In my homage to the 2000AD sci-fi universe I grew up with, a ‘connie finds himself at the wrong end of a barrel. The question is, will he make it?
“Don’t worry, bud, we’ll be outta this joint be-”
A white-hot beam refracted across the man’s face, its explosion of light blinding Gavill painfully for a few seconds. He blinked the white light away, but once he came back around and saw the picture before him, he felt like he was wounded too. Michalowski, who was going to take his next step away from the crystals that Gavill now hid behind, was still.
Old Marley was as dead as a doornail…There is no doubt whatever about that.
Marcus Gavill didn’t know why Scrooge’s words came to him as he saw Michalowski sprawled out on the ground. But the phrase was true. Michalowski was certainly dead in a way that he could only fathom through that old-earth expression, his life cut swiftly by an admirably precise gauss round to the forehead. It cut through the supposedly gauss-proof helmet like a searing rod pushed through plastic, leaving a black hole that marked the blocky, white stencil proclaiming Michalowski’s identi-tag, RM-6:23.
Gavill took in all the details, hunched in cover and staring blankly at the remains. The smell of cooked meat, Michalowski’s unnervingly still composure, the silence; it was all as alien as the planet itself.
He sank into the dark soil with the realisation of his loss. For a man like Michalowski, Gavill expected his death in the field to be something, well, more. Michalowski was just another ‘connie in the huddled masses, coerced into the steaming confines of a macro-barge, when they first met. But as soon as they locked eyes onto one another, they had something special. He and him were amongst thousands of disloyal men, forging a bond of blood and mud after years of fighting for survival in the Breacher Gangs. Instead, Michalowski’s reward for his indentured service was nothing save the croaking of frogs and the pitter-patter of rain on the black ground.
Gavill’s mind started to crack. He began to mutter to Michalowski as if he was still there to guide him. “You’ve really done it this time Michalowski, eh?” Anger filled his lungs. He threw his helmet into the ground, scratching his greasy hair.
“You’ve really fucked it up!” Gavill tried to calm himself down. He found it difficult, as after the first wave of grief came the understanding of a bitter truth.
I’m the last man standing.
Memories of what had happened in this doomed patrol surfaced in Gavill’s mind, like something stuck on repeat. When the patrol set out, there were thirty men in all. But their numbers were whittled down by unforeseen shots from an unseen enemy. Three hours ago, there were three of them left. A minute ago, there were two left. The patrol couldn’t, wouldn’t, go on. At this stage, Gavill didn’t care if he was shot for cowardice for ‘dereliction of duty’ or whatever reason the Coercers could come up with in their processing units. He had just seen the only source of loyalty in this cause die before his very eyes.
That’s it then. I’m going home, he resolved, after all, what else can I do, but die?
But one thing still stood before him. The unknown shooter. Remaining behind the smooth angles of the crystal, Gavill reached for a nearby branch lying on the ash-coloured ground. He picked it up, placing his helmet on its end to act as bait for any unwanted attention. He held his breath as he slowly pushed the stick out of cover and to where Michalowski once stood. If the helmet was blown away, Gavill knew that would be stuck here until something killed him. If it wasn’t, then he had a chance, however small, to make a dash for it. For anxious seconds the helmet floated in the air, as if waiting for a crack shot to send it flying. Beads of sweat trickled down Gavill’s face.
Slowly, Gavill pulled the stick back, plucking the helmet from its end and quickly putting it back on his head. Gavill sighed with relief. He had an opportunity to carry on living.
As he was in the process of getting up, he felt like something was tugging at his conscience, anchoring him in position. It was Michalowski. One half, the cynical side of him, urged him to go. It conflicted with his human nature. Michalowski deserves to be buried. They bickered within Gavill’s fragile mind.
I can’t leave him. Not like this.
But you must. Leave, unless you want to die too.
I must bury him. Do him that favour, at least.
Bury him where? With what? Every second spent here is another for the enemy to find you waiting for death!
Then I’ll kill them all. For him.
You can’t avenge him from the grave. Go, and live to fight another day.
Although Gavill hated it, he couldn’t refute the logic. If he died, then any hope for Michalowski’s redemption died with him.
“Adios, Michalowski.” Gavill muttered to the warm corpse before him, “I’ll find a way home. For you.”
Gavill turned around to face the steep ascent he had come down minutes before. He was going to re-trace his steps. Or, at least, what little he could remember. He wasn’t annoyed by the fact he had to go back the way he came. He was too focused on the fact that his course may take him to what was left of Coercer Arcus.
Gavill’s whole body was aching just as much as his head, his feet sore and his vision blurred. He scratched his red eyes, hoping it would somehow stop the pain of crying and from staring at the vibrant crystals. Gavill had begun to hate these things: Ugly and pointless objects of no other purpose than to vibrate in the rain and blend together in a wall of hideous colour.
