Old men fight without hope, with withering might b/c they are not young.
|The Constable eased over the parapet. It was not so much a parapet, of course, but the rubble from the KFC that had been on the corner since before the Troubles. From his position opposite, Harvey Kilby, flipped the safety off his M24, and brought the crosshairs to center on the helmet, adjusted one click for windage and a half up and over for the Coriolis effect, inhaled deeply, exhaled, breathed in a half breath, waited for the eternity between heartbeats and fired. His victim lurched into the air in a death agony before falling back onto the parapet, it’s life-blood streaming over the crumbled concrete in great gouts of fetid green. Harvey waited to see if more slimeballs came to investigate, eventually stood, covered the optics of his weapon, grabbed up the tattered blanket on which he had lain, and scuttled back away from his “deer stand” in the equally rubbled Dairy Queen across the square.
Lastly, grabbing up his cane, Harvey began to limp to his next rendezvous.
When the Constables, the grotesque inhuman invaders, arrived, the government, predictably, had tried to bargain with them. The dodecapods, refugees from the sterile depths of space, were given land, food, and water. It was enough—a time. Above the low octopus-like body, their central lump bulged upward, a slate-gray, heaving mass. It gave them their odd appearance, reminding folks—at least at the beginning—of those comical, ineffectual and bumbling policemen of a bygone era. While all else about them was gelatinous—amorphous—able to ooze under doors and pop the bolts from inside—the “helmets” remained a constant feature, with no evidence of eyes, ears, or nose. On a Constable, there was nothing so prosaic as left or right, before or behind. If you could see it, it could kill you.
Harvey peered out at the alley beside the defunct telephone office, emerging from the labyrinth of broken concrete once the coast was clear. His leg ached. He had been scheduled to get his hip replaced Tuesday, May 17th. He had been on the waiting list a whole year, and finally, his name had come up. The young “healthcare provider” had assured him that unless a “protected class” member with an acuity level no great than two points below his own claimed his slot away from him, he could look forward to surgery—and then the months of painful rehabilitation—on Tuesday, the 17th of May. The Constables arrived in their great translucent ships on the 15th. Nothing was ever the same since then, except his pain.
That had been a year ago.
Seeing the alley was clear, Harvey scuttled across it in the odd step-hop-step of the infirm. It was important not to be seen with a weapon. The Constables did not kill unless attacked. Harvey would have made it across and into hiding had his cane not slipped in the puddle of oil dripping from a squashed Lexus, perpetually in violation under the “No Parking” sign. He came down hard, twisting his ankle. Damn!. Gathering himself up off the pavement, Harvey dragged himself to cover behind the never-to-be-emptied garbage cans.
Pain surged, making Catherine Louise. He had kept his breakfast down—but only just. There was no breakfast to keep down today. Arguing that there was no reason to leave rations for the Cadre, Harvey had prevailed over the Provos objections. He had estimated that, for better or worse, the Cadre’s mission would be complete within forty-eight hours. Four days ago. When had he last eaten?
The ankle throbbed but there was no spot tenderness. Just sprained. That was good, he thought, as he manipulated his foot. Bony—on spindly birdlike shanks. He used to have good legs. Over sixty years ago he had run the 400 in the record time for Lanier. Went to Division. Record stood for six years before being toppled. Harvey rose and tested his ankle. He could gut this one out—for now.
He had endured a lot after Helen left him. It was an “amicable” divorce. The week after he retired from the Max Credit Union, eleven years ago, Helen declared that she no longer loved him, she was leaving him, and she no longer wanted to talk about it. Cathy, childless and a decade into her career as a corporate lawyer in Atlanta, had made her own denunciation of him a few years before—for voting the wrong way. Jason, their other child, denounced him a few months after Helen left. Jason would never marry, not really. Harvey had been left with nothing to show for forty-five years of marriage but shoeboxes full of photographs of the three of them—Helen and the two kids. He had always been behind the camera. They went to the dump with all the rest of his prior life.
Lifting what appeared to be a sheet of scorched metal sign away from the rubble, Harvey uncovered a dark hole with chunks of debris at the lip. Carefully placed, the lumps of concrete did not suggest to a casual observation that this was a workable staircase for a gimpy old man. The Provos had helped him construct it. They helped the entire Cadre to build their own networks of sniper sites, spider-holes, and last-stand redoubts. It helped a lot to have the Provos’ savvy and their strong backs, risking their lives to finish building these hidden “deer-stands” for the Cadre, before leaving to catch up with the main column and safety.
When the Constables first came, he was living in a comfortable one-bedroom apartment, despite an uncomfortable three-floor walkup, on Maxwell Street, convenient to the bus lines and church. Every morning, in that ancient time before the horrors came, he had met the Cadre at Barstuck’s to drink coffee, trade gossip and tell old lies—but only after the lawyers cleared out with their double-macchiatos and haf-caf soymilk lattes.
