The skies are ablaze. Fighters drop down like fire-lit hail. No, more like birds. Blazing cormorants, dive-bombing into the water to catch fish, relying solely on the force of gravity for their fall. It rains shrapnel and body fluids on the cityscape. From the outer walls below, cannon shells dash up, pelting the reinforced hulls of the warships in the skies above the city of Ohn. The Ocreon, one of the flagships of the Tiger fleet, hovers above the weeping hill as it unloads its cannons on the people below. An explosion roars as a ball of fire engulfs the streets in flames and debris. For a second, I can hear several rebel units cry out, before their screams are cut short by the explosion. The grand tower of Ohn, its once alabaster walls now blackened to a hellish hue by the fires, collapses in on itself. That’s it for the rebels. The city is lost now. And with the fall of Ohn, the last of the great northern cities, the Tigers’ conquest of this hemisphere is over. One more to go, and the planet of Togol is theirs by law.

With the fight as good as over, I gear up to move along, my camera equipment neatly stacked away in my backpack, as there’s nothing else for me here. Then, just when I think that the collapse of the tower is the final curtain call for the battle, an artillery garrison from the east fires its cannons, directly hitting the underside of the Ocreon, creating a decently sized hole from which debris and Tiger bodies trickle out from. Then, a squadron of Razorwing-D’s zoom in from the south, their approach hidden by their now disengaged cloaking systems, and launch an entire volley of Sharktooth-7 stingers missiles, streaking a spider’s web of smoke trails through the red-hot skies, straight into the hole in Ocreon’s underbelly. As in: right into their seventh fuel depot.

The resulting blast is enormous. By sheer luck, I manage to cover the sides of my head with cupped hands in time, or my eardrums would have been torn to shreds. The fireball engulfs the rear end of the ship, then dies down just as quickly as it exploded. For a minute, it looks like the Ocreon might just stay afloat, as its engines and stabilizers remain functional despite the damage. Then a second blast takes out the sixth depot. Then the fourth. The nose tips forward. Alarms blare at a pitch nearly as loud as the explosion earlier. I know that call sign from when I saw the Sychia fall over the Brullilai Lake: all hands, abandon ship. A few escape pods and jets make it off the vessel in the nick of time, but the rest of the crew is going down with the Ocreon as it collides with the fields just outside of Ohn’s walls. There are now two massive corpses in these lands. A dead city, burnt to a crisp, and a slain war-ship, ripped to pieces from the inside out. What a scene. I just know that in the centuries to come, when the ruins and wreck are overgrown with foliage, they will have written songs and legends about this place. And I was there to see it in person.

It’s really amazing, you know? Just when I thought the Tigers had another victory in the bag, the Togol natives manage to strike them in the heart yet again. A holy city has fallen, but they managed to take a 9th-grade ship down with it. This war is just full of surprises. While the victor seems to be pretty much confirmed by now, I can’t say the war has ever been straight-cut when it comes to the punches they land on each other. Yeah, the Tigers are winning, but the bugs are not gonna go quietly in the night. What a war!

This is as good a spot as any to set my gear up again. I extend the pole, tack my Pinecho onto it, position it and take aim at the enflamed Ocreon. Here it goes. My one shot.

“Selfie!” I say.

The Pinecho makes its ‘snap’ sound as it takes the shot, then immediately uploads it to my profile. And it’s a beaut. Great composition between me and the inferno in the background, with the city visible in the left corner. That’s another one for the blog. With any luck, I’ll make the history books with this one, should the battle for Ohn be registered into them. Not bad for a summer vacation snapshot.

#

It’s already late in the morning when I wake up to the sound of marching feet going right past my tent. A blood-curdling roar is answered by a thousand others like it. The Tiger army is on the march, off on their next campaign down south. Some are injured, but they just keep on marching. Tough kitties. I receive a few glances as they pass, but since I don’t resemble ‘bug’ in the slightest, they just keep on walking. I take a few snapshots. None of them bother me in the slightest. I don’t even need to flash my tourist card. My guess is they figure that the only humans crazy enough to be here are either journalists or nutjob tourists. I’m obviously the latter, considering how I’m dressed. Plus, while I might be a nutjob, it would be more insane of me if I missed out on the biggest war of this century.

“Hey, guys,” I say, drawing the attention of a group of some of the younger cats. “Can I bother you for a picture for my blog?”

“Blog?” one of them asks.

“Yeah. My travel blog. ‘Duncan sees the verse‘? ‘DSTV’? It’s pretty popular,” I say, not sure who I’m really trying to convince. They give me the same blank stare I’ve gotten from everyone else I’ve mentioned the blog to since I got here. Be it Tiger, Togol rebel or Iron Brigade mercenary, no-one has ever heard of it or looked it up. You’d think word would spread after this many weeks of my coverage, but nope. The managers of the site should really consider forking up the cash for some ad promos, if only on the local Togol omi-net or the Tiger stream.

Thankfully, they agree to a picture, as long as I edit out their unit number (which I usually do anyway). Seven of them huddle up behind me and strike a pose. I set up the Pinecho onto the selfie-stick and heave it up.

“Everyone smile!” I say.

“Infinite Tigers forever!” they all roar, their arms bent in a ‘pumped iron’ pose to bulge out their biceps. And snap. After applying a quick blur edit on their badges, I upload it to the blog. Boom. Posted. That’ll rack up a bunch of likes and shares back home. Selfies with soldiers always do well, regardless how the viewers feel about this Tiger war and what side they’re rooting for. I don’t keep track which of the armies do better in my photos. Not that I’m not curious about the numbers, but I can’t allow myself to build up a bias to any alignment. That would be the fastest way to either lose my visa or get shot.

