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Old 10-04-2012, 09:21 AM   #11 (permalink)
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Mine is gonna be a cliff hanger. I broke my hand so what I have done is what is gonna be submitted.
*ouch* Sorry to hear that bud. Please, share what you've got.
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Old 10-09-2012, 10:11 AM   #12 (permalink)
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Less than a week to go, folks, keep up the good work!
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Old 10-14-2012, 01:45 AM   #13 (permalink)
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Well, since no one has posted one yet, I'll start.
Mundane Speculations.


"Ya hear they finally colonized a gas giant?"
"Hmm. Why?"
"Mining. Kinda." The darker of the two men set his drink onto the upturned crate to tap ponderously at his datapad. "Oxygen, hydrogen, helium, that kinda stuff. It's right in the middle of the whole 'Manifest Arc,' so they set up an orbital refueling station and a few planetside outposts to siphon it off."
The other frowned into his glass, gulped, and turned his head. "Planetside? How'd they manage that?"
"Gas bags, looks like. Put enough of 'em together, drop a platform on top, set up shop. You used to read stories about that sort of thing, Dev."
Devan lifted his glass back to his lips and heaved a sigh into it. "I used to read about places like this, too."
They fell silent, looking out across the water. The pink and orange from Kepler setting across the ocean flared blood-red off the arc of one moon barely visible above the horizon, streaked by the much smaller blue-green from its copper-rich sister high and center. A view straight out of the pamphlets delivered to the potential colony crews, and not the least of the reasons that Devan had jumped on the chance for that particular ship.
The two stared out to the horizon, sipping at the drinks made palatable only by the sweetened juices diluting them.
"Hey, Chance. Know what I miss? Potatoes."
The darker man furrowed his brow into his drink. He had been pondering the colony's latest attempt, lately, himself--the first cultivatable plant they had discovered was an algae and, finding it edible but far from palatable, they had turned it into alcohol as fast as they could ferment it. Just like on a hundred other planets. At least humanity had that constant. "Wait, potatoes?"
"Yeah. I mean, the Colonization Bureau recruits five thousand people a year, promises opportunities and riches and land on unsettled planets, and that's great and all... but what about the food? A dozen people died the first year because we couldn't even digest most of the stuff here, and what we can eat just tastes weird. Even the booze tastes like dirt and tin foil. I want a beer, dammit."
"Hey, the second wave brought some Earth-native foods with them..."
"Oh, yeah, and those are turning out great. The cows are the size of dogs and get addicted to those creeper vines, half the plants won't even grow in the dirt here, and that pink mold kills off everything but cauliflower and limes. And those things were alien enough before we left."
"I've had good luck growing strawberries. I just had to build planters on my roof to keep the locals off of 'em."
"Christ, those squealing four-armed little bastards? Chased me out of my own damned garden the last time I tried growing strawberries. Forty centimeters tall, and they're throwing rocks at me. Of course I can't run 'em out because they're semi-sentient and the Bureau would have my hide. I'm just glad they haven't figured out sharp sticks, with the balls they got. Or, y'know, whatever they have."
"No, they've got 'em. Five."
"Wow. How bored was the xenobiologist group that day, huh?"
"Mm-hmm."
The men faded back into their silent camaraderie, the way people that have spent long years on a ship are only whole with their shipmates but do not actually want to listen to them most of the time. Chance used the opportunity to dilute another swirl of the bitter local spirit into the heavily-sweetened fruit juice. He brushed a lock of sunbleached hair from an eye with one hand, swirled his glass with the other, and took a swig.
"Know what I miss, Dev?" He broke the silence with a grimace at his drink. Too much of the liquor.
"A better than one-to-one ratio of women to men?"
"Besides that. The moon."
"They've got a mine up there, Chance. You could take landfall there instead."
"No, I mean Earth's moon. Just one. This one has a circular orbit, and that one's tilted and elliptical," He pointed to the near red moon, then the smaller turquoise one in turn. "You try to run an offshore fishery with the tides those things give me."
Devan barked a short laugh, scratching at his stubble. "At least you're growing the Earth-native strains."
"No, we're not. We lucked out that most of the local species are edible, 'cause they got in the fences and ate all the ones we brought. You should see what you're eating now."
"Oh, man. You didn't have to tell me that."
"You think the stuff out of the deep oceans on Earth and Europa were weird?" Chance's teeth reflected the purples of the fading sunset as he reached for his datapad with a grin. "Hold on, I've got pictures."
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Old 10-14-2012, 11:36 PM   #14 (permalink)
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Thanks, DM! Post 'em up folks, you've got until I close the thread on the 16th, and once I close it, I'll post up a new thread with the voting poll. Like what I'm seeing, keep the good stuff coming!


Here's mine.

NIGHT TRAIN

He slunk out of his building, his head swinging back and forth as if trying to see everywhere at once, like a dog that was fearing the inevitable kick. After the news of last night, the entire city was holding its collective breath, and hardly a soul could be seen on the normally busy streets. He went anyway, fearing the possible life-ending danger, but when you are a reporter and you are offered the biggest scoop of your career, you suddenly become a lot more willing to take chances. Still, scoop or no, he clung to what little shadows the bright morning sunlight left him.

The diner was closed up, its blinds shut and sign swung to "Sorry! Come again soon!". Smoke escaped the small chimney over the kitchen area and fans could be heard from inside, and heartened by that, he crept across the street to knock on the door. After a few moments, the blinds on the door parted enough for some eyes to look out between them.

"Are you Bergstrom?" the eyes asked.

"Y-yes, I'm Peter Bergstrom, you called me..." said the nervous man in the street.

"Good, get in here. He's waiting." The blinds shut and the door swung open to the dim interior of the diner. The reporter walked in and the door was locked behind him. The owner of the eyes, the cook of the establishment, did not waste any time with greetings, just moved back to his grill that was filled with food.

Bergstrom wiped his forehead and looked around the dim interior of the diner. "Um, so what's this all about?" he asked the back of the white-aproned cook. There did not appear to be anyone else in the diner at all, just himself and the man at the grill.

"He wants to talk to you," he said, barely looking up from his grill, his spatula gesturing to the far end of the diner. "Trust me, you'll want to see him. He wants to see you, says he's got the story of the century." Still disbelieving him, Bergstrom walked deeper into the gloom of the diner to find this mystery man.

"Hello?" called Bergstrom into the empty diner. "Someone hiding back here?"

"You could say that," rumbled a voice, in a register deep beyond normal human capability. The reporter stopped and stared, his gloom adjusted eyes finally piercing to the back of the diner, where two legs the size of cows moved and shifted. "Come on back, Mr Bergstrom, I promised you the story of a lifetime and you'll get it." It was a man, lying on his side with most of his torso disappearing around the corner of the lunch counter, but no ordinary man, for this man was built to gigantic proportions.

"You... you're, uh, you're..."

"That's right, Mr Bergstrom, I'm Night Train." The man, if you could continue calling him that after the Change had gripped him, was enormous. Even lying on his side as he was, he overtopped the reporter with his shoulder. Peter Bergstrom knew the stats well - eight feet tall, weighing in at a couple of tons, and so heavily muscled that he could lift near 100 tons over his head. The scariest fact was that he was as fast as his nickname. The legs that were better measured for girth in feet rather than inches could propel the Changed man to incredible speeds. Everyone who lived in the city knew these things, because knowing about the Changed in the world meant you could protect yourself, or at least avoid becoming a casualty in one of their titanic battles.

Night Train himself lay before the stunned reporter, lying on his side in the aisle between the booths of the diner, daintily picking food off of a myriad of plates piled up on the table in front him. Peter Bergstrom, veteran reporter of 15 years, had covered nearly every phase of the Change, from the first contact of an alien intelligence to humanity, to the arrival of the Hive Mind, and its fight with humanity's savior, the Immortal King of Hylorn, Gren Harvoth. He had been in the presence of many Changed since, but never so close to someone with such a reputation, especially not after last night's announcement. He found himself staring in horror, knowing the Changed in front of him could run him down and crush him to a bloody pulp, and there was nothing he could do to stop him. Something shifted in his mind, and Peter Bergstrom suddenly knew that if he was going to die, he would at least get the story first. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his audio recorder.

"May I sit, Mr Night Train?" he asked.

