//you’ve been out there for a while now, suli. you ain't passed out in a ditch or nothing right?//
-->oh yeah sorry. just zoning out here. this side is just a lot of grass and trees blowing around//
//sounds nice. that all?//
//the plat side here is ghost. heading over now.//
-->see you soon//
Suli wondered if it was possible for Braga to tell over their cybercoms just how close to coming he was. His vision was currently full–not of the trees before him–but of a recorded memory playing back in multilayer realtime. Suli was caught up in a lush bodymemory of hairless, artificially tanned flesh; a hyper-female body adorned in reproduction jewelry and slathered with “all-natural” chemical concoctions that moisturized and smoothed, perfumed and masked delicate skin from the harsh elements. This was the time his buddy Micah introduced him to this stuff called Romulan, and these two enjo chicks from Ebony Hills, his new girlfriends. A going-away present, Micah had said. It was the last good fuck he’d had before this bullshit campaign started.
Suli blew his sterile load onto the ground (it happened at the same moment every time) and then straightened up, wiping his hand across a gnarled clump of weeds as the reconstructed reality cleared from his vision and the dull rolling hills of low mountain country returned. Braga would be here soon. The two of them were a whole day away from Kay and Rahl, first team, and Suli was surprised to be happy for the time alone. Really alone. Braga was like a sentinel most of the time, and during their patrols they’d often split up like this, often without a word. Status transmissions, sure, but rarely a verbal notice.
He’d gotten himself a decent perch on the flat rock ledge of an old land fence, crumbling and half obscured with long thin stalks of yellowed grass, and crawling all the way out to where Braga was coming from now. The area looked like old-time grazing land, but it had the marks of property landscaping all over. There were large, inelegant homes every couple miles built in amalgam styles of romanticized eras past: pastel laminated siding, fake brick, large stone facades. Paved driveways and lawn decorations bore the rebellious stubble of unkempt lawn, grown over and through anything that would give. Silent family play sets and jungle gyms sunken fossil-like across from peeling farm stand signs for business. But never any vehicles. And the grass, something was the matter with the grass.
But Suli wasn’t going to let that bother him now. He was still thinking of Seih, the one in his memory with the big purple eyes and low, raspy voice that purred all kinds of nasty things into his ear. He’d let her do anything she wanted, cause she was fine. Cause she dug his “mercenary steeze,” she’d called it. Yeah, the mercenary steeze was a thing for a lot of women on the Inside of the domes. They liked getting dick from someone they thought was a real killer bad boy. Which he was. But you know, they always romanticized those things Inside. If he hadn’t been dispatched so suddenly, Suli would’ve tried to holler at Seih, all honey skin and thick body, but of course, he got shipped out. Now he’d been gone for almost three months, and she probably didn’t even remember his name. Sure, he could call her up but what good was that when he spent his days wandering across desecrated land for rich guys who planned to claim and resell it one day. And the more time passed, the more desperate he became for affection, now even starting to toy with the idea of putting the moves on his partner.
Just then, Braga’s familiar form appeared over the lazy hilltop, his matte black gear now wavering into an awful brown hue, reflecting the overwhelming rotted tone of the land around them. Suli hopped up from the ledge he sat on, slapping dust and pollen away, still mildly turned on, and began walking towards his partner when the big guy made a gesture to the field of long grass behind him.
“What the fuck is that?”
Suli looked back to where he pointed.
“Oh. I have no idea. That was here,” he offered quickly, stepping next to Braga.
It was a corpse.
“That was there?” Braga demanded, noticing the stupid glaze in Suli’s eyes. “That’s a body, yo. You didn’t make no mention of it before. How long’s it been there? Why don’t you look back for me?”
Caught without an excuse, Suli obediently checked his viz-logs, his real-time vision dropping out to look back over the past thirty minutes he’d been loitering there. Sure enough, the body had been there, almost completely shrouded in the long grass, but there. Fuck. Bodies were a big deal because you always had to find the cause of death, see what kind of body it was, and if there were more. It was part of the surveying job, which Braga once again caught Suli not doing.
