The taxi pulled up outside the old city and disgorged the five of us. After pressing a few bills into the driver’s hands we walked quickly through the archway into the maze of alleys and streets inside. It was to be our last liberty before the off, and I knew that the other four were going to make the most of it. Technically the whole area was off limits but no-one really enforced that rule for the last one earthside. Chances were for alot of the guys it was the last one, period. Most usually went the whole hog, not infrequently being poured back to base from inside a rust lined cell courtesy of the city’s finest, and it seemed that everyone took the whole ritual in stride as a thing to be humored and tolerated.
This was our last time, a few hours of freedom. I looked out of place with my four compatriots as we strode down the boulevard, lolitas and sirens calling from open doorways, tousled locks and tattoos bouncing. The old man of the group at thirty one, I was also ten centimeters shorter and ten to fifteen wider across the shoulders which at times has not been too slight a disadvantage. The oldest of them was twenty two, in the camp the nearest to me being twenty five, so it was perhaps unusual that I had been adopted by these four. Or maybe not. Tonight I was their chaperone, their guardian angel, keeping their money, my head and sobriety while they continued on their way. They stood out in their scarlet trimmed indigo blue uniforms, caps lofted at a rakish angle and boots mirroring the street lights; I blended into the background in my civvies and scuffed shoes, virtually hidden in their middle. Coming to the central plaza we stopped and I handed them their first tranche of the night’s money, enough for their first two hours, and we split up noting to meet again at the plaza. Although hungry, they preferred their first meal to be taken horizontally which for me was not an option, so I headed for a small brasserie across the way for some proper nourishment.
First impressions are seldom wrong, and I felt at home once I walked in the door and nearly choked on the acrid cigarette smoke hanging below the ceiling. Finding a stool unoccupied against the far end of the bar, I laid my money down and signaled for a beer, the barmaid wallowing over and placing a nearly clean glass in front of me. I pushed a bill towards her. She went to pick it up, but she saw the signet ring.
“Going or back?” she grunted, cocking her head at my ring finger.
“Going. Four a.m. tomorrow” I replied.
She smiled, front teeth tarred and stained, and pushed my money back to me with a huge paw. “Wont need that for a while. Lost them” with which she jerked a thumb at a framed photo of two fresh faced kids hanging on the back wall “two years ago today on Five. Just remember.”
I raised my glass in the picture’s direction. “Jets”.
She wiped a small tear from her eye with a corner of her stained apron. “Yeah, Jets”.
I wont say I was depressed, I don’t get the dumps anyway, I’ve had too much shit in my life to worry like that, but I was in what I refer to as my ‘Sunday afternoon in the rain before Monday at work’ mood – a flatness that is neither here nor there. The brasserie and I were a type then, perfectly in step with each other.
A sirloin and a beer steadied my mood a little bit, and I pulled out my photo of Cyn and propped it up against the empty glass which, to my lessening surprise, was filled again. Married four years, first child two months away, this small furlough was not long enough to get me across to Shepparton no matter how I went about it. When I had called to let her know I was off she was out at her painting class. I must have looked pathetic on the answering machine, even the house who I had programmed with the Danny DeVito optional personality type appeared genuinely upset with the news, the cat promising to be on its best behavior while I was away. I’ve never really trusted cats, and it was on our bed preening itself when it said so, so I am not sure. Anyway, it’s Cyn’s problem now not mine.
The place was slowly starting to fill and I was wondering if I should move on, when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to see a shrunken old man leaning on a cane and pointing with his free hand to the stool next to me. “Excuse me” he started, “is this seat taken?”
I smiled. “No”, generous as always with what’s not mine, “feel free. Can I buy you a drink?” especially as they were on the house.
“No, thank you,” with which two beers appeared as if by magic in front of us, “but I would like to offer you one.”
I thanked him and as I did so noticed that he was not so much as old as worn out. I put him at my age plus about ten or so years, but the stoop of his shoulders and thin, greying hair gave a first impression of a person seventy or so years into life. His face was lined, not deeply but often, and his skin had the mottled look of someone who had spent too long under a sun lamp. His smile disclosed a missing tooth which, in this day and age, was either laziness or vanity. I had known people who had grown up on the streets of Sao Paulo and Tokyo and survived, they looked used; this guy simply looked as if he hadn’t made it out alive.
