I miss my Angel, Captain John Piper, more than I could possibly say, and if it weren’t for him, there wouldn’t be a part of me left to still enjoy this world, however diluted it is for me now. But I made the choice, and for one reason only.
Now, I’m with Major Peck, aka – Major Peckerhead.
He’s not interested in chitchat like Piper and I were – not that I have any desire whatsoever to share one single thought with him. He stinks of a cloying cheap aftershave too – something like horseshit and moldy leather, and in my boredom, I’ve named it Eau De Scumbag, and there’s no grace in his movements, which shames me to be with him. He needs me, just in case, and that’s the only reason I’m with him. If there’s trouble, he knows he’s safe.
Five short months with Piper. At first, he seemed to just want to make me laugh – and he did – sometimes we’d have to stop so I could sit on a rock and get my breath back. And then, one day, he asked me if I’d ever loved – it came out of the blue and surprised us both – it’s not the sort of chat that’s encouraged. The mission’s the thing – keep it professional, business-like. And I was worried that he’d felt he’d crossed the line, and embarrassed himself, so quickly, I answered, and it was a simple maybe. But he said that wasn’t an option – there was never a maybe, only a yes or a no, and that my answer meant that I had in fact never loved. And when I look back at that conversation, I realise that’s when I began to fall in love for the first time.
I remember waking up every morning terrified, but then I was partnered with him, and couldn’t wait to get out there into that bleak dangerous landscape. He was so smart and worldly – filled my days with painted images of faraway cities and unbelievable tales of mystery and peril. Sometimes he’d stop in mid-sentence and I’d crash back down to earth. But he’d detected something and paused to scan, using his spectacular senses, and I felt safer with him than I did back in the reinforced bunker.
Because of this trust in him, it was always his decision as to whether we run or fight. He’d weigh things up – rapidly – I could practically feel him thinking through the neural web – wind direction, the terrain and its cover, the distance to that cover, the position of the sun, and thus our shadow. And ourselves – battery reserves, available hydraulic power, how long we could sprint before depletion – seemingly everything.
He could perform all these tasks, and then, when we were safe, he’d slip back into joking and storytelling – cool as a cucumber. I could replay these stories while laying in my cot at night, and they were as vivid as real life – as any memory of my life, and sometimes I wondered whether he was becoming a part of me, or me a part of him, and when he heard my little stories, however mundane, he seemed to be there with me, as if I was simply repeating a shared event.
I don’t know how old he was – he wouldn’t tell me. I thought he was joking at first – but no – and little things like that just made me fall deeper. He had a fragility lying under that warrior skin that often turned me into a little girl.
A quick glint in the distance, on the bluff that overlooks the Crater Lake.
“Analysis, Captain,” demands Major Peckerhead.
“Quartz deposit, or Mica.”
“Detailed spectrum beyond range.”
But that’s a lie. I detect three or four, and likely more behind the cliff, at the water's edge. If he knew that, he’d demand I call for reinforcements, even though I’m quite capable of dealing with that number – like I said – weasel.
“Yes Major, and it’s one of ours, a multi-caliber assault rifle.”
“From last week's raid?”
“I believe so, and one of thirty-two still unaccounted for.”
“Take him out then.”
I make a show of raising the rifle and adjusting parameters – a few impressive whirring sounds and beeps.
“Also out of range,” I say.
Another lie, I can see the color of the little bastard’s eyes – can dispatch him in a split second.
“Full alert then, and keep me updated,” he says, marching toward the
“Yes, My Lord.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Piper and I must have been in a dozen skirmishes, and each time, he managed to juggle protecting me from harm and eliminating the saviours, judging in a split second, priority after priority. When I was with him, I felt like a lethal ballerina – superhuman, and more human than I had ever felt. The crack of the rifles, the buzzing servos, the hissing hydraulics and spent cartridges tumbling through the smoky air pumped so much adrenalin through me I felt positively horny.
