“A Thankless Job” – short fiction

My nipples ache even though I’ve been off the marble for a year. But actually, between cryosleep and FTL travel, it’s been more like four months.

I lay in my rack and rub my boobs to try to alleviate the soreness but my atmosuit makes that difficult. I wish I could take the stupid thing off, really get in there and apply some bag balm, use a pump to get rid of the milk. But it’ll be a while before I can fuck off back to Central. Even then, the pumps on the station aren’t the greatest. The eggheads have perfected traveling through the black but lactation in the black? Forget it.

So I rub them until rivulets of milk pulse out of my nipples, soak the cups of my bra. The soreness abates a little as the visor of my helmet flashes red. The HUD announces, REPORT TO FOB DELTA FOR SITREP AND MISSION BRIEFING.

I groan, peer over at Teller in his rack. I key the mic and hear him snoring lightly.

Lucky bastard.

 

An ever-shifting mass of blobs fills the briefing room at FOB Delta. It’s right in front of me, and when I reach out to touch one of the blobs, everything shifts and I’m standing on a berm overlooking a valley, the blobs smack-dab in the middle of it.

The Major says, This will be your staging area, Sergeant. She circles the mass of blobs with a finger and a big, red O appears around it. She says, Our intelligence confirms that this is the main hive. She says, Take this out, we should be good to go.

I say, This is the closest we can get, ma’am?

The Major’s helmet bobs forward. Unfortunately, she says.

I salute her. Cock ‘em and lock ‘em, Major, I say.

She returns the salute. Cock ‘em and lock ‘em, Sergeant Pennski.

The Major taps her wristscreen with a gloved hand. The hologram dissipates like smoke in a stiff wind.

 

I’m trying to give Teller our orders but he won’t let me. He’s too busy prattling on and on about his wife and kids.

He got a vid from his family while I met with the Major, and he’s catching me up on their comings and goings.

The other grunts call us Penn and Teller, after those goofy magicians from way back in the day. The ones from the old school vids that don’t make you feel like you’re in the room with them. Penn and Teller – we show up, ta-da!, you’re dead.

Only difference is my Teller doesn’t shut the fuck up.

Teller, I say.

He tells me his one kid scored a goal in soccer, the other one aced a math test.

Teller, I say. Shut up a minute.

Sorry, Sarge, he says.

Got our orders, I say. I transmit them to Teller. His eyes track back and forth beneath his helmet’s visor as he reads the briefing, silently mouthing the words.

He says, So that’s it, huh? He says, We get rid of this hive, we go home?

Seems so, I say.

Teller grabs his rifle from the rack on the wall, hefts it. He says, Let’s fuck shit up.

 

Teller and I are on the rocky outcropping above the main hive, lying on our stomachs. Our atmosuits go chameleon, soak up sand and grit from the ground. We’re just another couple of rocks on an alien world.

Looking down at the valley, we see hundreds of blobs slip-sliding over one another, a slick, glossy amoeba. I feel like I’m on a microscope slide. Or a petri dish.

Fuckin’ far, Sarge, Teller says. We can’t get any closer?

I set my rifle’s bipod, lean into the stock. I say, We could but I wanted a challenge.

Teller’s silent.

C’mon, Teller, I say. Use your goddamn head. We’d be right next to them if we could.

Teller arranges the magic wand on its tripod, taps his wristscreen to sync it with his helmet.

I do the same with my rifle. Now I see what it sees.

I say, Range?

Four point seven kliks, he says.

I say, Wind speed?

Point two kph, he says.

I check my rifle’s readings. Confirmed, I say. Ready to rock.

My tits twinge. Just barely but they do. I grunt, pull the trigger.

The hive explodes. But not before Teller’s head does.

 

Teller had a saying: “You better be happy as fuck to go to war.” His voice echoes in my head as I sit in the debriefing room at FOB Delta.

The Major is telling me it wasn’t my fault, there was nothing I could do. She tries to keep elation out of her voice as she tells me that I ended the war, tries to make Teller’s death sound like a somber event that shouldn’t be overshadowed by the end of the war. She isn’t terribly convincing.

