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Ashes

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Summary

In the not-too-distant future, conflict after conflict has ravaged what was once the United States. Fractured into confederacies, this once Promised Land is now the breeding ground for armies hell-bent on war. Among the soldiers of this landscape is Darren Avery, a decorated Army captain who has risen to the status of hero over the course of a dozen deployments. Despite the praise and honors bestowed on him, Darren finds himself questioning his purpose after returning home from his latest engagement. In the midst of his self-examination, he comes across a handful of underground activists that preach a concept he has never before considered: peace.

Genre:
Scifi / Drama
Author:
Joshua Rutherford
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
1
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
13+

Where are the tracers?

He blinked and they weren’t there. He blinked again and the sky lit up, as line after fatal line streaked red against the night sky. The roar of artillery accompanied the flashes. An all-too-familiar noise to Darren. A symphony of nightmarish victory.

He closed his eyes. The cannon fire – boom boom boom boom boom - stopped. This time he kept them shut for a few seconds, longer than necessary. When he opened them, the sounds of battle had ceased, the lights were nowhere to be found. Not even the stars shone, as the fog had rolled in to drape the rooftop and obscure the night sky.

Darren took another drag. With his free hand he clenched his fist. This is ridiculous. What am I? Some grunt?

He tossed his cigarette over the edge. He threw open the door behind him, its rusty hinges creaking as if to announce his departure. Flight after flight of stairs clapped against his feet as he took them two at a time, effortlessly and with perfect balance. Let’s see a recruit do that.

Inch-thick carpet and the warm glow of sconces met him next. As did Mrs. Leary, with her beagle and plush leather purse. She nodded and smiled in her typical fashion. Darren replied as he usually did, with a stare and brusque nod. On rare occasions, he might stop to pet her dog or offer a word. This was not one of those.

He turned the corner. More sconces. Burgundy doors. Muffled voices from tenants within. Laughing. Talking. Living. Nothing out of the ordinary. As usual.

Another corner. More doors. And tenants behind them. Just as it had been in the hall before. Only this time, there was an unwelcome sight.

A legal-sized envelope resting against the outside of his door.

Darren nearly paused. He exhaled more than needed.

Again. The thought rang through his mind. Another one.

He bent to pick it up. Weighing it briefly, he recalled that the others that had been left in its stead had the same feel and distribution. He opened it, to verify the contents within.

Darren stared down at the gray powder inside. Same color as before. Not quite sand. Or dirt. A little like cremation ashes. Like Esum’s ashes. Or Hollande’s. Or McDaniel’s. But not exactly.

Darren put his thumb to the door panel. It opened without so much as a creak. He went in to be greeted by the sterility of his apartment. He made a straight line for the trash compactor, not caring if there was enough refuse to justify a cycle. He threw in the envelope.

His belt buzzed. Damn, I hate how he times that. Darren drew a black plastic card from its sheath. The display lit up, alerting him to a new message.

11pm. That’s all the subject heading said. The message itself proved nothing more than a photo of a diner, McClaren’s. Darren knew it. On 86th and B Street. Just as he had known of Central Grub. And Forks & Sticks. And Burn’s Coffee.

Darren opened the trash compactor. He grabbed the envelope.

Downstairs, traffic had begun to slow. Some drivers, already sensing their progress coming to a halt, honked. Darren weaved through the now familiar sight, onto the sidewalk of the next block. The street over presented the same condition.

Uptown, the source of the jam made itself heard and seen. Line after line, column after column. The signs and posters. The megaphones. The shouts. And perhaps the most catching: the costumes. A grim reaper wearing a gas mask. A woman in white makeup sporting a hangman’s noose. Then there were those who formed the bulk of the processions, the protestors who wore fatigues while carrying cutouts of headstones.

The first time Darren saw such a display, his blood boiled. The softness of their faces, especially their eyes, had told him one thing: they were not soldiers. They were students, twentysomethings, and other laughable civilians, all of whom had bought uniforms at military surplus stores.

They wore them as though they had earned them. But for all their words, even their fervent cries and shouts, Darren convinced himself they had not. They had never seen war. Or training. Or even the imprint of a boot. They’ve grown up a thousand miles from the front.

Entitled bastards.

