Veterans Day, 2414 CE

 

I remember the day with trembling, when my dreaming self came awake in your eyes.

Early 21st Century Poem

 

Sargent Strong, a hulking veteran of many battles, a man inured to the corrosive horrors of war, lies in a bombed-out building, asleep like a child, dreaming. While the battle rages outside, he dreams a vivid, intoxicating dream that draws him deeper and deeper into itself. Some part of himself, standing vigil just outside his dreaming self, tries to rouse him awake, tries to shake him, remind him of the enemies closing in, the blood trail he left, the empty med-packs and a thousand other bits of evidence that will lead his enemies, savage and unrelenting, to the second-story apartment where he now lies, crumpled on the floor, pressed back into a far corner of the room, sound asleep.

The situation is most immediately expressed by the extent of the wreckage of the dwelling in which he lies. The apartment is an utter ruin, sterilized of all human remnants. No trace remains of the people who must have once lived here. A blast has opened a wide gash in the exterior walls of the apartment, stretching from where a picture window had once been, through the corner of the room, and into the other wall where the upper half of a window casement dangles precariously, like the last decayed tooth in a nearly toothless grin.

Sgt. Strong recognizes the signature of the blast; a building and infrastructure protection weapon, known among the troops by the acronym “BIP.” BIPs are enhanced radiation devices, neutron bombs. Weapons incongruously designed to kill but not destroy, obliterate flesh, but leave the buildings, streets, and infrastructure intact.

The history of how things had arrived at this point had never been revealed to Sgt. Strong in any of his Tactics and Weapons training, the governments of the world had seen to that, but after the horrifying, global effects of radioactive fallout from the last World War, hundreds of years ago, the governments of the world, despite recognizing the brutal fact that the war had not resolved any of their differences and tacitly admitting that those differences would lead to a nearly constant state of war between them, agreed to forever ban the use of conventional nuclear weapons. It was agreed that conventional nuclear weapons were far too barbaric even for war, which lead inevitably to the idea that war, if managed properly, could be sustainable.

Sgt. Strong had no way of knowing how it had all gone so wrong. Somehow, in ways that were far beyond the comprehension of a mere soldier, war went from being a means to an end–politics by other means–to an end in itself in the endless destroying and rebuilding and destroying again. The history books did not record it, but war had become the engine of a global economy, a sort of Frankenstein’s monster that, once unbound could not again be restrained.

But Sgt. Strong was not aware of any of that. All he knew was that the BIP that took out this building was probably detonated in the elevator shaft, the blast pulsing through the structure in an instant ripping every door off its hinges and shattering every window. But the blast would have been the second thing that happened. The first would have been the instantaneous, blinding flash of light. To an unfortunate soul just going about his business when the BIP detonated, it would seem as if a star had suddenly been ignited, a white-hot light would envelope everything, all at once, momentarily as bright as a million suns, but this would only last an instant–a fraction of an instant really–and then there would be nothing.

Sgt. Strong had seen the training films: livestock tethered to stanchions, peaceful and unsuspecting, dematerializing in slow motion, becoming dust, obliterated by an invisible wave, taken apart cell-by-cell by a star burst of neutrons. Sometimes in combat, he’d seen the evidence that humans had been there in the parts left behind, the metal bits, dental fillings, and surgical screws.

The damage from the BIP afforded him a nearly perfect sighting area through the corner of the room, giving him a clear view of both approaches to the building. He wasn’t sure what was still holding the wall up, but it made a good look-out point against an attack, because he knew his enemy would have to come down one of those two streets.

He takes a moment to moment to consider his situation. It is utterly desperate. His ammunition is low and beyond recognizing from the stabbing pain and blood-soaked pant leg that his right leg is a mess, he has yet to assess his wounds. He hears two maybe three hovercraft, the smaller ones from the sound of them, moving away off to the east. A reconnaissance patrol. He knows when the assault comes, it’ll come loud and hard and straight up the boulevard at the building. They’ll come with the armored assault craft, the big ones carrying 12 troopers each, right at him. They will be here soon enough.

He had propped himself in the corner where he could keep a watch an hour ago, intending to rest only a moment, only long enough to ease the white-hot pain pulsing from his shattered leg, shaking through his body. And despite his instinct for self-preservation, honed to a razor’s edge by his training, he had only been resting for a moment when he lapsed into dreaming, and though part of his mind was aware of the danger, he kept on dreaming. He felt the goddamn Army owed him that much.

