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Oscars on the Rue Jules Verne

The Yttryn stepped over the still mewling body of one of the insurgents, pausing only long enough crush a sidearm with an armoured foot larger than Marjorie's head. The beast towered a foot above human standard, and combat armour made it taller still; a less sympathetic walking tank. Splayed out on the dirt as she was, Marjorie had difficulty taking in the bulk of battle-scarred armour above her.

The overburdened muscles in her back sang a chorus of complaints; the impact compensation in her own armour had only done so much. The Yttryn extended a helping hand. She grasped two of its fingers and let herself be pulled to her feet.

"You are too close to the combat zone, Queen Mother," said the Yttryn over the command channel, the bone conduction in her suit making her teeth rattle. The scuffs on the suit marked it as Charlie, her favourite.

"I can't be effective from behind the lines, Charlie," said Marjorie.

The insurgent behind Charlie started inching away, leaving a trail of fragmented armour and viscera on the ground. Charlie took aim.

"We need your help, Queen Mother."

The suit didn't translate inflection or emotion. Marjorie still thought Charlie sounded wistful. Of course he didn't. Yttryns didn't feel. That's why she was there. Slipping into the role was as comfortable as stepping into a warm bath. Charlize Theron, 2003. Just the right amount of anger, just the right amount of intent. The mewling creature gibbered something as Charlie lined up its weapon. The suit didn't translate, it wasn't keyed for their language.

The Yttryns didn't feel, Marjorie did that for them. The only thing she couldn't feel was sorry.

"It's pronounced Why-Train."

Case infuriated Marjorie. Effortlessly thin where Marjorie squeezed into her clothes. Perfectly coiffed red hair atop a pale face with a light dusting of freckles. Case sucked on a thin cigarette and exhaled a cloud of bluish smoke into the space between them. Other patrons in the cafe turned away. Case ground the cigarette under the blood red tip of her heeled foot before the one human employee processed the complaints and came over.

"I don't care how it's pronounced, Case. It's not acting."

"A gig is a gig. It's good work. Expat pay. Off-planet allowance. Have you ever been?" Slate grey eyes examined her through the smoke, narrowing enough to dare Marjorie to correct her. But Marjorie couldn't. Case was infuriating because she was correct. Marjorie hadn't been off world. She'd barely been out of the country. Not like Case with her perfect nails and her ocular implants and her city job. Two months without contact and here she was again, a doomsday planet on an eccentric orbit about to turn Marjorie's life upside down.

"Did you even read the description?" asked Marjorie, eyes turned down at the delicate lattice of veins on the back of Case's hand. She'd spent hours tracing them with fingertips, with her tongue. A map, she'd called it once. A map that went nowhere, she added later. Just like Marjorie. Just like the both of them.

"Life's dangerous. Everybody dies from it at the end. What's there on Earth for you anyway?"

What indeed?

Marjorie was Julia Roberts, 2000, all drive and efficiency. The sentiment flooded through the squad of Yttryns, it drove them harder than whips as they reloaded weapons, hauled heavy cargo and set up camp. Bereft of their armour, they were still comically large. Pink in the same way all newborn mammals tended towards, except they never grew out of it. Eyes deeply set atop short snouts, the surplus of skin rendering their faces eternally expressive, even if they didn't express much.

Five to a squad, a scouting party in an advance to a conflict that Marjorie wasn't paid enough to understand. The system was so far from the little backwater star around which Earth orbited that there wasn't even a name for it. On a whim, she dialed it home as Paris; the gas giant, Eiffel; the whitewashed world where the campaign started, the Arc de Triomphe; the little planet she was on, the Rue Jules Verne. The air was sour here, partly from the geothermal vents that belched yellowish smoke into the atmosphere, partly from the residue of the explosive weaponry the natives favoured. Their structures were beautiful smooth things wrought out of volcanic glass. The Yttryns had pulverised the buildings with low orbit pulse weapons, turning one after another into clouds of razor dust. A dozen breaths on Rue Jules Verne was death by a thousand cuts from the inside out.