"Please, Mr Night Train was my father, call me George," was the reply, said between gulps of food. A panic-ridden guffaw burst from the reporter's throat, and he stared anew at the monstrous man. Night Train's - could his name really be George? - head was the only part of him that was of normal proportions, but even it was grotesque, being half-buried in the flesh of gigantic shoulders, like a face being pressed halfway through a wall of flesh. "I hope you don't mind if I continue to eat, Mr Bergstrom - Peter? Okay then, Peter - as you can see, I have to eat a lot to keep up my strength. Please, if Joe brings out something you like, help yourself." He lifted a serving spoon, still tiny in his massive fingers, to his normal-sized lips and drank as best he could the soup inside. As if summoned, Joe the cook came around the corner and placed more large dishes on the table and swept away finished dishes back to the kitchen.

Peter sat, and gathered his thoughts as he fiddled with getting his audio recorder set up. "This is Peter Bergstrom in Phil's Diner, the 5th of July. With me is the Changed known as Night Train, who has asked me to call him George. You asked me for the interview to give me the story of a lifetime, sir, can I ask why me?"

"Yep, you can. I guess it's because you've written about us Changed folk for about as long as anybody else, and I've always liked your work."

"Thank you, George, I've tried my best. Now, is there something specific you wanted to talk about, or am I to ask you questions?"

"You know what I want to talk about, why don't you just ask me about it."

He fiddled with his recorder, but asked the question anyway, "Did you kill him? Last night, did you kill Wonder Lad?"

"Yeah, I did," rumbled Night Train. "Stupid name. Wonder Lad? He ain't been a lad in a decade, but still calling himself that." Night Train shook his head as much as his Changed flesh allowed. "Do you want to know why, or have you made up your mind already?"

"I assumed it was because you were a, well..."

"A supervillain?" he asked, his bicep-thick fingers marking quotes in the air. "What a stupid concept, just like these freaking names. I never picked 'Night Train', George Ferguson was always good enough for my mom, why couldn't it be good enough for the rest of the country?" He shoveled some more food in. "Sorry, 'm starvin'. Look, the Changed are the same as they were before the Change, they're not villains or heroes, they're just people, good, bad, or ugly." He wiped his face delicately with a tablecloth. "Do you want to hear the story, or not?"

Bergstrom drew in a deep breath and nodded. "Please, George, I want to hear your story."

"And after you hear it?"

"What?" the reporter asked, spreading his hands. "You think I'm going to bring you to justice all by my lonesome? I'm just hoping you let me live long enough afterwards so I can get the story to the paper."

"Alive? Mr Bergstrom, I asked you here so I could get my story told. If anybody kills you after it goes out, it won't be me. Will you hear my story?"

"Yes, Ni... uh, George, I will hear your story. Please," he motioned with his recorder. "From the beginning, please."

"Doesn't it always start there?" he smiled. "It started the night the Immortal King and the Hive Mind fought. You know, I think you know more about that time than I do, care to fill me in?"

"Um, okay. The Hive Mind was coming to Earth to consume humanity into their collective. Gren Harvoth, the Immortal King of Hylorn, had also discovered humanity way out here in the back of beyond. The King had not come to conquer, but to observe us, didn't even know the Hive had found us too. He was unprepared for the fight, but knew he had to do it, or lose another planet, another planet's worth of species, to the hunger of the Hive, so he fought. Without the Hylorn High Fleet, without even his personal battle craft, he still fought."

Night Train snorted, his giant lungs and chest making it a rumble of a train moving under heavy load. "He claims he's a king, that's for sure. If he is a king, they sure haven't looked for him since he's been stranded here after his fight with the Hive Mind." The reporter opened his mouth to protest, but one finger bigger than his head waved him to silence. "I'm sorry, go on."

"So, the King, uh, Gren claims to have been fighting the Hive Mind in space outside our atmosphere, and one of the Hive Mind's weapons misses the King's ship, hits our atmosphere, and causes the Change in random humans across the globe. Gren Harvoth defeats the Hive ship, but his own ship is so damaged that he crashes to Earth in Texas."

"The Change did come that night to humanity, that is true. I'm not going to argue who fought who or what, but that's when it started."

"Did you Change that night? We know it's a latent, uh, I guess you would call it an infection, and in some that it effects, it lays dormant for long periods of time. We've all got it, but only a few humans actually Change from its effects."

"No, Peter, I did not Change the night Gren Harvoth, self-proclaimed Immortal King of Hylorn, crash landed outside tiny little Tulia, Texas," replied NIght Train. "You ever been to Tulia?"

"Uh, yes, a couple of times to see the crash site. West Texas is..." Peter winds down as the enormous man waves him to silence again.

"Sorry, never been there myself, was just curious. Please, go on."

"Right, so, the Immortal King crashes to Earth, and humanity starts Changing around the world. That's, uh, that's pretty much it. Some of the Changed work to help their fellow man, and some well..." he trailed off, motioning awkwardly at Night Train, who snorted and kept eating for a moment while he gathered his thoughts.

"The world is not as black and white as you think it is, Mr Bergstrom, and none of the Changed are just "good guys" or "supervillains" like the comics used to portray," he rumbled. "There are Changed who are good and there are Changed that would kill their own grandmother just 'cause they can."

"The Red Revenger," said the reporter, "he's certifiable."

Night Train laughed, "God yes! That bastard... well, let's just say he's glad he was never in the Hole same time I was. And Ray Craven, I met that guy, hope they keep him in lockup forever."

"Yeah, Ray is a nutter, no doubt. That's his real name, isn't it? How did he never get a Changed moniker? He looks like a gargoyle from a Gothic church, but no one ever called him Talon Killer or the Winged Death or anything like that."

"Sadly, I think it was the Change that drove Ray mad," said George. "Not an excuse for what he done, by no means. Glad he's locked up."

"What about you?" said Peter, gathering his courage. "Any excuses for what you've done."

The enormous man stopped, a pitcher of ice water pinched daintily between two massive fingers on the way to his face. "What exactly do you think I've done, Mr Bergstrom?" The reporter stammered a bit. "Please, Peter, calm down. I'm not here to kill you, just tell my story."

"Okay. There was the Shamrock bus line incident that cost 15 people their lives. Then there was the 1st National Bank, with over 100 injured and 23 dead. Then there was that exhibition World Cup match at Snooker's Stadium." The reporter continued for a while, categorically stating every incident in public record. The big man sighed and continued to eat while the litany droned on. Eventually, the list ended and the reporter stared nervously at the Changed in front of him.

"I make no bones, Mr Bergstrom, I have done many horrible things over the years, and people have died and been injured because of what I done." The large man seemed to sink back into himself. "I ain't proud of any of it, except for what happened last night."

The reporter stared at Night Train in shock. Clint Barstock, known as Wonder Lad, had been one of the few Changed heroes that had shined almost from the beginning. And here was this horrible Changed, with a name and reputation that made grown adults shiver at the mere mention of it, claiming he was proud to have killed Wonder Lad! Bergstrom leaped to his feet and without any regard for his own safety, charged the giant before him. His balled fist lashed out at that normal-looking face surrounded by grotesque flesh, and connected with a crack.

They stared at each other for a long while, the reporter's eyes wild with fury and the Changed man's eyes filled with sorrow. Finally, Peter removed his fist from the cheek of Night Train and clutched it to himself.

"Joe? Bring an ice pack for Mr Bergstrom, would ya?" rumbled Night Train. "I think he broke his hand." Peter cradled his busted hand and thanked Joe for the bag of ice. "Why is it everyone goes for the face? It's as tough as the rest of me, but everyone swings for it straight off." Night Train sighed again while the reporter gathered himself. "Please don't do nothing like that again, Peter. You can't hurt me, you can only hurt yourself."

Bergstrom gritted his teeth. "You're proud of it? Proud to have killed one of the protectors of this city? What did you expect me to do?!"

He held up a giant hand to try and calm the agitated reporter. "This is why I asked for you, Peter, to listen to my story." He paused to look at the food before him. "I promise, Pete, it's worth it. And afterwards, well, after we can talk about where to go from here." The reporter nodded, and sat back down, breathing heavily.

"The Change came, and we didn't really notice anything different, the wife and I," said Night Train. "I had a car repair shop not far from here that we lived over, were doing pretty good for ourselves. Had a one year old, cutest little girl, just starting to walk. None of us showed any signs of Changing. And then it happened." The large man stopped, his eyes staring off into the distance.

"What happened, George?"