***

It’s Memorial Day and he and Danielle are alone at the beach. He kneels above her head as she stretches out on a soft blue blanket. His eyes trace the gentle curves of her small body. Except for her pink, string bikini bottom, they are both naked. Her pert breasts rise and fall with her breath and his attention is drawn to the shadowed gap where her bikini bottom stretches across the valley of her hip. The shadow, and what lies beyond, beckons to him. He watches his hands–as if they were someone else’s–slip slowly down her waist, thumbs tracing her flat, tanned belly until they hook the string of her bikini and tug it off her hips. He stretches his body over hers as they dance like this, him sliding the bikini to her ankles and her shifting her legs to assist him, finally shaking it free in a pink furl. She purrs softly in her throat as her mouth finds him. He kisses along the inside of her thigh and gently presses her legs apart. She gasps as his mouth begins to explore her and she responds, letting her tongue slide lightly over him as he fills her mouth, then applying firm suction as he slowly withdraws, making him groan so loudly he nearly wakes himself from his dream.

***

It was her smile that struck him first that day they met. It was Veterans Day, six years ago. He had just arrived back at the depot on rotation from the front. The Army had made all the arrangements. She was his for the duration of his refit cycle, a gift to commemorate his 50 combat rotations. In combat, the idea of a living, breathing gift, barely wrapped and waiting for him in his bed-quarters, drove him nearly mad, so he put the idea from his mind. It was bad enough to hear the grizzled veterans, brag about when they got their “Fifty” as the old breed liked to call the girls. And the things they did to them. The worse things got in combat, they more they bragged, and the more outlandish and despicable were the things they described. In the trenches with bodies splintering into wet fragments all around, the onslaught unrelenting, the old breed sang litanies of the bestial cruelties they had inflicted on their Fifties. Later, in the lulls between the barrages, they mumbled contrite nonsense about the “sickness of combat” and how, like a poison, it “must be purged” from the body, as if to justified the inhuman things they did to the girls.

During combat, Sgt. Strong had to put it out all of his mind. The distraction could get him killed. But it hadn’t, and now here he was at the door of his refit barrack room, with the ghastly images the old breed had induced washing like nausea through him. He swiped his ID badge and the lock clicked open. He paused with his hand against the open door.

“Thank you for your service,” she said when he opened the door. “Thank you for your blood. Sorry we took so much.” She smiled at him and let her robe slip open.

***

Now as he lies in this bombed-out apartment, it’s the way her smile guided his eyes to hers when they met that sticks with him. How when, their eyes finally met, the image of her face became etched in his memory, as if onto the facet of a diamond.

Her features were petite, like her. Her chin was narrow and the point at the end of it became sharper when she smiled. She batted her eyes and moved her shoulders seductively, making the silk robe she wore shimmer as it fell loose from one shoulder.

At several times she seemed self-conscious about it, placing her hand over her chin when she laughed at something funny he said. But in his mind all he could do was imagine cradling that chin gently in his hand as self-consciousness was abandoned and they kissed. He imagined that from the very first moment he met her..

“What’s your name?” he asked as he entered the room.

“My name is anything you want it to be,” she said.

“No. I really want to know your name.”

She lowered her head and covered herself back up with her robe. She seemed so small and fragile. “Danielle,” she said.

They looked at each other, unblinking for an awkward minute.

“Are you hungry?” he asked. “I was going to order something. You can have anything you want.”

For a second he wasn’t sure if she was going to respond, the question seemed so out of the context that she had been anticipating. At length she said, “Can I have a pizza? I haven’t had a pizza in ages.”

***

He was never able to tell her that sometimes when they made love he had to push the thoughts of combat from his mind, had to remind himself that the old-timers were wrong, that his body wasn’t a mindless sword bent only on destruction, but more of harrow, able to split a thing open and renew it again and again. At least that’s how he felt when he was with her.

In the short time they had together she told him of her childhood, the scattered, and mostly negative, memories of her father. She confided that she only felt secure in his arms and only felt truly safe when his big body was poised above hers as they made love.

