Neema’s Rose

By Amalasuntha

Why is it that I have to have muesli for breakfast and Nims can get away with a full cooked? She seems to relish sitting there, eating sausage, eggs, toast and bacon opposite me in the mess hall at O’stupid O’clock, and I have to put up with bloody soggy cardboard muesli on the med assessor’s direct orders. I’m cranky in a morning, so sue me. Nim’s however, is a morning person. Something else which she relishes and something which makes me even more cranky. Without looking up from the mornings updates, she sneaks me a piece of bacon cooked just the way I like it. I eat it quickly without looking back at her, hot bacon fat escapes down my thumb. Thanks Nims. The morning klaxon sounds signalling a three minute warning for morning briefing on the days work. I just don’t have time to finish my muesli. Shame.

In my dream beautiful Neema is close behind me, I turn to face her.

Of course I’ve seen her naked, we’ve all seen each other. It’s no big thing in our job and the wall – slotted bunks, 30 to a room, give us little space for personal privacy. That took some getting used to for the first few weeks of basic. During basic you gel together pretty hard. It’s intense work and just as you’ve gotten used to the people that are going through it with you, someone dies. It’s the nature of the work, but the first death in a new intake is the hardest part. The going out and not coming back. Or rather coming back as a coffin full of sand as it’s nicer for your family to have something to bury and there may not be enough of you left. For Nim’s and I it was a blond-haired slim intelligent farmers son, who quickly became known as Brood. He went out with his puppy walker and they both didn’t come back, two newbies quit without question, and the whole intake went quiet until a couple of days after his funeral. After that it had changed. We realised the hardest part of this job was not the nests or the queens but that the people we relied on to be there for us, someday might not be. When we finally got out from under the puppy walkers and were assigned into teams, there were only fourteen of us made it from the original full house of thirty. Once it was strange to see some new person sleeping in a dead friend’s bunk, now it’s just normal. Even before the end of basic, Nim’s and I made a pretty good team. Now there’s only the pair of us left from our intake.

In my dream I turned to face my Neema. She smiles at me and holds a red rose in her hands and I realise I love her.

Under normal circumstances Nims would be a strikingly beautiful woman. By normal I mean simply ‘not this line of work’, this job has a habit of etching experience and time served into your skin. Puckered tight flesh which aches in the cold, reminding you of a past job, another occasion survived. My right forearm carries the long distinctive cuts of claws from a house garage which smelled of spilled blood and home cooked pie. Even now years later I can’t eat apple pie. Left upper arm and shoulder is a patch of uneven skin marring the standard tattoos, the result of being thrown across a flat roof and being cheese-gratered across the gravel. Fingers on my right hand are mostly a mess; getting your hand caught in acid spray will do that to you. Nims is the same: puckering on her right calf is the result of a bullet going through and through, she’s lost sensation in her left little and ring fingers, her right eye socket was broken along with her nose in a hand to hand fight, it set less than perfect – she never was a good patient- stab wound thin slices in her right hip, from when she was protecting a civilian child. Rippled burn scars mar her ribs from right to left in an ugly uneven stripe across her back. The result of deciding that the best way of getting us out of a nest situation FUBAR was to choose the flambé option. Didn’t count that she would get caught in it. Her hair is still the same shade of ash blonde, once trademark waist long, she cut it shoulder short a couple of years ago, claiming practicality. In truth it hides the scalp scars better this way, she’s strangely self conscious of them. Her blue eyes are deep with intensity. She doesn’t smile as much as she used to. She still dances beautifully though. I remember when she arrived at the Graduates’ Annual Ball – now long ago – she was wearing gorgeous figure hugging blue satin long dress, which must have cost her a month’s salary, was wearing heels, make up, had had her hair done and simply looked stunning. She asked me to dance, and I accepted. So I can’t dance, so what. She could and she was amazing. After that, we were never separated, not on a job, not anywhere, we always kept each other in sight. She is still beautiful to me, and I tell her so in mock seriousness, her eyes narrow, and she just thumps me hard on the arm, were she knows it will hurt the most and tells me to get an eye assessment.

In my dream I turn to face my Neema. She smiles at me and holds a red rose to her chest in her hands and I realise I love her, have always loved her, will always love her.

