Thursday, March 5, 2020

Ghosts of Christmas Past

         I was not aware this short wasn't on my blog. This is the first of the Tales of Fort Thomas and is bonus content at the end of the audio book version of Paige's Story. If you want to hear Phil Thron take this short (and the novel itself) to another level of awesome with his top notch narration, I recommend you dropping a credit.

Ghosts of Christmas Past
A Fort Thomas Short
By: A.J. Bass

         “Heads up, Iron man! He’s headed your way!” Sergeant Hemingway’s voice booms in my earpiece I and look through my scope. I’m positioned on top of an abandoned drugstore in some ghetto in Saint Louis; which I know doesn’t really narrow it down much, on Christmas Eve. It’s my first Christmas, actually ...well first since I woke up. It’s been snowing for the last three days and everything below me is a dirty sludge the color of soaked newspaper. I’m fairly new to having my own opinions and right now, my strongest is that snow in a city is possibly one of the most depressing things I’ve ever seen. The other is that even the clean stuff is obnoxious when you’ve been laying in it for almost thirty minutes-- which I’ve been doing. Everything from my waist down is cold and damp.
          According to the intel from Captain Fabron, some assembly line synthetic corrupted about a week ago, trashed everyone and everything on its line and bolted. A couple days ago, area civilians were saying something big and mean was attacking people at random in a nearby neighborhood. So, here we are. Me and my eight human squadmates.
          I’ve only been a member of Rho squad for about a month and we’re out in the CZ putting down corruptions. It’s shitty work. But I’m good at it; we all are, and this place needs people like us in a bad way.
          There’s a crash; a musical shattering of glass whose source I can’t see and, almost instantly, half a dozen civilians flee into my line of sight. I ignore them. They’re not my priority.
           From around the corner, a car soars through the air and hits the pavement with a strangely satisfying crunch. That thing playing shot-put with the Buick? Yeah, that’s my priority. I hear more footsteps pounding against the wet pavement below me and peer over my rocket launcher. I can see Sergeant Hemingway sprinting from one form of cover to the next. I watch him move from behind a pile of plowed snow and ice to a parked car where he stops and raises his side arm.
          “I’m gonna lead him right to you, got it?” I hear him in my ear. “He’s a big motherfucker. So don’t be hold back.”
           He’s not kidding. About 10 meters down the road I can see a massive brute of a machine lumber into view. His skyn’s torn in more places than not, and I can see that his arms are nothing more than two giant, steel pistons. No wonder that thing can throw a fucking car. I peer through my scope and I can see its face. There’s a constant white steam coming from its nose and mouth-- it’s probably overheating or at least running on more power than its used to, and its eyes are wild with the same insane rage I’ve seen a dozen times before on corruptions. I don’t know what happened to make this thing a walking murder factory instead of just another free thinking machine like me and the others back at Fort Thomas-- no one knows why Jane fails at waking some of us up-- and I don’t care. What I do care about is that Sergeant Hemingway is standing on top of that car now, shooting at it like some kind of dumbass cowboy. I like Sergeant Hemingway, but he tends to act like he’s invincible. I think he believes he is.
          “You better start running or that thing’s gonna smear you all over the street,” I say into my mic, because I know for a fact humans are not invincible. They’re not even very durable, to be honest. Fuck, most of them are down right fragile.
          “Nah, it’s fine,” he replies. His voice is relaxed, like he’s done this a hundred times.
           I watch the corrupt synthetic pick up and launch another car. This one soars over Sergeant Hemingway’s head and crashes through a diner window. The screams are deafening and I hope no one is hurt.
           “Okay, maybe not so fine,” Sarge says, somewhat anxious now, and hops down from the car. “Hey, Gomez, I could definitely use a lift outta here if you’d be so kind.”
           “You know, I’m starting to get tired of bailing your ass out, Sergeant.” I hear Specialist Gomez’s voice on my earpiece. It’s deep and has all the smoothness of a bucket of gravel. I like Gomez. She takes absolutely no shit and can drive like a pro.
           “You know you love it,” Sarge says back when the humvee comes into sight. “Watch out for Mongo there, he likes to throw his toys.”
