The first day this one saw him Red walked into our barracks, pushing a crate of T360 helmets. It was 3 hours before dawn, 2 hours before the Ripleys usually woke. The timed lights would not engage before the cadre was expected to wake but we felt his heat signature and the vibration of his movements as he entered the barracks. The Ripleys rolled, jumped, dove out of their bunks at the intrusion and stood at attention as our eyes adjusted to being open. We saw him then, small, pink, what little hair he had the color of ash, bandy-legged in khaki fatigues.
THIS HERE T360 HELMETS, he signed kneeing the crate forward NAME MINE RED. TAKE HELMET, ONE PER SOLDIER. 10 MINUTES PERFORM HYGIENE, DRESS, REPORT TO HELIPAD. WEAR JUMP BOOTS.
Had we not been focused on the task at hand we surely would have noticed how adroitly he signed.
The Ripleys were trained to follow orders, with speed and efficiency our top priorities.
9.75 minutes later the entire car was assembled and at attention at the helipad, T360s in our arms since we had not been told to put them on, the vibrations of the waiting ‘copter washing over us in waves even as an inconsequentially light rain began to fall.
Red poked his head out of the ‘copter and addressed us.
WHAT REASON YOU GIRLS STAND OUT THERE? WAITING FOR ENGRAVED INVITATION?
The Ripleys looked at each other in confusion. To assume we were meant to board the ‘copter simply because we had been ordered to the helipad would have been an inference and Ripleys were not taught to make inferences. To presume to board the ‘copter once the inference was made would have required initiative. Ripleys were not encouraged to show initiative. Ripleys awaited commands.
We had no idea how to parse the comment about engraved invitations. In addition Red used several signs extraneous to his meaning which we had never seen before.
RIPLEYS WAIT FOR ORDERS, OFFICER, one of the other Ripleys.
NOT OFFICER ME, WORK FOR LIVING, NAME RED, GOT IT? NOW BOARD HELICOPTER YOU STUPID GIRLS, Red signed. Curiously, there were even more unknown signs interspersed in his orders, signs no Ripley knew.
It did not occur to any of us to ask.
Neither did it occur to any of us to ask what was happening next. This day had been coming before we drew our first breaths. We had no doubt our superiors would inform us of the particulars on a “need to know” basis.
PAY ATTENTION, GIRLS, EACH TAKE PACK AND PUT ON. PACKED PARACHUTE ME FIRST AND ONLY TIME. NEXT TIME PACK OWN PARACHUTE. FLY TO MISSION. I EXPLAIN MISSION CAREFULLY AND THOROUGHLY STARTING NOW. Red signed PAY ATTENTION.
His boots were muddy. None of our other instructors had muddy boots. It was an anomaly.
ANY YOU SHITHEADS THINK OF QUESTION, ASK QUESTION, GET IT? Red signed.
In unison we all signed YES, but it was far from the truth. We did not know how to think of a question, let alone formulate a way to ask it.
Nevertheless, by the time we reached the exit point we were clear on our orders.
We were to jump, make our way to the village, terminate the villagers, and burn their fields.
T360S, Red signed MUST BE WORN AT ALL TIMES. CONTACT BETWEEN CADRE AND INSTRUCTOR MANDATORY AT ALL TIMES. NOT CARE IF INTERFACE SLIME RUNS DOWN BACK OF NECK ALL WAY TO ASSHOLE.
His command was unnecessary. The initial order was enough. We never removed the T360s until explicitly instructed to do so. It was stimulating to see through the rest of the cadre’s eyes as well as one’s own. If we had been allowed to wear the helmets constantly that was precisely what we would have done.
HERE WE GO GIRLS, Red signed.
One by one we put on our T360s, tucked our AR-15s between the straps of our parachute harnesses and we jumped. Red came last.
The Ripleys did as instructed. Made our way to the village.
