After the Fire
Adrian Huxton had fallen asleep
alone. He awoke with a shadowy figure
beside him in the darkness. He reacted on
fifty-year old instinct; his adrenaline glands pumped and the ancient implants
embedded in his brain got to work. Time seemed
to slow but it was really his mind and body moving at impossible speeds. He grabbed it with one arm and snatched his
sidearm off the night table with the other.
“Dad it’s me!” a young voice shrieked.
The free-floating white orb of the lamp revealed his teenage daughter
sitting on the edge of the bed. She had
his brown skin, black hair, and blue eyes.
Hers were red-rimmed and her cheeks streaked with tears.
Adrian dropped his handgun and sat up. “Ally what are you doing here?” He checked the alarm clock. It was 2:30 AM. Alyssa whimpered and withdrew. He grabbed her bony shoulder and clung with desperation. She was clearly in pain and he needed to help her. “Hey, hey baby it’s perfectly okay you just startled me. What’s going on?”
“I can’t talk about it I’ve changed my mind. I’m sorry for waking you dad.”
“No!” she jumped. Adrian stretched a smile across his scarred face. “When I got home last month I promised you that you could tell me anything and it’d be alright, remember? Take it from the old soldier; don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
“Okay, I will then.”
Ally snuggled next to him and hugged her knees to her chest. She'd thrown on a stained white t-shirt and-“are you wearing tights?”
“Yes.” She smiled sheepishly and patted the black fabric hugging her legs. “Amy did it and she said it was super-comfy so I tried it-and it is.”
The thought of his second in command, confidant, lover, and savior dragged his heart up. “She did that.” Warmth rushed through him. “Now what’s the problem Ally?”
“I-I’m still thinking about mother and Terry. I keep thinking they’re going to climb through the window or break down the door. I’m scared and I feel so alone in my room that it hurts. I just wanted to sleep with you tonight.” Adrian’s heart had dealt with watching dozens of combats and subordinates-his adopted children-die. He’d watched their agony and tears, and scene the expressions of hundred of people he’d killed in person. That meant nothing compared to the pain he felt watching his own likeness sobbing next to him. That heart melted like microwaved butter. He hugged her against his chest and planted a kiss on her forehead.
“Of course you can.”
“Thanks dad” she hugged him back. “Didn’t Amy used to comfort you when you couldn’t sleep?”
“She did.” Adrian wasn’t sure if it was grief or the implants degrading but his eyes conjured an image of a tall, pale redhead with green eyes brighter than any orb hugging Alyssa from the other side. “She couldn’t wait to see you again, she was so excited.”
“I miss her. I know thinking about her hurts you so much.”
“It does. I miss her too.” Adrian turned his eyes to Alyssa and Amy vanished.
He yawned. “We get up in four hours. Lets go back to sleep we’ll talk in the morning.” He fell back onto his pillow and stretched is arms to full wingspan. Alyssa dropped beside him and rested her head on his elbow. Her hair fell just far enough off her temple so he could see that jagged scar. She closed her eyes and a smile slowly spread from ear to ear.
Fourteen year olds were a vulnerable species-Huxton mused. They wanted to be adults and demanded the same responsibility as an adult but they still were easily scared and naïve like children, which made their forays into adult behaviors all the more prone to disaster. Fourteen was still a baby. “Goodnight little one” he murmured and shut his own.
He heard a long sigh and a sleep-muffled “I love you dad.” Then consciousness faded and he was dreaming of broken spaceships drifting through the vacuum.
When he awoke her head was snug on his shoulder and a thin arm was strung across his chest. Huxton smiled and ran a hand through her brown hair. The sun had risen and its ruddy light streamed through the blinds across the bed. He checked the clock; 6:30 AM. “Up! Up!” he said and shook her. Her eyes opened.
“Ugh.” She yawned and propped herself up on her elbows.
“Good morning little one” Adrian said and planted quick kiss on her cheek. The grin just wouldn’t tear away from his face. The atrophied muscles in his face could barely keep up.
“Hey, it’s too early” she said.
“If this were still the fleet I’d have been up, eaten breakfast, and on duty for an hour by now.” Alyssa grimaced. Adrian tensed his muscles and leapt out of bed in a perfect back flip. His left leg buckled on landing and he dropped to his knees. Pain lanced up his leg. “Augh, fuck!”
“Dad!” Alyssa cried.
“I’m fine. I just keep forgetting I’m old and crippled.” Adrian massaged his left leg. A long red scar ran down his calf from knee to ankle. Beneath that his tendon was gone, a casualty of the last battle he’d ever won. He grabbed a black brace of his night table and slapped it on the offending limb.
“Dad, here” Alyssa tapped him on the shoulder and offered a hand. Huxton let her pull him up with a grunt.