Or at least that was what Darren wished he had told them. The second time, when he had come close to voicing his thoughts, he came across one of his own. One with eyes fatigued yet alert, drained but somehow cautious. It had been a man probably ten years his senior, wearing the Urban BDU of the 37th Infantry while carrying a white cross. His stare had met Darren’s, for an instant, before he continued his march.

Now, as Darren traversed the lines of protestors, many like that sole veteran peppered the crowd. He spotted an airmen. Then a marine sergeant. Followed by a sailor, whose left pant leg was rolled up to reveal a prosthetic limb.

From behind, something popped. Darren froze in his tracks. He reached inside his jacket pocket for his automatic, nearly drawing it, when he saw the sparks of a firecracker fizzling out.

He turned back around. Across, he found the sailor, who had also paused. The two exchanged glances before the sailor resumed his march. Darren pulled his collar tightly around his neck before snaking through the mob.

McClaren’s buzzed with a soft glow as empty booths reflected the florescent lights. The bell above the door announced Darren’s presence, stirring the waitress from the screen of her phone. She made a move to the menu tablets before Darren extended his hand and shook his head. The waitress turned her attention back to her phone as Darren approached the lone customer, a sandy-haired and freckled man in the corner booth.

He had spotted him from outside and within a moment, he had sized him up. Pale. He works in front of a monitor, not with his hands. Skinny. Too skinny. Little physical strength. Definitely not military. Or even ex-military. Next to a window, in plain sight. Not careful enough. No street smarts. Another kid. A nobody.

He shot a glance at Darren as he blew at a spoonful of tomato bisque. “You made it.”

“I told you I don’t want any more of these showing up at my place!” Darren exclaimed as he held the envelope before the man’s face.

“You’re making a scene.” The man nodded to the waitress, who did little more than glimpse in their direction.

Darren opened the flap of the envelope and dumped its contents into the soup bowl. It formed a small gray mountain in a sea of red, the top of which stood dry. “How’s that for a scene.”

The man looked down at his bowl before pushing it aside. “You’re upset.”

“You wanna tell me what this is all about? Why you’ve been hounding me?”

The man turned his attention again to the waitress. Darren looked over his shoulder. The waitress had straightened, her gaze fixed on the two of them. Darren turned back to the man, who now set his sights on the video camera above.

“Big Brother is always watching. Everywhere. I knew I would have no chance drawing you to a place without surveillance. Such rarities nowadays are in the remote and far reaches of the country. You distrust me – or what you think of as me – too much to take a chance on such a trip. So I had to settle for someplace close to you, one you’d know, but also one with antiquated technology.” The man paused to sip his coffee as he nodded to the camera above. “AX-370. Still in compliance with government standards, but just barely. Most early models such as those have poor audio, even in environments this empty. Still, the video is solid, which is why the authorities continue to allow its use. Facial recognition will kick in, if the algorithm mandates a surveillance sweep of this locale.”

“Which will pin me with you,” Darren finished.

“Exactly.”

“I could just bash your head into the table, giving the Feds no reason to question my patriotism.”

“Then you’d have no idea what I’ve been sending to you all these nights.”

Darren ground his teeth. He stared long and hard at the man, whose blank face remained unflinching, even after Darren settled into the seat across from him.

“Tell me. Or I make good on my threat.”

“No doubt you’ve seen it before, but in larger quantities. And in blocks. Cinderblocks to be exact. Or at least what’s left of them.” The man picked a pinch of dust from the island Darren had made in his soup. He dropped the granules on the table. “From one of our men in Kharradin.”

“That’s bull. Like any of you pasty slices of white bread would ever venture to a war zone.”

The man’s look shot from the table to Darren. That’s when Darren saw it.

A flash of anger.

Darren interlaced his hands. He waited.

The man dusted off his hands before interlacing his own and leaning in close.

“Contrary to what you might think, Commander Avery, our efforts involve much more than college kids with poster boards and colored markers. That dust right there was collected by a father of four, who has called Kharradin home his entire life. He scooped it up from the remains of what had once been his daughter’s primary school. She didn’t make it.”

Darren sat back in the booth and stared out the window. “What do you want?”

“Our position is clear.”

“Not from where I’m sitting.”

“You were at our meeting, Commander Avery.”

“To make good on a promise. To keep my buddy’s daughter out of harm’s way.”

“You mean Michelle?”

“You know I mean her. Her dad made me promise to look after her before he . . .”