We were nearly there, the roofs were in sight, when Red seemed to be hanging back. Instinctively the Ripleys stopped.
WHAT PART ORDERS UNCLEAR? Red signed, irritably. We had spent little more than an hour with him, but up to that time there was no point when Red had not appeared to be annoyed.
This one was so bewildered a thing occurred which baffled all the Ripleys, this one asked a question.
RED NOT ACCOMPANY TRAINING MISSION? This one signed.
Since before the Ripley units, members Wheatstraw LTD’s purpose made security force, left the gestation tanks, back in the time when we still swam in the company’s salinated fluid, our skins coated with a thick layer of Vernix ™ , we prepared for the day when we would take up arms. The images projected on our eyelids taught us proper assembly and maintenance of the most common firearms. The logistics of hand-to-hand combat. Language- both sign and written in a wide variety of iterations- Spanish, English, Arabic, Cyrillic, Hanzi and Kanji . First Aid. Basic Survival Skills but we had never been unsupervised.
Our early instructors gave the Ripleys strength training, marksmanship, general discipline, technical repairs, transport operations... in short the execution necessary for the theory we learned in the tanks, but they continued to watch over us every waking moment. Now at the most critical juncture would there be a change?
NO, NOT WIPE ASS FOR RIPLEYS EITHER, he signed.
We hesitated, the culmination of our training and it would be conducted while alone for the first time in our existence.
Red, too, was wearing his T360, obscuring his expression, but the tension in his body seemed to soften.
LOOK, GIRLS, RED WEARING T360, TOO. SEE EVERY MOVE YOU MAKE. CONTACT CONSTANT, he signed.
NOT BRING STEALTH BOOTS EITHER. STILL WEARING JUMP BOOTS, stated another Ripley, R356.
Red made a series of signs we did not know, hands angry, then drew himself up WALK SOFTLY.
It was an order.
The Ripleys knew how to follow orders. It had been a significant portion of our training. We had also been taught to walk softly, causing the absolute minimum of vibration.
As ordered, we carried out the mission, walking softly to the village. As ordered two Ripleys entered each hut full of sleeping enemy combatants.
They laid in clusters of four to six, often with a smaller enemy combatant wedged between them. Some of the enemy appeared strangely withered. Others had peculiarly distended bellies.
That many bodies huddled together gave off a notable amount of heat in addition to carbon dioxide. We felt the heat before we entered the huts.
In the left corner of our T360 view screens Red’s words appeared ALL SQUAD MEMBERS IN PLACE?
Within seconds of one another twelve Ripleys flashed a green affirmative.
Again the T360 screens lit up with Red’s words SAFETIES OFF. FIRE AT WILL.
Because we had been ordered, we fired, spraying the sleepers with a rain from our AR-15s. The smell of cordite ripped open the air followed by the smell of blood.
In the T360 viewscreen R365 was frustrated when some of the enemy combatants sought to shelter one of the enemy with a distended belly. R365 shot the shelterers in the head, then the misshapen female. Their resistance was pointless. In 2.56 minutes the enemy combatants were dead in their rough mud buildings.
Blood, brains, offal, and bone decorated the walls of the huts.
Vibrations were coming from the combatants’ animals; loose dogs, poultry, and pins full of pigs. In turn, we shot them as well.
This one and five others took the accelerant from their packs, as instructed, doused the enemy combatant’s crops before R349 dropped a single match into the mass of vegetation. The flames roared rising up in a wall of heat and fire. As one the Ripleys stepped back from the shimmering blaze, sweat pouring from our bodies. As one we turned to find Red, behind us, T360 helmet in his hands. Our attention had been so focused on fulfilling our orders we had not noticed when his display disappeared from our screens.
We braced ourselves for the reprimand.
We did not have the experience to ask Red what came next. Our only option was to wait for further instructions.
GOOD JOB, SISTERS, Red signed as the morning sun shone down on the flames and the smoke EARNED NAME YOURS TODAY.
