tomorrow. It would have been delivered by him any other time and he would have relished it. He leopard crawled the remaining distance and peered over the edge to see the gunmetal ribbon below

The next day saw him in an outpost town a hundred miles from base. He had been fortunate enough to sneak onboard a grain hauler bound east for the population centers. He went into a free store and picked up a change of clothes, nothing fancy just something to make him a little less conspicuous. Even though things were supposed to be prosperous everywhere, he could now pass easily for the street trash that lurked at every society’s fringe.

A news scanner gave him the latest battle statistics, food production reports, and birth rates as of this two hundred thirtieth day of the year twenty thirty-six. It and a warm cup of coffee gave him the moment’s rest he needed after a hard night. A quick call to an ex-Army buddy and he would have a map and possibly some other goods to make the next bit of work he had to do less dangerous. His sense of purpose whetted by the knowledge that time was his enemy; he got up and started the next leg of the journey.

Walking was something that he was certainly no stranger to. He hoped he could catch a ride with another long hauler. They were automated and as long as you didn’t try to steal any of the cargo they didn’t bother to look for any unwanted passengers. Getting on one was easy, but staying on was dangerous considering they rarely stopped completely and went well over a hundred–twenty clicks per once they got going. The only other option was finding someone willing to pick up a complete stranger and anyone traveling out in this part of the world was rarely up to any good. It wasn’t strictly speaking against the law, but it was discouraged. Everyone was taught to conserve for the war effort, though these days most people knew what a joke that was. Resources weren’t lacking as much as they tried to make you believe. For now anyway it looked like the steady pace of a soldier would have to get him where he wanted to go.

 Yung scrabbled across the broken concrete trying his best to avoid the slicing white beams that scanned the DMZ. If he was caught trying to break in, the electro shock punishment would only be the beginning. His grey puffer coat and worn jeans the color of ready charcoal did offered some concealment from prying eyes, but they weren’t the only things that stood in the way of his prize.

He managed to make it to a crash barrier and used it for concealment to catch his breath. The last two days spent walking, running, and skulking in shadows had taken their toll. About a hundred meters left before the moat and fence, and once on the other side he would be home free. A swig from his camel-back sated the edge of his thirst.

In college he would have been able to clear a hundred meters in just under a dozen seconds. That had been good enough to make him a valued running back for his University team. Flashes of cheering crowds as they brought home trophies filled his head. He had a beautiful girl friend; Sarai was on the school dance squad. Her body was sculpted by years of training and what he admired most —her mind— was just as hard and sharp. When she laughed and cheered him on, he felt as if he could face the biggest linebacker head on.

A violent head shake snapped him out of the happy memories. Hunger raged at him. Pain crawled through his limbs. All of the good things in life had been taken from him and from humans everywhere with that first step of criminalization.

Focusing his anger into energy, he pressed on.

Trembling calf muscles edged him up so that he could peer over the concrete lip. The timing would have to be perfect. The speed which buoyed him to the end zone would need to materialize for one last performance. Syllables breathed out the numbers and once he was satisfied with the timing he came around one end and sprinted.

A ghostly voice shouted, “Move you maggot. My sister runs faster than your pansy ass.”

Once the beams had moved passed, he fixed his eyes on the moat. That became his end zone. Get there and he would deal with the fence. By then all pretense of secrecy would have to be blown away.

Though his feet only whispered on the unyielding surface, they thudded like cannon shot through his brain. Nerves fired and pictures flashed through his brain from the past. His coach egging him on. His beloved beckoning to him from their marriage bed. The first man he’d killed. The children that they could never have, waving him to the finish line.

A bright white line flashed his way and he juked without even thinking about it. The sharp smell of ozone singed his nose hairs and perked his brain. The beam must have missed him by scant millimeters. No eyes, human or electric, watched his approach. Those looked from the outside in. Few would be stupid enough to try and break in and fewer still would be able to evade the beams. They were more worried about their precious live stock getting out.

The fence was only steps away. His right arm flew under the jacket and freed the metal orb imprisoned there. He pointed it at the fence and depressed the recessed trigger. An onslaught of focused photons reduced the metal fence to slag and he leapt over the canal and through the hole, tucking and coming up in a smooth motion that his body remembered from years of military training. A muscle in his thigh screamed at the abuse he had been doling out like candy.

Shrill alarms began their assault on his ears. “Halt intruder.” Came the mechanical demon’s voice. “Security has been alerted and you will be detained or destroyed.”

He called up the map he spent a few days memorizing. It shouldn’t be too hard to find her, given the grid like layout of the streets. He also knew security would be long in coming, or at least long enough. They weren’t used to break-ins like this.

He crushed the beamer in one hand until he felt it crack along the appropriate stress lines. It flew through the air and smashed a window. Ten steps later, light filled the air behind him and a concussion wave nearly picked him up. As it was, it succeeded in helping him along. A nice little diversion thanks to Smithy who had also provided the map. Now he was weaponless, but it would take more than anything he could have had to overcome the drones.

 The last corner came in sight and he saw light, pale and gold, coming from the building’s yard. He slowed and turned onto the street. They looked so much like houses. He supposed it wouldn’t be a terrible life and was always assured they didn’t mind it at all. But the price was too high for him and he hoped for her.

There they stood like angels. A half dozen of them in plain white gowns stood gawking at the pillar of fire his surprise had created. So much so they didn’t even notice him. They were all about the same age and were each beautiful in their own ways. Diet and exercise made them all as near physical perfection as was possible given the available technology. No trace of the Pox, was anywhere on them that he could see. Of course the government docs would make sure they were clean. All of the women were at the same stage in their pregnancy. Living together had put all of their rhythms in sync and it was easy for them to be impregnated with at least four babies a piece.

By the time he reached them, he saw the fear in most of their eyes. He had to be quite a sight. The distance he had come and the road he had traveled had taken their toll and the Pox had started to take hold. Seeing her face again made all of that worth it. There she stood, ten years older but no less beautiful.

He went straight to her. Her eyes filled as she opened her arms. They embraced and he called her name over and over. Their combined tears washed his face as clean as it could be. Their marriage, dissolved after the disaster out of “necessity for the continuance of the human race”, had never been over in either of their minds. Not time, distance, or any man’s law could ever kill what they had. Even though to them she was no more than a machine to give them the numbers they needed to win the war, to him she would never stop being that girl he had fallen for cheering him from the sidelines.

 He broke their clinch though it went against every desire he had. He drank her in with his eyes. Hers went over his shoulders. He knew before he felt the tingle that they were behind him. The drones sent their beams lashing into his body and brought him down. Convulsions wracked his body. He tried to proclaim that which the state had tried to take from them one last time before his heart stopped, but he couldn’t. She read it in his eyes and in his effort, and held that close – never forgetting.

One security drone came up to his prone form and scanned the code at the base of his spine. “Warrior number six-three-zed-zed-nine mark twenty. Deceased. Executed for unlawful entry to Incubation Zone Twelve and for dereliction of duty.” The sled came by and carried his body to the immolation chamber. “Unit three-two-six, inspect all receptacles for signs of infection.”

As Sarai and the others were led to the med unit for decontamination she carried the image of her war ravaged husband in her head promising him that these children she carried would not suffer his fate.

Scott is a father, a computer and movie geek, and a frustrated writer living in Winston Salem, NC.

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