This wasn't supposed to be a complete story; I was trying to flesh out a character background for a shared setting, hence its fragmented nature. But while writing it, the narrative increasingly stood by itself, so why not. Even if a grim, sad near-future war story isn't my usual fare at all. Content warning: guns.

The cold red sun of autumn sends slanted rays through the gaping hole that used to be a window. Inside, debris litter the bare floor. Little furniture still stands within the room's concrete cube. Outside's what matters anyway. Four meters below and across the street, between two apartment buildings that don't look much better, people in camo are coming, bent low among cars and dumpsters. I flip the fire selector down one notch and fire a couple of short bursts; the tankies turn tail and scatter back the way they came. One falls. A lone shot rings from the floor above me, but I'm looking at other moving shadows by then. Oh, that's just a tree in the wind. I lean back against the wall while the old PM-65 slowly cools down. Then they show up again, and again. It lasts halfway to noon.

This fancy hovel used to be a restaurant. Not the kind a street boy could walk into, way back. Now its owners must be long gone, like their clients from the mansions across the lake; what a view it is from up here. But all I can think of is how many refugees it could house. Meanwhile, a starched ass prattles on.

They moved the tables to divide the room in half. In the lacquered corner, wearing olive green uniforms with too many braids, the brass. Not our brass, mind. We're over here, among broken glass, all dark blue work clothes and covered faces. Also guns. That's what we have and they want. They can't seem to grasp why we don't care to get in uniform.

Dude. Do you want to fight tankies, or have someone to boss around?

Another general is talking now. He's making veiled threats, and doesn't seem to notice when barrels begin to shift, hands resting on safeties. Then someone shouts, "DRONE!" The whole gathering piles out through every opening. We're far enough when the missile hits.

The train trundles along at 60KpH and slowing, across plains the color of dust as far as the eye can see. It's just a couple of cars, painted yellow inside and out, windows long replaced by metallic grates. The third car is a platform covered in solar panels, with batteries underneath. We're in the second car, taking up half the seats. The rest is bags and crates. Not exactly planning to go back any time soon.

At length, patches of greenery start showing, then fences. We pull up at a train station, the blink-and-you-miss-it kind. Farmers have gathered to see who's visiting. They're not fond of our guns, but our money's good. There's not much water to spare either way; we end up with half a liter each for around twenty people. Good thing it's not so hot anymore.

We stretch our legs a little before departure. Somewhere a cat meows. It's a scrawny little thing, peeking out with sad eyes from under a bench.

The troupe's strongman slaps my shoulder. Hard. "Won't you kiss your little brother good bye, Claude?" Everyone within earshot laughs.

"Just don't bring it aboard, will you?" says another voice.

The boss is right. Sorry, kittycat.

We clamber back on the train, followed shortly by the station master's whistle. With full batteries, the rattling box of rust makes good speed for a while.

We wash up in a quaint little town near the sea, whose name begins with a T. It hasn't seen any fighting yet, so instead we help unload supply trucks and crew the soup kitchen. The locals put us up in a three-story house on a street corner, all stone and pretty colors. There's five of us in a room sized for two. Roxie and Mike are an item, so they take the bed. Matt is sick; we let the poor kid have the couch. Diane and I end up on the floor. There's no weapon locker, so we sleep with the guns. Makes for less fuss with the guard shifts.

The regulars catch up with us a few days later at dawn. Luckily the landlord took their money with one hand and warned us with the other. We get out through the backyard, along twisting alleways, and under a skybridge connecting brown brick buildings on either side of the street. Sunrise finds us cornered in an abandoned factory right outside town. There's more of them, and they have armored cars. We discuss our options while they shout promises from a loudspeaker. My finger itches to put a bullet through that thing. Yeah, not gonna do it.

Then missiles start falling. Not theirs. We hide in the steam tunnels; they're out in the open. By the time it all ends, two handfuls of soldiers and their sergeant forgot their pride. We work together in town to clear the rubble, for what it's worth. Next time there will be fewer of us, and more of the rubble. No-one even seems to know how long we have left.

The sea is flat, like unpainted sheet metal, but for the wake of the patrol boat at speed. I'm sitting near the aft, notebook in hand, listening to the screws churn water right below. A drop of water lands on the page; I skip over it and keep going. The pen hurts my fingers from lack of practice.

"What are you scribbling there, Claude?" The boss comes sit near me. His face and arms are sunburnt, and he's been growing a beard. I look younger than him.

"Been trying to sort things out. Figure out how we got here."

"Stroke of luck." He shrugs. "You can steer this tub good. The crew likes you. What more do you want?"

"So that's it, boss? We're Navy now? Feels like selling out, after all we did."

"Mmm, true. Let's stage a mutiny and turn pirate instead."

We laugh. In the distance, a deep boom rolls through the sky. We squint at the haze, trying to figure out if that was thunder or a jet fighter. It doesn't work.


27 July 2022