They were setting up camp on high ground, under a sun that burned a dull yellow and a sky the same pink as raw meat. The ground rose up in craggy cliffs and vertiginous sandstone monoliths, putting her in mind of brown walls of the streets wandered by Brando and Schneider. Lumpy succulents poked from the ground, the taller ones coming to Marjorie's waist. Grass the colour of rust coated the rough ground like fur.

Alpha set a cargo pallet down and sat on its haunches next to Marjorie. Names were not an Yttryn custom. Marjorie had labelled them A through E, because she needed to believe that they mattered. Echo lumbered over and picked up Alpha's load. The Yttryns didn't believe much in roles either. Work went on, tasks done by the nearest and most expedient member of the squad.

"The squad is concerned for you, Queen Mother." Alpha's voice was low, dipping low enough into the infrasound as to be inaudible without the translator in Marjorie's suit. Low sounds travelled better underground. The Yttryns were a tunneling species. The suit gave them all the same drawl from Podunk, Middle America. The tone and timbre following her halfway across the galaxy. Her choice, of course.

"I wasn't hurt." Not in ways her dear Yttryns could understand; not the pain they could skip around with their bespoke neurochemicals. This was a three a.m. staring at the ceiling pain; a 4-hour binge on old holovids pain; a 5 shots of ship distilled Kentucky Bourbon pain. Thinking about it for long enough caused the squad to stop work and stare at her. Marjorie shut it down; pushed the old pain far beyond where the hulking beasts could smell it.

Alpha sighed, raising a puff of poisonous dust. They filtered their air through channels of bristles as thickly matted as an industrial filter. "The entire colony turns on the Queen Mother. We can replace limbs. We can replace soldiers. We cannot replace you." Message delivered, Alpha moved on.

A tumbler of whiskey on a tray appeared beside her; a crust of grit already there, pale green on amber brown. "Thank you, Charlie," said Marjorie, without checking to see who it was.

"It's what you drink when you bleed grey."

Yttryns didn't have words for emotions. They didn't have words for a lot of things, each as utilitarian as an algorithm. The visor stayed up long enough for her to down the counterfeit alcohol, dust and all. Maybe the dust would kill her before the insurgents or rebels or freedom fighters did. She coughed a mixture of burning whiskey and spit onto the inside of her visor. "Shouldn't you be working?" she asked Charlie when the coughing subsided.

"This is part of my work. You should take a zero percent cycle. You've been awake for too long."

"I wish I could turn my brain off a bit at time like you. Or maybe that's how I've been living my life so far. Only ever with half a working brain."

Sarcasm was lost on them. Communication was in infrasound; pheromones provided context to speech. It was hard to joke and lie when you sweated intent. Charlie looked like a puppy with a burst balloon until the perimeter klaxons went off; modelled after the distress signal of a tunnelling species, it mimicked the rapid thump of muscled paws on underground walls. To Marjorie, it was the sound of war drums, a bass beat deep in the big bones of her hips and legs.

Charlie was already off to grab its suit. Marjorie put her game face on. She was Hillary Swank, 2004. They were going to fight. They were going to win.

"Mimetic empaths," said the man with the halo of white hair, which seemed to have pulled away from his forehead in favour of erupting from his nose and ears. Marjorie cocked her head to indicate confusion. Case was still there, beside her in the recruitment cubicle, the bustle of the stream of people outside filtered out by microns-thick plastic.

"The Yttryns evolved to be signal repeaters for emotions," added Case. "Matriarchal tunnelling society. They're resistant to disease, as big as grizzly bears and thrive in low oxygen environments. Physiology makes them work together instinctively, like ants. More or less docile unless one of their queens decides to amp it up a little. According to accounts, and there aren't many, they're terrifying on the battlefield." Case, eyes bright when talking about a new hustle, spoke in that high, almost squeaking, voice that everybody hated.