“I see.”

“That’s why I was there. Your quote-unquote meeting.”

“Then why stay for the speeches? Or come back a second time, once you knew our stance on the war? You could have tracked Michelle to a thousand different places. Instead, you chose ours.”

“Your place, huh? Last I heard, the police raided it. A demolition crew made fast work of that abandoned warehouse. Luxury condos going up there soon.”

“Yes, well, perhaps you can put your money down on a new property investment once they start taking applications. Meanwhile, we’ll keep moving forward with our agenda.”

“What agenda?”

“This.”

Darren extended his hands. The man searched his face for some hint of understanding. Finding none, he clarified. “Recruiting veterans to our cause.”

A sudden burst of laughter rang from Darren’s throat as he threw his head back. Tears of amusement welled in his eyes. The man, seemingly not amused, crossed his arms as he waited for Darren to finish.

“Me?” Darren finally managed. “With the likes of you?”

“Why not? Several of your fellow soldiers and veterans have joined our movement.”

“I admit, I’ve seen a few. Not active duty though. And definitely not . . .”

“War heroes.”

Darren’s grin faded. “I was going to say top brass.”

“But you were thinking it.”

“All the heroes I know are dead,” Darren insisted. “They died honorably. For the very rights you take for granted. You’d be wise not to disrespect them.”

“Commander Avery . . .”

“We’re done here.” Darren slid out from the booth to march away.

“Commander Avery!”

A wave of the hand was Darren’s only response.

“My dad was at the Eventide!”

The bell above the exit rang. Once. Its brass hung against the top edge of the door as Darren held it open with one hand, looking back at the man.

The street lamp flickered as a dog howled at a passing ambulance. Its siren faded, as did the dog’s cry.

Darren strolled, looking down at the pair of dog tags in the palm of his hand.

“52nd Infantry. Formed in 2052. They have a proud tradition of being brave and loyal.”

“You knew many in the 52nd?”

“A few. A Sergeant Dunmoore, I believe his name was. Plus, a woman. Dryer. Dywer. No, Dyer. Tough young bitch. Was first in her class at West Point.”

“They call it the Northeast Alliance Military Academy now.”

We still call it West Point. Just like our forefathers named it. You civilians call it whatever you want.” Darren cupped the dog tags. “They usually place these on the cross when a soldier is buried.”

“They did, but a friend of my dad’s sent it back with a box of his stuff. There wasn’t much in it, but my brothers and sisters divided it among ourselves. See.” He handed Darren a worn photo. “My dad kept this of us.”

Darren studied a bent picture of three boys and two girls. “A picture on paper. Your dad was old school.” He flipped to the back to find their names.

“Left to right. That’s Greg, Vince, Ashley, Mary and . . .”

“You. Michael.”

“Mike.”

Darren handed the photo and the dog tags back to him. They walked in silence for a bit, neither one sure of what to volunteer next.

Most of the buildings they passed stood as stark reminders of the riots that had claimed them. Hastily boarded windows sported gaps with broken panes of glass. Torn police tape flapped in the wind. One in three structures showed signs of fire damage. Some with as little affliction as streaks of black soot. Others burnt down to the foundation.

“We close?” Darren finally asked.

“Almost there.”

Darren studied the shells of civilization carefully. He shot a sideways look at Mike, who seemed as one with the ruins. He displayed no hint of concern. Nevermind that drones were probably monitoring their every move, relaying their surveillance to Northeast Command. Darren could possibly make a call to his superiors and try to convince them that he was talking some sense into the kid, in an effort to dissuade him from taking his protests further. It might work. It might not.

What am I doing here? Darren asked himself. I used to spit on guys like Mike. He’s a piss ant. Not worth a second of my time. But look at me. With him. Walking side by side.

They came to a chain-link fence. Mike reached out for the portion that had been cut, lifting it up with both hands for Darren. “After you.”

Darren slipped under as Mike followed, albeit more awkwardly. The two continued on as the gutted neighborhood gave way to one of lit windows and working street signs. Darren recognized the hallmarks of the military’s attempts at gentrification. The military housing was by far the most recognizable, with their standard porticos, beige buildings with white-framed windows and red doors. Some of their inhabitants even walked the streets, as the curfew did not extend to soldiers and their families.

