Strength

I stare at the screen in front of me, the words a blur of pixelated light as my eyes fall out of focus. The meaning of those words are sharp as razors in my mind, their purpose now my purpose. The hotel room office chair leans back just far enough to be uncomfortable. I’ll never understand how traveling businessmen can stand these things. My arms stick to the faux leather, and I catch the barest hint of stink from the guest before me. I close my eyes, so tired now that the shaking in my hands is hard to control, I hate that.

A slight chill passes through my body, the thin shirt I’m wearing doing little to hold back the air conditioning that was placed too near the desk. I look back at the screen in front of me, my finger hovers over the delete button, but presses print instead. The whine of my mobile printer screeches in my ears, duller now then it would have been years ago. The sharp scent of heated toner wafts under my nose, and I stifle a sneeze. I take a deep steadying breath, and close my eyes again.

* * *

It’s some time in June, twelve years prior, I’m not sitting in an uncomfortable hotel chair, and I am far from chilled. My hands are on the pavement, my arms are screaming with ache as I push. Sweat drips from my brow, forming a small puddle in front of my face. I ignore it, I ignore the ache and exhaustion in my limbs, and I push. Two dozen other men and women are on that pavement with me, and given the chance we would have moved the earth itself with our effort.

Four men circle our formation, barking orders, shielded from the sun by the large circle brimmed hats that rested on their heads. On occasion all four suddenly circle one of our number, shouting at them to push harder, questioning their resolve. None of us break, at least not anymore, not since the first days when anyone with any quit in them had either washed out, or discovered that pleas for mercy went unheard, and only encouraged more berating. Most of us know, I know, that it was all for our benefit. These men in charge of us are not heartless monsters, cold to our plights. They are simply steadfast in their resolve and in their mission – to forge us into weapons.

We’d all been there for a couple weeks at that point, grown used to the heat, and accustomed to the constant beratement from our superiors, the physical strain was less now. No, now it was all mental, it all rested on our ability to deal with the constant changes, and all the other bullshit they threw at us. I reveled in it, this was what I had wanted ever since I had seen pictures of my father in uniform, it was all fun to me.

“On your feet!” One of the Drill Sergeants shouted, Dooley I think from the tone, “Not fast enough, down!” We drop back onto the hot cement, I go a bit too quickly, scrape my hand, a few of my fellow recruits moan, this wasn’t the first time we’d gotten up today.

A few more reps, and my arms are starting to quiver, no matter what kind of shape you’re in, your body has limits. I utter a short curse, I won’t be able to handle much more.

“Po—sition of attention!” DS Dooley shouts, and we intone back, “Po—sition of attention!” he shouts a bit louder, now he’s just being a dick, but we shout it back at him, our arms quivering in expectation of relief, “Move!” Our bodies snap up as one, coming to stand up straight as arrows. I’m careful not to lock my knees, learned that lesson the hard way.

“Half-left, face!” We move as one, we really are getting better at this, I’m staring at the back of the soldier in front of me’s head now, his name tape reads Sanchez.

* * *

The clock reads 8:10, my hand is shaking again. Stim withdrawal. I stare at it, willing it to stop. A few moments pass before it comes to rest, the holo-vision is droning on about the news of the day, it’s all noise, like an old cartoon character’s mother. The holo-image shifts to show a courtroom, nine senators sit at a large podium. They are asking a man questions, he sits next to two other people, and takes a sip of water, his hand shakes.

I press the power button on the small remote next to me, antiquated thing, but more convenient then each guest registering voice commands I suppose. The holo-image cuts off, and the only sound in the room now is the low thrum of the A/C. I walk over to the bed, my suitcase lay on top, a discarded suit jacket next to it. I shuffle some things inside before removing a compact black case. It’s hard plastic is familiar in my hands, it’s one of those durable cases, meant to be dropped, and kicked and thrown about without showing much wear. I set it down on the desk, and run my fingers over its edges, small scratches and imperfections read like braille on it’s surface, telling the stories of where it’s been. My thumbs settle for a moment on the two plastic locking clips, then I flip them open.

* * *

It’s eight years ago, during the first Nefari invasion, I’m looking across some god forsaken plain somewhere in Europe, Germany I think. Ironic, less than a century ago we were killing ourselves on this very soil, now we cling desperately to each inch, knowing to give too much means our destruction. The Nefari had already taken Russia, the foothold they gained when landing in the Siberian tundra had been too much to resist.

The thwump of pulse rifles going off in the distance fills my ears. At least if you get hit by one of those it’s quick, I had heard a Nefari nano-round could take days. My unit is set to go out toward that distant firefight, relief for the second and third brigades of  the Earth United Army. It all sounds like some shitty show on a sci-fi channel, but it looks like hell.