Nim’s tells me that I have to do another sprog lecture tomorrow morning. The Commander gave up asking me to do them years ago, and instead gets Nims to ask me instead. Tell me I’m doing it is more like, the Commander knows that I will do whatever she asks. Sneaky bastard. Truth is, I hate the looks of adoration I get when I walk into the room. None of them have even gone near a nest and won’t for a long while yet. They don’t know the smell, the taste that clogs your throat and makes you gip, even when you’re used to it, they way that a queens frantic cry for assistance can make your ears bleed. They are just spoon fed the same simple crap that we were when we joined, that nests are containable, they aren’t dangerous, they aren’t intelligent, they collect firearms for fun, and can be easily eradicated. If we could do that, then why hasn’t it been achieved by now? At least have the good grace to fulfil the promise on my watch. Nim’s always stands at the front of the class first, wearing a tight regulation top, and wears her hair scraped back which shows off most of her scars, and tells the same story of the Stone Marshes Nest. The one were we earned the nickname Will and Testament. Its a good story, and fires them up like it’s supposed to. I can switch off for a while, I’ve heard her tell this one a hundred times before. I get to look round the class and assess my audience. For most the lights are on and nobody’s home in the way that matters. Most of these forty three fresh faces hanging on her every word will be dead before the year is out. Intakes must be getting bigger, wonder when that got approved? There are one or two really listening to her, a sandy haired boy watching her thoughtfully at the front and a carrot top sat at the back doodling. That’s right kid, get jaded nice and early, might as well. Once I actually told a whole intake what it’s really like. And then afterwards I got pulled into the Commander’s office for a Chat Without Coffee. I’m supposed to tow the line now, and keep it tame, not scare them off until they’re fully trained and find out for themselves. I snap back into Nim’s narrative just as she asks for questions. As usual there aren’t any. Sprogs are too intimidated by the living legends in front of them to do anything but stare. Even now that makes me feel uncomfortable. I’m just doing a job, and I chose to sign up, just like everyone else. Feels like I’m stood talking to the dead. Before I can speak carrot top pipes up ‘where did that scar come from?’ and points to my right forearm. The class goes quiet, waiting respectfully for the story. It had to be the apple pie scar. Nice one kid, there may be hope for you.

In my dream I turn to face my Neema. She smiles at me and holds a red rose to her chest, cupped in her hands. The petals spill out and she looks puzzled. Even then her face is beautiful and I love her.

The nest at Spedtree apartments was probably where we took the step into legend. Intel had marked it as a Large Size Nest: 50+ workers/ guards 5+royal guards, queen, expect multiple eggs near boiler, may be hatchlings. Gas, electric and water supplies will be off. Warning: urban area. Instead of one large nest, we had multiple separate nests within the same location. Unheard of. Not only was there a queen for each nest, but also near the central boiler housing, some kind of new larger queen. It’s the only example ever found in this country of a nest evolving to such a size that it needed a new stage in hierarchy. They’re still discussing the ramifications in the science journals a full six years later. Nims and I had gone in with two full teams and experienced back up, no puppy walkers and sprogs on mop up for this sucker. Of the whole operational team of twenty well-versed people experienced in wetworks, Nims and I were the only ones to survive before they took the whole site out to a half click radius with an air drop incendiary. Strictly speaking I nearly didn’t make it out. The queen of queens it turns out, has a more concentrated poison than a normal queen, if that wasn’t bad enough. She can not only spray as an airborne toxicant, or inject it using her stinger, but also can, as a last chance attempt, aim it towards a threatening target and fire the stinger and poison sac using some kind of natural gas propellant system. Sadly it just happened to be aimed at me, sightseeing this new monstrosity rather than concentrating on work. Nims did push me out of the way as she fired at it, so the sting hit my thigh rather than my stomach. Still made a mess, and I was unconscious before I hit the ground. Truth be told Nims, finished the fight with grenades (for which she was severely chastised as there wasn’t much left of the queen of queens for study afterwards), carried me out, then went back for five others before the evac came and took us all to decontamination and debrief. Or they would have done normally, however the injuries to Nims and I were so severe that the first person they radioed ahead for was the chaplain, then the medic. The legend now making the rounds for every new intake is that Nims and I were superhuman in clearing the whole thing ourselves, earning our nickname The Amazing Grace. It’s one of the reasons we can both automatically command the best bunks and the top seats at the mess hall banquets. Let me tell you the grim truth: eighteen of my friends died there and I damn near joined them, but for the stubbornness of one woman. Nims carried me into the med rooms herself and, despite suffering from shock, blood loss and multiple injuries, including a compound fractured wrist, she ensured that I was put straight into an ice bath to control the fever, even though triage had marked me with a black cross: ‘not even worth wasting Morphine supplies on’. The med staff told me later that she was present during the multiple operations to remove the fragmented sting and poison sac, repair the damage to my broken femur and necrotised muscles, two occasions of emergency heart restart, and had sat with me every day through the next month of unconsciousness at the Crit Unit. Truth is, I don’t remember any of this, just going from rounding a corridor corner inside the Spedtree apartment block cellars on point and seeing a whole new queen sized monster, watching the sting detach in a puff of slow motion gas and feeling an almighty shove from behind by Nims before waking up in the med suite with an all body hangover. Thankfully I was out of the ice bath by then, I hate those things. Someone had managed to dress me too, and put my gun on the side dresser, thank goodness. Nims was dozing, with her gun across her lap, wrist in plaster, chair backed up against the closed door. I was betting it was locked. There wasn’t much I could do, still covered in med patches, tubes and measuring cones, she opened her eyes as soon as I reached for my gun and we sat together without talking for a long time watching each other. We didn’t have to say anything.

In my dream I turn to face my Neema. She smiles at me and there is the sound of a key turning in the lock of her heart. Her eyes tell me that she loves me too. She holds the red rose of our love close to her chest, cupped in her hands. The petals spill out to fall at her feet.