Scattered among the housing projects were offices offering services of every type, to both current and former military members. From relocation to retirement, continuing education to civilian transition, the bureaus boasted benefits not available to most civilians, due to their increasing exclusivity and rising costs. There were so many that even Darren, despite his years of service, could not say for certain what half of them did.

Of all the offices and structures they passed, Darren caught Mike paying close attention to one set in particular: medical facilities. A few bore the subtitle of Northeast Alliance Veterans’ Taskforce, marking them as being directly under the supervision of the military. However, most just displayed the logo for the government agency on their sign or in their window, as the NAVT had outsourced most medical services following the Second Civil War.

Mike’s lips parted as he read the title of one medical office after another. Darren kept at his side, waiting for the moment when Mike would finally clue him in.

That opportunity came as they neared a standalone medical building. Composed of old and weathered brick with large frosted glass windows, Darren suspected it had once been a factory or meat packing facility. No antique sign was left to confirm his suspicions. Instead, a newer, florescent-lit one stood on the lawn, announcing the many medical professionals and groups that inhabited the converted structure.

Darren made a few steps towards the sidewalk that paralleled the building before Mike pulled at his jacket sleeve.

“What?” Darren asked.

“Around the back,” Mike replied.

Darren followed as Mike moved to the rear of the structure, his demeanor more on guard than Darren had seen at any other point that night. As they approached the loading dock in the back, Mike shot glances to his right and left while looking over his shoulder every few seconds. Darren, with his own instincts kicking in, slowed a bit. He scanned the perimeter, finding nothing, which only kept him more on edge.

“Whatever you’re doing, kid, however careful you think you should be, try to look less obvious. You’re as shaky as a new recruit.”

“That’s because I never served. Like I said, my father did. Oh, and one of my brothers.”

“Maybe you should have joined him. A few years in the service would have done you some good.”

“I don’t think so. Not what after I’ve seen . . . and what we’re about to see.”

Darren broke into a quick pace to cut off Mike and stare him in the face. “If this is a trap, I’m warning you, this won’t end well.”

Darren searched his eyes. Brown like a doe’s, they were unlike his own in that they carried no sense of malice or cynicism. Rather, they held an awareness, a degree of wisdom he would have expected of a seasoned general or a village elder.

“It’s not a trap,” Mike declared.

“Your kind would never hold a rally or meeting this close to military housing.”

“Actually, we have. In secret. I promise that is not happening here tonight.”

“Why bring me here, kid?”

“Like I said when we left the diner. It has everything to do with our cause.”

At the loading dock a heavy door creaked open. Darren made a move for his automatic, yet paused at the sight of a male nurse. Not more than thirty, he had bloated cheeks and streaks of blue dye in his hair that spoke of a soft, civilian life.

Inside, the footsteps of the three echoed off the linoleum tiles onto the drywall of the hallway. The nurse put his thumb to the door scanner to open it.

“Sorry for the smell,” he muttered.

The aromas of bleach and rubbing alcohols greeted their noses and eyes, as did a stench so familiar to Darren, one he could not quite identify. Like spoiled fish or expired lunchmeat, it hung in the air under the more pungent scents of the cleaning and sanitary products. Darren chose to breathe through his mouth as Mike held the sleeve of his long shirt over his nose.

The nurse, seeing their struggle, offered them surgical masks. Both gladly accepted.

“Lights,” the nurse said.

The room remained pitch-black.

“Damn it, the voice command is busted again. I got to do it manually.”

The nurse entered the dark abyss. A few footsteps later, the center panel of lights switched on.

Before them, along the unlit wall, rested a row of four surgical chairs covered with blue plastic sheets. Pneumatic arms, two on each side, extended from the back of the chairs to hover over the headrests. On separate appendages extending from the chair bases, to the right and left of each seat, stood forty-inch clear plastic monitors.

Darren did not need the remainder of the lights on to know what the chairs were used for or what services the facility provided.

He turned to glare at Mike. “Is this some kind of joke?”

“No,” Mike replied earnestly.

“You think PTSD is funny?”

“My dad had it. So, no, I don’t find it humorous.”

“Then what’s the deal? We supposed to unscrew the chairs from the floor and use them in some protest or something?”

“Just the two of us? Again, no. Just calm down, now.”