            I see the humvee plowing down the street leaving a wake of sludgy tread marks. Gomez speeds past the corrupt with no trouble, taking a few extra seconds to maneuver the truck into throwing a wave of slush at the it. Like I said, she’s a badass behind the wheel, and she actually seems to be more successful at leading the big guy toward me than Sarge.
          “Hey, you guys better get the hell out of here. That thing’s coming straight for you,” I inform them.
          “Roger that,” Gomez says. Then, she leans out the window and blows me a kiss. It’s nothing special, she does this to everyone. From what I’ve gathered, it’s kind of her thing… and I like it, it suits her. “Blow ‘em sky high, Iron man.”
          And I do. As soon as Gomez and Sarge are out of the way I zero my sites in on Mongo and fire. The rocket hits, but doesn’t do the damage we had all hoped. Instead of a smouldering hole in its chest, I’ve got a supremely pissed off machine with one missing arm ...and a partridge in a pear tree. But it’s fine. This is fine. It just means I get to show off a little now. And I gotta admit, I love showing off.
         I put my rocket launcher down and get to my feet. Below me Mongo-- Jesus, where does Sargeant Hemingway come up with these fucking awful names? Probably the same place he came up with Iron Man. But, whatever. Anyway, Mongo’s down on the ground, one arm socket sparking like an illegal firework, trying to rip a street light out of the sidewalk. I do a couple quick calculations on distance, get a running start, and leap of the top of the building.
         I hit the ground with a force that would shatter my other squad mates’ legs and take off straight for Mongo. The brute sees me coming and abandons its attempt to uproot the street light in favor of crushing me like a pop can. The corrupt raises its massive steel arm above its head and moves to bring it down on me. But Mongo’s big-- way bigger than me-- and that makes it slow. Now, I’m no sprinter, but my ankles and knees have some pretty nice hydraulics if I do say so, and I’m in the clear before it even finishes its swing.
         I wind up off to the side while Mongo tries to recover from the swing. Its hunched and off balance with its head almost at my height. I figure if I can get it on the ground I can put a bullet or six in its power supply. Not wasting any time, I cock my arm back and attack. My fist collides with its head and I can feel its teeth break. The corrupt staggers sideways and hunches even lower so I swing again with my left. This time I connect a little higher, and now its right optic is flickering like green strobe light. I hike my knee up and push my boot forward into his chest with a grunt. Mongo falls onto his back and I lean over the crazed machine with my pistol drawn. I train my weapon on its broad, heaving chest. As my finger wraps around the trigger I hear a series of quick hissing noises; like short bursts of air escaping a pressurized chamber. I pull my trigger just as the piston on its arm releases right under me.


          I’m not in the snow anymore. It’s dark and I’m lying on a bed or cot of some kind. My chest feels...wrong and my boot cycle is sluggish. Despite not being fully operational yet, I hear voices. They’re garbled at first, like they’re talking under water but after a few seconds they start to become clearer.
          “Jesus, Hem, whattaya doin’, goin’ and breakin’ the new guy?” The voice belongs to Specialist Grabowski, our squad medic.
          “Shit, I didn’t break anything. Don’t you go pinning this on me.”
           I try to speak to let Grabowski know it wasn’t Sarge’s fault, but I can’t move. I guess my audio sensors are the only things online. It shouldn’t take this long to power up.
          “Look, it’s your plan; your responsibility. That’s what Cap’n Fabron’s always sayin’.”
          “Don’t quote Captain Fabron to me, Grabowski, just fix him.”
          “Fix him? I’m a medic, Hem, I fix people. The human kind. This guy, I dunno, this guy needs a goddamned auto mechanic, or IT guy, or somethin’. Probably both.”
          My optics begin to come back online and everything is all pixelated; it’s like the entire world’s been turned into an old school video game. For a moment I’m worried that I might have been damaged worse than I thought and my optics can only manage sixteen bit resolution. Then, I feel Grabowski thump the side of my head and everything is back in full focus.
         “Hey, hey! Caveman technology! Works every time,” he cheers. I look at him and blink a few times while the rest of my systems finally lurch back online.
