Inspired by Kimberly
SS Hampton Sr.
"Are you crazy? Or maybe you saw too many love movies before you left home?"
"Well, is it him?"
"Damn, Eric," Private Christopher James McBride said as he sank to his knees in the snow and lowered his automatic assault rifle. The body was propped up to one side of the tree but he saw enough.
"Pick your weapon up!" Private First Class Eric Saint James snapped as he kneeled under the snow heavy branches of the evergreen tree with his machine gun. "Get out of the open!"
Chris quickly moved beside Eric and glanced around the dark snowy forest.
"I can't tell," Chris said. "He ain't got no head."
Eric glanced at him, then at the barely visible figure sitting beside the tall thick tree with bare branches.
"Shit. Headhunters around here." He keyed his microphone and said, "Sergeant, I think we found Doug. His head's gone." He listened and nodded. "Right," then to Chris, "cover. They're going to get him."
Chris, almost 19 years old, was of medium height with short black hair and dark eyes with tired circles under them within a lean dirty face. After three months with the mechanized infantry unit he lost weight, toughened up and was as acclimated as possible to the wintry surface. And he was tired.
They heard the swift crunch of snow and a pair of green and snow white camouflaged soldiers rushed across the open between the trees to the body. The soldiers dragged the bloody, headless body to the makeshift road that wound through the forest from the nearby Pelican Mountains, and the front, barely 20 miles away. A dark object slipped from the frozen grasp of the dead soldier. Chris pointed and Eric shook his head.
"Come on," Eric hissed. They took a final look around then left their shelter. Eric was a year older than Chris, stood a thin six feet tall and had blonde hair streaked with gray. His wary, watchful blue eyes, almost intensely suspicious of everything, sometimes held a glint of sharp humor in them. Now there were dark circles of exhaustion under them.
Chris grabbed a hologram recorder, a camera size device that soldiers used to send messages home, from the torn up snow. "Holo-recorder," Chris said as he slipped it into his thigh pocket. "Doug was recording a message for his girlfriend last night before he disappeared."
They paused to study the shadows under the trees and the gathering darkness deeper in the forest. With a nod from Eric they made the final dash to the road and the waiting column of armored personnel carriers, APCs. They rejoined their squad and watched uneasily as the platoon sergeant, a grim Japanese, searched the pockets of the dead soldier. One of the soldiers held Doug's bloody visored helmet found by the roadside.
"Fucking headhunters," Staff Sergeant Hiroshi Tanaka growled. The soldiers studied the snowy forest around them. Headhunter warriors were no joke. They supposedly knew magic, which accounted for their ability to take trophy heads even out of sleeping tents in the middle of base camps or to swarm over outposts before an alarm could be sounded. Headhunters were more terrifying than the ghosts that haunted the deep forests.
"Sergeant," Chris held out the holo-recorder. He accidentally triggered it.
"...Always remember that I love you babe," a
holographic image of the young soldier appeared before
them. The tired broad faced young man smiled shyly.
The wintry sunset wind within the recording moaned,
threatening to overwhelm the soft voice. "And I miss
you. Write soon, okay?" The image flickered and
Chris blinked nervously under Sergeant Tanaka's dark stare as the tall NCO leaned against the cold whitewashed metal of the APC and picked at his once hot meal of ham, mashed potatoes and biscuits.
Eric snickered as Chris looked into the distance over Sergeant Tanaka's shoulder. Across the low sparsely wooded rise, soldiers of the battalion strung rolls of barbed wire around the perimeter, set up tents, checked their weapons and vehicles, and ate their first hot meal in ten days. Below the rise the vehicles of the rest of the brigade combat team roared along the brownish white road toward their assigned positions. The low, squat assault guns, long barreled self-propelled artillery with their shadowing supply tracks, the nearly useless anti-tank and anti-aircraft companies, and the well loved armored ambulances of the medical company, and so many other vehicles from the rest of the brigade combat team, stood out darkly in their white washed paint scheme.
