Poetry-Thing Thursday: Bloodied Hands

Mama,
There’s blood on my hands.
The sky is gray,
and static fills my ears.

Machine-gun fire,
chatters in the distance,
and I feel as if floating,
in dark,
cold seas.

Air between fires is,
tainted by putrid stink:
Bowels, entrails,
and fresh blood.

Reality,
begins to fade around me.
Blackness,
edges its way over my eyes.
Red crosses and faces,
scream silence,
taking residence,
in my mangled mind.
And when I look down,
I see only red through black.

Tunneled suns are useless,
but so too are soldiers,
whom caught off-guard,
die to stray bullets,
no-one is sure to have fired.

No purpose,
no restitution,
flits by with solace,
for there is only silence.
And blackness.
For me.
For Mama.
And my bloody,
dead hands.

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Short Story: Between Worlds

The air percussed with bursts of fury and fire. Screams of the fallen pierced off-beats. Somewhere nearby, a chain gun was spinning up. It chattered persistence like angry hornets eternally dive-bombing an aggressor. Overhead, smoke parted, reveal the flit of chopper blades over a blinking belly light.

Seamus Mann, Captain of the Flying Vipers, whirled a pair of fingers in the air imperceptibly. All the same, they prompted shadows to slough from the darkness. The dim lights flickered, disturbances too fast to ever be focused. They ducked, weaved, snaked between burnt out cars, over-turned steel dumpsters.

Falling casings of the sputtering chain-gun formed a lit fuse in the night. It glinted and gleamed from the far-end of a spray of demon’s-fire. The impacts sparked fuel canisters, lit the foreground with explosions. Fire-light sputtered, finally revealing the Vipers’ bodies fully.

They kept low, carbine rifles and PDWs sweeping small arcs from their places in the diamond formation. In their center, kept low and covered, was a cowering figure. It half-fell, scrambled up, urged on Viper before and after it. It crossed light again, resolving further into the wired terror-fatigue of a peasant refugee.

Mann ordered the chopper down. The VIP fell-in, team after him. Mann and his partner and Lieutenant, John Findeberg, covered the team from either side of the doors. They piled in and ascended with the chopper, disappearing behind a flicker of smoke.

Across the team’s vision, “Mission Complete” appeared.

They emerged from the V-R headsets to the tread-milled floors of the stadium. The overhead lines feeding their electronics went slack. The noise-canceling headphones and aural VR gave way to the cheering crowd, coaxing them to normality after the jarring shift between worlds.

Mann relaxed to see their opponents doing likewise, however more sullen. He eyed the scoreboard, but if there’d been doubts, they weren’t his. He graciously congratulated the team, then planted a sloppy, wet one on Findeberg before the teams shook hands and hustled from the arena.

The cheering victory meshed seamlessly with the introduction of the next match, and after a quick shower, the Vipers made to celebrate and join the festivities. John and Seamus went along, drank and smoked their shares, deliberately catching the rest of the night’s tournament.

In the end, its outcome was less important than studying the games themselves, their players. All the same, Seamus had no doubts they’d make the championship. The team was sloshed now, but only two games remained ’til the championship.

Tomorrow, the Vipers would face London-based Churchill’s Heat. If history held, it would be a tough fight. Ultimately, the Vipers would win. It wasn’t arrogance. Seamus simply understood what made a team work well together. The SAS had done that for him, at least. More importantly though, John understood it. And Cammie and Cherry. And Mack and Jones.

They were all aware of it; communication. In-game and out.

That was what Seamus had brought to the table long, long ago, why he’d been made Captain. Before the Vipers ever went pro. Indeed, before they were the Vipers. To function well as a team in any setting, two things had to be certain; a chain of command and the assurance of no personal interference come game-time.

For the most part, that’s how things were. For Mann, the team, the league even, it was their no drug-policy. Not for fear of an edge but from its clouding the mind worse than any substance ever could. Exceptions existed, of course, but this one’s were so few as to be unworthy of mention until relevant.

2AM, Seamus escorted John’s stumbling-drunk form through the hotel suite door and to the bedroom. He shot down the cloying demands for sloppy sex, too sober anyhow. He insisted John sleep, slipping out in the mean-time to mix himself a scotch-rocks.

The suite door rustled the carpet, preceding heavy, tamping feet entering behind him. Seamus didn’t need to look; goons beside an equally goonish, rotund mafioso. These were the only types rude enough not to knock but smart enough not to kick the door down.

“This’ a private room. What d’ya want?”

An almost charming laugh. “Seamus Mann, Captain of the Flying Vipers, a team set to take the championship this year. A pleasure.”

Seamus downed his drink, poured another. He rounded on the men, confirming his suspicions entirely, and stepped to the counter between them. “You know who I am. I couldn’t give a cunt’s fuck who you are. I’ll say it again, this’a private room, what fuck d’you want?”

The mafioso eyed his goons. “Not going to offer your guest a drink?

“Guests are invited. You’re an intruder,” Seamus corrected.

The nearest goon laughed, “Like ‘e’d be able to do sum’in ’bout it any’ow.”

Seamus kept silent, awaiting the inevitable answer. Finally the Mafioso seemed to recognize his need to oblige.

“Very well,” he began. “You’ll lose your game tomorrow. Or I’ll return. You don’t want that.”

Seamus was profoundly amused. He laughed once, spine stiff, and threw down his scotch. He thumped it on the counter, resigned to the reality the man had faced him with. The man’s utter contempt echoed through the silence.

Seamus poured himself another, pushed past the goons to face the mafioso at arm’s length. “Yeah, aw’right. Be seein’ ya then.” He sipped his drink, never breaking eye contact, and swallowed. Then, with a deadpan, he eyed the door. “Now fuck off, Sally.”

The mafioso’s eye twitched. He nodded to his men, made for the door, hesitated there, “Lose, or I’ll be back.”

The door shut. Seamus smiled to himself.

The next night, he stood in the hotel suite’s kitchenette, waiting with glass in-hand and a bottle before him. It was as much a celebration as a eulogy. The Vipers were headed to the championship against Cambridge’s Castle Wrackers. Churchill’s Heat had put up one hell of a fight over a series of bomb-runs and S&D matches.

