The Major didn’t flinch when a mortar landed nearby. He was young for a Major but his superiors had a short life expectancy so advancement through the ranks was only a matter of survival. A private crawled over to him from among the rubble of a building that had stood yesterday.
The young man trembled. He probably suffered from shell shock or whatever fancy name doctors called it now. There were no meds for him so the Major mentally put him on the roster to go back to base for a few weeks when they next had troop rotations. Otherwise, the private would get himself killed. Either by freezing up at the wrong time or throwing himself into a reckless situation. The Major was never sure what they were thinking at that time. Maybe they wanted to escape the mental torture or to prove they weren’t cowards. He thought either thought was foolish.
The Private swallowed before he spoke. “Sir, we have the enemy moving on our flank.”
“Thank you, Private.” He dismissed him.
The Major’s adjunct said next to him, “Just as you predicted, Sir. Should I put into action the plan?”
He glanced at her. She was older than him, but she had followed him when he survived situations that others hadn’t. He had explained to her he wasn’t some lucky charm, instead he analysed the situation and acted in a logical way that had the best odds of survival.
Who would have thought growing up in a scientist commune would make him a good soldier? He knew his parents would have been horrified, as they were pacifists.
The Major nodded to his adjunct and she disappeared to make sure the Claymores taken from a hidden bunker last month were armed and ready.
Another mortar hit close enough that it shook the ground and dislodged a large piece of concrete near him. The Major could hear sobbing as the dust settled. Probably from the young private who had come to tell him about the soldiers on their flank.
His adjunct returned. “Everything is in place, Sir. How long before you think they’ll find our surprise?”
They would all know when the others found the present they had left for them. The enemy would die and not from surprise either. He was disturbed by the thought. It had been a long time since his conscience had any objections to his actions.
He asked his adjunct, “Do you ever get tired of the killing?”
She looked at him with a slight frown. “I’m not here for the killing, Sir. I’m here to save lives. Sometimes that means others have to die.”
He agreed silently. Maybe that was his mistake. When he ran away from home, he had thought the war would offer him excitement. He had never thought about the sacrifices he would make. Or the lives he would have to take.
Men knelt with their hands on their heads. Most of them stared at the ground. Only the man at the end of the row glared at him. He would be the officer. Supposedly, more educated than the masses, he was to be in command. The Major was not impressed with his command decisions. He had superior armament and yet; he had been ousted within a week by a small group of fierce but untrained militia.
The Major approached him with his adjunct, who trailed in his shadow. He stopped in front of the officer. He had neatly trimmed hair and his uniform still had that starched look of being recently laundered. The officer spat at his feet. His adjunct surged forward to mete out punishment, but he put out his arm to stop her.
He said calmly to the man. “What is your name, soldier?”
The muscles in the man’s jaw jumped as he ground his teeth. His eyes were fierce with hate and of course shame.
The Major pitched his voice so the others could hear him. “Your country is dead. You are merely fighting over the scraps. This city belongs to the people who live here and not some defunct government that lost its teeth years ago. There is still place in this city for new citizens, but there isn’t enough place for another government.”
He fixed his eyes on the officer. “Those that still insist this land belongs to anyone but the people, will be executed, all others can sue for amnesty. I ask again, what is your name, soldier?”
The man spat again. “You are not worthy to have my name. You are a street punk with thoughts of grandeur.”
He could hear the propaganda in his tone as well as his words. The Major eyed him before he answered, “I think you are the one who is deluded. Well, you might change your mind after a while.”
The city was short of people and they were worried about rebuilding and bodies were needed for that. The officer would be put to work until he either died or changed his mind. He waved to his adjunct and the woman jerked the man to his feet and marched him away.
When the Major looked back to the prisoners, one of the men looked at him. The Major approached him and raised an eyebrow.
The man cleared his throat and said, “My name is Martin. I was conscripted two years ago. I don’t care who is in charge, I just want to be left alone to live my life.” There was a Hoorah from some of his soldiers.
He smiled at the man. “That is what we all want.”
Another asked cautiously, “Can I bring my family?”
Yet another called, “Yeah, I haven’t seen my wife and kids in almost two years.”
The Major looked at the men and said fiercely, “What is life without family?”
The Major slammed the empty glass on the table and motioned for another one from the bartender. The man came over to him and flicked his eyes to the ceramic jar on the counter. The jar was sealed closed with a wax seal. In the design of the decal there was a name illustrated in beautiful illuminated letters.
The bartender waved to the jar with his head. “Family?”