They move on down the hill. It’s an impressive sight. A wall of orange and black fur, stomping away toward their next battle, which according to my war-report app is a siege on the bastion of Thermion. It’s strange to think that most of them will never get home, including the guys who posed with me. But that comes with the field, doesn’t it? They do their thing, and I do mine.

It’s then that I wonder where they’re going, as the direction they walk in doesn’t match up with their scheduled location. “You guys are heading the wrong way if you’re marching for Thermion,” I say to one of the Tigers.

He laughs, as if what I said what the funniest thing ever. “We’re regrouping with the Thunder-claw corps first, which mean’s we’ve got to go around the mountain. Then we’re heading straight to Thermion. If you want a front-line view, you can come along, tourist.”

I laugh. “No thanks. I’m taking a shortcut across the mountains. Besides, I don’t get good shots by being on the front lines. I’ll be head–,”

A sonic boom startles everyone on the hill. I nearly leap a foot into the air, then look to the sky for the source of that sound. A Togol Razorwing passes over with an angry shriek. Some of the Tigers drop for cover. Others fire their rifles, but they hit nothing but clouds. Most of them just growl and bare their teeth. They’ve had a long night, and they’re rightfully still on edge. We all look up, trying to see if there are any rebel jets. Nothing. Just a sea of dark clouds that loom sadly above us, with flecks of ash tinting them a shade darker. But the Tigers aren’t going to take that risk and wait around for more fighters, and neither should I. Time for me to move on.

The air smells of smoke and fire. There is some dew in it, but it’s lost that nice crisp early morning smell that usually comes with it. It’ll be noon in a few hours, so I rush putting the tent and my stuff away. I’m glad the march of the Tigers woke me up, because I got to get going if I’m gonna make that siege of Thermion castle. The keep is way up there in the mountains, a bunker-slash-city carved out of the side of one of the Togol holy peaks, roughly three days walk from my current position. Think Helm’s Deep with artillery, an airfield and a shit-ton of troops that have regrouped together into one final Togol army. I need to leave today if I’m gonna make it. I can’t miss what will probably the greatest siege in this war.

#

I’ve walked for nearly seven hours without break in this race against the clock. Ever since I came here, it’s been a dash from one battle zone to another, trying to beat the warships and terror tanks to their next target. Not having to concern myself with fellow troops and ammo restocks is my one advantage in the race.

My feet are sore and my back is barking at me for lugging that big backpack of mine uphill. The mountain air is cold, but it clears my lungs out from all that smoke I’ve inhaled the last few days. I can only imagine what the kitties and the bugs have breathed in, being much closer to the action than I’d ever dare to be. On the horizon, Togol’s clear white sun Krama sets upon another day, as the final rays streak across the landscape. I check the map, which tells me that I’m roughly a day’s walk from the peak. I think I’ll walk for another two hours or so, then set up camp for the night.

I take a shot of the sunset, even though I’ve practically filled a library with sunsets shots by now. When I store it in the proper folder, I take a quick peek at the pics I snapped today, which range between okay to average. Shots of the untouched landscape, some rusted remains of a lonely downed fighter from a previous war, and rocks. Lots and lots of rocks. I’ve got no idea what I’m going to with them. I could always sell them to some kind of travel ‘zine or to a stock footage database that likes landscape shots. But let’s be real; it’s war pics that pay for my summer trips. I could do another college course with the money I raked in from my collection of urban warfare alone.

Still, even though the cities gave me better footage with their battles and explosions and their injured soldiers and rebels, I kind of like it out here. While not very exciting, this landscape is a nice breath of air after six weeks of watching Tigership after Tigership come in, bombard the planet with bombs and troopers and stain the countryside with fire and blood. Out here, it’s rustic and familiar, like the Pyrenees or the grand canyon. The war feels like it’s a thousand miles away, even though there’s a fortress encased in a mountain just on the other side of these hills, and an army marching on it only twenty-five miles from my current location. For once, there’s no gunfire in the distance or angry voices screaming for blood. It’s peaceful. Rustic. Serene. And boring as hell.

I drop my stuff and stretch my back for a minute. My stomach grumbles, while my feet protest by shooting up cries of agony to the rest of my legs. I look around for somewhere to sit, spotting a decently sized rock. Not the most comfortable of seats, but a good place as any for a quick break and a snack before I continue on.

Shit! Sonic boom, right above the clouds. Lights flicker. Gunfire. A skirmish, maybe. I pull out my Pinecho, in case I get the chance to take some good dogfight shots. Where are they? There! A rebel fighter, with a long tail of a smoke streaking behind it, comes down right at…me?

“Oh shit!”

I drop to the ground and cover my ears. Just in the nick of time too. Three seconds later, and it would’ve taken my head clean off. The fighter hits the ground, skipping against the soil like a rock across a lake, before it slams nose first into the mountainside. Bits of metal and glass shoot out at all sides, while the engine dies with an aggressive sputter and a whine.

Barely a minute later, two Tiger hunters break through the sea of clouds and open fire on the wreck, hitting the wings and shredding the Razorwing’s hull. A piece of shrapnel narrowly misses my ear. Damn. What a mess.

The hunters take off, not bothering with another volley. I guess they figure the threat has been permanently neutralized. It’s too late for me to get a good shot of them, as they’re back above the clouds before I can take aim. The wreck, however…

I rush towards the remains, following the track it left in the dirt. Snap. Snap. Snap. Great shots, every one of them. I rarely get a chance to get this close without having to worry about being hit by a stay shot. I take a stance, trying to get the entire wreckage in view, when I hear the sound of a loud pop, followed by the cockpit snapping open. The pilot suddenly shoots out from the wreckage, chair and all, and hits the mountainside straight on, like a fly against a windshield.

