Welcome to the third of twelve short stories. For those who don’t know, this year my New Years resolution was to write twelve short stories, one each month, then post the story on my blog on the last Wednesday of the month. So with that being said, enjoy!
The projectile hurtled toward him with fatal speed, filling the air with an eerie whistling.
A second later a scorching blast of heat sent him flying. The world rumbled and roared, shades of brown spinning around his head. He hit the floor hard, rolling end over end until he found himself flat on his back. With a groan, he managed to glance at the entrance. It was now blocked by fallen rock.
Fuck, Sherman Morris thought to himself.
After catching his breath he picked himself up off the rocky ground and dusted off his dark brown jacket. Taking stock of the situation, he knew it wasn’t good. Even just looking at the rubble told him he wouldn’t be able to clear it with his bare hands.
“Oh, you’re still alive,” a flat voice said.
Sherman turned in the direction of the voice. Leaning against one of the metal arches that held up the tunnel was an older man who looked to be in his forties. He was plainly dressed: a ragged brown jacket covered a old gray shirt and faded blue pants. He had bright green eyes, brown hair, and a thin beard coated in dust. His lips were dry and chapped. He held a hand against his chest, holding in the blood from where he’d been shot. An ugly scar marred the back of his wrist, traces of an ancient wound.
By contrast, Sherman was young, in his late twenties. He had dark brown eyes, reddish hair that had been combed back, and a round, clean-shaven face. Underneath his jacket was a military uniform, desert camouflage. On his back he carried a small black assault rifle and a green pack. He raised a hand to his neck and fidgeted with the silver cross that hung there at all times.
“You gonna do something? Or are you just gonna sit there and stare at me all day,” the older man asked.
Sherman didn’t reply. As he walked toward the man, his black military boots clicking against the ground, he took in their surroundings.
They had taken shelter in an old, abandoned mine. To their left, the tunnel ended in a solid rock wall that had been carved out and completely stripped of pyronium. To their right, the tunnel led to an old elevator shaft which took people deeper into the mine. From the looks of things, the elevator was no longer powered. But that didn’t matter. The only way in and out of the mine was now blocked.
After a moment he knelt down next to the man, laying his assault rifle and pack against the wall.
“I need to take a look at your wound,” he said.
The older man took his hand away with a grimace. The wound didn’t look that large but it was bleeding quite a bit, which meant that the bullet had probably nicked an artery.
“Let me look at your back,” Sherman said as he pulled the man forward. “Shit,” he muttered after a moment. “No exit wound.”
The man coughed as he leaned back against the metal arch. “Well that’s just great.”
“That means the bullet’s still inside you and we need to get it out as soon as possible,” Sherman explained.
“No fuckin’ shit,” the man replied. There was a brief silence. “Well? Are you gonna dig it out or just let it rattle around in there?”
Sherman looked around. He noticed the faint light glinting off of something near the old elevator. When he walked closer he found an old, rusted workbench with a gray toolbox sitting on top. Dust flew off the latch as Sherman popped the box open, making him cough. He didn’t see anything of use at first: just a plasma torch, a couple of screwdrivers, and some gel for making explosives. But then his eyes landed on a miniature, dusty pair of pliers. Sherman snatched them up and made his way back down the tunnel.
The man gazed at the pliers and gave him a doubtful look. Sherman grabbed the canteen hanging off the side of his pack, unscrewed the lid, and doused the end of the pliers with water.
“Really? You think that’s going to sanitize it?”
“Would you rather I stick a pair of dusty old pliers in your gut,” Sherman asked. The man fell silent, looking down at his chest and groaning. Sherman dried the pliers off on his jacket.
“This is gonna hurt,” he said, looking the man in the eyes.
“Just do it already.”
From the moment he dug the pliers in, the man’s pained howls rang in his ears. It was difficult finding the bullet. The pliers slid around, making sickening squelching noises as it went. An eternity passed before he managed to get a grip on the bullet. Once he did, Sherman pulled the pliers out as fast as he could. A hunk of crumpled brass, stained with crimson blood, glistened on the end. He pulled it off and tossed it aside. It clinked against the rocky floor as it rolled into the darkness.