“That got you up fast.”
She giggled. “Why don’t you get your leg replaced regrown? It’s expensive but you’ll have a new leg.
Huxton tested his arms. His left functioned perfectly but his right was incapable of pushing back or pulling forwards. “I don’t want a new arm. This is the body I was born with and I’ll die with it. I’m not replacing it.”
“Not even a cybernetic limb? You could get some cool adaptations like hacking spikes or an airgun attatchment. And you’ll get super-strenght by default.”
Huxton shook his head. “No thank you. I’ve got enough of those up here” he tapped his head. “You’d better hurry; breakfast is going to be on the table in twenty minutes.”
“Of course.” She leapt up and scampered off with a parting tap on his shoulder. Huxton swiped at her but missed. He sighed and walked into his bathroom. He did his normal shower and shave. He placed a small computer to his temple and watched the display scroll over his mirror. His implants weren’t radiating anything hostile into his brain. They were all showing degraded broadcasting and he might have to worry about the number-four slot having and inkection. He ran a test. Time slowed so the bird outside took a minute to make the flaps across his view. The warm sunlight from his window, the honking of cars outside, and the smell of aftershave all came in with much greater detail. He took it all in and made a few high-level trigonometry calculations. Then he released. Still good. Those implants couldn’t be gotten anymore: the empire was closed to the outside now and he wasn’t getting inferior replacements.
He strapped his weapon belt on over his briefs. Then he dressed up in slacks and a button-down t-shirt that showed off the colorful tattoos covering his arms. His clothes were all crisp and folded and he made sure to get the buttons perfectly polished. His sidearm was checked and holstered. Finally he pulled a knife from his nighttable. The blade was six straight inches of black graphene. On that was emblazoned ‘A. Huxton.’ A grin formed on his face and the scent of rose perfume touched his nostrils. “Thanks Amy.” He walked down the hallway to the kitchen. There he threw some bacon and eggs on the griddle and poured two cups of Belrair juice.
Alyssa bounced out of her room ten minutes later. Huxton raised his eyebrows at her; “Well you dressed up fancy.” Alyssa was wearing a navy blazer Huxton had bought her last week with a fuzzy pink sweater beneath. On her legs were a denim skirt and more black tights. She’d overdone the lipstick-again-and had two black eyes-again.
“This is fancy?” Alyssa giggled. “You’re out of the military, dad. This is pretty normal.”
Ugh. “Well excuse me.” He beckoned her.
“Who punched you?”
“What?” Huxton grabbed a napkin and dabbled away her eye shade and highlights until she looked quite grown up and not unfortunate.
“You’re not going around with two black eyes. And go easy on the hair glitter.”
She looked in the mirror on the far wall and her mouth formed an ‘o’ of surprise. “Since when did you learn about makeup?”
“Amy taught me. So I could deal with you.”
“Wow.” She nodded. “You should get a job that requires a tuxedo. You’d look good in one.”
Adrian laughed. “We’ll see about that. I’m pretty happy with my job now.” Alyssa pressed a button on the wall and the light blue steel went transparent. Early dawn light illuminated the room. Their penthouse atop the tallest apartment complex gave them an unobstructed view of Tollyon Prime for hundreds of miles over the glittering city. The sun was just over the ocean a brownish all of fire. The clouds were deep shades of red and purple. Prime stretched towards them the fingers of the wharfs reaching for the light. Lesser buildings poked into the foreground around theirs and the space elevators rose in a cluster on the left side of the view. Immense cargo cars raced up and down their length.
“This never gets old” she gasped and reclined in her chair. Huxton slapped a sizzling plate of crisp fried eggs and greasy bacon before her. He sat down across and began eating. He pulled a flask from its holder and took a long drink. Hot alcohol ran down his throat.
“What’s that?” Alyssa asked.
“Vodka, want to try?” he held it out. Alyssa needed a few seconds to recover from her surprise.
“Yes of course!” she took and put the nozzle to her lips. Instantly her cheeks flushed and she descended into a coughing fit. Adrian took the flask back and slapped her on the back. “What is that?”
“I think I just drank acid!” she downed the rest of her juice and winced.
“Oh to be fourteen and so new to the world” Adrian replied.
“Oh come on.” She rolled her eyes and looked out the window again. “Seriously, that’s a beautiful sunset.”
“Its pretty good” he said between bites. “You haven’t seen the view on Volantis though. When the sun rises three gas giants accompany it so there’s four balls of light glowing in the sky. Their light would reflect off the ice covering the mountains and light up the clouds. Amy had a perfect view from her house.”
“How many different sunrises have you seen? It must be a lot” Alyssa asked.
