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EP436: Into the Breach

by Malon Edwards
read by Mandaly Louis-Charles

 

Links for this episode:

author Malon Edwards

about the author…

I’m an American speculative fiction writer. Born and raised in Chicago, I now live in the Greater Toronto Area. My short stories are often set in an alternate or near-future Chicago.

narrator Mandaly Louis-Charles

narrator Mandaly Louis-Charles

about the narrator…

My full name is Mandaly Louis-Charles. I was born and raised in the Caribbean Island of Haiti. I love languages. I promote my culture and native language on my blog at www.sweetcoconuts.blogspot.com

 

Into the Breach
by Malon Edwards

I’m off my bunk and into my jodhpurs, knee-high leather boots and flight jacket the moment the long range air attack klaxons seep into my nightly dream about Caracara.

Muscle memory and Secret Service training kick in; I’m on auto-pilot (no pun intended) and a good ways down the hall buttoning up both sides of my leather jacket to the shoulder a full thirty seconds before I’m awake.

And just so you know, the ever so slight tremble in my hands and fingers is not fear. It’s adrenaline. I’m cranked and ready to put my foot all up in it.

A door to the right opens and Pierre-Alexandre falls in on my right flank, his steps brisk like mine. Our boots echo down the long hallway as we make our way from the underground bunker at Soldier Field to the bunker at Meigs Field.

What you think we got? he asks.

My reptile mind—that wonderful, hedonistic thing of mine—notices how lovely his make-me-jump-up-and-dance-like-I-just-caught-the-Holy-Ghost-in-church dark skin looks in the red emergency scramble lighting.

And yeah, I know. I’m going to hell for that.

A door to my left opens and René-Bastien, better known as Pretty Boy, falls in on my left flank and matches our stride.

My guess is fifteen bogeys coming in hard and fast from the south, he says.

His flight jacket is only half buttoned and he’s not wearing his T.I. issued white tee-shirt (that’s Tuskegee Institute for those that don’t know). I flicker a glance at his beautiful, honey-hued, well-muscled chest and frown.

I bet he just left some police academy recruit in his bunk. Good-N-Plenty is going to smack him upside his head for entertaining unauthorized personnel after lights out. Lax discipline gets people killed. We’ve had enough of that, lately.

It don’t matter what we got, I tell them, throwing open the double doors leading to the enormous underground hangar at Meigs Field, as long as we finish what they start.

We hustle down the short flight of metal stairs and fan out to our respective bright-shirted handlers waiting for us at our outfit stations: me to Skittles, Pierre-Alexandre to Sour Patch, and Pretty Boy to Good-N-Plenty. Good-N-Plenty pops the back of Pretty Boy’s neck with a comb before she hands it to him and buttons up his flight jacket.

Skittles catches my eye as I pull on thin leather gloves and stand shoulder-width apart on my platform, arms outstretched.

You okay? she asks as her fingers flow across her station console, manipulating my exo-skeleton into place from above.

I hesitate for a fraction of a second before I answer. M byen. I’m cool.

Skittles tries to hold my gaze. She knows I’m still grieving hard. Instead, I look at the empty outfit stations scattered throughout the hangar. Once, there were  thirty-six of us, including Caracara. I still can’t bring myself to look at her station on my right.

Robotic arms lower the torso of my powered armor onto me and outfit my arms and legs with the rest of my sleek exo-skeleton. I feel all components lock into place, one by one.

You’re online, Skittles says, handing me my helmet.

Systems check? I ask her.

All systems green, including weapons.

What’s the gouge?

Skittles glances at a second console screen. Thirty-one bandits, south by southwest. City-state airspace ETA five minutes.

Shit. This isn’t just a show of force. The State of Illinois wants to crush us. Wipe us out. Smother us in the bed of our city-state infancy.

Is the Sable safe? I ask her.

She nods. Safe and protected in an undisclosed location with Marie-Therèse, Marie-Louise, Jean-François and the last CPD contingent. (That’s Chicago Police Department, for those that don’t know.)

I smirk. I told them they’d outlive us.

We’re not dead yet, Pretty Boy says, and his voice echoes as it carries to me from across the almost-empty bunker.

We will be if you don’t put down that damn comb, Pierre-Alexandre tells him.