Jim D’agastino had been a top exec at Microsoft, had owned one of the fifty-foot yachts in Mobile Harbor, and had come back to Montgomery when his Patricia had died. Jose Ortega, originally from Ecuador, had come to America during his Endocrine training and stayed, working mostly at Jackson. His professional group, men and women with whom he had worked alongside for decades, voted him out of the practice after Jose had undergone his first surgery. He had no desire to go back to the chaos of Quito when he got the diagnosis; prostate cancer, he said, might be indolent, but he would rather face it here in the US among his friends than burden a half-recalled family. Jeanette, chain-smoker and wit, had been a fixture within the group since she exposed Mayor Cyrus Libbey’s nasty dealings and vote-larceny—and been fired for her efforts. That had been the Cadre: the discarded, the unloved, the unattached, the inconvenient, and the waiting.
Harvey stepped down with his cane into the darkness, wincing every time his sprained ankle took weight, before turning and replacing the scorched sign over the entrance. Moving by touch along a gallery of old tenant storage rooms for the trendy lofts which used to be overhead, Harvey found by touch the one door secured with a broken padlock. Opening it in the dim light of a match, he saw the shear wall of cardboard boxes within—empty ones. Behind that was the wormhole. It ended in a space beneath the first floor that looked out the gaping mouth of a once-magnificent cast-concrete lion.
The Provos had hit the Constables hard in Nashville a month ago, retreating south on I-65 ever since. On their arrival into town, looking over their shoulders the way they had come, the Cadre had greeted the scorched and exhausted soldiers with hot food, good coffee and a plan—this plan. Even now, the Provos were retreating south to the Gulf, hoping that the confusion of the coast could give them refuge. You have to have hope. The Constables did not like the ocean. Hawaii had seen nothing of the invaders—at least up until September of last year when communications blinked out.
Back then—before he’d been looking forward to nothing but the tribulation of a hip replacement—before he had retired—before Helen had left him—before the betrayal of his children—there had been milestones and landmarks: holidays, birthdays, births, funerals. Now there was only one left.
Harvey wiggled along the wormhole until he got a good view of the Dairy Queen across the square. They’d taken out the old, elegant, patinaed fountain a decade ago to construct the square—and then lined it with fast-food joints. Harvey did not cook much.
The Constables had been satisfied with land, water, and food—at first. Once the aliens declared that government workers and the elites of society were their new “protected class,” the rulers of America felt they had the right to give the rest of the nation away. The armed forces were told to stand down by their masters in Washington. Mutineers and volunteers had disagreed, forming the Provos. It had led to the horrors of this last winter: bombings along I-85 and the gas attacks when the wind was right. Few survived those. In the sweltering summer of endless sun and hot nights, the churches had become stinking charnel houses, containing those who had taken refuge there when the clouds of pink gas rolled in.
The Cadre and as many as they thought they could squeeze in, had ridden it out in Jim’s penthouse in the old Powell building. Turning off the ventilation and taping all the doors and windows shut, it had been an uncomfortable week. Jeanette said that bit of horror had been as good a recruitment campaign as they could have imagined.
The Cadre’s numbers swelled, growing to four dozen old coots and wizened grandmothers by the time the Provos arrived. Meeting for the last time last Friday before spreading itself all over the city, from Dalriada to Cloverdale to Ridgecrest, each to their own spider web, the Cadre had said their goodbyes. How many are left?
Harvey could see movement. The Constables had discovered his previous deer stand and were pulling it apart with their octopus-like appendages. Nassir Ali Momjian had run the Dairy Queen. Nice guy. Had been a nice guy. Harvey took the two down in rapid succession, making it a round dozen for the day. The wormhole was his last prepared sniper spot — time to start improvising.
Just after the birth of Catherine, it had come as a shock to Harvey, as he watched her guzzle noisily at Helen’s breast, what his life was worth. Harvey had never been a daredevil, no fan of extreme sports, and, truth be known, not much of an athlete whatever. His epiphany, back then, had been so casual, so mundane, so ordinary—and all the more reliable for that. He realized that he would, without a doubt or moment’s hesitation, sacrifice himself for these two. It was not heroic, not even, in its own way, noble. No doubt, any parent felt the same. Harvey realized that his life would be useless if he could not, if required, exchange it for the lives of Helen or the baby. He had never told them, either then or later.
Picking his way back along the gallery after he re-emerged into the basement, trying to move quietly and painlessly, Harvey found the steps and climbed to a back hallway. The garbage chute deposited him behind an over-flowing dumpster in the alley near Coosa. In the better light, he checked his weapon. Twenty more rounds. More than enough. Jenkins had asked the Cadre to hold them off for a day.