Adrian tried to remember. It had been so many years and so many planets that he couldn’t recall. “I think hundreds of them. There was the dust storm on LH-486 when the sun illuminated the clouds, then the red giant on Atlos, then I saw two years of them on Grahm. When the sun rose during that siege it was blood red and glowed against the smoke and fire coming from the city. Me and my boys said it was taking the dead away to hell.”
He was suddenly standing atop Grahm’s iron fortress. The Imperials had landed the night before. His soldiers had stopped them-somehow. The dead were stacked three deep at his feet and drowned in a lake of blood. He looked through the faces on the ground. All of them he could put a name to. Sitting there frozen in agony or surprise they were all indistinguishable. Death had claimed their identities.
Alyssa circled the table and threw her arms around him. “We’re okay dad. We’re fine.”
Adrian opened his eyes. He was back in the kitchen of his own house with his little girl holding him. “This sunrise is the best, though. I’m sharing it with you.” He hugged her back.
After breakfast grabbed their bags and rode the elevator ninety stories to the lobby. The doorman happily opened the double glass doors. They stopped on the threshold by mutual decision. Adrian took her in his right arm. She put her right around him. They walked outside into the grimy streets A steady murmur of voices and car engines filled the air. It was punctuated by the occasional shrieking car horn or roar of a low flying transit craft. Icy autumn air blasted over them. Adrian didn’t mind. Alyssa shuddered and huddled closer. “Do you want to go back for your jacket?” Adrian asked.
“I’ll be fine it’s going to warm up later.” She pulled a red scarf with marching soldiers stitched into the wool from her bag and wrapped it around her neck. “So what do you have planned for today?” she asked. A crowd of women in flamboyant dance costumes nearly ran them down.
“It’s going to be a busy day. I have a couple of group sessions with my patients in the morning. After lunch I have a consultation with Commander Gorden. We’re working on a new fleet doctrine. That’s all I can tell you.”
“Seriously? Its not like I’m a spy!” Alyssa pointed a finger gun at him and grinned. They passed under an arch forty stories high. The steeple towers rose for another thousand feet until they left view.
“The MoI says you are. I’m calling security!” His left hand snapped out faster than human eyes could follow and grabbed her wrist. She burst into giggles and almost ran into an old man.
“Hey!” he said and yanked her back. She pulled away. With its bicep severed by an old wound his right arm gave way without struggle and she burst free. Her momentum carried her into a mountain in a heavy business suit.
“What the fuck!” he shoved her hard. Adrian shifted his stance and caught her with his good arm. The man rounded and glowered down the bridge of his nose. His square jaw ground teeth.
She was horrified. “Oh my god I’m so sorry I just slipped!” The man rounded on them. He was several inches taller than Adrian and thick as a tree. His face slowly reddened.
Adrian braced himself for the confrontation. “Are you alright?” he asked.
“No I’m not. I was rushing to work and she slammed into me!”
“We’re sorry. Shit happens.” Adrian broke eye contact and pulled Alyssa away. The man shifted half a step so he was blocking them again.
“I was having a horrible day in this awful job and then you had to run into me. You know what? Fuck you!” he advanced a step.
“I’m sorry, okay I didn’t even hurt you” Alyssa whimpered. She hid behind Adrian; he felt her face buried in the back of his shirt.
Adrian saw blood in those green eyes. “You’re going to be late for work” he said. The man’s fists clenched. “You’re missing work to get angry at a young girl” he insisted. The man took another stepped forward and stomped on the pavement. “You’re going to attack a young girl.” A crowd was forming around them but despite Alyssa’s pleading no one intervened. They were too busy gaping at the monster. As for him, Adrian had seen his behavior before. This asshole was having a rough time and wanted to explode. He didn’t care he was targeting a defenseless kid he was going to beat her into a pulp so he could feel bette. Selfish fucking cunt he was. Adrian would just have to beat him until he couldn’t. If he actually landed a hit on Ally, Adrian would beat him until he never could again.
The old war engine grinded into gear. Adrenaline flowed like blood, adding to the effects of his implants. Adrian planted his bad leg on the ground and let the brace hold it upright. “I’m giving you one chance to stop,” he growled. The man lunged forwards. Adrian’s right boot connected with his chest. Ribs cracked, muscles tore, and his sternum folded an inch into his chest. Before the man could gasp six inches of graphene were digging into his thumping carotid artery. “Go to work or I will kill your family. Do you hear me? You fuck with my kid and I’ll make you watch what I do to yours!” Adrian spat.
The rage faded from his eyes and his breath came in ragged painful gasps. “Okay no worries. I’m sorry.” He backed away slowly then turned and ran into the crowd. Adrian returned the knife to its shoulder holster and hugged Alyssa so she could shake against his arms. His body gave out and sagged against her.
