Chapter 4 – War Friends
“Well, I think cuddling is out of the picture,” Steve Franco chattered. A plume of vapor rose from his mouth into the still night air.
“With the way they crack the whip here, it’s probably a court martial offence.” Nicks smiled with a cloud also rising from her mouth.
The big freeze had consumed X43. A ten-day stint where the planet moved from the reaches of it’s nearby star that normally kept temperatures habitable. Both Franco and Nicks were huddled inside a sheltered alcove of the front-line trench. The smouldering glow of a barrel between them did just enough to stop the hypothermia.
“It’s funny,” Franco said, “I’m not sure our auto rifles will work when its this freezing.”
“Good thing the robots are hibernating for now,” Nicks added.
“Look alive grunts! We grovelled just enough for some gifts,” the commotion of Rob Connolly said. Jack appeared with him and they both carried a quadrant of canisters each.
“Is that beer?” Nicks asked.
“You bet your ass it is,” Jack said. They ducked into the alcove and began to hand out the stubby box shaped canisters.
“Two grunts of our stature blagged our way into the refectory tent.” Connolly began to gulp down his drink.
“We’re known as the ‘Shift-blasters‘ apparently,” Jack said.
“Well how abouts we toast before freezing to death.” Franco took a beer and held it up.
“To the Major,” Jack said, and they toasted.
“How could I forget. I snatched another burning log also.” Connolly pulled out a plastic log and dropped it into the barrel.
“So I guess we won’t be seeing any action if there’s beer?”
“Well Franco, I guess those walking tubs of plastic feel the cold too. If they call us over the top, we’re taking the beers with us,” Connolly added and again they toasted.
“You fellas are on quite the winning streak. Two gold stars of honour so far.” Nicks moved her hand to reveal the shroud below her name. A solitary gold star glistened below it as the nearby fire came to life.
“That gives me an idea. We earned that star together, with the Major. Perhaps we should honour her for it.” Jack unpinned his latest star and held it to the piping hot barrel. Carefully he let the flames lick gold paint which in turn became blackened.
“A black star for the Major,” he said.
“Too right.” Connolly did the same along with the others.
“We all stick by Thorn and more stars will come our way. That includes you Nicks. Maybe you can show the folks back at V54 after the war,” he added.
“Yeah, what’s that planet like?” Franco asked.
“I won’t be going back there.” Nicks pinned the now charred star back on her chest.
“I’m sensing a story,” Connolly said.
“Well. V54. Since birth you are taught to find an escape plan. ‘People’s republic planet of V54’, my ass.” Nicks kept a stare on the embers.
“That bad huh?” Jack asked.
“Yep, it’s that bad.”
“I thought the Chinese were not that bad,” Franco said.
“You hardly see them when you’re below the overpopulated poverty line. Yeah, they run V54, but you never see them on the streets. As soon as I heard they were offering troops to help the Army of Earth, I enlisted.”
For a moment Nicks eyes showed a struggle filled past she lived. Overcrowding, tightly spaced high rises full of disease, the slums and struggling to make ends meet. Even more so the sticky heat that made up most of the climate on V54. And worst of all, the pollution. New Earth it wasn’t.
“Sounds like a one-way deal then. Fight, win and the reward is Earth,” Connolly said nodding.
“Damn straight,” Nicks half-heartedly added.
“It’s not like V54 have the authority to come get me. Universal politics work in my favour.” She took another sip of beer.
“Now are you guys gonna tell me your story? Thorn? What is up with that accent?” She asked.
Jack finished his beer and crumpled the canister before dropping it into the fire.
“I bounced around a few places in the past. So did my accent I guess,” he said.
“Real mysterious,” Nicks said and finished her drink.
“He lived in England until he was like fifteen,” Franco said.
“Okay so we got English over here, and what point do you meet New York over there?” Nicks held her hand toward Franco, Connolly then filled it with another beer canister.
“My folks, well, my Father was from New York. Met my Mother from England in the city. Had me and sent me to live with my grand folks,” Thorn explained.
“For fifteen years. What were they protecting you from?” Nicks asked with a smile of intrigue.
“Whoever or whatever killed my Mother.”
All of them sat in momentary silence, looking to the burning embers.
“Sorry Thorn, I didn’t know…”
“Neither did I.”
Again came the silence while they all stood looking into the orange glow of heat. Then Franco spoke,
“Then you came back and went to that stuffy academy out in Cliffeville.”
“Is that when you started writing Thorn’s biography?” Nicks asked.
“We’ve always known each other. That Franco kid is the oldest friend I have. He came to England in the summer every damn year. And then to Cliffeville, he drove as soon as he got a licence. Even after I dropped out of that academy. They were grade A assholes,” Jack said.
“The greatest love story never told,” Franco added with a mischievous smile.