Calm down. How many times had Darren heard that? In truth, he had said it himself, to many a young recruit when one heard gunfire for the first time. Or saw a roadside bomb or a grenade go off. He had always managed to keep calm during the bulk of his deployments. Those to the Persian Gulf or Yemen, Nigeria or the Congo. That is until his tour to Mexico and the Southwest, where he fought the Battles of Eventide, Pendleton and the Rio Grande. Yes, he had stayed calm through all of them. But after, when he returned . . .

“Darren!”

Darren blinked. Mike stood before him, face-to-face. “You OK?”

“I’m fine.” Darren looked to Mike, then to the nurse and back to Mike. “Why are we here?”

Mike turned to the nurse. “Adam here called me. He works the night shift sometimes.”

“Nothing glamorous,” Adam chimed. “I come in a night or two during the week. Mostly to catch up on paperwork, take emergency calls, stock the supply room.”

“We met a few years ago,” Mike continued. “Back then, I had a career at a non-profit, helping the mentally-disabled find relief for their conditions. Some of my patients were even former soldiers.” Mike nodded to the chairs. “This technology had just come out. It was still considered an alternative treatment for PTSD.”

Darren remembered. The news on reintegration technology reached his units in the field in bits and pieces. The brass was reluctant to throw their support behind procedures considered unproven, so official military channels made only passing references to the treatment, when they referred to it at all. Only when soldiers and their families began shelling out their own money for the regimen – and the positive results were demonstrated – did political pressure build to accept it as reliable, and more importantly, compensable.

“I was hired on here around that same time,” Adam added, a tinge of nostalgia in his voice. “And I was one of the first nurses Dr. Rosenstein taught.” He turned to Darren as he stepped behind the nearest chair. “You want to know how it works?”

“Sure,” Darren lied. In truth, he had some idea, having read the literature on it that the army had distributed. Still, he figured the kid might tell him something new.

“These arms help to secure the patient’s head as he or she leans back. Then small cables, thinner than fiber optic ones, extend out from the ‘fingers’ and up the patient’s nose to the brain’s cortex. And this is where it gets really interesting, because reintegration uses technology first used in the 20th century, when they developed LASIK. You see, at the tip of each cable is an excimer laser.”

“Right,” Darren interrupted. “The lasers cut out the traumatic memories. Got it.”

“Actually, it’s not that simple. Memories aren’t just boxed in one section of the cortex. They are distributed. There are duplicates. That means that if one memory trace is wiped out, there are others to replace it.

“Multiples?” Darren raised his eyebrows. “Seriously?”

Adam nodded. “Oh yeah, quite a few. That’s where the screens come in.” Adam pulled one screen before the seat, as though readying it for a patient. “On one, we play a series of images reflecting combat scenarios designed to draw traumatic memories, which give off very specific electrical signals we can monitor on the other screen. Like this.”

Adam circled the chair and waved his hand before the other screen, which flashed to life. Pressing his thumb to the screen, the image of a human brain took center frame, while the edge of the screen displayed vital statistics.

“This is a recorded session from the last patient that sat in this chair, a Lt. Colonel. Drake, Drayser, something like that. She went on a few deployments overseas, but it was her involvement at Eventide that caused the most damage. You can see how the electrical impulses in her cortex light up like fireworks when the images . . .”

“Where the hell did you get those!” Darren interrupted.

“They were taken from her vest cam. All footage we use is from that provided by the Veterans’ Taskforce. Sometimes we pair the video with audio taken on the day of battle, but usually the images are enough . . .”

Adam continued to talk, his lips moving yet his words losing all potency for Darren. He cared not what the nurse said. It did not matter.

Darren stepped closer to the monitor as more video flashed before him. Despite the improvements in balance control and light adjustment, the surveillance still appeared as shaky, its captured footage fractured despite the continuity.

She was moving so fast, Darren thought. She weaved in and out like a lunatic. Or is it because everyone else is running too? Because of the explosions. So many blasts. No time to dig foxholes, to find cover. Except behind the bodies.

“Darren, you OK?”

He turned to find Mike at his side, leaning in towards him. Across, Adam stood by the chair, having paused the video feed.

Darren looked to them both. “Yeah. Why?”

He saw it in Mike’s eyes. And he knew the reason. His response to Mike’s simplest of questions was delayed. Perhaps Adam didn’t pick up on it. But Mike had.

“We should go,” Mike said, his voice as calm as still water.

Mike turned towards the door.