“I’m sorry dad,” she cried and soaked his collar. The crowd closed in talking about that asshole and the crazy father protecting his poor girl. A teenage boy and girl Adrian recognized from Alyssa’s group of friends ran forwards.
He shook his head hard. With the adrenaline gone his scarred body felt weak once more. “You did nothing wrong there. That monster should’ve accepted your apology and kept walking. It’s his fault for getting angry. It’s his fault he almost died.”
“Alright I guess. Thanks dad I don’t know what I would’ve done If you hadn’t come home.” They separated. The teenagers began rubbing her shoulders. “Hey Sally and Eric.” She smiled at them.
They resumed the walk to school with two more sets of parents and kids tagging along. Eric Daroh was on the left trying to keep his mother from putting her arm around him. On their right Sally Lelah held hands with her mother. Both teenagers were dressed up in nice clothes while their mothers wore business dresses.
“I love the outfit” Sally said and took Alyssa’s free hand. She shuddered but not in an agonized way.
“Thank you it’s new. You look so pretty,” Alyssa said. Sally was wearing a neat black jacket that highlighted her platinum hair, and a flannel skirt and tights.
“I’m the prettiest though,” Eric said and spread his arms. He wore a button down shirt and slacks. Everyone laughed.
“So where exactly do you work Adrian?” Ms. Lelah asked.
“I’m a military consultant and a therapist at the Lord Verger memorial hospital,” Adrian said. “You’re a…sorry my memory’s drawing a blank.”
She laughed. “I’m the vice president of Carmin finances. Military therapist is a selfless job good for you.” She smiled at him.
“Thank you. He returned it. Too much smiling and not enough glaring was going to soften what little edge he had left.
“It takes a lot to be a single working father,” Mrs. Daroh said. They reached the bus stop where a crowd of kids and a few parents were gathered. Alyssa broke contact and followed Sally into the crowd.
Adrian shook his head. “I spent too many years on a cold warship watching people die. I love this.”
“That’s nice. You two look cute together. You know, between you and me I knew what happened with her mother.” She leaned in. “I did my best to keep Ally at my house as much as possible so she could be away from them. I’m glad you’re home. She needs you.”
“Thank you” Huxton said and frantically searched for something more meaningful to say.
“Of course” she patted his shoulder. Nothing came so he dug around for other conversation topics.
“So what do you think they’re talking about over there?” Alyssa and Sally were on the edge of a circle of kids and ensconced in each other’s arms.
Mrs. Lelah laughed. “Oh, well actually it looks like they’re flirting.”
She was infuriatingly hysterical at his confusion. “Watch them closely.”
Huxton did. The girls were just a little bit closer than friends would be. Their words generated unusually high pitched laughter and overemphasized physical reactions. Alyssa wasn’t patting Sally’s back she was playing with her jacket. Sally had one hand right against Alyssa’s collar, two fingers slid into it and rubbing her bare neck. Even as he watched Alyssa planted a kiss on her cheek and held it for ten seconds too long. “Well I don’t have to worry about her getting pregnant.”
Mrs. Lelah burst into laughter. “Oh that’s one way to put it.”
Perhaps she was laughing at the oddity of his perfectly logical statement. “I can see it. I like it. Are they actually together?”
“I haven’t heard anything but Sally is definitely taken by Alyssa.
The yellow bus came into a landing and the kids streamed aboard. “Hang on Ally” Adrian said and took her shoulders. Sally planted a kiss on her cheek as she left and he felt that shudder again.
“Goodbye dad” Alyssa gave him a kiss of his own.
“Wait” Huxton pulled her in until they were nose to nose. “Coffee is a good first date. I recall Mrs. Lelah saying Sally’s addicted to it.”
“What?” Her cheeks flushed scarlet. She went from worry to shock to excitement. “How did you know that?”
He winked at her. “I’ll save that for tonight. Get on the bus.” One final kiss on her forehead and then she was gone. And he felt alone and cold.
“You look lost” Mrs. Lelah said. He nodded as the bus took off. “I used to see you in the news after your exploits. You’re a tough guy you’ll be fine and so will she.”
He smiled at her. “Thank you Mrs. Lelah.”
“Call me Diane.” A cold wind blew through. Diane hunched her shoulders and hugged herself in her purple dress.
“How are you warm in short sleeves?” she demanded.
“I’m a tough guy.” She laughed.
“Very nice. So how’re you getting to work? Lord Verger is thirty blocks away” Ms. Lelah asked. She grabbed his shoulder.
“I usually walk. It’s only about ten blocks from here.”
“Oh nonsense. I’m waiting for a company flight here. I’ll give you a ride you’re not too far out of the way.”
“Thank you” he said.
A sleek black craft landed. “That’s our ride.” She opened the door then closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I’m ready to start my day, how about you?”
“Lets do this.” He gave thumbs up.