“All manly love aside. You were a young fella with a young family Thorn. You needed to provide and so you stumbled upon the Army of Earth and me.” Connolly raised his canister again.
“To family,” he said.
“So you got a kid Thorn?” Nicks asked.
“I’ve got two dependents, and a wife.”
“And let me guess New York over here followed you into the army also?”
“Na man. I stand in nobody’s shadow. I’m a man with my own aspirations and stuff. I had a career before this damn rock.”
“Is that so? What type of aspirations and stuff is that?”
“I was, I was a bus driver,” Franco said with pride.
“Then Jack called me and asked if I wanted to enlist. So I did and came to Cliffeville.”
“Cliffeville. State of sin and robots, right?” Nicks asked.
“Yeah, even people on V54 have heard of it.”
“Last hold out of the Western divide political alliance. Cliffeville is the real last land of the free in America,” Connolly said.
“To Cliffeville,” Nicks toasted. They all raised a beer over the fire.
“Maybe one day you guys can show me Cliffeville.”
“Sounds handsome. We all got something to go back to on that blue and green rock,” Connolly said.
“Are we finally going to hear the mysterious yet intriguing back story to Rob Connolly? Goatee wearing, gun toting man’s man,” Franco laughed.
“Save it soldier. The only thing waiting for me is the only woman who ever loved me back. Mrs Connolly’s baby boy will get back to her, no doubt. That lady, would do anything for her only son. Hell, I would do the same back.”
“To Mrs Connolly, family, fresh starts and driving buses,” Nicks said.
“And war friends,” Connolly added.
At the very moment they touched canisters a blaring screech from the nearby siren blared out to them.
“What is that?” Franco asked over the loudness. He poked his head out into the trench.
“I don’t recognise that sound… wait what? Have we gotta go over the top?” He asked to a passing soldier who shrugged whilst rushing past.
Jack gripped his auto rifle and moved out of the alcove. The drastically colder air hit him and instantly took his breath away.
“Damn, it’s cold. What’s happening?” He stepped up onto a ladder and squinted out of the trench. All he could see was the dark sky.
“Where’s the damn superiors? Shouldn’t they be yelling out orders.”
“I don’t know man, but that siren is loud!” Franco shouted as he joined Thorn.
“Is anyone going over the top?” Nicks asked appearing with Connolly.
Jack tried to see past murky darkness of a frozen battlefield.
“I can’t see zip. Wait. Where’s that dude going?” He watched from the left to see a solider clambering up onto the battlefield.
“Hey. Solider. Get back here! You’ll freeze to death…” Connolly shouted to the tall and wide shadow of the soldier trudging away. The siren clicked off to reveal another sound. Men and women arguing in confusion.
“Stand down termites!”
A superior officer appeared behind the front line.
“Back to your alcoves. Do you want to catch ice death?”
“But there’s a soldier out there on his own…”
“I said back to your alcoves…”
“What about the siren?” Franco asked.
“If you termites listened in basic that’s the enemy air strike alert.”
Jack began to climb the ladder. He stepped up onto the ice-covered mud.
“Stand down solider! That is an order!”
“Well I guess you better shoot me if you want me to stop.” And like that he hurried away.
The dramatically colder air hit him and darkness soon surrounded him. The voices of his friends drowned out and over the nearby horizon he went.
“Soldier!” He called out and saw up ahead the outline of a tall and wide man.
Now it was even darker, and the air seemed to sting as he breathed.
“Fall back. Turn around, it’s too damn cold out…”
From all directions forward came flashes of gun fire. Robots were closing in. Still the shadowy figure stood and fired back.
Jack ducked and continued to sprint forward. More gunfire exploded all around. Greens and reds coursed by him. The enemy were using laser rounds and Thorn glanced up to see a red burning strike the very near soldier in the shoulder.
After a loud grunt this soldier recovered and began to fire back. Jack joined him,
“This is suicide. There are too damn many of them.” He cowered back and tried to pull the much larger man back.
“Come on soldier. Move!” He fired some more but his efforts were focused on retreat.
From the murk above they both heard a droning. It moved fast and closed in.
“That’s a jet engine!” Jack shouted, and he looked up wide eyed the brightening fog. Something airborne swooped down and unloaded an onslaught of explosions.
Jack yanked the man down and they huddled behind a nearby rock. He saw this aircraft fly past, a shape he didn’t recognise. Just when the droning simmered down it came back along with a brightness up high.
“It’s coming back. We need to move.” Jack didn’t even look at the soldier’s face. He began a frantic retreat and this time the soldier followed.
They felt the airborne threat looming in the clouds above and just when it swooped out of the low fog they jumped down into a crater. Explosions rocked the ground and something solid crashed into Jack at head height. Clutching an auto rifle, he clenched both eyes shut. He momentarily saw stars and then darkness.