“What’s under the other sheet?” Darren asked.

“What?”

“The other sheet. The one covering the chair in the far corner. You didn’t think I’d notice the one chair with a bulge under its canvas, did you?”

“I . . . I was going to show you that.”

“That’s the reason you brought me here tonight, isn’t it? I mean, you could have showed me this video bullshit at any time. But over there, that’s something special.”

“Darren, this isn’t a good idea. We should go.”

“No, no, I’m not some child you can tease and then just drag away. I want to unwrap my prize.”

Adam stepped out from beside the monitor to stop Darren, but was brushed aside with ease. A few short strides later and Darren found himself in front of the chair. Mike rushed to the headrest, his hands pulling at the top of the linen.

“Please, I made a mistake . . .”

Darren, not listening, pulled down the sheet.

Flesh.

Bone fragments.

An eye, its bottom half-melted.

Strips of skin, clinging to what was left of a face.

Not again.

“What happened?” he managed to ask, his voice a whisper.

“He broke in, during my meal break,” Adam squeaked. “He tried to operate the lasers himself.”

“They can do that?”

“Usually not. The failsafe prevents unauthorized usage, in most cases. I think he tampered with them in frustration. They overheated, damaged his brain. He probably died soon after, but the arms continued to, well, operate. The heat melted him away, a little at a time. A few hours, I guess. The fire alarm didn’t even trip, that’s how slow the heat was.”

“Who was he?”

“Darren . . .” Mike began.

“Who was he?!”

“I checked his ID,” Adam said as he handed a leather wallet to Darren. “Colonel Kevin Willis. A local, from Kensington.”

“You tell his folks?”

Adam shook his head. “Their number is in there, but, I wasn’t sure what to do next. So I called Mike.”

Darren turned to Mike. “Why you?”

Mike straightened. “My friends aren’t all hippies and flag-burners. We care, believe it or not. Adam here knows that some of my contacts on the outside handle grief counseling and funeral arrangements.”

“The military does the same.”

“You think they’re going to tell his family the truth? About this?”

Darren lowered his head, sighing. “Let me do it.”

“You don’t have to.”

“It should be me. I can at least call. Give me that much.”

“OK. Outside.” Mike nodded to Adam. “I’ll message you the details of some people that can help his family.”

“And his face?” Adam asked.

“There may be a guy I know at a funeral home. He’s done reconstructions for some of the bodies that came back from the wars.”

Adam nodded. He pulled the sheet over the body as Darren and Mike left.

Outside on the loading dock, Mike handed Darren an encrypted phone. Darren proceeded to call the colonel’s parents. It was a short call. Darren estimated one, maybe two minutes. He couldn’t be all too sure of what he said, or what the parents said. But he was certain of the mom crying as he hung up the phone and handed it back to Mike.

“Keep it,” Mike said. He dug into his jeans to produce a crumbled packet of cigarettes. He offered one to Darren, who shook his hand to decline. Mike lit his own, then took a seat next to him as Darren pocketed the phone.

The sky was clear, as the fog had dissipated. The city lights, which usually dimmed the stars, seemed to have little ill effect on the scattered points of brilliance above.

“I’m sorry about that,” Mike offered, breaking the silence. “What happened in there.”

“It’s OK, kid. I’m sure you were just as surprised as I was.”

“That wasn’t what I was going to show you, when I sent you that last message. I was actually going to take you to the Morgan Cemetery, to show you the Eventide Memorial.”

“I’ve seen it.”

“I figured. But I was going to point out my dad’s name. Then give you some bullshit speech, off-the-cuff, about how he died so far from his family. How my youngest brother was nine, and asked my mom when dad was coming home, only to see her cry when she tried to explain what happened to our dad.

“Then Adam in there, he texted me about the soldier. He wanted me to come to see for myself. I was going to ask him for a photo when you came in to the diner, earlier than expected. I just figured going together would do us some good. It didn’t.”

Another few moments passed, with thoughts unspoken, the quiet having returned.

“What happened over there?” Mike asked. “At Eventide?”

“You know what happened. Every kid with a tablet, a watch or a phone knows.”

“The broadcasted footage, yes. I’ve seen it. But there was something different about that battle. None of my dad’s buddies want to talk about it. My brother says that those he met, that were there, won’t discuss it. Even with other soldiers like him.”