"It was dark. I'd been sleeping, and a God awful loud sound came from our kitchen. When I got there, lights were out, but I could see someone had fallen through the roof and was staggering around. He must have hit the transformer on the way or something, 'cause the lights wouldn't come on, but I could hear him. Drunk, falling over drunk, he was, and getting pissed. Y'know, angry drunk." He went still for a moment as he gathered himself. "I go to him, trying to calm him down. And the guy just picks up my fridge like it's nothing. He's screaming something about how nothing can stop him, we're all weak and useless. And then he throws it."

He stopped, draining a pitcher of water, and then another. "I wake up a week later in a hospital room, hearing his voice again, but not in my head, he's on the TV on the wall. There he is, this kid, accepting an award from the governor for... something, I can't remember what for, this big grin on his face." He stopped, his brow knitted.

"Then what?"

"I passed out again. I was in and out of that coma for two more months, and at the end of it, well, I woke up looking like this," he said, waving a hand at his gigantic proportions.

"It must have been World Air flight 283 rescue award ceremony you saw. It was the first time Wonder Lad was recognized as a hero," said Peter, his mind working back. "But it certainly wasn't his last." He stared intently. "So he hit you with a refrigerator and started your Change, why is that reason to hate him so much?"

"The fridge went past me, through the wall behind me, and..." he choked to a stop. He hunched down on himself, trying to shrink into as little space as possible. "And through my wife and daughter, killing them both." Tears rolled down his cheeks, unabated. He had grown used to how useless his giant hands and fingers were for some tasks, and had grown used to ignoring those things over the years.

Bergstrom sat and stared. It was not often one's world changed so drastically in such a short amount of time. Few of us could stand such shifts well, and the reporter tried his best, yet it still took him a while. George bent to the task of fueling his outsize frame when he saw his audience was going to be a while chewing on this new information.

"Why do you think he did it?" the reporter finally asked.

"Who did what, Peter?"

"Wonder Lad. Why did he go good after being a bastard like that?"

"I don't know, George, I don't. Maybe he was in the right place to catch that plane fallin' out the sky, and when he did, he found he liked the attention." Night Train snorted. "I'd say you could ask him, but I fixed it so you couldn't. Sorry."

Peter finally looked up. "So the Shamrock bus line...?" he started.

"Wonder Lad was there, to open the new garage. I showed up to confront him, but we started fighting. I never meant to throw a bus full of people into an office building... but there's just something that happens in my brain when I see him." George grimaced, taking a moment to chew on another ladle full of rice and beans. "The world goes dark and I wake up, having destroyed another city block and back in lockup. Again."

"Damn," muttered the reporter.

"What?"

"What I wouldn't give for my notes on you, I could verify that Wonder Lad was there every time."

"He wasn't," confessed Night Train. "Some of those times, it was someone else attacking me after I'd gotten out again." He shrugged massive shoulders. "When they gonna learn they can't build a cell that'll hold me?"

"So how did you do it?"

"How did I do what?"

"You know... kill Wonder Lad?" Even now, even knowing the reason behind the hatred, the reporter could not bring himself to fully believe his city's hero was capable of such evil. "I mean, you've landed entire skyscrapers on him, tried to burn him, suffocate him, and even your enormous strength couldn't harm him for long."

"Where did they find him?" George asked, a sudden gleam in his eye.

"At the bottom of a vat of vodka at the Ivanovich distillery."

"I finally figured it out, took me all those years." He shook his massive shoulders, the best he could do to shake his head. "The Change made me big, but didn't make me any brighter."

"Figured out what, uh, George?"

"Think about it, Peter, back to the night he killed my family and almost killed me," said Night Train, the teacher leading his class to the inevitable conclusion.

"He was drunk."

"Right. And what do you get drunk on?"

"Alcohol."

"Which is like what to your blood?"

"Poison," sighed Peter, full realization coming to him. "He didn't drown, he died of alcohol poisoning."

"Right," said George. "He laughed as I pushed him under."

"But the vodka flooded his lungs, was absorbed into his bloodstream, and he died of alcohol poisoning." The reporter stared at the walls, the giant man in front of him forgotten. "Genius."

"Yeah," Night Train snorted. "I'm a genius all right, one who's wanted by the police and the Changed Division. Again." They stared at each other in awkward silence.

"What are you going to do now, George?"

"I'm done, Petey, done. All I ever wanted was the bastard that killed my family, and I got him." Tears sprang from his eyes anew. "D'you know I can't remember what my wife looks like, what my girl's laugh sounds like? It's been so long, so long and these hands," he held the offending members up, each seeming as long as the reporter was tall, "these hands are so big I can't even hold a picture of them to look at."

Peter moved by this grabbed a napkin from the table and dried the tears on George's face, moving past the enormous hands without a thought for them.

"What do you want me to do, George? I'm Catholic, and we don't condone suicide."

"I've tried that, Peter, the heroes can't kill me, and neither can I," he sobbed. "I've done awful things to get him, and people have died, but I can't." His bellow lungs are rustling the drawn blinds as the sobs shake his massive frame. Peter sees Joe the cook at the corner of his counter, concern in his face. "What can you do that I haven't tried?"

"I can tell your story, George, and then you can do something you haven't tried yet."

"What?"

"You can try to be a hero for the city, pay off your debt."

"You think it will work?"

"We have to try, George, we have to try."

It took an hour to get the police, SWAT teams, and Changed Branch officers to understand his phone call was not a hoax or a prank, and to come and surround the diner. Joe sat outside with Peter, grim faced at what his friend was about to face. George emerged from the roof of the diner, through the hole he had entered in. Peter was still amazed that he had not noticed the tarp covered hole above his head through the entire interview, but he did admit to being a bit distracted at the time. The crowd of armed normal and Changed officers had been noticeably shaken by his entrance, but Night Train had calmly jumped off the roof and held up wrists the size of tree trunks to be symbolically shackled. The Changed in charge of the arresting team, Razor Lady, the Queen of Speed and Blades, trembled slightly as she locked the specially formed hoops of steel around his wrists. The tremble came from the knowledge that nothing had ever held the Changed before her, and maybe ever her own superhuman speed would not be enough to save her if he decided to change his mind.

"I'm done, Razor, done," Night Train sighed. "Take me in." He smiled at Peter in hope for the future as he climbed into the back of the dump truck for his ride back to prison, and to await sentencing. Peter smiled back. He knew it was a different world his new friend was seeing.
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Old 10-15-2012, 01:41 AM   #15 (permalink)
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Well, here's my second before bed. I'll enter my third and best, if anyone else joins in.
Left intentionally rough, sort of The Road-ish.

Of Distance


It was the hardest thing he had ever done, taking that first step.

Worse than he remembered running home at the first sight of the smoke, to find the small town in ruins. Everything of use or value taken and all else destroyed. Set ablaze. Himself newly orphaned, one of a handful left to pick numbly through the remains and weep helplessly.

You can go home now, they said. He could not answer. There was nothing to return to. Not even graves. There were none to dig. Homes had become pyres.

It had dulled his mind to walk, then, strike south down the seldom used road. Time let the ache in his legs overcome all else. He did not sleep, had not thought to bring supplies. Looking up only brought memories back, to match the new smoke pillars from south and east.

You can go anywhere now, they said; you are a great man. No. Great men do not have memories like this, no. Stretches left to darkness or fractured. The remaining brightened by signs of the army's progress, rutted roads and damped campfires, signs of stragglers, hope for his first soldier to kill.

Great men do not remember so clearly their stumbling discovery of one of the stragglers. Do not have memories of finding the stone in their hand but not of picking it up. Not charging without thought, roaring without hearing, stone raised high, colliding with the lagging soldier without stance or attack thought out, only momentum. Enough to send them both tumbling and breathless, confused.

Great men do not remember scrambling back atop that soldier, little more than a boy, no older than him. Recruited or conscripted, probably on promise of seeing outside his hometown and sending money home to a mother or betrothed.

Great men do not remember that voice, wordless, expression snapping from surprise to fear, yelping to terrified screams as stone came down again and again, until skull cracked and confused sobs fell quiet.

He did not cry. He did not hear it then. This scared him the most. He heard it now, in the quiet of dark. A mother or betrothed never would hear from him again, did not even receive a letter. This is not what good men are made of.

He had drained the canteen in great gulps, body's demand overcoming lack of thought. He took holster and scabbard only because the weapons were in them. Dragged rifle behind him, gripping the muzzle.