* * *
Even though most evenings were sticky in the Cliffeville desert heat, Rouge insisted she wore the dark camouflage uniform given by her friend the Freak. It still smelled of those revolutionary days he spoke of. A smell she came to embrace and totally not because it needed laundering. Out of waitress hours, Rouge was a soldier, in training. And here she stood within the horseshoe arrangement of trailers around the back of Denny’s diner, ready. Again.
“Check your stance Rouge,” the Warrior commanded from somewhere behind. She couldn’t see him and so her focus remained on the incoming target.
“Check.” She bent both her knees whilst twisting side on. Her head began to turn away when the Warrior ordered more words,
“Eyes on the target at all times.”
Her target being the Freak holding the remnants of a beaten armchair resembling a padded shield. He hesitantly moved her way.
“Strike, now,” the Warrior said.
Rouge side stepped twice before her legs tangled together. She stumbled and before gravity took full effect she managed to swipe out at the weathered padded shield come make shift punch bag. Her nails scratched at crumpled gaffer tape. Before her moving target or teacher spoke, she shot up.
“Again,” she said and waved the Freak forward.
“Check.” She glanced at the Warrior for a flash and her target came crashing forward. She tried to lash out and clumsily wrestled the shield down. She angrily laid in a fist.
“I just can’t do it.”
“Yes you can. Belief comes from within the mind,” her guardian said.
“That’s coming from the mechanoid type,” Rouge sniped.
“My computer mind was created from the Warriors of old. It is that of a human or equivalent. Now come on. Again,” the Warrior ordered.
Rouge dropped her fists and they swung in frustration.
“I just can’t do this fighting stuff. I’m just no good.” She slumped down onto a nearby rock.
“I sincerely doubt a girl of prophecy would lack self-esteem,” the Freak said. He scooped up his make shift punchbag shield.
“Woman of prophecy. And what about flat-footed clumsiness?” she asked and dusted herself off.
“You’re trying too hard Anne-Marie. A fighter doesn’t have time to think, thinking comes from learning how to use your body as a weapon. Now try again,” the Warrior said.
“Perhaps think about those robots you took down back in the diner,” the Freak added.
“That was different. I could feel what they were going to do. I could see the future, in my head. That’s my true gift. Vision, not fighting,” Rouge said.
“Maybe your actual vision clouds that initial judgement. Hence, I have an idea. Turn around young lady,” the Freak instructed.
“Her mind is gifted for more than fighting yes,” he said and spun her around.
“Then we shall put that theory into direct practice.” The Freak took off his pot washers apron.
“What if you can sense without seeing.” He folded the fabric and made a blindfold for her wear.
“What? This is stup…”
“Let the robot help you Anne-Marie,” the Warrior said, and the greasy fabric covered her eyes.
“Now I will approach. But I won’t say when or where. Sense me,” the Freak said. He rushed away and took hold of his improvised punchbag.
The Warrior watched on. His red-haired student turned sharply and dropped into a defensive stance. Gently her feet moved across the hardened sand. Although her eyes saw only black, her vision opened from what seemed like a view from above. The Freak approached from the left, so she moved the opposite way. This gave the robot a false confidence that he hadn’t been detected. She knew exactly where he walked, she was the predator here.
Instantly she dropped and swung a leg around. It clipped something hard and next came a thud followed by a short groan.
Rouge stood up straight and pulled down the blindfold. She looked to see the Freak laying on his punchbag.
“Good. You must hone the basics first Rouge. Detecting an enemy is only a portion of combat,” the Warrior said.
“I’m not particularly sure how many bumps one has left like that,” the Freak said. Rouge moved in and pulled him up.
“You can only provide basic simulation. Eventually you will combat against me.” The Warrior moved in between them.
She looked up to his black balaclava covered head.
“But you are a Warrior. Am I supposed to fight Warriors?”
“No, but my speed will certainly train you to be superior over any robot you face.” He began to turn and then lunged back. With a clenched gloved hand, the Warrior drove it toward Rouge’s head. Without looking she held a firm forearm in defence. She blocked his wide arm instinctively.
“Your mind is gifted beyond anyone I have known. Even the Mavericks of old would envy you. I can see your senses already have reflexes for speed. Another lesson for another day.” His hand slowly opened.
Her much smaller hand fit inside it. She looked up to the near dark sky and exhaled.
“Until tomorrow,” she said and threw the blindfold apron back to the Freak.
“Every time you fall,” the Warrior added as she moved towards her trailer.
“Is an opportunity to learn a new way to pick yourself back up.” Rouge’s silhouette disappeared into the silver vessel she called home.
“An improvement tonight perhaps,” the Freak said.