It was a well-earned victory, close, but even then Seamus would’ve been satisfied for that battle as an end rather than the upcoming championship. The Wrackers were push-overs. The Heat had the same spark of greatness the Vipers had. He almost felt it a shame to put them down. Then again, they fought well, and without hard feelings, that was more important in the league.

Seamus let John go out partying without him for a bit, kept him safe and occupied while he awaited for the mafioso’s manifesting. He hoped to get through it in time to drink too, celebrate, but the night wasn’t wasted so long as John remained safe.

The mafioso finally manifested across the suite from Seamus only a half-hour later than he’d hoped. The guy was almost-impressed that Seamus faced him so willingly. He smiled, nodded. His goons drew their weapons and fired. Smoke and plaster filled the air over wooden debris.

Seamus was gone.

The furthest goon dropped to a knee. An ethereal shimmer was swallowed by flashing steel. A blade punched through the goon’s throat, spray-painting the air with blood. Another breath. The blade disappeared. The remaining men reeled in terror. The ethereal shape withdrew. The blade flicked, decapitated the second goon. A final, resonant note of air and steel, relieved the mafioso of his upper-skull.

Bodies fell about, leaking blood and bodily fluids as the ethereal form re-solidified. Seamus set the blade aside to sip his scotch. He winked on a mil-grade HUD implant, engaged the comm-dialer, and spoke only his address and room number.

These weren’t the first idiots to have tried. He doubted they’d be the last. The SAS had taught him that, and more. Especially after the ghosting-Augs and gene therapy had ensured he’d never be able to do anything as poorly as a normal human. It was fine, he didn’t mind anyhow. All that gear was just going to waste in him otherwise. All that mattered was John and the team were safe.

He checked the time on his watch, showered. He returned to find plastic-suited people securing body-bags and tending to various fluids. With a scrawled check and a signed waiver, he checked his watch again; they’d been timely. He still had a whole night. That was most important. After all, like their communication, the team’s bond was key to their success.

Shame he couldn’t follow the philosophy himself.

Short Story: Mistakes Unchanged

Emile Manning had been in the motor-pool roughly four years now. He’d signed up as a heart-sick teen intent on a two-year deployment. He’d always preferred motor-pool maintenance, had done everything to ensure he ended up there. He took the tests, aced them, met the veterans, got in good with the job placement guys. When he finished boot, he got to where he wanted, spent a few months as a greenie gopher, passed muster, inspection, and P-T every day with flying colors, and when it finally came time to apply that discipline to his “dream job,”he did.

Maybe that was his mistake; dreaming of an average job in a sup-par part of the world. Who knows, maybe it was just being born.

In any case, he landed the job and shipped-out to Mid-East for a front-line motor-pool. His first few months established his routine of rising for chow, then watching the other guys head off for patrol, before he headed off to repair the HMMVs they ended up trashing.

Humvees weren’t his specialty, though he could breakdown and rebuild one with his eyes closed. He was to machines what foot-soldiers were to rifles. He knew every piece of the motor-pool, could hear when one was about to trash the others and require a rebuild. The EOD guys kept the roads safe, but Emile kept the people traveling them safer. Patriotism may’ve fueled the Army but sweat kept running, and Emile could sweat like no other.

So when General Hardin came through the motor-pool, he found Emile ass-deep in an Abrams tank– his actual specialty– and its jet-engine motor. The tank’s rearwas disassembled and scattered around the repair garage. Some jokerthought it a genius idea to ramp the thing off a ditch and onto a massive boulder. Sure, the tank had made it, even caught some air, but at the cost of a compressor and a few air and fuel lines.

The idiot brought it down too hard, forced the compressor to re-seat in its casing. When the pressure sky-rocketed in the lines, they burst and sprayed fuel, oil, and air everywhere. The resulting mess required an entire tear-down, cleaning, and rebuild. If Emile had been the unmotivated type, he’d have had the whole turbine scrapped but he liked the challenge.

He’d already torn down most of the saturated parts, replaced the lines and repaired the compressor, but still had over half the engine to clean and check before reassembly. His mind was empty, like a Buddha in meditation. The only thing he knew was the autonomous way he worked.

And, occasionally, the question of how the hell the thing hadn’t caught fire, exploded, and killed every one aboard. Jet fuel was highly volatile, after all.

General Hardin approached and called for attention. Emile dropped his tools, banged his knee, and stood board stiff with a grimace and a salute.

“General sir, Master Sergeant Emile Manning, awaiting orders, sir.”

“As you were, Sergeant,” the General instructed.

Light hit the four, silver stars on Hardin’s shoulders and Emile’s military instincts kicked in. He fell back into his routine immediately, ignoring Hardin’s continued presence. He’d been taught to power through anything to do his job, had even replaced an alternator on a stranded Humvee in pitch-dark night during a fire-fight.

Normally, they’d have just called out a tower, brought the old rig in and exchanged it for another. The fire-fight meant possibly never returning; someone else could get it. They couldn’t allow that. Short of scuttling the damned thing, they’d lose it unless Emile went out; the best, fastest mechanic in the whole damned army. He took it as a personal challenge to get the thing running again or die trying.

Maybe that was why Hardin was there now. He didn’t know. It’d been a while since that stunt, but there was a definite hint of evaluation to the air. Emile ignored it, but the little pill of curiosity was there, in the back of his head.

He emerged from the rebuild, expecting Hardin to question his break. Any normal human would’ve collapsed hours ago from heat. Between sweat, grease, jet-fuel and oil, even Emile was pushing it.

But that was the US Army; best of the best from the cream of the crop. Or in other words, damned if you did, damned if you didn’t.

Emile grabbed for a canteen at the edge of the torn-down tank-ass and threw back a few gulps. It wasn’t until he capped off the canteen again that he saw the General sitting a few paces away, studying him pensively. An awkward moment later, Emile spoke up, damned either way, but damned curious at that.

“General, sir, permission to speak, sir?”

“Granted, Sergeant,” Hardin said, rising to bridge the gap between them.

“Is there something you need, sir?” Emile noticed even the hardened, old man was red, sweating. “I only ask, sir, because I imagine you’d want to be as far from this heat as anyone.”

