Chapter 2

I throw myself sideways out of the attack's path. The Alien's three-inch claw whizzes past my ear and slams into steel. I suppress a growl just as feral as the Alien's. How did I not notice the scarlet-flashing of my visor?

I roll and pull myself upright, hand jumping to the revolver on my belt, but then the Alien is already upon me. I dodge a second hit. My boots slip and slide on the loose sand as I level my arm and pull the trigger, miss even at this proximity because in the last moment I have to left myself fall to avoid a blade-like talon swiping at my head.

The Alien is fast. Faster than usual. It gives that otherworldly noise that makes my skin crawl. Up close it's almost human in size and shape, but that's where the similarities end. The Alien is some eight feet tall and its deformed body bulges with rippling muscles that look like putrid boils. Three to five inch claws sharper than my titanium knife sprout from each of their hands. Its skin is black as engine oil and hard and tough as steel. Its eyes are black voids without whites and its mouth is a gaping chasm hungry for my flesh and blood.

Too close.

I have to put space between me and the –

I can't suppress a groan as my head rings with the impact of a claw with the side of my face. My visors cracks. Blood spurts from the gash in my temples and sprays into my eye. I struggle to stay upright and throw my arms up before the next swipe slams into my chest and I'm tossed backward against the tower wall. My back slams into steel. White-hot pain sears through my spine as my vision darkens momentarily.

I force myself to focus over the pain.

My hands are empty. Where'd I leave my revolver?

Crash.

I twist aside and stumble as the Alien's body slams into the tower and is momentarily stunned. Blood trickles into my mouth and I spit it into the sand. I'm not going to die here. I spy my revolver on the ground behind the Alien's hunched back. I roll onto my feet and deflect most of the Alien's swipe with my right arm, where blood quickly blossoms from its edge. I lunge forward. My fingers close around the revolver and I turn just in time to land on my back as the Alien slams itself into my chest. Pain surges through my body. I clench my teeth and cramp my bloodied fingers around the revolver. I'm too vulnerable. My arm burns and blood makes the revolver slippery.

The Alien towers over me, ready to finish me off. The sky beyond its horrible head is aero-blue and brilliant. Out of the corner of my eyes I see its two companions outlined in the distant dunes. How could I have been so stupid? Why didn't I check whether they'd left sentries? But they never do. They aren't smart enough.

The Alien dives down on my midriff, forcing the air out of my lungs, and its jaws snap at my neck. I wedge my left forearm between its razor-sharp fangs and try not to scream as they clamp shut. Black stars pop before my vision. A whimper escapes my throat.

All the while my operator is oddly silent. Are they always silent if their charges are about to die?

The pitiful thought floods my senses with alertness.

I will not die here.

I won't go down as easily as my mother.

A growl bursts out of my chest with the savageness of a desert wolf. I let the revolver drop onto my chest and rip the combat knife out of its sheath. It slides smoothly into my palm. I rear upward like a sand viper and stab the knife up into the Alien's side in a swing that turns into a sharp jab at the end. The impact is jarring and the creature gives an inhuman howl in what I can only hope is pain. I take the revolver up and level it before the creature has a chance to retaliate, switching to hard bullet instead of the plasma projectile it used for the first shot, and dig my blood-slick forefinger into the trigger, hard.

Crack.

The reinforced titanium bullet goes right into the Alien's eye. Pieces of brain—if the spongy black matter is such—splatter the hill behind it. Black blood and puss drips down onto my cracked visor as I summon the last of my strength to roll myself out of the way of the falling carcass and stand on shaky legs with half a desperately insane laugh on my lips. If they don't advance me for this I don't know what will convince them.

"Sentinel Rim." My operator says the moment I'm upright. "You are required to return to base immediately."

The gall! "Why didn't you warn me of that Alien?"

"You are injured. We cannot use an incapacitated soldier on the battlefield."

"You didn't warn me."