The blobs are a telepathic, psychokinetic hive mind. An especially goddamn powerful one. They can smell fear a mile away. Literally. Fear, irritation, anger. Any negative emotion, they feel it and they react. The more of them there are, the stronger their ability, the greater their range. Hence Teller’s saying.

The Major puts a hand on my shoulder, says I’ll probably get a medal. She says she’ll put the recommendation in herself, have the General sign off on it.

That soreness in my breasts, that was irritating for a second. No, a split second. A split second and that was all it took. Why they killed Teller and not me I’ll never know.

The Major gives my shoulder a squeeze, reassures my actions in the field. She says, You did good, Viv. She says, The human race owes you. She says, I owe you.

I nod, give her a thumbs-up.

The Major tells me that I’m to go back to my cube and get my shit wired, that I’m to be on the first transport back to Central.

In my head, Teller says, Bet you’re happy as fuck now, Sarge.

Even in my head he can’t shut the fuck up.

 

I’m naked from the waist up, and a grunt named Williams is latched onto my right nipple, the hairs of his mustache tickling my areola. He suckles and moans, reaches around and grabs my ass.

I told you, Williams, I say. Tits only.

He removes his hand, continues suckling, starts massaging his dick through his pants.

Once I got back to Central, I stripped off my atmosuit, made a beeline for a lactation suite. The pump wasn’t getting the job done so I pinged Williams, knew he’d help me out. That freak.

Then again, I’m letting him do it, so who’s the freak?

We waited until everybody else went to chow, met up in the station barracks. The cold metal of my bunk presses against my shoulder blades as I stand against it, my hands on my hips.

Williams spends some time on the right one, switches to the left.

I look down and Teller’s lips encase my left nipple, bits of brain like chewed raspberries leaking out of his eyes. He nibbles it, says, Now I’m happy as fuck, Sarge.

Williams peeks up at me. He says, Something wrong?

I grind the heels of my hands in my eyes. No, I say. Just keep going.

 

Williams follows me around like a puppy, offers to help me get into my hospital gown. It’s SOP to put on a gown before getting into a cryotube.

We’re onboard the Sentinel, one of the troop transports headed back to the marble. Williams and I are in the slumber bay, rows of cryotubes lined up like syringes.

I put up a hand. I say, Nah, I got it. I manage a tight-lipped grin, say, Thanks though.

I strip off my utilities, stow them with the rest of my gear in a compartment at the foot of the tube. I catch Williams staring at my boobs, licking his lips. I meet his eyes and he looks away.

I put on the gown and wince as the fabric rubs against my chafed nipples. Found out Williams is a bit of a biter.

Williams says, So. He says, When we get back.

I say, When we get back what?

He gives me a look like we’re playing Pictionary, like I should know the answer. And actually, I do.

Listen, I say. That was a one-time thing.

He looks at his feet, shifts from one to the other, a puppy who’s just pissed on the rug and knows it. He says, Well, if you change your mind.

I tell him I got it, I know where to find him if I need him.

He nods, gets into the cryotube next to mine.

I slide into my own, sink into the thick pads, massage my nipples through my gown.

Teller lays the bloody stump of his neck on my shoulder. His disembodied voice says, Williams has some mommy issues, huh? He tweaks my nipple, says, Looks like he found Mommy’s teats.

Fuck off, Teller, I mumble.

The cryotube’s needle tunnels into my spine. I conk out.

 

I expect Williams to be standing there when I climb out of my cryotube, expect him to have slippers in one hand, a bathrobe in the other.

But he isn’t, he doesn’t.

Instead, the Major is posted beside my tube, a matte black box in her hands. She’s wearing a crisp service uniform, has her auburn hair pinned up in the back.

She holds out the box, says, You sure about this?

I hold her gaze.

She nods. I thought as much, she says.

I take the box from her.

Teller’s headless body is behind the Major, thrusts its crotch against her ass.

