From the author: A soldier finds that being shot in the head is the least of his problems today. A short story featuring war, bloodshed, swearing at new friends! Also cats.
John Cho sat with his back against warm bricks, blood dripping down his face and into one eye. This was not good. He was halfway to dehydrated under his armour, which may at least slow the bleeding, and his skull was still shuddering with the impact reverb. His left thigh was also leaking red at a rate he didn’t much like, but that was away from any of those pesky arteries so he would worry about that later.
“Base, this is Cho,” he said into his radio, the headphone mic blown to shit by the bullet meant to get his right temple. “We’ve had hostile fire in one of the abandoned Guard Palaces and I’ve been separated from squad, over.”
“Cho, this is Haskins, where the fuck are ya’, over?” John laughed, glad to hear the Liverpudlian accent crackle over the machine at him.
“I’m holed up in one of the outbuildings, defendable, but I’m bleeding. Did the Ruperts make it back, over?”
“Yeah, we got the brass back all shiny, their vehicle’s blown to shit though. You needing evac, over?” Gunfire sounded from outside, forcing his spine straight and plastering himself as far against the wall as he could.
“That’d be about right, aye, over,” he said, lowering his voice as much as he dared. “I hear active fire, is there anyone else still out, over?”
“We’ve only had the back two return, you’re one of four we’re waiting to hear from, over.”
“Shit,” John hissed, tapping his head back against the bricks. He was sure he’d heard his ride squeal off after they’d been targeted, bullets dinging against the light armour vehicle like hailstones. He’d gone down when the bullet clipped him, probably looked like dead weight with blood on his face. Why was anyone else out?
“Don’t worry about that, Cho, stay put. If anyone else radios in I’ll get them to find you, otherwise just sit your pretty arse down and try not to bleed out on me, over,” Haskins said and John shook his head, for all the good it would do.
“It’s a head wound but I still have mobility, I could find people. Is Carl not even back?” Carl, still a damn idiot given he was the newest to enter the base, was only a bloody lad really – barely twenty and too green to be in a real fight.
“No one else has called in yet, might mean they’re on way. If they are we’ll get them as we come to pick you up. We should be there in about forty minutes, can you manage that long, over?”
“Aye, yeah I should be able to hold that. The bleeding’s slowed off a bit, I can sort of see out of both eyes, over.” A clattering, metallic noise rang out from the doorway and he held his breath, finger hovering over the power pack. “Haskins, I’m suspecting company, going to see if I have to engage.”
“John, be care-” He clicked the button before Michael could finish his admonishment, trying to make his brain focus for long enough to check his risk factors. He had his knife, he had his side arm, he had his armour on. He was largely secure, despite the fact he couldn’t see straight and half the world had a russet tinge.
Slipping his knife out for the image rather than the effectiveness, he began to push up, hissing against the screaming in his leg. Just as he made it up into something like standing the door was flung open, a large swathe of sun illuminating the building in amber. A woman ran in, glancing over her shoulder before closing the door and racing to the opposite corner on his wall.
“What the …?” John asked, glancing between the door and the woman. There was precious little light to the place except what spilled under the door and in from a high window along the gable end, but she was clearly out of place.
“John, is that you?” she asked, accent identical to his.
“Mrs Sharp?” Mrs Sharp had been his English teacher in secondary school, a newly qualified woman with short skirts and more patience than was good for her. Standing a bit over five three she was the same size as most of the class back then and John had spent longer than he cared to admit thinking about her when he was in school. Which was a long time ago. In Manchester.
“Thank goodness you’re alright,” she said, starting to move towards him but he brought his knife up, shaking his head. “John, what’s wrong?”
“Well, do forgive me if this comes across the wrong way, but I have been shot in the head,” he said with a desperate laugh, grip tightening. “Last time I saw you was when I left school.”
“Yes, I told you not to go and do this. That you could pursue a degree and have a safer life,” she said, stepping slowly closer.
