Thicker Than Blood
by C. Q. March
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Isabel was thirty years old, and home on leave. She hoisted her fishing rod, eyes flat and hard as a pair of hammered-down nailheads. The muffled cheep of the birds shushed, and Isabel put a hand on her pistol. Three moth-eaten fighters — two women and a man — scuttled from the brambles, hunched, gone mad. But they were oblivious and rushed past, beyond factions and interests and coalitions. They made only to claw distance from the fighting. Isabel might join them if she got sent back to the front. For the right price, she wouldn’t have to. Isabel needed her father to be a traitor.
Some two hundred miles behind the nearest front line of the wars, occasional fire still reached the broken foothills of her childhood. Craters diverted the course of a creek to fall cold down a long tumble of shattered rock. The heaped soil was still a good dark brown, streaked with coppery clay. None of the green-orange stains of the gas weapons here, yet.
Below her, Isabel watched Jackson fish the deep pool of a blasted basin. Her father fished slowly, corroded with memory, full of secrets. In the four years since she’d last been home, Jackson seemed carved away, pared down fair to the bone.
She folded and unfolded her father in her mind, to find what he might be hiding. Isabel hiked around him to fish the next stretch of cold water.
Shrapnel winked sunlight off the stream bottom. The still of the day lay heavy. Jackson’s voice furrowed through the quiet. He made his way downstream. “Lunch?” he said again, louder, through Isabel’s smashed eardrums. She stood a head taller than her father. They sat and unhooked dusty gas masks from their shoulders. Isabel’s arms and back were lean-roped with muscle. The veins in her hands were hard, hot wires.
Jackson had a shake in his voice and tremors in his fingers. Fingers that had fashioned words to help remake the world. First with angry pounding on his keyboard; later, slow and tiring with pen and paper when the grid went down.
He kept his voice up. “You know, over there” — he pointed up a tumbled slope of charcoaled trees — “was a playground me and mom took you kids there, sometimes, back before. Swings, slides, monkey bars.” Jackson and Isabel had some mustard for their rough folds of bread. There were aluminum cans of soup, cabbage with bits of salted horse meat.
Jackson was always telling about the playground and didn’t expect a response. “Least I think it was over that way,” he said. “These hills always moving around on me.”
Isabel saw an ICBM contrail coming from far to the east. All sides lobbed them now and again, hoping for a blind, lucky hit. Isabel was mostly numb to it, but always curious if this might be one with her name on it. Jackson noticed the missile and sucked in a little breath. They waited, the flow of the stream clicking time over its stones. “Someday somebody’ll stick a nuke in one of those,” he said. He maybe sounded hopeful.
“Someday you’ll have some kids, go to playgrounds?” Jackson said. Isabel saw him glance to her and away to the fading missile contrail, back to his daughter and away again, like he was hoping and afraid to catch her eye. He tried to ignore the cracked pitting in her left arm. “Swing ’em on monkey bars?” The ICBM meandered and left a smudge of vapor as it passed high overhead and disappeared.
His face: acne, infections, beatings — they’d done hard work on him. Over time he’d been caught by some faction or another, and confessed. He’d even confess to things he hadn’t done, and they broke him some more for that. Isabel would get the truth on him some other way.
She swirled dark horse bits in her filmy broth. Told Jackson probably never kids for her, not with the way the wars were going — she’d be too old by then. And most of the boys’ve got their balls blown off anyway. She left him to guess if she was joking. Her fingers worked under her helmet at a tingling scar along her furry scalp. It needed a shave.
They finished their food. “Any word on connecting things back up?” Jackson had asked her before, and said it again, as if he was gathering info. He limped their lunch things to the stream to scrub them out in a patch of pale sand.
Isabel told him she wouldn’t be supposed to say, even if she knew. But no — it was same as always. No closer to sparking up the data centers or com towers or satellites to link the sky and coordinate their attacks.
Isabel was an engineer in the gunnery corps. Without networked guidance systems, they bypassed the computer brains on the so-called smart weapons and rigged them up to point and shoot. Magnificent bottle rockets.
And all was catastrophe. You lived with your head bent firm to the cause. Perhaps this might all yet recede and they’d live to see the promise.
Jackson had once been a big part of things. His writing pulled together factions with shared interests. He’d been there at the turn, when Isabel was small, to tear it all down and start new. Isabel remembered, back when you could still video-stream live images, they torched some Christmas tree farms, the workers left flaming in the spruce pitch. But Jackson wrote how all the good was coming. They’d hose the world clean and rebuild it right.
Inconveniently, all the other sides had the same notion.
And now someone was writing powerful stuff for their enemies. They showed a new, dangerous unity. Maybe the years had turned the inspiration for Jackson’s pen from ideology to compensation. She hoped so.
He looked away when Isabel lit a cigarette. She watched him from her dark eye-corners. Here it came, same as ever: “Isabel, those are so bad for you,” he said.
She blew out a deep breath of smoke and told him she’d inhaled a lot worse.
“Directly linked to lung cancer,” he said.
Isabel blinked, blank, and said at least it wasn’t directly linked to getting blown into little pieces. That finished him for now about the cigarettes.
Jackson chewed at mustard stains under his nails, and said how this was nice, so long since they’d seen each other. He glanced again at her left arm, but didn’t ask about it. Isabel adjusted the prosthetic at the shoulder. She gave a tobacco-dry laugh and said they should get back to fishing.