Go to your friends, they said; friends stay together. He remembered them. Should have remembered them better. They had eaten, laughed, shared good and bad, fought beside or with each other, laughed moments later or held the anger and still came to the rescue.

He remembered the joy with them, their faces, the times they shared. They were stories passed down. It was a legend his eyes and ears told him second-hand.

These are the people that make the legends. The happily ever after. Only in the stories. The hero always loses too much for 'happily,' usually too much for 'after.'

The thin pale northerner lost his life saving him, thrown himself at soldiers to buy time for the rest and laughing while he did. Like it was a joke he had to share with them. The winemaker lost little weight but most of an arm and the weaver's daughter, easily a foot taller, went home with him after losing her father. The farmer lost his stock and meager savings but found himself pulled into leading his town as it rebuilt.

She, she had lost more than enough.

He first saw her at the end of the road. This town was broken and burnt like his, with more survivors. The travelling army had passed through more quickly, took much but slaughtered only those who could not flee. She worked to heal the wounded. Calmed children, cleaned bloodied or ash-dark faces, a bustling beacon of hope. Paused when she found him wandering into town, barely on his feet.

Her smile preceded her, reaching him as her hands did, breaking the hold his pain had on him and allowing his slip into unconsciousness. The first sleep he had since leaving his home, the first food anyone had forced him to eat. She nursed him until she could not keep him from leaving. Then settled the other survivors in and followed, smile in place.

Stay here, they said; you are a hero. He could not face that. They could not look him in the eye. They could not speak to him as a person. He was a hero to them, not a man. She was the only person that saw him as he was, now. The only person who embraced him as a man who had endured. The only person who would grin at him, not the idea of him, or from pity alone.

She never stopped smiling. She had different smiles, but it was always there. One for the nights at an inn raising a glass, another for the nights they could not find dry shelter or firewood. One for telling stories of the northerner's travel with them or for changing the winemaker's bandages, which brightened easily when he had taken to a knee before the weaver's daughter.

More than once he had found himself in her arms after losing blood or will. Awoke to find her gently rocking him and murmuring quiet prayer. She was never worried. Only determined; her smile a focus for prayer's aid.

Her hands were not clean. No. But she did not mark as the others. Of all of them, she knew best that the most help she could give was strength. To be the first to lift a sword. Not as he did. She was not clean, but ended unmarked. She would hold no malice; anger leaves blood deeper than one's hands.

He tried to focus on the ache in his feet, in the scars on his leg. Tried to focus on the wind rustling the leaves that had begun to grow back. Tried to distract himself with checking his weapons, pitted but happy for the first oil they had seen since he had taken them; the rifle's butt still scoured and gouged where he had drug it along. He could feel her smile on his back, knowing well what she read in him. Knowing his path. Still hoping.

Stay here, she said; with me...




It was the hardest thing he had ever done, taking that first step.
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Old 10-15-2012, 02:53 AM   #16 (permalink)
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History

I lay quietly, listening to the overwhelming silence. I lie in wait and try to pass the time, reminding myself why I am here. As I start to recall the memories the pain joins them in my mind.

It was 1984. I was only 15 years old. My family and I had managed to escape from our village as one group of the invaders raided it. We barely escaped with our lives as we watched our village, our home, our belongings, and our friends burn to ash. We ran and ran and ran until we came to another village. Most of the village didn't want us to stay there, but there was one family who welcomed us with open arms. It turned out that they had also escaped from the same group who had attacked our village. My family stayed with that family for 6 months. We helped around the village, cleaning what needed to be cleaned, working in the fields, doing whatever needed to be done.

Then it happened.

They came again.

That time we couldn't escape.

My mother told me and my two brothers to go and hide in the basement and she told my brothers “Protect your sister before anything else”. And they did. We ran to the basement and hid in the cellar, but my younger brother didn’t make it. I watched as the bullets riddled his body and as the light left his eyes. I cried out and my older brother shoved me into the cellar and slammed the heavy wooden door behind us. He locked it as quickly as he could while I ran to the back wall of the cellar. As my brother came towards me I heard them trying to break down the door. I heard screams of pain above me and smelled wood burning. I thought for sure this was the end. I hugged my brother as he told me “everything will be OK”. Suddenly there was gun fire. I heard the crack of the bullets as they ripped through the cellar door. My brother’s chest exploded in red as he collapsed onto me. He was still breathing, but I knew he was going to die if he didn't get help very soon. Our attackers kicked down the now broken door and started to walk towards us. A pair of brutish looking men stood over us and were talking about what they were going to do with us. They finally decided that we should be taken to their leader and he would decide what our fates would be.

They dragged us upstairs and into the middle of our village along with a handful of others that we knew. A white man with graying hair walked over. The soldiers asked him “What should we do with them?” He responded “Separate the boys from the girls.” Many of the boys were injured. Some had been shot, some stabbed, some burnt, but all dying. As the soldiers put us in two groups we watched the leader walk over to the group of boys. “Will you join us?” he asked each boy one at a time. One after another the boys agreed to join and were treated for their wounds. Finally he reached my brother. I was relieved. He was going to live. All he had to do is agree to join them and he would be healed. The leader looked him square in the eyes and said “Will you join us?” As my brother pondered his options I had to use every ounce of self control to not yell out “DO IT!”

Then...he starts smiling. “What is he so happy about?” I thought to myself. Suddenly, without warning, he looked at me, winked, turned to the boy next to him and said “Tell this moron he must be dreaming.” The leader suddenly lashed out, throwing out his hand clenched in a fist, knocking my brother to the ground. He called one of the soldiers over. “Ask him again if he wants to join us, if he refuses...kill him.” So the soldier did what he was told. When he was asked my brother told him “Screw you.” And as the soldier had done before, he did again. He followed his orders and within seconds of my brothers response there was a bullet in his skull.

I watched in complete shock as this all happened. I wanted to scream, cry out, run over and save him, but I couldn't. I couldn't move. It was like I was frozen in time, watching a horrible movie. When he got to the last of the boys the leader started to walk towards the group of girls, I was still reeling from what just happened, but I forced myself to start thinking clearly. I started looking for a way out. Then, the leader was almost in front of the group of girls. We were all terrified. Some showed it, others didn't, but we all knew it.

When I finally saw his face I thought I recognized him from somewhere. But that wasn't what struck me as odd. He wore a military uniform, a camouflage pattern, but I couldn't see a rank. The man behind him, who appeared to be his second in command, was wearing the same uniform but that man had a rank pinned onto his uniform. Four silver stars in a horizontal line. Later I learned that he was a general. He began to ask the girls the same question he did to the boys. He asked us one by one “Will you join us?” And one by one we fell to our fear. We all saw what happened to those who didn't so we knew better than to refuse their offer.

They loaded us all into the back of a truck and took us back to their base. All of the soldiers there were yelling at us, throwing out rude comments. We were all unloaded from the truck and herded into a large hanger. There were armed guards everywhere, escape was virtually inconceivable. Days past by us, we sat in that hanger, and each day a soldier came into the hanger and took one of us outside. We would try to listen to what was going on outside the hanger but we couldn't hear anything coherent. Then, at the end of every day, we would hear a scream and then a gunshot and then nothing. I knew that eventually it would be my turn, and when my turn came I would escape. That would be my chance to get out. I knew I would need to find a weapon. I would need something. So, while everyone else was trying to hear what was happening outside of the hanger, I readied myself. I sat at the back of the hanger, every day, bashing rocks off of one another, trying to get a sharp one. When I managed to get one sharpened I wrapped part of it with some strings I tore off my pant leg. I wrapped it tightly so that I could grip the pseudo knife without cutting my own hand. I hid it in my sock, also covered by my pant leg, and no one except me knew about it.

Two days after I finished my knife they came for me. They pointed at me and I was led away I walked out into the blinding sunlight and was suddenly surrounded by soldiers. They were everywhere. On top of the buildings, in front of every entrance, every exit, but as soon as they saw me they all started cheering and rushed to one point. They all rushed right to the middle of the compound. I saw another one of the captives standing at the ring that had formed around him. The soldier that brought me from the hanger led me into the middle of the circle. “Good luck” he said to me.