Pleasing as it was to receive an instructor’s praise we were puzzled, how had we earned our name? Perhaps we had earned a new name and would be referred to by a new designation after this day? All the Ripleys must have looked confused because Red pulled out a cigarette casually from his pocket and lit it, explaining further.
HUT PEOPLE NAME RIPLEYS “DEATH FROM ABOVE” he signed with the lit cigarette between two fingers. The light at the end twirled as his orders continued.
R352 AND R356 COLLECT, Red scanned the Ripleys squinting as if calculating FIVE, NO, SIX SMALL PIGS NOT SHOT UP TOO BAD.
We watched in curiosity as he strung the piglets up by two legs and with a single stroke of knife released each animal’s guts into the dirt.
OKAY, Red signed grinding out the end of his cigarette with his boot, MOVE OUT, SISTERS, SIX RIPLEYS CARRY OUT PIGS, NOT CARE WHICH. CONSIDER DECISION MAKING TEST.
First the Ripleys stood staring at the pigs where they hung, then at once every Ripley decided, in unison, to take a pig. R352 reached out and began to choke R353. R353 was rapidly turning purple. Similarly R361 and R367 were rolling on the ground, neither able to get the better of the other. In fact the entire cadre was engaged in hand-to-hand combat with itself, except for this one, for no reason this is one able to explain. The fight was unproductive. The order had been to carry the pigs, not to fight over them. This one searched her brain. Red referred to this as a test. What would the trainers do to convince all the Ripleys to stop fighting at once? This one took her small sidearm and fired it into the air. The heat and shock waves rent the air.
The Ripleys looked up.
Red surveyed the Ripleys, R366 SQUAD LEADER OFFICIAL. RENDEZVOUS COMPANY HELICOPTER TONIGHT. RENDEZVOUS SPOT FIVE MILES MARCH. BUT BEFORE RENDEZVOUS ROAST, EAT PIGS. R366, CHOOSE SISTERS CARRY PIGS.
This one scanned the Ripleys and signed, R352, R356, R361, R363, R370, R350 GET PIGS, MOVE OUT.
The distance was short and the Ripleys were flush with praise for our first mission. Besides we had never seen food prepared before, much less taken an active part in it’s preparation. What impressed us most was how time consuming the process was.
The lengthiness of the pig cooking process didn’t seem to bother Red, he sat on the ground and tore the thin plastic wrapping from a packet of cigarettes. Without an assigned task the Ripleys alternated watching the pigs and watching Red. We were not accustomed to five minutes without an assigned task, let alone long unoccupied hours.
This one decided more was to be learned from Red than a cooked pig and squatted beside him.
HAVE ONE, Red signed extending the pack in the general direction of this one.
Refusal was not an option.
This one watched carefully as Red’s lighter flared against the open end of his cigarette and the instructor’s chest rose with inhalation.
Without exhaling Red passed his fire, the side read Semper Fidelis.
This one was careful to replicate his every movement and was rewarded with a harsh burn to the throat and lungs. For several seconds vomit seemed a real possibility, then the threat subsided, followed by a chemical rush. It was highly pleasurable. Exhalation was physically required followed by a much desired second breath of smoke. The other Ripleys all had their eyes trained on the squad leader.
Red extended his remaining cigarettes to the squad, then opened a second pack to accommodate all 16 Ripleys. The lighter, too, went hand to hand. Soon without articulated agreement, like Red, the Ripleys sat in a circle around the roasting pigs, carefully ingesting the nicotine smoke.
Red looked from face to identical face.
WHAT THINK YOU, SISTERS? Red asked.
Around the fire came signed answers GOOD, GOOD, GOOD.
As squad leader it seemed to this one something more was in order THANK YOU, INSTRUCTOR RED, VERY PLEASURABLE DRUG CIGARETTES.
The corner of Red’s mouth tightened into an upward curl RED ONLY SOLDIER, SAME SAME AS YOU, SISTER.