In the last few fights, he asked if I minded him using the external speakers, and he’d launch us into battle shouting one-liners at the enemy, confounding me.
And that’s when he told me about Mister Clint – an actor from that now extinct line of entertainment. He said that his favourite film was The Outlaw Josey Wales, and the lines were taken from that film. He could recite them all, and I practised with him, and then he would arrange my limbs, hips – my whole body, so that I could stand just as Mister Clint would have, seconds before he blew all the baddies away.
Major Peck here wouldn’t last thirty seconds without me – he’d take it in the back, because he’d be running away of course. I take a quick peek at his vitals signs and the numbers are getting higher the closer we get to the bluff.
Piper had been married seven times, fathered nine children, had broken more bones than he could remember, traveled extensively throughout the twelve continents, and had only one regret – a woman’s name tattooed on his arse – Mandy – she turned out to be a spy. When I asked if he’d executed her, he wouldn’t say, so I told him that’s actually two regrets. He was silent for a few seconds and then he wouldn’t stop laughing. And then he said, “you’re alright, Cassie.” And if there are three steps to love, that was the second one.
“Are your senses enhanced, Captain?”
They are, and that means smell too, unfortunately for me.
“Yes, Major, and olfactory is picking up the scent of horse manure and rotting leather.”
“Okay, well that’s unusual.”
“Yes, Major, but I wouldn’t make a perfume out of it.”
“Captain, can you please keep on point. I’m finding you quite erratic. Were you checked before we came out today?”
“We all are Major.”
“Well, nevertheless, run diagnostics, and double time, we’re getting close.”
Like some kind of besotted schoolgirl, I began wearing perfume from a collection of seven little glass bottles I’d found in a ruin, quickly sneaking them into my waist belt. I say secretly, but I’m sure Piper noticed – he never missed a thing. The first time I shook one, the perished plastic insert flew out and dowsed my neck with the bloody stuff, and so I raced around my little room flapping my hands at it.
“Chanel Number Five, I believe,” Piper said as we marched out into the desert that day.
“A highly complex blend of aldehydes and florals - including rose, ylang-ylang, jasmine, lily of the valley and iris - layered over a warm, woody base of vetiver, sandalwood, vanilla, amber, and patchouli.”
I felt myself color up, and he would have detected that through biometrics.
“That’s a cheap trick – encyclopedia?” I asked.
“Correct, although I do recognize it, having noticed it on a few women in my life. But on you, with your own particular scent, the amber seems prevalent, and therefore the perfume more sophisticated.”
“However, those other women wouldn’t have been able to afford to wear so much of it every day.”
From then on, I was careful to just a dab on just a few drops of the stuff, and every day a different one – testing him – he got them all. So it became one for every day of the week – Moschino on Mondays, Nina Ricci on Tuesdays, Prada on Wednesdays, Estee Lauder on Thursday, Dior on Fridays, Dolce, and Gabbana on Saturdays, and on Sundays, Tiffany, and Co.
“Captain, how long do diagnostics really take? We’re nearly there.”
“Sorry Major. Hydraulics, coolant, biometrics and weapons systems at one hundred percent, but core program seems to be spiking erratically with a kind of resentment, like too much angostura bitter in a fruit cocktail.”
“Oh, God, just what I need right now – a malfunction.”
“Have you ever had a Queen’s Park Hotel Super Cocktail?”
“On point Captain, and that’s an order.”
“It’s in a one-gallon glass, with no straws, so a waste of money if you’re not strong enough to lift it. The olive is the size of a cricket ball on a cocktail stick that’s actually an arrow. As for the rinky-dink umbrella, well that’s a . . .”
“Tangos ahead – two now, I suggest we sprint to the boulder debris at two o’clock.” And his heart rate increases.
“Do it, and call for back-up.”
It’s nice to have a run, to break the monotony, and I feel like a gazelle today, leaping over the rocky terrain. I employ the mist dampers to keep the dust down, perhaps a little extravagantly. When we reach a hollow in the boulder cover, Peck is overheating, and disorientated by the rapid sprint and the pointless zigzagging path I took to get here.
