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Friendship Science Fiction Sad

Colorless smoke curled from the crater, shimmering like the ghosts of Yershai’s comrades.

His friends.

Crix. Indoph. Tinseff. Del’lor. Melawa. All gone. All—

Yershai felt the next explosion before he saw it. By the time he did see it, the shockwave was already upon him, sending him tumbling across the compound like a ball punted by a giant.

He… was still alive. Still…

***

“Yo!” Crix’s voice—coming from the mess hall, as per usual. The man somehow got there before everyone else every morning, cooks included. And he claimed he didn’t sleep there.

Yershai lifted a hand in response, intending to move on. He wasn’t in the mood for breakfast this morning. Not with the battle ahead.

“Don’t you dare walk away without a meal, you slacker,” Crix admonished, voice echoing in the near-empty mess.

Sighing, Yershai dragged himself over to the table and slumped onto the bench across from his nagging friend. “Who’re you calling a slacker?” he shot back half-heartedly. He really didn’t want to eat, but once Crix had his claws in you, no force in the universe could unhook them.

“You, dumbass.” Crix slid a full tray of food in front of Yershai. “I took the liberty of loading you up with the eight food groups, plus an extra bottle of—”

Yershai wolfed it down. The quicker he ate, the quicker he could—

“I’m following you to the bathroom after this,” Crix said. “No way you’re throwing this up. Not after all the crap I went through to get the cooks to come early and give you me-sized portions.”

“You still haven’t told me why I’m a slacker,” Yershai grunted between bites.

Crix smiled knowingly, then kicked Yershai under the table. Got him every time. “You have to ask? You always neglect food before we deploy; neglect makes a slacker. I can’t have that. The army can’t have that.” He rested his hands in front of him, fingers curling in a strangely solemn way. “You don’t keep up your strength, we’re gonna lose you one of these days, buddy.” His smile returned just as quickly as it’d disappeared, as if a dark cloud had briefly eclipsed the moon. “Just looking out.”

“Some extra meat on my bones isn’t going to make a difference if—when we get shelled,” Yershai said. Yet he sensed the look in Crix’s eyes without even seeing it straight on: unflagging determination, flecked with the sorrow of a painful past. Eyes you couldn’t say no to even if you wanted to. Eyes that cared. “But… thanks.”

***

… alive.

He didn’t know how. He didn’t know why. He didn’t know anything except that he wanted to stay that way.

Grunting, Yershai mustered all his strength, but found he couldn’t push himself off the ground. His limbs were attached, but his legs, they—

No matter. He could crawl. He would crawl.

If not him, who else?

He had one chance to warn—

Another explosion. Another tumble across the compound. Like he was floating.

***

“So?” Indoph asked, twirling in mid-air while exercising with the anti-grav equipment. “Think she’ll cheat on you again while you’re gone?”

Yershai hadn’t thrown up his breakfast, as promised, but the thought of Feola in bed with another guy again triggered his gag reflex.

“That confident, huh?” Indoph chuckled in that quiet way of his. He backflipped for show, then pivoted his feet planet-side and switched the anti-grav off, landing with a muted thump. “Well, you played around behind her back first, so…”

“Thanks for reminding me,” Yershai said. “You and Crix both, making me do and think about things I don’t want to do or think about.”

Indoph shrugged, swiping a rag across his forehead to soak up the onslaught of sweat. “If we don’t remind you, you might forget and do it again.”

“Ugh. You sound like my father.”

That chuckle again. Despite everything, it comforted Yershai—made him think of home, of childhood days spent imagining the scraggly brush as a grand forest ripe for adventure with Indoph and the others.

Days not even in another lifetime. That part always messed him up.

“Chin up, soldier,” Indoph said softly. “That’s an order.” Though they’d started the same, Indoph had quickly risen the ranks, and had two more studs on his uniform to prove it. The line between friend and superior officer hadn’t been easy for them to thread, but in moments alone like this, they could ignore such formalities. They weren’t supposed to, but they did.

Yershai saluted with a lop-sided grin. “Yes, sir.”

Indoph started walking away, but ground to a halt and spun on his heel as he passed Yershai. “She’ll be there when you get back. As long as you’re there for her.” Then he left.

Closing his eyes, Yershai reached out and flipped the anti-grav switch on the equipment Indoph had been using, slowly rising into the air. The hum of the machine reminded him of the hum of Feola’s voice whenever she got up in the morning. So many things reminded him of so many other things these days.