“That’s absolutely right, spot on,” John agreed, nodding along. “But that was back in England, and we’re in the middle of Basra. And a step or two off the beaten track.”
“John, you’ve been hurt, it’ll make sense once you’ve been seen to,” she said, continuing towards him. Her hair was right, tumbling down her back in dark blonde waves.
“See, the other problem,” he said, pointing the knife directly at her now, “Is you’ve not aged since then, despite the fact it’s been at least nine years.” She stopped walking, eyes flicking over his face in quick, little increments. She did look just like when he’d last seen her, black skirt and blue blouse, kitten heels that he’d always thought were cute and made her arse look good.
“You have an injury,” she said, voice a bit flatter, and he nodded, swallowing the burning in his throat.
“I have, a few in fact,” he agreed, knife still up. “There’s one other problem though.”
“Mrs Sharp died. Brain aneurism, real quick I was told, not that long after I left school. She fainted in class and was dead before they got her to the hospital.”
“Well that’s a shame,” the woman said, voice dropping his accent to pick up the local. “Explains why you have such a focus on her from back then though.” She laughed, shrugging. In an instant she was gone and his mother was stood there, her chubby face contorted in worry and one hand coming up to put a knuckle against her lower lip.
“Niáng? Mum what are you doing here?”
“Pok, I told you this was a danger,” she said, tears starting to seep down her cheeks, “What have they done to you, my little boy? Look at your head.” She reached for him and he flinched, darting back towards the corner.
“Either I’m dead or this is a hallucination,” he said, lowering the knife a little as he looked at her. She was in her work clothes, neat as a pin and hair done up in a bun like she preferred.
“Baby don’t say things like that,” she said, holding a fist over her heart to show he hurt her. “Come with me, I’ll make you some of my special herb tea. You know how much better you feel after every cup.” The voice was wrong, he realised with a shock, her voice was scratchy like it had been when she smoked. She’d stopped doing that when he was in secondary school, afraid she wouldn’t see him graduate.
“You haven’t given me that since I joined intake. Said you wanted me to value the pain of the process.”
“You just don’t know a single kind soul, do you?” The local accent was back, and whatever was pretending to be his mother shrugged again. Her entire body shuddered with the movement, falling away like dried mud to reveal an impossibly shaped creature. The downy skin, what he could see, was the same golden tan as the sand outside, coated in a fine fur that seemed to blur at the edges. It was human shaped, sort of, too thin really and the head was all wrong, catlike eyes blinking at him from a skull that was broader than it should be and sat on an impossibly arcing neck. Long, feline ears tapered up, flicking a little.
“What in the fresh fuck?” John asked, bringing his other arm up to keep his grip on the knife from faltering.
“Oh don’t act so scared pretty boy,” she said, rolling those now green eyes at him.
“What are you and how are you speaking to me?” It had to be burn out. That or a brain injury, the bullet clocked him worse than he thought. Maybe it wasn’t such a surface injury, maybe he had shrapnel floating around in his wiring. He’d thought leaning down to pick up that dropped clip had saved him.
“I’m one of the native population of the area, and I’m speaking to you in here.” A thin, skeletally thin, finger raised up and tapped between the green eyes. “Do you think even the ground speaks in your tongue?”
“No, that’s why I was asking. Didn’t make sense. I must be mad,” John said, shaking his head and wincing from the movement.
“You’re not insane, you would taste different,” she said, leaning against the wall to look him over. She was wearing what John thought could be trousers, gathered at the ankles and disappearing into a long smock that matched her fur. He laughed as it occurred to ask if she had a tail.
“How do I taste now?” he asked instead, the wording snagging in his mind.
“You taste angry, and worried, and almost a little scared. This is good, I like those.”
“That’s some real specific, uh, tastes. What does worried taste like?”
“It’s the sourness of vinegar but much more enjoyable,” she said, giving him what might have been a smile on a human. God that was a lot of teeth.
“You a fan of that one?”
“It’s not my favourite, but I enjoy it from time to time. My favourites are lust, and love, and fear.”
