by Joseph Hurtgen
A jet thundered overhead. Chegg raised his right arm — well, there wasn’t much left of it, just an arthritic stub. Pain smoldered in the background of Chegg’s awareness. He heard the ping that meant he’d locked on his target and watched three seconds later as the pilot ejected and the jet turned into a fireball. That was his ninth jet downed this week. Or his tenth, maybe? Chegg grunted and tried to massage the stiffness out of what was left of his arm. “Cyborg, my ass,” he thought, scanning the horizon for any of the jet’s friendlies and tracking the direction of the pilot. “More like shitborg.”
Chegg tracked the dun-shaded parachute against the blue-gray, the color of unconsciousness, the color of the last breath before the end. It was cold enough for snow. Chegg hoped there wouldn’t be snow. If his arm already hurt, just wait till a good snow. But he could feel that dull ache in his ghost arm that said there’d be snow, lots of it. If the pain got too bad to bear, he had the pills. He always had the pills, though he tried to avoid them. Damn things took effect in seconds. He had greens and reds. As a rule, he never took reds. In a pinch, he’d take a green. But greens and reds had a way of bringing on hallucinations. The last time he’d taken a red, he’d watched maybe his worst memory on repeat, the skin melting right off the faces of the boys in his company, and then it went in reverse. Dripping skin sucked itself back on their faces. And just when their faces were all fixed, it started again. No, Chegg didn’t need another bout with the reds.
The pilot landed maybe a quarter mile due west of Chegg’s position. He picked his way across the terrain, staying low.
Chegg’s phone buzzed. “Hell’s that?” said Chegg. He reached for the phone and silenced it. The area code was 501, Arkansas. Sure, he was in Arkansas, but no one from Arkansas should have been calling. Arkansawyers were cheery about their new government. They exulted in book burnings, embraced the Boot Camps that were rapidly disappearing people of color from the South, and cheered on sweeping reforms that allowed for open carry of assault rifles and no sentencing for homicide.
Chegg stripped the battery from the device and ground it under a steel boot heel. If Arkansas was calling, then more jets were likely on the way. Chegg figured he had about ten minutes before another rendezvous. He checked the charge on his hand cannon. Eight minutes to fully charge. As long as they only sent one jet, he had a fighting chance. But he wanted to neutralize the pilot before another jet streaked in.
Chegg didn’t run. He didn’t dare. But he made a decent pace, despite the lancing pain from his stump. Even if he’d wanted to pick up the pace for a few hundred meters, it wouldn’t have been smart. National Patriot foot soldiers had a love affair with land mines. They’d turned their farmlands into fields of death. On cue, he picked up something metal just underground three feet in front of him. He went through the burned-out hull of a truck to get around it. Once through the truck, he caught movement behind a toppled van. Chegg pulled up his sidearm and switched his eyes to scope mode. There she was. A girl, young. Bright red hair. Surely she hadn’t been piloting the F-16. The NAPAnese weren’t big on gender equality. But they’d lost a lot of pilots recently.
Chegg didn’t want to kill the girl. He could kill her. He should kill her. She was out here. And sure, she’d probably been coerced into it, but these patriot people were crazy. Chegg couldn’t stand thinking about what patriotism meant to them. He took aim. She was pretty. Looked a bit like Jayne Mansfield. He couldn’t kill Jayne Mansfield, could he?
She was looking right at him, and, oops, she had a gun too. Chegg dove back in the truck as a bullet struck the metal hull.
“You take down that F-16?”
“F-16s cost two billion in NAPA coin. We’re gonna take that outta your ass.” The girl fired again, wild this time.
“I’m gonna tell you once,” said Chegg. “Leave. Otherwise, you’re gonna die.”
“I’m gonna die? We got a team of F-16s inbound. This is your last day in America, Graybeard.”
Chegg checked his cannon. Two minutes to full. That was a comfort. He had enough power to make the little patriot pay for taking potshots at him, if it came to that. But he needed to save the shot for air protection.
“How many of you are there?” came the girl’s voice.