Soon, though, he wouldn’t have to remind himself what her voice sounded like. He’d hear it himself.

***

Sputtering awake, Yershai didn’t think. He just crawled.

Shouts came from somewhere to his left, but he knew his imagination was playing him for a fool. Everyone was dead, and the enemy would never deploy their own troops in the middle of a plasma shelling.

Only, it wasn’t his imagination. It wasn’t the enemy, either. It was—

“T-Tinseff,” he croaked. Oh, but his throat stung. He didn’t remember getting gassed, but he’d been out for some time. He might’ve inhaled something while unconscious. “That… you?”

By some miracle, the figure not only heard him: it was Tinseff. Yershai knew it, even through the haze of tears. So why wasn’t he—?

Tinseff dropped like a brick, dead.

His head… like clouds…

***

“Man, I never get sick of this,” Tinseff whispered, “goofy” not even beginning to describe his grin.

“Me neither,” Yershai whispered back. “And I need to get away before any of the others find me. Crix and Indoph dispensed some of their unsolicited wisdom earlier, but I know you’re a better man than that.”

“A stupider man, you mean,” Tinseff said. He laughed under his breath, and Yershai couldn’t help but join him.

The two of them crouched behind the compound’s outer perimeter—a knee-high brick wall—waiting for the next guard to pass. Beyond the short wall, miles and miles of unbroken grasslands spread out; flower patches dotted the landscape here and there, but green claimed fealty to these otherwise unclaimed lands.

Two minutes later, the guard strolled on by, completely unaware of the stooping soldiers. Once he was out of sight, the two of them hopped the wall—

And sprawled out on their backs on the other side.

“Ahh, freedom!” Tinseff said. “Feels good, don’t it?” There were plenty of other adjectives he could have used, but “good” meant so much more than “good” coming from Tinseff.

Yershai folded his hands behind his head, breathing in the crisp air. “Always does.”

“You know,” Tinseff said, shifting in the grass, “that cloud there kinda looks like your mother.”

“My mother?” Yershai said a bit too loudly. There wouldn’t be another guard for a while, but it never hurt to be careful; hopping the wall could be considered dereliction of duty, or even desertion. “Looks like your mother to me.”

My mother?” Tinseff harrumphed. “Please. We both know my mother’s not that short.”

“That cloud is probably a hundred feet tall. Or wide. Or whatever.”

“To the sky, sure. But to us?” Tinseff reached over, gripping Yershai’s shoulder. “To us, that cloud is whatever we want it to be. That’s how life is, Shai. Whatever we want it to be.”

***

As at the compound perimeter, Yershai didn’t dare let himself scream. Attracting attention there meant punishment. Here, it meant death.

He scrambled away from Tinseff’s body, not looking back. A sniper must’ve popped him from across no man’s land. That meant Yershai wasn’t safe here—relatively speaking.

Shoving down the image of his childhood friend’s head melting into plasmic paste, Yershai crawled on. He could see the command center just around the bend. Just around the—

“Mmph!”

His leg. His leg. What in all the—

“Shut up,” he whispered to himself through gritted teeth. “Don’t scream. Don’t scream. Don’t scream. Don’tscreamdon’tscreamdon’tscream…”

The mantra kept him going. He didn’t know how he was still going, but he couldn’t scream. Couldn’tscreamcouldn’tscreamcouldn’tscream—

***

“Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!” Del’lor screamed.

Yershai tensed, despite being well aware that Del’lor bellowed to throw his opponents off, whether in the sparring ring or on the battlefield.

And why shouldn’t he? Subtlety, as he often declared in his characteristically thunderous voice, was for assassins. Soldiers were just blunt instruments.

The instrument Del’lor swung at Yershai now, however, was anything but blunt. A cintai, it was called—a six-foot hardwood staff with two interlocking blades attached to the end, each coated in a plasmic sheen. One of those blades nearly sliced Yershai’s ear clean off.

“C’mon, man, I’m not messing around!” Del’lor boomed. “Not with deployment a few hours away. Gotta be—” another swing “—in fighting shape!”

Yershai quickstepped back, wondering why he ever sparred with Del’lor. But then, he knew these sessions of theirs were half the reason he was still alive. Modern warfare hinged on ranged combat, but close-quarters combat had instilled instincts in him he wouldn’t have traded for the best plasma rifle money could buy.

