We didn’t always get along.
When we were little, the creche mothers said we fought and bickered constantly. They spent countless hours trying to get us to stop tormenting one another, until one day, they found something that worked. You were three, I was four, and I had just pulled your pigtails because you called me names. Instead of spanking us or sending us to reflect, they made use hug it out.
I guess it worked, because we never really stopped.
For whatever reason, we found comfort in each other’s arms. From that day on, whenever one of us cried, or was sad, or happy, or pretty much anything, we ran and gave the other one a big hug. The creche mothers thought it was adorable, though I’m sure they got tired of chasing us out of each other's’ rooms. After about the dozenth time finding us curled up together, they just stopped trying.
Other kids tried to pick on us, but we didn’t care. I was always big for my age, and you fought dirty. Given the war on, the creche fathers thought that was a good sign. If we would fight that hard to protect each other, imagine what we could do to protect our world. If Tony Halstead’s broken arm was any indication, quite a lot.
Time marched ever onwards, and we left the creche for school. The teachers frowned on our hugs and absolutely forbid us to enter the other’s dormitory, but our files from the creche stopped them short of keeping us apart. By the time I was eight, I could take most of them in a fight anyway. It was easier just to let us have our way, to let us have each other.
You were ten the first time I kissed you. It was a chaste kiss, a peck on the cheek from one child to another. You were so surprised, you punched me right in the nose. And then made me do it again. I was grinning ear to ear on the way to the nurse’s office to get my deviated septum put back in place.
From then on, that was our greeting. The other kids knew better than to make fun of us by that point, at least to our faces. Occasionally a newcomer would snicker whenever I walked up and planted a kiss on your cheek in between classes, but we never had to address the situation. The other kids quickly warned them off. I suspect a few wanted to try their luck, but the video of the fight with the Majora sisters was something of a legend in our school. The teachers tried to stop it from going around, but the harder they tried, the more people saw it.
I was fourteen the first time I kissed you on the lips. It was a complete accident. I tried to sneak up behind you, but you must have heard, because you turned around and our lips met. We were both so shocked and embarrassed, we didn’t speak to each other for a whole day. When next we met, we must have decided we liked it, because we didn’t stop until it was time to leave for class.
We never dated, not like the other kids, who constantly got together, broke up, and did it all again, swapping partners like trading cards. I still kissed you on the cheek whenever we met (or occasionally on the lips, whenever we had a moment of privacy) but we insisted we were never a couple. I think we were afraid that making it official would somehow ruin the magic.
I had a few girlfriends, you had a few boyfriends, but it never lasted. They never really understood us, got mad when I kissed you on the cheek. After about the third or fourth time explaining that I was there first, and if they didn’t like it they could go screw, you gave up on trying to keep them around. I didn’t have the patience to deal with most of the girls our age. Maybe they weren’t really as shallow as I thought at the time, but they weren’t you. I couldn’t talk to them the way I could you, couldn’t spend the night on the rooftops watching stars with them.
I was seventeen when I received notice that I’d be shipping out for training on my birthday. We both knew this day was coming. The strongest, the smartest, the best of us all got notice, and I was always the best in our age group. We stayed up all night crying. It was a death sentence, and we knew it. Ten years of service, and the only way out was death. So few made it through the whole ten years, and we knew the odds were not in my favor.
Later, I found out that you would have gotten notice as well, but it was decided that I would fight harder if I knew you were back on earth. They thought II would go through hell to keep you safe. They were right.
The night before I left for training, I told you I loved you for the first time. I have no idea why I waited so long. We both knew it, but neither of us ever said it. You said you would wait for me, that when I got back, we would be together. I made you promise not to. Odds were, we’d never see each other again, and I wanted you to be happy. I made you promise to find love. That last night was also the first time we made love. It was clumsy and bittersweet, but heartfelt. I still have the scar on my arm from where I cut it on a loose nail on the roof.
The next year was the hardest of my life. It wasn’t the training, though that was hell in and of itself. It was being away from you. It was going to sleep at night surrounded by the snores and the sobs of forty other men, crying myself to sleep at night because I couldn’t hold you in my arms. I resolved to make it home to you, somehow, some way. I ran faster, fought harder, shot straighter. I was going to make it back to you, dammit.
It was at training that we learned about the adversary. They had no name, not that we knew. Strong, fast, with armored carapaces and envenomed fangs. A single bite meant certain death. The only thing that seemed to put them down and keep them down was Five Rounds Rapid. The instructors likely didn’t know that it was a reference to an old British science fiction show. All they knew was that it worked.