The Major took a sip of his drink. “More than family.”
The bartender grinned. “Yeah, family can be horrible and idiots on top of all that. I take it this one was one of the good ones.”
He let out a breath. Memories overwhelmed him. He didn’t want to cry. He had hundreds of men die under his command or right next to him in the line of fire while he had been spared. And yet none had made him sentimental as losing his adjunct.
That fool woman had trusted him to keep her alive and a stray bullet had thrown his luck into his teeth.
The bartender topped up his drink. “Did you fight in the war?”
“A few of them.”
He realised he was sick of the fighting. He had never thought that would be true when he left Freedom.
“Are you heading back to the fighting?” the bartender asked politely.
“No,” and he realised, at that moment, it was true.
The bartender leaned forward, now interested. “Oh, and do you have any plans for where you are going next? There aren’t many places for ex-soldiers anymore.”
He pulled the adjunct closer and knocked back the drink.
The Major said, “No idea, but that never scared me before I don’t see why it should now.”
He tipped the bartender and left.
The waves crashed against the hull of the anchored ship. Alexei ran a hand through his salt-encrusted hair and yelled towards his brother. “That is the last of it.”
Sergei asked, “Do you think the equipment was damaged when it came in?”
He stared at the rough seas which had almost swamped the small ship several times in the course of bringing it in to shore.
Alexei said, “Nyet, it came off a sub. It has already been in the water when I extracted it. This little bit of splashing will be nothing. Besides, it was made for the Navy. They make things to be dunked a bit.”
Sergei patted his brother on the shoulder. “Thank you for this. It means a lot to me.”
This would change their lives. His brother’s more than his own.
Alexei said, “I was leaving anyway. Why the heck did you pick this place though?”
He gestured to the desolate wasteland which was the coast. The buildings were constantly battered by the sea and the weather. There was the start of some large piers which would act as a harbour. They were being made from the rubble of old buildings.
Sergei grinned. “My wife grew up here. She has a lovely stone house which overlooks the new shoreline.”
Alexei’s eyes widened. “What? You mean the mansion?”
Sergei laughed. “This used to be an elite village for the rich and famous. The house was her father’s, but he is dead now. All of them are dead now. She wants the house, to feel secure.”
Sergei went all serious as he said, “We have been trying to have a baby. She has already had one miscarriage.”
Alexei said, “Why the heck would you want to bring a child into this mess? The world has gone to the dogs. We are just waiting around to get roasted and eventually meet our maker.”
Sergei wrinkled his nose at his brother’s pessimism. He had always been like that. He had a reason for it though. Alexei had been part of the Navy and he had seen what his country had done in the name of security. He had made the difficult choice to leave instead of having to kill his own friends because they wanted to be free.
Sergei looked at him significantly for a while before he said, “Stay, Alexei. You might like it here. At least be comfortable as you roast. There is some comfort in settling down and being with someone instead of being alone.”
They both looked up when a woman called. Alexei sighed when he saw the warm look in his brother’s eyes. His brother was not a man of many words, but they were both big on emotion. Sergei loved this woman and if Alexei wanted to be secure, he would have to stay.
After all, he understood the woman and why she wanted to stay in her father’s old house. In the horror which was the world, sometimes, it made sense to hold on to something you knew. And Sergei was the only family he had.
Sergei grabbed Alexei and pulled him down behind cover. “Don’t get yourself killed, you idiot. The gear isn’t worth our lives.”
Alexei brushed off his brother’s hand. “Like heck, it isn’t. I stole that equipment fair and square and I am not letting a bunch of bloody punks steal it. Now pass me that rifle.”
Sergei gave in and passed over the rifle. They didn’t have much in the way of armament. The bandits had been raiding up and down the coast for months and had been collecting as they went. Besides, they had greater numbers than they could keep throwing at them.
They would have been completely defenseless if it hadn’t been for Alexei, who knew how to make his own bullets from pretty much anything, and the gunpowder he had brought with him when he had defected. Sergei readied the shotgun and moved after his brother shot at the bandits, who were hopping from rubble to rubble, trying to get closer.
The prize was the almost completed desalination plant they had been building. They both crouched down as their shots were returned.
Then they heard the sharp bark of an assault rifle. Someone cried out in pain. Then another and another. There were cries of panic and Alexei stood up and took out some men who had been incautious.
There was a long silence, then a young man came out of the buildings. He had his gun slung over his shoulder and he walked with complete disregard for his safety. When he got closer, he asked, “Everyone alive on your side? Any injuries?”