The General chuckled. He actually chuckled. And smiled. Emile’s surprise was obvious, less due to the fact that the often-enigmatic creature-type before him laughed than that he could laugh. He figured there was some regulation against it; an unspoken, secret code upper-echelon officers adhered to with subordinates.

“Son, I don’t know whether to commend your honesty or take offense to your implication.”

Emile stammered out a reply, “S-sir, I-I meant no–”

“I know you didn’t, son,” he said with a dismissive wave. “Point is, I am out here for a reason.”

Emile’s ears perked up. He couldn’t help it. His curiosity piqued, and if the General was truly speaking freely, and to Emile of all people, there was cause for interest.

“Sir?”

The General eyed him, then the engine, “I want to see you finish this thing, son. How much longer d’you estimate it’ll take? A straight answer. No bullshit bravado, understand?”

Emile gave a nod, and a “Yes, sir.”

He thought the question over in earnest; he could probably finish in a few hours, but that meant skimping some of the cleaning. He didn’t like the idea, but it was more a point of personal pride than necessity.

“Four or Five hours, ‘pending on if I take my time cleaning the parts, sir.”

The General retook his seat, “Do the job right, Sergeant.”

“Yes, sir.”He threw back another gulp of water and set to work.

The next five hours he did his job and did it well. He was zen; in a state of mind where repairing the turbine engine and cleaning each piece became more autonomous than anything he’d ever done before. Had he been a machine, they’d have modeled a production line after him. After all “do the job right”to a General meant time was the price paid for immaculate work.

Enlisted guys like Emile had learned to tell good officers from bad ones that way. Good officers knew to let their subordinates get the job done right, pushing however they wanted or needed, but not so much they forced their guys to fuck up. Bad officers thought perfection was a possibility, thus always demanded more, then bitched when things did fuckup. Thankfully, General Hardinseemed the former.

Emile finished near dusk. The heat had retreated, but the General remained in his seat, as passive and observing as he’d been all day. The other mechanics would fit the engine tomorrow morning, run the Abrams through her paces. Even so, there was no doubt in any mind the thing would run better than new.

Emile threw back the last of his now-warm water and the General stood from his seat. “I’ll be damned if I haven’t seen a better mechanic than you, son.”

“Thank you, sir,”he said, again in earnest.

“The reason I’m here’s classified, but if you agree, I’ll brief you on the way to your new deployment.”

“Sir?”

“I’m not gonna’ lie to you son, it’s work. There’s no pay raise, and no promotion, but you serve your country and put for your god-given gifts to the test everyday. You agree, and you’ll be rewarded, no doubt about that.”

Emile wasn’t one to deny officers their requests. That was suicide, physically and occupationally. More than that it meant ignoring his curiosity.

“I don’t expect you’d have stuck around this long unless you needed me, sir, and I wouldn’t want to disrespect you by declining. So… yes, sir, whatever you have for me, I’ll do.”

In retrospect, that was his mistake. It wasn’t dreaming of a certain job, or being disciplined enough to be damned good at it, or even just being born. Rather, it was the blind acceptance and plunging curiosity’s dick-first into something new.

It took a couple days, but when he saw the General again, he was dressed in his finest dress-greens, pins and all, and looking respectable. He and the General boarded a plane and twenty disorienting hours later, landed in the states. Emile could’ve kissed the ground, or indeed the General, on seeing America again and prematurely at that. It had been four years. Four too-damned long years.

His great mistake? He learned it all too soon. He and the General were escorted to an awaiting helicopter, to a nearby training academy, then to a nondescript building. They rode an elevator more floors down than he thought possible and emerged into something even more impossible.

The doors opened onto a skunkworks like a massive production-floor with obvious prototype fighting machines. Emile salivated; jet-turbines, combustion engines, sleek and boxy angles, armored plated tanks, APCS, next-gen HMMVs.

General Hardin escorted him through the building toward a back-office, took a seat at a desk, and offering one to Emile.

“You agreed, son, so this is the deal; you work here, under cover of still being on deployment. Nothing externally changes. Your family still believes you’re deployed. Everyone does. Everyday you wake up, come down here, and build the shit outta’ whatever the Engineers request. Test it. Beat the hell out of it. Whatever it takes to make the world a little safer in the process. In exchange, you stay safe, and out of that festering pisshole you came from. Sound good?”

What else could Emile say but yes? He knew even then he was making a mistake; slaking his curiosity with unimaginable change, prospects and projects he’d never dreamed of, all while never being able to tell anyone.

Still, he couldn’t deny the allure as he glanced out the General’s office window at the vehicles in their varying states of assembly. He was almost giddy.

“When do I start?”

The General chuckled and smiled again; some mistakes were best left unchanged.

Short Story: Caretaker

He sauntered through the airport terminal in a silk suit. Pristine cuts of tailored, black perfectly accented pressed, white beneath. The polished gloss at his feet matched the mirrored sunglasses wrapped beneath his widow’s peak. Everything about him said high-powered businessman, higher than the countless others around him. For all the cross-traffic and insanity of the terminals knew, he was preparing to board a private jet bound for some exotic destination.

He drew more ire from men than admiration from women, however contained either were in their fleeting glances. Looks enveloped the formal-wear and chrome, attache case in his right hand. Were anyone astute enough to notice, they might have had their suspicions aroused by its finger-print locks. It was difficult to tell, but close-up views of his smart-watch revealed itself for the digital tether to the case and its contents. Were he to separate the two by more than a few feet, every acronym agency in the country would be alerted. In turn, so would the President. From him, every other country in the world would learn the case had been separated from the watch.

But no-one in the airport knew that. Nor did they know the case’s contents. Not even the security guard that approached when he refused a scan. The suit remained as calm as the man inside it, ruffled to produce a bi-fold wallet. It laid atop the x-ray machine, open to “C.I.A.” large enough for only the guard to see it.

The wallet and case were promptly returned. The suit, the case, and their bearer were ushered through without delay. The ire of both men and women rippled outward across the small pond of humans gathered. It was greatest from those forced to remove their shoes, or submit to groping in the name of freedom. It, and they, thinned toward nothing the further he found himself from the check-point.