Five bullets delivered in the span of a second, drawing a five-pointed star where the heart of a human would be. For a month straight, we practiced that drill day in and day out. Wake up, PT, eat breakfast, go to the range to work on Five Rounds Rapid. After a month, we could do it in our sleep. Anyone who couldn’t faced the firing squad. No one would be in training if they weren’t judged to have been perfectly capable, and thus failure was intentional and not tolerated. The first living creature I killed with Five Rounds Rapid was my squad leader.
While I was at training, you met him. He was big and strong. Maybe not the brightest bulb on the tree, or he would have received notice himself, and he had a reputation for having a temper, but he was nice to you. He held you while you cried at night, and through the haze of tears and alcohol, you could almost pretend he was someone else.
After a few months, he asked you to marry him. You remembered your promise. You said yes.
I am so sorry.
When the wedding invitation came in the mail, my commander made an exception and granted me leave for the day. Some considerations were made for we who were about to die, and he reckoned I had earned a chance to say my goodbyes.
I showed up the night before, unannounced. You were at dinner with your family. I snuck up behind you and tried to kiss you on the cheek. You must have heard, because you turned around, and our lips met. I don’t think anyone was ready for that, least of all your soon to be husband. I apologized profusely, but I could see something hardening in his eyes.
We dared not be alone together that night. Had either of us said the word, we would have gladly ran away together, taken our chances with the MPs, but we didn’t. I’ve never cried so hard in my life. I stood next to you at the altar the next day, my dress uniform immaculate. Your groom glared daggers at me the whole time. He knew why your eyes were red and puffy, and it wasn’t for him.
I left not long after the ceremony. My ship was scheduled to leave early in the morning, and I couldn’t be late. That night, on your wedding night, he hit you for the first time.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like. We both know you could have taken him apart like a child’s toy, but maybe you were paralyzed with grief. Maybe you thought you deserved it, or that it didn’t matter and wouldn’t happen again.
Whatever reason, the next eight years were hell for the both of us.
Every day, I woke up, put on my armor, and fought against an enemy that would have gladly wiped the human race from the face of the universe. Every night, I returned to the barracks tired, sore, and disappointed that this day hadn’t been my last. Only the thought of you kept me going.
I married, briefly. She was smart and pretty and had a wit as sharp as the adversary’s fangs. You would have liked her. For three weeks, we knew something like happiness. And then it was over, cut short by a thrust from one of the adversary’s wicked short swords. She died in my arms, and a part of me died with her.
I stopped caring. Every day, I tried harder and harder to die on the battlefield. I took insane risks, faced odds that should have killed me a hundred times over. My squad stopped trying to keep up, content to simply keep out of my way. I was a berserker. I was death incarnate. I was broken.
And then one day I received a letter from your father. He was worried about you. He hadn’t seen you in months, and calls went unanswered. My exploits were the stuff of legend back home, and he begged me not to die before I could see you again. Though he didn’t say it, I think he wanted me to save you.
All of the sudden, I had something to live for again.
My commander was worried that I might lose my edge, had tried to stop the letter from coming through, but fame has its privileges. He needn’t have worried. I was going to come home, and neither the wrath of heaven nor the fires of hell would stop me. I still fought like a man possessed, but I started fighting smart. My squadmates learned to work with me. Together, we began to do the impossible: we started winning.
All of that changed when I died. It was the hardest battle yet. The blood ran in rivers on the battlefield, both the brick red of human and the cyan of the adversary. The records show that me and my squad accounted for over a thousand of the adversary’s best troops that day. We pushed them back to the brink, and then beyond it. The battle was won, maybe even the war. I didn’t even notice I had been bitten.
The adversary’s venom takes some time to act. It can take hours for a lethal dose to take effect, but when it does, there is no cure. One second I was fine. The next, my heart stopped beating.
What happened next could only be described as a miracle. As I lay there, dead in all but name, I heard your voice calling out to me. I couldn’t give up. I refused to give up. I placed my gun to my chest and pulled the trigger. Five Rounds Rapid.
The bullets didn’t penetrate my armor, but the shock restarted my heart somehow. As it turns out, this can happen in rare cases. Less than one in ten thousand have the potential to survive, and of those, only a tiny fraction manage to maintain the presence of mind to attempt to save themselves.
This left the military in a tricky position. I was still their best fighter, a walking engine of death and hailed on the news as the savior of mankind. On the other hand, I had died. The terms of my contract had been filled. Legally, they couldn’t force me to fight any longer. Oh, they tried. They threatened and cajoled and tried every dirty trick in the book, but when the media got word, there was no stopping the inevitable.
For the sake of avoiding trouble, I agreed to take up a training billet, but only after a year of rest and recuperation. They were so thrilled they weren’t going to lose me altogether, I think my commander nearly fainted.