"There's headhunters around here dipshit," Sergeant Tanaka added. "Maybe you forgot that?"
Chris cleared his throat. "No Sergeant. I'm not crazy and I didn't see any love movies while I was on leave."
"Sarge, I'll go with him if that'll make you feel better," Eric volunteered. "It'll only take 15 minutes. Besides, we'll be down there by the shore, out in the open. The 20mm can cover us."
"Great," Tanaka snorted, "two clowns running around outside the perimeter." He nodded. "Make it quick."
"Thank you Sergeant," Chris smiled nervously.
"Come on kid," Eric said as he slapped him on the shoulder. In their fire team Eric was the machine gunner while Chris was his assistant, responsible for carrying extra ammunition and providing security for Eric when they were in combat. In their short time together Eric became his best friend, though sometimes there was something in his eyes, an intensely curious look, as if he was studying Chris.
If Chris was paranoid it was easy to suspect that his best friend was a member of the Intelligence Security Division of the United Nations Special Security Forces, UNSSF, that was created after the House of Adrian seized power in the United Nations. If true, Eric was one of the anonymous legions of hated informers responsible for drawing out unspoken defeatism, reporting suspicious activities and politically unreliable people.
Then, it was only a matter of time before the Special Security Division, the secret police, came for the unfortunate people.
The Special Security Division came for him and his mother when he was 12 years old.
He hated the UNSSF and the House of Adrian.
"Tell your squad you're going out so they can cover you if any muties show up," Sergeant Tanaka called after them. "And double check your IFF transmitters!"
Dressed in winter forest green and dirty white mottled camouflage clothing, visored helmets hanging from their pistol belts, the pair left the safety of the barbed wire perimeter. Eric carried his machine gun with a carrying strap over one shoulder and bulky spare magazines around his waist while Chris carried his automatic assault rifle and additional machine gun magazines. Behind them a pair of watchful crewmen sat on their APC by the barbed wire while the turreted 20mm cannon scanned the area. Except for the Identification-Friend-Foe, IFF, transmitter the radar directed cannon would have cut them apart.
From the north a chill wind swept out of the Pelican Mountains, snow covered and glowing in the yellow light of the setting sun. Dark clouds of smoke rising from the mountains turned shades of brownish red, yellow, and purple against the darkening sky. They heard the distant rumble of artillery as one of their sister brigades continued the fight to the north.
Overhead a formation of dark ground attack aircraft whined thinly, bound for the smoky battlefield.
As they walked down the rocky snow dusted slope their well-worn black combat boots broke through patches of snow and scraped loudly across the frozen shale and dirt. Over one hundred miles north of the ditch enclosed earthen berm and watch tower decorated Edmonton, 'Giza on the Saskatchewan' it was nicknamed for the ancient half dozen glass pyramids, late April still saw snowstorms and freezing temperatures in the dark forests and mountains.
A long line of armored vehicles filed out of the rolling dark snow tinged forest, on the edge of the 20 mile long Calling Lake, that gave way to the Canadian plains across which once rode now mythical Blackfoot, Blood and Piegan Indians. The presence of so many troops and the accoutrements of war in such a small area gave Chris something of a feeling of safety.
Chris looked suspiciously around the rocky slope dotted with bushes and small trees. Though he had been to the surface many times since he was 15, he was always awed and unnerved by the mountains, forests, lakes and plains of the surface. Even the vast open sky was unnerving. His overall attitude hadn't been helped by months of fighting in the wintry claustrophobic forests of Canada. He hoped to be assigned to a unit in Edmonton, 'Giza on the Saskatchewan' it was nicknamed due to the hundreds of years old glass pyramids that stood south of a loop of the North Saskatchewan River, but when he learned he was north bound, he spent his last night drinking in a bar of Old Strathcona. Still, Chris learned to appreciate Mother Nature in all of her glory even when that glory was blighted by vast stretches of radioactive and diseased areas of no-man's land.