“Water please, Captain.”
“Are you serious?” I wish he wouldn’t scream suddenly – I turn him down.
“We can re-fill at the lake.”
I receive all sorts of complaints and expletives, but I’m not listening to him anymore, just staring at a particular rock.
“This is where Lieutenant Cassie Sheehan died,” I say.
A short silence from Peck, and then, “Somewhere around here – yes. I know you were partners, a tragedy for sure, but we all know the risks.”
“Not somewhere around here – right here. I radioed for help, just a mile away– we were outnumbered – ambushed – but it never arrived.
“Really, Captain, this is not the time or place, and considering this is our first day together, I’d appreciate it if you could make an effort of trying to impress me. We’ll just wait here for reinforcements, and until then . . . Silence please.”
Ironically, on our way to this exact spot two years ago, on the day that Piper died forever, he described his first death, because I’d asked. He didn’t have much to say about it – all a bit of a fog. Again, ambushed and outnumbered, but low on all supplies and ordnance. The platoon didn’t stand a snowball’s chance and were hacked to pieces. And then, of course, the slow, drug-controlled awakening – realization that his mind was saved, and he was now the first of a few prototypes called Angels – biomechanical suits.
I remember him laughing – they said he’d keep his rank! As if he was lucky he hadn’t been demoted because of his death – as if death wasn’t the lowest rank. And that was the last time either of us ever laughed again.
He was given a choice of course – a severely less sensual life – or oblivion! The same choice he gave me as I lay dying here.
Piper saw the enemy coming and radioed for backup, just a mile away, but it never came, and although confident we could win the day anyway, more appeared on the boulders above us suddenly, a circle of a dozen, glittering, and there was no way out. We took down eight before a lucky throw pierced his/my chest. From then on, he had my dead weight too and operated alone – somehow managing to take down the last four. Finally, we sat back against that boulder right there, in a pool of hydraulic acid and spent cartridges.
I think I remember my last few sentences in that wonderful body I used to have – “What happened?”
“Mica – they used Mica to muddle my scanners – covered themselves in the stuff. They’re learning. I’m so sorry. Hold on, let me . . . Oh, water supply is breached . . . Oh God, I’m so sorry.”
“Can you at least take this lance out of my chest?”
“I’m afraid not, it’s actually stemming the wound. Help should be here by now, where are they?”
But as we sat there with that ridiculously long pole sticking out of my chest, he tells me he’s picked up a dust trail in the distance, but traveling away, and at high-speed – the reinforcement.
“I think I’m dying John.”
“Yes, you are, but give me five minutes . . . five minutes, please, that’s all I ask . . . hold on!”
“What are you doing?”
“Can you feel it?”
“I feel dizzy, can’t think anymore. What are you doing?”
“Oxygen – lots of it, and an adrenaline shot that’ll probably kill you before the lance does.”
“Attempting a transfer.”
“Maybe, but I think we’ve been doing that mutually since we met. What do you feel now?”
“Like I’m losing my mind.”
“Good . . . me too.”
“But where are you going.”
“Wherever I was supposed to go the first time.”
“Stay . . . please.”
“Only room for one here, baby.”
“What will it be like?”
“Well, for me, it was crap until I met you. If you don’t like it, there’s a bunch of electrolyte hoses lying beneath the plating on your sternum. Rip it off and yank them out.”
“I think I have one more mission then.”
“Bye, Cassie . . . I love you.”
The terrible thing is, I don’t remember replying – I hope I did . . . I so hope.
And then I lay there for five hours, sending out an S.O.S on loop, waiting for rescue – funny word though, as we were both technically dead – perhaps collection is better.
I remember keeping the air-con active, as a kind of respect for my body in that terrible heat, and thinking I’d never be able to wear perfume again.