          I look around. I’m not in the street anymore. I’m back at Fort Shelley in the medical center. I’m lying on a stretcher and I can feel the micro usb that’s attached to the back of my neck. I follow the cord to Grabowski’s power-house medical computer that’s sitting on a table nearby. On the screen is me; lines of my data scrolling, indicating which of my systems are operational and which ones are damaged.
         “How did I get here?” I ask, raising myself into a sitting position. Grabowski’s look of accomplishment vanishes. He turns to his screen with Sarge over his shoulder.
          “Whaddaya can’t remember?” Grabowski asks me nervously. “Uh, wh-what’s your name?”
          I don’t really have a name, so I reply with the most obvious thing to me. “SRN: six-two-seven-eight.”
          Sarge growls and rolls his eyes, “Not your number. Your name. What. Is. Your. Name?”
          I don’t know. I don’t really have a name. They all just call me… aaw, shit. Seriously? “Is it Iron man? I don’t want it to be Iron man. I hate Iron man.” I mumble. And I do. I really hate being called Iron man. I like it better when Captain Fabron calls me Homme de Fer-- or usually just Fer for short. And I get that Homme de Fer and Iron man are literally the same thing, but Fabron’s speech is some kind of wild Frankenstein’s monster of English and French and it just sounds so much cooler.
          “Alright, fine, whatever. Where are you?”
          “Confederated Zone base, Fort Shelley.”
          “Who am I?”
          “Sergeant Victor Hemingway.”
          He runs his fingers dramatically through the curly orange mop on the top of his head. “Damn right I am.” He points to Grabowski. “Who’s that nerd?”
          “Specialist Justin Grabowski. Squad medic.”
          “And auto mechanic it seems,” Grabowski adds as he types at his computer.
          “See, he’s fine,” Sarge says to Grabowski and pats my shoulder like it’s the fender of a car. Then, I see his eyes trail to my torso and his smile falters. I look down. My heavy jacket has been removed. I’m in my t-shirt and I see a dent the size of a dinner plate in the center of my chest. “Well, fine enough.”
           “I… I can’t work like this,” I say as I gape at the veritable crater in my chassis. No wonder I took so long to boot up. I’m amazed I’m able to operate at all, actually.
          “What? Nah, it’s fine. We’ll get one of the guys from motor pool down here with one of those heavy duty suction cup things and, you know,” He makes a popping sound with his mouth. “Pop that dent right out. No problem.” He turns to Grabowski. “No problem.” Grabowski does not share his confidence.
          “How in the heck did you ever make Sergeant? Honestly, how?”
          Sarge shrugs. “Good looks and sass, I guess.”
          Despite my current situation, I laugh at this. He may be dumb as a brick when it comes to how I work, but Sargeant Hemingway is funny. That’s why everyone likes him. It’s why I like him.
          “Okay, so, on the surface everything seems fine,” Grabowski says to me then double takes at my chest. “I mean, like, internally. Your memory drives all seem fine. You took a while to power up though. Might just be a one time thing from being cold clocked all the way back to the FORTRAN days. The diagnostics still need to finish running, so we’ll know more later.”
          “How long will that take?” I ask.
          Grabowski looks at his computer. “Two, maybe three hours? I mean, you’re pretty complicated, there’s a lot to check.”
           I watch Grabowski get to his feet and head for the exit. “Just sit tight. I’ll be back to check on ya. I’m gonna go to the rec room.”
           Sarge follows him across the med center. “Hey, tell Picos to get her stash of booze and bring it down. We may be at Shitty Shelley, but Christmas is Christmas.”
           I hear Grabowski give a reply to the affirmative before he disappears out the door. Sarge is about to leave as well when Captain Fabron walks in. Fabron is a big guy. All muscle. All accent. Alright in my book.
          “Where are you going, Sargeant?” I hear him ask.
          “To the rec room, Captain. Me and the team are planning on have a little Christmas party.”
          “Yeah, don’t mind me,” I hear Grabowski holler back. “I’ll just sit in the corner and play with my dreidel.”
          “Don’t be shitty, Grabowski. Not my fault we got the cooler holiday,” Sarge says.