Across the fire hands shot out in sign, it was R352. Even more than most Ripleys R352 was compelled to fight and argue when she couldn’t fight.
WHAT REASON CALL RIPLEYS SISTER? NOT SAME SAME, RIPLEYS FOLLOW ORDERS ONLY. RED GIVES ORDERS.
Red laughed, WRONG, SISTER, RED FOLLOWS ORDERS SAME SAME YOU, EVERY ORDER EVER GIVEN IN HISTORY OF WAR COME FROM DESK RIDER WITH CLEAN FINGERNAILS AND SOFT BED.
R352 looked skeptical but she gave no reply. It was not necessary to point out that the Ripleys were female and brown, Red was neither. The hut people looked far more like us than Red.
Red was aware of her skepticism so he went on, THINK YOU RED GIVE ORDER KILL HUT PEOPLE? He shook his head ORDER FROM WHEATSTRAW LTD. BOSSES. PARTICULAR VILLAGE SAVE OLD SEEDS, SHARE SEEDS WITH OTHER VILLAGES. SOME TRAVEL LONG WAY GET OLD FASHIONED SEEDS, NOT BUY HYBRID SEEDS MADE WHEATSTRAW LTD. STAND IN WAY WHEATSTRAW PROFIT. PURPOSE OF WHEATSTRAW LTD. SECURITY PROTECT WHEATSTRAW INTERESTS; WHEATSTRAW PROFIT MARGINS.
The thought turned over in the brain; the Ripleys eliminated the seed savers and their seeds. The mission was training but also served company interest. The purpose to Ripleys was to serve company interest.
The Ripleys watched his signs with rapt attention. Since we still swam in the tanks we trained for war with never any suggestion of a purpose.
SOLDIERS SAME SAME WORLD OVER, Red went on, EVEN SOLDIERS DIFFERENT SIDES MORE SAME SAME THAN DESK RIDER GIVES ORDERS.
R352 was not content, RIPLEYS ONLY SAME SAME RIPLEYS.
This one expected Red to lose his temper and strike out at R352 instead he threw back his head and opened his mouth in laughter.
Wiping his mouth with one hand, he leveled his eyes at R352 WHY YOU THINK RIPLEYS DEAF? WAR LOUD. ARTILLERY LOUD. DEATH LOUD. SCREAMS LOUD. SOLDIERS GO DEAF EVERY DAY. WHEATSTRAW MAKE YOU DEAF TO BEGIN WITH, THAT WAY, NO HEARING TO LOSE.
RED DEAF? This one asked, SAME SAME RIPLEYS?
Red signed, LOST HEARING IMPROVISED EXPLOSIVE DEVICE. RAW RECRUIT. SERVED TWELVE YEARS BEFORE DOCTORS FIGURED OUT COULDN’T HEAR. BEFORE ME SOLDIERS LOSE HEARING LOSE JOB, TOO.
R352, no longer objecting, watched along with the rest of the cadre, absorbing every sign Red made WHY COMPANIES MAKE RIPLEYS, THEN? she asked.
EVERY TIME SOLDIER DIE SOMEBODY GET PAYOUT, MAYBE WIFE, MAYBE PARENTS, MAYBE HUSBAND OR EVEN KID BELONG TO SOLDIER. COST COMPANY PLENTY. WORSE SOLDIER WOUNDED, DISABLED FOR LIFE, WHEATSTRAW PAY DISABILITY FOR LIFE AND PENSION TO WIDOW WHEN DIE. OTHER TIMES SOLDIERS INSUBORDINATE, REFUSE KILL UNARMED INSURGENTS STEALING WATER, REFUSE BUY SEEDS BELONG WHEATSTRAW. WHEATSTRAW DECIDED CHEAPER TO GROW OWN DISPOSABLE SOLDIERS, MAKE ONE SOLDIER EXACT FIT COMPANY PURPOSES, THEN COPY SOLDIER 500 TIMES. READYMADE SOLDIER FOLLOW ORDERS PERFECT EVERY TIME BESIDES, ONE OF YOU INJURED NEVER WALK AGAIN, SQUAD LEADER SHOOT YOU IN HEAD, ONLY COST COMPANY PRICE OF BULLET, Red signed.