I feel the hover pads switch on more then I hear them, it’s hard to hear anything over the blood pumping in my ears. I take a calming breath, close my eyes, and give a quick shake of my head. Focus now, no time for panic, no time for second thoughts. I pop open the pill container that hangs off of my flick, and dump two of the blue and white pills into my hands. Mili-stims, high grade focus drugs, non-narcotic, and non addictive they tell us. All I know is they make me move quicker and see farther. A short swallow and the world comes into preternatural focus, I can see the fight in the distance now.

We’d dug trenches and set up a small barrier wall  just to the east of one of their forward operation modules. The thing jutted out from the earth like a spine from some sort of deep sea monstrosity. Nefari foot soldiers had dug out their own embankments and the two sides exchanged a near constant stream of fire power at each other. The bellowing retort of artillery echoed in my enhanced ears, I could almost smell the gunpowder from the hoverlift as it got closer.

The Nefari were frightening to behold, massive creatures nearly seven feet on average and they had to weigh at least three hundred pounds. I had never seen a Nefari without their silver warmasks, and I wasn’t in a rush to. Wind whipped in my ears as the hover lift gained speed and drove us closer to the thick of the fighting. The MilStims had taken full effect now, and my muscles corded and twitched with strength and energy, I checked the reader on my rifle, full mag.

The hover transport pulled a hard one eighty, and reversed it’s drives, presenting it’s heavily armored side plating as it approached the front. The sheer force of the maneuver would have thrown it’s occupants out of the vehicle had they not been strapped in. As it was my stomach lurched with the craft, both from the movement itself and from my effort to keep my eyes on the fighting ahead. There was no screech of breaks as one might expect at the sudden stop, as we pulled into the thick of the fighting.

The first few seconds were a blur of controlled panic, and adrenaline, all pulled into keen focus by the MiliStims coursing through my bloodstream. Collins poked his head up to take stock of the fighting as the rest of us fired through murder holes too small to see out of, he was met with a pulse rifle round that incinerated his face. He never had time to scream, but we did, both in horror, and in challenge to the enemy that had just taken another friend.

A sudden impact followed by a sharp drop cued us in that the hover-transport’s engines had been hit, as the enemy began to concentrate their fire on the new, fresh targets. The clang of a mechanical release rang in my ears as the side of the car now positioned behind us dropped into a ramp. A blood curdling scream rings out behind me, I turn to see Sanchez, his arm pinned beneath a twisted support rail, the rig continues to take fire, it can’t last much longer.

I’m at Sanchez’s side, pulling desperately at the support rail, every muscle in my body swears vehemently at me, Sanchez is telling me to leave him. Ever so slightly the metal creaks, groans in angry protest, then gives way under my effort. I drag Sanchez from his trap, and throw him on my shoulders, the rig takes another round of bombardment, the fuel cell is hit, and explodes in a blindingly hot flash.

* * *

I remove the handgun from it’s protective foam, a Colt, customized, and chromed out, with only it’s original handgrips still the motte black of it’s design. It’s weight so intimately familiar I know that it doesn’t have a stray bullet inside, but I clear the chamber anyway. The smell of gun oil, and carbon fills my nostrils, and it brings a small, barely perceptible smile to my face.

My hands move by instinct, releasing the slide, and taking the weapon apart, I inspect the springs, and the barrel. I reach back into the case and remove a small OD Green pouch that has a small wire brush, and a few rags. I give the barrel a quick bore, and wipe down the rest, applying the tiniest bit of oil to keep the action smooth. I gave the weapon a  final wipe down, removing any of the excess oil, and reassembled it, each piece sliding into its place with a satisfying click.

* * *

Four years ago, I’m back in Siberia, but fighting a much older enemy. The U.N. had kept troops there, ostensibly to prevent another surprise landing by the Nefari, but the Russian government chafed under the idea, and six months earlier, a nervous conscript’s rifle had turned that chafe into war. I itched for battle, I didn’t know why at the time, we all did, the tiny remnants of the Stims a constant twinge at the back of your mind, you couldn’t shut it off, couldn’t wind down.

My small fire team moved swift as wolves through the cold tundra brush, unnaturally silent, the latest noise dampening tech turned up to eleven. I rose an open palm, sensed more than needed to see my team stop beside me, the loose skirmish line spreading out over seventy or so meters. Forty years ago we would have seen the smoke of their camp before we had gotten this close, forty years ago they might have heard us coming. Out of habit I checked the display on my rifle, full magazine. I start a two minute countdown that synced to the rest of the team. With a minute left, I popped a MiliStim, cracked it with my teeth, and let the focus wash over me.