The other boy started to bounce from heel to heel. He circled me, and then he lunged. He leaped at me, knocking me to the ground. I finally realized what is going on. The soldiers were making us fight each other for survival. The loser was shot. I knew then that I had to get out. If I didn't get out right then I would surely die there. So I got up and lunged back at the boy. I must have taken him by surprise because I knocked him off his feet with my attack. The boy didn't move. The crowd parted and their leader, the same one that gave the order for my brother’s execution, walked into the ring. He looked at the boy lying on the ground, looked at me, looked into the crowd and nodded. A pair of soldiers picked up the boy and carried him away. He then pointed at me and shouted “Winner!” They led me away, towards a small building. The circle started to dissipate. I saw my chance. There were no guards at any of the entrances, I had to go now.

I grabbed my knife out of my sock and swung at the guard. The first time I missed, but the second time my weapon found its mark. I saw the stone knife disappear into the guard’s chest and I watched as the red exploded across his shirt. That red was like a jolt of adrenaline. I took off like a bullet out of a gun. The entire compound was in full alert in minutes. Soldiers were running back to their posts, but I blew by all of them. Gun fire surrounded me and bullets flew around me, but they all missed me. I was almost at the gate when there was a sudden explosion of pain in my left arm. I looked down and saw the blood running down my arm, but I didn't stop. The pain in my arm was nothing compared to the taste of freedom. I ran and ran and ran, right out of the compound and into the surrounding forest. When I finally stopped running I vowed to get revenge on the man who caused all of this...

All of a sudden, there was movement. I watched as my target moved through my field of vision. I look down upon the man who hurt me so much, 20 years before. He couldn't be allowed to cause any more pain to anyone. I look through my rifle’s scope, and pull the trigger.

The next day, I wake up and go about my regular routine, breakfast and a shower, and then I go and see my landlord to pay my monthly rent. When he sees me he hands me a newspaper. “George Bush Assassinated in Home” the headline reads. “Did you have anything to do with this?” He asks me.

“Even if I did, I wouldn't tell you. As soon as you tell anyone what you know they won’t need you anymore. Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you’ll start missing everybody.”
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Old 10-15-2012, 07:04 AM   #17 (permalink)
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It's not as good as I hoped for but the broken hand kinda killed me.

Destroying Hope

The hot desert air hung dry and dusty inside the North Hope barracks. Just like the name suggests the barracks lays just north of the city called Hope. Unlike the name may lead you too believe, the city lacks what is in its name, hope. Many are suffering in Hope and many more will be suffering in the coming weeks. Hope has been a war torn city for over a year now, the old plaster buildings litter with bullet holes and has massive gaping holes in the walls from RPGs and missiles. Many buildings lay flattened from the relentless air strikes on the Canadian army. Despite Hope being located a little further then 5 kilometers from the ocean it rarely receives rain, resulting in a dusty atmosphere which adds to the death that hangs over the city.

“Please have Master Warrant Officer Garrison come to my office” said General Steele in to the intercom which connected to his secretary’s office. Steeles name suggests just like what he is like, made of steel. The aging military commander has broad shoulders and ripping muscles that threaten to tear his uniform at any moment. Steel is not a well liked person, but he is respected as a General for his countless successful missions that went against conventional tactics.
There was a knock on the door then a small man walked into the room. His brow slick from sweat and threatening to drip off of his round, boyish face at any moment. Sergeant Garrison is a small man in his mid forties, despite his age he still looks fresh out of military college. His ghostly white skin always burnt regardless of how much sun screen he uses. Garrison is not liked or respected by anybody in the army. He is known for being a brown noser to the higher ups, hence his rank.
Steele motioned at a chair for Garrison to sit down in. Garrison plopped down into that chair and let out a sigh; he grabbed his handkerchief and wiped his forehead.
“You know I don’t like you” Steele began in a gravely voice. “But since I’m retiring next year I’m meant to teach you how to run this base.”
Garrison smiled and nodded.
“Now, I want you to be sure that I’m not doing this because I want to, but because I have too.” Steele continued.
“You can cou-“
Steele cut down his sentence with a glare that could’ve killed a small child.
“Your first mission is to take Hope, you have all the resources at this base at your disposal. I expect Hope to be in our complete control in 10 days, that’s not clearing the last of the houses for prisoners, I need every room in every building swept and every prisoner accounted for in 10 days time.”
Steele paused briefly to let that sink in then continued on.
“If you fail this mission, your career will fail also. Now get out of my sight”
Garrison stood up and gave a quick “sir” and walked to the door. Just before he left Steele told him his 10 days starts now.

Garrison strode into the barracks with his blood pumping in his ears and his head held high. He knew that he had to command respect from the soldiers if he was going to have a successful mission.
“Where is Sergeant Walkins?!” Garrison barked.
“Screw off Garrison” one soldier shouted back while laying in his bunk.
“Don’t you have some poo to sniff?” shouted another.
Garrisons face turned beet red, he took 3 deep breathes in order to clam himself and then he tried again.
“I didn’t ask for your smart-*** remarks, I want Walkins!”
He waited a moment, searching the large room. When nobody moved he yelled “Now!” at the top of his lungs causing a few guys to actually look up from what they were doing. Walkins got up off of his chair and walked towards Garrison, cracking his thick neck as he walked, swearing under his breath.
“Walkins!” yelled Garrison, in a voice much too loud since Walkins was right beside him. It was another feeble attempt to command respect from the troops.
“Follow me” Garrison finished.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m coming” Walkins mumbled and followed Garrison towards his office. As they walked, Walkins noticed that he was over a foot taller then the short plump man that scurried in front of him with his short legs. Despite Garrisons best attempts to intimidate Walkins it was clear Garrison was afraid of him. Not surprising either because Walkins is 6’ 5” and 300 pounds of pure muscle. In high school Walkins was able to dead lift over 300 pounds and could easily pound off 100 one armed push ups. Garrison wouldn’t be surprised if he could do almost double that now. His uniform is barely able to hold back his hulking muscles.

Garrisons office was freezing cold from having the small air conditioning unit blasting all day. Couple that with the setting of the sun and it made the room uncomfortably cold. Garrison sat behind his massive desk that made him look like a little school boy and motioned for Walkins to sit at a chair in front of his desk. Walkins ignored the little man that was the butt of all jokes in the barracks turned off the A/C unit with his massive hands. He walked back over to the chair and folded his muscular frame into it. Garrison folded his hands and leaned forward in his chair, his chair groaning under the shifted weight.
“You’re probably wondering why you’re here?” began Garrison, flashing a toothy smile, trying to be friendly but only succeed in making him look younger then he is.
“Probably for another one of your stupid assignments.” said Walkins in a huff, and annoyed at Garrison for taking up his time.
Well, as you know by now, I’m taking over the base next year-“
“Walkins cut him of by saying “Just tell me why I’m here so I can leave.” Walkins flexed him massive biceps to drive the point home.
“Fine, we will do it you way.” said Garrison, trying not to turn red. “We need to capture Hope in less then 10 days and I know how we are going to do it.”
“Just get on with this brilliant plan of yours.” Walkins said mockingly.

“Mount up boys!” Walkins yelled as he walked into the barracks. The 300 battle ready soldiers made their final equipment checks and headed to the loading areas where the Iron Stallions waited. The Iron Stallions are not horses; they are a modified armored trucks. They are the vehicles that replaced the Humvees. These massive vehicles can hold 5 soldiers and a ton of supplies the back of the vehicle. Every inch of the vehicle is armored to stop a 50 caliber bullet from point blank range and the cab can even stop some RPG shots. To move the Iron Stallion it is equipped with an 800 horse power twin turbo’d diesel engine capable of moving the Stallion at over 150 kilometers an hour, which is plenty for battle. On top of every Stallion sits a 50 caliber machine turret that can leave destruction in its wake.
“We move out in five minutes” Walkins said into the megaphone so he is heard by every member of his army.

In each Stallion five men sat. The driver was the leader of the squad inside the Stallion; he has the radio equipment necessary to communicate with other squad leaders in all of the other Stallions. He also has the ability to call upon the many drones that circle the city. The drones would be offering the fire support for this mission; they can easily destroy buildings in seconds and rain to lead from the sky that can stop even the bravest men in their tracks. In the passenger seat sat the medic. He does exactly what his name suggests; he heals the men in his squad. He is equipped with a large pack on his pack full of all the supplies he needs for the mission. Because of the extra load he carries a smaller M4 variant with a folding stock that can easily be made smaller incase he needs to heal somebody. Two people sit in the back seats while the other operates the machine on the top of the Stallion. In each squad there are two support gunners. One carries a large, belt fed machine while the other carries an assault rifle and lots of extra ammo for the gunner. One operates the machine gun while the other is sitting. The last member of the squad is a breach expert. He is always the first member into a house or room. He carries an under mounted grenade launcher or shotgun for blasting down doors. Each member in the team can do each others job but not as well, this way if one falls, another can take its place.