But, it was so different from the underground cities with their endless winding corridors and levels that plunged deep into the earth, lit by electric lamps hanging from cable strewn cavern ceilings and fed with filtered and recirculated air. Living underground was not the destiny of mankind though it was a refuge until the world healed and the mutants were exterminated.
"So what's the story?" Eric asked casually.
"What?" Chris answered innocently as they pushed their way through a stand of dry brush and stood by the trembling snow and dirt churned road down which armored vehicles drove. In a gap between the vehicles they hurried across to the other side.
"You're no artist, so why a hologram of a rose?" Eric persisted.
"I like roses," Chris answered lamely as they reached the sandy shore of the lake that stretched to the western horizon. Small patches of sparkling ice bobbed in the choppy water from strong windy gusts.
"And I like mutants," Eric laughed sarcastically. "The story?"
Chris looked at his friend, a man he knew less than ninety days and whom he trusted with his life just as Eric trusted him with is. Except, could he trust him with his thoughts? Was Eric a watchdog from the Intelligence Security Division?
Distant artillery fire and bomb explosions floated to them on the chill wind from the north. Sometimes they saw the glint of sunlight on circling and diving aircraft.
"It's for a friend," he finally answered. "Her name is Annette."
Eric smiled and looked up and down the shoreline as they walked toward the small rocky knoll that jutted into the lake. "You like her, huh?"
A twin engine ground attack aircraft headed south flew low over the rise and wagged the wings.
"Hey," Chris said, pausing before a depression below some brush. A uniformed headless body lay in the depression, hands tied behind the back. Blood was splattered everywhere and the weapon and all of the equipment was gone.
"What?" Eric looked into the depression and shook his head grimly. "Dammit. Fucking headhunters."
"We're not missing anyone else, are we?" Word traveled fast when troops disappeared though everyone knew they would be found dead sooner or later.
"The 1st Battalion got hit pretty hard a few nights ago," Eric said. "They had a few missing."
Chris looked around the empty shoreline and up the slope toward the vehicles that still clanked on their way to assigned positions. He wondered how many more of the missing they would find. Despite the presence of the armor with their cannons and machine guns, and the nearby troops, he felt a shiver of unease. The ghostly headhunters could be approaching even now.
"Go on, I'll cover you," Eric nodded toward the knoll. He studied the shoreline, the sparsely wooded rise three hundred yards away, then lit a cigarette.
"What about him?"
"We'll let Sergeant Tanaka worry about it," Eric shrugged as he glanced at the body.
As he climbed the knoll Chris removed his black gloves and fumbled for his holo-recorder inside the thigh pocket. The recorder was a gift from Annette when he was drafted by the United Nations Armed Forces, UNAF.
Chris thought of how ridiculous everything was.
The world put two cities on the moon, a colony on Mars, science stations orbited Jupiter and Saturn, and a spaceship with a crew in suspended animation was on the way to Alpha Centauri. Yet the human race was fighting a genocidal war with 20th century type weapons and equipment. A genocidal war that would consume ten years of his life with infrequent leaves to see Annette - unless she found someone else.
Annette was tall with an attractive figure, long brown hair, green eyes and an outgoing personality with a quick wit. She was talented, being able to sing and dance with an ability that never required formal training. He could talk with her, laugh, joke, and share things with her that he couldn't share with LoriAnne, his mother. They dated others over the years, slept with others, yet somehow they always ended up with each other.
However, they never even kissed. It was as if an invisible barrier kept them separate.
The barrier was that Chris was too shy to tell her
that not only was she his best friend, but that he
loved her. Or, was it because of the man-made curse
on his family? Could he really ask her to join him in
living beneath a hungry sword suspended by a tattered
"LoriAnne Jennifer McBride?" The taller and older of the three civilian dressed men, accompanied by five black garbed policemen, stood outside the door of their old modular apartment. His mother, tall and willowy with black hair streaked with gray, pulled him behind her.
"Is this your son, Christopher James McBride?"