“Argh…fuck,” the man cursed. “You couldn’t have made that a little less painful?”
“Would it kill you to have some gratitude,” Sherman asked, irritated.
“Ha! If only.”
Outside, the desert winds howled. Sherman cast his eyes up above and saw cracks in the rock where sunlight peered in. It was still around late morning from what he could tell. Although because of Otho’s orbit days were shorter than on Earth, which meant that nighttime was only a few hours away.
“Why were they shooting at you,” he asked.
“Why do you think?”
“I can’t believe Otho Prima would try to kill one of their own.”
The man turned his head toward Sherman, a stern look in his eyes.
“Are you really that goddamn naive? Of course Otho Prima would kill one of their own. They’ve been doing it since the beginning. Anyone who tries to defect?” He put his fingers to his head and mimed a gunshot. “Boom. Dead.”
“But you weren’t trying to defect. We captured you.”
“And how are they supposed to know I won’t give up information?”
He has a point, Sherman admitted to himself. The man had stabilized a little bit, although his face was still pallid and sweaty. His breathing was heavy and his hand was firmly clasped to his chest. After a moment, Sherman took off his jacket.
“Here,” he said, offering it to the man. “Use this to help stop the bleeding.”
The man hesitated, but eventually took the clothing and tucked it under his arm. He looked up at Sherman.
“Thanks kid,” he said.
With his jacket off, the silver cross around Sherman’s neck was on full display. The man’s eyes flicked to it and he nodded.
“You a believer?”
“Born and raised,” Sherman replied, feeling a swelling of pride.
“That’s good for you,” the man responded, his voice flat. He turned his attention away from the cross and stared at the cave-in. Sherman studied him for a moment.
“You used to believe, didn’t you?”
“I did,” the man replied. “Once upon a time.”
“Let’s just say that if God exists he’s an asshole and I want nothing to do with him.”
After a long time the wind died down. The sun sat high in the sky, shafts of light spilling in from the cracks in the rocks.
The man hadn’t said anything for over an hour. He leaned back against the wall in silence, applying pressure to his wound with the jacket. His green eyes never wandered. They stared straight ahead, dull and distant.
Sherman tried using his radio to call for help but got nothing aside from static. He figured it had either been damaged in the blast or the rocks were blocking the signal. The gel he found might be able to blow open a hole big enough to escape, but he lacked the other materials necessary to make an explosive.
No…they were stuck here for the time being.
“What’s your name,” Sherman asked.
The man didn’t move or reply.
“I’m Sherman. Sherman Morris.”
No response. He sighed.
“Look, we’re gonna be here for a while,” he said. “Might as well get to know each other. All I have is your code name: Ares.”
The man laughed.
“The Greek god of war,” he said. “The OP certainly have a flair for the dramatic.”
“How does someone like you end up with them,” Sherman asked. “You don’t seem like the type.”
“And what type would that be,” the man asked, turning and giving him a hard look.
“Fanatic? Anarchist? Terrorist?”
Sherman didn’t reply. The man scoffed.
“Figures. I know your type: naive, full of ideas about duty and patriotism. Let me guess…you saw those holoboards every day you went to school, their screens chock full of glowing images of Earth and people in uniform. ‘Join today,’ they said. ‘Help protect humanity’. And then when you graduated you strolled into the recruitment office believing every word.”
“So you used to live on Earth then,” Sherman said, ignoring the man’s snide comments.
“Ha…well you’re persistent, I’ll give you that.”
The man turned and looked him over. For a moment, Sherman thought he saw a glimmer of respect in those old, hardened eyes.
“The name’s Weston…Weston Harper.”
“Nice to meet you Weston.”
“We’re sitting in an old, caved-in mine. I’ve been shot and I’m slowly bleeding out. There’s no rescue coming in the foreseeable future…I’d hardly call this ‘nice’.”
Sherman thought he heard a brief rustling outside and snapped his head up, military instinct going wild. But it was just the wind. During the silence that followed, his eyes were drawn to the scar on the back of Weston’s hand.