          “Your holiday revolves around an obese, geriatric, demi-god who stalks kids,” Grabowski counters.
          Sarge laughs, then turns back to Captain Fabron. “You gonna join us Cap?”
          Captain Fabron crosses his arms over his chest. He looks at Sarge, then at me. I pretend to not pay attention. I don’t mean to eavesdrop, but I can hear a pin drop in a padded room. I don’t think they realize that.
          “What about him?” Captain Fabron asks.
          “What about him? Diagnostics are running. Should be done in about three hours. Everything else is just cosmetic.”
          “So, he will not be joining you and the rest of the team for your little party?” He says the word little and it sounds like ‘leedle’.
         “Well, no. He’s hooked up to--”
         “Why don’t you sit with him until the diagnostics are finished, eh?”
         “Aw, come on, Cap!”
         “Sargeant, I feel I need to remind you that the only reason he is in medical at all is because of your plan to use yourselves as bait and him as the strong man.”
         “But it worked.”
         “It didn’t work if it ended with an injured teammate. You need to understand that he is not a tool or a weapon. He’s a person. He’s just as much a Rho as you or me and you need to treat him as such.”
         “So, you’re going to stay here with your team mate so he doesn’t have to spend Christmas Eve alone. Am I understood?”
         “Yes, Sir.”
          Captain Fabron leaves and Sarge turns and stares at me. His expression is one of someone who knows they deserve to sleep in the bed they’ve made, but isn’t happy about it. He crosses the room and takes a seat on Grabowski’s chair and looks at the data on the screen. I don’t know what to say to him. Sorry I got my lights literally knocked out? Merry Christmas, sorry you have to spend it with me?
          “So,” Sarge finally speaks. His green eyes bore into me and it’s hard to look at him. “You really don’t like being called Iron man?”
          The question catches me off guard and I laugh. Of all the things I was expecting him to say, that was not it. “No,” I reply. “I don’t.”
          Sarge looks indignant and rolls the chair closer to me. “What? Why? Iron man’s a great name.”
         “It is if you’re a narcissistic billionaire on a team of costumed weirdos.”
         “Woah! Hey! Are you tellin’ me you don’t like The Avengers?” He raises an eyebrow.
          This question sounds pretty serious and, judging by Sarge’s expression, his future opinion of me hinges on how I answer. I’m feeling pretty nervous about being put on the spot like this. I’ve only heard of The Avengers in passing; my knowledge of them is garnered mostly from internet memes and TV commercials. I don’t like or dislike The Avengers, I nothing them.
          “I don’t think I have enough information on them to make a decision.” I reply slowly and await his response. Sarge considers my words for a long, silent moment. He bobs his head up and down and his curls bounce a little as he does.
          “Alright, alright, that’s fair,” he says. “We’ll work on that when we get home. You’ll see. You’re gonna love being called Iron man.”
         “Yeah, I doubt that. It’s a stupid name and I don’t like it,” I say again.
          Sarge rolls his eyes and pulls a pack of cigarettes and a dull black Zippo from his pocket. “Fine, then, if Iron man’s so god awful, what should we call you?”
          “Fer,” I say after a few seconds. “I like it when Captain Fabron calls me Fer.”
          “You realize that’s fucking stupid, right? It’s literally the same damn thing.” He says and lights a cigarette. I know for a fact that smoking is not allowed in the med center but I decide not to say anything.
           “It sounds better in French. That, and I won’t get confused for an Avenger.”
           “I’d want to be confused for an Avenger,” Sarge muses and suddenly he’s offering me his pack of cigarettes. “Here, have a smoke with me.”
           I stutter a reply that sounds more or less like my speech is glitching and Sarge pushes the small white and blue box forward. “C’mon. Cap says I need to start treating you like the rest of the squad so, here.” He nudges the box at me again and I pull one of the cigarettes out. I place it between my lips and he lights it for me. I watch Sarge take a long drag on his and I follow suit, but instead of exhaling a smooth cloud of smoke like him, I’m coughing so hard I nearly pull Grabowski’s whole computer setup off the table. The smoke burns my respiration tubes and I can already tell my body is not okay with it because there’s a constant, thin stream of smoke coming from my nostrils as my ventilation system flushes it all out.