"I don't see how I come into this."

The recruited tagged in. "They run a big mercenary army, but they can't afford to keep losing queens in combat. Apparently, they've found that our backwater world has an untapped resource. A great number of desperate, unemployed people to act as emotional nexi for them."

"You told me this was a gig, Case," said Marjorie. This was a bad idea. Case was full of bad ideas, so many that she had to snare others in them constantly, otherwise they'd reach critical mass in her belly, a runaway reaction burning through the superstructure of her family and friends.

"It's not a combat role, Mrs Buchanan," said the white-haired recruiter.

"Miss," Marjorie said, mechanically. Case didn't bat an eyelid.

"I beg your pardon, Miss Buchanan. I assumed you were a traditionalist when I saw your ring." Case returned hers the day they woke up and decided, over breakfast, that it was enough. The pale stripe of flesh had recovered its walnut brown tan. Marjorie hadn't taken hers off.

This job was the kind of wildly impractical thing Case would have foisted on any of her friends. If Marjorie and Case were even friends. They'd been friends long before they were lovers, and in Marjorie's head, they'd been lovers long after they'd stopped being friends. Not that it mattered to Case.

"Marjorie is an actress," gushed Case. She was the kind of person who could pronounce underlined italics.

"Oh? That makes sense for this request. Sim? Holo?"

"Twentieth and twenty-first century mostly. Stage and flatscreen. 2D, non-immersive," said Marjorie.

"I didn't know they did that any more."

They didn't. Marjorie didn't have to answer. Case filled in, "She also does the emotion reel for sims, sometimes. She's really good."

Emotion reel. Stunt heart. Letting the script tell her what to feel for other people. Case was right about Marjorie, she always was.

"Case hit the nail on the head then. The Yttryns think that they'll be able to use you as a substitute queen for one of their squads."

A fish couldn't flop itself off a hook, but it flopped anyway. "Sounds like a terribly macho environment. I don't think I'll fit in."

"Don't worry, the Yttryns don't have sex."

"You'll both have that in common then," said Case, smiling at her own joke.

"I meant they are asexual. We'll have to schedule you for some tests. Definitely need to get a psych profile. We wouldn't want you to spread any... uh... craziness to the Yttryns. It's infectious to them. You'll be on the orbital elevator within the month, if you pass."

Later, as they left the centre, Case was an effusive geyser. It would be amazing. Marjorie would be the first human amongst the Yttryns. She'd even get naming rights to a planet or two. Maintaining half a meter between them all the while as they walked. Always that distance.

"You aren't nervous, are you? We'll go get a drink. You always need a drink when you're down. What's the matter, you worried about being alone out there?"

No, Marjorie thought as she trailed Case, always two steps too slow, I'm already alone down here.

The camp had been overrun. The cost of taking a Yttryn forward base had hitherto been unthinkable, but somewhere along the campaign the calculus had changed. The enemy had led with an artillery barrage, the ancient shells throwing up enough smoke and flash to mask the approach of an entire troop of insurgents.

They reminded Marjorie of furred lizards, low to the ground and surging forward in sinuous waves. Waves that crashed and broke on the Yttryn's perimeter barriers; the high frequency microwave field frying the enemy in their combat suits like so many field ration packs. Then the automated turrets coughed out scintillating bolts of death through the smoke. Then the ranged weapons of the Yttryns picked off the slithering enemies one at a time. They paid for each foot in blood, but blood they had to spare and the waves grew ever closer.

She was Meryl Streep, 2011. She schemed, she twisted. When the insurgents took ground, they found a field of hastily scattered anti-personnel mines, each one a radial sweep of coherent energy six inches off the dirt. A maiming injury for anything bipedal; an eviscerating one for those low slung like their adversaries.