I pat my tight and right Janelle Monáe before I wreck it with my helmet. I’m taking the scissors to your hair when we get back, I say to Pretty Boy.

If we get back.

Pretty Boy shakes out his hair before he puts on his helmet. Cut these beautiful curls, he says through our helmlink, and you take away my power.

Your power of bullshit, Pierre-Alexandre says.

I can’t help but smile. Good thing they can’t see it. They might think I’m getting soft.

Scramble in thirty seconds, I tell them.

Skittles starts the countdown clock before she steps onto my platform and throws both arms around me. Kale je. Her voice is soft. Hesitant. I needed that hug. I don’t tell her that, though.

My eyes are always open, I say instead.

Except when Caracara died.

It wasn’t your fault, she says, putting on her headset and switching to our private commlink. Skittles is a good handler. She knows me better than I know myself.

Tell that to my dreams, I whisper.

One hundred feet up, the roof of the bunker slides open, taking its sweet time. Skittles steps off my platform and goes back to her console. I watch the last ten seconds to lift-off flip down to zero on the huge digital clock affixed to the far wall.

Anmize ou byen, Skittles says in my earcomm, her voice now normal-husky like far-off water over rocks. Tandiske fè atansyon.

I laugh into our private commlink. Both fun and careful are my middle names, I tell her before I touch my left thumb to base of my left pinkie.

The rocket pack molded into the powered armor Skittles designed and built for me roars to life. Not wanting to be left in my exhaust—drawers down and ass-out embarrassed again—Pierre-Alexandre and Pretty Boy fire up their rockets, too.

I look over at them, and then up at the so small dark sky.

Men m la pran m, I tell them.

Catch me if you can.

***

I didn’t think that day would be our last together.

I didn’t think that would be our last sortie.

I didn’t think I would never see you again.

You gave me no reason to think that way.

You were fierce. You were bold.

You didn’t take shit from nobody.

You never doubted yourself.

At least, that’s what I thought.

You’d always said, If we doubt, we die.

I often wonder if you’d ever thought, I just may die today.

But then, I shake those thoughts away. And I put on estipid bravado along with my armor.

Like I did just now in the hangar with Skittles.

Yeah, I was frontin’.

Tankou si ou. Tankou granpè nou.

Just like you. Just like our grandfather.

We must have gotten it from him. And look where it got you.

I wonder if I’m going to die today.

I hope I don’t die today.

I’m afraid of dying today.

But not if that means I get to see you again.

***

Not that I didn’t believe Skittles, but I’m still surprised to see ten Maybach 62S exo-fighters escorting twenty-one Conquest Knight XV shit shells over the south suburbs, just miles short of city-state airspace.

Well, I did tell Skittles fun is my middle name.

And careful, too. But to hell with that.

Bèl Flè, grann mwen—my grandmother—used to say, kapon antere manman l. Cowards bury their mothers.

Or in my case, their sisters.

I don’t want to be a coward today.

Get your guns ready, boys, I tell Pierre-Alexandre and Pretty Boy as we tease out the sound barrier to play with us over Park Forest, Illinois.

Ready to go hard and fast, Pierre-Alexandre answers.

I hope you didn’t tell her that last night, Pretty Boy lobs to him.

I can already see where this is going. Pierre-Alexandre has never been that bright. Strong and reliable, yes. But a neg sòt, too.

Tell who? he asks Pretty Boy.

Palmetta.

There’s a brief pause, and then Pierre-Alexandre says, You just mad ‘cause it’s gon take you five hours to get your butters back done up after this.

Pretty Boy kisses his teeth, sadness in his voice. You ain’t said nothing but a word.

I clear my throat. While you boys are mourning Pretty Boy’s hair, I’ll just go defend our Sovereign State and its freedom.

I touch the tips of my thumbs to the tips of my middle fingers, as if I’m about to meditate for enlightenment. Not quite.

Side-mounted Browning M2 .50 caliber machine guns unfold from a compartment in my exo-arms. One hundred and seventy-five rounds each. My radar shows me that Pierre-Alexandre and Pretty Boy are now armed and have done the same.

Our guns and ammo don’t leave room for much else, but they do go well with our exo-skeletons: my Mercedes Benz S-Guard 600 powered armor, also known as Lark; Pierre-Alexandre’s Audi Attack 8 powered armor, also known as War Eagle; and Pretty Boy’s BMW 7 Series High Security powered armor, also known as Peacock.