“Christ!” I yell.

A parachute shoots out of the chair, which covers the pilot like a blanket. There’s no movement. Is he dead? Had it been me hitting the mountain like that, it would’ve shattered every bone in my body. I contemplate moving in closer, but what’s the point? For all I know, the crash killed him already. I shouldn’t get close. Never approach the injured combatants, like the guide book says. It’s not like I’d take any shots, since bloodied bodies get a ton of dislikes. Still, I’m tempted to look.

Now, this is where I should be careful. If I do anything to help the injured pilot, I breach my visa regulations and the vacation is over, just like that. I need to move along, get to the next campsite per my set course, and stick to my role as silent observer in the conflict. Besides, if the pilot is dead, there’s not much I can do.

A scream, muffled by the ‘chute. Crap. Something takes over and compels me to drop my pack and rush in to help. My best guess, it’s stupidity.

I pull the ‘chute away from the ejected seat, using my pocket knife to cut the ropes. I try to convince myself I haven’t lost my mind and that I’m appealing to my sense of common decency. But no; it’s definitely stupidity. The sound of a Takka-MM9 pistol being cocked confirms it. I find myself staring down the barrel of the pilot’s side piece, gripped tightly in a four-fingered hand; the trademark of a Togol woman.

“Drop knife!” she growls through gritted teeth, her Togollin awkwardly translated by my Pinecho’s translator app. They really ought to patch that one of these days.

I do as told, though she still keeps her gun aimed at my head. She’s trembling up a storm. I can tell she’s trying to bite through the pain and keep her focus, so she’ll look like a credible threat. But the bits of bone that pierce through the skin of her left arm and legs are a pretty good indicator of how much pain she’s actually in.

She gives me another good look over. I can see her right eye dart up and down past the crack in her helmet’s visor. “Tiger?” she asks.

“What? No! No, I’m not with the Infinite Tigers. I’m a non-combatant,” I stammer. I hope that she didn’t hit her head so hard that I actually look like I’m covered in orange and black fur.

“What you is?” she asks. “Iron Man?”

“What? The Brigade? No! I’m not in the war at all. I’m from planetoid D…DL…something. Crap! I have the number. If you’ll let me–?”

I’m not sure if she heard anything I said, as her eyes tilt back into her head and she keels over while I’m mid-sentence. Out like a light. Jeez.

What do I do now? Should I leave? Yes, I should. It’s none of my business. But she’s injured. The obvious thing to do is to call for help. As per my visa’s regulations, if I come across injured combatants, be they Tiger or Togol, I have sit back and let their own people take care of it. But there aren’t any Togol rebels around here for miles, as far as I know. No medics. No hospitals. What now? Do I just leave her? No, I can’t do that. She’ll perish without first aid. But if I do anything, I’ll breach the non-involvement clause. That could mean a bullet to the head. Crap.

I need to move on. I’m scheduled to be at the Polla peak for the siege, which is another day’s walk. I can’t stick around. It’s sad, and I do feel bad for her, but injuries come with the job of soldiering, right? I can’t get involved. I shouldn’t. I need to–

“Aaaargh,” she suddenly shrieks, jolting up, while her mandibles fidget like a scared yoogi-crawler beetle’s legs. Her eyes bug out. Then, not a second later, she falls back, out cold again.

“Shit,” I mutter.

I drop my pack. If I hurry and don’t bother with cataloging my path, I can have my tent set up in an hour.

#

Okay, that was nerve-wracking and scary as hell (both the fear of hurting her further and the looming threat of execution), but I did it. I managed to get her out of her helmet and flight suit, the latter of which I cut open with my knife, as I was afraid to move her around too much. I wrapped her in my sleeping bag as carefully as possible. It’s strange, but I just realized I’ve never been this close to a Togol, least of all a female one. Her skin is an orange-yellow mix, while the quills on her head (that I once mistook for hair) are a deep purple with white ends. Her mouth is almost like that of a human, barring the two mandibles on the side of her cheeks, but that’s where any comparable facial features end. It’s then that I wonder why they’re even called ‘bugs’ by the Tigers, as she reminds me more of a reptile. Maybe because ‘bug’ is catchier?

It’s the middle of the night when she finally wakes up. She looks confused about where she is and what’s around her left arm and head. Wait till she sees the patch job I did on her legs. At least I managed to cut off the bleeding and set some of the bone. And here I used to think that those first-aid classes I took in college would never come in handy.

“Where I am?” she asks.

“Hi. I’m Duncan. You’re in my tent.”

“Am dead?”

“What? No, you’re alive.”

“No, now not,” she says. “Am will be I?”

I bite my lip, which I can tell does not inspire much confidence in her. “I’m not sure. I’m not a medic or a doctor. All I could do was apply a little first aid. As far as I can tell you’ll–”

“Where gun?” she asks.

“Now, don’t be alarmed, but I took it. I wasn’t sure if you were going to try and shoot me when you woke up.”

She bares her teeth, her mandibles clicking furiously. “Am prisoner?”

“What? No. You’re not a prisoner. But you’re hurt. You hit that mountain pretty hard, so I figured you might be confused and scared. I just took your gun for my own safety.”

She squints, angrily grinding her mandibles together, but I think she understands my point. “How bad hurt?”

“Ehm, pretty damn bad. I doubt you’ll get up anytime soon. You should rest for now.”

“Who you is, Duncan?” she asks. “Skin brown, no hair but smooth. Certain you Iron Man not?”

“No. I’m not with anyone. I’m just a tourist. I’m here on a non-combatant visa. I just happened to pass by when you crashed.”

“Tourist? What that planet? Tourist planet?”