“Wow, like , it even like . . . moved,” Suli said to himself, eyes still clouded over with logged vision. Braga’s face contorted in a scowl and he suddenly turned to confront his partner.
“What the fuck you really been doing, Sul?”
A pause. A sigh.
Braga sucked his tongue, palming the air away from him in annoyance. “You didn’t think it’d be dangerous to just cut out your eyesight or anything? The fuck is wrong with you, Suli? What if you got us jacked?”
“But we didn’t get jacked and we wouldn’t have anyway. The satellite feed––“
“The satellite feed has a three minute delay, dickhead. You don’t remember that time Captain got ghosted when she was going through the satellite?”
“No . . .”
“What you got in there, huh?” Braga bit, poking hard on his partner’s forehead. Suli swiped at the finger, annoyed. “Oh don’t act salty now. Suli. Fucking dickhead. How many times do I gotta school your ass, anyway?”
“You know, I don’t appreciate being treated like this.”
Braga burst out laughing.
“Treated like this?” Braga threw his head back with more laughter. “You’re a trip! You don’t appreciate it? I don’t appreciate the prospect of getting jacked cause your dumb ass wasn’t paying attention. Pssssh . . . ‘treated like this’”
Suli said nothing.
“Well you gonna apologize?”
“Sorry,” he glared.
“Hah. You’re a fucking . . . catch, Suli, you know that? You really are,” Braga shook his head. “Well, how bout this corpse––what you think? You said it moved?”
“Well,” Suli started with an ego-preserving neck crack and shoulder roll, “Yes, it moved. But only slightly. So, considering the way it’s so awkwardly sprawled and based on its position change and the nature of the terrain, I would say the corpse came to rest over an animal’s home that is now trying to get out.” Braga hmphed thoughtfully. “We could also walk over and take a look at it.”
“Yeah, let’s go take a look,” Braga echoed, clapping a hand on Suli’s shoulder and shoving him forward towards the corpse’s expanse of grass. It was a field that might have been grazed by herding animals once, but was now wild and matted like a tangle of hair that had been slept on through a fever. It was grass that sought to trip them as they walked, and pull them down into its half-decayed beds, reminding Braga of childhood horror movies about mutant plants that sought human flesh.
“This body looks fresh,” Suli began, stopping before it.
“No . . . It looks preserved,” Braga finished.
They looked at each other, then Suli reached down and pulled the corpse onto its back. It was one of those harmless looking cleanshaven old white man types. If it weren’t for the rigor mortis holding his awkward sprawl, he’d look like a sleeping beauty; he wasn’t bloated, decayed, discolored. Nothing, except for the bite wounds on his face and neck, and the signs of smaller nibbling on his fingers. Suli bent down for closer inspection.
“I wonder what that––“
“Oh shit!” Braga exclaimed suddenly, withdrawing with a jump as some tiny hissing mammal tore out from underneath the body and disappeared into the tangle. Suli, knowing better than to chide his wide-eyed partner, waited for Braga to calm down. The bigger of the two gave himself a shake and looked warily at the smaller before remembering the home he’d passed on his way over.
“I have a feeling this guy lived nearby . . . ”
James Hudson, or that’s who the mold-sopped mail said lived here, had been a farmer and lived in a nice, custom-built house, not one of the prefabs that seemed so prevalent. There was a pile of mold-eaten magazines by the entryway with names like Old Country Home and Country Living and Sheppard, which seemed to be about dogs. Braga paused to look at them when they entered the home, wondering why they weren’t called Mountain Life or Old Valley Living or something like that. But then he wasn’t going to trouble himself over things he knew nothing about, having grown up in the clutches of pre-Decline subsidized housing. Even wrecked with brightly colored molds and aggressive creeping vines, he could see that this house clearly used to be nice. Much nicer than anything he would’ve ever had the chance to live in growing up.