He took a lazy sip from his glass and placed it neatly down on the coaster, hands steady. Leaning back he studied me out of the corner of his eye, looking first at my hand clasping the bar and then to my face.
“Not one to wear your uniform I see” he opened, “you must pardon my curiosity but I’d guess that you’re off shortly, probably your first too by your face.”
“Don’t care too much for impressing people with spit and polish” I countered, “I’ve found it easier to get along if I blend in. Besides,” and at this point I turned to face him, “as you said, I’m off soon and I’m wanting a little slice of normal before the whole thing starts. Anyway” I asked as the question formed, “how’d you know?”
“It’s the signet ring, you still look a bit uncomfortable wearing it. After a while most end up feeling like it belongs.” He spun his drink lazily, the condensation pooling below and spreading slowly, seeping into the fibers of the coaster. As he did so I noticed that he wore the same signet ring as I did, a small silver and pewter affair with the southern cross above a clenched fist embossed on its face. Whereas mine was shiny and less than two weeks old, his had dulled to grey, with nicks and cuts across and around it. A small scorch mark on the band blended with scarring along his finger. Pulling the bowl closer he put a handful of nuts in his mouth and, between chews, asked me why I was going off. Damned strange question I thought, in particular coming from him, and I told him so.
He just smiled. “You see, some do it ‘cause they want the excitement, the rush, to really feel like it’s all on the line all the time. Others, they’ve got things to run from, things they don’t want to see or hear of again, and this is the quickest and best way they can leave. For some it’s all they can do to earn a dollar, get a clean bed and two meals a day; and then there’s conscripts. Just trying to figure out where you fit in, though it don’t seem you do. You’re not runnin’, you’ve brought your past with you” he said, pointing to Cyn’s photo, “and you sure aren’t an ego freak. And you also seem intelligent enough to avoid the draft. So I’m just curious.”
I couldn’t get angry. He might be a nosey old bastard but I’d wanted company. I laughed. “Yeah, none of the above. I volunteered for the degree.” Even though I had brains, university education was far too expensive for me to even think of doing. I could pass all the entrance tests, but as I was non-minority and not connected I would have to be full fee paying – basically an impossible situation. However by joining the forces, doing a two year off world tour and staying on the reserves at home, the government would pay for all my education at any level once I got back. That was my only reason for joining, my only reason for staying, and I told him as much.
He quietened down after that for a time, draining his glass and getting a refill; me, I changed to orange juice and checked the time. He leant back further on the stool, back resting on the faux wood of the wall, and his eyes seemed to glaze over and look at something infinitely far away. Shoulders drooped, he started to speak in a low measured tone betraying deep tiredness and melancholy. “Let me tell you a little story ” he began, and I swear even to this day that the bar became deathly still, even the barlady’s frenetic movements slowing down, “of a time and place not so far away … ”
“I landed on Five with a squad of thirty fresh out of the Academy, two days after we had established the beachhead” he began. “I don’t know how much of those two days before I got there, but the wreckage and desolation told me all I needed. Five’s like Earth, and I suppose that’s the root of the problem; it’s green, oxygen in the air, and life everywhere except where we went. The neutron weapons had killed everything for 200 clicks, and the fire fight had burnt every building, every tree, every blade of grass to a crisp. Where we bivouacked that night had been a city of fifteen millions; all I could see of it was a small concrete stump near the horizon. By day it was worse. Every step crunched on burnt things, maybe animal maybe vegetable, I don’t know, and horizon to horizon was charred, blackened plains, our ships, our guys, our weapons, and hundreds of thousands of grey puffs where our feet trod. Our first duty was grave digging, or should I say open pit burial. We put 5,000 of them into a hole that first day, and another 5,000 each day after that – and we were only a small part of the guys doing that. Not that we minded any; these were the enemy and so what if there were a few children in there, they’d only just grow up and shoot you anyway so it’s better they’re dead sooner.”
“A week into it and we learned that we were going to take Five the hard way, the old way, inch by inch and yard by yard, conventionally. Someone up there” with which he flailed his hand wildly at the ceiling, “in the top brass decided that we needed Five intact, and as we could kill their nukes before they could use them, why not? Ha! Why not indeed.”
