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River

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“Hey, hey kid! Look out, you’re gonna––”

But it was too late, and the ground crumbled away beneath his boot, pitching him backward over the edge. For an agonizingly long moment he felt suspended in midair, watching his brother reach for him. But his back hit the cliff wall with a crunch! of plastoid, and then he was spinning, tumbling end over end. His gloves scrabbled against the rock face, searching for purchase, but he was going too fast. And then splash! and his helmet went dark.

The current sucked at him, dragged him down. He fought it, but the pack he was wearing was too heavy. It pulled at his shoulders. He struggled with the straps, straining to pull his arms through as he was twisted back and forth by the water. With a pop! one of his shoulder bells came free, and he finally yanked his arms through the straps. Buffeted by the current, he kicked for what he hoped was the surface. Silty water seeped through his blacks, ice cold and biting. It sloshed into his helmet, choking him, stinging his eyes. He kept going, pushing through the water, fighting the burn in his lungs.

Fighting the panic setting in.

He’d barely passed water safety. He’d barely passed anything. He wasn’t supposed to be here. He wasn’t even nine yet. He wasn’t ready. He wasn’t ready. He wasn’t ready. He didn’t want to die yet, not like this. Not like this. Please, not like this. If he could just find the surface, please, please…

Another crunch! as the current hurled him into something hard and sharp, and his dark vision went white with pain. The water was filling his helmet faster now. He couldn’t feel his arms. His legs. The cold leeched the strength he tried to muster, each swirling eddy carrying it away into the darkness. He tried to reach out, to push against the water, anything. But he didn’t know which was was up anymore, he didn’t know where was up, please, no––

A jerk, suddenly, on his leg, and he felt himself moving, and then light, muddy, silty, but light, and the current no longer buffeted his body, and the solidness of earth dragged along his back as he was pulled by his leg. And then it stopped, and a whoosh! as his helmet was pulled free and the icy water rushed out through the broken seal. He coughed, more water sputtering out from between his lips. Hands scrabbled at his armor, tugging, twisting, then his blacks, and then cool air kissed his skin. What sounded like shouting filled his ears––“Get blankets! Hot water! Caf! Anything! Hurry!” Then warmth against his skin, around him, pressing tight, and the voice again, soft this time––“I’ve got you. You’re safe. You’re safe. Just breathe. You’re okay. You’re safe.”

He was trembling. He could feel that. Even if he wasn’t quite sure where his arms and legs began. He shook, and the warmth pressed against him tighter. A lady, he realized distantly. Rubbing the feeling back into his arms, draping her jacket over them, skin against skin. She raised her head up to shout again––“Anything! Hurry!”––before looking him in the eyes.

“You’re gonna be okay, okay? Can you understand me?”

He nodded.

“What’s your name?”

His teeth chattered. He tried to force the words out. It was so hard. Talking was so hard. His throat burned with the scratch of silt. His jaw ached. His tongue wouldn’t move right.

“S-S-S-See T-T-Tee S-S-Seven S-Seven dash E-Eight Eight S-S-S-Seven Seven.”

“I––uh––okay? Okay. Just…you’re gonna be okay.”

“I don’t wanna d-die, p-please, I don’t wanna––”

“You’re gonna be fine, it’s okay, it’s okay.”

“Here!” came a distant voice, growing closer. The lady looked up. She made a motion with her arm, then tugged at him, pulling him to a sitting position.

“Here, come here, sit up, we got some blankets and a drink, you gotta drink now okay? It’ll warm you up.”

The heavy warmth of fabric settled around his shoulders. Hands pressed against him, tucking him into the warmth from all sides. The lady withdrew, and another blanket was draped across his chest. He couldn’t stop shaking. He tried to take the cup that was held before his face, but his hands wouldn’t close around it. He was so cold, still so cold. This couldn’t be it, couldn’t be. He was out of the water. He was gonna be fine, she said he was gonna be fine. Please, please be fine, please. But he couldn’t grab the cup, how could he be okay if he couldn’t grab the cup? No, no, please, so cold…

Warm hands curled around his briefly, and then the cup was being held to his lips.

“Easy, easy,” came the lady’s soft voice, “this is hot, take it slow.”

He coughed up the first sip, then sputtered the second. But the liquid eased its way down finally. He felt a steadying grip at the back of his neck, and he leaned into it, letting the heat from the drink seep into his throat, his chest, his stomach. Stars it felt so good, it felt like life, he was gonna be okay, he was, he was gonna be okay

Hot tears pooled in the corners of his eyes, threatening to spill over. “I’m okay,” he breathed, “I’m okay, I’m okay…”

“Kid!”

Strong hands gripped his shoulders, and he felt armored bodies press in around him.

“Kid, my god, we thought we lost you, are you okay?”

“I’m okay Sarge, I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay…”

“You went straight down, I couldn’t get to you, I’m sorry kid––”

“I’m okay, I’m okay…”

The tears did fall then, streaking hot trails down his cheeks, as his squad wrapped their arms tightly around him. “I’m okay, I’m okay…”

“Keep him warm, yeah,” the lady’s voice came again. “Gotta keep him warm. He said his name was See Tee, um, See Tee Seven, um…”

“See Tee Seven Seven dash Eight Eight Seven Seven,” said his sergeant. “And thank you. Thank you for saving him.”

“He’s my age… I thought clones were older, but he doesn’t look…”

“It’s okay ma’am, we’ll take it from here. Thank you. Do you have any more of that tea?”

He heard the lady’s footsteps hurry away, but the cup of tea was being pressed to his lips again, and he sipped obligingly. His body shook less now, grounded by the warmth and the security of the blankets and his brothers. “Drink up, kid,” his sergeant said. “We’ve got more coming. You’re gonna be okay.”

He took the cup himself now, gulping down the last of the warm tea. “Thank you, Sarge,” he breathed, “thank you, thank you…”

“We got you now, little river-runner,” said one of the others. He couldn’t tell who. “Just don’t make a habit of it.”

“Yeah, next time there may not be a pretty girl to pull you out, River.” A hand tousled his hair.

His face flushed, hot. He was gonna be okay. Him. CT-77-8877.

River.