Adrenaline surging within, Yershai struck back, clacking his own cintai against Del’lor’s.

“Ha!” the man laughed. “There he is! Del’lor’s Demon rises!”

“Don’t call me that,” Yershai muttered, voice drowned out by the fighting. After all their sparring, no other man in camp could best Yershai save Del’lor himself. Thus the nickname.

Somehow, Del’lor heard him anyway. Actually, knowing him, he’d probably read Yershai’s lips in between strikes. “Be proud of who you are, Demon! Of what you are!”

Yershai complied, pressing forward with a series of well-timed swings. One nearly clipped Del’lor—

And in the single moment he felt swept up by his almost-success, Del’lor swept him off his feet. The next moment, the larger man extended a hand to help Yershai up. He might not have projected subtlety himself, but no one read and directed others’ emotions better than Del’lor.

Expecting a discussion about what went wrong on his end, Yershai instead felt the prod of the wooden end of a cintai against his chest.

Del’lor beckoned with his fingers, wrapping them loosely around the cintai again a second later. A loose grip, he always said, is a flexible one. In the heat of battle, flexibility can mean the difference between life and death.

Yershai charged, legs pumping, fingers relaxed, mind open.

***

Yershai crawled, legs uncooperative, fingers muddied, mind flaring.

The command center.

So close.

Close…

That noise.

Humming?

Not Feola.

Someone else.

Someone close.

***

“Wake up, sleepyhead,” Melawa said, humming a tune Yershai didn’t recognize. “We have a war to win.”

He grumbled. Had he really fallen asleep with so little time to spare?

“Come on. Up and at ‘em, soldier.”

He growled. A little time could be a lot, if you were smart.

“Seriously, Yershai. I’m not getting discharged because of your discharge.”

He grimaced. He wasn’t that smart.

“That’s how you wanna play it, fine.”

His world shifted, then darkness enveloped him. No, not darkness. Clothes. Tossed over his head, blocking his vision.

“You leave first. Same as always.”

He sat up, clothes tumbling onto his bare legs. “Whatever happened to ladies first?”

Melawa turned to him even as she got dressed, the sparkle in her blue eyes dampened by the low light of the old supply tent. “If you really believed that, you’d hold out for me a bit longer.”

Yershai sighed, folding his hands on the pile of clothes in his lap. “Feola never says things like that,” he muttered.

“Said.”

“Mm?”

“You heard me,” she said, tying on her combat boots. Why did women look so damned good in those big, clunky things?

“I did. Don’t know what you mean, though.”

Melawa laughed. “You don’t get to be passive-aggressive about her after sleeping with me—not for the first time, might I add.”

“You might,” Yershai hissed through gritted teeth. “Might you also add what you mean?”

Pulling the shoelaces tight, Melawa stood, hands on hips. Even without the combat boots, she had a good eight or nine inches on Feola, and a fuller form emphasized by her military-issue shirt. Yershai preferred shorter, thinner women, but he certainly didn’t mind the alternative Melawa presented—when she wasn’t also presenting him with an unscalable brick wall.

“You said ‘says,’” she answered, “but Feola isn’t here right now. Just trying to remind you of where you are.”

 “Which is why we came out here for private time, right, Private?”

Melawa’s eyebrow twitched. Pulling rank was a pet peeve of hers; it was a wonder she didn’t routinely slug her superior officers. “Mind telling me what you mean, Corporal?”

Something was off. They weren’t strangers to arguing, but for Melawa to be this defensive—not that he blamed her, what with his own attitude—only one thing made sense. “You’re scared.”

Clicking her tongue, Melawa collapsed onto the cot facedown; it buckled under the sudden strain, metal groaning—a sound they were both quite familiar with. “… So are you.”

But for the distant din of pre-battle preparations, silence swirled freely throughout the tent. Yershai took the opportunity to slip into uniform.

“Weird,” Melawa finally said as Yershai pulled on his pants. She flipped over, hands folded over her stomach. “This isn’t our first battle. It could be our last… but that’s always the case. So why do I feel so jittery?”