“That’s swinging broad,” he said with a grimace.
“I find in a place like this it is all too rare to find anything but the latter. You’re all so busy killing each other there’s never a good meal.”
“That why you dressed up as my old crush?”
“You had very few recent memories, I work with what I can get.”
“Do you… eat it? The reaction, the emotion.”
“You could say that,” she said, giving an approximation of a nod.
“Does that involve eating me?”
“Scared, pretty boy?” she asked, and he saw claws the colour of gun metal slipping out of her fingertips.
“No,” he said, tapping his side arm. “You come for me, I put a bullet in my skull. Already have one part way in there, I ain’t going out on anyone else’s terms.”
“How very dramatic,” she drawled, shaking her head at him. “I don’t want to eat you. I can, if I wish, but it’s very boring and your emotions are nicer. I do so hate being hungry.”
“Eaten anyone recently?”
“There’s been one or two little birds flitting around,” she said, stretching her arms above her head and flexing her claws.
“Any of them look like me?”
“One pretty boy looks like the other, very often.”
“Did you eat any of my friends?” he growled, gripping the knife tighter. Haskins has said three hadn’t radioed in yet, Carl was still out there.
“Worried about me, chopsticks?” Oh, here we go. It was Carl in front of him now, bloodied and smirking like he always did. John could do worse than kick that nickname out of his mouth like he’d threatened to, cocksure little idiot thought he could get away with it because John was patient. He was sickly pale, mud and blood smeared over his face and a dark stain spread over his chest.
“That’s not real.”
“The blood is,” Carl said, wiping a hand over his mouth and holding it up. The red was fresh, deep and uncomfortable to see on his sweaty skin. “I hopped the vehicle when I saw you go down, you know. Bolted round just to get one between the eyes.”
“You wear a helmet, best that would have done is knock you into the door.” This wasn’t right, Carl was an idiot but he wouldn’t do something stupid like that. He was only a kid, he hadn’t learned to do stupid shit like jump after bodies. They always told him to stay back where he was useful.
“Want to see how real it is?” Carl asked, pushing off the wall and sauntering over to him and tipping his helmet up. “Come up close, I bet you can see right out the exit wound.”
“Get away,” John shouted, swinging the knife out in too broad an arc, not enough to get between the muscle. It nicked Carl’s arm and he hissed, skittering back only to melt back into the cat creature again.
“That was rude,” she growled, baring all those teeth as she clutched the wound. Something was leaking out of her arm, oil black and slick against her thin fingers
“If you’ve hurt him I’ll be a damn sight ruder,” John bit out, his breath coming heavy in his chest.
“I didn’t need to, one of the fighters got him. I can see why you liked him though, he was very sweet. His fear was delightful.”
“Fuck off,” John spat, slumping into the wall as his head started to swim. “Whatever the hell you are, if you’ve hurt them I’ll get a knife between your ribs.” It was all hot air, but it made him feel better at least. His leg was bleeding again, he must have torn the clot when he surged with the knife.
“I have a name you know,” she said, standing again.
“Naimiah. And it may have escaped your notice, John, but for me to keep fed I rather need you alive. The ego on you men, thinking all the world cares to kill you.”
Gunfire interrupted his next comment and he bit into his lip, grunting at the sting as he leveraged himself upright. It was too soon for evac which meant that was the fighters coming back to search. That meant more bullets.
“Will they shoot you?” he asked, low as he could force out.
“If they see me,” she said crouching down and glaring at him. “They dislike my kind. We were here first, but no one cares about that in a war.” A door nearby slammed, the metallic clang echoing through the empty space.
“You swear you didn’t eat any of my men?”
“I haven’t killed any of you idiots, you do that well enough yourself!” she hissed, eyes flashing at him.
“Get behind me then,” he said, stumbling forward a few steps. She blinked at him, ears flattening against her skull. “Move it,” he said, pushing on what he thought was a shoulder. She was heavier than he expected, the thin bones had made him think she’d be slight.