He says, Think that box would weigh more if I still had my head?

The Major says, Sergeant? She says, Viv? She says, You okay?

I blink, say, Good to go, ma’am. I put the box in the crook of one arm, salute her with the other.

Behind the Major, Teller flips me the bird.

 

Back on the marble, nobody is there to meet me when I debark the Sentinel. I push through throngs of families and friends greeting grunts with open arms, wide smiles, eyes full of tears.

Teller pats a little boy on the head. He says, No family for you, huh, Sarge? He says, Wanna tell everybody why?

I ignore him, catch a tram back to base. From there I get my car, go to my house.

Teller takes a look around when we get inside. Fuckin’ Susie the Happy Homemaker up in here, he says. You sure this is your place?

He scans the photos that are scattered on the kitchen counter. They’re flanked by a pizza box and a bottle of Merlot, both empty. My last meal before I was deployed.

Huh, he says. Guess you do have a family. A husband and a baby boy by the looks of it. He looks at me, says, But where are they now?

I say, SHUT! UP!

I slap myself across the face. Teller disappears.

I open the fridge, grab a bottle of Chardonnay, open it. I take the bottle and my gear to my bedroom. I strip down, take a scalding hot shower while I gulp down the cold wine.

Afterward I wrap a towel around myself, dig through my gear to find my PCD. I ping Williams, ask him if he’s around. I say, I’m here if you want me.

Williams asks where I am. I give him my address.

 

Williams doesn’t touch my boobs. Not once. Doesn’t even ask.

We’re sprawled on the kitchen floor. That’s how far he got before I jumped on him.

He could’ve done whatever he wanted to me, could’ve been as freaky as he wanted but he didn’t, he wasn’t. It was some of the most normal, loving sex I’ve ever had. Surprising.

Williams is asleep, his chest slowly bobbing up and down with each small, even breath. My head rests on his shoulder. I run my hand through his ink-black chest hair, wonder what he’s dreaming about, hope it’s not a nightmare.

I get up, grab a blanket off the couch, drape it over Williams. I retrieve the nearly empty bottle of Chardonnay, polish it off. I take a bottle of Cab Sauv from the rack, uncork it. I take a long pull, see Teller kneeling next to Williams.

He says, Poor Williams. Teller peers up at me, says, You know you’re only using him to delay the inevitable, right? He says, There’s a certain black box that needs your attention, Sarge.

I upend the bottle, chug the rest, throw the empty at Teller. It smashes against the wall, bits of green glass sprinkling the floor. Williams opens his eyes, sits up. He looks at my boobs, but for only a second.

I say, I need to go. I pause, say, You can stay here ‘til I get back. If you want.

Teller reappears, scratches his head, says, Definitely didn’t see that coming.

 

I’m spitting out pieces of Teller, trying not to swallow.

Wanda, Teller’s wife, is standing in front of me, her arms crossed. The black box the Major gave me is on the ground, half open, the rest of Teller’s ashes spilling out.

We’re on the front porch of Teller’s house, a robin’s egg-blue rancher nestled in the ‘burbs. I gave Wanda the bad news and handed over the box. She stared at it, stroked it like a beloved pet that was just put to sleep. Then she threw it at me.

Teller is in his dress uniform like I am. Tears of blood are leaking out of his eyes and running down his cheeks.

He crinkles his nose, sniffs. He says, Goddamn am I gonna miss her. He says, Most beautiful woman I ever seen.

Wanda’s eyes are puffy, her hair knotted in places. Stains mottle the front of her sweatshirt. It looks two sizes too big. I assume it’s one of Teller’s.

Teller says, You pissed her off, Sarge. He says, This wouldn’t be the case if you’d looked out for me in the first place. He says, I didn’t mean to rhyme just then. He says, Ha ha.

I pick a flake of ash off my lip, clear my throat, say, You have every right to be angry, ma’am. I say, There isn’t much else to say except that I’m sorry. I say, I know that doesn’t really help though.

Wanda scoffs, shakes her head. She says, You think what you did matters?