Suli seemed less hesitant––hell, he always was––and was already picking through pictures on the mantle.
“Look, Braga, it’s definitely him. There’s like a family portrait for every year or something. God, his wife is a horse!” he laughed.
“Yo chill with that shit, we’re in these people’s house, Suli,” Braga reprimanded sorely.
“Whatever. They’re obviously dead. His kids aren’t here and all these dogs,” he said gesturing to all the framed pictures of various prize-winning sheppard dogs, “These dogs aren’t here either, so who cares?”
Braga ignored him and proceeded towards another massive room that seemed like the kitchen. In the entryway he halted. The sight before him was unreal: A countertop with sliced bread in a bag and a basket full of vegetables. Suli bounced in beside him just then and gasped.
“Oh my god, look! It’s still some food!” Suli began to reach out for it.
“Stop!” Braga called. “I don’t think that food is still good. We’re out kinda far, right? None of the bad shit ever happened out here like it did at home, but it somehow still got messed up, right? That’s what they say? So . . . if nobody died from like, bad water or bad air, or anything toxic like that, how did they die?”
Suli made a face at Braga, whose gaze was transfixed on the bread.
“What––are you talking about?”
“I’m saying, the bread has no mold on it.”
“And how is this related to how they died?”
“Didn’t you ever hear that story from Captain, about the farmers?”
“The farmers! The migrant farmer dudes from out west who came through town saying everybody left the farms because the seed had mutated and the things that grew out of them weren’t real food anymore?”
“Wait, how’s that even possible?” Suli said finally with some genuine curiosity.
“Yeah you don’t remember that? Captain said they were saying that they tried to make adaptable seed, like cyborg seed shit that would adapt to whatever was in the soil or the air and grow a better way, you know? Yield more crop and shit. But cause the old seeds were all monoculture seeds and the pesticides and all this other shit, the adaptions got all fucked up and the food you got from them were like poisons, like active cancers and shit. It would build up in your body till you were dead.”
Braga couldn’t tear his eyes away from the bread.
“Yeah, they said the food never broke down neither. Just stayed like it was. But I didn’t believe that shit when captain was telling me about it. Just seemed so fucked up, like even the seeds are done. Even the seeds are fucked up.”
Suli put a hand on Braga’s shoulder.
“Hey, like are you all right?”
Braga finally tore his gaze away to meet his partner’s. He could see that, even though Suli was genuinely concerned, he just didn’t understand why Braga could be so horrified, just from a bag of bread that hadn’t gone bad. Later in the night, after they’d spent the afternoon finding the wife and the dogs, all similarly “preserved”, and after they’d written reports about their findings to the meshnet server, Braga found it hard to think about anything else but the food still.
Suli, in one of his rare moments of empathy, had come offering a consoling memory block that always made him feel okay when he was sad. Of course it was a sex block. Of course it was with a square from the domes, fucked up on some stupid drugs, in some ugly house–this was what Suli consoled himself with? Braga shut the clip off without even connecting to the tactile feed. And just as he was resigning himself to accepting chemically regulated rest, there came a notice that the rest of their posse were within cybercom distance of each other. It meant Rahl and Kay were not so far away anymore.
//hey braga// came Captain's voice within his head suddenly. It felt as psychically weary as he did.
//had a rough day? we sure did.//
-->/tell me about it. i finally saw the food today. the Mseed food you told me that story about that i didn't believe//
//oh girl . . . you wanna get into it tonight then?//
Not soon after they became immersed in the liminal place between both their connections, the in-between space where they released tension, the wi-fuck, they called it. Where the known hefts and angles of his Captain’s body shifted arrangements, and he, so used to being an archetype of aggressive emotional detachment in public, was on his hands and knees, willingly at the mercy of whatever humiliation or obedient bark she would dish out. She would work him through. The world was too much, and tonight he needed to cry.
PHOTO CREDIT: Hannah Elisabeth