“Is there an evacuation tunnel?” he asked.

“They told us to stay here,” the teacher said.

“I’m telling you to evacuate,” Prax said, but what he thought was I have to find Mei.

Chapter Four: Bobbie

Consciousness returned as an angry buzzing noise and pain. Bobbie blinked once, trying to clear her head, trying to see where she was. Her vision was maddeningly blurry. The buzzing sound resolved into an alarm from her suit. Colored lights flashed in her face as the suit’s HUD sent her data she couldn’t read. It was in the middle of rebooting and alarms were coming on one by one. She tried to move her arms and found that although weak, she wasn’t paralyzed or frozen in place. The impact gel in her suit had returned to a liquid state.

Something moved across the window of faint light that was her helmet’s face shield. A head, bobbing in and out of view. Then a click as someone plugged a hardline into her suit’s external port. A corpsman, then, downloading her injury data.

A voice, male and young, in her suit’s internal speakers said, “Gotcha, Gunny. We gotcha. Gonna be okay. Gonna be all right. Just hang in there.”

He hadn’t quite finished saying there when she blacked out again.

She woke bouncing down a long white tunnel on a stretcher. She wasn’t wearing her suit anymore. Bobbie was afraid that the battlefield med-techs hadn’t wasted time taking her out of it the normal way, that they’d just hit the override that blew all the seams and joints apart. It was a fast way to get a wounded soldier out of four hundred kilos of armored exoskeleton, but the suit was destroyed in the process. Bobbie felt a pang of remorse for the loss of her faithful old suit.

A moment later, she remembered that her entire platoon had been ripped to pieces before her eyes, and her sadness about the lost suit seemed trivial and demeaning.

A hard bump on the stretcher sent a jolt of lightning up her spine and hurled her back into darkness.

“Sergeant Draper,” a voice said.

Bobbie tried to open her eyes and found it impossible to do. Each eyelid weighed a thousand kilos, and even the attempt left her exhausted. So she tried to answer the voice and was surprised and a little ashamed of the drunken mumble that came out instead.

“She’s conscious, but just barely,” the voice said. It was a deep, mellow male voice. It seemed filled with warmth and concern. Bobbie hoped that the voice would keep talking until she fell back asleep.

A second voice, female and sharp, replied, “Let her rest. Trying to bring her fully awake right now is dangerous.”

The kind voice said, “I don’t care if it kills her, Doctor. I need to speak to this soldier, and I need to do it now. So you give her whatever you need to give her to make that happen.”

Bobbie smiled to herself, not parsing the words the nice voice said, just the kindly, warm tone. It was good to have someone like that to take care of you. She started to fall back asleep, the coming blackness a welcome friend.

White fire shot up Bobbie’s spine, and she sat bolt upright in bed, as awake as she’d ever been. It felt like going on the juice, the chemical cocktail they gave sailors to keep them conscious and alert during high-g maneuvers. Bobbie opened her eyes and then slammed them shut again when the room’s bright white light nearly burned them out of her sockets.

“Turn off the lights,” she mumbled, the words coming out of her dry throat in a whisper.

The red light seeping in through her closed eyelids dimmed, but when she tried to open them again, it was still too bright. Someone took her hand and held it while a cup was put into it.

“Can you hold that?” the nice voice said.

Bobbie didn’t answer; she just brought the cup to her mouth and drank the water in two greedy swallows.

“More,” she said, this time in something resembling her old voice.

She heard the sounds of someone scooting a chair and then footsteps away from her on a tile floor. Her brief look at the room had told her she was in a hospital. She could hear the electric hum of medical machines nearby, and the smells of antiseptic and urine competed for dominance. Disheartened, she realized she was the source of the urine smell. A faucet ran for a moment, and then the footsteps came toward her. The cup was put back into her hand. She sipped at it this time, letting the water stay in her mouth awhile before swallowing. It was cool and delicious.

When she was finished, the voice asked, “More?”

She shook her head.

“Maybe later,” she said. Then, after a moment: “Am I blind?”

“No. You’ve been given a combination of focus drugs and powerful amphetamines. Which means your eyes are fully dilated. Sorry, I didn’t think to lower the lights before you woke up.”

The voice was still filled with kindness and warmth. Bobbie wanted to see the face behind that voice, so she risked squinting through one eye. The light didn’t burn into her like it had before, but it was still uncomfortable. The owner of the nice voice turned out to be a very tall, thin man in a naval intelligence uniform. His face was narrow and tight, the skull beneath it pressing to get out. He gave her a frightening smile that didn’t extend past a slight upturn at the corners of his mouth.

“Gunnery Sergeant Roberta W. Draper, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force,” he said, his voice so at odds with his appearance that Bobbie felt like she was watching a movie dubbed from a foreign language.

After several seconds, he still hadn’t continued, so Bobbie said, “Yes, sir,” then glanced at his bars and added, “Captain.”

She could open both eyes now without pain, but a strange tingling sensation was moving up her limbs, making them feel numb and shaky at the same time. She resisted an urge to fidget.

“Sergeant Draper, my name is Captain Thorsson, and I am here to debrief you. We’ve lost your entire platoon. There’s been a two-day pitched battle between the United Nations and Martian Congressional Republic forces on Ganymede. Which, at most recent tally, has resulted in over five billion MCR dollars of infrastructure damage, and the deaths of nearly three thousand military and civilian personnel.”

He paused again, staring at her through narrowed eyes that glittered like a snake’s. Not sure what response he was looking for, Bobbie just said, “Yes, sir.”

“Sergeant Draper, why did your platoon fire on and destroy the UN military outpost at dome fourteen?”

This question was so nonsensical that Bobbie’s mind spent several seconds trying to figure out what it really meant.

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