“No, it’s not my planet. I’m from Earth.”

“Dirt?”

Damn translator. I roll with it. “Sure, dirt. I’m here on vacation. You know? Holiday?”

She looks confused. “Holiday? Leisure?”

“Yeah. War tourism.”

She shakes her head, but winces from the pain. I look through my bag for pain relievers, but I doubt the stuff I take against aching muscles and headaches will do much for three shattered limbs and a possible concussion.

“If you Dirt from, how speak Togollin you?”

I pull out the Pinecho and show it to her. “This translates what you say for me, and visa versa.”

“Vera vera?”

“Sure, let’s go with that. The Pinecho tells me what you say, and does the same for you. It’s not perfect, hence the slight interference and the grammar errors. It also takes pictures and lets me download maps and war updates, so I know where to go and not to go.”

“Mn,” she says. “Connect can to omi-net?”

“Yeah. I can patch in if the signal is strong enough.”

“Good. Need to search me for,” she says.

“You need me to look something up? Sure. What is it?”

“Homanil.”

“I’ll try. What is it?”

“Burn instruct body of. For if die.”

My heart skips a beat, while the blood flushes from my face. I think she noticed my shock, as her eyes narrow into dark slits. “Ehm, I don’t think I should be–,”

“I die, need burn right. Or not God meet. No Togol other people close. If not me find and Homanil do, go hell I.”

See, this is why I should’ve stayed out of it. “Ehm, I can’t get a signal,” I lie. “Sorry.”

She sighs. “Can write? Draw? I for you do.”

“You should rest. We can talk about–,”

She grunts, clicking her mandibles with an intense fury. “If not Homanil, I hell go! You send hell me? You punish?”

“Hey, lady, I’m not doing anything. Don’t get yourself worked up. You’re hurt, so–,”

“Enemy you are. Send to hell me. Kill then me. Shoot!”

“Lady, are you nuts? I’m not gonna shoot you.”

“Beat head rock with! Am ‘bug’ as say Tiger, no? Squash!”

Okay, that’s it. I’m not having this. I exit the tent and leave her behind, while she screams and hisses like a lunatic. What did I get myself into? I’ve got no-one to blame but myself for getting involved, but that doesn’t excuse her going nuts on me. Try to help someone out, and they go apeshit on you. These Togol people and their crazy rituals are all nuts. The Tigers might be a bunch of fight-hungry dude-bros, but they’d never act like this. No wonder the Togol are losing this war.

In the distance, I can see the Polla peak, my destination. It looks so tiny from here, but it’s one of the highest peaks near the fortress of Thermion. It’s the best spot for the siege, which I will miss if I don’t leave soon enough. I should’ve left her on the mountain and moved on. If I don’t leave tomorrow, I’ll miss the battle’s start. But I’m stuck here with an injured Togol woman in my tent, wracking my brain for a solution. I could just leave her there while I move on. But what if the Tigers find her in a licensed tent? It’s on record with my name and visa number. Crap.

I take my Pinecho and open the battle report app. The Tigers are going turning north-west, on their way to the mountain keep. Some are shooting off from the main collective, probably to go after Togol guerrilla units hiding in their foxholes. Ah! There! A Togol battalion that’s moving up from the east. At this pace, they’ll pass us by sometime tomorrow. If I can flag them and get them to take her off my hands, I might just make it before the charge of the fortress commences.

Although I have to admit, that offshoot Tiger unit worries me. They find me with her, and my visa and all the protections that comes with it is worth diddly-squat. If push comes to shove, it might be better if they find me with a corpse. Which would mean…I’d have to–. Christ, I can’t even imagine what it’s like to pull a gun on someone, let alone squeeze the trigger. Or do you pull a trigger? Great. Some War-tourist I am.

It’s quiet in the tent. When I check in on her, she’s hit the ground face first, her face smushed up against the sleeping mat I wrapped her into. Her tantrum, combined with the pain of her injuries, tuckered her out. I check her pulse and temperature, which aren’t too irregular as far as I can tell. But just as I’m about to move away, I’m startled by the sudden tug at my arm. As if in a reflex, she’s grabbed hold of my wrist with her one good hand. Her mandibles move slowly against her face. She seems asleep, yet I can’t manage to break free from her grip. How can someone so injured and weak still be so strong?

“Great. Now what do I do?” I sigh.

#

I didn’t sleep a wink all night, only finally breaking free from Ms. Top Gun’s grip about an hour ago. The first rays of the sun hit the mountainside, reflected by a thin coat of snow. I set up my collapsible seat just outside the tent, waiting for the coffee to finish heating up on the boiler, while I kill time by reading up on the instructions for that Hokanil ceremony she mentioned earlier. There’s not much to it. I’m supposed to wrap the body of the deceased in a cloth, almost like a burrito, sit them up against something like a chair, then light a fire in the deceased’s lap so he/she can return to their place in the lap of God. All you need to do then is keep the fire from going out. I don’t know why I downloaded the tutorial. It’s not like I planned on actually doing it. I guess in case that…just in case.

The Togol pilot is still asleep. Her breathing is erratic, as a few coughs escape her every now and then. I wonder if her lungs are all right. If she’s got internal injuries, then she’s screwed. For all I know, she could be bleeding internally and drop dead at any minute. I really wish someone was around to take her off my hands.

Ding! Coffee’s done. I pour it in my one cup and bring it inside the tent. It’s my first time entertaining a guest on one of my backpacking trips, so I never bothered to get a second cup.

I nudge her awake with my foot. “Hey…,” I say, realizing I don’t know her name. “…ma’am? Did you sleep okay?”

“Hurting pain,” she mutters. “Bad too dreaming.”