Sergei called out, “All alive and uninjured. Was that you?”
The man said, “Mmm. I don’t like bullies. Sue me.” His tone changed and he asked, “You guys have any food?”
Alexei frowned and he knew his brother didn’t trust the stranger, but he did just save their lives.
Sergei grinned as he said, “My wife is cooking some stew. You are welcome to share our meal. I’m Sergei. This is my brother Alexei.”
The man offered his hand. “Jephry, Jephry Harold.”
He could tell he was not used to the name. Sergei wasn’t sure if it was his real name or if he hadn’t been using his name recently.
The soldier grinned at the hostess of the large mansion. “This is a fine meal, Ma’am.”
Sergei growled, but there was no heat. “That is my wife. No flirting.”
She smacked Sergei as she passed him. “Quit being silly. Can’t you see this boy has been through a lot?”
Sergei snorted. “He is about the same age as us.”
But he knew what his wife meant. There was an innocence in his eyes which was very rare in soldiers.
Alexei sat down and rubbed his hands together to try to warm them.
Sergei asked concerned, “Is anything broken?”
He said, “Some fine shooting from our friend here as there isn’t even a dent. We should be able to finish setting it up tomorrow.”
He blew on his hands. “I thought moving here I would get warmer weather. And there is nothing out there. No girls, just grisly fishermen.”
Sergei watched his brother. He knew he wouldn’t be staying for much longer. His brother was plagued with wanderlust, which was a dangerous thing in this day and age. Maybe a city with a lot more people could keep his interest for longer. It wasn’t like there was much out there for his brother, anyway.
He couldn’t go to any of the countries which still had formal governments as he would be arrested and sent back to Russia as a traitor. Only the city-states were safe for him. And every day there were more of those rising out of the ashes of the old governments.
Sergei changed the subject and turned to the soldier. “So, Jephry, are you sticking around for a while?”
He shook his head and took another bite before he explained himself. “I’m looking for a friend. They said she was in this area of the world.”
He raised an eyebrow and asked, “Oh, a lady friend?”
He said, “She was my teacher. I heard she is married now. No, she has some work which I think might be worth helping her with.”
“Aye?” Sergei asked.
He added. “Have you heard of the weather shields?”
He nodded. It was a dream to live in one of those. To not have to worry about the extremes. He had thought of that when he had asked his brother to liberate a desalinator from the navy.
“Well, she is working on those. I think I might help her out for a bit. Get away from the killing for a while.”
He could agree with him. He looked at Alexei when he said, “The killing follows you, I’m afraid. But it is nice to do something which will keep people alive instead of making them all dead instead.”
He worried over his brother’s darkness. Would he ever find peace?
Sergei hopped out of the water tanker before it had come to a complete stop in the large courtyard they had chosen. His brother stood up out of the window with his rifle once he had brought the tanker to a full stop.
There was a crowd already gathering, so he knew the gun was more than just a precaution. Sergei called out, “Don’t worry, people, we have enough for everyone. Just get into an orderly line and you will all have a turn.”
Some pushed amongst them and they eventually were in a rough semblance of a line. Sergei went to the back of the truck and started distributing the water. A mother with a child on her hip said softly, “Thank you for this. The river is completely dry. Not that you could drink from it.”
She only had a ten-litre bottle with her, but she didn’t ask for more. Probably because she wouldn’t be able to hold on to it if she had more. The city had been heading towards thuggery and Sergei was worried it would boil over into outright anarchy soon.
There was a commotion and then gunshots. Sergei grabbed the mother and her child to pull them down so the bulk of the tanker protected them.
A truck and a jeep came rolling in and there were a few more shots fired as soldiers poured off the back of the vehicles as the violence moved further away. Then it was quiet for a while until a man called out. “Set up a perimeter and make sure people are on their best behaviour.”
A large man jumped out of the back of a jeep and approached them. He grinned at them and offered the woman a hand. He helped her to her feet and said with a smile on his lips, “I am Portland. Is everything all right here?”
The woman stuttered. “Th… thank you.”
Portland waved off her thanks and turned to Sergei. “Are you the owner of this tanker?”
“Aye. My brother and I brought in a load of water yesterday as well.”
Portland patted his shoulder and said, “Well, thanks, mate. We would have been dead without this gift. Will you be here tomorrow?”
His voice faded as one of his men approached. He dragged with him an injured man. He said as he shoved the injured man to his knees in front of them. “Sir, this one is still alive.”