“So we fought. I don’t know to this day exactly where, and I don’t know exactly how long, but I know it was forever. My squad, I lost them all one by one, the best men and women I had known, some quick and some slow. Got to where it was just me and those two” pointing at the photo over the bar, “left of the originals. Father, son and holy ghost they called us, the trinity, thought we were invincible, and every rookie that joined and every rookie that died thought the same way. I saw people killed in ways that just ain’t right, poisoned food, poisoned air, things that came out the soil at night and cut your throat, animals that explode on sight, all kinds of things. Saw one grunt stoop to pick up and smell a daisy – she died five minutes later from a new strain of ebola they’d developed, lying screaming and crying as the blood poured out her skin. Took an hour to burn that field of flowers it did.”
“And we killed too, like after like. I was there when we tried out the new cholera strain, 2 million dead in a week. I recall poisoning a city’s water supply, burning homes and families, shooting at civilians running away; we even let prisoners escape carrying implanted bombs they didn’t know about, timed to detonate when they got home. All on orders, but the orders didn’t matter, we would have done it all the same without orders. They were the enemy, they had to die, and we were going to do that as efficiently and as quickly as we could.”
He looked me in the eye, cold and hard. “Ever killed a woman with your bare hands?” he asked. Sweating, I regretted changing from beer to orange juice some moments back, the lump in my throat hardening ever quicker. “When it’s a man” he continued, “it’s easy, it’s just another guy, another idiot who’d kill you soon as look at you. But a woman. They look like us on Five you know, heard they’re more human than some of our kids, and that makes it worse. We’d just taken a position when these three attack us, and hand to hand at that. My two took the others and I was left with the third who had me on my back with a knife at my throat before I knew what hit me. A woman too, and even through the camo she was good looking, small with red hair and green eyes, my ‘type’ I suppose but screaming at me and toting the biggest knife I’d seen.” He paused, drained his glass in a swallow. “She fought hard, but in the end I had her, hands round her neck squeezing the life out of her. You know” with which he drained his newly filled glass, a faint trembling in his hands, “I’ve done my share of men like that, and some curse you as they die, some fight to the end, others just let go and accept. Some, a few, will cry and plead and it makes you hate them for not being men, for being cowards, for making you deny them mercy you can’t give anyway. But a woman. She cried as she went, looking at me with the question in her eyes and there’s nothing I can do. She was young, could’ve been my sister or my lover, but she was the enemy.” He looked down. “She was the only one I stopped to bury; maybe that’s where it started.”
He stayed silent for a while, the bar with him I noticed, then continued in a quiet monotone.
“It was about two weeks maybe after that we got the news. We were to have the man himself, the four star General, Batlow, join us for a push into the enemy’s central area. He had a reputation nearly as good as ours, always seemed to be in the thick of the fight, always taking big risks, always being the soldier’s soldier. Every week his picture would be in the vids, as he led from the front and dragged everyone after him. We knew casualty rates hit the roof wherever he went, but hell, might as well die in good company. ‘Iron Arse’ they called him, we heard he got this from catching a hollow point in the butt early on and having a plate put in as part of the reconstruction. But regardless he was a hero to most of the guys and an inspiration – tough, dedicated, fearless and leading by example. Or so we thought.”
“Which is why I couldn’t make out my Captain’s mood when he told me my squad would be working closest with Iron Arse. It was almost as if he felt he was a traitor, maybe selling us out. Me and the guys couldn’t have been happier and me and the trinity the most, I mean, the guy was an absolute legend.”
“When I finally saw him he was standing on the top of an APC, looking like 190cm of pure muscle, sweat soaking through his fatigues and an attitude you could feel that’d kill at 100 meters. His eyes were lit up like beacons, challenging us, as he stabbed at a map tacked to the turret, ‘The capital city boys’ he yelled, ‘were goin’ all the way and take the fight to these bastards right in their own homes and show them what war’s about’ and I was screaming and whooping along with the rest of them, couldn’t wait to get out there and get going. ‘And you know what’ he called, jumping down and striding through the crowd to me, ‘I’m getting the best beside me,’ and he threw his arms across me and the ghost’s and sons’ shoulder, ‘Me and the trinity’s going in first and bringing hell with us!’ and the roar nearly broke my ears, and I’m yellin’ louder than ever and there’s guns going off in the air and the whole bit. March into hell? Shit, would’ve gone back and lived there if he would’ve asked.”