“Yeah? What about?”

“War. Fire. Comrades who dying is. Comrades who dying has.”

“Oh. Did you lose a lot of…comrades?”

“Togol war losing is. Lose battles of the Ohn, Koda and Sjufi. What think you?” she grunts.

Yeah, that was a pretty dumb question on my part. I hand her the cup, which she takes a swig from. After worrying all day yesterday about her injuries and getting nothing but distrustful scowls in return, her expression after her first taste of coffee is a hilarious change of pace. She fills her cheeks like a chipmunk with its hoard, holds it for a minute until she finally swallows, then sticks her green tongue out like a little kid after a spoonful of cough syrup.

“Yagesch!” she moans. “This what?”

“Coffee. It should perk you up.”

“Eat better raw garrim to this drink,” she moans, as she rubs her palm against her tongue like she’s trying to scrape the taste off. I’ve had garrim once in a marketplace, and if she thinks that crap tastes better than coffee, she hit her head worse than I thought. Even after being cooked for an hour with blue onions and dill I didn’t like it. And now I wasted a cup of Joe on someone who’d rather eat raw zof steer tongues. “How world today is?”

“What do you mean?”

“Sky? Is rain? Is sun?” she asks, pointing upward.

“Oh, the weather,” I say. I pull out the Pinecho and load the weather app, then hand it to her. “There’s a mild shower coming up, but for the rest of the day it’ll be clear.”

She stares at the Pinecho’s screen, her eyes wide as dinner plates as she intensely studies the weather forecast. She moves her thumb over the screen, scanning the areas that surround our current position. I notice she then moves onto the other apps, opening my path tracker, the home-news feed, my inventory tracker, before she reaches an app that causes her to pause. “What this?” she asks, holding the Pinecho for me to see.

“Oh, that’s the war app. It’s a play by play of the war, including where the troops of each faction are right now. Blue is the Infinite Tigers, yellow the Iron Brigade mercenaries, while green is the Togol rebellion.”

“Rebels not. Is world us. Tigers invaders is. Not their world,” she hisses. She goes on, finally landing on my tourist visa’s Togonil-language summary. “Your visa,” she says. “Byline importance is. No interfere. What count interfere as?”

“Well, I’m not allowed to carry a weapon that doesn’t have a D-1 approval, so my pocket knife is okay. I’m also not allowed to align myself with either faction and help them in any way.”

“It say you not fighter help. Crime.”

“Yeah, it is.”

“Why then help you me?”

“Yeah, well, I couldn’t just…y’know,” I mutter. “Besides, if you go back to the battle report map, you’ll see there’s a Togol battalion on its way here. They’ll arrive later today, tomorrow at the latest. So when they get here, they can just take you with them, and no-one needs to know I broke a stipulation.” She looks at me, clicking her mandibles slowly against each other. “Are you okay with that?” I ask.

She shrugs. “If come Togol, go I Togol with,” she says nonchalantly. “Then keep go can you.”

“Great! Awesome. Because I really need to get a move on.”

“Why here you?” she asks.

“I told you. I’m a tourist.”

“Yes. But why?”

“Well, I do a blog on traveling around the mapped universe. I mostly do war tourism, and any good pictures I make I sell to the department of records. I get to travel, see some cool action and get paid on top of it. It’s a good gig.”

She stares at me. Her eyes go cold, as she rubs her hand against her face. “Gig,” she says, letting the word roll over her tongue like a sour candy that never seems to hit a moment of sweetness. “Togol fight freedom for. Fight Tigers live to. Is gig not. Is life us, home us, crushed demon Tigers by.”

“Ehm…yeah. But it’s not just me who digs this. People on my planet alone eat it up. They love to watch the war unfold and how the Togol try to hold the Tigers at bay. Action sells, and the war zone is perfect for good pics.”

“Mn,” she mutters. “Togol death fun is?”

“Well, no. But people want to see it. Know about it. I’m sure there’s people out there who are sympathetic to the Togol and their cause.”

“Need sympathy not. Need war win,” she growls. She then tilts her hear back, shifting the subject: “Why here you on mountain? Where go you?”

“Actually, I was on my way to Thermion. For the oncoming siege.”

“Yes. Battle soon.”

“It’s kind of why I’m hoping your buddies will show up soon. I need to get moving, and I don’t want to miss it.”

She chuckles. “Sorry hold back you.”

“Oh, no, I wasn’t saying that–,”

“How picture take?” she asks as she picks the Pinecho back up.

“Huh? Why?”

“Take picture crazy tourist of. Show face dumb universe to.”

“Right. Sure. Just open the purple app and press the circle. Then–,”

The snapshot sound comes through, but she scowls. “Did wrong. Me is,” she groans.

“It’s on selfie mode. Sorry.”

“Then have picture stupid pilot of. Stupid Togol pilot.”

I look at it. She made the dumbest face she could have. It’s hilarious and would no doubt get a few laughs among the followers, but I’m not gonna post it. People want shots of action and explosions, not silly camera goofs. Besides, who would buy a pic of a wounded Togol with a goofy expression?

“When there be you need Thermion?” she asks.

“The fight is the day after tomorrow. So I’ll need to get moving if I’m to reach the Polla peak in time.”

“Allow then stay me in tent your until Togol army come?”

“Yeah. Of course,” I say. It’s not the worst promise to make. Then she asks another favor of me, and for a minute, it feels like my heart stopped.

“Also,” she says. “Will give gun me if Tiger come?”

“What?”

“No prisoner be I. Tiger do…no prisoner be I. I fight.”

“Ok, first of all, that’s a worst-case scenario thing. And second, if you kill someone while in my tent, they’ll charge me with acts of war and terrorism. I’ll be jailed.”

