The guns fell silent.
Re’kah flattened herself against a charred cinder-block wall. She hissed at Kohn, slinking along the ruins of a house across the way, but he wouldn’t make eye contact. He must be thinking the same thing. Where was their covering fire? He motioned for her to come to him, and she ducked across the blood-splashed alley. She held her breath, visualizing a bubble of protection.
Kohn grabbed her hand and pulled her with him through a gaping hole that used to be a doorway.
“No snipers,” he said. Re’kah closed her eyes, trying to adjust to the dim ambient light. The room reeked of blood and shit, charred flesh and diesel fuel — the smells she’d come to associate with death.
“Is it possible this sector’s secure?” she asked. They were the only two survivors of a threat eradication team, and they were still nearly an hour away from their home base.
Before he could answer there was a small movement in the corner. They spun into position, back to back, with Kohn defending the entrance.
“It’s a baby,” Re’kah said. She lowered her gun and moved toward it. “I don’t think it’s injured.”
“Wait,” said Kohn. “Probably booby- trapped.”
The child looked to be less than a year old. It sat on the floor by the body of a woman. As Re’kah approached, the baby ducked down and hugged its mother’s legs. Re’kah resisted the impulse to croon comfort to it.
“No way,” she said. “It’s a little boy. He’s nearly naked. No diaper, no place to hide explosives. I don’t see a wire. His mother’s head’s been blown off. Looks like two adult males shot dead. Somebody used a flame thrower in here on the first pass through. I think that was a little girl, under that collapsed section of wall.”
“They ducked in here looking for shelter, I’ll bet,” Kohn said. “Don’t look like Resistance to me. Shoot him and let’s get out of here.”
Her heartbeat was suddenly slow and thick, and the silence became more profound than just the lack of gunfire. Kohn was her friend, and occasionally her bedmate, but he was also her superior officer. Disobedience meant death.
“With all due respect…” she began, but he cut her off.
“Would you leave him to starve? There’s no one alive in this town to take care of him. It’ll be dark in a few hours. Jackals will come down out of the hills. He’ll be hungry and crying by then. Easy to find. Compared to that, a quick bullet in the head is a mercy. Do it.”
Re’kah tried to suck air into her lungs; to steady her shaking hands.
“Couldn’t… we… perhaps…” Her voice trailed off.
“Take him with us? He’s one of them. Nits grow up to be lice. If it was a girl, maybe. But a boy? In a dozen years he’ll be running the streets with a gun, hunting our children for sport. Best to save trouble and neutralize him now.”
The baby crawled away from them a little way. He patted his mother’s cold breast with one hand and whimpered, sucking on his other fist. His eyes were huge and round, the irises nearly black and the whites very bright against his olive skin. He brought to Re’kah’s mind an image from days gone by, before the grid went down. She flashed on a fundraising picture of a big-bellied, wide-eyed toddler above a caption that read “You can save this child, or you can change the channel”.
“Will it always be us against them, Kohn? He isn’t old enough to know what hate is. We could bring him up in our ways. Maybe even the old ways. We could save him.”
He knew she was asking as a woman, and not as a soldier. His voice became less harsh, because he loved her.
“This tribe is barely human. They’re born without compassion or empathy. He’s suckled savagery along with his mother’s milk.” When she didn’t respond, he said “Re’kah, you’re a soldier. This is war. That’s an absolute. He’s the enemy.”
The big guns started up again. They were farther away, and off to the west. The pop-pop-pop of covering fire, which had become somehow comforting, began to echo in the distance. The battle could change direction. If it spilled over into this valley they’d be surrounded. Without hope of back-up, their only chance was to retreat to the command bunker as fast as they could.
Re’kah knew his decision was final. She raised her gun. She stepped a little closer, and took three slow breaths. There was no room for error. This had to be a clean kill. She positioned the red dot between the child’s eyes.
He smiled at her and held out his arms to be picked up.
“Mother of God, Kohn! Court martial me for insubordination, but I just…can’t.”
He grabbed her and shoved her roughly outside.
“ Stand watch. I’ll take care of it.”
She leaned against the wall, and said a little prayer for the baby’s soul. She looked up at the billowing clouds, so amazingly normal against a blue sky that didn’t concern itself with the discord of mankind.
The shot didn’t come immediately. Re’kah’s heart wanted to think that Kohn had changed his mind, but her head knew that he was just fitting the silencer to his sidearm, in case there was anyone within earshot. She’d forgotten to do that. A serious mistake, but one which seemed inconsequential in light of the charges she’d face once Kohn submitted his report.
Finally. A single shot. Another memory of the old days bubbled up. She was a very small child. She was at a birthday party, and one of the games involved popping a balloon by sitting on it with a cushion. She’d won, but it had frightened her so badly that her mother took her home before the cake and ice cream were served. She wanted to cry for the baby whose life had ended with that dull bang, so like a muffled balloon. She wanted to mourn for the little boy who would never have a birthday, or taste cake and ice cream, but war had broken her heart too many times. There were no tears left. She turned her back, oblivious to danger, and pressed her forehead against the rough stone, hoping to feel pain.
“Have you lost your mind?” Kohn’s voice was suddenly behind her. “Come on. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
The baby was slung on Kohn’s back in a blood-stained cloth. He took his fist out of his mouth and held his hand out to Re’kah. Her heart fluttered with joy and relief, but she didn’t say anything until they were well away from town.
“That shot,” she said, as they jogged up into the rocks, farther and farther away from the sound of war.
“I happened to look up as I was pulling the shawl out from under the dead woman. There was a guy over against the wall who wasn’t quite dead. He was trying to reach for his gun. I stopped him.”
They paused at the top of a rugged hill to catch their breath. The way lay straight as a string ahead, and they could see movement at the mouth of the camp, nearly a mile away.
“Looks like everything’s okay down there,” Kohn said, lowering his binoculars. “We’ll be in time for dinner. I hope this little bastard likes goat milk. He’s welcome to mine, if he does. I don’t know how even baby goats can stand it.”
She laughed. She laughed because she could; because they’d lived through one more day and one more mission, and because at that moment she loved Kohn more than she’d ever love anyone again. “I’ll never forget what you did back there. You know, sometimes one little kindness, one act of mercy — he might grow up and make a difference.”
As they walked along, the baby reached for a handful of Re’kah’s hair and laughed as if he understood they were talking about him.
“Yeah,” said Kohn. “For better or for worse. I guess we’ll find out.”
The shadows grew longer as they made their way back to the safety of the underground stronghold. Far behind them in encroaching darkness, the scavengers trotted quietly into the city of the dead.