Sunday, October 11, 2015

Short Story: Gray Tigers

Gray Tigers

A short story



Planet Denen 3, 2188

The grim reality of the situation was that he never saw a person under 30 in town. The situation must be getting worse because the people he saw out and about were getting older and older. Roger Talbot, 52, had retired early thanks to some fortunate and some unfortunate events. The economy was in shambles with the war.

Walking through the town center he noted the boarded up shops and the gray-haired sidewalk vendors on blankets. A woman he knew, Julia Mendez, was sitting on a blue blanket with a tray of arepa's trying to earn some money to help her children.

“I'll take a few of those, Julia.” He said, kneeling beside her. Choosing one filled with cheese, another with fried egg and a third with some kind of meat and egg.

“Thanks, Roger.” She said as she piled them on a paper plate and added a paper napkin. Times were tough all over, even if she sold everything she would only be marginally better off for the day. Roger's wife had divorced him long ago and he never bothered to remarry. Now and then he felt something for Julia but he never told her that.

“Excuse me, sir.” Someone behind him said, trying to sound polite and firm at the same time and failing. Roger turned around and stood. A woman in uniform was standing there with a palm com, a holographic screen floated above it.

“How can I help you?” He asked the woman. She had short cropped brownish hair and appeared to be wearing a dress uniform, he estimated that she was in her mid-30's.

“Yes, I'm with the Global Defense Organization's recruitment office. Have you considered signing up to serve in the war?” She asked. “What is your name?”

“Me? Roger Talbot, but I didn't think they recruited men over 50 for the war. I doubt I'd do well fighting planet to planet with all those lift-offs and landings.” He told her.

“No, not that. We have a Home Guard too. To defend this planet if it comes to being invaded by the enemy.” She told him.

That was new. He hadn't heard that the enemy even had such a capability remaining. All of the propaganda said the aliens were being pulverized and had no chance against us in space. It was reported that they would be confined to only their home world in a matter of months.

“I didn't know there was such a thing.” He answered. She took his arm and pulled him a little ways from the sidewalk vendors.

She came close and in a quiet tone said. “We don't want it getting out, but there is a chance they still have some ships and troops we don't know about. That's why we have the Home Guard. If you sign up you would be paid a little and have free meals.”

That offer probably worked for a lot of people in this economy, he thought to himself, although it smelled fishy. Why was this Home Guard thing such a secret? Why was it in need of new recruits when there were hundreds of thousands of impoverished people who would jump at the chance?

He read her name badge. “Lieutenant Melody Smith. Can I have a day to think it over and maybe get some affairs in order? I can meet you back here at noon tomorrow.”

She seemed satisfied. “Yes, that would be alright. See you then.”

The more he thought about it, the worse it sounded. Denen must be in peril if they were recruiting older men to fight. All the younger men and women were already at war in distant solar systems, leaving Denen mostly undefended. Maybe the authorities were just now recognizing this oversight.

Okay, if the government was going to be paying for his meals and he didn't need to rent the tiny closet-like apartment any more he had some things to do. Soon enough he was knocking at the shack-like house of Julia Mendez.

“Roger? What brings you here?” She asked, he could hear her kids playing inside.

This was going to sound weird, but...

“I've decided to enlist. Not as front-line soldier or anything but they still have slots for people like me n the war effort. I wanted to tell you...” He paused,

“Tell me what?” She asked, curious but at least smiling.

“While I'm in, I won't need to pay for my meals or anything. I wanted to transfer my payments over to you in the meantime.” He told her. She looked surprised and speechless.

“I mean, it would be hard to spend it before it expires. I might be away for months and the thought of all that money disappearing into nothing makes my stomach hurt.” Roger told her. Julia came outside and closed the door and gave him a hug. He hugged her back.

“I'll be leaving tomorrow.” He told her, handing her a folded piece of paper with some cash in it. “These bills expire in less than two weeks, so you need to make sure they get spent. Get little Gabriel some sandals, or something.”