“Say forced you me do.”

Shit. She’s serious. Think. Think! “Oh! They won’t do the thing…the burial thing. You’d go to hell.”

“Then Tigers take hell to me with,” she says, smirking a devilish smile.

“Okay, I’m just saying this out loud; I’m not giving you the gun.”

“Can’t gun have you,” she says. “Visa say crime.”

“Yeah, well…I guess that’s what I do now. Commit crimes,” I snap.

She laughs, but it’s a hollow laugh. “Togol care not crime for yours. But demon Tigers bone rip and leg break you. Give gun me, tourist Dirt of.”

“No, I can’t! You’re not getting it back, and that’s final!” I snap. She leers at me with dark eyes, while her mandibles snap against each other furiously. For a moment, I expect her to reach out and grab me by the collar and dig her teeth into my neck (which I’ve seen another Togol do, so that’s not my runaway imagination). But then, she smiles. Her smile turns to a laugh, mixed with the strange chitter that reminds me of cicadas in the summer.

“Brave, you,” she says. “Bad brave is, but brave.”

“Bad brave? What does that mean?”

“Stupid brave. Brave of think immortal when. Of young people brave. Stupid brave.”

“I’m not stupid!”

“Then me save why?”

“Because…” I stammer. She’s got me good this time. “Because it was the right thing to do?”

“Mn,” she grunts. “For tourist war, soft heart have you. Bad. Kill you will soft heart”

“Hey, that soft heart kept your ass alive, didn’t it?” I snap back.

“Not if gun give me,” she retorts.

“Yeah. But you’re not getting that while you’re in my tent, missy. So drop it.” She leans back and sighs. For some reason, I instinctively feel for her gun, still tucked in the back of my pants. Part of me hopes she falls asleep and doesn’t bring the topic up again. Maybe that why I try to change the subject. “Say. What’s your name?”

She hesitates, either unaccustomed to the question or hearing it asked by an off-worlder. “Galla,” she finally says. “Galla to San. Born on red moon day of.”

“Nice to meet you, Galla,” I reply.

“Meet good, too Duncan you,” she says back.

#

It’s almost midnight. Clear skies tonight. The stars are out, with a few blinking satellites that zoom past them. It’s so clear that, if I had brought a telescope, there’s a good chance I could find Earth from here.

“Duncan?” Galla calls out.

“Yeah?”

“Hurt,” she groans.

“Hang on. I’ll see what I can find,” I say, as I turn my bag inside out for any painkillers I still have. I hand them to her along with my flask of water, which she downs without a second thought.

She sits up, gritting her teeth whilst she lets out the quietest of whimpers. I don’t know how she does it. If it was me who had a bone sticking out of my body, I’d be a screaming mess all hours of the day. “What outside do you?”

“Just watching the stars. Nothing special.”

“Can see I?”

“Sure,” I say, pulling the flaps of the tent’s entrance aside so she can view the outside world. “Can you see it all right?”

“Yes. Is that be–?”

A flash in the distance. A second and third follow. We both freeze in place, like deer in the headlights. That sound is unmistakable. Cannons. Bombs. It can’t be.

“No! No no no! They started early. How can this be! Why did they start early?” I shriek.

Galla chuckles. “Tiger not do as hoped you?”

“There’s a whole day left. They weren’t supposed to begin the siege until tomorrow. I’m gonna miss the whole thing. Goddammit!” I snap, kicking the dirt.

We sit there, watching the mountain being illuminated by the cannon fire. I slump to my knees, grasping my hair while I gnash my teeth. I could scream. Why? Why did they move in ahead of schedule?

“Is bad miss you?” Galla asks.

“Are you kidding? Think of the hits, likes and tags I’m missing out on. The ad revenue alone would have paid for my next trip. And the deals with the records? Jeez. What a load!”

Galla clicks her mandibles slowly. “Four times thousand Togol Thermion at. Family. Little children. Friends.”

“Friends? Of yours?”

She rolls over, away from me. “Hillo, farmer, soldier now. Survive Tyo battle. Children have two; Depa and Ku. Gesa, artist, pilot now. Mother lost Hodion battle in. Gekka, cook. Torture Tigers by for think is spy, escaping, join Togol fighters. Miita, student. Child is, for siblings care death mother after. More many, stories death of have each. Fight Tiger life for. Planet for. Other Togol for. For other Togol die they. Fight never stop they, last Togol dead until.”

I sit there dumbstruck as her words sink in. I feel empty, like all the warmth has been sapped from me by a leech. This vacation has lost all its meaning for me in a nanosecond. I try to think of something to say, but all I can come up with are hollow apologies, empty assurances or a stupid quote about war that I swiped from Hemingway. And then, just when I think I can’t fall any lower, Galla twists the blade when she says: “Sorry missed battle do you. Sorry missed ‘likes’ and ‘tags’ do you.” She turns around in the sleeping bag, away from the flashes of cannon fire in the distance.

I feel like I’m two inches tall.

#

It just goes on an on. I’m not used to being this far away from the scene, forced to guess as to what is happening and who is doing what. It’s arguably worse, as my imagination takes hold of me whenever there’s a monstrous explosion that lights up the night’s sky. Are the Tigers overrunning the keep? Do the Togol have some hidden weapon that took the invaders off guard? Who knows?

And, to be honest, I’m not sure I want to know. I keep thinking of pictures I never took. Wounded soldiers huddled behind a wall, the bandages on their limbs the only thing that’s keeping them in one piece. The faces of anguish on the Togol, the Tigers and even some of the Iron Brigade mercenaries. Before Galla, they were just soldiers. Now they have names. Jobs. Loved ones. Lives. I can’t get that out of my mind. How am I ever going to be able to take another pic, if I’m left to wonder if the person in my shot has kids, or a lover, or dreams that didn’t involve fighting? How can I do this anymore?