I say, I was there, ma’am. I say, With your husband. I say, We saved the world. I say, Your husband saved the world.

She waves her hand at me, says, Oh bullshit. Bill always said it was stupid to try to fight those. She waves her hand again, says, Whatever the hell those things are. She says, He said that fighting them was like fighting cockroaches. There’ll always be more. She picks up the box of Teller, wipes her eyes with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. She says, You can’t fight what isn’t afraid for its life.

Teller kisses his wife’s cheek. He turns to me, says, No offense, but I’m glad it’s you and not me. He says, Great gal. But such a bitch sometimes.

 

I’m standing in the checkout line at the liquor store, a bottle of wine in each hand and a bottle under each arm.

I pile them on the counter, debate whether I should go back and get a couple more.

After the meeting with Wanda, I needed a drink.

Teller props his elbow on the shoulder of the old guy manning the register. He says, Can’t blame ya, Sarge. He says, She drove me to drink a few times, too.

The old man’s name tag says HARV.

Harv eyeballs the chevrons on the arm of my uniform, says, Sergeant, huh? He says, Must be pretty proud of yourself. He cocks an eyebrow, swings his head right and left. He says, You hear that?

I look around. There’s nobody else in the store.

I shake my head.

He shrugs. Anyway, he says. Big hero, winning the war for us marble dwellers. He scans and bags the wine, says, Waste of time and money, you ask me.

Teller wraps his hands around Harv’s neck, says, I’ll hold him. He gestures to the bottles in the bag, says, You break one of those over his dumb fucking head. He says, Nobody’ll blame you.

Beads of sweat pop out on Harv’s forehead. He works a finger into the collar of his yellowed button-down. He swipes a sleeve across his forehead, stares at the register.

He says, Um. He digs a finger into his ear, wiggles it. He says, How you wanna pay?

I hold up my PCD. He nods, and I swipe it across a panel embedded in the counter.

I collect the bag, the bottles clinking together as I carry it out of the store.

I’m just out the door when I hear a crash from behind me. I turn and look through the front window, see Harv throwing bottles against the floor, the walls. He yells and kicks over a display of high-end tequila.

Teller presses his face against the glass, squints at Harv inside. He says, I don’t know, Sarge. He says, Think our friends are fucking with us again?

I shrug, go to my car. I get in, set it to autodrive, twist the cap off one of the bottles, guzzle a quarter of it.

 

I ask Williams what’s up with the breast milk thing, why he likes that.

He says, It’s like being a child molester.

I raise an eyebrow.

He waves his hand, shakes his head. He says, No no, I didn’t mean it like that. He says, You know when a child molester says, “Oh, it’s a sickness”? He says, My thing, it’s like that. He says, I don’t want to like it but I do.

I nod, run my fingers through his damp hair.

He was dozing on the couch when I got home, and I attacked him again. My breasts were sore and engorged so I told Williams to do his thing while we fucked. He hesitated but obliged.

Hate to admit this but I kind of liked it. Kind of a lot.

Teller stood over us, mimed jerking off. He said, Guess you can’t judge the guy anymore, huh, Sarge?

Afterward we lounge on the couch, naked and sweaty. I hold Williams’s hand, kiss the back of it.

I say, We did the right thing, right? I say, With the blobs?

Fuck the blobs, Williams says.

I say, Yeah, but. I tell him about Wanda’s diatribe, about Harv.

He massages my forehead, says, Were they there?

No, I say.

Then what the fuck do they know, he says.

He tenses up, relaxes, tenses up. Gotta go to the bathroom, he says.

I release my grip on him. He gets up, wobbles to the bathroom.

Teller lays next to me on the couch. His gray, naked body shifts against me like loose chicken parts in a sack of water. He says, You in love, Sarge? He kisses my boob, leaves a bloody lip print. Way you were looking at him just now, he says. Way you were playing with his hair and shit? Looked like love to me.

After a bit, Williams stomps back into the room. I catch a wink of silver seconds before he lunges at me with a kitchen knife.

Makes me think of Hal.