We have been dropped a little way from the site which intel has marked for us. A dotted map, the culmination of planning, preparation and logistics. Nims is checking and rechecking her ammo, something which she has done since our first puppy-walked job years ago when she made that mistake. The scar will always be a reminder on her shoulder to check and recheck her clips. She doesn’t speak to me. We don’t need to talk to know that the other is thinking.

The location turns out to be an abandoned industrial complex. ‘Shapes Mission’ someone has graffited on the gaping perimeter wall in faded red, overlying the usual tags. Next to it is a small glyph which fades and constantly twists and changes. Even looking at it makes me feel slightly queasy. Most people can’t see them, so don’t bother looking. It’s the right place, unless they’ve taken the step of marking places that they don’t use.

We fall into the familiar pattern; I take point and Nims trails. It’s unusual to just work in a pair, but we clicked together so tightly during basic, that they didn’t bother setting us up in a standard six team. We are the Invincible Duo, the Miracle Workers, the Amazing Grace, Will and Testament, depends which intake you talk to first. The derelict buildings sunbathe in the late afternoon sunshine and I really hope that I have the courage. I mean we’ve been working together for years. The dreams I’ve been having lately have set me thinking that I really should at least ask her. As much as I want to, before the job is not the right time. Besides I know where her heads at right now and it’s all work. After would be more appropriate and gives me a little more time to think about what I want to say. If the job goes well, then I’ll ask. In some things I am an unashamed coward.

We clear the building floor by floor. Somewhere in here there is a nest. Usually they’re in the basement, but lately they’ve been getting inventive. The look on Nims’s face tells me that she’s gone into clinical work mode, definitely not the best time to ask. The question is burning up my thoughts. Concentrate on the job, The Nest Is Dangerous. Remember your training, you’ve done this often enough. The pair of us sweeping rooms is instinctual now, we have no need of handsign to coordinate. We fall into the regular pattern, Nims drops low to cover, I take the high scan. My ears ache with the effort of listening for any noise which would give them away. I’m getting old. We clear rooms and floors as the sun drops lower in the sky, getting the job done by dusk would be preferable. I don’t fancy hunting after dusk. Once it was something to relish, pitting us against them in the dark. Now I’d rather not bother.

When we find it, the nest entrance is under a back staircase. Maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t seem to be much of a nest. I remember what clearing a nest used to be like, dozens of them crawling up the walls and protecting their queen. Maybe they’re getting old too. I remember being able to drop and roll with the fights, the adrenalised bravado in comparing open wounds before the med teams came with the pick up to patch and stitch and anaethsatise. Now my knees ache with the effort of a staircase and I have to have stims every autumn to stop them seizing up.

We clear the nest properly, three shots for each, the required twelve and cut for the queen, and once it’s done, we go round and do the checks, seize and catalogue the sharps and firearms into little baggies and make safe. My eyes already tell me they won’t be getting up again, but the training requires it and even we still have to adhere to that.

Nims is, of course, as fit as ever. She hasn’t shown signs of slowing in all the years I’ve known her. Unlike me, her waistline hasn’t expanded and she doesn’t have to do extra gym time just to stay the same. I bet the med assessor didn’t sigh and shake his head at her at her last check up. The remainder of the building we leave for the mop up crew, puppy walkers and their sprogs, new recruits learning the job for the first few times before they’re set out on their own, from the more experienced counting down time to retirement. The puppy walkers like us; we do the job text book right. Maybe they’ll offer us the puppy walking jobs again soon. Nims has laughed them off the last few times, and it’s always entertaining to see the confusion on their faces.

We’re outside again, in the long shadows of evening, another nest is gone and it’s my turn to carry the baggies. Nims is behind, keeping watch, as training requires. I suppose it should be unnerving having someone stood behind you with a live firearm, but I’ve seen Nims shoot the sting off a queen at a hundred metres, and so it’s secure rather than frightening, it would be more scary if she wasn’t there. Maybe I should ask now, I take a big deep breath:

‘Hey Nim’s’ I don’t look back, if I look, I’ll lose the courage I have. Only a hundred metres to the evac van, it’s now or not at all.
‘Yeah?’
‘D’you fancy dinner on our next off duty? My treat?’

There is a long pause and I think I’ve blown it good and proper. Maybe I should have just asked her out for a drink first. The labelled baggies clank against my leg with every heavy step and I can see the evac van already waiting for us outside the gate. The puppy walkers and sprogs are milling around waiting to come in and survey our handiwork.

‘Vietnamese’ she says in answer. I already know her favourite restaurant and the words stick inside me and lift my heart.

‘What took you so long? she teases.I turn to face Neema. She smiles at me, The silenced snap echoes off the buildings as her heart key turns, the red rose blooms in her chest and she drops her gun to hold it with her hands. She looks at me puzzled as the petals spill out over her fingers and spill out and spill out. Her eyes never close.

(more about Amalasuntha.)

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