“Duncan?” Galla’s voice comes from the tent.

“Hey, you’re back up?”

“Asleep fell,” she mutters, before she points toward the battle behind the mountains. “How it goes?”

“The same. But if I had to guess, the Tigers might be winning.”

She nods. “Why check battle-report not you?”

“Oh… I guess I didn’t think of it,” I lie. I had, but I just couldn’t find the nerve to look. Instead, I clumsily change the subject, with the idle hope that she won’t notice. “You’ve been fighting long?”

She sighs, grimaces from the pain, then answers in her most dour tone. “Since begin war.”

“Yeah? Did you have a job before it?”

She nods. “In restaurant chef was. Food cook.”

“No kidding? What did you make?”

“Rohindah soups and todiul buns. Favorite my. Want always chef be. Food good make people for. Save restaurant for of own.”

“Your own restaurant? That’s so cool,” I say. I’m genuinely impressed. I can’t ever remember having an ambition like that of my own. Since graduation, I’ve just been around planet-hopping from war-zone to war-zone.

Her expression turns sad. “Tiger demons came. Begin war of, enroll pilot as army in. Fly missions years of three or four. Now injured bad, know don’t if cook again I.”

Oh man. Just when I thought I was cheering her up. Afraid that she’s about to cry, I jolt up and say: “You should still open your restaurant. When this is all over.”

She looks at me, her mandibles tapping a confused rhythm. “What?” she says.

“After the war, you should start your restaurant. And I’ll come by and try your food. I’ve never done a food blog, so that would be a great place to start. Sound good?”

She smiles. A real smile, unmarred by her pain or her thoughts of the war. A sunrise in a dark field, while for once the war becomes a backdrop, not the focus.

“Tell Dirt about me?” she suddenly asks.

“What? Dirt?”

“Yes. Dirt planet. Home you? Where come you from me show?”

“Oh, right,” I say. I grab my Pinecho and try to connect to the omi-net, but since the battle on the other side of the mountain seems to interfere with the signal, I load up some pics from my personal folder instead. “These are my parents. My dad owns the bank in the background. And this is my sister. She’s in college herself now. And these are my friends–,”

I tell show her library after library of photos, while she listens to me ramble on about all the details I can think of. When I run out of family pictures, I show her images from that summer on Dekkar, where I’d just missed out on the Zoni-Cumath war. It’s one of the few collections that doesn’t have war pictures in them, and if I’m gonna keep her mind off the battle, then I need to take what I can get. She listens intently while I jammer on. Soon enough, we don’t even notice the cannons in the distance anymore.

#

It’s morning, but you wouldn’t tell it from how dark it is. The absence of the sun is almost creepy, blocked by the storm clouds that move in from the west. From behind the mountain, the smoke climbs up to the sky. No sounds of cannon fire, which mean the Tigers are either regrouping, or the battle is over. That’s a wager no-one will bet on. Damn.

I open the Pinecho. I’ve got a clear signal again, so the usual updates flood in at a breakneck speed. The news from home is normal. Rain shower expected around noon. Next, the area report. I–

“Oh fuck!” I gasp at the sight of the many red dots moving down to the black spot that is us. The Tigers are everywhere. Where’d all the green go? The Togol battalion! It veered off course. No, they’re headed back the way they came. What the hell are they doing? The answer pops up a second later. A unit…no, an entire army of Tigers is headed up towards us from the other side of the hill. I load up the battle report, and suddenly everything makes sense. The keep fell, but more than half of the Togol rebels managed to sneak out through secret tunnels and scattered across the mountainsides to fight another day. Brilliant. Good for them. The downside is that the small offshoots from the main Tiger force haven’t been ordered to regroup. They’re on the prowl for rebels on the run, headed on the straight path toward Galla and me. Shit.

We need to run.

Ok, plan. Plan something. I got to get Galla to her rebel faction, or with any Togol rebels. But she can’t move in the state she’s in. I could make a stretcher, but out of what? I’ve got neither the tools or the time. No choice but to tie her to my back and just book it. Leave the tent and just go. If I want to stay ahead of the Tigers, I’ll need to run without pause.

I jump into the tent and pack the few things we’ll desperately need if we’re going to survive our trip, then shake Galla by the shoulder to rouse her from her sleep. “Galla! Wake up! We gotta go!”

“Go? Why?”

“Tigers. A whole army of them. Shock troops, I think. They’re coming this way. We need to move,” I say, as I slide her gun into the back of my pants. I’m already breaking my visa’s stipulations by delivering Galla to her people, might as well be armed if they try and get me for it.

“What mean move you? Where go you?”

“With you. You need to get with the Togol troops, and it’s not like the Tigers are gonna get you there. You can’t walk, so I’m gonna carry you.”

“But with me find Tiger you, they kill.”

I shrug. “They might, but we’ll worry about that when we get to that, all right?”

She nods, but I can tell my plan doesn’t inspire much confidence in her.

“How I move do?” she asks.

“I’m gonna strap you to my back and then we’ll just book it.”

“You?” she asks. “Can even you?”

“Yeah, sure,” I say.

“Prove,” she says.

We don’t have the time to argue, so I lean over and wrap my arms around her. With all my might I lift her up. She grimaces in pain, while my face turns red as I use all of my strength. “See,” I groan. “No problem.”

“Put down!” she grunts, which I do. “How long can carry do you?”

“Don’t worry about it. If we go now, we’ll have a head start. Then we just keep going, night and day.”

“Tigers fast. More time need move to.”

“Well, can we make more time somehow?”