“I really don't know how to thank you.” She told him.

“Well, you'll have time to think of something while I'm away.” He told her jokingly.

The next day, as he predicted the recruiter turned up with a military vehicle. It looked sort of like a boat on large wheels. There were a couple of other older men who had signed on as well ready to board.

“Lieutenant.” He asked when he had a moment close to her. “Why is the Home Guard recruiting? Seems like they would have all the hands they need.”

“I wouldn't know anything like that. You can ask the base Commander when you arrive.” She answered before walking toward the vehicle, “Okay, recruits. Up the ladder, let's get moving.”

Roger joined them after exchanging waves with Julia who was not there to sell anything for once.

East Sector Tertiary Camp

The vehicle entered through the front gates after passing maybe fifty miles of woodland. The colony of Denen hadn't reached this far yet. The front gate guards were probably in their mid-forties and both of them had laser rifles slung on their backs.

There were some uniformed soldiers jogging and exercising in a field to the left as they passed but he wasn't close enough to tell their age. Finally the vehicle stopped between some buildings, there were other military vehicles parked nearby in neat rows.

Maybe all of this was just the government being wasteful, or just giving them something to do besides puttering around. He saw some soldiers cleaning windows at a barracks and some others doing maintenance on a mobile anti-aircraft laser. All of these had gray-hair.

“Like an old folks home with guns.” He muttered to himself as he got off the vehicle and stood at attention with the other new arrivals. Someone came out of the building they were facing, he had more ribbons and shoulder stripes than the others.

“I am base Commander Falco. I know you are wondering why you are here. You are here to give support and aid to the men who fight the enemy.” The balding officer told them. “If you have military experience, even just basic training two decades ago, I want to know. It will help me assign you to your new duties. Quite possibly freeing up someone who can fight the bad guys.”

The other guys who had come with him were named Jeffery Mint and Conrad Tabor. They were bunked in the far back corner of the barracks and got to know each other some over meals and exercises. Jeffery was assigned to the kitchens, Conrad was soon an electrician (again) while Roger Talbert was assigned to the watchtower.

The watchtower turned out to be two-hundred feet tall. There was no lift attached, just a ladder made up of a single bar with alternating “branches”. Roger had to pause and catch his breath before he started climbing without looking down or up. Doing either would make his stomach spin and his head go woozy.

The man he was relieving told him the basics. He was looking for anything. Which narrowed that down really well. When he saw anything he was to use the binoculars and then zoom in until he could dismiss it as no threat or declare it a threat. If he found a threat he was to use the built-in com to address the base commander directly.

For the first five days he was always seeing birds or deer or things blown by the wind. It seemed unproductive and pointless. What happened to the high-tech sensors the military had deployed, was the Home Guard just too unimportant? Was this all busy-work? The base commander seemed to be pretty intense for a guy running an exercise center for old men.

On the sixth morning he was awake before the bugles to take a piss. He noted as he passed the bunks that several of them were empty. Roger was a bit confused. These men were not on a night-shift, they should still be in their bunks asleep. After daybreak he found the base commander observing the cleaning of his personal transport.

“I saw that several bunks in the barracks were empty this morning. Those men work days, so it is unusual for them to be gone before bugles. Has something happened?” Roger asked.

Base commander Falco waved him off. “Nothing to worry about. These things happen in war. Maybe their contract ended and they wanted to leave.”

“In the middle of the night without saying goodbye?” Roger asked, “That doesn't make much sense.”

“Don't worry about it. It's all part of wearing the uniform.” Commander Falco said, then looked at his office as another vehicle arrived. It was carrying new recruits. That was as much as he could figure before he was climbing the watchtower again.

Something was very off about this base. Roger would bring this up to Conrad and Jeffery later at the evening meal. When he did he asked, “Have you guys seen anything weird?”