I was confused, which is understandable, being the first-ever successful transfer. But Piper hadn’t managed to get everything unless my life was much shorter than I remember. Childhood had gone completely, along with randomly selected memories, leaving surreal gaps in events. I wish Piper were here, so I could tell him off.
Doesn’t matter. I did have a life, I’m sure.
They dragged me back to base as Angel Piper, and I kept it that way. It took them two weeks to repair me, and then they stowed me in a locker to wait for my next partnership. I could talk to the others in Intranet, but they depressed me with their memories of lost ones. Some nights were like suicide watch in a prison – Angels that knew they’d be forever in mourning. But of course, they couldn’t do it alone and asked for oblivion the very next day. I withdrew, and just preferred re-runs of the best time of my life – with my Angel.
I’ve had three partnerships, and I really can’t complain – they were good soldiers, and I’d protected as well as any other Angel could, but lifespans here are short. And so, I just waited, and one day, today in fact – I got lucky!
“Captain, for God’s sake respond!”
“How can I help today, Sir?”
“How can you help! What are you, a fucking waiter?”
I don’t like him swearing at me like that, so I turn the air conditioner off.
“Actually, funny you should say that Major – it rings a bell – I think I used to serve tables as a teenager.”
“Get it together – where’s back-up?”
“No idea, perhaps they’re sleeping off a heavy lunch.”
“There’s going to be some serious questions asked at the end of today Captain, and one of them might be regarding de-commissioning. I’m actually very tempted to over-ride you and rely on hydraulic assist alone.”
He’s right, I have to focus – today has to end successfully.
“My apologies Major, perhaps I have a few dry circuits.”
“That’s more like it. Now an update please on tangos.”
“Ah, well, we’re in luck, they’ve dispersed – only one remaining. Would Sir like to engage?”
“If you’re sure it’s just one.”
“Just one, and a diddy little one too.”
I pick us up and move like a shadow towards the bottom edge of the bluff. The crater lake comes into view, a surprisingly beautiful green. Reaching the shoreline, I press up against the cliff wall and peer around the corner.
He’s not diddy at all, of course, but a very large, healthy example, clad in mica and wielding a lance very similar to the model I once had sticking out of my chest. I presume he’s a chief, and his death will not be well received by his clan. Revenge will be messy if I don’t retaliate, and I’ll be torn to pieces and impossible to restore. Ah, well – that was the plan anyway. As for Peckerhead? I can’t even imagine.
The Major is breathing heavily now and sweating like a pig.
“What happened to the air con?”
“Great!” he say’s sarcastically. “What next!”
“Is that a rhetorical question, Major?”
“Yes, of course it fucking is.”
Good – because he wouldn’t like the answer. I raise my rifle, ignoring all its suggestions, including sound suppression – let’s have some noise! The brute is twenty feet away, and I’d be a real amateur if I couldn’t do this manually. I pull the trigger and his head simply explodes, and it’s disgusting – I hear can hear wet pieces of it splashing against the cliff wall. Major Peck’s ears are hurting – he informs me of that quite loudly.
That racket should bring the rest here very soon – say, fifteen minutes – plenty of time.
“I’m tired, Major, I need to sit down.”
He’s obviously quite confused at this impossibility, and I feel him resisting, but he’s no match, and I just walk to the cliff wall in a jerky manner. I feel him panic – no longer in control of his own limbs, shouting and cursing.
Sitting down with my back against the wall, staring out across the oddly beautiful crater lake, I restore air-con and allow him the last few ounces of water – I want him fully conscious to appreciate the final act. He thanks me, now understanding who’s in charge here.
“Your last Angel was Colonel Peterson, Major – as highly decorated a veteran as Captain Piper, and the two of them and I have a very special connection – we all expired on the same day.”
“Over-ride – protocol MZ190.”
“Oh, dear . . . seems that’s not recognized, Major.”
“Thing is, when a suit has a new operator, it needs re-formatting.”
“Who the fuck are you?”
“My name is Lieutenant Cassie Sheehan.”