I returned home to a hero’s welcome. Less than a hundred soldiers had returned from the war thus far, and the government was determined to get as much mileage out of the event as possible.
I didn’t care, I only wanted to see you. I sat through the parade and the press conference and so much pomp and circumstance, I wanted to scream and shout and start shooting until they let me go, but I didn’t. As much as I hated it, it was my duty. Or at least, that’s how they framed it to me. It was my duty to give people hope.
To hell with the people. They weren’t you.
I finally made it to our town a week later. The mayor wanted to throw yet another parade, but was dissuaded after I calmly explained that I would shoot her and everyone in the building if they made me sit through that again. If they had any idea how close they came to dying, they would have never made me stop at town hall in the first place.
I searched all over town for you. Your old friends hadn’t seen you. Your family knew you were alive, but little else. I finally bribed and threatened my way into the public registry to find your address, and headed there as quickly as my feet would carry.
You were in the yard when I arrived. It was a nice yard, all things considered. I realized that the boy and girl running around were your children. They must have been your reason to keep fighting, to keep enduring, because I could see the quiet despair in your eyes even from the street. You were a little older than I remembered, a little more careworn. Your eyes had deep bags under them, and your lip had recently been split. I could see you favoring your ribs.
I hopped the neat white picket fence. My blood was boiling. Your husband saw me coming from the house, and stepped out on the porch with a shotgun.
I didn’t care.
Your children started screaming and ran.
I didn’t care.
You turned and saw me and the years and the despair melted away, and in that moment, only you and I existed. I don’t even remember drawing my gun as your husband drew a bead on me. I could do Five Rounds Rapid in my sleep, and he was nowhere near as fast as the adversary. Five rounds left my sidearm before the first spent casing ever hit the ground. And then you were in my arms, and nothing else mattered.
Later, the police would rule the shooting suicide. After all, they reasoned, I was the most recognizable person on the planet at the moment, and for five long years, my face had been on the evening news almost every day. He must have wanted to die, they reasoned, or he wouldn’t have bothered.
That night, I held you in my arms again. Or maybe you held me. Honestly, I’m not sure which. We laughed and smiled and cried and marveled at how the years can change a person. You were self conscious about your stretch marks, and I was self conscious about the remnants of old wounds that crisscrossed across my body. Yours were the more noble set of scars, I said. You created life, I merely took it.
Your children were scared of me, at least at first. They didn’t see me shoot their father, but I’m sure they knew what had happened. They’re smarter than they let on, I think. They know he was a bad man who hurt their mommy, but a child’s love is uncomplicated and unconditional. They’ve been through a lot, but they’re strong. I’ve come to love them these last few weeks. I wish we had more time together, but at the same time, I’m glad it wasn’t longer. They may miss me for a time, but they’re not attached.
This is where things get hard. I’m sorry, my love, but I’m going to have to leave you behind.
You’ll recall I was bitten, and that I died. It’s common knowledge that the adversary’s venom stops the heart. What isn’t as common, what I’m just now discovering, is that it isn’t venom at all. At least, not the way we think of it.
It’s not supposed to kill, or it’s not only supposed to kill. For those strong enough to survive it, it changes them. I swear I didn’t know, or I wouldn’t have stayed more than that first night. I don’t think anyone knows. There are less than a hundred of us on Earth, and tonight, we’re all changing. I can feel it.
I woke up tonight to a sound that wasn’t a sound. Or something. It’s...hard to describe. I can hear it calling. I can feel it in my heart. That isn’t a metaphor. Something is growing inside my chest, changing me. I can feel myself slipping away, being replaced by something different. Something dangerous. I think the adversary is making me their own.
I’m so scared.
I will not become their puppet. I will not hurt you, or those kids, or anyone else. In a few minutes, I’m going to wake you up, and I’m going to give you a gun and a choice. I pray you’ll be strong enough to do the right thing, because already I know that I am not. I tried to pull the trigger as soon as I realized, but my fingers wouldn’t listen. I’m so sorry. You shouldn’t have to do this, but there’s no time.
I’m writing this down so that you’ll remember. Remember that I love you, that I have always loved you. Remember the times we’ve had together. Remember the laughter, the tears, the quiet moments when it was only us and the whole world faded away.
Remember what I showed you. You were always a quick learner, and you took to it faster than anyone I’ve ever known. It’s just like drawing those five pointed stars we scrawled all over the walls of your dorm room as kids. I know it’s hard, but it’s the only way to be sure that I go down and stay down.
Be strong, my love, and remember: Five Rounds Rapid.