Monday, November 27, 2017

Star Dust by Phil Temples

A soldier shelters from battle for a moment of repose, and comes across a dying enemy grunt; by Phil Temples.

I creep in and stand just inside the door, listening attentively for over a minute. I hear nothing except for the sound of distant gunfire. There's a slight odor of rotting food, but it's not too obnoxious. I sit down in the only remaining intact chair in the room and take out a pack of cigarettes from my shirt pocket. I tap the pack against my hand. I'm inside of a bombed-out bodega about twenty klicks outside of Sarajevo, the capital city of BosHerz, looking for a safe place to rest for a few minutes and to smoke a fag.

There is a slight movement on the floor off to my right. I see him in the dim light, propped up between the wall and an overturned appliance. Normally, I'd shit my britches at the sight of one of them this close. But he looks to be in pretty tough shape; he's barely conscious. He's vomited on himself. His fur is matted and he's lying in a pool of yellowish-tinted liquid that passes for blood. He's oozing from bullet holes covering his legs, arms, and lower abdomen. One of them has apparently nicked a major artery. I can see he's wrapped a makeshift tourniquet around his leg to stem the flow but it isn't helping much. A modern medical facility could save his life, but out here in the middle of nowhere he doesn't stand a chance. The Rambo is gonna die. I'm sure he knows it. Just like he knows I'm not going to try and save his life. After all, he is the enemy.

"Got an extra smoke?" he asks.

"Naw. Last one." I watch him out of the corner of my eye as I turn my attention to lighting up.

The alien is a big son-of-a-bitch. I'd guess he stands over two and a third meters and weighs close to 130 kilos. Like all the Rambos, this one resembles a cuddly, overgrown panda. Like me, he's a hired mercenary.

I take a drag, and consider his plight. Then I stand up and I walk over next to him.

"Fuck. You ain't gonna try and shoot me if I give you this, are ya'?"

"Got no strength to pull the trigger, man," he sighs. I take the fag out of my mouth and hand it to him. He tries to lift a paw but he can't even take it from me. His arm flops back down onto his lap so I stick the cigarette in his mouth. For a fleeting second, I wonder if he'll somehow tap one last, remaining gram of strength and, with that mouth full of wicked sharp incisors, bite my hand off. I've been told the Rambos are like that. Crazy-ass fighters to the end. Luckily for me, he's tapped out.

He takes in a deep drag. "Thanks, man."

I nod. "What's your number, Rambo?" The Rambos don't have names, only numbers.

"Five Ninety-Two. Second Cav, Blackwater."

"Mercer. Jack Mercer. Blue Scorpions, Third Wave. You must be the guys we've been shootin' at the past two weeks."

"You got that right," Five Ninety-Two replies. "You guys put up a hell of a fight back there in Doglodi. You must have killed off half my squad."

I eye the warrior coolly. My best pal Frank Elbert took a bullet in the forehead the day before. It coulda been from this bastard. But that was yesterday. We're not fighting the war just now. Rambo and me are living in the moment. I'll give him one last earthly delight before he departs my world. By the looks of things, it'll be soon.

"What's the appeal being mercenaries on some far-off planet?"

"It beats staying at home." Five Ninety-Two takes another deep drag, and coughs. Thankfully, he keeps the cigarette clamped tightly between his lips.

"I don't get it," I say. "I mean, I know why I do it. Being a hired gun pays good money. But you guys? What do you need the money for? You have faster-than-light travel. You can explore the galaxy, but instead you come to this hell-hole and hire yourselves out to the highest bidder to fight in someone else's stupid, goddamn war."

"It's for the sport, Mercer. To the victors go the spoils. To the losers, it's the 'agony of defeat.' Remember that old jingle from that old television show?"

I remove the cigarette out of his mouth and take a hit. I stick it back in his piehole. There's a lingering sour taste on the butt along with a yellow discoloration. Never tasted Rambo blood before.

"Kinda rings a bell."

Rambo loses consciousness for a moment. I'm thinking he's bought the farm, but soon he comes back to life. "Where was I? Oh yeah, 'the agony of defeat.' From ABC's Wide World of Sports. Ironic, isn't it? Those Olympic games were held in Slovenia, not far from here, about 500 klicks away, a little over 120 years ago. Back when this continent had some semblance of civility. Yeah, some poor slob wiped himself out on the takeoff ramp during a downhill skiing competition. On our world, we would have shot the bastard dead on the spot. We don't glorify failure the way you humans do."

I chuckle. "Yeah, well, you kinda got fucked up too, getting yourself shot full of holes. Maybe someone should reward you for your failure."

"Prob'ly so."

We share a moment of silence. A nearby artillery shell explodes. The noise scares a big rat; it races across the floor and disappears into a hole in the opposite wall.

"Hey, something I been curious about. How do you guys do it?"

"Do what?"

"You know. Travel faster 'n light?" I don't actually expect him to answer. The Rambos have never revealed the secret of their warp drive to anyone on Earth. "I thought it was one of those universal limits that you simply couldn't overcome. At least, that's what Einstein said."

Five Ninety-Two groans as he shifts his weight slightly. He takes a deep breath then he exhales slowly before answering. "Normally I'd tell you to 'go fish' but seein' as how we're practically buddies 'n all, I'll let you in on part of our little secret. We don't go faster. We go around."

"Huh?"

Rambo groans again. Despite his jovial demeanor, I can tell he's in a lot of pain. The Rambos are ornery, vicious, creatures who rarely speak more than a dozen words in public. For him to be talking this much, I figure he must be out of his mind with pain. I look at him in a new light. Actually, I feel some pity for him.

"Sorry, man," I say. "I got no morphine."

"S'alright. Wouldn't work on me, anyway. Our physiology is different. But the fag's a nice parting gift." He spits up some yellow blood; it dribbles down the side of his mouth. He resumes his explanation.

"Our spaceships don't actually move across normal space. They squeeze around and through it. They compress space ahead, while inflating it behind. Your Einstein was correct. We're just applying physics in a different way." He pauses to cough up more yellow blood. "That's all I know about it. I'm a soldier, not a rocket scientist."

"Roger that," I say. The cigarette in Rambo's mouth has burned down to a small stub. He spits it out but it lands in his fur. He lacks the energy to remove it so I reach down and brush the butt off him and onto the floor.

"I guess it's the end of the road for you, huh Five Ninety-Two?"

"Yeah. Let's do this, Mercer. Put it right between my eyes. I'm in enough pain, I don't wanna feel no more."

"Okay. Got any last words?"

"Fuck you, asshole."

"Works for me."

I pull out my Glock, take aim, and pull the trigger. I'm momentarily deafened by the thunderous explosion. Five Ninety-two's brains are splattered against the wall.

"May you return to star dust someday," I say, standing over the corpse. "But not until that rat eats you and shits you out."

3 comments:

  1. Sentience, war and mercy in conflict. Raw and powerful, many thanks, Ceinwen

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  2. maybe not respect for each other but acceptance at the end.
    Fine story with a totally appropriate ending.
    Mike McC

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  3. Good sci-fi with effective character development and realistic dialogue.

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