There was no denying it was part of the Ripleys’ training that the remedy for a serious injury was euthanasia in the lab or a bullet in the field.
Red jumped to his feet and leaned toward the nearest pig. Using his side knife he separated a sliver of meat.
THINK THIS MAYBE READY WE EAT. YOU HUNGRY, SISTERS? Red held out a bite of meat on the end of his knife.
It tasted better than anything we had ever been fed at the lab canteen.
After that, most days we had missions with Red, interspersed with training in the operation of transportation, explosives, strategy.
This one remained squad leader. R352 remained the squad’s chief irritant. Still, she was more reliable than most on a mission, even though most of our missions were simple raids on insurgents, hut people armed with nothing more dangerous than a machete.
One night Red came to our barracks in the middle of the night, slamming the side of each bunk with his fist as he passed.
WAKE UP, SISTERS. RISE AND SHINE. NO SHOOTING FARMERS IN BED TODAY. TODAY WE GO AGAINST ORANGE CO. SECURITY. RISE AND SHINE, SISTERS, YOU KNOW PROCEDURE. HELIPAD 10 MINUTES. He signed.
In the helicopter there was no signing. No matter how tall we had grown, we would not be grown until this mission was complete. We did not know where we were going but it was farther than we had ever gone for a mission before.
An hour into the flight Red drank from the flask in his jacket. We had never seen him do that before. Red’s flask was strictly for the flight back to the lab. But not, it would seem, this time.
Red took another drink.
That made for two drinks Red took before he explained the mission to take control of an oil rig from Orange Co while we attached silencers to our side arms.
The orders were clear and they were executed with the efficiency we applied to all our missions yet there was a degree of discrepancy between the words and the experience.
We parachuted in, as close to the target as prudence allowed. The ground flew toward us as it always had, but the earth that caught us as we fell was not the earth we knew. It was hard and dry and dust swirled everywhere, even in the dark of night. The night sizzled with heat despite that fact that it was winter we left the facility where we were housed.
We removed our boots in order to retain the element of surprise as long as possible. This one walked on point, ahead of the rest of the squad to pick off any Orange co. security or workers before they could alert the rest. Concerned for the squad This One flicked her eyes to shift the view of the T360 screen. The squad was on schedule and in position. Red, too, was in position, outside the perimeter of the oil rig.
This One jerked her eyes to the upper left quadrant of the screen to ask Red a question ANY SUGGESTION OR OBSERVATION?
Red’s answer was simple NONE AT THIS TIME, SQUAD LEADER.
The first Orange team member to come into view had the appearance of being on sentry duty, despite having all his attention focused on the screen of a phone. This one came up easily behind him. It would have been a waste of bullets to kill such a stupid person with a gun, it was easier to grasp his head with one hand, pulling to the left to expose the carotid artery, and jam a side arm knife behind his ear, burying the blade to the hilt.
As an afterthought the phone was smashed under a boot.
Before that night the squad had never engaged in close combat outside the usual fights within the squad itself. The sensation of his warm body and hot breath as his blood pulsed out of him had been intensely pleasurable. However, the next Orange security came quickly, gun in hand and was taken out reflexively by a bullet to the brain.
As squad lead it was expected to take the rig’s central command. According to the map provided to the Ripleys the rig headquarters were on the other side of the rig itself, in a small prefabricated building
On the upper middle section of the T360 screen R352 eliminated three members of Orange Co.’s security team in rapid succession, wounding a worker inadvertently, she euthanized her mistake with visible frustration.