* * *
Isabel cleaned their trout at a battered work table out front. Jackson had shored up the blasted brick and block of the house with homemade concrete. He pumped water for cleaning the fish.
Jackson said, “Careful there,” as Isabel worked her knife. “Too deep and you’ll get bones.” He fluttered and blinked and rinsed away fish guts. His right eye was gas-damaged and forever soft with mucous.
Why had he asked about the satellites?
“You know, link things back up, end the wars maybe?” he said. “You” — he nodded to her left arm — “doing all right?” She used it pretty good, kept its hinges and sockets cleaner than the rest of her.
When Isabel asked how his writing was going, Jackson kept rinsing his clean hands, absently. “Slow,” he said. “What’s an old guy like me have left to say?” His latest pamphlet was two weeks overdue. It was supposed to be bracing, but not unrealistic in its optimism, tenacious, but cheerful in tone. They wanted too much.
She’d used her time home to help with repairs, and to snoop. She fixed Jackson’s bent doors from scraping, and pried behind door frames. When she welded loose window bars, the smell sent Jackson outside, so she went through his bedroom. She rapped walls, but found only hollowless block. There was nothing in the crawlspace when Isabel ripped out old plywood to mend the leaking roof while Jackson was away to barter for toiletries.
They packed the cleaned fish in the cold spring house Jackson had rigged for refrigeration, then went to the garden. He worked the ground as one who’d come to it late in life, better at growing flowers than food. Isabel turned over two spans of soil for each of his. She hoed and pulled weeds beyond where needed, seeing if maybe Jackson had something hidden down in the ground out there.
The sprawling foothill suburbs were pulverized into isolated villages. Theirs was dominated by the Cooper house. It stood across the way from Jackson’s: big, conspicuous, fresh-painted. It gleamed clean over the scattered dirty crumble of the little broken-backed homes that remained. A few thin roads jacklegged between heaps of blighted rubble. Wild goats and rabbits haunted the ruins, and feral cats hunted the rabbits. Wilder things stayed up in the mountains.
* * *
Isabel had skipped this year’s normal R&R — mixing it up behind the front with other units, all grimy sex and fistfights, blistered with booze and dope — and instead shipped home to surveil Jackson. There was talk of a network of the old guard, jaded revolutionaries gone rotten. Isabel could get herself transferred somewhere safe, maybe to an admin post, if she sniffed one out.
At the very least, she had to secure her artillery job. Even that was better than getting busted down to infantry. The ones down and firing always had the advantage over the ones up and moving.
The front was in forever half-light, veiled with smoke by day, limned in fire by night. Slippery factions and interests aligned in cautious confederations. A thousand miles of tangled battle lines, year upon on year of emancipated war. Infantries leashed at ready, well-fed in deep, thick bunkers, waiting for an opportunity.
Isabel saw their infantry have a try just a week after she shipped out, the freshest gunner in her unit. The sluggish August was clumsy and dull with humidity. They managed to put a few missiles straight into a section of the enemies’ big guns. Their unit head got on the field phone while they climbed to look.
They scrammed clustered rats off the bunker walls. Folds of smoke lay across the expanse of curdled earth, slick and slimed with summer thunderstorms. It looked thrown by enormous hands, turned over and over by ceaseless missiles, shells, rockets, mines. Three decades of jellied fighters, tilled over and under, squirmed composting in the earth. The more recent dead lay mouldering like matted leaves.
Their infantry came up in thick, sweating, locust ranks. Loaded with gear, they moved hunkered and resolute through the trenches. The chain-smoking unit heads shot or knifed any hesitating traitors.
A grinding scream, and everyone lunged for cover. The enemies’ renewed fire hurled down. Isabel leapt for a hatch but looked back for the infantry. Extended out too far, they still ran hard, tried to make it back. All shadow bleached away, and the murk of the day went stark bright. The exposed soldiers’ ammunition cooked off under sheets of fire and blew them apart in a rolling pat-a-tappa-pa-tap.
The oily mud gums of the nearest trench collapsed and folded a soft mouth over a clutch of troops. They went down in pieces, clothing burnt off and all the hair of the bodies flamed down to little dark twists against the skin. The rats scarcely waited for the bombing to stop before they burrowed in to feed.
* * *
Isabel finished weeding a row, back in the weird quiet of this soft, rumpled place far behind the front. Jackson always kept a little sort-of-contraband liquor brewed up, but Isabel was running low on dope. Reporting Jackson for the liquor wouldn’t get her anywhere, and her leave was up soon. He kept asking about the satellites. What was he about?
“Midge,” Jackson said. His bent old neighbor was hoeing her patch and watching them over their shared fence. She was a twisty, ancient stick of a woman. “We got some fish. You should come over. Eat.” They hadn’t recorded the fish with the commissary, and Midge could report them for it. But she wouldn’t, if she got a few bites. Things were strung so far apart anyway, the commissary was two days off for old Midge.
Isabel told Jackson that their neighbor could cook her own fish — Isabel didn’t want company. She said it loud enough so Midge could hear.
“All them shitty kids,” the old woman said, like she was talking to herself. “We changed the world for them. Now look at them, shitty like they earned it or something.”
Jackson shuffled bent, and painful, to fetch Midge a couple of trout. Isabel never got straight just which factions Jackson had got on the wrong side of, who’d broken his body like that.
Two of Jackson’s chickens were trying to drown themselves in a breeze-wrinkled gray puddle. Isabel wrung their necks and added them plucked to the cold spring house.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by C. Q. March