Shell

“Lex, gimme a soother”, Barraclough whispered. Being this close to the filth-spreading reprobates, watching their diseased house on the flexis wrapped round his desk, always made his flesh creep. But the cooling wash of air his shell blew over his skin helped remind him that he was safe and sterile, always.

The house was in the wilderness, beyond the outskirts. It was old and unconnected‌—‌no grid power, and lacking even rudimentary sanitation. The vile creatures used standing water, and ejected their waste directing into pits dug in the ground. They were worse than animals.

“Fellipe, we good?” He spoke louder, Lex routing the signal.

“All in position.”

Not the man’s real voice, of course. Barraclough couldn’t stand that mumbling accent and dry whine, so he had Lex filter the vocals into a soft northern burr.

“Janelli, we good to go?”

“All targets present.” Pleasant country-singer twang, suited her avatar image. “On visuals now.”

Barraclough’s right-hand flexi switched to IR, showed the targets as glowing dots.

“Lex, gimme names.” Labels sprung up by each dot, and Barraclough nodded. All present, in the same room.

He imagined them touching one another, and shuddered at the though of so much contamination. “Lex, spray me.” The cool blast of filtered air brought him back to the mission.

“Fellipe, deploy primary probes.”

“Deployed.”

The four-tracks trundled into view, heading for the house. They rode low to the ground, practically hidden from view by the grass‌—‌ideal for reaching the targets undetected.

And then one toppled over.

“Fellipe?”

“All systems functioning. Not sure what happened.”

Barraclough suspected he did though, especially when another four-track fell, almost disappearing into the ground.

“Deploy flyers.” The reserve plan‌—‌more chance of being spotted from the house, but harder to stop.

“Activated.”

“Lex, gimme on-board, flyer one.”

The ground passed beneath the flyer, and on his left flexi Barraclough saw the first stranded four-track, the trap now obvious.

“Covered pits?” Janelli said. The other four-tracks were in similar holes now.

“Animal traps.” Effective, though, and no tech. No wonder they didn’t show on Janelli’s scans.

Probably the same pits they used for their own filth, Barraclough thought, calling for his shell to spray him once more.

“Approaching container.”

The house grew larger, the flexi showing an upper window, grimy, a heavy cloth hung inside.

“Release hornets.”

The micro-missiles swarmed from the flyer payloads and rushed forward. Barraclough instructed Lex to magnify the image as they shattered the window, tore the cloth to shreds and infiltrated the building.

“Decanting agent,” Fellipe said as a white mist crawled from the window. Barraclough told Lex to zoom out, and saw other windows filling with the pale agent.

“Get a flyer inside. Give us visuals. Lex, overlay IR.”

The view took Barraclough into the house, bright white light piercing the mist, too murky to see the filth. He saw stairs with a threadbare rug‌—‌a haven for mites‌—‌and then the flyer entered a downstairs room. The IR overlay glowed red, and as the mist dissipated Barraclough stared at the targets.

Six of them, draped over furniture and each other. Two had cloth wrapped around parts of their bodies‌—‌‘clothes’ they insisted gave all the protection they required, as if fabric that could trap dust and microbes could ever be anything but a hazard, especially when soaked in warm water in some misguided attempt at cleaning.

The other four were naked.

Their flesh was pale and blotchy, with tufts of wiry hair under arms and around groins. Longer hair coated their heads, and as Barraclough had Lex zoom in he saw more‌—‌hair on chests and legs and arms. So many havens for infestation.

“They’re hideous,” Janelli said, her voice stuttering. Barraclough reminded himself that it was her first capture, her first time viewing the reprobates in reality.

“And you never get used to it,” he told her, staring at the images.

“Hard to believe anyone would want to live like that.”

“Best not to think about it.” Barraclough looked at the male and female who were on the floor, ugly limbs around one another, mouths almost touching. Sickening, and so dangerous. He saw drool, and imagined other body fluids.

“Agent’s worked fine,” Fellipe said. “All targets subdued.” His twentieth mission, and he remained professionally detached. The lad was young and idealistic, almost religious in his desire to contain these spreaders. A crusader, keeping the population clean.

“Good. Alert clean-up.”

Barraclough cut the flyer’s visuals, returned to the external view. He’d monitor clean-up entering, but he wouldn’t observe contact, even with their shells.

They’d offered him that role, a few years back. He’d almost accepted, but knew it would have been too much. He barely held it together viewing things through the flexis.

“Janelli, you okay?”

“Sure, boss.” But the twang in her voice was absent.

“Get a debrief. You too, Fellipe.”

“Already arranged.”

Barraclough would arrange his later, maybe in a couple of days. If Command questioned his motives, he’d talk of immersion acclimatization, tell them it was important to face the things that sickened him, to build up his mental resistance.

He’d said those lies before, of course, and Command had commended him on his dedication. He’d taken the praise, and locked away his real motives. If they ever came out, he’d be resigned, probably cleansed. He’d no longer have this‌…‌this brief opportunity to see what it might be like without a shell.

Maybe staying in this role was only feeding a problem, but Barraclough couldn’t escape from the question that plagued his mind, the one he could never ask, the dilemma that both terrified him and excited him in ways that somehow made him feel alive.

What would the touch of another person feel like?


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