"Come with us," the older man said as the police pulled them out of their warm cozy home. It was the beginning of seven months of living in unheated semi-underground mud huts on the surface, behind earthen berms, barbed wire and guard towers. Both of them were interrogated. His mother because she was married to his father Troy and might harbor resentment against the House of Adrian, he because she might be filling his head with anti-Adrian thoughts which meant she was dangerous and he could become dangerous.
He was thrown out of the Smythe Youth, the uniformed future of the human race, and he was devastated. Thin, dirty and hungry, he often wished he would die like the many children his age who passed away in the night and whose bodies were taken away by other prisoners after morning roll call.
"It's because of your father," LoriAnne whispered to him one night as they huddled in the corner of their cold hut beneath a ratty blanket that she mostly wrapped around him. Her face and her arms were covered with dark bruises, the result of one of her many interrogations. He already knew some of the details. His interrogators told him. She put her arms around him and rocked him tenderly as she said, "Your father was a captain in the paratroops at Khartoum, the Sudan. When the UNAF took the city and kept Sudan from leaving the UN, he was ordered to kill unarmed men, women and children, as a lesson. Your father refused. Your father was a good man, a man of honor. Parachute Rifle Security troops from the Military Security Division took him away and shot him."
"Did you bury him?" Chris asked.
"No," she replied, wiping away tears from her swollen face. "They dumped his body in the Nile so the crocodiles could have him."
They might have languished in Tulsa Regional Concentration Camp for months or years, or died there, except for a jolly great bear of a man who intervened when he learned of their plight. Colonel General Yuri Vasilevsky, who pinned Troy's officer bars on him and mentored him through the years, still had an influence in the UNAF that cut through the black heart of the UNSSF.
LoriAnne and Chris were released with the caution that they would always be watched. He was reinstated in the Smythe Youth though he no longer felt the pride or sense of belonging that was once so important. He felt isolated, and there was no one he could confide in, not even his mother, crippled by the interrogations, who blamed herself for being unable to protect him from the UNSSF.
Until a graceful, caring young Mormon girl named
Annette entered his life...
During the summers when he left the underground metropolis of Oklahoma City, OKC, for mandatory duty on the surface with the teen age Civilian Defense Forces, Annette always said good-bye and welcomed him back though it was for only a few weeks each summer. When he was drafted by the UNAF she sent hologram messages during his Basic Combat Training, Advanced Infantry, and Mechanized Infantry Training. When he came home on his first leave she was there to greet him.
Though her presence filled his life he was too shy to tell her how he felt and why. Or perhaps he didn't want to endanger a beautiful, vibrant girl like her.
Now, as he fought in the war, her life continued with a career as a physical therapist for wounded soldiers, especially those with cybernetic implants. During her off-duty hours she earned extra money by singing and dancing in one of the better nightclubs in OKC.
Somehow, he felt stupid. He was a veteran combat soldier afraid to tell Annette that he loved her.
When the column of APCs left the dark forest and moved into the open, he stared at Doug's poncho wrapped body. His girlfriend would never know how he felt about her unless his parents forwarded the hologram message to her.
He thought of Annette and wished he had the courage to say something, to tell her how he felt before he died. Then, from the top of the APC, home to his 6-man fire team and the 3-man vehicle crew, he saw the small knoll reaching into the choppy lake. It was bare except for a single wild bright red rose that shone like a beacon in the late afternoon sun against the dirty white of the icy lake.
He was reminded of all he wanted to say to Annette. He would get a hologram of the rose as a way of beginning his message.
The hard part was telling Sergeant Tanaka why he needed a hologram of the rose. Perhaps it was a hint of the hidden understanding and caring for his soldiers that the hard-bitten NCO gave Chris and Eric permission to visit the knoll.
Chris kneeled and recorded the rose. It was fully opened to catch the rays of the setting sun though it trembled in the frigid wind. He thought of the secret language of the ancient Middle Eastern harems, when a fully open rose expressed - his - desire and love for another - Annette. The wild rose in such a harsh environment was a perfect metaphor of how he felt about her - such a simple object filled with so much life and love.