“What are you doing?”
“You’re not with them, you’re not an enemy. I can’t have you killed in front of me.” He drew his side arm, knife snug to his side so he could get at it if they came close enough.
“Sands preserve me, you’re an idiot aren’t you?” she said with what may have been a sigh, if she could make a sound like that. “Going to save me, are you?”
“I won’t see someone shot if I can help it,” he said with a shrug and regretted the movement, his head swimming.
“Alright, pretty boy, let’s see what you’ve got.”
He glanced back to say something but the door was wrenched open, a shout going up when the light flooded in, blinding him. He opened his mouth as his weapon came up, yelping when a shot took his shoulder and he was forced back, into the wall and out of consciousness. God damnit.
“Cho, Cho are you with me?” Someone was slapping his face, sharp taps that he was going to break a wrist to stop.
“The fuck?” he said, trying to smack the arm away. His shoulder screamed in agony and his eyes popped open, snarling from the pain of it.
“He’s awake!” the voice shouted and he heard feet rushing over to him. “Haskins, we found him, over.”
“What’s going on?” John asked, tilting his head up to look around. He was on the ground, still in the outbuilding somehow, and he felt like he’d had seven shades of shit beaten out of him. One eye wouldn’t open, but he could see there was a lot of blood around him. That wasn’t a good sign.
“We’ve got transport to the hospital; they’re gonna have to lift you and it’s gonna hurt like shit but they’ll get you patched up best they can,” the voice, who John could now recognize as Jimmy Moore, one of the medical team, told him, giving a grin. “I don’t know what you did, dude, but you’re lucky you’re alive.”
“Martins and Wardrop are gone,” Jimmy said with a shake of his head. “Barton’s been evacuated.”
“Was when we loaded him up, I give no guarantees after that.”
“Sounds about right,” John wheezed, letting his head go back down. “How’d you find me?”
“This little beauty.” Jimmy held up a long, lanky cat, almost the length of his forearm. It was biscuit coloured, with short fur, and flicking it’s tail back and forth like a metronome, eyes never leaving John’s. “She was yowling like she was being murdered, we followed the noise and found her sat on your chest.”
“I’ve never had a cat,” John said, because that was the only sane set of words he could find.
“Seems like you have now – scratched the shit out of us when we tried to move her, only just let me through. Bonny thing though, look at those pretty eyes,” Jimmy cooed, scratching the cat’s head. John nodded, as much as he could, and felt the weight of the cat laid out over his chest.
“This medical procedure?” he asked, eyeing Jimmy.
“This is I don’t want to get clawed to hell procedure; you should see what she did to Chisom.”
“Sir, we’re ready to move,” a voice called and Jimmy gave a sharp nod.
“Gonna lift you now, Cho, this’ll sting.”
“Can’t be worse than earlier,” he said, gritting his teeth as he was lifted and carried towards the door. Glancing over he could see bodies, four he thought from counting the legs, and realized the blood all around was theirs when he noticed their throats were torn open. “What the shit?” he murmured as they bounced out of the building.
His knife was still nestled into his side, he could feel the handle tucked close, and he turned his good eye to the cat led on his chest. She blinked wide green eyes at him and began cleaning herself, carefully licking blood from her claws before cleaning around a cut on one arm.
He was swung into a helicopter and they were up in the air, a medic fussing around his open wounds the minute they took off.
“Who’s the company?” she asked as she hooked him up.
“Name’s Naimiah,” he said, breathing deep as the IV started to flood warmth into his veins.
“Pretty name for a pretty puss,” the medic said, pecking a kiss to the cats head. “She yours?”
“Not sure, but she’s good company. Is this meant to be making me woozy?” he asked, the black spots speckling his vision pushing in on all sides.
“Yeah, roll with it and we’ll have you patched up in no time. We’ll even look after this little darlin’ too.”
John let his head fall back, feeling the cat settle beside his shoulder and beginning to purr.
“Dream well, pretty boy,” he heard as the last grips of awareness slipped from him.