“Yes. Every day she gets stronger and every day my concern grows. I dread the sun going down.” The Warrior looked up to an emerging full moon.
“There is always the option of relocation. Wasn’t this place always a temporary arrangement?” The Freak asked. He dropped down to the same rock Rouge had just sat on.
“She is settled here. For the first time her mind is one with her body.”
“Then the burden of worry falls on your shoulders for now Warrior. They called you Runner before, didn’t they?” The Freak asked.
For a split second the Warrior’s computer mind flashed back to a time long ago. He saw the world from a different view, a more vulnerable view. A time when there were others like him. His body looked different, it was smaller, before he became who he was now.
‘Watch over her’
The image of an infant girl flashed across his view.
‘Be her guardian’
“Many years ago,” he said.
“And I am certainly not Runner by nature. If they come for her again, I will fight them all.”
Rouge flopped back onto her unkempt bed. Isn’t that how all geniuses lived? she thought. A trail of fairy lights swayed above her, and cool conditioned air rattled from the unit nearby. She put a hand on the one prized item she owned, a tablet sketchpad.
“Not tonight,” she sighed. Sleep beckoned more than the urge of drawing.
Her finger tapped clear plastic and the device shone to life. After a couple of swipes the room became filled with floating projections.
The metal walls all around were filled with her various ‘display’ works. Artistic drawings of people caught in the moment in the diner. Truckers sipping coffee at late hours and even some of her as a young girl. Childhood always brought the same image of her holding the hand of a much larger being. Her guardian. In the distance another figure stood tall and hooded, watching. Anytime she thought of this stalker her mind would jolt. A warning shock not to seek any further. All she remembered were two dark hollow eyes staring down at her.
Don’t think about it, not now.
The absence of sedatives now meant Anne-Marie’s mind could grow. All the thoughts and memories of her nearly forgotten past were returning but in jumbled pieces. If it were a puzzle, the pieces wouldn’t fit just yet. They were still morphing and growing with her.
She would also draw other things that popped into her head. More recently a decorative star charred with black from the heat of flames or images of a brown and grey landscape. One picture showed the backs of small people looking up to something high. A solitary neon red strip glowed out of a murky land far away.
Like always sleep came swiftly for the tired robot fighter in training and deeper inside her gifted mind she went.
“Where am I?” She asked. Her voice echoed in the darkness.
A whispering came from all around.
‘Ryan is coming’
Behind her faint light cast across the trailer and out front she saw a haze of smoke, Denny’s diner. On the horizon came a faint glow, flames perhaps, she couldn’t tell. The ground she trudged on now seemed crunchy and frozen, a slight departure from the usual plains of Cliffeville. Still the diner remained ahead and a wide shadow closed in.
“What is happening?” She called out to the wide robot. His grease covered cook’s clothes seemed to be drenched in something wet. A black ink. Or robot blood.
His vacant eyes stared through her just as the wave of terror set in. In the middle of F.G’s forehead she saw a bullet hole.
“No F.G!” she cried, and he flopped to the ground. The smoke was thicker now, and it closed in all around.
“Freak? Warrior? Where are you.” Rouge clawed emptily through the murk, her feet dragging across mud.
Another figure closed in.
“Are you Ryan?” she asked.
The approaching figure looked thinner as it came closer and looked a plain canvas white. She reached out to this all white washed being. It was as if a robot had been covered head to toe in this material, she looked at the head, a solitary crack ran down where the face would be.
“I know you, I, I remember you, from somewhere,” she said.
“He’s coming Rouge and there isn’t anything you can do. Don’t fight it,” the figure said.
“I don’t understand. Is this Ryan coming? Who is Ryan?” Rouge asked, and more smoke divided them. The figure was gone.
Just when she turned to face the trailer her feet buckled. The ground gave way and began to swallow her whole. Bright flashes raced overhead, reds and greens coursed by. Laser rounds.
Explosions and thudding closed in.
She took in a deep breath, it stung her chest. The air temperature dropped dramatically.
“Stand down solider! That is an order!” A booming voice said.
Rouge could only look up at dark clouds as another voice shouted. Something gave her a familiar comfort about this weird accent.
Her feet tried to adjust in what seemed like icy mud.
“Well I guess you better shoot me if you want me to stop.”
She smiled at the voice and it’s weird familiarity. Then the hole she stood in began to collapse. More of this familiar accented voice spoke,
“That’s a jet engine!”
A deafening roar echoed down to her and the ground violently shook.
“I want to wake up now!”
End of Part 9
Tune in Next week for another edition of Jack Thorn. Same Jack time, same Jack place… Remember if you enjoyed reading, tell a friend, leave a comment and share it around on social media…
Copyright 2004 – 2019 ‘Jack Thorn’ and ‘The Thorn Legacy’ Written By Lee Hall 2019 All rights reserved.