“How’d that happen,” he asked, pointing to it.
“What, this old thing,” Weston asked, lifting his hand up. “Factory accident…long time ago. Back on Earth I used to help make spaceship parts for military and commercial use. Or I guess I should say that I oversaw the robots that did most of the work. I only got my hands dirty if something went wrong.”
“From your scar, I’m guessing that something went wrong.”
“Nice work detective,” Weston remarked in a mocking tone. “But yes, one day one of the robots on the line malfunctioned and couldn’t shut off its plasma torch. So I went down there to take a look. But when I got close the robot suddenly whirled around toward me. I threw up my hands to shield my face and the torch caught the back of my wrist. I don’t know if you’ve ever been burned by a plasma torch, but it’s not pretty. It can tear right through your flesh and down to the bone. Fortunately it only lasted for a second or two before someone managed to pull the breaker and shut everything down.” He looked down at the scar. “But it was enough.”
“So…did you quit after that,” Sherman asked.
“Hell no. I loved that job,” he replied.
“Then how did you end up here?”
“Not by choice kid. I think it was about three or four years after the accident. There was this bunch of corporate shakeups…companies merging…acquiring each other…that kind of thing. Powerful people playing powerful games. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s that when powerful people play games the people in the middle? Saps like you and me? We’re the ones that get screwed.”
“The factory closed down and you were laid off.”
“Bingo. Automation was getting better and better and they needed less and less people. Our factory was just one of the casualties that year.”
“Couldn’t you just find another job,” Sherman asked.
“You think I didn’t try? I scouted month after month for almost a year, but nothing permanent ever turned up. Thank god for temporary work.”
Weston sighed again.
“My wife, Sonja…she kept telling me it would be fine, that I would find something eventually. But even she had doubts. I could see it in her eyes…her lovely blue eyes…”
Weston’s eyes glazed over and he trailed off.
“How did you end up on Otho,” Sherman asked.
“I had been through so many help ads and other bullshit…I even tried writing my Statesman but you know how politicians are. They don’t even bother to send back a real letter…just some uniform shit thanking you for writing in. I heard about Otho shortly after the huge pyronium discovery.”
“When they broke into that massive, natural cavern?”
“That’s the one.”
“Man…that was over ten years ago. I remember hearing about it when I was still in high school. People were excited.”
“And why wouldn’t they be? More pyronium meant more jobs, more money, and more power for spaceships and other technology those rich, well-off schlubs depended on. It took some time to convince Sonja, but eventually she saw that it was in the best interest for both her and Benny.”
“Yeah my son, Benny. Such a hyperactive boy, but then again who isn’t when they’re a kid?”
“Yeah,” Sherman agreed with a laugh.
“So we made our way out here,” Weston continued. “Bought a house in a small, developing town and I got to work in the mines. It was good money for a while.”
“Why do I sense a ‘but’ coming?”
“Because all good things must come to an end. It’s funny…I left Earth to get away from all the political bullshit.”
Weston’s eyes went dark.
“But eventually, I found myself drowning in it.”
The day was late. The sun had slunk down to the other side of the sky and shafts of light no longer streamed in to their underground prison. Sherman took his eyes away from the rocky ceiling and turned them back on Weston. It was obvious the fever was getting worse, but with no medical supplies there was little Sherman could do to alleviate the pain.
He tried the radio every half hour but it refused to work. They would just have to wait for someone to come looking.
“Do you remember when the revolts started,” Sherman asked.
“Of course I do. I was living here after all.”
“What happened? What started it?”
Weston let out a short laugh.
“Tryin’ to keep me talking, eh kid? Okay…I’ll play along,” he said with a groan as he shifted position. “It all started with the taxes.”
“The import taxes?”
“Yep. Earth started taxing anything the colonists tried to bring in. Which was a problem because they depended on those imports to survive. The massive surge of people moving in after that pyronium find meant that the planet’s food and water supply just couldn’t keep up.”
“Why did the government start taxing you?”
“They thought we were getting too rich off the pyronium mining. We weren’t, but who’s going to tell ’em any different? They saw an opportunity to make money, and the people of Earth were more than happy to gobble up the story about well-off Othians making the big bucks.”