           “That’s fucking awful!” I exclaim, still coughing a little. The burning is subsiding and my ventilation kicks off; I am no longer a smoke tower. “How do you do this all day, Sergeant?”
           “Eh, you get used to it. And call me Hem. Everyone else does.” Sarge grins and rolls back over to Grabowski’s computer. “I wonder if I can stream movies on this thing.” He takes another drag off his cigarette. I, however, opt to pinch mine out between my thumb and forefinger and flick it into a nearby trash bin.
          “I don’t see why you couldn’t,” I reply.
          “Well, I don’t want to screw up whatever Grabowski’s doing with you on here.”
           I get up from the stretcher and crouch down beside Hem. I take the keyboard from him and start navigating around all of Grabowski’s diagnostics programs.
          “Must be pretty weird, working on a computer that has your brain on the screen.”
          “Yeah, it’s pretty meta,” I nod and bring up Netflix on the monitor. “There. And I didn’t even trigger my self destruct mechanism.” Hem looks at me and I can tell he’s not sure if I’m being serious or not. “Really?” I scoff. “C’mon, I don’t have a self destruct mechanism. How did you make sergeant?” I ask, reiterating Grabowski’s earlier question.
          “I already told you guys, good looks and sass.”
          I look him over. Good looks might be a bit of a stretch. His frame is short and lean; petite, I guess would be the best word. His hair is a bright orange brush cut topped with a mess of curls. He’s got thick orange eyebrows and a face full of freckles that makes him look perpetually adolescent even though he’s in his early 20’s.
          “If you say so,” I reply.
          “I do say so,” He says and takes the keyboard back from me. His fingers start pecking at the keys and I can hear him whispering, “Come on, come on, have it,” as he types. He hits enter and holds his breath. A second later he lets out a whoop of excitement. On the monitor is the image of a gruff looking man in a white tank top holding a pistol at the ready with a twilight citiscape behind him. “Mother fuckin’ Die Hard!”
          “Die Hard?” I ask.
          “Yep. It’s only the greatest Christmas movie of all time.”
          I consider the image again and feel compelled to point out the obvious. “It doesn’t look like a Christmas movie.”
          Hem whips around and faces me again. “You shut your whore mouth!” He says, jamming his finger into my chest… which actually proves to be more awkward than we expect, as his finger keeps going until it reaches the bottom of the dent there.
          We both laugh at his stupid, failed gesture and he clicks the play icon. We’re barely through the opening credits when we hear Specialist Sunshine Picos call to us from the doorway.
          “Hey, Hem, whatcha doing in here?” She asks holding a sleeve of red plastic cups in one hand and heavy looking bottle of apple juice in the other-- except, it’s definitely not apple juice. “Grabowski said you said to bust out the care pack my sister sent.” She strolls into the med center and approaches us. “Oh shit! Is that Die Hard?!” She perches herself on the stretcher beside me and elbows me playfully. “Glad you’re okay, Iron man.”
          “Ah, ah, we’re not calling him that anymore,” Hem says still fixated on the movie. “He doesn’t like it.”
          Picos looks at me like a sad little kitten. “Aaaw. But what’re we gonna call you?”
          I look at Hem and he looks back at me with an approving grin. “My name’s Fer.” I say and feel stupid and bold at the same time.
          “Well, shit, why didn’t you say something earlier? Here we are calling you something you hate like a bunch of assholes.” She hops off the stretcher and puts the jug of ‘juice’ down, pulls three cups from the sleeve and pours a little of the deep brown liquid into each. She hands one to Hem, keeps one for herself, and hands the third to me. “Drink up, Fer.” She grins. Much like with the cigarette, I’m not prepared for my systems to rebel at the alcohol. I sputter a few times and thank her. “That’s my big guy,” she says patting my back like a choking toddler. “Good stuff, no?”
          “Better than the cigarette,” I choke out and she bursts into riotous laughter.
          “Oh, Hem, are you trying to make him your own personal mini-me?”