He boarded his plane as any man might and secured himself in a seat beside a window. No-one aboard was any the wiser. The classified courier and his package were unremarkable. He’d removed his sunglasses and settled against his seat. He didn’t even bother to glanced around. He sensed the half-dozen or plain-clothes agents scattered among the usual passengers as if they glowed. Even he wouldn’t have known of them were it not for the brief-glimpses of faces from Langley or its various satellite offices.

Who could suspect a dozen, field-trained CIA operatives were embedded on a random flight from Chicago to Vegas? Moreover, who would suspect an innocuous courier and an unremarkable brief-case carrying a zero-point energy bomb?

The device inside didn’t even work. Not as intended. And it couldn’t explode. Rather, it powered up, reached critical output, then shut down. In the process, it emitted such a lethal dose of radiation anyone in a twenty mile radius would be flash-cooked from inside-out. They’d learned that in Honduras even before he’d been sent to retrieve the damned thing.

What was more, the bomb could be reused. As long as it remained operational, it would work. With miniaturized, super-conductive components encased in steel and platinum, the only barrier to indefinite operation was the compressed helium it needed replenished every so often.

Getting the bomb had nothing short of a war. Field agents were killed and injured. Caretaker himself had a close call. No-one got away unscathed. Either physically, or emotionally, they were all a little less than they’d been.

Op-lead, call-signed Immortal, breached a rear-door of the massive, abandoned chemical factory in with strike-team Alpha. The armed guards patrolling the interior were taken by surprise in their cat-walk positions. Pinpoint-accurate triplets of gunfire barked, splattered blood across surfaces or sparked off metallic railings. Any attempting to flee were suppressed or killed. Most were dead before the last were entrenched behind the upper-floor’s control-room.

Gunfire was exchanged from corners and the control room’s wide, now-shattered window. Half of Immortal’s team were down before Bravo-lead, Locomotive, could flank as planned. The remainders of the two teams sandwiched the upper-level’s forces, moving in and up to brute force their way to the upper-hand. The upper-levels went quiet moments beneath scents of death and expended gunpowder.

Blood had painted the walls and floors with abstracts and Pollockian drip-strokes. They would soon dry, blending with rusted metal and cracked paint of a long-neglected building. For now, the surface sections were eerily still.

Below, Caretaker was moving along the lower levels with Charlie team. Old cement shifted to peeling, lead-lined walls. The latter were newer, narrower, clearly added after the factories construction. Portuguese and Cyrillic listed directions on the walls, lent credence to the facility’s suspected origins. Windowed halls gave views into massive chambers below. The chambers were mostly empty beyond the reinforced glass, save one at the end of a hall.

Inside, a dozen men and women were cloaked in radiation-proof hazmat gear, oblivious to the strike team hunkered down and watching them at a containment vessel. They began to transfer a phone-sized device into a lead-lined case. For no reason could Caretaker or Charlie allow it to leave the country– indeed, the facility, in anyone’s hands but theirs.

Caretaker led his team to a T-junction beyond the windowed room, followed a stairwell left, down, to the lowest edge of the cube-like rooms they’d passed. Guards stationed every twenty feet fell to quick aim. Caretaker remained on-point, hurrying the team along a short corridor, alcove-to-alcove, headed for the containment room.

Gunfire created a rhythm of punctual bursts from the half of Charlie-team covering the rear-flank. Surplus Soviet gear roared over the high-yapps of the latest, mil-spec SMGs.

The hack on the key-card access was quick; a minor splice of some wires. The three-foot thick containment chamber opened. A Geiger-counter clicked green, allowed the free-half of Charlie-strike to move in on hazmat-suited scientists that immediately surrendered at their ingress. They were ordered to the ground while the package was retrieved. It was placed inside the attache-case.

Since then, Caretaker had been attached to it. From Brazil, to Chicago, and now on to Vegas.

He wasn’t able to sleep the whole flight. He’d never been able to. Planes terrified him. Maybe he’d jumped out of one too many during Ranger school. He bided his time in the most unremarkable way of a book of crosswords. It kept his hands and his mind alternatively occupied when one or the other got ahead or away from him.

Caretaker exited Vegas to an long car-ride in a black, unmarked SUV. It ended at the Groom-Lake facility– colloquially known as Area-51. He had to admit some part of him was all the more eager to take the job for the idea of seeing the fabled base. His job was only concluded after he handed the brief-case and tether-band to an Air-Force General. The shoulders stars spoke less of his importance than the severity of his stiffness. Beside him, the black-suited Groom-Lake CIA liaison and a former director of Langley, escorted the General from the hallway where the exchange was made.

It was almost surreal, what Caretaker saw of the fabled Area-51. It was as normal as any office building, as boring as any administrative floor. The thought accompanied him all the way back to the airport and along his departure for Langley to debrief. Like him, that curious office-look was a facade masking countless depths of Man’s most unimaginable achievements, angelically miraculous or insurmountably devilish.

For Caretaker’s part, he knew at least one evil now resided there. Whatever the intent to its storage, for good or ill, it was out of the hands of known-madmen. Caretaker found solace in his faith that those whom held it might find a way to use it for good, or not at all. In any case, he’d done his part. He relaxed against his window seat and re-opened his crossword book. A lingering thought drifted away with the first of his writing; a wonder if known madmen remained in possession of the bomb.

Short Story: Beta Base

Stainless steel and ceramic tile drably colored the walls and floors of the Luna-base research outpost. Officially, Luna-base was the first scientific Research exostation in Sol. It was the first time Humanity left Earth and actually stayed put once it landed, officially that is. Unofficially, it was the second, and on Luna at that, but mentioning that fact had become a social faux-pas. Mostly, people didn’t want to admit they’d let their governments and militaries win the space race.

Luna-base Alpha was a series of interconnected modules fused onto a cylindrical spindle that stood upright on the Moon’s surface. It rose over a kilometer at its highest point, modules protruding from it like spines at random angles, each one spinning independently to harness centripetal acceleration and create artificial gravity. When combined with extensive radiation shielding, the place was as near to being on Earth as being millions of kilometers away would allow. On top of that, hydroponics and aeroponics labs grew fresh, organic food in dedicated spines, while weekly deliveries of luxury goods and other necessities kept the 2,000-person staff from wanting for anything.