The Stallions head towards the city to do some damage. They need to crave a hole in the cities defenses and fight their way to the center of the city. From the center of the city they will slowly work their way out, taking down everybody as they go. It is a very unusual tactic but Garrison is trying to prove that he can use unorthodox tactics and make them work. Over top of the Stallions attack helicopter flew, they would assist the Stallions and drones in craving a path into the city. They were an impressive sight to see, 60 Iron Stallions with 12 attack helicopters over head and four drones already circling high above the city.

As the Stallions entered the city, every soldier’s senses were assaulted. The machine guns on the Stallions were blasting at everything that moved in the buildings, tearing holes in the old building walls and sending dust into the air. The muzzle flash was the size of a campfire as it rained bullets on everything that the man operating the gun set his sights on. The Canadian Forces weren’t the only force shooting at everything, the buildings shot back. The city population, Rag Heads as the soldiers called them, was expecting the attack and already had some defenses in place and was putting more in as every second passed. In almost every building Rag Heads had mounted guns set up and started raining lead down onto the Iron Stallions. The bullets hitting the Stallions bounced off of the heavily armored vehicles with nothing more then a “ping” and some sparks, the larger bullets denting the armor. Each bullet that hit glass formed a small spider web but couldn’t penetrate the thick glass. The soldiers inside the Stallions laughed as the bullets bounced off, it wasn’t a mocking laugh but a worried laugh knowing that if a Stallion goes down they are going to have to go into the open and face the fierce fire from all sides. But for now they were safe.

The helicopters up above had their gatlin guns going at full bore. The barrels spinning at speeds that blurred one barrel into the next. The muzzle flash would blind anybody dumb enough to look at it for too long. The shells rained down from the gun, threatening to burn anybody underneath them. Occasionally, a chopper would release a missile from its wings to down a building or take out an enemy vehicle. The pilots were being careful to stay high enough above the ground to avoid an RPG round; knowing what would happen if one hit the tail rotor.

The Rags Heads were used to the assaults, but they have never seen one this large. The experience with pervious assaults allowed them to set up their defenses in under five minutes. They made choke points and armored gun turrets, snipers were sent to top floors to pick off the gunners on the Stallions. RPG crews ran around the city, shooting the helicopters. The shots weren’t meant to be on target, only to keep the choppers at bay so they lose their effectiveness. The Rag Heads have teams of people moving throughout the city setting up road blocks, forcing the Stallions down one very narrow street, barely wide enough for the Stallions to fit through. This causes the Stallions to move slowly, making them an easy target for machine gun fire and rockets. The armor on the vehicles is quickly wearing down and failing.
“Walkins to all drones” Walkins shouted into the radio, over the sound of gunfire and the screams of wounded men in his Stallion.
“Go ahead, sir.” The drone pilot said.
“Blow up every building in front of us.” Walkins said desperately into the radio, trying to mask his fear from the men.
“This Garrison” Garrison cut into the radio transmission. “Do not shoot at any buildings pilot, I repeat, do not fire.”
“What are you thinking Garrison!” Yelled Walkins losing all composure. “Men will die if they do not fire! Our vehicles and being shot through! The armor is failing!”
“I don’t care; the drones are not to fire.” Garrison said calmly.
“Then I will hold you responsible for every death on this mission.” Walkins said, choking back tears, then cut the radio feed.

“Alright boys.” Walkins said into the radio, which broadcasted over to each leader in each vehicle. “Give ‘em hell, don’t hold back”

With that message, the air exploded with the sound of every machine gun opening fire at the Rag Heads. Plaster fell from the walls at an alarming rate, sometimes showing the wooden structure holding the building up below the plaster. The convey continued to head towards the city, and right into the Rag Heads plans.
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Old 10-15-2012, 12:00 PM   #18 (permalink)
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He had not been expecting a letter. In fact, it seemed as if he rarely ever received mail at all any more aside from the occasional utility bill. He eyed the return address label as he walked back to the front door from his mailbox. Without looking away from the strange handwriting, his stride lengthened as he crossed over the large crevice in the pavement as if his legs didn't need guidance to make it back to the familiar "Welcome" mat placed haphazardly in front of the doorway.

He finally broke his curious eyes away from the stark white envelope when he reached his hand down to the cool curved brass doorknob as if he were about to turn it. Instead, he wiggled the handle firmly left and right, up and down. He pushed his left shoulder against the peeling red paint of the door and cursed under his breath.

After a moment, a loud "POP!" sounded from the doorknob, and the door swung open with ease. He entered the front room and pushed the door closed firmly behind him, not bothering to turn the lock. The knob hadn't worked properly in almost three years now, but he had no desire to replace it. The way he figured it, if burglar was stubborn enough to stand on the porch and wriggle and wrangle with the lock to get the damned door to open - well then they deserved to take whatever they wanted.

He sat down gingerly into one of two identical overstuffed chairs and returned his attention to the envelope. As he slowly broke the seal of the back flap, he tried to remember the last time he had received a hand-written letter. It had been years ago, he was sure.

He unfolded the letter tucked inside, the smell of pancakes and strawberries wafting away from the crisp white paper. Unknowingly, he smiled to himself as the familiar scent reached him and then drifted away like a long forgotten memory.

Dear Phil Mr. Davis,

I don't know if you remember me, as it has been the better part of a lifetime since the last time I saw you. My name is Iris Rochester, but when I knew you my last name was Straussen although you may not have ever known that.

You used to come into my family's diner every morning for breakfast when you were on your way to the mill to work. You ordered a tall stack of my mother's corn-cake pancakes and my father's black-as-death coffee with a side of strawberries and whipped cream every morning. Do you remember?

The last day you came in for breakfast was on October 31st, 1948. No, I'm not some quack-job stalker. You used to always ask for your receipt before you left, but that day you forgot it so I tucked it in my pocket so I could give it to you the next day.

I've kept that receipt inside my register since that day so many years ago. It's seen me through one marriage; three beautiful daughters and two strong sons; the loss of my husband and sixty years of waiting tables. It's been there through good days and bad, sun and snow, sleet and rain. I've never been able to throw it out, as it reminds me so much of the warm smile that you gave me every morning, and the little note you used to write on the napkin before you left - Thank you Darlin'

I've always had the intention of returning your receipt to you, and when I saw your name in the paper last month I decided that I should look up your address and send it off to you. I know the sadness of losing someone you loved, and I am sorry to read that you have lost your beloved Evelyn.

Thank you for keeping me company all these years. Although you never knew it, you brought a smile to my face every single day.

With Love,

Iris


Phil pulled the old tattered receipt from the envelope where it had been tucked behind the letter. The years had not been kind to the tiny scrap, fading the handwriting to a whisper of what it once was. A brown stain had taken over the right portion of the slip, so Phil could no longer make out the total, but he could read the note scribbled on the bottom of the receipt by what must have been a 17 year old version of Iris.

Thanks Phil - see you tomorrow for cakes, berries and coffee!

Phil carefully refolded the letter and slipped it back into the envelope. For the first time, he felt that someone knew the loneliness he suffered since Evelyn had gone. And for the first time since she passed, he cried.
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Old 10-15-2012, 11:22 PM   #19 (permalink)
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Aaaaand number three, now that I'm done after class.
And holy balls, I'm amazed that's under 5k words.

The Home Front


James slid smoothly into place behind a car, crouched behind a flattened tire to keep his feet hidden. The lens of his mask reflected ghosts back to him, bloodied by the deepest red of the sunrise. He cursed his timing, his eagerness to be about his business, but there was nothing to be done for it now.

He settled onto the balls of his feet and rested a hand onto the fender to steady himself. It was a position he was accustomed to, now, head raised barely above the trunk and motionless to watch and listen. The morning sun threw glare off every intact window despite the dust, leaving him unable to see what may lay behind them, but at least it was behind him and he didn't have to worry about his mask catching the light.