"There was a solar interference." My operator's voice is impassive as always.

I wipe blood from the side of my face and prod the gash in my temples. It doesn't seem deep, but half an inch to the left and the Alien would have done to me what I did to it. I look down at my hand. There's a hole in my glove where I singed my fingertips before the fight.

I look back to the center of the shade: a metallic glint meets my eye half-covered by dirt. I leave the alien carcass where it is – the sweepers will remove it later and walk to the iridescent spot. My stomach cramps as I brush debris off it with my boot. I don't want to risk crouching as long as I don't know if I'll be able to get back up.

"Are you listening to me, Miss Rim?"

I don't respond. My efforts reveal a hand-sized disk that looks like a plasma mine. The thought makes me shiver slightly. But if it were a plasma mine, pieces of me would already be dripping down the slope of the hill. There's a familiar symbol etched into the metal: a single star on stripes.

"Return to the Wall immediately."

I shift my gaze to the empty horizon. My operator never was really good at making me follow orders.

"They got away." I can't even see the Alien's outlines any more.

"Do you want your privileges cut?" Though he hasn't raised his voice I can tell he's annoyed. Let him be. He almost got me killed. Unfortunately we've worked together long enough that he knows just which buttons to push. "Insubordination will have you out of the scouting missions sooner than you can think," he says, "and then there won't be an advancement for either of us."

I kick at the sand and regret it immediately when pain shoots through my stomach. It's not fair the operators have so much control over us. They never risk their lives. They don't know what it's like to face an Alien in battle, where there's only your weapons and your wits to help you survive. They don't know the exhaustion of tracking down the enemy in the desert at 60° C in the shade. Most of their days are spent in an air-ventilated room somewhere atop the Wall and I doubt mine's ever been anywhere near the elevators.

And yet they're the ones who get to make the decisions on the battlefield.

"Miss Rim." Impatience tints his words.

I'm out of options and the kick's made my stomach churn painfully. "Understood."

"Then return to base immediately."

I clip my revolver back into its holster and start back the way I've come. It takes longer with the injury and by the time I'm back at the Ruins the sun already starts to set. Long shadows warp the air among steel and masonry and I make sure to take cover where I can among the crumbled houses and rusty machinery.

I'm about to head out to the sentry-forest when a flicker of movement down the road catches my eye. My hand jumps to the revolver as I whirl around. Nothing to be seen at first, then my gaze falls upon the man standing in the run-down entrance of a house in the distance to my right. The man's wearing a debris-brown robe that allows him to all but melt with the environment, its hood draped over his head, a rope slung around his narrow waist to keep it together.

I snort. My hands slides from the revolver and I begin to jog out into the open.

There are those people who believe the Aliens are a kind of supernatural harbinger sent by God. These Cultists refuse to live within America's steel dome and the protection if provides, preferring to take their chances in the Ruins to be close to their saviours even when it gets most of them killed within a month.

I cast a look over my shoulder but the Cultist has vanished. In front of me rises the sentry-forest, behind it the Wall with its elevator tubes, and beyond that I spy the steel dome of America, its solar panels gleaming like the scales of snakes. I wonder when the Cult will learn that, though the Aliens came from the sky, they're nothing God-sent.

#

Back inside the elevator bay I strip out of my exosuit. The black skinsuit I wear underneath is full of sand. Itchy grains trickle down my back and shoulders as I remove the broken visor and even more debris spools out of my sweat-matted hair when I shake it out. Two more sentinels exit the elevators to my either sides and join the other soldiers headed toward the central staircase. Three attendants in grey suits wait to take my equipment and weapons belt for safety reasons: an accidental rail discharge might damage the steel]; a hard bullet might ricochet and hit somebody.

I can't help thinking it's a stupid rule. What if we're attacked? What if the Aliens found a way inside the Wall – or the city – and came upon us unaware?