In the meantime, the various scientists and researchers were free to carry out whatever work they’d been assigned, be it studying their habitat’s effects or others on various subjects. Luna-base Alpha’s people were the cream of the crop. Those not top in their fields, were second only to those that were. That was the compromise made by the world’s nations.

Luna-base Alpha’s long term effects were being studied on its people, and only those that could continue to work and keep in mind their purpose there, were allowed to go. Despite the sign-up sheets overflowing with names, only a specific group were chosen to go. The final 2,000 people had to pass rigorous physical and mental evaluations before being allowed to leave Earth, and were otherwise replaced by runners-up if they failed.

If Luna-base Alpha was the control, Luna-Base Beta was the experiment. The stringent guidelines the nations of scientists were forced to adhere to, on Beta-Base, were entirely absent. Despite still being in peak, physical shape, the military assets sequestered a few kilometers from Alpha-base were little more than laymen, grunts. Aside from the administrative officials and higher-ranked officers, there were no evaluations, no bars to entry.

Beta-Base’s personnel were chosen randomly, by lottery, from each of the UN nations. On the order of five-thousand soldiers and accompanying faculty were plucked from their homes and lives planet-side. They were cast into space, forced to sleep in bunks five-high, and pass their time outside maneuvers with little more than the few, meager possessions they’d crafted to engage themselves. It would eventually be their downfall. The civilians on Luna-base-Alpha knew it. The officers and admins on Beta-base knew it. The soldiers and faculty knew it.

Most of all, I knew it.

Only so much could be done each day to prepare us for life or battle in Zero-G. Invariably that meant running us even more ragged than if we’d been planet-side. Maneuvers were carried out both in the ground-based facility and in the large, centrifuge ring towering Kilometers above it. We were often forced out into the desolate fields of ice and vacuum beyond Beta’s airlocks to carry out war-games– grand-scale laser-tag in the vastness of space with little more than air-tight cloth, rubber, and glass separating us from certain, grisly death.

One might find it hard to see how this led to total anarchy. After all, mental stagnation at some points was a given, but so too were intensive work and some fun– if the games could be called that. None of that changes facts, or history. History has, in fact, shown that Beta-Base was a powder-keg and needed only the fuse to be lit to set it off. I would know, I was there.

Our days were simple, wake at the ass-crack of Earth-dawn, P-T until chow, chow until classwork, classwork until chow, then more P-T, in one form or another. The only variations were the days we went out to the fields to run our war-games.

At first, it was great. Being in zero-G was fun, playing laser tag in space was fun. Even if the officers and admins did their best to take the fun away, they couldn’t. No one could take away the fact that we were in space, playing gun-games there. We were all kids again, especially those of us who’d grown up dreaming of going into space. There was something sacred about those first few months, for us at least. Not even the hard-ass militaries could take away the joy of bouncing in a space-suit pointing toy-guns at one another. Male or female, it didn’t matter, everyone loved it.

Then, they pitted us against each other in competition. I don’t know when, or why even, but the admins and officers got together and decided the nations would be split into teams. Tournaments would determine the nation’s teams individually, creating all-star crews to represent them. Then, in a similar style tournament, each nation would fight each other in the fields to battle for first place rewards. In this case, that a few months of shore-leave, planet-side. Some incentive, especially considering none of us were supposed to leave the station for upwards of four years.

But Human nature is fickle. People get pissy when they lose. Even if they’re best of friends, a defeat at one anothers’ hands can turn two people into throat-goring savages. You can imagine where things went. Believe me too when I say, when they went, they went quick. Rivalries were always anticipated, encouraged even, but that all changed when politics planet-side went tits-up.

Earth was teetering on the brink of another world-war. The UN was barely functioning. The people representing them in space were feeling it. Most of the time, it was racism, or nationalism. That’s the problem with putting 5,000 people “serving their country” together. Turns out, when their countries are assholes to one another, the people are too. The only way anyone could get any frustration out was in the games. When they became competitive, all of that sacred catharsis disappeared.

However healthy competition might be for evolution, it was the catalyst to catastrophe for Beta-Base. What began with an on-the-field spat between two nations, (one feeling they’d unfairly lost) turned into a mess-hall melee the next afternoon. The fuse had been lit, and there was no putting it out. The best we could do was run, try to get clear of the blast before getting blown to gibs.

I remember reading of “the shot heard ’round the world.” This wasn’t that. There were no weapons on Beta-Base outside the laser-tag rifles. Truth was though, we didn’t need weapons. We were the weapons. Another problem with cramming thousands of soldiers together in one place; someone wants someone dead, someone’s going to do die– or the person starting it will.

Some of us tried to keep our heads in the resulting madness, and were knocked out or killed for it. I’m not ashamed to say I kept myself alive. That was all that mattered. Over four-thousand people rioted all at once. Anarchy splattered blood across the walls. Fires decimated our O2. Entire spines were overridden by nationalists that had gotten the upper-hand on control rooms. They turned against their fellow humans, opened airlocks, spaced people, or asphyxiated them by cutting O2 off entirely.

Someone tried to retaliate and blew open a power cell, hoping to cut power to some of the control rooms. It took a third of the station with it. The second-third went up from secondary explosions. I’m still not sure how the other third survived.

I was in my suit, blown out an airlock from some Australian asshole with a grudge against the Americans. I don’t know why. It might’ve been the game. It might’ve been something personal. Maybe some yank boned his Aussie wife, or jerked off on her picture. Whatever. What’s it matter? It doesn’t. All I know’s I went out before I’d meant to, cracked my regulator on a beam, and had to murder someone to steal their oxygen… someone I knew. I’m not the only one.

Now, here I am, drifting on fading oxygen, watching the silent explosions. These god awful fireballs just appear and then disintegrate, propelling massive swaths of debris out into oblivion. I almost pity us, but then, we did it to ourselves. Human nature is fallible that way, I guess.