Yeah. You heard right. Peacock.

Just know I didn’t hand out code names when I first assembled this outfit.

We doing the usual maneuvers? Pierre-Alexandre asks me.

No. The usual got Caracara killed.

Out loud I say: No. Fall back. Let them think we’re buggin’ out because we’re surprised by their numbers.

I pull up and hover. Pierre-Alexandre and Pretty Boy flank me. White, wispy-thin clouds broker the distance between us and the Illinois National Guard’s shit shells.

I am surprised by their numbers. And somewhat cowed.

But I lift my chin at our enemy, my voice flush with that estipid bravado I inherited from granpè mwen (Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable, for those that don’t know). The same estipid bravado he had when he seceded Chicago from the State of Illinois, established the City-State of One Hundred Fists and named himself Lord Mayor.

The same estipid bravado that killed Caracara.

When their shit shells open their hatches to let loose their turds, I tell my dwindled team, move into position beneath and blow them straight to hell.

***

Before the air attack klaxons sounded, I’d been dreaming I was five years old again, sitting on my grandfather’s knee.  Michaëlle-Anicia was sitting next to me, on his other one.

Tell us again where the gold is, Grandfather, I’d said to him.

And the silver! And the diamonds! Michaëlle-Anicia piped up.

Grandfather chuckled and kissed the loose, dark curls at the crown of our small heads. The gold and the silver and the diamonds, he told us, are in the same place when I first settled in Chicago many coffee harvests ago.

San rekòt kafe? Michaëlle-Anicia asked him.

Grandfather pulled us close and laughed again, so deep and so rich that his big belly shook both our backs. Ti chouchou, he asked my twin sister, do I look that old to you?

Wi, Granpè, she answered, and pushed on his big belly with her tiny fists. I giggled, both hands over my mouth.

Non, non, Grandfather said, shaking his head, I have seen nowhere near one hundred coffee harvests. Now, your grann, Bèl Flè mwen, she has seen many rekòt kafe. I bet she has seen more rekòt kafe than you can count.

Nuh uh! Michaëlle-Anicia flared, sitting up straighter with challenge.

How many has Grann seen? I asked.

Can you count twa san rekòt kafe? Grandfather asked us.

Wi! Michaëlle-Anicia answered, and she could. So could I.

Grann is not that old, I said, my mouth pursed in disbelief.

Oh, but she is! Grandfather assured us. Bèl Flè mwen, lanmou cheri mwen—your grandmother—she saw the bombs drop and scorch the land, many, many coffee harvests ago.

Our eyes widened with wonder and pride and fascination as Grandfather told us again the story of Chicago’s history and our family, a story we could never get enough of.

But remember, ti chouchou, Grandfather went on to say, it was also grann mwen who rebirthed Chicago. It was she who purified the soil and cleansed Lake Michigan again. It was she who put the gold and silver and diamonds—and the copper and the uranium, too—deep down in the earth, and called it the Gold Coast. All so we could rebuild and thrive and live.

And the big bad State wants us to give it all to them! Michaëlle-Anicia shouted, her fists clenched angry.

Just like the big bad wolf! I shouted with her.

Ah, but ti fi cheri mwen yo, Grandfather said, we should always share with those who are less fortunate.

Why? Michaëlle-Anicia asked, her fists still angry. They take and take and take, and they never give anything back!

‘E vre! I shouted, wanting to be louder than my twin sister. They will take until we have nothing left!

No, they won’t, Grandfather told us, his voice deep and calm. We will only share until they have enough. Until they can rebuild and thrive and live. Just like us. And when they are finally able to do so, we shall share no more, and they will take no more.

Non, Granpè! Michaëlle-Anicia said. Ou fè erè! They will always take and take because they are bigger and because they are bullies!

Ah, ti chouchou, Grandfather tutted, but I am right. The State of Illinois will take no more than we give them because you and your sister will not let them.

Michaëlle-Anicia turned to face Grandfather and looked up at him, her eyes narrowed and her head cocked to one side, so I did the same.

And if the day ever comes where they try, Grandfather continued, kissing the crown of our small heads again, Senyè, lonje men ba yo.

***

It’s as if the Illinois National Guard knows what we’re doing. Their shit shells hold and hover as well. Standoff.