Accidents aren't the only reason we're required to submit our weapons when we're off duty. What if a soldier got it into his head the Council isn't such a good government after all? Violence and bloodshed weren't such a distant idea in the beginnings of the Council even though they were quelled as quickly as they arose.

All the thinking is starting to give me a headache and I desist. The Council knows what they're doing – otherwise they wouldn't still be in charge almost two decades later.

Just off the elevator bay the corridor leads off to the central staircase on the left. To the right is the med bay and its adjoining facilities and wards. This is where I head after I've been stripped of next to everything I own to get my wounds checked out. The slash across my temples has stopped bleeding by now and my stomach aches only when I breathe too deeply, but unless I'm in top shape I'll spend the next days sitting idly on the Wall.

A line of medics in white-blue uniforms stands to attention at the entrance to the med bay. One of them detaches himself and joins my side with a hasty gait. The name tag on his uniform jacket unhelpfully proclaims: MEDIC. Under the neck of his uniform pokes out the collar of a knitted sweater.

"Sentinel Dalta Rim?" Hiseyes travel across the blood smears on my forehead and a slim-fingered hand shoots up to straighten his already painfully even glasses

I nod.

"I was informed you were injured during the mission?" Not really a question. "Please follow me."

I wonder what sort of accent his is – sounds European. Northern? I guess.

"I think there might be something wrong with my stomach."

"Your abdomen."

"I'm sorry?"

MEDIC winces]. "Never mind. Please..."

He opens the door to a ward with a touch of his palm on the lock and steps aside to let me in first. I catch a hint of pink on his ears and the faint smell of antiseptic soap as I pass him and take a moment to examine him more closely. He seems to be at most a year older than I. His hair is tightly curled and the shifting creamy blond-brown colour of sand. His skin carries the unhealthy pallor that tells me he hasn't been out in the sun once in the past few months? Years? Perhaps never, if he was born post-Invasion.

The door closes with a snap and we're alone in the small world of the ward. There's a stainless steel bed topped by a white sheet beside the right wall, the left is inset with a dormant holo terminal and a line of cupboards lit by neon lights and filled with medical instruments I don't know the names of. Below those a workspace littered with needles and bottles and what not expands to a portable regeneration unit on the other side of the ward. There are no windows.

MEDIC indicates the bed. I sit. MEDIC pulls on gloves and leans over me as he examines my forehead by the neon lights.

"That looks quite shallow..." he mumbles as he dabs at the wound with a cotton swab. "I might have to suture it nonetheless."

He dabs some more and then pulls away. I breathe again.

"Your abdomen and... was your carpal bone fractured as well?"

"I'm sorry?" My voice is a bit too tight.

"Your wrist." His expression twists as if with sudden pain.

"Most of the damage was done to my arm and stomach."

MEDIC takes my hand. The warmth that comes with his touch is surprising but pleasant. I'm not used to it. Most of the medics get so little exercise their bodies are as cold as their grey eyes: cold as the surrounding steel. "My apologies..." he says absently as he turns my arm, and I don't feel like asking what for. "However did you get into such a state?"

My operator neglected to tell me there was something sneaking up on me.

"Got an Alien on my back scouting a hill."

"On your back?"

"Yes."

"Does that happen?" His eyes meet mine and I see that they're not grey at all. They're a mossy emerald.

"Does what happen?"

He frowns. "I thought the operators were supposed to warn you if there was a hazard."

"You tell him that." The words come out more impertinently than I'd have liked. I continue quickly, "There was a solar interference that moment."

MEDIC's frown deepens even as he nods wisely. "And you fought your way out?"

"Obviously." He's still turning my arm randomly and I grit my teeth against the onslaught of pain. Does this have anything to do with the injury he's supposed to mend?

"Very well..." His gaze drops onto our hands at the tightness in my voice. "Oh. I apologize." He lets go of my wrist and turns to wheel the regeneration unit to the bed. "This won't take very long. Put your arm in the gap here... yes... that's it."

