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Grafted

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It’s a relief to get off the battlefield, though Jack’s loathed to admit it. He’s got a decent team at his back, but he’s old enough to know he’s going to retire soon. One way or another.

He releases the visor and his vision immediately blurs to near darkness. The sense of strain at the back of his eyes falls away. Kinda like taking out contacts. Except this contact doubles as a targeting system that’s synced with his rifle. Even a blind man can go on soldiering if he’s got the right gear.

The air feels nice on his face. That’s always the welcome part. A lot of work went into rebuilding it after an explosion gave him the worst shave of his life. Took most of his nose, the front of his jaw, and eight teeth. But he knew a guy. A lot of people in his line of work know people who can suture bodies back together. He traces the small ridge on his skin that starts above his Adam’s apple. The skin feels crisscrossed because of the mesh used to hold his grafts together. Not pretty, but it got the job done. Shame about his tongue, though. Some of his tastebuds never grew back. He still has trouble tasting sweet things. There’s some poetry in that, but he tries not to think about it too hard.

He walks to the small bar fridge and opens it. Cold air wafts over his hand and arm, rapidly cooling the sweat on his skin. He feels around for a beer and grabs one by the neck. He pops the lid on the fridge’s corner, then takes a well deserved drink. It’s getting to be his ritual now. He holds his hand out to catch the edge of the bed, then sits down with his back propped up against the wall. A few years ago, it would worry him. Now he’s got the time and nobody’s here to stop him.

The night goes by much like that. He lays on his creaky bed, drinks his beer until its empty, gets back up to the fridge and gets another one. Rinse and repeat. When he’s too drunk or tired to get up, that’s the cut off point. He can finally drift off to sleep or relax into something like it. Sometimes life’s like that.

Except the quiet’s wrong. Jack drinks the last of his third beer and sets it down on the floor. The absence of noise is something he’s learned to trust. He can hear the minute creak of leather and does a mental check of the room’s layout. It’s harder with a buzz, but he’s worked against worst. Tonight’s not his night.

One of his own wouldn’t come in here without knocking. If it’s not one of his, well…. He didn’t get this far by taking chances.

“You’re just gonna stand there?”

Raspy laughter fills every corner of his room. “Now I know why you wear a mask.”

Reaper.

Jack bolts from his bed towards his pulse rifle. His foot catches on the neck of a bottle and he bangs his knee on the floor.

“Ah ah ah.”

He hears the soft click of a bullet loading into the chamber. In movies, this is the part where the villain presses the gun barrel to the hero’s head. Except Reaper knows his business and stays away. Inside 20 feet, it’s easy to kill a man with his gun holstered. He won’t be fast enough to draw it out. Even with a gun unholstered, it’s stupid to stay in arm’s reach. That’s too bad. Stupidity would make this a whole lot easier.

“Stand up, boy scout.”

Jack stands up.

“Good.” Several bottles clink together. “Drinking alone? Maybe you’re more interesting than I first thought.”

“How do you figure?”

“Bad habits make the man.”

“Is that what this is? Bad habits?”

“Sure.”

Reaper’s voice is right in his ear. Jack freezes when fingers trace the outline of his left shoulder blade. Abruptly the touch changes into a one-handed pat down for any additional weapons. It’s unnecessary. He has none. But he doesn’t need one now. He shifts position slightly to get a feel for Reaper’s body heat. It gives him a rough idea of where Reaper’s standing.

Suddenly arms clamp around his neck in a blood choke. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

Jack tastes cardboard, pulse beating in his ears. He immediately crouches forward, one hand on Reaper’s forearm. He rams his elbow back into Reaper’s groin, which elicits a shocked gasp, and drives his palm into Reaper’s face. The choke loosens up and he can twist away from Reaper. He keeps his grip on the man’s arm and throws him to the ground like a bag of potatoes.

It gives him the time to grab his visor. Jack hastily shoves it on his face and feels a moment of disorientation. It’s like he’s put on glasses that are too strong from him. The room slides back into focus.

“Ready to get your ass beat by a blind man?” Jack shifts his weight and raises his arms defensively.

Reaper just makes a disgusted grunt and sinks through the floor. Just like that, the confrontation is over. Jack stares at the carpet as if it’ll give him an answer. His body is buzzing with beer and adrenaline. He’s not ready to give up the fight yet, but Reaper doesn’t appear again. The shot to his groin must’ve killed his mood. Or maybe he just wanted easy pickings. It’s hard to know.

One thing’s clear, though. Reaper saw his face. Maybe he didn’t recognize him from the old posters, maybe he just didn’t brag about it. Didn’t matter. He can’t take a chance. Reaper’s mouth needs to stay closed. Permanently.

Jack checks the room just to be sure, but he’s alone. So he opens up the fridge and snaps the cap off his fourth beer.