Copyright© Arthur Shadwe, 2005
The young man hobbled up the ramp to the front door of the nondescript building. In his scarred left hand he carried a small box covered in black velvet. There was a wasted haunted look to his face, as though a cancer was eating at his soul. Shoulders hunched in tension, he glared at the metal numbers nailed above the door. This was the correct building.
He opened the velvet box, noting that he'd already scuffed the velvet, and pulled out a plastic card. He stared at sterile crisp black writing before sliding the card into the slot that would unlock the door. The light above the slot turned pale green, the same sickening color as the copper cloud produced by a particle beam weapon. He opened the door and held it open with a foot while replacing the card from where he had gotten it.
Cautiously stepping into the building, he froze when the door closed quietly behind him. A handful of tables lined three walls of the room with a bar counter along the forth wall. There were no chairs at the counter and none of the tables had chairs with their backs to the center of the room. Two grizzled old men occupied two of the tables on opposite sides of the room, each man pointedly ignoring the presence of the other. Lifting their eyes from their drink, both men watched as he limped his way to the counter.
"The Admiral told me to come here," said the young man in a tired raspy voice that contrasted sharply with his twenty-two years.
"You must be Hal Manning," replied the bartender without a hint of welcome. Not many were eligible for entry in the club and they all came to it eventually or died. There wasn't a need for welcome nor would one be appreciated if given.
"Guilty as charged," said the young man without the normal humor that such a response usually held. Turning slightly, he examined the other occupants of the room. His eyes slipped over the artificial arm of the one man and the ugly scars from a burn on the face of the other.
"What's your poison?" asked the bartender. He didn't really care what it was. He'd serve it and wouldn't bother to remember.
"I'll take a shot of anything strong," replied Hal with an attempt at a negligent shrug of his shoulders before his voice broke. "I owe them a toast."
"Take a seat and I'll bring it over," said the bartender ignoring the brief flash of emotion.
Limping on uneven legs, the young man made his way to a table that distanced him from the other two men in the room as much as was possible. They watched him, with tension evident in their posture, make the journey with empty eyes that sought the hidden signs of potential violence.
He reached the table and collapsed heavily into the chair with his back to the wall. He placed the velvet box on the table, wondering why he hadn't thrown it in the trash already. For the barest fraction of a second, he felt a little safer now that he could see everyone in the room.
The bartender came over and set the drink on the table. Hal reached for the drink, but the bartender grabbed his wrist with a strong grip before sitting down at the adjacent table. In a soft voice, the bartender said, "You need to know the rules first."
"Everyone who comes in here has been through it, just like you. We don't talk about it out here," answered the bartender while tapping the table with a rigid finger. Pointing to a door next to the bar, he said, "If you want to talk about it, stand by the door over there. Anyone who wants to hear what you have to say will join you."
The young man nodded his understanding while his eyes drifted to the other two men in the room. He could see the same haunted look in their eyes that he knew existed in his. He could understand the rule and the reason behind it. Bringing his attention back to the bartender, he asked, "And?"
"There's a young woman who comes in here. Her name is Mary. You look happy and cheerful when she's around. I don't care if your dog just died, you will look happy and cheerful," said the bartender. At the last sentence, the man's voice dropped into a growl.
Frowning at the implied threat, Hal asked, "Why?"
"She's one of us, but she doesn't know it. We want to keep it that way," said the man with a sigh. Shaking his head to fight off memories of his past to focus on the present, he added, "Don't try to get fresh with her. I'll kill you if you ever hurt her."
"I'm not that easy to kill." Hal's voice had become edgy, low, and threatening. His statement wasn't a boast, but a proven fact.
"If he can't, I can and I will," growled the old man with scars on his face. His statement wasn't a boast, but a proven fact. He stabbed out his cigarette in a large ashtray piled high with butts.
