The troop carrier bounced and rattled down the desert road. Its old, gray tires churned up a yellow dust that hung in its wake. Sergeant Chanda Bajaj tried to meet the eyes of her squad, but all she saw was olive drab helmet top or black whiskers on dark gold cheeks. They were from all over the region, some from the east and some from the south, dark-haired with olive or brown skin. They squeezed the barrels of their assault rifles. Her squad was scared, same as everyone else in the convoy.
And she was, too.
Who wouldn’t be? Awakened well before dawn, assembled on the parade grounds before being marched to the motor pool. Five ancient, T-Corp diesel burners awaited them there, the air heavy with the sharp tang of their exhaust. A sixth, even larger one had bulldozers chained to its flatbed.
“What is it, Lieutenant?” She’d asked that question of her young platoon commander. A small man, slender. He had to look up at her, face pinched, as much from intimidation at her size as her question.
He didn’t know. His eyes held the same confusion. And fear.
And so she had taken her squad to the designated vehicle and climbed aboard.
They had rumbled out of the base and headed north, sticking to back roads that challenged the coughing, old beasts and tossing the soldiers around on their hard, wooden plank seats.
When the sun came up, it revealed dead earth—cracked, littered with sun-bleached grass stalks. Equally dry riverbeds coated with the skin of long-dead algae and chemical scum.
Toxic dumps, raging temperatures. How close had their world come to dying?
Close. What the corporations hadn’t destroyed, the wars nearly had.
And there were parts that would never recover, radioactive wastelands farther west, shared with what remained of Pakistan. Lost. Unless someone wanted to spend the years of effort and money required. And no one was going to.
Her eyes drifted skyward, to the blue heavens lit by the golden sun.
Who would spend the money to save their home when there were so many other worlds to turn to now?
But she was stuck here, with her squad and her platoon. Her family.
The trucks rattled and squeaked as they came to a sudden stop. Someone shouted for them to get out.
Her squad had live rounds; she was issued a flamethrower. Another squad was tasked to carry red petrol jerrycans. She saw two flamethrowers in the other platoon.
A terrorist camp? Insurgents from Pakistan or China?
No one was going to answer any questions.
They formed into columns and double-timed through rusted gates someone had opened. Warning signs were posted across the dead fields: carcinogens, radiation, poisons.
Buildings took shape ahead—a village. Long abandoned. The simple structures leaned against dusty wind.
Then she realized they weren’t abandoned. Children spilled into the dirt road, curious. Forms moved in the fields, dropping tools, running back to the buildings.
Skin and bones, bodies burned dark by the sun—these were farmers. Desperate and pathetic.
Orders again: Break into squads, gather the occupants, take them to the outskirts of the village.
Chanda swallowed. Why? These weren’t terrorists. They weren’t a threat.
Soldiers surged forward, shouting, cracking heads with rifle butts. Kicking. Screaming. Herding the children and women.
A gun roared, and one of the farmers dropped in his tracks, clutching his chest.
Chanda shivered. She led her squad into a small shack where a young woman huddled, arms wrapped around two small kids.
“Sergeant Bajaj?” Private Kohli. Freshly graduated from basic infantry training, eyes wide and dancing around. He was locked in place in the door, licking his lips. “What are we to do?”
The flamethrower was heavy in her hands.
“Sergeant Bajaj!” The lieutenant leaned in through the opening, locked eyes on the young mother. “Gather them. Take them to the others.”
A silence settled as the mother locked eyes with Chanda. Pleading eyes.
Gunfire shattered the silence. Not a shot but several rifles firing at once.
Tears rolled down the children’s cheeks. The mother pulled them closer. “No. Please. We’ve done nothing.”
The lieutenant pushed past Kohli, grabbed one of the girls. “You have your orders!”
“Please!” The mother lunged for her child.
The lieutenant pulled his pistol and shot the woman in the chest, then holstered the weapon, glaring at Chanda. “Take them! All of them!”
She was barely aware of her squad gathering up the dying woman and the two girls. She was even less aware of following behind, watching people being forced to their knees in front of bloody corpses.
Men. Women. Children.
More gunfire, and another row of villagers jerked backward, some dead, some twitching.
The executions continued.
Her squad tossed the dying woman on top of the growing pile and pushed her girls in front of the soldiers performing the executions. They were young men, sickened by what they were doing. But they were following orders. It’s what they were trained to do.
Blood pooled, dark on the earth. The bodies were piled high. The squad with the jerrycans sloshed petrol on the corpses and the dying. One of the little girls from the hut stared at Chanda from the pile, mouth working, blood spilling out.
Chanda’s knees nearly buckled.
Her lieutenant shoved her. “Burn them!”
“I—” She couldn’t. Her fingers were clenched tight, frozen.
“They aren’t what you think. Not like us. Burn them.”
Chanda couldn’t. She staggered closer to them. The child’s eyes drawing her in. Chanda could make out the words the child couldn’t speak: I don’t want to die.
One of the other soldiers with a flamethrower stepped forward and lit the pile.
The child found her voice, screaming along with the others still alive.
Chanda reached out a hand for the little one and drew it back when the flames rolled wide and washed over her.
She fell to the ground, burning.
Burning with the child. Burning with the dead.