The soft hiss-puff of breath through filter and valve was hidden well by the soft rustle of the golden grasses that grew through the cracks of cement and outside the parking lot. A soft clack, clack-clack broke his eyes' slow scan to one side, only to be revealed as a muffler swinging beneath an old Ford truck so rusted it almost seemed to flow into the stained cement beneath it.

The truck seemed to be among the worst of them; most suffered from tires that had succumbed to dry rot or were missing altogether, usually with the jack still beneath, and several had their hood up and parts strewn in front of them to indicate they had been the donor for a transplant at some point. None appeared in driving condition, and the layer of dust upon the discarded components suggested none had been in a long while.

No diesel-fueled vehicles or bicycles were parked outside. There were no footprints, but when a good wind in the night can erase those, it is still better to be cautious. James has been crouched too long; he almost started at the sharp crack his own back made as he straightened. His bedroll had done little to soften the floor of the long-disused pumphouse he had spent the night in, a place set away from the plaza where he could block the door and sleep and wait until morning.

He began his way around the plaza, feet quiet on the ground. People out on their own got a particular way of walking, now--smooth, quiet, but casual enough they did not appear to be sneaking. It was best to stay quiet, and still better to be seen first than to look to be skulking around.

One hand fell to pull the radio from his belt but left it off for the moment, letting it swing by his side as he walked around the parking lot in the center of the plaza, peeking through boarded windows and taking note as he passed. Quiznos. Staples, worth looking through later. Petsmart. Marshall's, worth a look despite the broken windows even if the clothes up front would be in bird nests or rotting by now.

A hobby shop would be likely to have odd bits of hardware and electronics. Those were always in increasingly high demand. He absentmindedly brought the radio against the side of the garbage can in front, bringing the dull 'bwong' of a barrel full of water to the point it had rusted through halfway up.

He stopped in front of the window of what was obviously the plaza's largest store, making a lazy attempt to actually see through the boards and the dirty but mostly unbroken windows that protected what lay within. It was a lucky find, he had thought. A city the size of Peoria was bound to have plenty to offer in years past, and it was far north enough that not many people would risk it yet. Bloomington, in a rough semicircle to the east, was the furthest anyone could settle down again, and then only because it was on a crossroads. It was a sparsely populated town to begin with and even more so after; the northeast edge of it was still littered with buildings and cars with the paint blasted off that side.

Aerial photos had proven literal what many residents had considered a sore joke before: Chicago was a pit, bleeding out into the rest of the state.

His reverie broke at the impact against another can, with a heavier oscillating gong. He turned to stare down into it, filled nearly to the brim and heated by the hot plains sun until rainwater and discarded food had cooked into a nasty stew.

It took several seconds to register before he broke into a sprint, dodging back to crouch behind a pickup that had probably seen better days before the impact. He stuck his head around the side this time, and fumbled for the switch on his radio. It clicked on and he hit the button to signal a break to the silence with a quiet static 'kssht'.

A tense moment passed as he waited, inspecting the storefront. "W pblton's," the sign proclaimed; a B had spun loose and taken a vowel on its journey. His pulse had a chance to slow before the radio replied. "You alright, Jim? Get anything?"

He kept his head up as he lifted the radio, nearly spooking himself with the reflection of his own eyes. "Yeah, a grocery story. There's old trash in a can."

Cut-in static faded into a sigh before a response. "Alright. You should come back, but I know since you're out there already... Be careful."

"I know. You always say that, and look how Lincoln and Middletown turned out. Don't worry."

"A bunch of farmers aren't gonna be camping out in a grocery store. You get back out here by evening or I'm going back to Bloomington without you."

"Love you, too, Trace."

James stood from behind the car. No one had yelled or shot at him yet, so what was the harm? Hands above his shoulders and still holding his radio, he began walking to the door. No point in appearing threatening, but showing contact elsewhere still played a good bargaining point.

Garbage cans were worth a glance as he passed, now. This long after, most had been cleaned out enough by rain that they made great water catchers--the Hit had shaken the world but it certainly had not turned it to a complete wasteland. It had become habit throughout the country to upend the serviceable trash cans to clean out the mud and sand and throw a sheet over them to filter out the dirt the rain still brought with it--and keep that ever-present dust out--and the water would be as potable as any other source. It had been years since any of them had pre-impact garbage left to contaminate it.

Jim paused at the door and cupped his hand across his brow to peer through. Carts in disarray, an old broken display mannequin, shelves holding dust and whatever faded boxes and cans had been, surprisingly, left. He took a deep breath, steeled himself, and knocked the radio onto the door several times. After a brief wait and no reply, he clipped it back to his belt, wrapped his hands against the edge of the door and pulled; he had to put his shoulder into it until it grated open on its track and allowed him to slip through, blinded briefly by the glare off the glass.

"Just sign on, huh?"

A hand flipped back his jacket and tucked under his shirt, filling his palm with the grip of the battered handgun behind his hip before he could process the thought. He spun, wide-eyed, to face a man perhaps in his fifties, with similarly wide eyes--and hands held in front of him, palms open.

"Whoa, whoa! Calm down there, friend." He paused a moment to look James up and down. "Went through the training films today, huh? I know how the speeches and public-service reels can get you jumpy. I'm retired, myself."

Jim froze to take him in. Short, greying hair. Brown eyes above a nose rather on the large side, with the creases of smile lines at their corners.

He stood, bewildered. The man's greying black hair was recently cut and combed back. His cheeks were freshly shaven, and his salt-and-pepper goatee was too neatly trimmed. No one out here had wrinkles from smiling without others to rival them; for that matter, no one out here got to that age without looking more weather-beaten overall. Even at their Sunday best, no one could match this man's buttoned and unfaded blue shirt, rolled neatly to the elbow, or the crisp black apron tied in place over it. Russell, the tag said. He appeared patently nonthreatening, but...

His hand was easing from his bulky old Ruger and he was preparing to ask questions when, shhhup, the door slid smoothly shut behind him, bringing him to jump again and spin to face it.

A poster was taped onto the door, facing outward, flashing his reflection back to him. In stark contrast to the man, James' posture was slouched in his old desert-camo jacket. The sunbaked patch under his mask's bubble lens showed creases at the corners of grey eyes, and he wasn't even thirty yet. Light brown hair was an uncombed mass of loose curls, oily and undecided between standing messily from between the straps of his respirator or hanging nearly to where a scruff of beard went uncovered at the bottom.

Russell seemed to have the same thought as him. "Oh... Hey, friend, it's a great way to get back on your feet--I joined up back in the depression--but your recruiter won't be happy if you show up to basic like that." He dug into a box beside the door (the poster taped to it proclaimed "Join today! - US Recruiting Office 62656, 905 Jefferson Ave. Peoria, IL") and handed him a brown box (USAF - Toiletry) and a sealed green can (Filter, 40mm). "Looks like they even left you with the old training filter, poor guy. It's been a slow day; the restrooms are right around the corner there. Lock it for a few minutes and clean up a bit. I'll tell anyone it's out of order."

"Yeah... Yeah, sure." Jim was staring at the kit on his way, working a thumb at the seal. Russell was too clean and accepting, the lights were bright enough that they glared off the too-clean windows rather than allow a view outside, and it was easier to concentrate on getting to somewhere with a sink and a mirror than it was to think it all through.

He blanked all that out for the time it took to close and lock the door, only vaguely noticing how white the tiles were as he tracked down the plug for the sink. Dumping the contents of the box--nail clippers, a comb, a razor, a pack of double-sided blades, a bar of soap, several packets of shaving gel, and a washcloth--onto the back of the sink as it filled.

A pull at the metal ribbon around the can released the new filter with a hiss of broken seal. Force of habit brought him to draw a deep breath, quickly unscrew the old filter from his mask... and pause.

The mirror lacked the layer of dirt that most of the world sported now. Hell, the room actually looked like it had been mopped recently. Without the iridescent shimmer of that ever-present dust, there really wasn't much risk, so he grabbed the bottom of his mask and peeled it over his head.

It was the first time in years he had gotten his lungs full of such sweet air. Cool, crisp, and he wasn't of a mind to complain about the sterile tang marked with hints of lemon and bleach. He unclipped his radio and tried a call to Tracy, to no reply. A few cranks at the charging handle on back, and further attempts brought back only static. He returned it to his belt with a sigh; all the same, he was actually enjoying the circumstance when he put his new comb to work, despite the tugging at long-unkempt hair.