Portland huffed. “Why is he still alive? This city will become a hive of criminals if we have the least amount of leniency for this blatant act of thievery. Take him away and put him out of his misery. He is not welcome in this city along with all his kind.”
Sergei frowned, but didn’t say anything. There was logic to what the man said and he had seen that sometimes hard choices had to be made.
Alexei called from the top of the tanker. “Are we getting on with this anytime today, brother, or are we going to wait until these people die of dehydration?”
Sergei put his thoughts aside. There were other things for him to focus on.
Portland patted the pipe. “There you go, all connected.” He grinned at Alexei and added, “That should make sure the city is never without water. The dry season seems to be increasing every year. One day soon we will have no river at all.”
Alexei put his tools away. “Aye, I suppose so.”
Portland leaned on the large pipe and asked, “What is it like living out on the coast? A bit cold? The buildings of the city at least give you cover from the wind.”
Alexei said, “It is all right. Not like the mother country, but even the mother country isn’t like it was before.”
Portland tapped his lip thoughtfully. “I started up a construction business in the city. We can always do with a man who can handle himself as we have to fight off the riffraff just to get to work. But they aren’t going to chase me away from my home.”
Alexei said, “I don’t know if I still want to fight. I think my brother is right. I want to live my life, instead of dying for someone else’s idea. I want a girl and to settle down. Have a real-life, maybe.”
Portland stood up and said, “No reason you can’t have all that and still work for me. Just think about it.”
The soldiers were at every door of the large ballroom. The hotel where they were to sign the document was the last building standing in the neighbourhood. It was probably due to luck rather than any providence that it suited their needs and still stood. The building was on a hill that overlooked the city.
The men milled around until Portland cleared his throat. The room went quiet as he said, “I don’t know who is going to start this, but I think we have been talking long enough. It has come to the point where we need action.”
Hauser called out, “You said it, man. Where is the bloody pen?”
Someone moved the charter, which had been meticulously written out the night before, to a large table which was shifted to the centre of the room. As Hauser signed, the others shifted until there was a sort of line so all could sign it.
Hauser stood aside and said, “Aren’t you going to sign it next, Portland?”
Portland shook his head and explained, “I was here at the start and I’m going to be here at the end.”
Hauser said, “Don’t you want to be hailed as the saviour of the city? You could make yourself a king.”
Portland snorted. “Kings get assassinated. I want to live a very long life without having to look over my shoulder at you and others who want what I have. Besides, it is better to be a kingmaker than a king.”
Hauser said, “You are one strange man, Portland, but you know this would never have happened without you.”
Portland said, “I just hope we can gain the interest of the Shield builders. They won’t come here if they think we don’t have the infrastructure or the stability to maintain a Weather Shield.”
“It will happen,” Hauser said in a flippant manner which told Portland he really thought they deserved the Weather Shield. And because of that, it was guaranteed they would get it. That was the problem with people who had come from money. Portland knew their city was just one in thousands which needed help. He hoped the Shield builders would come here because the Weather shield makers were picky people. Unlike Hauser, he didn’t think they deserved the Shield, but he knew without it they would eventually be destroyed.
Lecture hall of a University
Elisha Nasser turned off the projector and said in a clear voice, “So, that is the first phase of creating the Weather Shield. My husband here will go into more detail on the next stage.”
She smiled at her husband next to her. He stepped forward and started speaking about the care and needs of the Weather Shield. Elisha stood back, but noticed a familiar face in the crowd. After her husband was finished and the crowd started to disperse, she made sure she didn’t lose sight of the man.
When most had left, she approached him and asked in an unsure voice. “Jephry? Jephry Harold?”
Jephry nodded. He bore scars and she had heard he had left Freedom. Elisha saw now he left to be a soldier. Her eyes sad, she asked, “Are you all right?”
A slight smile touched his lips and he said, “Professor, you were always the one who knew me best.”
She laughed. “That was because you reminded me of myself.”
She waved him to come forward and join them at the front of the class. Nasser approached and offered his hand. “Ah, my wife’s protégé.”
Jephry resisted the urge to snort at the title. “I wish. I am not cut out for science.”
Nasser said, “And Elisha wasn’t cut out for soldiering. Everyone has their strengths.”
Elisha smiled at Nasser. He was better at judging people than she was. She turned back to Jephry and asked, “What have you been doing?”
“I’ve been hanging out with a couple of Russians. I think you would like them.”
“Oh?” she asked curiously.
“Yeah, they are so full of hope it is a bit sickening.”
Elisha laughed. “Yeah, I think I would like them.”