“But I’ve heard there’s a lot of money in pyronium.”
“Oh there is, but we hardly got any of it. No…the corporations saw to that. They squeezed us out of every damn nickel and dime they possibly could. Before long most of us were barely making enough to get by. If it wasn’t for some enterprising Othians streamlining our insulated greenhouses with genetically modified crops, we’d all either be bankrupt or starving.”
Weston shifted position with a pained groan.
“But yeah, it started with the taxes. And they kept getting worse and worse. It was really only a matter of time before the pirates came about.”
“I’ve read about them,” Sherman said. “They would attack cargo ships and steal their contents, then sell it to the colonists at a reduced price.”
“Yeah it all sounded great…until you realized it was a scam. The prices the pirates were selling stuff at…it was the difference between paying ninety-five cents instead of a dollar. But it was all we had. And our collusion with the pirates made Earth angry.”
“So they sent in the military.”
“Oh yeah they did…and they swarmed the planet looking for the pirates. They assaulted people, stormed houses and businesses…anything to get the information they wanted. These were the kind of guys who could make children cry and not give a fuck.”
“But there are rules barring the mistreatment of children and non-combatants.”
“Were you here kid? No, you weren’t. Don’t talk about things you don’t understand.”
“But nothing. All the way out here? Those rules mean very little. I remember those days…they came up to me at work several times demanding information. And every time, I had nothing to give them. But to the EM, we were all potential suspects. One of them actually rifle-butted me in the eye once. Stung for a week.”
“Did you file a complaint?”
“With who? The Earth government didn’t give a damn. In their eyes we were all in bed with terrorists. No…it was better to just keep your head down and stay out of the way. Eventually the military tracked the pirates to an old, abandoned asteroid mining facility they’d re-purposed.”
“I remember seeing the news reports. The pirates fired upon the military, forcing them to shoot back. Eventually the facility was destroyed by all the fighting,” Sherman said.
“Wow…people really swallowed the pill on that one didn’t they?”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh the pirates fired on them all right. But that was only after the nuke was launched.”
“Wait…they nuked the place?” Sherman was in disbelief. “No way.”
“Oh they nuked it all right…blasted that fucker into stardust. Then they suppressed all knowledge of the incident and Earth was none the wiser. If anyone ever tried to pry into it, they cited security concerns and kept the information confidential. That’s the government for you…miles of red tape.”
“But what about the Liberation Party,” Sherman asked. “They helped with the pirates right?”
“That part was true,” Weston confirmed. “They were the ones that supplied the military with the location of the pirate base.”
“Who were they?”
“Just a band of determined colonists who believed that a free Otho, existing in peaceful cooperation with Earth, was the only way to go. In exchange for the information on the pirates’ location they were promised that Otho would be free to do as it wished. It was only later they found out it was all bullshit.”
“That was when they instituted martial law, wasn’t it?”
“Yes sir,” Weston said. “The military took over running the government because supposedly we were too dangerous to rule ourselves.”
“That pissed a lot of people off I imagine,” Sherman said.
“Hell yeah it did. There were protests in the streets almost every day, some of them even escalating into riots.”
“Did you join them?”
“I thought about it. But then the Woodhurst Massacre happened.”
“Yeah. The military and protesters met in the town square of Woodhurst and traded words. Eventually someone threw a stone or fired a shot…no one knows for sure. But everything went to shit. Once the gunfire and smoke had cleared, over three dozen people were dead.”
“Jesus,” Sherman said, fiddling with the cross on his neck.
“You know, my wife made me something like that once.”
“Hmm? You mean this cross?”
“Yeah…one of her hobbies. Back on Earth she loved making jewelry. One day I came home from the factory and she presented me with this golden cross covered in tiny red gemstones…beautiful little thing. She told me she’d spent weeks perfecting it. Of course it wasn’t really gold but you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference.”
“Where is it now?”
“Oh…I lost it a long time ago,” he said, averting his eyes. Sherman could tell there was more to the story, but decided not to push it.
“Anyways…where was I,” Weston asked.