O2‘s running low. Don’t know if this will ever be found. I know Beta-base was the test grouup. Tesst failed… or succeeded. If it meanntt to test whether or not we’d kill ourselves. I knnow Lunebasealfa hwas rescueee podzz ttro retreeiieve usss, byut tgheyt arent supppposeddto ibnrterfereee ssoo iii dfooiubbbbbbbt tyhgeyll…

[Text message ends]

Short Story: The Proverbial Hand-Grenade

Private First Class, Benjamin Harrison; named for America’s 23rd president that Ben’s father found an inexplicably queer fascination with. Why, no-one by the elder Harrison was sure. Even then, it was doubtful a sufficient explanation could be gleaned from the man’s meticulous, daily research and record-keeping of the long forgotten president. What is a matter of public-record however, is the intense sense of duty and honor in the young Private.

All through his life he was teased; from his rigid-postured, vegetable-eating youth, to his JROTC, fatigue-clad teenage years. Life wasn’t a living hell for Ben, at least not between the off-school hours. Otherwise, for his first decade of schooling he suffered the curious ire of his classmates that somehow formed insults from the half-historically honored words of “President-boy,” “Chief Harry-son,” and even “Army-man.”

Such is the crude humor and reckless abandon of youth that these insults, formed of prestigious titles, turned to weapons of psychological warfare. In their way, they were harmless to all, but Ben wasn’t everyone. He was a person; living, feeling, and with a sense of duty and honor that only made him feel worse when he’d decided to devote his life to protecting and serving his country. Unfortunately, grade-school and junior-high were made all the more intolerable by the occasional history course or class that focused on US presidents.

Each year, Ben’s father would dutifully speak to classes about former-president Harrison. As part of a locally-famed historic society, and due to his knowledge of the aforementioned, he was called in without fail to give small lectures each year. Generally occurring just after the winter break, it made Ben loathe the month of January even more than the normal boys whom were simply peeved at the return of scheduled classes.

Thankfully, most of that subsided in high-school. Joining JROTC gave Ben a sounding board of peers with whom he could sympathize. Having been groomed to follow in his father’s boots and join the service, finding others with a similar goal made life all the more bearable. But again the fickle nature of humans eroded much of his enthusiasm. Contrary to intuition, a boy clad in camouflage fatigues was easier to see in the halls of an American High-School than a sore thumb.

Ben and his JROTC-mates were often the targets of the vile underbelly of the school. Being six-foot tall, crew-cut, and peach-fuzzed didn’t help. He was already gangly, lean, and looked weak; perfect prey for the undesirables that even the ‘heads and jocks disliked. Fortunately for Ben, most of the bullying was done on a psychological level– that curious battle-field seemingly isolated to schools, distant war-zones, and clearance shoe-sales.

The only, minor incident that turned physical could not have come at a better time for Ben, nor ended more favorably. The bully, clearly insecure about his vertically-challenged stature, taunted and tormented for a week before he got physical. He’d cornered Ben and a pair of JROTC girls against a locker. The girls were the usual JROTC types; slightly more butch than the others, average-looking, and one more pudgy than the off-brand, preppy-girls that roamed the halls like packs of parental-wallet succubi. As a result, their confidence was less than stellar, their protests shot down with quick, monosyllabic insults masked as swears.

The aggression was met with a firm tongue, and more rigid posture than Ben had ever manifested. He made himself a target, threw himself on the proverbial hand-grenade to shield his friends from the explosion about to be unleashed.

Indeed, Ben’s quick quip back drew the bully’s attention. He spat a swear with a shove at Ben’s chest. Ben was more limber than he appeared, like a cobra raised up and ready to lunge. The second shove only connected to give Ben his opening. In a flurry of arms and the thrust of a fist, the boy flipped through the air. He landed on the ground, hands clutched at his throat, to gasp for air. Ben’s first girlfriend was the pudgier girl present that day. They lasted all through high-school, her hero and his love.

That proverbial self-sacrifice was repeated years later in a middle-eastern desert. On sweep-and-clear orders, PFC Ben Harrison and his unit came under heavy fire. Cornered inside a bombed-out brick building, laid out like a series of low-hurtles and half-walls around them, they exchanged fire with native insurgents. That day was hardly Ben’s first taste of war, but unfortunately, it would be his last in-country.

They spent over a thousand rounds, pinned down by surplus-Soviet AK fire. The irony that these bullets had been stockpiled to kill Americans during the Cold War was not lost on Ben so long as he thought about it. That day, he did. In fact, he thought about a lot of things; home, his first love, sex with her, beers, smokes…. Everything good and bad seemed to trickle on a steady IV drip through his body while Russian weapons sang songs of middle-eastern pride.

Even so, nothing could have prepared him for what came next. Biggs, the guy with the 249-SAW, was encamped just below a rise of destroyed brick and mortar. He had just enough room to roll to his right, sit upright, and slap the SAW around to reload its box-mag. By the time it finished screaming “Die Motherfucker Die!” Biggs was already sitting up to reload.

That’s when it happened. Even then Ben saw it in a play-by-play. He was holed up a few paces down from Biggs, in a piece of wall still tall enough to stand behind. He peered out, saw one of those assholes across the way had detached to rush along side a fuel truck in front of them. It was a stupid place to take cover in a fire-fight, even Ben knew that. One stray round, a spark; that was all it would take to ignite the fucker, blow it and everything in a few hundred feet sky-high– assholes included.

But this particular “insurgent” wasn’t thinking about that. Instead, he lobbed an old-war pineapple grenade through the air. Ben was already in motion when it landed beside his left foot. He dove through a hail of gun-fire, tackled Biggs further sideways. It wasn’t enough for the would-be savior.

To say he walked away from the war would be a misnomer. In truth, he was wheeled away. While the majority of his unit had survived largely unscathed– Biggs the victim of minor shrapnel and facial burns– Ben lost his legs. Both of them. His lower limbs had been torn, shredded to bloody-wet, fleshy nibs by the pineapple. Then, whatever was left had been char-broiled by the heat, the left-over bones pulverized by the shock-wave.

He left for war over six-foot tall, returned two shins and feet shorter. There was a purple heart that came by mail, a lot of doctor’s visits and surgeries, and eventually, some nimble prosthetics that– with therapy– allowed Ben to walk again. There was no welcome home ceremony, no parade, no politicians commending him for his service or sacrifice. Just his parents and extended family; the only ones to notice he’d left, returned, or the pain he’d endured.