          “Look at him, Picos,” Hem snorts, still glued to the movie, “what about him is mini?”
          We all share a good laugh; I am pretty big compared to all of them. A solid six feet. I think Jones is next tallest, clocking in at five-eleven. A few minutes later Miller and Oxford come by looking for Picos since she hadn’t come back to the rec room with her booze. They both wind up grabbing chairs and joining us around the computer. Miller’s wearing a Santa hat until Hem mentions something about her not being the rookie anymore. She fist pumps and gets up from her seat to place the hat on my head. “Merry Christmas, Rookie Claus,” she says and pinches my cheek.
           “Um, thanks?” I laugh and Picos pours her and Oxford each a drink.
           One by one the entire squad migrates into medical with me and Hem. Picos pours drinks and they pull up chairs crowding around Grabowski’s computer-- which he’s pretty cool with us using to stream movies.
          “Hey, where is the party?” Captain Fabron asks, ambushing us all. “I thought you were all in the rec room. I had pizza delivered but no one was there.”
          “We were, Sir,” Picos replies. “But Hem and Fer are watching Die Hard, so we sort of changed the venue.”
           “Fer?” Captain Fabron asks and looks at me. “So I see you’ve given yourself a name for Christmas. That is good. It makes you officially one of the family. Welcome to Rho, Fer. We’re happy to have you.”
          I see everyone around me look up at me and raise their cups. They don’t say anything, but their faces get their point across. I’m one of the family. I smile and raise my cup back to them and we all take a drink together.
          “And every time a bell rings, and angel gets his wings,” Hem says in a high pitched, childish tone. “Now, c’mon shut up, you’re all ruining the movie with your big, gross feelings.”
          A few of us give Hem some shit, but we all go back to watching the movie. Captain Fabron moves the pizza from the rec room to medical and we all have the most ridiculous, amazing, perfectly Rho Christmas dinner I can remember.


          And I still remember it. I hold the old Santa hat in my hands as I sit on the sofa in my apartment. Picos’ booze was terrible and the pizza was cold by the time Fabron moved it down to us, but we honestly didn’t care. We were in the middle of the raging fucktangle that is the CZ, stuck at Shitty Shelley for Christmas, having the best damned holiday I think any of us ever had.
          On the coffee table in front of me I have our squad picture and nine shots poured out for them-- the ninth is for Onda. She came in about a year later and not only replaced me as the rookie, but she was also another synthetic.
          I rifle through my old foot locker. After... well, after-- we’ll just leave it at that-- I was given a few of their possessions. I got last pick after all the families. I pick up Gomez’s sunglasses. The lenses are cracked and one of the temples is missing but I polish them gently and put them down by her shot glass. Next, I take out a beat up medic patch and sit it by Grabowski’s shot glass. The next item I retrieve is Picos’ flask. It’s silver with our squad insignia etched into it on one side and ‘Picos’ on the other. One by one, I take out the only physical reminders of my old squad that I have and place them beside their assigned shot glasses. I have Jones’ boonie cap, Oxford’s crushed to hell and back cell phone, Miller’s pet rock, Judgey-- Judgey was sort of our unofficial mascot-- the slide from Onda’s side arm, and Captain Fabron’s pocket knife. One by one I sit them beside the appropriate glass. Then, I reach in for the final item. I pull out a matte black Zippo lighter. On one side the words, ‘Hem: Fort Shitty Shelley’ are scratched into it. I stare at it for a long time then use it to light the cigarette that’s been hanging between my lips. I sit the lighter down and stare at my pitiful treasures.
          I miss them. They were my family in a way the Omegas can never be. I got my name with them. I learned how to navigate personhood with them. We were heroes together. We took some lives and saved a lot more. Then, one day, they were gone. Ripped away from this world in a maelstrom of rubble and fire. And while their souls-- if there is such a thing-- are at rest, their memories are still very much alive, and I still miss them.
          I take a drag from my cigarette and exhale a smooth cloud of smoke-- I’m much better at handling cigarettes these days-- and place it on the edge of my ashtray. “So,” I say to the line of oddities on my coffee table. “It’s Christmas Eve. How’s Die Hard sound?”

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