He tried hard to be comfortable with her, but it seemed that just as he was beginning to relax, some twisted part of his soul would whisper that her smile seemed a little off, like a performance, a smile on cue. It didn’t occur to him that maybe she was as uncomfortable with herself as he was with himself.

“I’m not a stoic,” he says after making love. His square jaw is locked tight as he gazes at her eyes, piercing green, open wide, and searching as she kisses the scars on his chest, her lips tender, the kisses like supplications, growing more and more fervent as she moves down his body.

She closes her eyes in concentration as she takes him into her mouth. In the dark, he lets the pleasure wash over him, mingling tears and tenderness. He weeps openly and cradles her head as his orgasm pulses through him.

After, they make love again, slowly, tenderly, like novices and yet he can’t bring himself to tell her that her touch is the only thing keeping him human, keeping him from becoming a complete monster.

After, she curls up in his thick arms and asks, “Why would you want me? I’m damaged.”

“Everybody’s damaged, Danielle,” Sgt. Strong says, his hand gently massaging the ache in his thigh from along buried piece of shrapnel. “What’s important is how you deal with it, how you overcome it. Everyone has a past, with scars and all. It helps us to empathize.

She wiggles back into his arms contentedly, seductively, rubbing her ass against him. “There’s so much I don’t have to explain to you, because you already know the feelings.”

“I’ve been flattened by them myself,” he says. “But baby,” his hand traces her body as if each word he speaks is written there. “Our scars are real. They’re reminders of where we’ve been and what we’ve survived. I wish I could have spared you all of the pain of yours, but still I wouldn’t want you to not have them. They make up who you are, who you are right now. And I wouldn’t want to know you without each and every nick and bruise, the topography of your soul.” He presses kisses against her neck.

“Some people don’t make it. I hear about them every day on the news,” she says after a minute.

“What are you talking about?”

“Just last week, a woman doused her children’s bed with gasoline and set it on fire while they slept. Didn’t you hear about that? Or the homeless men and women everyday who throw themselves to the rails in front of the pulse trains. There were two just this morning. They were damaged. They didn’t make it. What about them?”

“That won’t happen to you, Danielle.”

“But what if it does”

“It won’t.”

“But what if it does?” Her eyes begged for an answer.

“It won’t happen to you, Danielle because you have me.” He envelops her body with his massive arms and they rock gently together.

***

The last day of his refit they spend at the beach. He traces the fine hairs on her belly, down to the edge of her bikini. His fingers lightly stroking her hip bone, his thumb making wider and increasingly more adventurous circles inside her bikini bottom. His thumb stops. “You shaved, ” he says.

“You said you liked that.” She looks at him, pleased, expectantly.

“I do, but I thought there wasn’t time.” His thumb keeps moving.

Her voice is husky as smoke and sweet as honey. “You’re driving me crazy. Stop,” she says as she spreads her legs wider.

The urgency of her need overwhelms him and he succumbs to the vertigo, gazing into her eyes as if he were balanced precariously on a very high place, teetering over an abject drop to rocks and utter ruin below. He disregards the rocks because her beauty is so utter, so complete, so entire and entirely his, that doom on the rocks seems a fair price to pay. His gaze shifts to the milky smoothness of her breasts and he takes her.

***

He knows it’s empty, but he opens his last med-pack anyway, the way a child might open the cupboard where his mother keeps the candy, hoping. But this was much more serious than a sweet tooth. Sgt. Strong peels the torn thigh of his combat fatigues open to inspect the wound; a dinner plate-sized part of his thigh lays mangled, the flesh burnt to a char at the edges. Jagged bits of shrapnel and bone twist together in a bloody mess at the center of the wound. Sgt. Strong’s vision fades slightly with each heartbeat throb of the pain wracking his body.

They’re coming down the street now, he knows. They’ll be in the building and upon him in minutes. They won’t kill him right away. They’ll make a sport of him, he knows. The distant hum of the hover craft and the urgent voices moving up the street form a duet, a eulogy for his broken body.

The resigned certainty of death that had his whole life until combat alluded him, hangs on him now like a pallor. A trickle of blood oozes from his leg and joins the rivulet winding away on the carpet, dirt and debris mixed in with the blood in places. Why echoes in the wind but cannot disturb the crystalline image within him of her green eyes as he holds the pulse grenade to his throat and bows his head.

THE END

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