By Juxian Tang
Her face was soft and pale. Her body was a mess of broken bones and torn flesh but by some chance her face stayed untouched; the round gentle face in the halo of pale hair. The wind stirred a strand - and an invisible hairpin stuck there rasped repeatedly against the stone under her head.
He looked down at her, his arms folded on his chest like an armor of flesh instead the one of metal that was now obsolete. I didn't see his face - he was turned away from me. He was too silent - for too long; but I could wait - I'd learned patience in these years.
She'd served him well; she was glorious in the field, this now broken shell. She didn't kill in his name - but the blood she spilled so joyously still was a sacrifice on his altar. The rifle in her hands, pressed against her plump shoulder, never trembled as her eyes found the aim through the optic sight and slid down smoothly from their foreheads to their breast pockets and lower, between their legs. She never hurried, never faltered. Her breath was even and steady and her finger sure on the trigger. And only when she saw a hideous flower of blood and bones blossom in their groins as the bullet entered, a light flush appeared on her white cheeks.
She would've killed them all; but there were too many of them. And when she'd run out of ammo, the comrades of the dead men came for her.
She was eighteen years old. Purer than a lily. They raped her, of course, before taking her up in the helicopter and throwing her down. I gazed into her wide dark eyes as she looked at the earth so far down there.
She'd screamed as she fell; louder than the noise of the helicopter's engine. But all they heard, I knew, were the howls of their comrades writhing in agony on the ground, clasping their shattered pubic bones.
Maybe, they still heard her - only they didn't know it; couldn't distinguish between her cries and the cries of their dying friends. They knew only that they had to silence the screams - and that's why they drank and talked and laughed so loudly. But behind the curses and rude jokes I still could hear how forlorn their voices sounded, the voices of the mortals yanked out of the peace and safety of their homes and thrown into the alien country that didn't welcome them, never would.
I recognized it so well - the thin thrill of terror beyond their drunkenness. How could I not? It was me that resounded through them, in their cries and their silence. Terror... Not Fear - Phobos didn't have anything to do here any more, for a long time already they were beyond simple fear. It was me - the mind-numbing terror of death coming to them from behind every tree, every boulder, from the hands of women and children. Or even worse, the terror of surviving another day of it.
The soldiers served him, too - the only way they could. Killing messily, slaying the wicked and the innocent alike; slaying the innocent more eagerly - because it was easier and because their anger and shame needed an outlet. Needed to be drowned - best drowned in blood.
Just a few of us stayed with the mortals now. We lost Phobos a few months ago - and Eris was far away from here, in the opulent studies of politics where the decisions were made. Because what kind of discord could she plant here? What reason did these soldiers have to fight except they were sent here and left here and, feeling betrayed, were ready to destroy everyone who was marked for them as their enemy?
Sometimes I envied my brother. Would like to go, too - would like even to stop being, if it meant that I would stop being there.
But he stayed - and I stayed with him.
His face was like stone now; so still - the utter stillness that replaced the scowl and the slight fluttering of the veins of his temples. The face I've been looking in for ages and never tired of. I think I stayed, maybe, just to look at his face.
He knew all here, all about them. Their excitement at the dubious victory over one of their enemies - and unholy arousal of violating her - that was almost entirely destruction and no sex at all - and the present unsuccessful attempts of theirs to drown their remorse in cheap vodka. He knew how few of them would go back to their mothers and wives - and he knew how those who would, entering the soft core of their women, would remember, unwillingly, the tight cunt of the sniper girl they fucked and killed. He knew - about those who would return crippled, return as drunks or murderers - because they could do nothing else but kill - dying from heart attacks in their late twenties.
He knew they would carry him in their hearts forever. There would be no place for peace in them any more.
He stood over the girl - invisible as wind for the mortals, a whole reed among broken ones. I put my hands on his shoulders.
"We need to go," I whispered against the soft flood of his hair. I knew he heard me; I didn't think he would answer.
But he turned to me - the coals of his eyes burning through my face, dark and glowing and it hurt me to look in them but I looked all the same.
"It wasn't like this before," he said. I knew that. Not so much, anyway. Maybe, it was going to get worse... please, Gods, no, don't let it be worse... Ah, whom did I ask for it - there was almost no one to ask.
"It's just a war," I said.
"Is it?" he looked in the girl's smooth face again, like trying to see his own reflection in it.
I didn't answer; I could tell him what I saw in him - beyond the sadness and emptiness - the glee he would never stop feeling at the sound clashing metal and dry snaps of the shots, at pain, death and victory. I could see it the same well as the glints of red in the darkness of his eyes.
He might've been unhappy now; he might've been tired - but I knew he would handle it. He was strong enough for that - had done it before, would do it again. It was just like this: either he took it on himself - to be who he was, to do his work, with everything it meant.
Or he could give up. Vanish - like others of us did, become just a thing or a notion for mortals. I hoped he wouldn't do that.
I put my arm around his shoulder and pulled him closer. I felt his mouth on mine, the softness of his lips, insistent but cool. I kissed him back, feeling his hands on the sides of my face, nearly hurting me. Then he let me go.
A distant sound caught on us, the soft rattle of the caterpillar tracks against the hard ground. The mortals didn't hear it yet - would hear it when it was going to be too late for them to do something. I knew it and he knew it, too. This sound was death.
"Let's go, son," he said. "We have work to do."