I cringe as the machine's metal ring shuts around my arm above the wrist and hums into action. Though this isn't the first time I'm still somewhat horrified at the thought of sticking my limbs into a hole and trusting the machine attached to it not to clip it off if it couldn't mend it.

MEDIC sits on a stool opposite of me and stares at his slender intertwined fingers and bony knuckles in deep concentration. I wonder if the sentry-forest was as green as his eyes before the increase in solar activity and whether he bites his lips when he's anxious. They're chapped.

The machine drones on. When its done the clamp springs open by itself and there's not a hint of the gash left. My hand slides out of the tunnel, tingling slightly as it finishes healing.

"Now for your abdomen... if you could – strip up to your chest?" MEDIC ignores the hint of pink that creeps back onto his ears and gestures for me to lie down on the bed. "I have to check if you have any internal injures or if there's anything broken..."

I zip my skinsuit open from my hips to chest and stretch out on the white sheet while he rolls up his crisp sleeves with much more precision that necessary. He's peculiar, and what interests me most is the frown that still furrows his forehead like that of a man three times his age.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" I ask.

"Like what?" My question seems to surprise him and he halts with one sleeve halfway to the elbow.

"You look like my op with that frown." I try to sound unconcerned.

"I am sorry..."

"You should be. He's terrible."

That almost makes him smile if the twitching of his lips is anything to go by.

"I really am – I was merely thinking..." He breaks off and rolls the stool closer to the bed. His sleeves are still uneven.

"Yes?" I prompt.

"Just about what you've said before – about the interference you mentioned." I raise an eyebrow and will him to get on with it. "It's just that I can't recall there being an interference today."

Now it's my turn to frown.

"Maybe it didn't impact the Wall," I say, even as reason tells me this can't be the case. Though we have the technology to interrupt magnetic currencies, it would be much too expensive – never mind impossible in the current state of the world – to shield the whole of the Wall from interference.

"Perhaps." His gaze drops to my exposed midriff. "You didn't notice anything unusual out there today, did you?"

"Like what?"

"Ah... never mind..." He gives me an apologetic half-smile as his hands dip onto my stomach, and I brace myself for the cold that never comes.

Warm slim fingers brush my bare skin and travel upward to the bottom of my chest. MEDIC pushes the heel of his palms into soft spots only he knows and kneads into it. My throat tightens to stifle a gasp of surprise even though I knew what was coming and I twitch involuntarily.

MEDIC's eyes find mine. "Does that hurt?"

"Just sudden."

There's that almost-smile again as he nods and continues to palpate my stomach. I watch his hands and wonder why they aren't as cold as those of the other medics and what makes him so much more human and why his forehead stays wrinkled. And why I have to blush right now even though I know he's just doing his job.

"Well it looks good," MEDIC says after some minutes have passed, and the pressure of his hands leaves my stomach. "I do not believe anything is damaged, but perhaps we should –"

"No," I say. This has gone on long enough and I'm flustered despite myself. Nobody with such warm hands has ever touched me like that. Nobody has ever touched me like that period. "I'm fine. I don't even feel it any more."

"There could still be damage to the –"

"I'm okay." I don't care for more medical jargon today. I zip up the skinsuit as quickly as my fumbling fingers allow. "I'm fine if you'll just put that in your report so I can get back to work."

"You might develop some bruises overnight. Are you sure you don't want –"

"Yes. Yes, I'm sure." At least with the suit zipped up I don't feel so naked.

"Very well..." MEDIC switches on the holo terminal on the opposite wall with a tap of his finger then turns back to me with a serious expression as if he's made up his mind. His voice is quiet enough I have to lean forward to catch his words when he speaks. "You are quite sure nothing unusual occurred today?"

"No?" I say.

"Are you sure?" His eyes meet mine once again and the sobriety of his gaze unsettles me.