Half his beard was gone--and he was finished giggling about the tan lines that mask and beard had left him with--by the time he actually paid any attention to the speakers. Someone put a lot of effort into keeping a place out here clean and the radio working.

"...diameter of... how large was that, Dr. Lloyd?"

"Roughly twenty-seven kilometers. Errr... about seventeen and a half miles."

"That doesn't seem all that big, doctor. I mean, in the grand scale of things."

"Sir, that's about the size of New York City. You look out your window and tell me this city "Isn't all that big.""

"I mean, surely it wouldn't really affect-"

"It will! We cannot allow this to continue on its current course. The Smith-Komo Object is more than twice the projected size of the one that--"

And he had stowed the kit back into its box and the box into his pocket, put the cap from his mask's new filter onto the old one when it started spilling that black-violet dust out the intake with a mica shimmer, dumped it into the can, and was out the door, with his hair back and face freshly shaven. He immediately stopped and gawked when he could no longer block out the view.

This... this wasn't right.

The lighting was too bright. Hell, the lights worked, casting a harsh fluorescent shine onto tiles that were still white, and still had a polish to them. He could actually see a couple people in aprons walking in the back of the store, straightening a rack of batteries--batteries! he noted--and Russell sweeping by the registers that surprisingly retained their lights and upright stature. The shelves looked to be worked over, like every other space was emptied, but there were boxes and cans.

His eyes froze at that. Blinked a few times. Then the thought processed and he was almost giggling in his sprint for a cart. Who cared if this was right or not? There were stocked shelves!

He nearly left skidmarks when he came to a halt before the carts, face-to-face with the mannequin wearing fatigues holding a rifle in one hand and saluting with the other in parade fashion. A sandwich board at its feet proclaimed "Serve your country, serve the world!" He snapped a sharp salute in return before grabbing a cart and spinning back into the store.

One of the wheels squealed in complaint but he still took it at speed down the first aisle, tossing bread and bagels and Little Debbie almost without checking the labels. He at least slowed down through the next aisle, to pick out the largest jars of the largest pickles, humming and half-listening to the speakers cutting out from music to news between every song.

"...this coming for more a year now, and known for months that it was on a path toward us. NATO has a committee of scientists in countries all over the world working on this threat."

"Senator, if we've known about this, what exactly is the issue with China and their eastern allies arming themselves for it?"

"They declined to be part of the committee, and we've been in a cold war for a decade. And now with this excuse to stock up? They're trying to gain an advantage, even when they know we can't afford any launch without the rest of the world informed and double-checking everything. There's no other good excuse."

Once more, his thoughts were interrupted, this time when he absentmindedly bumped his cart into a display of bananas. Bananas! Short of the rare hothouses, they wouldn't even grow locally! Eyes wide, he pulled a couple bunches onto his stack of food before even looking up to find himself surrounded by produce. Jim went dancing from display to display, tossing fruits onto the adjacent scales and barely remembering to write weights onto the bags before he crammed them into his mouth.

Bananas, mangoes, grapes, oranges, things he couldn't remember eating or even hearing of--what the hell was a kumquat?--made their way into his cart and his mouth, more so the latter than the former. A worker in gloves and a hairnet glared at him, somewhere between pity and contempt, but he paid him no mind. If Russell assumed he was a beggar turned to the military, who would begrudge him a feast before he left, now that he could afford it? The sleeve of his jacket was sticky from wiping his face by the time he was sated.

Unsurprisingly, there was no one else in line in front of him. He was confused for a moment before fumbling in his pocket; in a time when a wallet becomes only a habit to hold scant identification and notes, the cash that does accumulate lasts a long time. The drowsy-eyed girl with the forced smile took the grimy and crumpled bills with a roll of her eyes but no verbal complaint.

Russell was filling a rack of candy as he passed. "Hey, you clean up alright, friend. Good luck out there. If you meet a Lieutenant Matthews, tell him to come home in one piece. My daughter misses him." He dropped his box to shove a hand into his apron pocket. "Hey, before you go, take a couple of these. Hand 'em out when when you get stationed." He took Jim's hand, pressed a few metal objects into it, and patted the back.

"Wh--Oh! Yeah, alright, Russ. Take care." He looked down to his hand. Pins. Tiny brass flags, the familiar flag with the blue star on a field of red and white stripes, emblazoned with "In our hearts and thoughts."

Jim stopped just inside the door to stuff what he could into his pockets. His ears tuned back into the radio.

"...launched only hours ago, without warning to or approval from NATO. Senator, wh--"

"Idiocy! Almost an outright act of war, to do this!"

"Sir, these are some of the most populous countries in the world, representing the most heavily populated areas, surely they are only listening to their citizens' demands."

"But NATO has had a committee working on this for six months, ready to launch! China, India, Korea You mean to tell me they could have missiles armed and aimed in a week? The Smith-Komo Meteor-

"Asteroid, senator."

The door 'shhup'ed open smoothly and Jim walked through, pushing the squeaking cart in front of him. He would transfer the rest to his pack once he got back to the edge of the plaza.

"Asteroid, whatever--we cannot mess this up! Its gravity skewed Deimos' orbit when it passed Mars! And now we have to wait, to calculate compensation for their unauthorized attempts to play the heroes!"

"Really, at this point, sir, what's the worst that can happen?"

He stopped walking. He remembered this.

"At best, they succeed. At worst, they alter its course toward us."

Two of India's missiles had missed. China's had not. But they came from the wrong angle, and sent a twenty-seven-kilometer asteroid into a spin, slinging the contents of its intermittent tail and volatile debris toward the planet. The first source of that shimmering, abrasive blue-black dust that spread through wind and clouds for years to come.

"And we still have to wait until they get there, or risk our own attempts failing. By then, it might be too late to deflect the asteroid, and destroying it could only fracture it."

James looked back out over the parking lot. Glare from windshields contrasted sharply against the rusting steel bulks, resting tireless on the pavement. No few of them had succumbed to the flora growing through the cracks, utilizing vehicles to climb higher to sunlight and giving them a nearly organic appearance.

"The fragments could do anything at that point. They could sling around the planet, or fall straight to the ocean and cause something akin to a tsunami. A strike at Antarctica could raise the sea level. I don't think I even need to say what could happen if a meteor, trailing the fallout from nuclear armament, struck at Beijing, or Tokyo, or... or DC or New York, or..."

Or Lake Michigan.

"Christ, Russ, why--" Concerned about anyone that would keep recordings from so close to the impact, Jim had spun on his heels to confront--

The door, dusty and corroded, hung open and crooked in its track.

No chromed carts. No shining lights off gleaming tiles.

"...AMES! JAMES, are you there?" Static, almost unnoticeable white noise, had finally abandoned his radio to give way to the voice from the other end. Tracy almost sounded more aggravated than worried.

One hand grabbed the radio. The other, confused and panicked, shoved into his pocket. He still had the pins, and pulled a couple free. "Y-yeah! Yeah, I'm here." The clearcoat was crumbled; red, white and blue lacquer chipped away to be replaced by the greens of corroded brass. He turned his gaze back to his cart.

"Jesus, Jim... did you at least find anything?" He was already picking through the cart. Crumbled labels and leaking lids identified pickle jars. Most of the cans sported dents or had ballooned from within. Boxes had holes from mold or rodents. Bread had turned into bags of dust and the husks of long-dead moths. The fruit didn't even bear a second glance.

He felt nauseous. He hoped fervently that it was because of the shock, not from his earlier feast. The surplus was still in his pockets. The new filter on his mask was faded and scuffed, but still sealed. The blades for the razor had been oiled well.

"I... Yeah, I think I got a few things. I'll be back soon." Little enough that he could empty his pockets and no longer needed the cart to carry it all. His pack would have more than enough room.

Curiosity stopped him before he went on. He turned back to the door. "Russ?"

He laid a hand on the crooked door to lean in "Russ!" The inside was covered in dust. The shelves were bare and falling, with rotten or desiccated food strewn the about aisles by previous frustrated searches or passing wildlife. The closet thing to a person was that mannequin, with its sandwich board vandalized, its plastic rifle and attached arm cast into the corner. Someone had taken its fatigue jacket and jokingly replaced it with a T-shirt. "Wibbleton's on the home front - In our hearts and thoughts."

His answer came only from the rustle of long grasses and a mannequin's one-armed salute.
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Old 10-16-2012, 11:23 AM   #20 (permalink)
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That's it, CLOSED!! Thanks for writing guys!
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