“You had just finished talking about Woodhurst.”
“Oh yeah yeah…well after Woodhurst the Liberation Party sent out a call for peace talks with the Earth government. From my understanding they demanded that Otho be a free colony. Otherwise, they argued, something like this was bound to happen again. And Earth, still reeling from the disaster, was forced to agree. So the Liberation Party was placed into power and they did their best to ensure that Otho was treated fairly and respectfully.”
“Sounds like a golden age,” Sherman said.
“It kinda was,” Weston agreed. “Things were good for a while. People had money in their pockets. We had food and water and all sorts of stuff. Everyone was happy.”
“So what happened? Where is the Liberation Party now?”
“Oh they’re still in power,” he said. “Although their name has changed along with their tactics.”
It took a moment to hit Sherman. But when it did, his mind reeled.
“No way,” he exclaimed. “No fucking way.”
“Yep,” Weston said, looking Sherman right in the eye. “The Liberation Party and Otho Prima? One and the same.”
“But why…how? How does a group of concerned citizens transform into a bunch of-“
“Crazed fanatics? Dictators?”
“Well I wasn’t going to say that.”
“Yeah you were,” Weston said. “And you’d be absolutely right. They’re a bunch of crazed totalitarian shitheads.”
“You know that old saying, the one about the corruption of absolute power?” Sherman nodded. “Well that’s exactly what happened. They got a taste of it and liked it so much they kept going and going. And then one day they woke up, looked in the mirror, and realized it was too late to turn back.”
The sun fell below the horizon and darkness reigned supreme. The land was permeated by the shadow of night.
Sherman fired up two large, blue glow sticks, clipping one to his belt and setting the other one on the ground nearby. Even under the surreal blue light Sherman could tell Weston was still pallid and weak. Each breath came as a struggle, quivering and raw.
Digging into his pack, Sherman found a blanket and draped it over him as best he could. Weston took hold of the blanket and nodded.
“Why did you join,” Sherman asked.
Weston didn’t reply. Instead he lifted his quaking eyes toward the ceiling, as if trying to find any trace of the stars. But the tiny cracks in the rock walls weren’t enough to allow a glimpse of the cosmos.
“Weston?” No answer. “Why did you join?”
“Being a parent is tough, you know?”
“I know,” he admitted. “I have a wife and a two-year-old back home.”
“Let me tell you, it never gets easier…just different. But despite that, I could never do anything but love Benny. One year, for his birthday, we decided to surprise him with this new virtual reality video game thing he’d been wanting. It took six months of saving money from the mines, but it was worth it…just to see his face light up after he tore off the wrapping paper. And man…you should’ve seen him…he’s thanking me and Sonja and giving us kisses and just bouncin’ up and down right there in the kitchen…”
Weston paused and laughed, wiping away a tear.
“So anyways, he takes the thing and he’s running upstairs to play it. We expected him to come asking us for help setting it up, but no…does it all by himself. That’s the thing with kids, you know? They’re way more clever than you’ll ever give ’em credit for.”
Sherman had to chuckle. But then the smile faded from Weston’s face.
“About three hours later, there’s a knock at the door. Sonja goes to open it. And suddenly, there’s five armed soldiers storming into the house. One of them shoves Sonja aside so hard she falls to the floor. I jump up from my chair, ready to fight but another shoves his rifle into my gut, knocking the wind out of me.”
“They were Earth Military, weren’t they?”
“Yes sir, Earth’s proudest and finest,” Weston snarled, his voice full of sarcastic venom. “So while three of them are keeping me and Sonja under control, the other two are ransacking the place. The man in charge, some jackass named Griffin, explains that they heard we were housing spies for Otho Prima. We weren’t of course, but try telling them that.”
Weston paused. His eyes were far away…lost in time.
“I notice one of them heading up the stairs. Of course my first thought is of my son, who probably has no idea what’s going on because of that headset he’s wearing. I jump up from my seat, startling the three men around us. ‘Don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him’, I start begging, practically tearing up in front of ’em. Griffin, the commander, just cocks his head and stares at me. By the time he realizes what’s going on, it’s too late. His man has entered my son’s room and the next thing we hear is yelling and a loud crash.”