Not that this was ever meant to be a complex plan.

What now, bòs? Pierre-Alexandre asks me.

Kounye a, my grandfather is somewhere hiding in a deep, dark basement—afraid —waiting for the city he rebuilt from its ashes to fall on his head.

I never thought I’d see the day granpè mwen would cower. From the time I was ti fi, I always believed he feared nothing.

He is a gwo nèg. A bon nèg.

He is the rebèl who gave the Land of Lincoln the double middle finger. The politisyen who made Chicago a Sovereign State, and gave Kreyòl and English equal legal weight. The innovateur who manufactured the armor that seduced me and Caracara with its sleek, sexy power—a power manman nou, our mother, never forgave us for embracing.

Not even on her deathbed.

Caracara is supposed to be here. Caracara is supposed to be doing this.

I guess it’s up to me now.

I look at Pierre-Alexandre and then Pretty Boy. Back to the usual maneuvers, I tell them. I’ll take the point. Follow my lead.

She did always say: go big, or go home.

***

I never call her Caracara in my dreams. It’s always Michaëlle-Anicia.

And she never calls me Michaëlle-Modeste. It’s always Lark.

So when Caracara said to me, Lark, love of my heart, if you die today, I will kick your ass, I knew my dream had changed and we were no longer five years old sitting on Grandfather’s knee.

Grandfather shouldn’t have made me head of his Secret Service, I’d told Michaëlle-Anicia. He should have chosen you.

Michaëlle-Anicia took both my hands in hers. We stood, facing one another. My mirror. Her mirror.

He chose you, she said, because he knew I would die. I am foolish. You are not.

Non, I told her, shaking my head. I never wanted this. But I put on my armor because you put on your armor first. I wanted to do everything you did. You were born for this. Not me.

Non, Michaëlle-Anicia countered, shaking her head harder than my head shake so her loose, dark curls flew. You were born for this, just as much as I was. Bèl Flè—grann mwen—made you strong, just as she made me strong.

I don’t believe in Bèl Flè, I said, dropping her hands, my voice small. We are no longer ti fi, I went on. We no longer have short curls and skinned knees. I don’t believe Granpè’s tall tales anymore.

Michaëlle-Anicia scowled at me. She looked disgusted. Because you are afraid they are true.

Non, I said, because—

But Michaëlle-Anicia shouted me down, challenging as always. Because you are afraid to embrace Bèl Flè’s legacy! Because you are afraid to lead! Because you are afraid everyone knows your flawed decisions killed me and almost every single one of your team members!

Her shouts bounced all around us before they were swallowed by a white, loud silence that rang in my ears. Never before had my twin sister said anything like that to me. Not in my dreams. Not when she was alive.

I turned away from her, from my mirror, so she couldn’t see me struggle not to cry. Se pa vre, I whispered at the whiteness all around me, that’s not true at all.

But Michaëlle-Anicia didn’t answer because the air attack klaxons sounded, shattering my dream, taking her away from me.

***

You’re stressing your armor, Skittles says in my earcomm, her voice calm and quiet, as it always is during battle. A lot. Any faster, and Lark will break apart.

Mwen pa bay yon mèd, I say, my voice just as soft, and I push even further past the sound barrier, toward the Illinois wedge of exo-fighters and bombers.

Michaëlle-Modeste! Skittles scolds, shocked by my language. That’s the loudest I’ve ever heard her speak. And the most pained.

Well, I don’t care! I scream at her, just as loud, and lapoula, I wish I could take those words back.

I check my heads-up display radar to make sure Pierre-Alexandre and Pretty Boy are still flanking me before I apologize. Eskize’m, I tell her, my voice small and five years old again. Really, I am.

That armor is my life, she whispers.

I know, I tell her.

I’ve devoted more time to Lark than I have to manman mwen ak sè mwen, she says.

I know, I say again.

I love Lark as much as I love you.

I know, I repeat a third time, because I don’t know what else to say.

Stop saying I know, she yells at me again, and start respecting her! And while you’re at it, she goes on, stop feeling sorry for yourself because your sister is dead, and go bust some Illinois ass!

She doesn’t have to tell me twice.

