The Love Market: Chapter Sixteen

Where Piper felt most of her life that she was being discriminated against in the worst of ways, she found it played out in the military, with her ending up with little more than busy tasks that simply required a body. For that matter, she was put in charge of minding the three ex-Marketers stationed at the base. It wasn’t a job she would have preferred; however, Perez had been adamant that the private with such a duty should most likely be a woman and definitely someone under him who did not visit any of the three regularly. Despite the lack of privacy in the truck, the implication was clear enough to Piper; Perez wanted someone who wouldn’t take advantage of the situation.

The staff sergeant would find himself doubly lucky to know that Piper not only fit the first classification and the second but also wasn’t terribly enticed by either three. Rose, the brunette, despite her name, was a woman of motherly features but afflicted with the attitude of a wicked stepmother. Even as they rode along, Piper could feel the hungry look sent her way, a furtive wish to drain the youth from her and have it fill the sculpted face and overwrought assets of the woman.

Mika was a good boy, the middle in age, finding himself at the cut-off between legal and illegal by old standards. Yet, he was, in so many ways, the opposite of Perez. He slouched in his seat while preening little blonde whiskers that fought to push up around his lips despite hormone-blocking chemicals. He was the most scantly dressed of them in a tank top that barely covered his nipples and shorts so low that if he bent down the illusion of cover vanished as his every part became exposed. Piper couldn’t understand that choice. It was still too cold for any attire of that minimal coverage, even when the truck’s heater was at full blast.

Lastly, there was Sequoia, with her lifeless stare still in her bunny pajamas, though at least bothering enough to slip on puffy black and pink shoes that looked so worn they may have been Piper’s from when she was that age. The girl’s complexion, enough to make a sheet look sodden with dust, reminded Piper of a ghost, but the comparison dug deeper than just skin. She was a lingering specter of all that was lost in a few short decades of progress toward a sickening and unworthy goal. However, comparing her own position at that age, Piper couldn’t say she would be any less the haunting and forgotten shadow if displaced in time. Strands of midnight divided her features and fractured the pale emeralds lodged in her face. It took Piper a moment to realize the trembling little mouth had uttered some semblance of words.

“Will things be any different where we’re going?” was the question that reverberated in the vehicle.

Piper searched the gazes that faced her, including the private driving the truck. None of them offered an easy answer or even attempted to guide the conversation away from unpleasant and uncertain truths. Mustering her courage, Piper spoke in the vaguest terms, “Things are different no matter we go, but no matter how different things are in other parts of the world, a lot of things stay the same.”

“I meant, is there going to be fighting? We’re at war, right? And this is the army.”

“Oh. I’m not sure. I know we’re needed here, so nothing gets worse, but I don’t know if that means fighting right now. I think we’ll have to wait until we get there,” Piper thought about how parents used to talk, reassuring children instead of giving them a rod of truth against their backside.

The question was as aching in Piper’s mind as anyone else’s, but to tell the child that seemed less than reassuring. What was undoubtedly no help was the scoff Rose let fly as she rolled her eyes. Piper wasn’t going to engage the older woman, but she wasn’t about to be ignored. Leaning over the girl, she smiled down at the hooded head, “Is someone too tuckered out with so many visitors?”

“Rose, enough.”

“It must be nice to have so many gentlemen callers, though I suppose they’re not always so gentle, coming along every hour. They all just want young flesh, and by far, you drew the short straw for the youngest, didn’t you?”

“I can’t help being as old as I am.”

“But you can help that little whiny mouth of yours,” the older woman growled, standing in the back of the cargo truck, “I would have done anything to have so many eyes on me when I was your age. And what do you do about it? Sit and cry cause it’s hard being popular. I wouldn’t have cared if a dike wanted to shove her whole fist up my shitter because they would have been there for me and not some stupid little cunt like you!”

“Enough,” Piper called, snatching Sequoia from her seat and pushing her into a corner just behind her. Rose nearly reached for her before Piper solidified her stance like a gargoyle atop an old world church, “Sit down! I don’t care what anyone else has told you. You’re not here because you’re in demand. You are here because no one knew where to shove you. Women your age should have some instinct or at least a soft spot for a girl in her position, but what are you? You’re jealous cause it’s too late for you to get all the attention. I suppose there’s a reason why so many Marketers take their own lives when they hit your age.”

“Bitch!” Rose launched herself from the bench at Piper only to meet what far too many rough customers had given her already, only this time lacking in mad passion. Being far from some high-paying Jon visiting the Market, Piper hadn’t held back. Still, she was surprised to see the blood running without stopping, the tooth that had ricocheted against the interior, and the image of beauty falling against time and misfortune.