“I knew before I even heard the crying,” Weston continued. “They had broken his new favorite toy. They had destroyed the birthday present we had given to him just hours before. All that toiling in the mines…wasted because of one moment and one jackass.”
Weston paused before he continued, taking a deep, shaky breath.
“They left after that. Griffin, for as much of an asshole as he was, actually reprimands the guy who broke my son’s video game. But when I tell him I’m going to file a complaint with the government he gives me this look that says ‘try me’. He and I both knew nothing would come of it, that no one would take my word over his. So they leave in their shuttle, probably to go back to their cushy little lives. Meanwhile Sonja trudges up to Benny’s room and sits there comforting him. Later, when she comes back down, she tells me he cried himself to sleep…poor kid. No twelve year-old deserves that.”
Sherman nodded in agreement. Suddenly, Weston’s voice dropped to a sinister monotone.
“Hour and a half later, someone else breaks down the door…Otho Prima. They demand to know what we told the EM. ‘Nothing you assholes,’ I yell at them. And it’s the truth. But they keep demanding answers. And when I keep refusing, the man in charge points to one of the soldiers and motions him upstairs.”
“And this solider…oh he rushes up the stairs with this demented excitement in his eyes…”
“He jogs down the hallway, right up to my son’s door. He’s about to enter when the commander orders him to stop. The commander turns, looks me right in the eye, and tells me it’s my last chance. And I’m sitting there, begging and pleading, screaming over and over again that we told them nothing…that we know nothing….”
“Why?!” Weston’s eyes snapped toward Sherman, full of fiery malice. “Why do you want me to stop?! Because you know exactly what happened don’t you kid?! Because you and that piece of shit fraternity you call a military know the lengths the OP go to curb resistance and you don’t do a fucking thing about it!“
Sherman averted his eyes. He had nothing to say. How could he? Of course he knew about it. It was common knowledge. It was even part of the propaganda the military used to recruit people.
Weston scoffed. “You’re all so damn blind. It’s just black and white to you, good and evil. You don’t see the people caught in between, the people who suffer because you can’t see beyond your pointless ideology.”
Sherman summoned the courage to lift his head up. But Weston was no longer looking at him. Instead he was staring off into space…his eyes shaking and his lips quivering. He’s reliving the pain of that night, Sherman thought, over and over again like his own personal nightmare.
Weston took a deep breath and managed to calm himself.
“One tiny ‘POP’, and we know it’s done. He’s gone…Benny’s gone…forever.” He turned and looked at Sherman. “I didn’t get angry. I didn’t lash out. I just…sat there…my entire body numb. Have you ever felt anything like that?”
Sherman shook his head.
“It’s the craziest thing. Your arms and legs turn to jelly. Your body feels like it weighs ten times what it should. It’s like you’re…drained…like every bit of energy has been taken from you…”
Weston bit his lip before he continued.
“Sonja, on the other hand, gets fuckin’ pissed. She stands up and takes a swing at one of the soldiers, screaming ‘you killed my boy, you killed my boy!’ Two of them level their guns on her, ready to fire. And they would have. They would have shot her right there in cold blood. But I begged them to stop, told them I would do anything.”
“I promised I would fight for the OP. One week later, I was shipping off to an OP boot camp.”
Outside, the wind picked up for a brief moment, an eerie howl sweeping across the desert like distant crying.
“That’s why you joined,” Sherman said, his voice barely audible. “You’re fighting to keep your wife alive.”
“Sonja?” Weston chuckled. “No…they put a bullet in her head ten minutes after I shipped out.”
Sherman’s eyes went wide.
“They couldn’t take the chance that she would seek revenge. They saw how fired up she was, how willing she was to take them on. They saw the anger in her eyes, so they killed her. I found out from one of my squadmates three months later. He overhead a conversation between two commanding officers. And that was it. I had nothing left.”
Neither of them spoke for a long time. The only sound was the keening wind whirling through the landscape. Sherman felt like a stone had sunk in his chest. He stared at the ground, playing with the silver cross around his neck.
