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Clay Soldiers

Derrick Boden is a recovering software developer who has taken up writing to kick the habit. He currently calls New Orleans his home, although he loves to travel and has lived in thirteen cities spanning four continents. Find him at
Bret woke with a piercing pain in his side, the roar of the battlefield still raging in his ears. The ceiling and walls were white. A white curtain hung at his left. A bag pumped liquid into his vein. His ragged breaths burned. The exoskeleton must've pushed through his lung. Could they fix that? God, he hoped so.
Bret's fingers sought out his pocket. He withdrew a photo, damp with sweat and blood. The most beautiful woman in the world looked back, eyes just for him, soft lips curved into a perfect smile.
"Susan," Bret said softly. If it weren't for Susan, he wouldn't have had the guts to jump out of that plane, alone in the dark.
A cough behind the curtain gave Bret a start, and the pain lanced up his neck.
"Private Bret McGuire," he said. "Who's there?"
Sheets rustled.
"Private Toby Jackson," a man said in a rasping whisper, his voice strangely familiar. "Just arrived?"
"Shouldn't be here long. My girl Susan, she'll be right along to pick me up."
Toby let out a rattling sigh. "You did just get here. Poor sap."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Your girl Susan going to Belmont?"
Bret shot a suspicious glance at the curtains. "Yeah. Graduating this spring, with a degree in--"
"Political science." That voice. Could've been his own brother, it was so damned familiar.
"How'd you know?"
"She grew up in the next town over, Allenwood. You sat behind her in Chemistry, sophomore year. You spilled a soda on her in the lunch line. How embarrassing. But she didn't mind. 'No worries,' she said, with those soft lips."
A chill overtook Bret. He stared at the photo of Susan. Was this guy a stalker? Or an enemy agent?
Toby clicked his tongue, like a kid. "But her father, old military dog, he never did like you. Thought you were a coward. So when the recruiters came knocking, you enlisted. You were gonna earn her hand in marriage. Had it all figured out."
Bret gripped the sheets. "Where am I?"
"Alliance Hospital. Reclamation wing."
"Reclamation? What's that mean? And how the hell do you know about my girl?"
"I was fighting for her too."
"Bullshit! She's my girl--"
"Easy, man." Dry coughs punctuated Toby's words. "I didn't steal your girl. But she ain't coming for you, neither. Doubt she's still alive, if she ever was. She's just a purpose."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Listen, I'm sorry. Nurse warned me not to talk about it. It's just... they gave me my final dose this morning. Got me all outta sorts. Forget what I said."
Bret tried to stand up. Pain shot through his side.
"Easy, man. Reclamation wing is for soldiers that aren't 'financially reparable.' There's no sense wasting your last breaths."
Bret bit his lip until he tasted blood. "My girl is coming for me, I know it. We're gonna get married."
"How many soldiers you meet in basic?"
"None, but--"
"And how many did you see on the battlefield?"
"I'm a drop soldier," Bret said. "We deploy solo, behind enemy lines. With the risk of capture, the brass take precautions. Train us in private cells, keep us isolated. It's bleak, but we're the most important op in the war."
"Aren't we all."
Bret looked down at the photograph. "What did you mean, my girl's just a purpose?"
Toby sucked in a rasping breath. "I guess too many Joes were coming home in body bags. Congress was losing support for the war. But there's too much oil out there for them to turn their backs. They had to ground their drones after the Big Hack, which meant more boots on the ground. Problem was, there wasn't anyone left willing to fill the boots. So DARPA bailed them out. Called it Project Clay. That was the first soldier's name, rumor has it. Could've been Bret for all I know."
Bret squinted back tears. They must've given this guy too many drugs.
"I guess too many of us were backing down, didn't want to fight. They couldn't figure out the courage gene, or whatever. Turns out, we just needed a purpose."
The room was stifling. Bret struggled to breathe.
"She gave us the courage we needed. I hear they deployed fifty thousand drop soldiers last week. Probably all fighting for Susan Lowrie. Gonna earn her hand in marriage."
"Who fed you all this?"
"Heard the doc and nurse talking. Guess they thought I was asleep. Next time the nurse came by, I grilled her. Think she felt bad, seeing as how I don't have much time left. Told me everything. Said not to spread it around. Funny thing is, even now that I know, I still love Susan. Guess it's just wired into me."
"You're a madman."
Toby let out a long breath, then fell silent.
"Toby?" The photo slipped from Bret's fingers as he reached for the side of his bed. "Toby! Answer me!"
Bret tore the tube from his arm and struggled out of the bed. An alarm blared. The air was like water in his lungs. He collapsed to the ground. His gown was slick with blood. He grabbed the dividing curtain and dragged himself across the floor. Blood pounded in his ears, like artillery from the battlefield.
He reached out a hand and grasped Toby's bed frame. He hauled himself up and leaned against the bedside. Black flecks crept into his vision. He gasped for air.
Toby lay bandaged and lifeless on the bed. His head was shaved clean and a long gash ran the length of his cheek, but otherwise he was unmistakable. It could've been his own brother, if he only had one. It could've been himself.
Toby's fingers clutched a frayed photograph. Bret pried it loose.
Hands grasped Bret and dragged him across the floor. Someone was screaming. It sounded familiar. Could've been his own brother. He looked down at the photograph.
Susan looked back, eyes just for him.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

The biggest challenge I faced while writing "Clay Soldiers" was conveying the horror of sameness. I find it interesting that while modern society obsesses over individuality, our militaries extol uniformity. In this story I wanted to convey how frightening uniformity can be, when taken too far.

- Derrick Boden

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