"Get in line, Fred. She's the only thing that's any good in this fucking world," said the man with the artificial arm. He looked down at his drink and ran a metal finger through the ring of condensation around the base of the glass. When he lifted the glass, the puddle looked like a drawing of the sun by a five-year- old child.
"Okay," said Hal shrugging his shoulders wondering why he bothered to argue. He was there to forget. There was so much that he had to forget before he'd want to pick up women. The anger dissipated to be replaced by apathy.
"You can drink your drink now. When you want another, just point at the empty."
As the bartender returned to the bar, Hal stared at the shot glass filled with amber liquid. He didn't know if it was whiskey or scotch. He didn't care what it was and knew that he wouldn't taste it when he finally downed the drink.
The glass disappeared as unwanted memories overwhelmed him. Suddenly, he was transported to eighteen months earlier. Feeling the wall against his back, he watched the old men, women, and young children crowd together as they tried to push their way through the burning streets even while the people around them died from bombs, bullets, and fire. He and others his age manned makeshift battlements on the periphery of the city in a futile attempt to keep the enemy away. Five thousand rebels hyped on war drugs against ten thousand civilians. The majority of the civilians were too old or too young to fight.
He flinched, hearing the sounds of people dying, bombs exploding, and bullets zinging past his head. The odor of burnt bodies, evacuated bowels, and gunpowder assaulted his nose. By light of day, the wreckage of broken bodies with intestines spilled across the pavement like mating snakes hammered into his eyes while at night the bright explosions against the dark threatened to blind him. The blistering heat from burning buildings dried his sinuses and the smoke left his throat parched. The cloud of gunpowder particulates was so thick that he could taste it.
The firefight with the rebels was the stuff of nightmares. From experience, he knew that a person didn't need to die to experience hell. All a man had to do unleash hell was to administer the drugs and command the troops to kill the enemy until all enemies were dead. Hyped up on amphetamines and turned into unthinking killing machines by hypnotic drugs, the rebels were not slowed by injury and fought without fear of death. War drugs were the bane of modern civilization.
It had started a little after noon when the horde began firing particle beam weapons into the heart of the little town. Huge swathes of destruction cut through buildings killing thousands of people. The destruction of the rebel's heavy weapons turned the battle into something more personal, but what little advantage that had existed in terms of numbers had been eliminated.
By dawn there was only one survivor. A shudder went through his body as he recalled the final shot with which he had killed the last rebel. He had pulled the trigger mechanically and without thought. One last bang and then he waited for the next one to show. Back pressed against a wall, leg shattered, partially deaf, and totally exhausted, he drifted in and out of consciousness. Government forces showed up five hours later and declared that he was the last man standing.
With a shudder, he returned to the present. Picking up the shot glass, he raised it in a toast and drank it down unable to trust his voice to say aloud what he thought, 'To lost friends, family, and fellow fighters.' The liquor burned his throat and lit his stomach on fire. It threatened to return on him and he swallowed heavily to keep it down.
For a moment he thought the liquor had affected his eyes, but realized his tears were interfering with his vision. He didn't wipe them away. Instead, he just let them run down his face unchecked as the past reached forward and grabbed him again.
The government of Gamma Colony had showered him with the highest honors they could bestow. The real irony of it all was that he wasn't even a citizen of that fetid little shit hole of a planet. Just out of college, he had gone to visit his brother and his sister-in-law while deciding upon his future. His brother had been one of the first people to fall, taken by a bullet as he raced to the wall. His sister-in-law lasted until midnight when a rocket took out the makeshift hospital. He had fought on despite the fact that he had lost all that he cared about.
When he had returned to Earth, the Earth Government had given him more honors and called him a planetary hero. The idea that he was a planetary hero had struck him as humorous. Earth wasn't even involved. His claim to fame was that he was the only survivor in a conflict in which over fifteen thousand people died. The reason that the government even cared was to boast that it was a citizen of earth who survived.
.... There is more of this story ...
Science Fiction /