He heard Weston laugh.
“What’s so funny,” he asked, raising his head.
“Oh nothing…it’s just…you remind me of me back in the day, back when I still had that golden cross. I was always fidgeting with it…couldn’t keep my hands off the damn thing.”
“What really happened to it? You didn’t just lose it.”
“After Benny died I kept it in the front pocket of my jacket, right next to my heart. Then the night I learned about Sonja’s death, I hurled the damn thing as hard as I could into the desert.”
Weston’s voice grew somber.
“I bet it will still be rotting out there long after I’m dead…long after we’ve all turned to dust…”
It was the dead of night…no wind or light. The world was silent.
Weston grew worse and worse as time went on. His face was white and his hands wouldn’t stop shaking. Sherman could tell he was having trouble keeping his eyes open.
“Hey,” he said, shaking him. “You have to stay awake.”
“Urgh…I’ve been awake for so long. Isn’t it about time I got to sleep?”
“Why did you stay with Otho Prima,” Sherman asked. “After what they did to you it’s not like you owe them any favors. You could have gone to the Earth Military and fought back.”
“Oh wouldn’t that be grand,” Weston replied sarcastically. “Become the glorious hero of the Othians, beat back the tyranny of Otho Prima. Maybe I’d even get a medal.” He scoffed. “Then I’d be forgotten, left to wallow in misery, my wife and kid gone. It doesn’t matter. None of it fuckin’ matters.”
“So why did you stay?”
“I guess,” Weston said, “I figured it would be an easy way to die.”
Sherman felt a lump in his throat and averted his eyes.
“I was too much of a coward to do it myself so I figured that if I marched headlong into battle, eventually I’d catch a bullet or two,” Weston continued, not paying Sherman any notice. “But it never happened. Victory after victory passed and I kept getting promoted. Eventually I made it all the way up to commander. Funny, isn’t it? I was the same rank as the man who ordered my son’s death.”
“What happened to him,” Sherman asked.
“The OP commander? Heard he got caught in a grenade blast. Died choking on his own blood after hours of suffering.” Weston shrugged. “Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving prick.”
And in his heart, Sherman found that he couldn’t agree more.
“So I kept fighting and fighting, hoping somewhere deep inside that my next fight would be my last.”
“You were hoping to die so that you could rejoin your family,” Sherman mused.
Weston just laughed, a choking and sputtering sound.
“Don’t be ridiculous Sherman,” he said. “I’ve stopped believing in an afterlife. I just want everything to be done. I’m tired…so damn tired.”
And in the darkness, Sherman couldn’t help but smile.
“What are you so happy about,” Weston asked.
“You just called me ‘Sherman’.”
“Well, don’t get used to it kid,” he replied. But Sherman could tell he was smiling too.
Hours passed. Light began to rise, a faint pinprick of orange appearing through the rocky cracks.
“Weston, the sun is rising,” Sherman said.
“The sun always rises,” he grumbled.
“Someone will come soon. Hang in there. You can make it.”
“Why? Why would I want to? I’ve lost everything. The only person I have left is my mother, and she’s in a home riddled with dementia.”
Silence fell over them for a long time. Sherman watched as the sun kept rising, the light growing brighter. But it was hard for him to feel good about it. For as the sun rose higher and higher, Weston’s head sunk lower and lower into his chest. The color drained from his face as if the sun was leeching the life out of him.
Sherman shook him awake a few times, but his heart was no longer in it. He had come to Otho on a mission to capture and extract a high value target known only by the code name “Ares”. Ares…god of war…god of the violent and untamed. It seemed fitting for a man who had won victory after military victory by sheer force of will and blitz tactics. But underneath the ominous name was just a man…a sad, broken man.
“Weston, come on, stay awake. They’ll find us soon.”
Weston uttered a weak, coughing laugh.
“You’re an optimist kid…I like that.” Then he sighed. “Goddamn, you should be at home, taking care of your wife and kid…not trudging through the sand on this assfuck of a planet.”
His breathing was slow and erratic. Sherman knew he didn’t have long left.
