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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Emotional · #1931356
Something I wrote after years of being unmotivated. Thank you, "M," for motivating me.
It was like a dream; blue, green, gray, and hazy.  What lay beyond the mists and clouds, I didn’t know.  My heart pounded, and whether it was from my rate of travel, or because I was afraid, I didn’t care.  What I knew was that I had to get away from this—this idiocy, this futility.  Was the value of life so insignificant that everyone was so willing to throw it away at a moment’s notice? 

These mountains were legendary.  The amount of blood that was shed over the tens of thousands of years of war was enough to paint every peak crimson and make every valley into a lake, or river, of it.  Yet, they glowed.  A place of death perpetual, and it was beautiful.  If there was an official name for the mountain range, it was lost to time.  One side named it Purgatory, and the other side named it Ascension. 

Neither side could agree on anything, and the only time they ever stopped firing was to dump the bodies.  When you were killed, you didn’t get to go back home, unless you became some kind of hero.  That cost too much.  You got dumped in one of the valleys that masked the rot.  You had your family crying their eyes out while they were bringing up more wide-eyed kids that were eager to be thrown to the machine.

My future wasn’t going to be one of death and rot.  This equipment that made me feel invincible at one point now felt like a million pounds.  The pack hammered away at my back, and the boots felt like anchors on my burning legs.  This stupid rifle wasn’t going to save me, but still I held on to it, as if it was some charm.  I wanted to just slow down and spend the morning watching the clouds roll down the mountainsides and onto the highlands, and pretend that I’d died an old man and that I was wandering some place in the afterlife, but I knew reality wasn’t far behind me, and that the greater part of me wanted to go faster.

I didn’t know how far I had to go to leave this place behind, but if I ran away from the battle long enough, there had to be an end to this, right?  I thought, if I got away from this, that I’d find myself some quiet place far away from the mainland.  I’d get hitched to a girl that didn’t want some hero, and I’d spend the rest of my days in peace.  Away from anything considered important enough to ever kill someone else over.  Besides my old lady, of course.

Sounds of heavy artillery rang through the mist and jet engines roared in the distance.  Explosions shook the mountains, but you never heard the screams of the dying.  Killing was perfected.  Mechanical.  Buttons and triggers.  Death was impersonal and some fucking little punk, piloting a drone, from a half a world away, would probably end you.  And he’d do it while sipping his soda pop.  That’s how much life was worth.

But, if you were out here, and you could make a name for yourself, you were a hero; a legend.  Amidst all the slaughter, the guys’d talk about all the legends from history, and how they were lucky enough to be buried back home, with the people they were fighting for through the generations.  The Ghost was a favorite: he destroyed an entire stronghold before he was killed.  The Wolf brought an offensive to a standstill for three weeks before he was caught by a drone.  Serendipity killed all of the leaders during the Scorpion Offensive, in which our side tried to end this cursed war once and for all, but failed; she was hanged once she was captured. 

Heroes fought for their respective sides, but in death, they transcended that.  It was something only understood by guys on the ground.  Out here, there was only death.  The only way to make it back home was to become a legend.  Your spirit lived on through the people who fought on.  Back home, everyone talked about the heroes and dreamt about becoming one, and coming back home to the adoring masses.  It was only when you made it out to the war that you realized that the only thing you could do was die, and try to kill as many of the enemy as you could.  It was something everyone came to accept.  But I couldn’t, because I wasn’t a hero and I wasn’t going to die here.  My life was worth more than this.

My lungs burned, but I was going to live.  If it weren’t for the mist, I’d have probably been shot to death by now.  Cowards were fair game.  If you abandoned your side, you were either shot, or captured, and then enslaved and forced to labor until you died.  There had to be an end to this, I thought.  But then, my heart sunk when I heard her voice.