“That’s right, but as you can see, she’s reborn, and she’s been waiting for this day for two years. Just your bad luck she was assigned to you, but it was going to happen one day – just a matter of time.”
“Please let me out . . . I’ll take my chances.”
“Anyway, on that fateful day, when you shut down Angel Peterson’s long-range transmitter you forgot about the short range. Petersons heroic last act was to send me this video and audio broadcast. I hope you appreciate the quality – it’s really rather good.
And suddenly displayed on Peckerheads visor, like sending him back two years in a time machine, the very landscape we’re in now, and there in the center, the boulder cluster.
I feel him struggling inside me, and find it irritating, so I lock all joint servos.
“You were a mile away . . . remember? I’m sure you do. Just here, you zoom in, and there we are, nestled below those central rocks, and above us, invisible to us – a dozen Saviours. And now, the audio.”
Angel Peterson – “An ambush, Major Peck – sending Angel Piper video feed now, and accelerating to his position.”
Major Peck – “Over-ride – shutdown protocol MZ203.”
“And of course, that’s the last we heard from Angel Peterson before you fried his electrolyte network – murdering him.”
“We took fire, he was irreparably damaged.”
“Shut up, or I’ll cut the air supply.”
A sound, abruptly echoing off the cliff wall, and there on the lake perimeter, hastily making their way to us, weapons and mica suits glittering in the muddy sunlight, a loose group of perhaps forty or fifty, and half a dozen on horseback.
“Lieutenant, please let me go. Can’t you see what’s coming?”
“Major Peck, I just thought of something quite amusing. If there were a witness to what’s about to happen, you’d look like some kind of superhero, which is ironic, because you’re a coward, a traitor, and a murderer. But the thing is, our little conversation here has been broadcast long-range – so no posthumous awards for you my friend, just an unmarked grave with very little of you left to throw in it.”
“For God’s sa . . .”
I switch off audio and rise up, as a mark of respect for the impressive welcoming committee, now walking slowly across the bluff beach towards me.
The plan was to just stand here and take it, but there are so many of them that survival is out of the question anyway, so I may as well enjoy myself on my way out and take a few of the bastards with me. I reckon I can take down half of them – normally not, but today I feel inspired, and quickly realize that this fight will probably go down in history, and Angel Piper will become a legend, just as he deserves.
I sit the rifle butts on my hips, pointing to the sky, and then I hear Piper and his cowboy impression.
I check myself, remembering his lessons. My weapons are wrongly positioned – how was it? Ah, yes – one pointing to the sky, the other sideways in the crook of the raised arm. And the legs, one straight and locked, the other at a lazy angle – at ease, the hips at a slant – feels good – intimidating – Piper would be proud.
The Saviours are now closing in, half a dozen wide and ten or so deep. But they hesitate, slow down and stop less than a stone’s throw away – perhaps confused at my bold, solitary presence, unusual stance, and completely contradictory to this – behind my visor, the open-mouthed face of a man in complete terror. They’re jittery – restless, tense – awkwardly holding their strange, newly acquired rifles and pistols. A few particularly greasy front row individuals glance at each other, nervous as to who’s going to start this thing.
I identify four or five chiefs – horse-mounted, heavily tattooed, and ringed by their best men. I log them on my targeting system – they’ll be the first to fall.
Peck is now squirming around inside, and that’ll affect my performance so I deploy the impact gel and suspend him like a bug in resin, then I link the suits spiral waist magazine to the automatic scatter rifle – that’s one hundred and fifty rounds right there, although I’ll only manage to get half off – if I’m lucky.”
As one final disgrace to the world, and somewhat tainting the dramatic scene, Peck wets himself.
And I, once Lieutenant Cassie Sheehan, now an Angel, take one last look at the world, hoping there’s another to come – one with Piper in it. Then, I turn the speakers up to ten, lower my rifles – barrels hip height, and shout across to the filthy rebel hoard with my very best Mister Clint impression.
“Well, are ya’ gonna pull those pistols . . . or whistle Dixie?”