What is he getting at? Does he think I had a sun stroke or otherwise need assistance? Mental health checks are not unusual after an emotionally charging mission.

MEDIC seems to take my confusion for reluctance. He straightens his spectacles and sits back down on the stool. "Anything at all? Anything – different?"

I try to consider what happened out in the desert. The only thing that comes to mind is the peculiar behaviour of the Aliens on top of that hill. They don't normally behave that way. They don't converse and they don't think like we do. They will fight in packs if the circumstances allow, yes, but they lack ability to plan or coordinate and their assaults.

I disregard the thought. My operator already knows about that.

My operator.

Could he have let that Alien sneak up on me on purpose? The thought is ridiculous. He doesn't hate me that much. I hope.

MEDIC is still gazing expectantly at me over the top of his glasses, and I'm about to say I can't think of anything when I remember the metal disk half-hidden among the sand.

"There was a sort of disk atop the hill. Looked a bit like a plasma mine and burnt me when I touched it but –" I let the thought trail off. I'm guessing he's seen enough plasma-mine-victims in his career to not need the visual.

"That's it." MEDIC's expression is suddenly tight. He yanks my hands toward him and examines my burnt fingertips.

"That's what?" I resist the urge to draw back my hand because he has the alarmed look that can't mean anything good from a doctor.

"It must be." MEDIC stares at my skin and the injury glares back angry red. His gaze jumps up and his too-warm fingers curl around mine, curl them inward to a fist, as if hiding a secret. "You can't tell anybody about this."

"I'm sorry?" I don't know if my disbelief is more panic or mirth. MEDIC's behaviour is starting to worry me.

"I mean it. You can't tell anybody about the disk or what you've seen." He pulls me over to the regeneration unit and places my hand into the tube with practised movements.

My mind ignites with sudden fear. Is he insane? But he couldn't be if they made him a medic? Did he have a sun stroke? The pallor of his skin says he couldn't have been out in the sun long enough for that to happen.

"What's wrong with you?" I try to wrench my hand back out but he's already started the machine and the ring's snapped shut.

"No, no, no," MEDIC hisses under his breath. "Nobody can know about that burn and the disk. Do you understand?"

He's definitely insane.

There's no way to dodge as he comes closer and brings his mouth to my ear, and a shudder runs down my back that's nothing to do with the cold draft of the ventilation system overhead. I yank again on my hand. I'm unarmed and he's trapped me and he's mad.

And he's not finished.

He leans – if possible – even closer. His breath ghosts across my neck. "Do not tell anybody about this, do you understand? Don't tell your operator or the Council or – don't tell your best friend. Not about the Aliens or the disk or –" He waves a hand. "Anything."

I'm frozen despite myself. I want to tell him that I have no secrets before the Council and that the Council knows best. But then I remember my mother and that I couldn't tell them anything even if I wanted. The Council isn't exactly publicly available.

MEDIC grabs my shoulders. "Do you understand? You have to pretend you did not see anything unusual when they come."

I try to step back but my wrist is still stuck. I should call for help.

I don't.

"Come? What do you mean 'when they come'?"

MEDIC looks over his shoulder at the holo terminal as if expecting to find somebody watching. "Your operator knows at least some of what you've seen and he'll have reported that." He takes a moment to straighten his glasses. "And that means there will be an investigation."

"I haven't done anything wrong."

"Of course you haven't." His tone is so matter-of-fact it sets me on edge.

"Then why –"

The regeneration unit bleeps its completion.

"You'll see." His expression has returned to neutral. He switches off the machine.

I bare my teeth in a snarl. I won't be afraid of a medic. I could overpower him with my hands tied. If I wanted.

"That's insane! You're insane."

That actually makes him smile a little sadly. "I am not wrong." He straightens himself and his glasses. "Once they have proven my mental status sound, or you decide you are willing to learn more... come and find me."

His smile turns almost shy.

"Just ask for Owen Early."