“You’re running.”  She stated, in a relaxed tone that drifted though the mist.  I couldn’t pinpoint her location, but I already knew who she was.  She was infamous on our side for killing thousands of our men.  She was the enemy, and we called her The Reaper.  A living legend. 

“Reaper!”  I muttered to myself, pulling my rifle to firing position.  With the muzzle swinging wildly, I emptied the magazine in every direction around me.  My lungs felt heavy, and my heart was too afraid to beat. 

The relaxed tone was carried again by the mist, “That’s what I’m called now, runner.  If I were going to kill you, you’d have been dead already.  Calm down, put away your rifle, and come over here, three o’clock.  If you try to be a hero, I’ll kill you.”

But, I was a coward.  I dragged myself toward her, slowly.  Each step felt heavier and heavier.  The mist around me began fading to black, and my eyes would not stay open.  I could feel myself beginning to fall, and I couldn’t hang on.

When I came to, I found myself lying atop a hill covered in wild, multicolored flowers.  The sky above was still obscured by the mists and clouds.  I sat up, and saw her, the Reaper.  She was laying on her back, on the track covers of a bombed tank that was just ahead, smiling at me.

“How did you manage to survive this long?” She asked sarcastically, with her sniper rifle in her hands.  Her blonde hair was tied off into three asymmetric pigtails.

I looked down, paused, then looked up to the sky, and responded quietly, “I’m a coward. I live because I run.”

There was a considerable moment of silence, which was unusual for the battlefield.  This place seemed removed from the place of death, but I knew we were still there.  She seemed almost otherworldly.  Right before me was the Reaper.  A name that would live on forever amongst the future lost souls; amongst generations bound to death.

She rolled over lazily and asked, “Runner, do you know how many of your kind I have killed?  Do you know what it is that I am doing?”

“You’re most likely playing some sick game; you’ve killed thousands.  Life means nothing to you, so just hurry up and kill me, because I won’t play your game.  And I won’t run from you, only to be shot in the back, from afar.” I said.

Sighing, she looked out into the mists, “Do you think of me so lowly?  My skill should be relegated to killing runners, instead of those who believe in dying in combat?  Is my belief in life determined by the number of men I have killed?“

“All I know is that you’re feared amongst our ranks.  You’re a hero for your side.  Life doesn’t mean much to you if you can kill as many as you have.”  I told her.

Without turning her head, she motioned me to go over to her, “Runner, I want you to look into my eyes.  Take a look at my weapon.”

I didn’t sense hostility in her intent, so I got up and walked over to her, and she didn’t move.  She just continued to stare out into the mists.  I crouched down before her, and looked into her eyes.  The mechanical pupils refocused on me.  They were black, and seemed to continue for-ever.  Military grade, with thermo-optic zoom capability.  Her sniper rifle was an assault model designed for minimal recoil and maximal rate of fire.  She could probably make Swiss cheese out of you from ten miles away.

“This is my purpose, runner.  I have been designed to take life.  I have followed this singular objective from the moment I was deployed.  Without questioning, I killed.  I am feared because of my purpose.  And why must I have this purpose?  Why have I been given the ability to take away the future from so many?  And I ask, runner, what is my future?  Is mine that of death, also?”  Her eyes refocused to look right through me.

This stupid rifle felt heavy, so I decided it wasn’t worth carrying, anymore.  So, I tossed it to the side.  I sat beside her on the tank tracks.  “I haven’t killed anyone.  I’m assuming your past is similar to mine.  Like everyone else’s.  I was told what was worth fighting for, and I believed it.  My life was shaped by those self-serving pontificates and I bought into their bullshit.  Fighting was virtuous because our past was built upon it, and if we fought hard enough, the future would be better.” I stared at the flowery hill, and continued, “My girl told me that when I came home as some hero, that we’d move to a mansion.  That we’d travel the country and inspire the people to fight harder, so that we could end this ten-thousand year war, and so that the future would be ours.”