Yershai had spent most of the day absorbing his friends’ wisdom. And now, when handed the perfect moment to shed his own light on a dark time, sagacity eluded him. Not that he was surprised. He didn’t have Crix’s grounded resolve, or Indoph’s quiet confidence, or Tinseff’s simple eloquence, or Del’lor’s deceitful control, or Melawa’s fierce directness.

Or Feola.

Melawa was right to remind him of where he was. Right to call out his passive-aggression. Right to fire back at him.

Outside, someone opened fire. From the sound of it, those weren’t military-issue plasma weapons.

It was a surprise attack.

***

The humming closed in around Yershai. A horrid noise. A dissonant Feola.

No matter how quickly he crawled, it surrounded him. Penetrated his very being from all sides. He couldn’t slow down, though—not when the command center was right there. And inside, a last hope: a communications array. He had to warn… someone. He didn’t know who, but surely he’d recognize a name, or a rank.

Assuming the array hadn’t been blown to bits by a plasma shell.

The humming faded out as a constant thumping faded in. An air-dropper. Soldiers. The shelling was over; they were sending in men to tidy up.

Yershai had two choices, now: keep crawling and not make it in time, or stand and risk being spotted. There was, of course, a third choice: the coward’s way out. Before today, Yershai might have considered it. But today had been full of surprises.

Why not one more?

***

“Since you don’t like surprises,” Feola said around the lollipop in her mouth, blue eyes sparkling in the sunlight streaming through the hallway window, “I’m letting you know that your friends are behind that door.”

“How sweet of you,” Yershai said, punching the code into the door lock.

“Not as sweet as these lollipops,” Melawa said. “Seriously, Sis, where’d you get these?”

“I told you, they were a gift.”

“From who?”

“Yeah,” Yershai agreed, the door sliding open. “I thought it was my birthday.”

“From work. Boss wanted to thank me for filling in for Solia last week, so he went out and bought me a bunch of candy. He knows I love sweets.”

“Should’ve asked for a pay raise instead,” Melawa said, pulling the lollipop from her mouth and dangling it like a cat playing with a rat hanging by the tail between its teeth. An apt metaphor, considering the things—and people—she would pounce on.

Stepping past the sisters, Yershai waved to Crix, Indoph, Tinseff, and Del’lor. None of them feigned the party-throwers’ part in a surprise party, and that’s just the way he liked it. He kissed Feola’s cheek—the one that wasn’t bulging with a lollipop.

And this time, she didn’t lean away.

Not every couple had the strength to move past cheating; most probably wouldn’t have even called it strength—maybe idiocy. Had it been idiotic for Yershai to cheat on the love of his life? Absolutely. Had it been idiotic for Feola to cheat back? More understandable, but still yes.

He smiled, watching as Feola sat across from his friends, who’d somehow all squeezed onto the couch. Nothing made him happier than how well she got along with the four of them.

Melawa pulled up beside him, arms crossed. “For the record, I’m glad you two made up.”

“Really? After calling me a no-good, dirty, sonofabitch cheater?”

She chuckled. “Well, she’s one, too; even’s even. And I…” Yershai waited, but Melawa just shrugged and walked over to sit with her sister.

Thinking nothing of it, he joined his “surprise” party.

***

Leaning against the communications array, Yershai crushed the data core beneath his boot with his last ounce of strength. He’d done it. He’d warned his countrymen. Now they could prepare a counterassault.

What a surprise that would be.

Ignoring the agony standing on broken legs had wrought, Yershai hung his head, relieved. He thanked his friends. He thanked Melawa. He thanked Feola. He even thanked himself.

Yershai smiled as plasma weapons hummed to life behind him.

March 11, 2022 02:03

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7 comments

23:08 May 14, 2022

I LOVED IT!! It was different and new. Also, well written👏🏼👏🏼 ....read mine?

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Benny Regalbuto
21:50 May 24, 2022

Thanks for reading, Nikki. Just read your own story, "The Locked Door". Creepy!

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22:35 May 24, 2022

Thank you!

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J. Sing
22:04 Mar 17, 2022

Like a scene from a movie.

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Benny Regalbuto
22:52 Mar 17, 2022

Didn't think about it that way, but I can see it for sure. Thanks for reading (or... watching?)!

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Alice Richardson
04:37 Mar 14, 2022

An interesting format, revealing each person's character in between bits of action.

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Benny Regalbuto
18:34 Mar 14, 2022

Definitely an experiment on my part, but I like how it turned out. Thanks for reading!

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