“What about your mother,” he asked. “What is she going to do once you’re gone?”
“My mother usually thinks I’m her long dead husband, and that’s on a good day.”
“But don’t you want to visit her one last time?”
Weston managed a faint smile.
“And how would I do that kid?”
“I can take you there,” Sherman said. “I can bring you in and let you see her one last time.”
“That’s nice of you…but I’ll pass. The last message I received from the home said that the cancer was spreading faster than expected. They estimated she had at most two weeks left. No…I’d rather have my memories. She was a strong woman…my mother. She didn’t take shit from anybody. I’d rather remember her like that than as a skeleton wrapped up in a hospital blanket.”
They passed the time in silence. The sun continued its glorious ascension, warm light spilling in through the cracks. But Weston continued to fade.
Sherman started to think he was gone when suddenly he spoke up.
“You’re a good kid. Never forget that. Never stop being good…”
And suddenly, the sunlight was shining on one half of Weston’s face, leaving the other wrapped in darkness. Sherman was transfixed, his eyes locked on the seemingly impossible balance of light and shadow.
The light of lights looks always on the motive, not the deed…
An old saying…Sherman couldn’t remember where he had heard it. Some old poet maybe, from more romantic times when life could be summed up in colorful prose. A distant time, when things were simpler.
But nothing was ever simple. Sherman understood that now.
Just as quickly as the light appeared, it faded. Weston’s eyes drooped shut.
He was gone shortly after. The light had taken him…
“We know you’re in there. Come out with your hands up!”
The blast had come about an hour after Weston’s passing, blowing open a hole in the ceiling. Sherman snatched up his rifle and trained the sight on the opening. But no one stepped into view. No…they were too smart for that. A small rope was dropped down the hole from somewhere out of sight.
“You have three minutes! If you don’t come out, we will destroy the tunnel! You will die down there soldier. Be certain of that.”
A minute passed. Then another. Sherman was just about to grab his stuff and climb out of the hole when suddenly there was a new sound: an eerie, unnatural whining. It took Sherman a moment to recognize it. It was a military shuttle.
Seconds later the ground quaked with the sound of an explosion. A pillar of dust reached into the sky like a ghastly, diseased hand.
“Otho Prima, disperse immediately and you will not be fired upon,” an amplified voice announced. “If you resist, we will fire again. And we will not miss.”
There was no hesitation. Sherman heard a lot of rapid scuffling as the OP soldiers left the vicinity. A short time after they left he heard the shuttle land. Footsteps approached, then a new voice shouted into the hole.
“Corporal Morris! It’s safe now! You can climb up!”
Sherman slung the rifle and pack over his shoulder, then grabbed the rope and managed to climb into the sun. Two pairs of hands grabbed him and helped pull him up. He dusted himself off as a man approached him, dressed in a blue commander’s uniform.
The two shook hands. “You did a great job tracking down Ares,” the commander said. “Unfortunately, it seems Prima got to you before we could.”
“What about the rest of your squad?”
“All dead sir…they were taken out in the ambush.”
“Son of a bitch…well thank god you’re still alive.”
Soldiers milled about, cleaning up the aftermath of the ambush from the day before. Sherman noticed one of them carrying an old rocket launcher, caked in dust. Then he saw another couple of men carrying something on a stretcher. When the pale hand flopped out from underneath the sheet, Sherman averted his eyes.
The commander pointed into the hole. “Who’s that,” he asked.
Sherman looked down into the old mine. Weston Harper’s body was still leaning against the metal arch, eyes closed. The light barely illuminated his face.
“Do you have a shovel,” he asked as he turned around.
“A shovel?” The commander was puzzled.
“Yes, a shovel. We should give that man a proper burial.”
“Why? Who exactly was he?”
Sherman took one last glance at Weston’s body.
“Human,” he replied. Then he walked off without so much as another word.
He paused just outside the shuttle, taking the silver cross off his neck and holding it in his hand. For so many years it hung there…a present given to him by his mother. It was an older piece of jewelry that had been handed down through generations. The silver gleamed so bright under Otho’s sun that it was nearly blinding.
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