 

Hal pleads with me, begs me to breastfeed Jordan. Says it’s healthier, says it strengthens the mother/child bond.

I explain that he’s not wrong, that I just don’t want to do it. Some women are okay with it, actually want to do it. I’m not one of them.

But Jordan could care less whether I like it or not.

We try to give him a bottle but the kid cries and cries when we do. One night, too exhausted to protest, I let Jordan have a go at my boob. He latches right on and quiets down immediately. Just my luck.

Hal still tries to give him a bottle every now and again, just to see if he can, just so I can get a little more sleep. Never works. So I get up, feed Jordan.

Hal doesn’t stay in bed when I feed Jordan though. He gets up with me, says he has trouble sleeping.

I ask him why. He shrugs, says he doesn’t know, thinks maybe his schedule is just thrown off.

Hal stops drinking orange juice. He has a glass every day but then one morning, just like that, he’s done. Says something about it being too acidic. It’s like when I was pregnant – I slept fitfully, found banana bread repulsive even though I’d loved it before I got pregnant. Only Hal isn’t a pregnant woman.

One night Jordan cries to be fed. Hal pats my hand, says he’ll try a bottle. I fall back asleep as he pads down to the kitchen.

I wake up when Jordan stops crying. I get up, scamper down the hall to Jordan’s room, eager to see what miracle Hal has worked to get Jordan to accept a bottle.

Hal’s standing over Jordan’s crib, a milky white bottle in one hand, a bloody paring knife in the other.

I go to the crib and peek over the rails. There’s little Jordan, my baby boy, his throat cut, his blood soaking into the bedding.

I feel a jolt of pain, actual physical pain. It’s Hal, drawing the blade of the knife across my arm. He does it slowly, staring at my arm. He doesn’t blink, barely breathes.

I look at him, tears trickling down my cheeks, and he draws his arm back, prepares to stab me. I run.

I go to my bedroom closet, grab my pistol from the top shelf. I turn around and there’s Hal, knife in hand, blood dripping from the blade and onto the carpet. I raise the weapon, fire two shots into Hal’s head.

The two most important people in my life are dead, but it’s not Hal’s fault. Although I don’t know that at first.

I slump down in my closet, grip my bleeding arm, curse Hal through my tears.

 

Williams swings the knife downward. Same knife that Hal used. I roll off the couch as the blade sinks into Teller.

Teller looks at the hilt sticking out of his grey chest. He says, You kept the murder weapon. He says, Kinda weird, no?

I take the stairs two at a time, go to my bedroom closet, get my backup piece. Again. Shoot a person I care about. Again.

Teller nudges Williams’s leaking body with his foot, says, Same shit, different day, huh, Sarge?

I nod, notice my breasts throbbing from my sprint up the steps. I massage them with one hand, hold the pistol with the other.

There’s a crash outside, a scream, an explosion. These remind me of Hal, too. The same things happened after I killed him.

The blobs started the war but we didn’t know it. We didn’t know it because they made us attack ourselves. They got into the heads of something like five percent of Earth’s male population, made them attack us. Nobody knows why they targeted men. Nobody knows why their telepathy affected each man differently.

Once the eggheads figured out the blobs were behind it, the military tooled up, retaliated. Bet your ass I was in the first wave.

Teller stands by the window, crosses his arms. He says, Guess the blobs are kinda pissed we blew up their pals. He turns to me, says, Wanda was right. He turns back to the window, says, My death meant a whole lotta nothin’.

On the nightstand, my PCD buzzes. I pick it up, and a priority message flashes on the screen in red: ATTENTION – REPORT IMMEDIATELY TO BASE FOR SITREP AND REDEPLOYMENT.

Teller says, Here we go again, huh, Sarge?

I nod, say, Time to fuck shit up.

He gestures to the window, the world beyond it, says, Think they’ll appreciate it this time?

I say, Do they ever?

Teller shakes his head no, says, It’s a thankless job.

I say, But somebody’s gotta do it.

At that, Teller cackles, vanishes.

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