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.
"Hello Mary, you're looking nice today." The contrast of the cheerful voice with his bitter memories jarred him. For a moment, the past overlaid the present. The horror of his double vision threatened to make him void his stomach. He pulled back from the precipice before loosing control.
A very cheerful female voice answered, "Thanks, Fred. How are you doing, Terry?"
The other man, sounding as if he had won the lottery, answered, "I'm fine Mary. Did you have a good day at college?"
Hal looked around and the first thing that penetrated his shell- shocked mind was Fred glaring at him. Getting the hint, Hal pasted an artificial smile on his face. The smile hurt his face. Fred gave him a slight nod before an equally false grin returned to his face.
Hal looked at the woman as she started to turn towards him. His heart skipped a beat and he couldn't breath as he stared at her with awe. Without a doubt, she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She radiated an innocent exuberance about life that he knew he had lost. It actually hurt to look at her, but he couldn't tear his eyes away.
She turned to face him and, with a radiant smile, said, "Oh, I see we have a new friend. I'm Mary. Who are you?"
"Hal," stammered the young man totally smitten by the young woman. She wore a floral print dress. He tried to remember the last time he had seen a woman wearing a floral print dress, but his mind drew a blank.
"Hal? That's a nice name," she said. Her voice was soft and sexy. Everyone else who came in the club was old enough to be her father or grandfather. She was pleased to see a young man and intentionally turned up the heat. Her voice dropped lower as she asked, "Are you here to woo me away from these old men?"
He was about to make a comment about how he'd love to do nothing more than that, but he caught sight of the look on Terry's face. The old man made a gesture with his artificial hand, suggesting that he'd be performing a proctology examination with it before long if Hal didn't behave himself. The bartender was standing at the bar with his arms crossed and a threatening frown on his face. Fred ground out a cigarette with excessive brutality while staring at him.
Hal looked down at his empty shot glass and said, "No. I just came in to get out of the sun."
Seeing that she had lost him, Mary faltered for a moment before she turned and waved farewell to the others in the room. She caught enough of the atmosphere in the room to know why he feigned a sudden disinterest. She walked away while moving her hips in an exaggerated manner. Not to be deterred, she left the room calling over her shoulder. "I'll see you later, Hal."
The young man stared at his empty shot glass as a little bit more of him died. He pointed at it without looking up at the bartender. When the full shot glass appeared in his field of vision, Hal asked, "How can she be one of us?"
"We were the only two survivors of the Battle of Mount Tripten. She was ten days old when we found her," answered the bartender.
"Oh," replied Hal without looking up at the bartender.
With humanity spread over forty planets and war drugs making retreat virtually impossible, it seemed like every couple of years there was a conflict that was so bloody that it became legendary. The Battle of Mount Tripten was a legend amongst legends. Twenty years ago, forty-five thousand people died over the course of three days of fighting. It started with guns at the base of the mountain and ended with knives at the top, leaving one man standing. At least, that was the story remembered by most people. Not many people read the footnote in the history text that told of the infant found when cleaning up the site after the battle.
Terry grunted, "She's never learned about that."
Understanding why they'd want to keep it from her, Hal nodded and belted back the drink. Grimacing, he rasped, "How much for the drinks?"
"Nothing. You've already paid for it and all the others that follow," answered the bartender gruffly. He looked down at the floor for a moment and then added, "Just like the rest of us."
"Thanks," said Hal as he picked up the velvet box containing the Medal of Valor he had been given before coming to the club. He stood to leave.
"It's not my doing," answered the bartender as he returned to the bar. It was hard to admit that they were charity cases. Free liquor for life -- that and a bed upstairs if they needed it. They needed the bed more often than not.
Hal watched him for a moment before he headed towards the door. The two drinks hadn't numbed his pain. He didn't think there was enough booze in the world to numb his pain.
When Hal reached for the door handle, Fred growled, "You'll be back."
It seemed as if the little energy that remained in him drained away. His head fell to his chest and his eyes closed. In a soft voice filled with self-loathing, he replied, "I know."
Four weeks passed before Hal found himself back at the private club. He hadn't wanted to come back, but he was drawn to it like a moth to flame. This was the only place where people respected his pain. They had been through it; they understood. In light of that, there was no way that he could stay away.
Fred and Terry were seated at their tables. Two other men he didn't know were there; one locked in a wheelchair while the other had a patch over his eye. All eyes tracked his trip across the room. He limped to same table he had used the last time he was there and sat down. Fred took a drag from his cigarette and nodded to him. Hal nodded back before turning his attention to the others.
One of the men had tears running down his face. Hal looked away from the man out of respect for the pain that produced the tears. He didn't want to hear the story, fully aware that he already knew it. The details would be different, but the story was the same as his. His stomach twisted at the knowledge.
"What's your poison?"
"Seven and seven," answered Hal in a voice that rang overly loud in the room. It was the only drink he knew by name and asking for it had become habit. Too many people wanted to buy him a drink and hear the story of how he became a hero. It was easier to accept the drink and tell the story than it was to refuse. With each telling, a little more of him died.
The bartender brought the drink over to the table and set it in front of Hal with a grunt. Hal looked up at him and commented, "I don't even know your name."
Hal grunted and filed the information away for when he would need it. Remembering the last time he had been there and wanting to avoid her, he asked, "Mary coming in soon?"
"Don't even think about her," replied Greg with a hint of anger in his voice.
"Why not?" asked Hal getting angry. His hand went to the pocket of his coat and caressed the bulge produced by the gun within.
Rather than react, Greg took a deep breath and stepped back. Without turning, he called out, "How many times have you guys been married?"
"Two and just about to end the second one," said the man who had been crying. There was pain in the voice and it ripped into Hal shredding his anger.
"Same here," answered Fred as he glared at Hal. He patted his coat to let Hal know that he was armed as well.
Shaking his head as though it hurt to say it, Greg said, "We aren't good husbands. We drink to keep away the nightmares and, after a while, the drink turns us into nightmares for others. It's the hardest on those we love the most."
"I won't be like that," argued Hal.
"Yes you will," answered Terry. He rapped the table, the fingers of his prosthetic making a dull metallic ding.
"How can you say that?"
"You're one of us," answered Greg with a sigh as he turned away. With a heavy step, he returned to the bar feeling smaller than when he had come to the table.
Hal stared at the drink thinking about what Greg had said. He hadn't said anything about nightmares, but they knew he had them. In his heart, he knew that Greg was right, but it wasn't fair. He hadn't fought so hard to live, just to spend the rest of his life alone and isolated from the rest of humanity.
He took a sip of his drink. He flashed on how dry his throat had been that day nineteen months ago. The smoke from burning buildings and gunpowder had dried his throat and lungs. It had hurt to breathe and was impossible to talk. He took another sip to chase away the memory. He didn't taste it, but appreciated the cool liquid flowing over his tongue and down his throat.
Setting the glass on the table, he idly turned it using the forefingers of each hand. The glass turned, but the ice stayed in place - an island of stability in a changing world. Idly, he wondered how Fred could smoke. Each drag of his cigarette must remind him of the air that hung over all battlefields. Could it be that the man enjoyed the torture that such memories invoked?
His thoughts were elsewhere when Mary breezed into the room like a spring breeze. A smile automatically came to his face and he nodded in her direction. His eyes followed her around the room, but he was careful to keep the desire off his face.
Science Fiction /