Private Brown stepped off the shuttle, unclipped his face mask and wiped his brow with the back of his hand, shifting his heavy helmet backwards in the process. He took in a deep gulp of the cool mountain air which tasted impossibly clean and fresh after a day breathing through the mask’s chemical filtration.
For a split second, as the cold hit his lungs, his mind was empty, unable to process anything but the physical exhaustion tugging at his limbs. It was only when he looked down at the right arm of his combat armour a moment later that it all came back. The sleeve was covered in dried blood and the memories returned heavy and fast and exploded in his consciousness like a missile: He was ducking into an alleyway; he was watching the gigantic spores impaling the concrete; he was running as they spewed the egg-like pods up and down the streets; he was shouting a war cry as the pods opened to reveal their bipedal cargo, the translucent purple exoskeletons stepping out and shining in the harsh Indian sun; he was hearing the screams of agony, which mixed with the high pitched whoosh of rail guns and the ominous low hiss of their faceless enemies to create a hideous symphony in his ears.
Then he was in the thin alley, large concrete walls towering over them, covering the debris in shadow. Mahmoud was ahead of him; he was running behind, heading towards the opening. Suddenly he was slipping backwards onto the ground, scrambling for his weapon, as he watched Mahomoud being lifted off the ground, arms held tight by the elongated fingers of the creature, bony talons ripping at the flesh.
Back in the present, Brown doubled over, supporting himself on his knees. The nausea smacked his stomach like a heavy punch.
He remembered raising his railgun, aiming it, firing.
Vomit arched up through his body as it played through his mind. In the alley, there was explosion of blood, red (ours) and watery blue (theirs), the splash of last night’s half-digested meal on the ground as he recalled the warm, moist fluids hitting his torso, his arms, his face.
He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths and waited for the feeling to pass, for his thoughts to return to the present. He stood up and wiped his mouth with the hand, rubbed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to make sense of the insensible.
“Shittest of shit luck.” Said the gravely voice of his sergeant behind him, a reassuring hand landing on his shoulder and squeezing. “He ran straight into its arms. You did the right thing, Brown. You honoured the pact.”
The words echoed through the canyon of his skull. The right thing? Brown thought about the day, the seconds lost and seconds gained. If he hadn’t caught that magazine he almost dropped thirty minutes earlier, Mahmoud would have been the one on his back, raising the gun and firing, no human standing between the barrel and the beast.
If they hadn’t reviewed the route a third time, they would have been well into the street before they saw the creature coming.
If they had stopped for water when Mahmoud had asked instead of the promise of the other side.
Brown let out a long breath. He had the rest of his life to think about those tiny slivers of time and their oversized impact. He straightened up and faced his sergeant, a grizzled veteran with a buzz cut, short white stubble and a constant frown.
“Yeah, I know,“ said Brown.
The sergeant nodded, gave the shoulder another squeeze then turned to walk back to the shuttle. “There’ll be a service tomorrow at 0600,” he said. “C’mon soldier, let’s unload.”
“Sarge,“ said Brown, pulling his helmet back into place.
The huge mountains of the Nepalese Himalayas that surrounded the Pokhara valley base on all sides were usually a source of comfort to Brown—a protective wall, far from the New Delhi battleground, timeless and immovable in a world where so much changed in a second—but this evening, as he walked to the mess hall, they felt overbearing, looming and trapping him.
He stepped into the hall and away from their indifferent gaze, grabbed a tray at the counter and allowed it to be filled. He wasn’t the least bit hungry, but it was the routine. It was What Happened Next, a distraction from the constant replay of the day going on in his mind. He headed over to where his unit was sitting and chose an empty seat at the end.
Chavez, a short, stocky Dominican from Miami, was in the middle of a story. Brown was grateful for the lack of silence and listened in. It was a tale he’d heard a thousand times, about a time when they were based in New York, before the Eastern Seabord had been lost.
Mahmoud had stolen a jeep and had driven the six hour round trip to small town Connecticut to find a particular bar at which a particular young lady was known to frequent.
Brown absent mindedly moved the food around his plate wth his fork as he heard how Mahmoud had cajoled the barman into starting a long game of Telephone in order to find this lady. He had nothing more to go on than a sketchy recollection of her appearance. Phone calls were made, text messages and emails sent. Social media profiles were analyzed, dozens of residents were woken. Many of them dead ends, some of them providing further clues.
Eventually, the handful of other patrons at the bar were all involved, trying everyone they knew. At one thirty in the morning, to a great cheer in the run down building, the lady in question had opened the door and stepped in, flattered and impressed at his efforts.
“Sykes and the MPs were barely able to keep a straight face,” said Chavez, growing animated as he reached the end of his tale. “Motherfucker enlisted an entire town just to get laid!” The rest of the unit erupted into laughter; Brown allowed himself a small smile.
“The audacity of that man,” Chavez said quietly, shaking his head.
The laughs dried up, crushed by the past as it piled up on the table. There was a long silence.
“Man, I’m going to be glad when this is over,“ said a voice finally after the weight of memory threatened to suffocate them all. Brown recognised it as Jameson.
There was a murmur of general agreement, cut short by a derisive snort. They all turned and looked down at the far end of the table.
“Over? This’ll never be over. Not while we’re alive.”
It was Mason. Tall and stocky, with a square face that looked like a fist, a nose that was wide and flat, and beady eyes constantly crushed by anger.
After the first wave of attacks, young men and women had volunteered in the hundreds of thousands. If asked for their reasons, most of them answered along the lines of wishing to protect humanity, their families, planet earth.
A few, like Mason, answered with talk of their desire to kill.
“Fuck off, Mason,” said Chavez, his eyes narrowing as Brown put a take it easy hand on his shoulder. Chavez relaxed a little.