Chegg had backed out of the truck and was working on flanking the girl’s position. It wouldn’t do to answer her. Though by not answering, she would probably guess that he was on the move. Another shot rang out. She hit the truck this time, but Chegg was well away from it. She was making a major tactical error by staying in place. She didn’t have the high ground, which might have merited staying in place, but maybe not, not if the enemy was Chegg Wilson, a soldier with too many combat kills to count.
Chegg saw her pop up. Sighted her. Then heard the single-engine roar of an inbound F-16. He eased back down, holstered the sidearm, and readied the hand cannon. It wasn’t worth shooting unless the jet appeared at least six inches long. Twelve inches was better. He’d never missed at twelve inches. But he’d rarely missed at six. He’d also rarely shot at six.
“I’ve got your coordinates called in, Graybeard. Got an energy reader over here.”
“Shit!” thought Chegg. Of course, she did. He’d never had this problem before because he’d never spared a pilot. They had all been fascist bros hooped up on pep pills. He’d been happy to execute them. He’d never had to off a Jayne Mansfield look-alike. And now he had a visual on the F-16. Its bearing was centered dead on Chegg. Chegg waited, arm at the ready, for six inches of jet. His eyes skyward, he didn’t see Jayne take aim. She wasn’t all that good of a shot, but she caught him in the shoulder above the hand cannon. Chegg screamed, but he was only aware of the whine of the F-16 closing in.
Chegg unbuttoned a pouch at his breast and fished out a pill. He noticed briefly that it was a red as he dry swallowed. The jet turned a sick green color behind a purple sky. Jayne’s red hair went supernova. Chegg raised the cannon. The pill had lightened Chegg’s load. He felt warm and happy as he watched the Quetzalcoatl descending; a shame to kill such a magnificent bird.
The girl shot again. She was closer now, but she was still a bad shot. It had been luck that she’d ever hit him. On reds, her face was taking on the visage of all the fascist bros he’d executed. He’d take care of all of them soon enough, but first, the great winged god of the air. Chegg lifted the cannon, squared it, waited a half-second longer to be sure, and fired.
The half-second turned out to be too long. Not too long to bring down the bird. She went down in a rainbow fireball. But too long to avoid the bird’s darts screaming down from on high. Chegg flattened himself against the steel remains of an SUV. He drew energy from his internal reserves and blasted in time to explode the missile a hundred feet overhead. Chegg watched the air go seismic, releasing waves of blue-green energy.
He hadn’t died. But maybe death would have been easier. It wasn’t wise to draw on internal reserves. Especially if you were on reds when you did it. The reds, by design, kept you from knowing your limits. And now, Chegg was meeting some limits. Try as he might, he could not move his legs. He wondered for a ticklish moment if they were still there. He hesitated, then glanced down, expecting doom, but his legs were still intact, just not cooperating. His good arm wouldn’t move either. But the hand cannon was still good. He could conduct an orchestra with his hand cannon.
And that’s how Jayne found him, on his back, waving around his hand cannon in time to music only he was hearing.
Jayne had her gun trained on Chegg. He didn’t count on her missing at this range. “Reed Smith was in that F-16.”
“Was,” chuckled Chegg.
“What’s the size of your outfit? What’s their position?”
Chegg saw melting faces and F-16s. He sang along to unheard music. “I cover the waterfront. I cover the sea.”
Chegg looked at the girl. On reds, it was difficult to tell that she was beautiful, but for the brief moments that her face was intact and her coloring wasn’t grotesque, Chegg could see that Reed Smith had been a lucky guy.
The girl kicked Chegg. He couldn’t feel it. He still had a body, but his body didn’t have him. “How many of you are there?”
“Just one, far as I can tell.”
She shot Chegg’s knee. It sounded bad, but again, he couldn’t feel it. One red wouldn’t have dulled that kind of direct trauma. Chegg looked at the screen on the hand cannon. Time to full recharge was 1,000 hours. There was also an option to draw on vital energy. He’d never noticed that option before.
“No more jokes, Graybeard. Give me a real answer.”
Chegg grinned a crooked half-grin and swept the cannon toward the girl. She fired, but she was a lousy shot, and the bullet ricocheted off the hand cannon. “Vital energy shot,” said Chegg. He heard the warm-up thrum of the cannon and felt his remaining strength flow through his body and accelerate out of the cannon, and then felt no more.