“Hyped couldn’t come near what we felt, it was like I’d been pumped full of dust and wasn’t coming down for a month – the rest of ’em felt the same, right up to the time we hit the dirt at our IP and started up that hill.” He drew deeply from the glass, moving the foam from his lips with a worn and callused thumb. “We pulled a small hill on the north side of the city, the top of which would let us see across the whole place, clear up to the mountains behind. Pure rock, boulders everywhere, the hill had saddles either side lain with mines and traps, leaving only one way to go – over the top – straight through the enemy’s killing zone, right where he wanted us. So up we went, or at least we tried. Ten seconds after we dropped I’d lost one to a sniper and two to booby traps. I was wearing someone’s blood on one sleeve and had a particle beam burn across my leg by the time I’d flattened out, trying to burrow my way into the gravel scree and pull my arse down as low as my belly. I lay there looking round for a good couple of seconds and right then and there I knew I was going to die. The hill was only a hundred or so meters high and maybe five times as wide, with no cover or vegetation to be seen. All the way up was boulders and caves, you could’ve hidden an army in there and no-one would know, and that’s exactly what they’d done. I could see dozens of winking lights and puffs of grey smoke coming from the hill, each one ending with a crunch or a cry from our lines. ‘Nothing for it’ I thought, and I led the boys up into it.”
He paused again, briefly, before continuing. “Still don’t know to this day quite how we did it, but six hours later I was perched at the top of that hill, firing into the valley and city beyond. I’d started with thirty men under me, and thirty other squads with us, and when I got to the top it’s just me, the trinity, and two others; the other squads weren’t much better off. For all the weapons, technology, and gear we had, after the first ten minutes we’d fought hand to hand, belly down and crouching, for every meter of that rock. I used knives, rocks, sticks and anything I could get my hands on to batter my way through. It was medieval, bits of blood and body caking the earth and us, you couldn’t see our fatigues or faces for clotted blood and dirt, burns and cuts. The holy ghost had lost his hair and helmet, both burned off early on, and the son had a gash the length of his left arm. But we were all still alive, still there.”
“And then he arrives, old Iron Arse, with forty of the meanest son of a bitch marines I’d ever seen. Standing there in his spotless uniform, reflective sunnies and all, smiling at us. ‘Great work men’ he crowed, ‘fantastic job’ with which he strides to the crest of the hill and poses with the city to his back as the two photographers he brought with him went about their work. ‘Don’t forget my left side’s the best side’ he quipped, and with the shoot being all over and done in minutes he walked back down the hill to his waiting ship.”
He turned from his beer and looked me straight in the eye, his having taken on the look of two black coal pits. “That’s when it happened. We had stopped cold, amazed, when a sniper opened up and got the holy ghost and the son before I could blink. We blew her to bits straight after, but they’d both been fried, well and truly dead. And I can still see that arrogant two faced bastard stopping, looking back as he brushed the dust from his trousers and smiled. ‘Sorry ‘bout that boy’ he went, ‘good men I s’pose but it’s the price you pay. Better clear out, gonna nuke the city now we’ve got the photos.’ with which he blithely resumed his walk down the hill.”
“I stood stock still, frozen. All those people dead, my whole squad and thirty others as well, killers and killed lying around in bits and pieces their mothers wouldn’t know just so he could get his face in the news? I had killed god knows how many and encouraged and taught others to do the same for what I had believed was right, and now this? And it wasn’t just here I realized, but every where this bastard had gone the same thing must’ve happened, countless other occasions; no wonder my Captain had looked like he did, he must’ve known. I looked at my blood caked hands and realized what I’d become, but worse, for who.”
“I had only one round left, an RPG – a daisy cutter in fact – and I used it then and there. Officially they say it was another sniper who fired it, but enough knew and didn’t care either way. I couldn’t miss, the range was way too short, and I ended up with shrapnel all through my legs which is how I lost this one”, tapping the plastic below his left knee. “I thought the Captain would have me up against the wall at dawn when he heard, but he just shrugged and said ‘Bloody snipers, eh?’ and left it at that. And that’s how old Iron Arse died. Not a hero, but a coward” with which he returned his attention to his drink.
There wasn’t much to say – what could I have said? – so I left and walked out to the plaza, into the starry night. The four indigo blue uniforms emerged not soon after and, after being given the last of their money, disappeared again.
Me, I took the signet ring and dropped it into a bin. Shepparton really wasn’t that far away.