Hesitant hands pawed a face that had been filled with so much inorganic material that it thoroughly matched the mask of creams and makeup that concealed it. Yet, it was not smears of foundation and lipstick that hung flaccid from the old Marketer’s face but the ruined hemisphere of her left side. The cheek looked deflated, jaw out of the socket, half the nose collapsed on itself, and the brow drooping like a stroke victim. Piper couldn’t believe it. Not only that she had done this, but the reaction one gout of fury could garner. It was as Rose turned the wreckage of her synthetic face up to meet Piper’s gaze that the shriek tore through the truck.

Private Monroe slammed the breaks as though they were seconds away from hitting a camel, something one of the drivers had done a month before. Everyone was thrown forward against the cab save Sequoia, who was already tight against the wall. Rose tumbled over Piper, who cracked her head on the grates while Mika flapped against the wall like a flipped flapjack. The boy shrieked again, a sound like a cat being struck by lightning, but this time Monroe swiveled in his seat to shout for quiet.

Piper rose as quick as she was downed and checked her charges, finding Sequoia safe, Rose unconscious with a sagging face but otherwise unharmed, and Mika in hysterics. As she approached the panicked boy, he cried out, “Don’t come any closer!”

“Shut him up! I’ve got a message coming through, and it doesn’t sound good,” Monroe instructed, trying to cup his ear against the headset. Though it seemed like it would only worsen the screaming, Piper stepped over Rose and clamped her hand over Mika’s mouth. He tried to pull free, even going so far as to bite with teeth that seemed smaller and underdeveloped than any adult male she had ever known. The biting hardly prevented Piper from seeing the root cause of his moaning. His arm was broken. It was not clean, not an easily reset dislocation, but a bone, the ulna, jabbed through flesh by a few inches.

It was a grisly sight. Piper could hardly imagine that it was anything but painful and terrifying for the kid. There was nothing she could do for Mika, not without supplies considering her relatively limited first-aid knowledge. The best she could offer would have to due, she figured. Taking Rose’s cardigan off the seat, she wrapped the break and used the remainder of the free sleeve to tie off the makeshift bind as a brace. He still winced and pouted into his shoulder after it was done, but Monroe had been able to focus on his orders.

“Dauring, a word,” Monroe commanded finally as some sense of order returned to the truck.

She stepped over Rose, still lying face down, and leaned into the cab, “Something up?”

“Oh, something alright. We’re going to hit the ground running when we get there. Firefights are breaking out all over the place, and the threat has been elevated. They didn’t want to say if we were two minutes to midnight or somewhere further off, but they said to handle it like we had one. Perez is going to get there before us. He’s going to have to control and funnel everyone into positions. Report to him the second we stop.”

“What about them,” she glanced but tried not to me the girl’s eyes.

Monroe gave her the same passing gaze, “We handle them like what they are, non-necessary equipment. If things cool down, we’ll set them up and resume as usual. Well, as usual as we can get. Have you ever been fined through the military?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Well, it’s not quite a day out. I’ll speak to your favor best I can, but even with the throwaways, they’ll act like you busted a prize model.”

A rock of frozen coal dropped into Piper’s guts at that. She stumbled back, almost tipping over again because of the woman on the ground. Had she wanted to fall to the side opposite where she had been, it wasn’t possible. Mika had laid down and looked as though he not only had lost too much blood but that he had become a well-manicured corpse. The only tell to his vital status was the shallow indication air was coming and going from him.

Piper sat again and ran rough fingers through brittle scarlet, nearly pulling away chunks of her low-cut hair. The time for action, to meet head-on with an enemy, felt like it would never come. Before she was shipped out, Piper thought it started from the moment she touched foreign soil to well after she was carted away, wounded or dead. Instead, all that time holding live rifles with nothing to shoot, keeping watch for enemies that weren’t there, and remaining ever ready, just in case, had felt like remedial training. Now that she was facing down that cold reality of firing on other humans, people who might score a lucky shot and put a bullet in her head before she got off one round, the world felt unreal. Every nervous thought and apprehension came crashing in and eradicated even the most basic of her training. She felt like she might break down in tears or scream; bile coursed through her stomach and would be on the back of Rose’s skirt if not for the hands that wrapped her arm.

“You’re scared?” Sequoia asked though she may as well have been telling Piper exactly how she felt.

Words of denial were forming in Piper’s head, her lips curving to denounce any type of fear, her vocal cords working to reject the idea. Yet, not a word escaped the woman as the truck felt as though it were no longer subject to the forces of gravity. As the equipment slid free, Piper threw herself into the corner with the girl. She needed only notice the free fall tumbling of the other two bodies in the back to know something was terribly wrong. And though Monroe had called and shouted in the interval of a second from first sign to sudden impact, Piper hadn’t a clue what had happened, only that it wasn’t good.

idols and towers of sin

toppled in righteous wind

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