My breath is warm, like the dry desert of a planet we live on. I should stop drinking nights before campaigns. The photographs of my children, husband, relatives, friends, higher command, and comrades judge me from behind their glass frames. I should start taking sleeping pills and enjoy dreamless nights.
I pick my head up from the trash bin. I press the intercom button and ask for David. Almost as soon as I lift my finger from the spring loaded trigger, a young, 15 year old intern pops his head in through the barrel of the hallway.
“All finished, ma’am?” he asks.
I nod. He finds his way over, picks up the trash bin and pulls out the baggie. I plug my nose. He hums a pleasant tune as he ties the bunny ears together.
He leaves with my mess and comes back with a coffee.
“Another night at the bar, Commander Swanton?” he asks.
I grunt. It could mean yes as much as it could mean no. He accepts the answer regardless. He opens the blinds. Dust rises. I cover my eyes, waiting for the glare to pass. The daylight illuminates the honors, awards, and photographs that hang on the walls.
“What we need is a little rain around here,” says David.
Outside the window, the sun’s gaze strikes the land. The skyscrapers are empty. No cars or pedestrians swarm the main streets. Sand engulfs everything. Reminds me of old photos of winter storms. Sepias from the east coast always had kids playing outside, taking a day off from school. But five feet of sand isn’t as fun.
It’s become too hot to live above ground. Only buildings with cryo-cooling systems have the means to sustain human life. The rest are just husks of the city.
Scientists haven’t found an explanation for the phenomenon. Reports through United World update bulletins conclude that this desert is worldwide. I have my own suspicions. If they are correct, then we are to blame. So, I keep my mouth shut. After all, the world is paved in gold now. Isn’t that the dream of men?
“Your shuttle to the warcraft is ready, ma’am,” says David, “I’ll leave you to your final preparations.”
He takes a bow. The sound of his whistling is replaced by a silence. Where have I heard that song before?
My photogenic loved ones look down on me, this time with more enthusiasm. My achievements and awards give them a voice, expressing gratitude. Smiling to me, they wish me luck.
Today’s target. The main point on the dossier is bolded and highlighted, reading: ‘Responsible for the innate nature of human children. Possible manipulation on a mass scale.’
* * *
You are floating in nothing.
Everything you are experiencing now is cut-off from outside perceptions. You cannot taste, touch, hear, smell, or see. These ideas no longer make sense to you. You have no body to allow you to process them.
However, you do experience memories. It’s inaccurate to say that you can “see” them in the traditional sense (after all, most of your mind melted in the crash). But you know they happened and that is how you experience emotion.
Your know that you are Lieutenant Timothy Crosby. You understand that you are simply existing and nothing more.
Some memories, usually the earlier ones involving your wife, fill you with what you remember as warmth, comfort. The feeling of gentle flight and the capacity to touch the sun brings expectations of idealist hope that anything can and will be achieved.
Others, usually the ones involving your school days, cook that warmth into an intense heat. You can remember bullies picking on you for your size, acne, and other petty things. You can remember putting up a good fight (those punches sent shockwaves up your spine and sent adrenaline highs to the peak of your brain). But you were always bested.
Father never approved of these skirmishes. After several beatings (reasonable punishments), he always gave the same speech.
“Why would you waste your energy on those pieces of civilian trash?” he would say between mechanical measures of scotch.
“If you have a burning hatred for a man who is lower than yourself, hold that anger. Bury it. Let it build. Don’t let him know that you are harboring those feelings. It’s going to be your secret weapon that you mask with a friendly face. By the time you are ready to face a real enemy, draw out that hatred and let it boil your blood. That’s the Crosby way.”
* * *
It’s nearly dawn when Private Andrew Miller finally reaches the front of the line. The air is still while the sun bakes the sand, cooking his toes. Sweat melts his skin and socks together. What he really wishes for is rain, but it has been years since he has seen grey clouds with white flashes, heard crackling light with tapping raindrops, or touched liquid showers from the forces above. Another trip into space. Enough of this desert.
“This your third campaign is that correct?” asks the recruitment officer, taking his I.D.
“By signing this,” he says as he hands Miller a tablet, “you are accepting any possible injuries that may or may not befall upon you during this trip. Possibility of death is a guarantee and the UW is not responsible for you while you are in combat.”
Miller clicks his finger like a switchblade, barely letting the officer finish. He carves his signature across the screen, then hands the tablet back to the officer. None of the fine print will matter once Miller is among the stars, returning to the cosmic land which he, as well as everyone else, had once come from. Once there, he can focus on the joy of universal indifference, with no boss to threaten layoffs and no family to remind him of his short comings.
“It says here that during the last campaign, you reached a kill count of forty targets. Congratulations. You have made it to Private First Class.” The officer pulls a patch out of a drawer and hands it to Andrew.
Andrew takes his earned keep and heads for the equipment bunker.
Behind him, he can hear the booth closing, turning away a crowd of eager candidates. Some sulk away, to their dead end jobs, dead end wives, dead end children, dead end affairs, and their dead end lives. Many are yelling. Miller can see them spit at the guards, each drop like rabies.
Miller finds his way to the armory dressed in posters and holo-screens. There are highlights of the last campaign, where the UW successfully hunted down a Mountain-class creature in the last snow mountain in the Nordic lands.
“One of our best catches yet,” says an elderly soldier.
“And to think that there was once a time when we would be running for our lives when they came into our settlements.”
Several individuals are featured for honorary service for categories such as “highest kill count” and “most unique survival tactics.” These men stand proudly with their trophies in hand. One officer, small in stature with a mousy face, has been awarded “most kills with a single explosive” with a body count of thirteen. His smile marks achievements, small contributions to the hunting of Gods, a step forward for mankind.
Above all else, a UW flag hangs high. ‘United, we shall make this World ours.’
While choosing his gear, he sees Steven, a neighborhood boy that lives across his street. He is dressed in a dirt stained wife-beater too large for him. No older than Jeffrey, probably around eighteen, his legs are shaking.
“First time?” asks Miller.
“Impatient. My older brother told me I need to experience this at least once.”
His brother is right. There is truly nothing like the call of battle. Even now, Miller can hear the beginnings of his own personal symphony: a small beat pumping his blood.
To Be Continued in Part Two…
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