United States

"The normal human consciousness is not equipped to deal with the pillars and suspension cables of the universe."

Message to Readers

Note: the protagonist of this piece is agender and uses singular they/them pronouns.

One Boot After the Other

June 25, 2019

Blood and sweat trickle down the back of Seven’s neck, mingling together to soak into their tattered camo fatigues. The backpack’s straps dig into their shoulders, and they walk with their body angled forward against the weight; head down, shoulders hunched. One boot in front of the other, stirring the dry red dust.
    They emerged from the sewer system about six miles back, at a guess. It might have been safer to stay in the twisting confines of the earth’s underbelly, but Seven knew it wouldn’t take command long to identify that escape route and follow. No doubt there are troops sweeping the above ground area as well, but Seven is confident. If they run into a patrol, they will take care of it.
    Sun beats down on Seven’s exposed head. Buzz-cut hair offers no protection, and if they don’t cover up with something they’re going to get burned. Seven stops. Shrugs off the backpack, watches the thump of dust rise into the air. They reach in and pull out a protective du rag, and, after a moment of thought, a med patch. Seven puts the patch on the back of their neck, over the place where they dug out their tracker before leaving the base. There is a series of needle-like pricks as it settles into the skin, and Seven winces, rolling their neck around to make sure it’s attached. They tie the du rag around their head, pick up the backpack, and walk on.
    The dust gets everywhere. It joins the soot already coating Seven’s skin, a fine grit that sifts into the tight places to nip and scratch and gloat at the futility of trying to abate the itch. Seven hasn’t been this dirty in months. Hygiene was strictly enforced at the base, and Seven got used to daily showers.
    I suppose I’ll miss that, they muse. Being covered in sweat, blood, and grime has a way of making you appreciate the little things.       
    Seven walks. They will reach a town, eventually, but for now there is sun, and dust, and the steady rhythm of boot followed by boot. Seven listens for a hum in the distance, of a chopper, or a string of jeeps, but hears nothing. For now, there is nothing. The gun in the holster on their leg has grown hot from the sun, and Seven is learning to keep their hand away from it, despite habit compelling them to hold it close.
    Seven crests a hill when the sun is highest. They stare at the small factory town stretching below them, the lines of stucco houses, squat and cheaply colorful, every storefront caked with grime. Even the main road through town is unpaved, a weary track of red dirt laced with tire treads and wafting dust. Seven stands still, listing to the whine of cicadas, a thousand voices buzzing about what should be done next. Seven wouldn’t mind knowing, either, but whining won’t change anything.
    Seven goes back down the hill in the direction they came from. They kneel in the dirt once the town is blocked from sight, shrugging off their backpack. They take the gun out of their leg holster and lay it down within easy reach, then unzip the pack and take stock of their supplies. The sun peeks in with them, greedy eyes glaring down to see what an army-issue pack and months of pilfering has to offer. Seven grabs the cleanup kit first; those are standard. You never know when you might need to look presentable, and Seven needs to now. They can’t exactly walk into a small civilian settlement wearing singed and bloody combat fatigues without attracting attention.
    Seven strips to the waist, pulls a cleansing wipe from the pack, and begins to scrub at their torso, still shining with sweat where it isn’t covered by grit or blood. Rusty smudges come away on the wipe and quickly vanish into its fibers, leaving Seven with a clean surface to move on to their arms and face. The med patch on Seven’s neck prickles. It’s healing already, but it will leave a scar, and Seven must be careful not to let anyone see it. A wound in that location would immediately identify someone who is running.
    When Seven is clean, at least as far as appearances go, they pull a clothing pack out of the bag and change. Loose black slacks and a button-down shirt, linen in a shade of white that the dust will make a mockery of. A light blue scarf, thin enough not to be out of place in this climate, to hide the med patch. Last, a sharp grey fedora, popped out of its small folded shape into a thing of crisp lines that will help keep the sun off, and mask Seven’s buzz cut, so obviously military.
    Seven stands, tucking the gun into the waistband of their slacks, at the small of their back. They press a tab on the outside of the backpack, and it shimmers, mottling from the brown and green of camo to a utilitarian black, the kind of bag any traveler might carry. Then Seven hikes back up the hill and looks out over the town. There will be people down there—not soldiers, but actual people, with names instead of numbers and no orders to follow. Seven will have to learn how to be among them again.
    Does this make me a civilian now?
    No. Seven might walk down there and speak to them, sleep under their rooves and eat their food, but Seven will never be one of them. Seven is a fugitive now, an enemy. Possibly even a terrorist, given the damage they did escaping from the base. Seven will never be allowed to go back to civilian life.
    Seven smiles, and, with the sun glaring after them, starts down the hill. Oh, well. Civilian life was boring, anyway. 

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