“They reckon a couple more months and we’ll be done,” said Jameson.
Mason snorted again. “’They’? You mean the assholes that got us into this in the first place? ‘Scientists say they’ve harnessed dark matter’. ‘Scientists say they’re ready to open the first wormhole’. ‘Scientists say that the visitors are not a threat’—“ he stood up and began circling the table as he spoke, barely concealing his pleasure at delivering the bad news—“Those things are fucking sharks with a direct line to a fertile feeding ground. Over? Ha! We’re already in our twelfth year! You think it’s gotten any better in that time?” Chavez spun around at this but Mason simply smiled at him. “Yeah, that’s what they tell you. Keep all you noobs signing up. ‘We’re almost there!’, ‘one last push!’, ‘a few more volunteers!’”
The table sat in stony silence. The colour had drained out of Private Brown’s face and he leaned forward into his hands. That’s what he’d been told. That’s what he’d believed. He’d continued the narrative, convincing himself that the things he’d observed had been anomalies. The two shots with the railgun that it now took to take them down was down to his bad aim. The fact he’d almost been caught twice running from them was down to fatigue.
“This is my fourth tour,” Mason continued, “and I ain’t never seen so many as this. Over? This thing has barely begun. They’re getting stronger, too. And smarter—” he looked at Brown who was staring straight ahead—”I’ll bet that one was waiting for your man round that corner. Waiting till he heard—”
Brown slammed his hands down on to the table hard, surprising Mason into silence. His chair clattered to the floor as stood up sharply and, without looking at any of them, he stormed out of the hall.
The sun was beginning to set and the world was turning orange and yellow. Around the lake, huge numbers of rhododendrons bloomed in brilliant pinks and purples, their edges catching the orange light. The lake was still, its surface capturing the scene like a master photographer, framing it with its distant edges. Private Brown headed to one of the banks, then paced backwards and forwards furiously, his mind reeling.
He thought of the last few missions and how their victories had felt less decisive. He thought about the mounting body count, how deaths had been more frequent. For months their unit had been untouchable, now Mahmoud was gone. Other units were similarly less invincible. Unease was setting in. He thought about the President’s speech, how her promise of a final victory with just one last push had inspired him to transfer from support to the front line. He thought of Jessie, the promises he’d made. Almost over. Back in a year.
He stopped pacing, sitting down on a rock by the edge of the lake. He fished out a chain with a small silver pendant from the front of his shirt and, holding it horizontally, flicked it open.
Instantly, a holographic image around two inches tall appeared and stood on the pendant base. The young man it projected was handsome, with shoulder length blonde hair, and he wore a pair of board shorts and a white t-shirt. He thought of their honeymoon, a visit to the base on Hawaii, where they’d recorded the projection.
He tapped the edge of the base lightly. The projection leaned forward into a camp pose—one hand on the hips— leaned forward and mouthed the words “come home soon”, then kissed the air in front of him, before erupting into laughter and giving the finger. The projection paused, then flickered back to its original pose.
Brown’s eyes welled up.
Brown quickly wiped his eyes, palming the tears out before before turning around to see his sergeant standing behind him, smoking a cigar.
He started to scramble to his feet. “Yeah. Listen, I was just…”
“Stay there, son,” said the old man, placing his hand on Brown’s shoulder and easing himself down on the rock next to him. He nodded at the projection. “Good looking fella. Prefer the ladies myself, of course. Miss him?”
Brown clicked the pendant shut and looked down.
“Nothing to be ashamed of there.” The commander continued, puffing on his cigar as he pulled out an old touchscreen smartphone and flicked through a few photos before passing it to Brown. “My second wife and kids. Youngest is about your age. She just finished basic and ready to start pilot training. Her brother will be going into intelligence. One smart cookie, that one. Takes after his mom.“ He nodded at the closed pendant. “Your man?”
“Failed physical. Problem with his left eye.”
“Lucky him,” said the sergeant. Brown glanced at him surprised as he took back the phone and stared at it for a while. “Wish they didn’t have to fight.”
There was a long pause.
“Sarge,” said Brown slowly. “Mason reckons this thing’s never going to end. Reckons the things are getting stronger.”
The commander took a few puffs on his cigar, then let out a cloud of light blue smoke.
“Yeah I heard,” said the sergeant, choosing his words carefully. “Well, he’s right. They’re gonna keep coming. Again and again and again.”
A few more puffs. An exhale.
“Your man, he worth fighting for?”
“Yeah, of course he his. Every one of the men and women back there got something or someone they’re fighting for; something they think’s worth defending. You ask them what they remember about before and it’s always the small stuff. Barbecues in the back yard. Walks in the hills. Thanksgiving. We’re not entitled to happiness, never have been. Those moments were carved out of a life filled with pain and suffering and hardship.”
“Not like this,” said Brown. “Nothing like this.”
The old man scratched the back of his ear with his thumb.
“No, not like this. But it’s a matter of degrees, not kind. Life’s a goddamn demanding mistress, always has been. We have to earn happiness. We have to beat back the brutality of existence to make a space for those moments. I guarantee that when we fight for those moments as hard as you have to here, you’ll hold onto them equally hard and savour them like they’re the last dying seconds of the universe.”
The sergeant exhaled a large plume of smoke. They sat their for a long while, digging through the vaults of time for their most protected moments, the dirt of struggle and effort and pain and sacrifice surrounding the moments falling away, leaving them pure and unsullied. Brown smiled and looked at the old man.
“Damn,“ he said finally. “That’s beautiful, sarge.”
The sergeant laughed. “Fuck off, private.”
They watched the lake. The tiny waves on the water sparkled with the last of the day’s light. Long blue dragonflies darted in and out of the reeds in front of them as the trees rustled softly in the gentle breeze.