One night, he walked into a gas station to buy a pack of cigarettes. He waited patiently in line, posture rigid as ever, behind a man that fidgeted and scratched like a meth-head. In his little town, this particular disease was becoming rampant. There were too many two-bit meth-makers living in trailers on rural land, brewing up cat-piss and chemicals. It had been hard enough to return home half a man, but returning home to this was worse.

It was no secret to any casual observer that this particular man was ready to crack. He needed a fix, would get it however he could. So, of course, he decided to hold up the gas station. And being the man he was, of course Ben dutifully kept his cool, waited for the man to turn away with an arm full of money. Ben stuck out a single arm that clothes-lined the man as he made to sprint. Then, he was on the ground from a hit to the throat, unable to breathe, money fluttering to the ground all around him.

Ben retrieved the gun and held it on him while the clerk called the police. His metal leg pinned the man to the ground as their eyes met.

“Ben?” The junkie asked through his balsam wood teeth, and pale, scabbed skin.

Ben stared at the man for a long moment. It took time, and a firm, prosthetic foot to stir the images in Ben’s mind. Before long he realized this wasn’t the first time he’d bested the man before him. Ricky was the same punk-kid he’d laid out all those years ago.

“You’re going to Jail, Ricky,” Ben finally said.

Clearly Ricky wasn’t right in his mind, too focused on the prosthetic that held him in place, “What happened to ‘yer legs, man?”

“War happened, Ricky,” Ben replied.

Ricky descended into a mental fit that concluded the conversation with incessant rambles, a mental state akin to psychosis. The police finally arrived to thank Ben for his quick thinking and service. A moment later, Ricky was escorted out to a cruiser as he wailed back at Ben.

“I’m sorry, Ben. Sorry for everything. Shouldn’t’ve…. shouldn’t’ve picked on you.” His head was shoved down, his body forced into the cruiser, “You’re the better man, Ben.” The door shut and he screamed through it, “You’re the better man!”

Ben watched the car roll away, Ricky still screaming that tell-all phrase. Ben had heard it all his life, been told it by everyone he knew; be the better man. When faced with bullies; be the better man. When angry or fuming; be the better man. When called to war; be the better man. When life shits on you; be. The. Better. man.

All his life he’d been the better man, lost friendships, love, even his legs ’cause of it. But something about watching his old bully, now turned to a fiend and junkie, being hauled away gave him perspective. If that mentally disturbed man could, in a moment of clarity, find peace in Ben’s betterness, the man himself had no excuse.

In a decisive moment, Ben turned away from the gas station to climb into his car. He didn’t care about smoking, killing himself slowly by the hit. Instead, he was ready to be finished proving himself– both to himself and the world– and start living. He’d thrown himself on the proverbial hand-grenade for the better of others, but was not ready to do it for himself. That needed to change.

He put his car in gear, and drove for home, chasing a setting sun and a better life.

Short Story: Little Warrior

She was seven, maybe eight years old. Too young. Way too fucking young. The AK in her hands probably weighed as much as her. It had a foldable metal stock locked in place at its rear, tac-light on a forward rail, and a red-dot sight atop it. Even for the era the gear was ancient– Ex-soviet surplus rounds and mags stamped with Red Army designations in Cyrillic script. You could tell they’d had her clothes fitted, the tac-vest and camo-suit were just baggy enough to breathe but small enough to fit her.

She stood in the middle of the desert, rifle poised at-ease, curled hair blowing in the wind. She had eyes that didn’t fit her lineage; almost azure blue. There was something European in them– Scandinavian shape, maybe German corners. Her bushy mane almost said Latin, but her skin was white, bronzed from the Middle Eastern sun. In a way, I think she was all of those things.

I was on recon with the Airborne division of the Special Forces Command out of Fort Bragg, AKA the Green Berets. We’d been in country about six weeks, hadn’t seen any action. It wasn’t for lack of it, we were just that good. We’d migrated through about half the region without so much as a boot-print left behind, our paint and powder dry the whole time. We saw maybe one oasis in those six weeks. It’s just lucky we’d learned to sneak in and out of the villages without being tagged. Water’s gold out here, and the well-tender’s God. Well I guess even God’s gotta’ take a leak sometimes.

Our mission was straight forward; HQ wanted us on point to map and recon anything along the campaign trail. Then, we’d proceed to the rendezvous, pull out while the cavalry stormed the gates. The A-P and Bomber drones were meant to hit first; bombers would clear the way of any heavy artillery, give the anti-personnel regiment a fighting chance. They’d pull back to a carrier in the Gulf while the A-Ps handled the main resistance. The Marines would be hot on their tails to sweep and clear the villages, secure any VIPs or civilians.

But there’s an old quote about war, something like, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” It’s funny, we’re taught to always follow orders, that our Officers– direct superiors– are to be trusted with our lives. Kinda throws a wrench into the works when you hear that shit. No plan survives the enemy? Then what good’s having stars on your shoulders? In boot they tell us all this shit about training, trusting your intel or XO, or some such shit. Then, when you hit the field they tell you, “this what you’ve trained for,” and “everything’s on the line.” But you hear something like that, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” All you can do’s think, wonder what the fuck’s it all good for? Truth is, you’ve just gotta’ know how to improvise. We’re all just attack-dogs forced to improvise.

I think that was why it hit me so hard. They didn’t know we were coming. They couldn’t have. They were running off soviet gear that was sub-standard when it was new. It was forty to fifty years old by the time it ended up in that little warrior’s hands. We were rocking the latest tech– bone-conduction comms, full-rail stealth systems on us and our weapons, dragon-scale armor capable of shrugging fifty-cal rounds point-blank; shit that was so new, it didn’t have names yet. We were the field test. To hell with the well-tenders, we were Gods.

But like I said, or someone else did anyway, “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” Sure we got in and out without a peep, the UAVs did their thing, and the campaign began. The Marines though? Fuck, those poor guys didn’t know what the fuck they were getting into. I guess it’s partially our fault. We could only get so close to the villages, only do so much recon from the outside. Getting in was out of the question, but it wasn’t our job to know what we were missing either. It was above our pay-grade. We were told to move in, maintain stealth, and map out what we saw with vids, comms, paper– whatever we could, then feed it back to HQ over our satellite up-link. From our perspective, we did a damned good job of it. Even our XO said as much right before he green-lit our ex-fil.

