Once there was an aging veteran of foreign wars whose body, after too many consecutive tours of duty, was little more than an assemblage of hinged prostheses wired to an embittered brain, and one hot desert night he lost what cool his contraption contained and slugged a bitchy officer half his age with his spring-loaded steel fist, leaving the tight-assed little Napoleon with his teeth lodged in the back of his throat and in need of a prosthetic jaw of his own. The old veteran was a military hero many times over, having fought an endless series of wars for the owners of the world, but for this minor indiscretion they unceremoniously threw him in the lockup and, when they grew tired of his loud obscenities and violent cage rattling, they discharged him dishonorably, sending him out into the world with nothing but the pack on his back. He deserved more than that. Was there a way to get it? Sure there was, but he’d need a lawyer, and they were the species of diseased subhumanity he loathed above all others.
He was describing all this one night to a disgruntled ex-airman in a bar popular with professional killers like themselves, on or off duty, in or out of the ranks, when he spied across the room, sitting alone, a stunningly gorgeous creature with a haunting enigmatic smile, and he fell instantly in love with her, saying as much, though more profanely, to his drinking companion. Yeah, you and everybody else, the guy replied, but she’s too hot to handle. The airman had just been telling him how he’d been used in a failed advanced-weapons experiment to create flying soldiers by lining their lower bowels with the sort of ceramics used in space launches and fitting their rebuilt guts with miniature turbo jets, too small to keep aircraft aloft but enough to send a single body with a full pack rocketing up, which was fun if you didn’t mind hard landings. I shit out my side like Jesus, he said, pointing. But now the guy wanted to know, after what the old veteran had told him about all the essentials he’d lost, what he could do about it even if she were available. They fitted me out with an automated electromagnetic dick, he explained, and what happens is different from orgasms, as best I can remember them, but I still get a charge out of them, and the girls, too, get a buzz that has them coming back for more. I even had access to a sperm bank back at the base if I wanted to fire real bullets, but I knew the brainless jerkoffs who had contributed to it, and I didn’t want to pollute the earth with more of them. But I can handle anything with a slot in its fork, so what’s the problem with that beautiful thing over there? Watch, the guy said. There comes the Ripper.
There was a brouhaha developing in a cleared space near the bar where a screaming woman was suddenly bent over, skirts up and knife at her throat, to be taken fiercely from behind by a snarling brute with filed steel teeth. That evil dude’s genes got fucked up when he was nuked in a desert demo for a bunch of fossil fuel barons, the airman said. They gave him lifetime immunity in compensation, so he does what he wants. Always a bloody mess to clean up in here when he’s done. The beautiful woman with the mesmerizing smile walked over to the man and peeled her face away. Everyone else looked away and the Ripper hit the floor like a petrified tree. Then she put her face on again and sat down, smiling benignly as before. Holy shit, said the old veteran. How did she do that? The airman explained that she was riding shotgun on a truck transporting nasty chemicals into the war zone when a mortar hit the truck, and she was so hideously disfigured that a mere glimpse of her can be lethal. She wears a mask not to have the world drop dead around her, he said, but the word is out and people are afraid of getting zapped by an accidental glimpse, so they steer clear and keep their heads down. She leads a lonely life, as you can see, though they say there’s some blind guy who hangs out with her. We can use her, said the old veteran, and he got his apparatus into motion and clattered over to her table.
You’re beautiful, baby, the old soldier said. Somebody should paint your picture. Somebody already has, she said. A few centuries ago. He nodded down at the steel-toothed mauler, lying stone dead at her feet, his cloudy eyes popping in final terror, and he told her that was pretty impressive. Was she still in uniform? Nah, I’m an embarrassment to them. I suppose you’re at least drawing compensation, he said, and she said she was, but it wasn’t half enough for what they did to her. Ever feel like getting some of your own back? All the time, she said with that strange sweet smile. So he proposed that she team up with him and the guy he was drinking with, reciting the ex-airman’s peculiar abilities and his own. Together, he said, they could make something happen. She was interested and suggested they discuss it with her partner, a punitively demobbed ex-ranger, now self-employed as a burglar and safecracker, a guy with permanent neon-green night vision but otherwise blind. By daylight, he can’t find his hand in front of his face, she said, but in the dark he can see into things and through them, has the nose of a beagle and the ears of a bat, and can open anything.
So the masked woman took them to meet the former ranger, whom they found in a blacked-out room, feeding an armless man. The light from the doorway, which was blinding the blind man (he cursed them and they returned his curses in a friendly manner), revealed that his pal, dressed in miscellaneous scraps of field gear, had one arm missing altogether, the other replaced by a high-powered assault rifle, with a flaking hand that might once have been his own wired up to the trigger. He explained that his arm was ruined while trying to defuse a boobied turkey in the officers’ mess, where he’d been sent on latrine-cleaning duty for disciplinary reasons, and because there was a shortage of disposable marksmen at the front, whichever front, the medics were ordered to reconstruct it this way and send him back into action. You’re a marksman, the old soldier said, why the hell were you defusing a bomb? They had a problem and I volunteered, the marksman said. Couldn’t help myself. Soft spot in the will. It’s the secret they hold over us. In the end we’re a bunch of comedians, playing to an audience that’s killing us and laughing their asses off about it. Yeah, I know, said the old soldier. I used to think of myself as a patriot. Not just a bad idea, a dead one. Like countries. What was worse, the marksman said, the goddamned sawbones was ripped that night on meth-laced martinis and took the good arm off, so after he gave me this one, the other had to come off too. His last fucking mistake, which is why I’m on the run. But no big deal, later I can get me one of those souped-up bionic gizmos you’re wearing, and meanwhile this one is a cooler arm than either of the ones I had before. The rifle uses target-seeking bullets that can change direction to hit things in motion, and the ammo’s not only stored in my armpit, it’s produced there, so unless things get really hairy, I can bang away all day. Amazing, said the old veteran, but does it really work? Sometimes, the guy said, and he fired off a shot over his shoulder through the window into the dark and a screeching tomcat somewhere stopped screeching. You shouldn’ta done that, the blind ranger said. I like cats. He’ll be all right, said the marksman. He had his tail up and I just stoppered his asshole.