A great deal of mindfulness was required on This One’s part as squad leader to cross the compound and follow the progress of the Ripleys on the T360 all the while maintaining awareness of the environment.
While R355, R364, and R357 searched the oil camp, offices, and rig for stray Security and workers R361, R350, R356, and R370 held the assembled Orange Co. workers at gunpoint in what appeared to be a recreation area. When R355 brought the employees she had gathered to join the others a male in an Orange Co. shirt jerked a fire extinguisher off the wall and began to spray the Ripleys. Two other males took up a pair of pool cues.
R370 immediately mowed them down with her AR, leaving a line of holes in the wall.
On the upper right of the T360 screen R368 was engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a member of Orange Co.’s security. Straddling him she brought her side arm up under his chin and pulled the trigger, showering the room with bone and brain fragments. Some sort of alarm had been pulled, the waves washed over the skin in rings of pressure.
It was obvious from the heat coming from the small metal administrative building that there were two occupants inside. With concentration it was possible to feel the exact location of the live bodies inside. Gun poised before the doorway was breached, the two inside were killed efficiently. One was Orange Security, one merely a worker.
Security members were ticked off the mental checklist, 1, 2 ...3, 4, 5...6, 7.
Seven security team members seemed an unlikely number.
Across the T360 flashed a black and orange, Orange Co. security uniform. Red.
There was a moment of confusion before the helmet screen showed Red’s chest, dark and damp.
In that instant a thing that had never been observed or mentioned occurred with the T360. The portion of the screen tied in with Red’s visual cortex began to jitter uncontrollably and images began to flash across the screen. Some were strange images we had never seen.
This One did not think only acted, discarding all discipline to run towards Red without regard for the success of the mission as images from Red’s visual cortex chased each other across the T360.
The naked body of a man as seen from below, his body imperfect, scarred, but breathtaking as he lower his face so close to the viewer that all else was blocked from view.
Steam rising from a coffee cup.
An old woman’s face as a child was torn from her arms and its body cut in two before her eyes, spilling out more organs than could reasonably be expected to fit in such a compact body.
Soldiers laughing in the sunshine.
An emaciated form in a sickbay bed, tubes and wires crossing the frail body like a spider’s web holding fast to a recent insect victim.
An old man riding some sort of farm machinery and child’s hand pulling a root vegetable from the soil.
Lace curtains blowing as the sun rose behind an orange cat perched in a window.
A dog lying dead in a ditch on top of an equally dead soldier.
Fire, so much fire it filled the entire field of vision.
Finally a sky full of shining stars over an ocean just as black, wave after wave advancing, then retreating.
This One reached her destination just as Red’s feed went black.
R352 held his limp body in her lap.
RED FINISHED, she signed jerking her chin towards an Orange security member a few feet away, his head open and empty, like a discarded eggshell.
This One stood there for some time, like when the Ripleys were fresh out of the tanks, empty.
Meanwhile R352 was signing busily WHAT WE DO BODY RED’S? LEAVE HERE? TAKE WITH? THINK MAYBE FACILITY SUPERVISOR ALLOW RIPLEYS KEEP HIM? CANTEEN WORKERS HAVE FREEZERS LARGE. MAYBE WRAP RED UP, PLASTIC SAME SAME SANDWICH AND PRESERVE IN FREEZER LARGE.
This squad leader felt a sudden rising wave of cold thinking of the canteen workers’ freezer, where we sometimes stole food when we were supposed to be sleeping. A question formed, would a Ripley show the T360 the same images as Red under similar circumstances or would they show nothing at all?
The sidearm hung in its holster only a moment before This One tested the theory, shooting R352 in the chest.
She signed a sign we learned in the tanks, the images projected on our eyelids, but had no reason to use on a day-to-day basis.
LOVE YOU, LOVE YOU, SISTER, R352 signed.
Images flashed across the T360 screen, but none of them were new.