The firefight was violent, bloody,  and over in less than two minutes. A fun side effect they don’t tell you about taking the stims is the total recall you have under their influence. A useful tool from a soldier’s perspective, being able to go over the battle, frame by frame in your mind, picking out where you went wrong. Great in theory, even in practice when you’re fighting alien monstrosities, not so much when the guys at the other end of your rifle are nineteen year old conscripts gripping near ancient technology, the equivalent of natives countering Winchesters, with bows and arrows, it weighs a bit ,ore heavily upon your conscience.

We rolled through three more camps that day on our push to the Military station of Valsgrad, a converted gulag. Each one from that day till my last day imprinted flawlessly upon my mind, I can still smell the blood, taste the cold air, feel the numbness in my fingers and toes. All that horror, but I’m grateful beyond measure that I was not under the effects of a stim when the Russians hit us back. Using their own converted Nefari tech, they made it inside our perimeter undetected as we were setting up camp for the night. It was the first time they used a new nerve agent, and those of us not quick enough with our respirators died the most horrific of deaths I’ve seen to this day. Skin aflame until it turned purple from the pressure, and blood bursting from near every pore.

I never ran faster, nor fired straighter than I did in the next few moments. Fear, and rage worked not as a distraction, but as a tool, a sharpening focus that kept me alive, and ended the lives of those unlucky enough to find themselves against me at that moment. Every shot perfectly aligned, and followed through, each result forever emblazoned upon my mind. The hate that fueled that moment would fade before long, but the horror would stay with me forever.

* * *

My fingers are left the slightest bit raw by the gun oil,  it’s a familiar, intimate feeling that smell of carbon still lingers in the air, even as the exhaust fan, and the thrumming air conditioner work to remove all trace. I savor that smell, as long as I can, before I go nose blind to it, and it becomes just another minor note within the smell of the hotel room. I look at the Colt, laid upon the mostly white towel, it’s weight depressing the over used mattress ever so slightly.

* * *

I’m standing at rapt attention, in a room with a dozen other soldiers, all in the same position. The President is giving a speech, thanking us for our service. It’s a good one, heartfelt, concise, and with a message of hope for the future. She delivers it well too, a strong voice, filled with emotion and gravitas, I can tell now how she had won her position. Her speech ends, and she goes down the line, placing a medal around each of our necks.

She stands in front of me, my head swims with the after effects of my over indulgence the night before. I wonder for a the briefest moments if she can smell the remnants of alcohol on my breath, but I realize that I really don’t care if she can. She places the purple ribbon around my neck, and offers a more intimate and personal thank you than given at the podium. I thank her as well, and she moves on to the nxt soldier in line, my eyes continue to stare ahead as the room breaks out in applause then cheers.

* * *

It’s a year later, and my wife is screaming at me, tears are in her eyes, streaming down her face, her mascara forming black streaks. She’s telling me that I’m not the man she married, that I don’t care any more. God she’s beautiful. Even in rage, her tears brighten her pale blue, and my heart breaks. I want to rush to her, hold her, tell her everything is going to be alright. I know she’ll believe me, it’s what she wants me to say.

But I can’t, I stand there, frozen, staring into the eyes of the only woman I’ve loved, as her face twists back and forth between fury and grief. I want desperately to take away her pain, but I can’t because I know she’s right. A few seconds of concession would just lead to months more of pain and misery. I watch as her eyes harden, and I know I’ve waited to long now, I’ve lost her, and this above all the horrors I’ve seen, all the pain I’ve endured, this one moment shatters my soul.

* * *

It’s four hours ago, I sit sweating in an overcrowded, and long outdated courtroom, with a series of Senators sitting in a long row. They have spent the last three days grilling me and several hundred other soldiers from recent conflicts about our daily lives. About what we did after the war, about our life styles, what we drank, what we took. They brought in charts, and referred to dozens of studies, regarding substance use after war. I knew what they were doing, I knew the whole time, but now they were delivering the verdict.

“It is the ruling of this committee that that no clear evidence linking the use of MiliStims and the adverse effects described by a small number of combatants returning from recent conflicts. The senate finds that Veris Corp. the producer of these drugs has no blame in the conditions of these soldiers.” The Senator pauses, I swear I can see the green twinkling in his eyes as he does, “While we feel a deep sympathy for those who have suffered the horrors of war, we are confident in saying that Veris Corp. is not liable for any damages suffered in that great crucible.”

The gavel strikes, and my hand begins to shake uncontrollably, this time I cannot tell if it is Stim withdrawal, or rage. I can feel the collective weight of the decision crushing the hopes of the men around me. Once again, where I had succeeded in war, I failed at home. This one last thing they needed of me, this one last battle to be won, I could not deliver. All my strength could not hold back the ever crushing persistence of greed and back alley deals. My hands shook.

* * *

The clock reads 9:15.

The Colt feels heavy in my hand, a familiar, intimate weight, I pull the trigger.

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