She thinks intently, grazing her mandibles together. Then, she snaps her fingers. “Pinecho! Give!”

“Why? What for?”

“We bomb make.”

“What?”

“We trap make. Razorwing my. It part has explode when made to trap. Can rig wires with. Tiger come see and trap spring, explode, buy time us.”

“A booby trap,” I say. “That could work. Jesus, that could actually work! We might get enough of a head start to make it to another Togol unit.”

“Give Pinecho! I pictures find and write to how. You go that do, and we leave soon can.”

“You got it,” I say, handing her my Pinecho. She types away one-handed, while I collect the necessary supplies. This booby trap idea could work. It might just buy us the time we need to get ahead of the curve.

“Here!” Galla says as she hands me the device back. “Hurry. Need finish quick before Tigers come.”

“Got it. I’ll be quick.”

“Take time,” she says. She flashes me a smile, which I return. She cracks up, so I might have just given her that face that my sister Tess always makes fun of me for. She calls it the ‘Duncan likes a girl‘ face.

I rush out, sprinting toward the wreck of her jet. It’s a mess, but if we can turn it into a trap, it’ll serve its purpose one last time. A part of me curses myself for setting up camp so far from the site, but now that I know there’s live explosive parts in it, I’m glad I did. Once there, I climb up the vessel’s hull, trying not to cut my hands on the shredded metal and glass. I slip into the cockpit, which is uncomfortable since the seat is about half a mile away from it. With quick finger motions, I load up the notes app and begin to read Galla’s instructions.

Dear Duncan. Thank you for help. Risked much for me. Enjoyed time with you. Good to laugh. But your job done. Let me do job for you. Reload Hokanil tutorial for you, if could you. Thank you, and be safe. – Galla

What is this? Is this a goodbye note? What does she mean by her job? Wait. I don’t feel the gun in against my back. I scramble for it, but it’s nowhere to be found. When did I–?

A shot rings out across the mountainside.

#

The flames burn nicely. I was afraid that the damp air would kill the flames, but nothing a little leftover rocket fuel couldn’t fix. It reaches high into the sky, while the smell of burning fuel fills my nostrils.

I can’t stop crying. After all the things I’d seen, it’s now that I cry. Looking back, I should have cried back then too, but I was too out of it to realize. I was a tourist. But now I’m in it, and I can’t stop crying. They should put that as a warning in the booklets.

I hear a roar. Heavy feet stomp toward me. I load up my visa and slowly turn around, meeting the icy blue eyes of a Tiger, a long scar decorates the center of his face like a gaudy tattoo. He could kill me without breaking a sweat. But there’s something in his eyes that calms me.

“Identify yourself,” he snarls, teeth bared and his gun aimed right at my face. I just hand him the Pinecho, which he skims through. He then lowers his rifle and smiles, which is just as frightening a sight to behold. “Sorry about that, friend. You’re good.”

“Yeah, thanks,” I mutter.

He roars again. Other Tigers pop out from hidden spots and continue their march across the mountain. The scarred one stays beside me as he admires the fire.

“Bit early for a campfire, isn’t it? You’ll attract the wrong kind of attention if you are this careless.”

“I was cold, is all,” I say with a shrug.

“Indeed,” the Tiger growls. “D’you happen to know how that got there?” he asks, pointing to the Razorwing’s wreck. “Must’ve been quite the crash.”

“No idea, pal. It was there when I got here.”

“Of course,” he says. “You didn’t happen to see any bugs, did you?”

I shake my head. “Nope. Not a one.”

He gives me a look that makes me feel like a gazelle in the grass, aware that something is about to pounce on it. I know that look of disbelief in his eyes. Still, he doesn’t press it further.

“Tourist, huh? D’you host a blog?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“Well, you can stick with us if you want to take some better pics. The war’s winding down, so there won’t be many battles left for you to follow. We’ve been sent here to weed out any bugs that scattered across the mountains.”

I sigh. “Actually, I think I should get going. Summer is coming to an end. Vacation’s over.”

“Suit yourself,” he says with a shrug. Then, in the distance, the sound of a cannon causes the Tigers’ hair to stand up. Without a word, the unit leaps into action, running on all fours towards the sounds of war. After all that’s happened, to Ohn, to Thermion and to Galla, it just keeps going, doesn’t it?

“Take care,” the Tiger says, before rushing off after his comrades.

I sit down to watch the fires of Galla’s Homanil burn until the wrap collapses in on itself. She burns for hours, until there’s nothing but glowing embers. When there’s nothing left but ash and smoke, a groan rumbles from above. A drop hits my eye. Another my nose. Rain. It starts to pour, but I can’t get myself to find shelter. I just sit there, while the water washes away what was left of Galla. She’s gone, back into the lap of God.

Time to move on. I load up the Pinecho’s travel app. There’s a ship leaving from the Tigers’ camp near Ohm for Station-7 three days from now. After I reserve a seat and close the app, the Pinecho jumps to my picture folder. Galla looks at me, her goofy expression from when she tried to figure out how to use the photo app. I’ll need to delete it, lest the Tigers catch me with it, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. It’s such a pure picture. It’s her, unfiltered and unmodified. Unmarred by war for only the briefest of moments. Yes, she is…was a soldier. But she was also a cook. She liked rohindah soup and todiul buns. She was a person before she was a soldier. And now that person is gone…but maybe she won’t need to be forgotten?

I don’t know what possesses me, and there’s a good chance no-one will ever buy my shots again after I do this. But I could give two shits. I press the ‘upload’ button, posting my message on the blog’s main page. It is Galla’s selfie. The text below reads: “This is Galla. She was a pilot in the Free Togol Army. This is her story.”