“We have two fewer armored vehicles and one of the laser batteries was getting fresh batteries.” Conrad told him, “I checked over the papers on that. Seems like it's worn them out and they were only installed a few months back.”

Not only had it been used but it had been used enough to need new batteries. Out here in the middle of nowhere on a non-priority base without any of the advanced equipment like those sent to the front. All of this was confusing enough without noticing that people were going missing.

“I work in the kitchens.” Jeffery Mint said, “I wouldn't see any of that. I was doing the evening inventory yesterday, I quite clearly recorded 711 cases of ReadyMeals. This morning there were only 600 of them. As if that wasn't weird enough, by evening inventory today, it had become 645. As if they took some last night and brought some back today.”

The next morning he was back up in the watchtower. In the distance he could see some thin smoke and he got a close up view with the equipment. That clearing hadn't been there the previous day and the strange smoke, nearly completely dissipated was dark. Had there been a campfire? Nobody would come out here to do some logging.

Roger used the equipment to get the best look he could. He saw something strange and moved the camera carefully. As far as he could determine there was a military vehicle in the clearing that had been on fire. Roger doubted he was supposed to be able to see that. He didn't dare call Commander Falco or even write down the observation.

That evening at meal time he didn't disclose what he had seen to his friends. It did not stop them from telling him anything they saw.

“I worked a few minutes late on inventory when the supervisor came in and told me to stand side as some soldiers took some cases. They wouldn't tell me what was going on.” Jeffery said.

“Some of those vehicles have dents and scratches in them that weren't there the other day.” Conrad told them in a quiet voice. “They were being banged out and repainted today. None of this is in the reports.”

“Something is going on. I don't like it.” Roger told them, “If we've been invaded, why would this be kept secret?”

Jeffery and Conrad both looked at him as if the answer was obvious.

Roger Talbert had a troubled sleep. Suddenly he was being shaken and then pulled by his shirt-front out of the cot. He noticed Jeffery and Conrad had also been roused by the unfamiliar looking soldiers who hushed them and led them out of the barracks.

Falco was waiting for them next to an armored vehicle.

“We need you to take this vehicle out east-northeast for nine kilometers, chain it to a wrecked vehicle that you will tow back to base.” He told them, “Do not question these orders. Hanson, there, will man the turret gun, in case you come into contact with an enemy force.”

Roger traded confused looks with Conrad and Jeffery. Conrad would drive, Roger would take the side seat next to him. Jeffery was in the back, trying to figure out how to reload the laser rifle he had been issued.

“What is this about?” Conrad asked, “Why would they give an assignment like this to us? Does that make any sense?”

No. Not at all. Not unless they were losing this war and Denen was being invaded.

“I have no idea.” Roger answered. Suddenly the ground rose up in front of the vehicle like a blister on the skin. Then this blister popped and some sort of heavy vehicle was facing right at them. The turret opened fire as Jeffery jumped out the back and ran.

The other vehicle also began firing. The first shots put a hole in the military vehicle and exploded in the cockpit. When Roger was able to stand up and open his eyes, Conrad Tabor was fried to a crisp in the seat.

The turret above him exploded and blood splattered down around him. Roger decided that Jeffery was the one to follow. He turned and ran out of the back of the vehicle just as the other vehicle emitted a laser so bright that the dead of night looked like the sun had gone nova. Roger couldn't help but look back in time to see the armored vehicle literally melt.

Denen had been invaded. It might be a small invasion, since this was taking so long, but they were here without a doubt.

Roger entered the woods instead of staying on the dirt road and he found a nice ditch to hide in when he thought he heard enemy forces around. Instead he saw military drones fly over his position and then there were more armored vehicles arriving.

He made his way to them and one of them stopped. Commander Falco was at the hatch. “Get in! The battle is joined and we Gray Tigers have a chance at glory!”

The man was nuts, but he was the boss. Roger climbed aboard.

“Now what?”

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Just a little story that came to me when I was sleeping. That was about all I had when the dog's whining woke me up.

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