She looked through her riflescope, “But, when you arrived on the battlefield, you saw the reality of death, and how senseless it was.  You decided that what you were told to be wasn’t who you were going to be.” Looking at me, stoically, she explained, “We’re all the same.  I killed each person believing that their deaths would improve my future, and that one day, my side would win this war.  Look at these beautiful mountains, and we are oblivious to them as we fight over our perceived differences.  What else in life do we ignore as we try to force a future into existence that will not fit?

“I was told that I was a legend.  The eyes of people that cheered me on, they told me everything.  My actions took more than just the lives of those that I had shot.  I took the lives of my own people, too.  And their lives have been ended before they ever began.  I am truly a reaper.  And I know my purpose is to die, and that my death would be the cementing of my legacy.  But, I am like you, runner.  I will not go along with the narrative.”

I realized that she was also running.  She was a living legend, and she was running away from her life.  I thought to myself how ironic it was that a coward who hadn’t taken a single shot could be so fortunate to cross paths with the Reaper, and share a common purpose.  Did we really share similar paths?

I nodded to her, “Today is about life.  We’re not runners; we’re chasing life, and we’re going to catch it.  Go along with what the world tells you and you end up dead.  But we’re just so clever, aren’t we?  I don’t know about you, but I am going to find a place far away from here and from people who love death; I am going to live life. What will you do?”

At first, she didn’t respond.  She just looked into, or through, the mist.  Her otherworldliness was always such a dominating quality of hers.  I just looked at her and wondered if she was thinking about the future, or if those abyssal eyes that were designed to help her kill could help her see everything differently.  I wondered what kind of future she saw.  What type of life she was chasing.

The morning had been quiet, and it made the mountains seem more peaceful than what the reality of it was.  Perhaps it was because we were further away from the fighting, but this moment represented what I was chasing.  It was life; the flowers, the mists, the clouds, the butterflies, hills and mountains, and her.  This little pocket of isolation was perfect, and I wanted to stay here forever. The rest of the world seemed so primitive and violent at this point.  People and all of their stupid interpretations of reality didn’t matter.  What they fooled themselves into believing they could die for, it didn’t matter. Life mattered.  I smiled at the thought of the infamous Reaper running a bakery in some quaint little town in the middle of nowhere.

She looked at me, and her cybernetic black eyes seemed to offer a glimpse of her sorrow, “I am going to find some place with a better future, if I deserve it.”  A gust of wind carried flower petals by, and she closed her eyes.  I imagined both of us sailing on a clear blue ocean, being carried by the winds of time. She continued, “Have you ever really looked at the stars?  Someday, after we stop this war, we will all work together and our future will be up there, in the heavens.”

I wondered, what would life had been like if we were all better people.  If we aspired to more than petty violence, what type of world would we have today?  Would I have met the Reaper under better circumstances?  Would both of us still be chasing fantasies? What might have been in a better world, oh, what might been.  My eyes could never hope to see the things she saw. And now, I felt undeserving of the future, and why did a coward like me get to have a chance at it?

She stared off into the distance, again, but this time she seemed focused.  I knew she saw something through the mists.  She checked the chamber of her rifle and then rechecked her magazine clips.  She saw something, and she was preparing herself. 

Without turning, she said, “We are almost out of the combat zone.  Escaping will not be simple.  The perimeter is patrolled by drones and the only way out of here is heavily defended by my side.  If I approach, I will be fired upon as a deserter.  There is no way for both of us to escape. So, I will distract them; I will shoot down the drones and distract the anti-personnel defense systems.  My rifle is not powerful enough to stop the tanks, but I can distract them.  You have to run. You will run, and you will not hesitate.  When I start firing, run as fast as you can; do not look back.  Go someplace far away, and live.”

Before I could try to argue with her, she smiled at me, and took aim.  All I could do is run, but really, I didn’t run.  I chased life; the future.  That day, the Reaper gave me life, and I wouldn’t throw it away.  I’d live, for both of us.   

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