As I streak toward the Illinois wedge—tankou moun fou—like a crazy person—I line up the ten Maybach 62S exo-fighters and twenty-one shit shell bombers in my sights, fists outstretched, Supergirl-style. My .50 caliber Brownings tear through five of the ten Maybachs. Jagged, black pieces of exo-skeleton go flying, end over end.

I’m not surprised. They’re just fodder. The shit shell bombers are the ones with the heavy armor. They do all the damage.

The return fire is hot. I point my toes and roll onto my back, dodging most of it with my usual grace as I watch the five Maybachs spin away from their wedge and fall to the earth, limp and broken.

Just like Caracara fell.

But I’m not graceful enough. Blazing pain rips into my left shoulder and right hip.

How bad is it? Skittles asks, lapoula.

Se pa mal, I lie, as my blood streams out to mix with the thin clouds. Se pa anyen ditou.

You never were a good liar, she chides, her voice softer than usual.

Yell at me when I get back, I tell her, my voice just as soft, and then I say louder into my helmlink: How are you doing out there boys?

Eight bombers down, Pretty Boy answers, but they’re starting to shit all over the world.

Well, we can’t have that, I say, my voice wavering yon ti kras, now can we?

You keep those Maybachs busy, Pierre Alexandre tells me, and we can finish off these shit shells in about di minit.

Knowing you and Pretty Boy, I say, rolling onto my stomach, I’ll be done here in five and have to save your asses.

I’m channeling Caracara big time now, talking shit and everything. Wish I would have known wedge busting was this fun before she died.

How’s the armor holding up? I ask Skittles, forcing strength into my voice.

She doesn’t buy it. Better question is, she says with all the gravity in the world (no pun intended), how are you holding up?

M byen, I tell her, good enough to do this.

I put my arms tight to my sides for better aerodynamics and climb straight up to the dark edge of space, ak tout vitès. The Maybachs pursue, just as I expected. My teeth rattle as the g-forces try to tear me and my armor to pieces.

When I can’t take it anymore, I bank left, hard. Two of the Maybachs go with me. The other three shake apart and tumble back to the earth.

My neck, my head, my lungs, my heart scream with pain as I try to circle behind the last two Maybachs. I’m too far up. The turn is too tight. I won’t make it.

And then, the white-hot fire from their bullets rip my left side open.

I don’t hear my crash avoidance alarms going off. I don’t hear Skittles crying and screaming at me to right myself. I don’t even hear the howl of the wind as I spin and fall. I push that all aside.

I just focus on the two Maybachs above, diving for me, arms at their sides.

And— after one revolution, two revolutions, three revolutions— I smile, let loose my guns, and blow both Maybachs straight to hell.

***

Michaëlle-Anicia had been our wedge-buster.

Lib-e-libè. Wild at heart. Our free spirit.

More than one hundred and fifty sorties. And hardly a scratch to Caracara.

She’d been badass that way.

Michaëlle-Anicia had also fiercely believed in Bèl Flè.

She believed Bèl Flè had been stricken with polio by Babalú-Ayé, the god of sickness and disease, who withered every last one of Bèl Flè’s organs when she was ti fi.

She believed gwo grann, our great-grandmother, took Bèl Flè to a steam surgeon who specialized in metallurgy and glasswork, and told him to fix her daughter.

She believed the steam surgeon removed all of Bèl Flè’s withered organs, gave her a steam clock heart and compost boiler, and then encased her torso with nigh-unbreakable glass.

She believed Bèl Flè’s compost boiler, powered by the most high-quality coal dust, creates rich, dark, pristine topsoil every three weeks.

She believed Bèl Flè used that rich, dark, pristine topsoil to cover the scorched land and glowing ash left by the bombs and warheads.

She believed healthy and vibrant grass, plants and trees grew from Bèl Flè’s rich, dark, pristine topsoil.

She believed the transpiration from the healthy and vibrant grass, plants and trees reversed the effects of nuclear winter, bringing fat, cleansing raindrops not seen for years on the North American continent.

And she believed, after the war, Bèl Flè placed gold, silver and diamonds, and uranium and copper, too, deep within the earth beneath Chicago, called that land the Gold Coast, and left it all for Granpè to govern as Lord Mayor.

Those were the beatitudes of Michaëlle-Anicia.

But now, as I streak toward the earth tankou yon boul dife—like a ball of fire—I recite her beatitudes and make them mine.

And they give me strength.

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