Before the barriers fell, Alpha rigged the dropship's drive core to blow. Bravo and Delta set their weapons on mobile turrets on random walks, hoping for the confusion to buy them seconds more. Echo ran interference, both electronic and visual. Charlie needed the head start, taking Marjorie away from the fighting and into the fields of cliffs and crags below the camp. It brought her almost to the limit of the Yttryn's mimetic ability, careful not to withdraw support from its brethren in the middle of the firefight. On all fours, it set to digging, excavating great swathes of dirt with its powerful forepaws.

It got five meters deep before coming back to set a combat charge against the wall of a nearby cliff. "This will cave in the entrance behind us. It'll look like the dropship's self destruct did it. Hurry, the others are on their way." Marjorie followed Charlie into the makeshift tunnel. Her world went dark for a heartbeat, then reappeared, sketched in lines of blue static as her suit used sonar to map out the underground walls. A muffled thump of explosives behind them and the darkness was absolute.

Charlie tore through the earth easily, clods of ground splattering around Marjorie to backfill the space they left behind them. Marjorie crawled on her hands and knees behind Charlie; holding on to Helen Mirren, 2006. Come back, she sang to the squad in her heart, come back to your queen.

Time didn't exist in the tunnel, only the ceaseless thud of Charlie's claws into the earth and her heartbeat in her ears marked its passage. This was the tightest spot they'd been in across all their combat missions; the squad and their talismanic alien queen.

"This is bad," said Marjorie. Meaningless banter, better than silence or waiting for the insurgents to drop the tunnel roof right on them.

"We'll get by, Queen Mother, we always do. You give us strength."

"Strength only to kill. I'm a monster and a mother to monsters."

"This is what we were made to do. It fulfils our purpose. Weapons are meant to be wielded, not to till the ground."

"Why me? Why humans at all?"

"Your kind feels deeply, Queen Mother. Of the myriad peoples amongst the stars, there are few others that soar so high or plumb depths so deep. You feel too much and it cripples you. Perhaps it is better to be Yttryn, not to feel at all. You spill over, Queen Mother, during your night cycle, when you die." The Yttryns always had at least one brain quartile active and regarded Marjorie's sleep schedule with some horror.

"You can feel my dreams?"

"We know your heart, even if you push it away for us to fight. You know this."

Marjorie was going to answer, but Charlie broke through the ceiling of the tunnel with a final two pawed scoop. The sky had already faded to a deep red. Fresh air would have been welcome, but her helmet stayed on. Most of what she smelt on the Rue Jules Verne was her own sweat. Her suit told her they'd travelled nearly five klicks under the surface over a matter of hours.

"The others will home in on the Queen Mother. No comms until they break the surface. You can rest. I will stand watch."

The adrenaline wore off; leaving her tongue fat and bloated in her mouth and her knees shaking from the task of supporting her. She sagged to the dirt, her suit puffing up to support her neck as she curled up. Always back to the womb. Marjorie jumped when a forearm as thick as her thigh draped over her shoulder. The suits and the heavily muscled torso of the beast behind her were no cushions, but it felt safe to have her back to something once again.

Case threw her a party at Marjorie's place the night before she was scheduled to go. Their place. Marjorie's friends cried their flat tears and emptied out her liquor cabinet. Case offered to clean up. The dishes were still piled high in the sink when thin arms snaked around her waist, and Case, sweet, infuriating Case, breathed sweet warm breath into Marjorie's ear.

When they were younger, enthusiasm had made up for their unfamiliarity. Now, they navigated the topography of each other's bodies with practiced confidence. Each knew where the other wanted to be, and the exact turns and twists to get there.

"This is new," Marjorie said, tracing the fresh ink on Case's belly.

"Rorschach tattoo, muscle activated," breathed Case, tensing the smooth muscles of her stomach, turning the ink blot from butterfly to flower and back again. Later, when the quiver in Case' thighs crashed upwards, the tattoo danced like fireworks.

Marjorie lay on her side after, heartbeat still so strong that it felt that her skin pulsed with the hot blood under it. Another bad idea, Case was full of them. "Do you hate me so much that we can't even be on the same planet?" Marjorie asked the half lit room.