“That’s because no one else would understand. Only those who were there.”

“Like my dad? I just want to know.”

“A good question for another soldier,” Darren said, rising. “Just not me.”

Darren turned to move when Mike shot up to his feet and pushed him.

“What the hell?!” Darren exclaimed.

“Every one of you assholes tells me not to ask. Like you’re protecting some fucking trade secret. You go on and preach some garbage about how proud you are, how you defend our freedom, all while the rest of us are left in the dark. Then a few of us try to band together and petition this dark-shadow government to stop the deployments, to end the hostilities and save your asses. And all you do in response is blow us off, with your lectures and snide remarks. Even you. I thought you were different. I thought you cared . . .”

“I fucking care!” Darren stepped up to Mike to shove him back. Mike, not expecting such force, fell down three steps to roll on his side.

“Owww . . . .uhhhh!” Mike cried.

From the loading dock, Darren stared down at him. His outburst spent. The sight of the freckled young man did little to stir his emotions. Neither sadness nor anger nor regret haunted him as he descended the stairs, circled around Mike and left.

Four days passed. No envelopes made it to his door. No messages or pictures followed in the wake of that night. Aside from his smoke breaks on the roof, Darren went out only twice during that time. Once for a bag of groceries. The other to watch a few hundred protestors as they passed his apartment building. Try as he might, Darren didn’t see Mike among them.

He wore the same clothes from that night as the week progressed. He slept in his shirt and jeans. His wallet and keys remained on him at all times. As did the phone Mike had given him.

Then on the fourth night Darren ran out of cigarettes.

The inclination to run to the store was absent. As was his craving. Yet his routine compelled him to throw on his jacket, so that he may at least go up on the roof.

When he opened the door, he found another envelope. He nearly went on, not wanting to deal with it.

Then he noticed a small difference. The envelope was manila. Not legal-sized.

He bent to pick it up. He peeked inside.

Gray powder. But not like that of the other envelopes. Darren took a pinch between his thumb and index finger. As he suspected, it was finer than the concrete granules of a cinderblock. It felt smoother, lighter.

Ashes.

His feet found the hallway outside by themselves. Then up the stairwell. Onto the roof. His mind, clear, directed none of his actions or movements. Save one.

On the roof, under the cover of fog once more, he pulled out not a pack of cigarettes but an encrypted phone.

“Hello?” Mike answered.

“The fuckers spoke English.”

“Darren?”

“You wanted to know what made Eventide so different.”

“You mean it? English?”

“Stupid, ain’t it? But it’s the damn truth. You have to understand, everywhere I’ve been deployed has been different. Different people in different cities speaking different languages. I heard Arabic in Yemen, Kituba in the Congo. The guerillas in Columbia had brown skin and black hair and spoke Spanish. Even in Nigeria, the extremists there who spoke English had accents. Everyone in every other country I fought was different from us. In one way or another. Then I was deployed to the Southwest . . .”

The steady hum of the city – around Darren, through the phone line – filled the otherwise silent soundscape.

“And they were like us,” Mike finished.

Darren found himself looking down at his feet, about to choke on his next words. “A PFC I knew . . .” He took a breath. Then he continued. “He died the second he rappelled to the ground at Eventide. His feet had barely touched the dirt. A good shot killed him, through his temple and out the other side, the bullet entering just under the ridge of his helmet. He wasn’t the first guy I’ve ever seen killed.” Darren took another moment to breathe. Fuck me. Why is this so hard? “I turned and saw the fucker who killed him. His rifle was still in the right direction, and the guy holding it hadn’t moved. It may have been his first kill ever. Anyway, my aim was on point and I got him. Hours after the firefight had ended, I went back, to see if I could collect the guy’s dog tags, so his unit couldn’t ID him. Damn if that same guy didn’t look exactly like the PFC.

“That was the lighter side of the battle. The next day we were flanked. No matter how central command responded, those Southwest marines were always one step ahead. I didn’t bother to think why in the first few days, until I was hunkered down in some foxhole. I heard the cries and screams, the commands and shouts. The voices sounded identical.

“That’s when I knew they were too much like us. They trained like we did, fought like we did. In the dust and fog we lost too many of our own to our own because of it. That’s why Eventide was a stalemate. A bloodbath. We weren’t fighting an enemy who was different.”

