Forgotten Flags by Enoch Daniels

An old space soldier wakes up in the future, and seeks out the descendants of the troops that died under his command; by Enoch Daniels.

Sam fingered the patterns in the little square of fabric. Stars and Stripes. The Old Red, White, and Blue. He wondered that it could mean so much to him and nothing to the woman across the living room. He tried his best to return her hostile gaze with a look of amiable patience.

"You look like an InterGuv man, Mr. Stalliard." The woman, Leta, looked stern. She was a gatekeeper, and he was storming her gates.

"I assure you, I am not," said Sam. "First time I even heard that word was two months ago."

She did not reply, merely sniffed, looking suspicious. They sat in the living room of her farmhouse that could have been a set piece from a hundred years before Sam left Earth. He hadn't seen another living soul for twenty miles around this place. Still couldn't believe he'd found it. The place was old and looked it. Smelled it too. It was shabby in a barely hanging on kind of way.

"What do you want with my Great Granny?"

"Tracey Gunderson is still alive then?"

"She's alive. But she was already pretty old when the Longev therapy came out. We can't afford the Rejuve. She's old, and she's sick. So what do you want with her?"

Longev. Rejuve. Sam hadn't been back long enough to get used to these words. He'd been pulled out of cold storage less than six months ago. That time had been full. A rough debrief from the ship's AI followed by a hair-raising dock with an almost functional Marine Central Sat. A week of rationing and fear as they negotiated with Interguv Central, an entity that hadn't existed when Sam left, for reentry clearance. Then finally a month or more of essentially house arrest for "reacclimation."

Now he had finally begun his search. He had expected to find great, great grandchildren maybe. He had never dreamed he'd meet surviving children.

"I have something for her." He held up the patch, a scrap of a uniform, all that was left of a brave soldier, a flag without a country. The wind howled through the eaves. Sam could see dust pooled in the corners of the small room despite the hermetic sealing. Kansas apparently was still Kansas.

"What if she doesn't want it?"

Sam tried a smile. "I think she might. I've been gone a long time, but I don't think people have changed that much."

Leta cocked her head and studied him. Life had made this woman hard. Her clothes were patched in layers. She wasn't starving, but she knew hunger. Sam thought how he must look to her, healthy and well groomed in his InterGuv-supplied clothing. He thought of the hot meal awaiting him tonight miles and miles from this desolate place.

Finally Leta stood, apparently making a decision. "Come on, then," she said. "But if you upset her, I swear I'll kick your soldier ass right out of here."

Sam wasn't a soldier anymore, but he didn't correct her. He just thanked her and followed down the back hall. His uneven gait thumped on antique wooden floorboards.

The room was dark, save a small bedside lamp. An impossibly old woman lay in bed buried by a pile of blankets. What was visible looked like a sack of bones. Sam thought he was looking at a corpse, but then she coughed and asked who was there.

"It's me, GG," said Leta.

"Food?" The voice was a weak rasp.

"No, GG. Not yet. We have company. A man's here. A soldier. Says he knew your daddy."

Shockingly the sack of bones wound up into a laugh, a long cackle that turned into wheezes and coughs. Leta rushed to the bedside and glared at Sam as she held a glass of dirty water to paper-thin lips. The old woman caught her breath and peered at him, mirth slowly fading from her ancient eyes.

"Young man, my father's been gone a long time," she finally said.

"Yes, ma'am. I've been gone a long time too."

Ignoring Leta, Sam sat on the side of the bed. He stifled a grunt as the bad hip griped at him. Bedsprings creaked under his weight. He gripped the flag like a talisman, like a shield, and he told the old woman her father's story.

Sam told her how Marine Com had sent them light-years away to save a colony moon under alien attack. How they had arrived years too late. He then told her how they had mobilized an assault on the alien host, defeating them and securing the star system for future human habitation. He told her how they had rescued the few surviving human captives and brought them back home safe. He told her how brave her father had been and how he had saved Sam's life. He told her a story of heroes.

Sam didn't tell her the other story. He didn't say how they had driven an alien species near to extinction. He didn't say how the beauty of their bizarre architecture in the weak gravity had brought tears to his eyes as his soldiers had turned it to slag. He didn't say how her father had died in a stupid accident just like so many others had since man first went to war. He didn't say anything about the alien young they had slaughtered in their thousands as they slept in incubators. Or how the human captives they rescued had pleaded for the aliens' lives and cursed his soldiers as murderers. Those same captives had finally helped them forge a treaty with what was left of the alien civ.

Sam also didn't talk about the senseless futility of the whole thing. He didn't mention that Earth was a shell of what it had been when he left. That it would take centuries to build up the resources for another attempt at colonizing the now perfectly safe moon. He didn't mention that with Earth's population reduced to a fraction, colonization wasn't even a concern anymore, much less a priority. If she knew these things, then she didn't need him to tell her. If she didn't know them, more the better.

"He spoke of you often, ma'am. He would have wanted you to have this." Sam held out the flag patch with GUNDERSON across it in block letters. She reached out from her pile of blankets and took it with skeletal fingers.

"My father was a hero then?" She gripped the flag with both hands, trembling as tears ran down the wrinkles in her face.

"He was to me, ma'am," said Sam.

The old woman's face seemed to slowly cave in, and her body shook with heavy, silent sobs. Leta stood and told him that was quite enough. She led him back up the hall and into the front room. When she wheeled on him she looked near to tears herself.

"So, that's it? That's all you have for us? Some stupid piece of cloth and a bunch of old memories?"

"Some things are worth remembering," said Sam.

"And just how is that supposed to feed us? How is that going to keep us warm come winter?"

The words stung, and Sam stiffened. "I'm sorry, ma'am. I wish I had more to give."

Leta looked him up and down, taking in his new, clean clothes and well-fed body. "Looks to me like you've got plenty. Get out, soldier man, and good riddance to you. Making old ladies cry in their beds. Some hero you are!"

Sam stopped at the door, wincing as pain settled in the bad hip. He turned to look her in the eye. "I never said I was a hero, ma'am."

"Oh, but my great, great, great grandfather was, huh?" Her eyes spit acid.

"He was to me," Sam repeated and walked out into the dust lock, letting the inner door seal behind him.

He could hear Leta screaming as he left. "You should never have come back, soldier man!"

On the nearly empty bullet back to the InterGuv facility that was home for now, Sam pulled the stack of flag patches from his pack, HENRIK now on top. He flipped through them like a deck of cards. That flag might not mean anything anymore, but these still did. Each one was a soldier, a man or woman under his command who hadn't made it home.

He looked out the train window at a landscape he didn't recognize. Cities flashed by, blurred by speed. Some were completely dark, others mostly so. He passed through Missouri in an hour, seeing nothing but scattered campfires and primitive villages.

The woman's parting words echoed in his ears, and Sam thought she could be right. He probably shouldn't have come back. He looked up at a night sky darker and more full of stars than any he remembered from his youth. Better to have died out there. He looked away from the window at the small stack in his hands. Flags. Names. Lives. Some things were worth remembering. Grinding his teeth, he wished for sleep as the train flew through the night, through an America that wasn't. Not anymore.

5 comments:

  1. A very well woven sci-fi. Love how the big picture forms around the immediate narrative. Somehow touching and awesome, uplifting and sad. Here is what it means to be human.

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  2. A good story about humanity and humanness that happens to be sci-fi.

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  3. This story could easily have followed any number of real-life/terrestrial wars, which sadly makes it all the more believable. The implication that we'll still be up to our old tricks after endless advances in knowledge and technology makes it doubly sad.

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  4. Though true, it was a sad commentary of humanity. It did nothing for my soul.

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