He framed it against the yellow of the setting sun, then stood up so the rose was framed by the glare of the dirty white background of the icy lake as if a halo surrounded it. Small clouds of white snow, shimmering in the fading sunlight, drifted lazily across the ice with the wind.
When Annette played the hologram it would be life size and have the appearance of a 3-dimensional object complete with the blowing wind.
Chris put the recorder on a small boulder, set the timer and sat cross-legged with his weapon across his lap. He lit a cigarette and, while waiting for the red light indicating record mode, tried to think of what to say.
Like him Annette was very familiar with the war, a legacy of hate from the Third World War of 2020. The difference was her father came home while his died not at the hand of their ancient enemy, the mutants, but at the hand of their fellow man. And the UNAF still held the ancient city of Khartoum despite determined mutant assaults.
The genetically misshapen mutants, descendants of humans warped by defective genes due to radioactive fallout and plagues through the centuries, ruled most of Africa, Siberia, South America and Canada, except for stubborn strategic enclaves.
The red light blinked. He licked his lips, cleared his throat and trembled as he stared into the recorder.
What could he say to Annette?
Tell her about the unending bitter cold? The hours spent inside the cramped APC or the quick violent assaults against mutant positions? Talk about the waves of screaming warriors trying to overrun his position or wrapping the bodies of his comrades in ponchos for transport to the rear? Stalking and being stalked by Headhunter warriors, or the savage 'tug of war' close combat with bayonet tipped rifles, combat knives and swords, over the bodies of his comrades against Manmeat warriors who savored the taste of human flesh?
Or tell her about the quiet night time loneliness of the vast snowy Canadian forests as the UNAF troops stood watch against the mutants as the humans withdrew to the south toward the defensive line around Edmonton?
The military called the withdrawal MDR, Major Defensible Realignment, a phrase coined by General of Airborne Troops Yuri Vasilevsky, commander of the Canadian Line Front, while the bravest of the news media called it "The Great Withdrawal".
Or just come to the point?
"April 25, 1600 hours. Hi. Well, here I am. A hundred miles north of Edmonton," he began nervously and looked down at a patch of snow by his knee that sparkled in the sunlight. "Uh, 3rd Squad, 2nd Platoon, Company A, 2nd Battalion, 151st Mechanized Infantry Brigade, 51st UNAF Mechanized Infantry Division. If we're ever mentioned in the news, it's the 17th Mechanized Infantry Corps, 6th Canadian Mechanized Infantry Army, 2nd Canadian Group of Armies. Uh, the Canadian Line Front, of course. The brigade is around the low rise behind me."
He watched the cigarette smoke swept away by the wind, then looked at the recorder. He was trembling and tongue tied though he knew her for so many years. How did she really feel about him?
"We've been fighting for a month now, but we've got 72 hours to rest and receive some replacements before we go back in. Had hot food this afternoon. First time in two weeks." He smiled nervously. He had to get to the point before she became bored or he lost his nerve.
"Uh, I hope you like the rose. I don't see how it could bloom as cold as it is up here. But here it is. Anyway, uh, well listen," he said in a deeper, firmer voice. "I, uh, I never told you, but I love you. I mean, you're my best friend, you always have been and probably always will be. But, I love you in a different way. I mean, more than a friend," he said as he felt his ears growing warm. He was sure they were as red as tomatoes. He looked at the patch of snow by his knee and wondered why recording his message was harder than preparing for combat.
"I like the time we spend together, the way you listen to me and the holograms you send when I'm away. In the summers with the CDF and when I was drafted. I mean, saying good-bye and caring whether I came back or not. It means a lot. And, I like sharing things with you, being with you, and caring about what you think and why. It feels good, to be able to share things with you. But, well, I just wish I could spend the rest of my life with you. I mean, if you want to." Chris let out a deep sigh. "You, uh, you know my family history, what happened to my mom and I when I was twelve. If you, if you don't want any part of that, I understand."