But those fucking Generals can’t improvise. I dunno, maybe once you reach a certain age or rank your mind just starts to go, you get lazy or something. All I know’s that someone fucked up, and it damn near wiped out the first wave of Marines. It was so bad our unit was diverted en-route, air dropped just outside the village to flank and reinforce.

Us and the Marines. There’s a thought. Two of the most baddest-ass military groups on the fucking planet; the Green Berets and US Marines. We were the cream of the fucking crop, man, and we damn near got iced by civvies with fifty and sixty year old weapons. Shit, if it weren’t for my dragon-scales, I’d be dead on the ground in that fucking village too. Just another of those poor patriots whose blood watered the tree of liberty– if you believe the bullshit lines we’re fed.

You know, I’ve heard stories about some of the terrible shit that’s happened out here. I was on patrol with a guy who’d been forced into a second tour, said he’d watched some of those fuckheads we were fighting lace an apartment building with demo charges, blow it just as his unit went in. Only thing that saved him was his positioning on-six. The squad-leader wanted him watching their asses when they were walking face first into a fucking explosion. Tree of liberty my nuts.

Shame, lotta’ good guys go down that way. You know, doing what they’re taught to, being fucked over for it. But that’s not even the worst shit either. We signed on. We were called. We knew the risks. Them? Never. Not a chance. Not the one’s that matter anyway.

It’s what those fucks do to the people– their own people, that makes us sick. You wonder why some of the guys out here go nuts or turn into racist pricks? It’s a defense mechanism against the most gruesome shit humans can do being broadcast live, 24/7, for you to see. And believe me, we see the worst of it. In a way, you can’t blame ’em for those loose screws. Sure they’re assholes, and sure one rotten apple shouldn’t spoil the bunch or some bullshit nonsense, but most of those kinds of guys are kids when they enlist. They’re country boys straight outta’ high-school, or city-kids hoping the G-I bill’s gonna’ keep ’em from the gang life. They’re just hoping for a better life through the Army, Marines, Navy, Air-Force– whatever. No matter what their situation, they’re not prepared. They never would be. Still they enlist. I guess the US’s propaganda’s better than we think if we sign on to this shit.

Like one story I know from a guy; he was on-base just after the first campaign ended. We took our chow outside on one of the days that wasn’t ball-sticking hot. We were just discussing some of the shit we’d seen– shooting the shit we called it– when he got real serious. Told me about a time some nut-job strapped a kid with enough C4 to incinerate a tank, then sent him up bawling his eyes out toward the front-gate. Kid couldn’t’ve been more than four or five, and he knew he was about to die. My buddy didn’t talk much more that day. In retrospect, saying something like that doesn’t require much more talking afterward. Think he signed up for that? I know I didn’t.

They didn’t have a choice that day. And I guess, neither did I. There’s a select few people alive who’ve been forced to show the world what a fifty-cal round does to the human skull. But as far as I know, that group’s a hell of a lot larger than the one that’s shown the world what it does to a child’s skull.

The squeamish say it’s unthinkable, disgusting, what-have-you– to think about, speak of, but that’s war, and war is fucking brutal. It wrenches your guts out with knives, replaces them with a festering pit of emptiness. It hollows you out, runs the pieces through a meat grinder, then force feeds it back to you– And people wonder why ex-soldier suicide rates are so high.

I lost my taste for war that day we were air-dropped in to bail-out those marines. We were just outside the village’s East wall. It was like one of those old, stone things you see on the rich oil-Baron’s compounds in the movies or TV, except it was a small town. We breached with a series of C4 charges over the barks of gunfire inside. A few Marines shouted distant orders over a guy that screamed from a gut-shot. I don’t even know if he made it, but it makes you wonder.

We were inside before the smoke of the breach cleared, fanned out to provide as wide a line of flanking fire as possible. My unit probably bagged half that town in the first minute and forty seconds of engagement. But me? All I can do’s shake my head.

I got one.

One kill. It was more than enough– more painful, more monstrous than all the combined death that day.

That little warrior? She was that kind of childish beautiful that makes you have hope for the human race. That maybe, one day, something this wonderful will help all this shit end. I guess it won’t be her though. It couldn’t be. I made sure of that, had to.

I was huddled in cover when I heard the AK rack up behind me. I did an instant one-eighty and there she was. All of that hope I had was gone when that AK zeroed on me. She didn’t know, couldn’t have. She was only seven or eight years old and my dragon-scales were brand new– not even named yet. I think something was already dead in her eyes when they met mine, like she knew she couldn’t be saved no matter what anyone did for her. It was almost like she wanted me to save what was left of her innocence, her soul. Maybe that’s just bullshit I feed myself to cope.

She let loose a burst that slammed my scales. I was on my back in the hot dirt. I couldn’t breathe, but I was alive. A few bruises later, but not a scratch otherwise. I inched up with a groan, and she reset her aim. I didn’t give her the chance. I couldn’t. No one else would have either.

One round. That was it. That was all it took. No-one heard her die. No-one saw it. But her death-grip on her AK, and the chewed fabric on my armor made sure there was no doubt of her intent later. It was her or me, and she chose for us.

I try to tell myself that things’ll get better, that one day I’ll get over it. But I can’t, and I know I won’t. War is fucked up. It destroys people– destroyed me– in ways you can’t imagine ’til you’ve been there. But I wouldn’t wish that on the worst people in the world. Even they don’t deserve that. No matter how evil, you’ve always got something redeeming. Fuck, even Hitler was an artist. Sometimes, I wonder how many of those guys we took out would’ve invented the next wheel, or discovered the next fire, if they weren’t so fucked in the head and out of options.

But it’s all moot now. What I’ve seen– what I’ve done, is monstrous. They call me a hero. Bullshit. I’m a ten-cent rifle-jockey with a penchant for survival and improvisation. That girl? She was a real hero. She didn’t understand, couldn’t. Fuck, she wasn’t more than eight years old, but she gave her life and innocence to show the world how fucked up it can be. She was a little warrior, no matter whose side she was fighting for, and she deserves a fuck of a lot more honor and respect than any of the rest of us.