"I could never hate you, my love. But can you even love me if you can't love yourself, Marjorie Buchanan?"

Here in the dark, away from eyes and ears, that old drawl resurfaced, that deep bedrock from which both of them were hewn. One smooth and polished, the other all solid angles. The good years more than made up for the bad, but the bad were closer to the surface, scab deep and Marjorie was surprised to find, even after five years apart, that they still bled. No, there was no point in digging further down. She'd already prospected the strata of their relationship, mapped the veins of tears, the seams of old arguments; there was nothing new for her there.

"Tell me you forgive me, before I go?" asked Marjorie of the dark in the room.

"I forgave you a long time ago, my love. Maybe you should do the same." Then those thin arms went around her and the clamouring thoughts died down and Marjorie went to sleep happy.

But she still woke up alone.

Echo and Bravo had taken injuries in the rearguard action. Bravo took the worst of it, with a side full of shrapnel and one arm hanging useless by its side. Marjorie would never forget the sound of the Yttryn tearing the ruined limb from its body with its teeth. It could get a vat grown replacement back in orbit and would be none the worse for it.

A second squad was coming in for their evacuation. They'd meet it halfway, giving the enemy less of a chance to triangulate where the distress call went out from. It was a good plan, and it very nearly worked.

Case's note was slipped somewhere in the middle of Marjorie's collection of films. Marjorie hated sims, more so when she was travelling. Of course Case knew that.

This will be the second time you've left me. The Yttryns will love you, body and mind. But they have no hearts. Neither do you. I hope you find what you're looking for out there.

The message was still playing when the sedatives kicked in and sleep took her.

They were hit just five minutes before the squad was reinforced. The first shell took Delta, the last in line, in a burst of whirling metal and earth. Her helmet trapped her scream in there with her and the others broke into a gallop. The pounding of their paws on the ground kicking up great divots of dirt which blended into the puffs of dust thrown up by enemy fire.

Death ran beside her, shrieking alongside the shriek of the incoming mortars, in the hot shrapnel that splattered off the plating of her suit. She fought to keep that centre; the other women with their golden statues slipping by. If the panic set in, the Yttryns would scatter, besieged from without by the scuttling horde and within from their Queen Mother's failure.

In the end it was her, a girl from Nowhere, America; out on a dusty rock; in a universe full of bad ideas; fighting a war wherein she hadn't the faintest clue if she was with the good guys or the bad; deciding that she wasn't going to die.

The cavalry was three minutes late. Three of the longest minutes of Marjorie's life. Three minutes after a hunk of metal screeched through the air and sheared half of Charlie's skull away. Not a film death, not a film ending at all.

Marjorie sat in the mess of the rescue dropship alone. She wouldn't cry for one dead alien. Dust coated the outside of her suit; dust filled her insides. Like the planet, dry and poison.

How can I love you if you can't love yourself?

Was it leaking? That old pain, seeping out of her dreams, no matter how deep she buried it, slowly killing the squad of gentle beasts?

Alpha placed a tumbler of whiskey in front of her. No grit this time, clear liquid all the way through. Alpha spoke, and it spoke through her suit in that same drawl from home Marjorie requested, the same voice from the last message from home, just right to remind her what love felt like. "You looked like you needed a drink. You always need a drink when you're down."

Maybe she'd grow to miss the dust of the Rue Jules Verne in time. But not yet. She was Marjorie Buchanan, 2365. She was going to survive.

About the Author
L. Chan hails from Singapore, where he alternates being walked by his dog and writing speculative fiction after work. His work has appeared in places like Liminal Stories, Futuristica: Volume 1, Metaphorosis Magazine and The Future Fire. He tweets occasionally at @lchanwrites.
Background image by ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/R.Gendler, J-E. Ovaldsen, C. Thöne, and C. Feron.
http://www.eso.org/public/images/etamosaicnm2/, CC BY 4.0, Link