He heard the faint chatter of weapons fire and an explosion.
Chris cleared his throat, tried to smile, then added, "Um, I have to go. My friend, his name is Eric, and I have to get back to the squad. It's starting to get dark. I'll send another hologram later. Bye and thanks."
He turned the recorder off and stuffed it in his thigh pocket. Chris stared at the solitary rose trembling in the cold wind and wondered if he should have practiced first. Maybe he sounded like a fool. He shook his head and as he made his way down the knoll he guessed the hologram would reach OKC in a week. It might take another week for a reply of some sort.
"Well Romeo, did you get a good recording of your rose?" Eric asked good-naturedly as Chris flipped the safety off of his weapon. In the distance where the column of vehicles left the edge of the forest black smoke boiled into the air as another explosion sounded.
"Let's get back to the perimeter," Eric said as he looked around, then led the way back to the road that trembled under the weight of roaring armor.
Chris wondered if those fools who started the Third World War over five hundred years before had even a remote idea of the legacy they would leave the world.
Thermonuclear weapons, the Nuclear Winter, resulting pandemics and massive famines decimated the world, but the most devastating legacy was hate. Hate by "normal" humans for genetically misshapen humans, the mutants. "Racial Cleansing", as someone paraphrased a vile phrase, knew no political boundaries as it spread around the world. It led to race-based laws, persecution, indiscriminate killing and exile. In time the mutants responded with terrorism and guerilla warfare before they fled into the wilderness of the surface world while the humans moved underground. The humans conducted nerve gas, biological and tactical nuclear military operations, as well as conventional operations, opened concentration camps and practiced genocide in the field and in extermination camps.
To Chris they were all fools who created his life of fighting a genocidal war and a life without Annette beside him.
"Damned mutants," Eric growled as a strong snowy wind swept over them from the lake. "I can't wait until we kill them all." He pointed at a gap between armored vehicles grinding along the road.
"Yeah," Chris mumbled absently as he looked back at the solitary rose, then followed Eric.
The clanking column of vehicles came to a halt. Chris froze and his jaw tightened as he looked back at a large command track decorated by numerous radio antennas. A blue mailed fist against a red Crusader heater shield - the Military Security Division of the UNSSF - decorated the side of the track. The metallic thump of a heavy hatch came from the top of the track and an albino man with white hair looked around curiously. The man, a lieutenant colonel of the Motorised Rifle Security Battalions, looked down at him with a blank face and empty reddish eyes.
Chris tightened his grip on his automatic assault rifle and his trigger finger twitched.
He and the albino lieutenant colonel stared at one another.
"Hey," Eric said, grasping him by his shoulder. Chris looked at him through blurry eyes. The armored vehicles coughed, the command APC hatch slammed shut and the column of vehicles began moving again. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Chris nodded as he watched the trembling rose on the other side of the road while a mobile wall of blue armored fists on red shields and blank faced camouflage uniformed men roared past like a flowing barrier that offered him tantalizing glimpses of unrealized love and hope.
"Okay," Eric replied doubtfully.
He knew Eric was studying him, as he always seemed to do, just like a bold and knowing member of the Intelligence Security Division might study his prey.
Chris didn't care.
He was two thousand miles south, hesitantly handing the velvet soft rose to a shy, beautiful young woman with a gentle voice, long brown hair, and green eyes.
He wondered what she would say...
SS Hampton, Sr. is a full blood Choctaw, a divorced father of three children and grandfather of two. He is an Army veteran and has a background in photography and photojournalism. He recently enlisted in the Army National Guard and is assigned to an armored cavalry unit. His fiction has appeared in print and on-line in LiterotiCaffeine, ENE, Dark Fire, Quantum Muse, Whispering Spirits, The Harrow, Twilight Times, and Naked Snake Online, among others.
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Published by permission of the author.