As he looked down at his weary boots, Gavill caught a glimpse of some tracks in the ground. Perplexed, he went over to the marks and crouched besides them, rifle in his left hand. The rain had partially flooded some of them, but their shape was unmistakeable. It was boot-prints. A sense of paranoia grasped him: Friend or foe? After staring into the prints, he noticed a distinct chevron pattern, which could only be made by the grip of Breacher Gang boots. This is good, he thought, I’m following my old tracks.
Gavill began to bite his lower lip, once again struck between two ideas. If he went another way, he could get lost, but avoid seeing Coercer Arcus. If he followed his older steps, then an easier journey awaited. But if someone has seen my tracks…
Choices. Either way, to him, something or someone will kill him, no matter how much he wanted to just go home.
“If I’m gonna die,” Gavill muttered, “I might as well make it easier.”
He rose back to his feet, firm in the decision he had just chosen. He was going to pass Arcus.
It didn’t take Gavill too long to find Coercer Arcus. After trampling through waist-height, half-beaten foliage and more stacks of those crystals, he caught through the remaining foliage a significant clearing of grass and dirt mounds. He followed the remaining boot prints the best he could, eventually stopping at what was placed in the middle of the thicket. In the centre of this site was a thicket of gigantic pink crystals, metre’s high like a canopy of trees.
But it wasn’t this sight that Gavill was attracted to. Rather, it was what was underneath.
Gavill crept out of cover, moving towards what was left of Coercer Arcus. Like the Iron Giant it looked humanoid from far away, although the glimmering of metal and the lack of legs gave it’s true form away. He eventually got to within a few feet of it, standing with satisfaction over the pitiful leftovers of a machine he used to fear.
To say that Coercer Arcus was wrecked would be an understatement. It’s lower half was a mass of leaking pipes and torn hydraulics. The sight reminded him of how the thing lost its legs, that singeing smell as an enemy cee-beam evaporated them refilling his nostrils. What was left was a dented wreck, especially the body. Its left arm, a rough imitation of a skeletal arm, missing some of its smooth, segmented armour plates, and two digits off its glitching hand. The right one was barely in a better condition, the part below the elbow replaced by a smoking shotgun as standard. Arcus was trying to blast Gavill away, it’s weapon tracing his every move as it repetitively clicked. It hadn’t realised that the ammunition belt was torn to shreds. The robot’s senility reminded him of a frail, old man: Pitifully weak, half-dead, scrambled.
Gavill stared at Arcus’s face, its head a crude replication of some famous general, right down to the stubbly chin and the three stars on the helmet welded to its cranium. One red eye glared back, the other scrunched up from its slanted broken jaw. It would be merciful to put it out of its miserable existence.
“Die you Shiraqian bastard!” A metallic voice sputtered through its wrecked mouth. Arcus’ voice was a horrendous imitation of an old American generalissimo. He smirked at the stupidity of the thing’s words.
“You first.” Gavill replied.
“PS-23:4 is that you, soldier?” Coercer Arcus replied, recognising his voice, “I’ll have you shot for insubordination for talking to yer superior like that!”
Gavill laughed, “Good luck with that.” He knew that less than 24 hours ago any ‘connie in his situation would be literally shitting themselves for provoking such bad-tempered machines as he did. But Gavill didn’t care, nor was he particularly scared of it. Like David against Goliath, the thing was a paper tiger now it couldn’t make good on its words.
Gavill zoned out, letting the machine rant on and cough up bolts and oil in its final moments of functioning. The sight of the dying machine reminded him of Michalowski’s death. He was dead, and this thing isn’t. Where’s the justice in that? Gavill wondered as he stared at Arcus’s remains again. He wanted to vent his anger on the wrecked machine. Drive it into the ground. Pummel it to death.
“Where’s RM-6:23?” Arcus said, snapping Gavill out of his thoughts.
“He had a name you know,” he replied.
“And!? He’s a ‘connie,” Arcus retorted, spewing propaganda lines that it was fed in the factories. “You stinkin’ lot don’t need names, son, you do and die by my orders!”
“Is he dead?” Arcus snapped.
“Dead,” Gavill replied simply. Words weren’t enough to express his pain at the reminder of his loss. But, if the machine had a soul, it would be able to see it. His chest began to heave in anger as he stared at Arcus once again. You should be dead, not him.
“I hope RM-6:23 took as many sonsofbitches-” Arcus said before being interrupted by Gavill.
“His name was Michalowski!” Gavill roared, “He had a life, Y’know! A life! And what do you have, eh? What life have you ever had? He’s done good. You’ve never done anything in your existence but take lives by forcing men into an early grave!”
Gavill pointed his rifle at the machine’s head, “Why is he dead and you ain’t? It should be him beside me right now, not you!”
Arcus turned his head away from Gavill for a moment, as if trying to process what a monster it actually was. Can it think? Does it finally realise? Arcus turned back to face Gavill, smiling.
“Guess Michalowski wasn’t that clever,” Arcus replied simply. Although the thing lacked any humanity, its final moments were as cruel and cold as people.
Three gauss shots made Arcus’ head explode in a shower of nuts and bolts. Gavill lowered his rifle, barrel steaming as much as his rage against the machine.
© Thomas Gallimore Barker