The pause on the line that followed seemed to last an eternity. As did the noises that echoed through Darren’s mind. The gunfire. The commands. The explosions. The screams. Flashes of soldiers and marines gripping their legs. Their heads. Their guts. Some wore the black and tan BDUs of the Southwest. Others the cobalt and charcoal gray of the Northeast.

We were fighting each other. We were fighting each other. We were fighting each other.

Darren tilted his head. Up high, cascading over the city, he saw them.

The tracers. All those tracers.

“You OK, Darren?”

Darren blinked and they were gone. The sounds and images from his mind. His inner voice. The memories. And the flashes streaking across the night sky.

“Darren?”

“I didn’t call you to share war stories,” Darren replied, his tone once again brusque as he regained his composure. “That part of my life is done now.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“Well, you won’t be glad when you hear what I have to say next. I ain’t one of you. Whatever you think your cause is, this movement you refer to, it isn’t enough. Waving posters and burning flags just pisses off my kind. It’s disrespectful to everyone who has served. You hear me? You protestors are a joke. And no joke is going to be taken seriously by the brass and lawmakers who actually run this country.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’ll join you, whatever you and your friends are. But I’m going to do things on my terms. No aimless marches. No tie-dye shirts. None of that shit. But I will speak out against the war, in my own way, in my own words.”

Darren could hear Mike sigh over the phone. “OK.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t want to lecture you, but it’ll be tough, in a way you’re not used to. You’ll be criticized like never before. And since you’re a soldier, you could face a tribunal.”

“Don’t think I don’t realize that. I know I’m going to piss off every uniform I ever shook hands with. All of them will turn from me. Most will curse my name, saying I fought too many wars or that I’ve got PTSD or something. They may be right. Either way, they’ll hate me for what I’m about to do.”

“Mike, I want to caution you. We’re not militants.”

“I’m not going that route either. Like I said, that part of my life is over.”

“If you won’t march with us, if you won’t resort to an armed standoff . . . Darren, what is it you intend to do?”

Darren craned his neck, finding the fog around and up high had cleared. The stars, having been concealed only minutes before, shone.

“I’m no politician, but I know that officially, we have no diplomatic relations with the Southwest.”

“Go on.”

“For all the battles. The ceasefire. The sanctions. The threat of renewing the war. We don’t hesitate to fire a bullet at our enemies. But for the life of us, we can’t bring ourselves to swallow an ounce of pride and sit down with them.”

“You want to meet with them? The leaders of the Southwest?”

“Fuck no. Their politicians are no better than ours. Haven’t you been listening?”

“Darren, I admit I don’t follow.”

“They’re just like us. Their politicians are like ours. Their soldiers are like ours. I’ve seen your marches. I know I’m not the only anti-war veteran. Which means there has to be some of the same on the other side of the line. When we first met, you mentioned you had a contact in Kharradin. Remember?”

“I do.”

“You think you and your cronies could round up some soldiers from the Southwest?”

“Round up? Bring them here?”

“Yep.”

“That’s a tall order.”

“I know.”

“Once here, what will you do?”

“Stage a protest like no other. With soldiers from both sides of the fight.”

“That is beyond anything I wanted to ask of you.”

“It is a lot, I admit.”

“Before, I mean, with our rallies and protests, the administration has often turned a blind eye to our activities. We’ve been written off as idealists and outsiders. Now, bringing in soldiers like you will catch their attention. Then transporting others from the Southwest . . . for fuck’s sake, our enemies! It’s not just you who will deal with the consequences. Anyone associated with this – you, me, our families, our supporters – all of us are looking at treason.”

“You know the penalty for that, right?”

“Firing squad.”

“I’ve faced bullets before, kid. They don’t scare me. Not after all I’ve been through. But if you’re getting cold feet, just say the word and we’ll part ways.”

For a moment, the line went completely silent, with even the background noise and static muted. Darren thought the connection had been lost or that Mike had hung up.

“OK,” Mike finally said. “I’m in.”

“You think your friends will be on board.”

“We’ll lose a few, to be certain. My inner circle, though, I know I can trust them.”

“You’ve got some calls to make.”

“I do.”

Darren, without the benefit of a cigarette, breathed deeply. Fully. Calmly. For the first time in what seemed like ages to him.

“Bring the enemy to our doorstep,” Darren commanded. “To talk. For peace.”

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