Harvey sucked down the last of his water from his old canteen. He had bought it as a kid —war surplus. Cheap back then. Indestructible, he thought, dropping it onto the rubble. Looking up Coosa Street, away from the square, he saw the blown-out windows of the ballpark. The steps up to the stands were shallow, but there were so many steps! His resolution crystalized: inside the old train shed-turned-trendy-bar for the city’s now extinct triple-A club, he could finally rest.
Fearful the Constables would appear any moment and catch him in the open but nauseated at the pain whenever he tried to hurry, Harvey Kilby hobbled into the building long minutes later. It was better than he imagined. A scaffold ran along under the high eaves just back from the blown-out windows, giving him a wide field of fire. Still only one line of escape.
Last Wednesday, after explaining their plan, the Provo’s commander, Major Jenkins, had balked, saying, “We can’t allow that, Mr. Kilby. You are a civilian—an untrained civilian. You don’t know what you are asking.”
“Major, how old are your men. Twenty? Maybe the ‘old ones’ are twenty-five. They have fifty years of life before them. They are probably tougher, faster, hardier than I ever was. No matter how you look at it, however, none of us,” Harvey said, motioning to his collection of the lame, the halt, and the partially blind, “expect to live even half that long. You need to inspire your men to live—not condemn them to die. If you sacrifice them here, they will not be there to lead and train the next soldier. Let them think they can go home to parades and sweethearts. We’ve had our confetti, Major.,” he said, again gesturing to the smiling Cadre. “At this place and time, we have the tactical advantage over your men. Don’t you see?”
“But, sir. While I appreciate your enthusiasm and patriotism, should you not be somewhere safe? War is a young man’s game, Mr. Kilby.”
“On the advance, I agree. In retreat, why might that be so? No offense meant but, your men might rout, lose their grit for the moment, and run from the field. I promise you,” Harvey said, brandishing his cane, “I won’t run.”
Painfully, Harvey pulled himself up the stairs with both hands and onto the scaffolding. His cane, looped over his left arm for the climb, slipped off, slithered along the first step before clattering to the floor far below. Harvey grunted in disgust at his clumsy self. Taking up the M24, he looped the strap around his shoulder and forearm, placed his eye to the optic and sighted along the street down which he had just walked. In the distance, he could see the furtive flitting of the nightmare shapes from one hiding place to the next, coming toward him up Coosa from Madison. Twilight was fast approaching. The shadows contained nightmares.
In the end, his arguments had been enough for Jenkins. The Provos donated their expertise, their labor, some M24s, enough ammo, and left. On schedule, the Constables came into Montgomery across the interstate bridge as if they owned the place, close-packed and moving fast. The first ten deaths made them hide and stopped them from sweeping through in pursuit of Jenkins and his hard-pressed boys. After that, it had been a squirrel hunt: stealth, silence and sudden violence. Going from one deer-stand to the next, killing a few of the slimeballs as they came to inspect his previous kills and dismantle his sniper nests, Harvey had played his furtive game.
Today was Tuesday. How many of us are left? Harvey started firing as the Constables began to move from cover, opening up their helmets for them, one after the other, starting with the farthest and working forward. Three…four…that guy beside the fence just as he moved to slide next to another…six. Three misses. Eleven cartridges. Nine! He entered into a narrowed cone of attention, ignoring everything except the movement of his prey, the motion of his weapon and the placement of his shots. Thirteen…lucky thirteen…fifteen. He heard movement below him.
Two aliens burst through the door beneath him, immediately going to cover. He froze. The two Constables did not seem to grasp where he was. Easing the optic to his eye, he placed the reticle on the nearest one and squeezed the trigger. A divot appeared in the dark wood paneling a handbreadth above the creature’s helmet, the echoes making the space ring like a bell. Damn fool—forgetting to account for firing from above the target.
Harvey cycled the action. The Constable, moving like lightning, was now hiding behind the bar, but, still unaware of the shot’s origin and still plainly visible. Harvey splattered green over most of the mirror and bottles.
The other one was on to him, slithering up the steps to the scaffold as if it were nothing. Harvey cycled the action—empty.
When he had come up with the plan, it had come as a shock to Harvey that he could put his life in the balance so passionlessly. In the past, he had known, in that ordinary way, he would give his life for Helen or their children. He loved them—still did. Now it was just as mundane to let slip his life, let it dissipate, allow it to drip away—they no longer loved him.
The Constable, suddenly cautious when Harvey did not try to escape, slithered along the scaffold toward him. If he dropped his weapon, he might live. The chittering sound they made mixed with the succulent sound of the beast’s passage across the tread of the scaffold, filled the space. It was strange he had never noticed it before.
Harvey raised his weapon.