“What started it?” the dark little boy asks. “Did we attack them?”
I don’t know this one. One of Chaz’s new friends? “What are you talking about?”
“The war, Chaz told me you saw when it started.”
I look around the kitchen. The noise of the birthday party hums in from the front room. “Why don’t you join the party kid.”
“I’m not a kid, I’m thirteen, and you’re an old man.”
For a few seconds I stare at the little weasel; sunken collar-bone and bright yellow eyes. “You really want to know?” The boy grabs the stool beside me, climbs up to sit facing me, then rests his chin in his palms.
My wife, Josie, pokes her head in from the hall where she finished pinning her hair and painting her face. “Rucal!”
“What?” I say, turning and spilling hot bourbon on my hand. I suck it dry. “The kid wants to know.” The words came out muffled through my mouthful of liquored hand.
Josie rolls her eyes and is back in the hall. I turn to the little boy. “Right. So, we’d been attacking them on and off for years. But the strike that started the war was on Sept. 5. We were there, Josie and I.”
“Really? You were actually in the space colony?” The boy’s eyes widen with his mouth.
“Yep,” I say, “Colony Bethlehem-3, the Earth orbiter.”
“Were you assigned there?”
“I applied three years before they opened, I had Chaz then, he was, oh, two? And we had Abigail on the way. My work was mobile; they told me I was the perfect candidate. They had done test runs on the professional colonies; the first three orbiters and the moon catastrophe—Christ! But Colony Bethlehem-3 seemed to get it right, you know? Have you ever seen any of the promotions for it? They made a lot of promises and talked a lot of big talk about being the ‘cure to a dying planet’, and will ‘absolutely alleviate’ the population crisis once and for all, and more spittle.
“But Despite the obvious disappointment, Colony Bethlehem-3 was a swell place to live. I’m talking Disney-clean; creepy clean, you know? But it’s not manufactured looking like you’d think, like I thought rather. I heard they used graphs from several places around the world to model the environments after, but I couldn’t tell you which. It was very convincing. Gravity there is simulated by its constant rotation both around Earth and itself. It works well enough I suppose, the kids never had any issues growing up, did they hun?” Josie doesn’t answer. “Anyway, some people complained about vertigo or oxygen sickness, but we never noticed anything did we? Anyway, no matter where you lived in the colony, you had, most of the time, an incredible view of Earth through the transparent ceilings of the station. So just before the missile impacted, a lot of us actually saw the little bastard swooping in.”
“Rucalbab!” my wife cries, “language!”
“Wow! Then what happened?”
I shift on my stool and turn my glass. “Well I told all I know now, let me see… Well, okay, I remember it was fairly early.”
“Here we go…” the boy says, nodding his head in anticipation, a little smile sparkles in the corner of his mouth.
The boy’s childish rapture excites the professional elocutionist in me, and I start molding the actions of my tale with grand hand gestures as I speak. “The sun had just started peeking over Earth and haloed it with a gorgeous warmth that lit up the black satin of space.” Satin of space, he liked very much the sound of that. “Josie was just finishing the kids’ breakfast when she gasped in a tone reserved for the severest of occasions, so I sprinted from the bathroom, twisting through the tight hallways, and rushed in the living room; a line of floss hanging from my lower teeth and my shirt is inside out. Josie’s face scared me. She stared at the projection on the living room wall; smoke and panic on the news; misty eyed reporters oddly genuine. There had been a ‘compromise’ was the word; a severe ‘compromise’. The word triggered alarm bells in our minds; some teasing memory trying to leap out and pull us from our sleep.”
“Then you blew up?”
“No! Then the wall went white again and the room filled with the clink and scrape of children at mealtime. A strange groan sounded through our house. It was like standing on a cruise liner who relentlessly yanks her horn, but our vibration came only with a deep, ominous grumble. Panels in the ceiling, I’d not noticed them ‘til then, dropped open and emergency sirens lowered and flashed bright orange in our eyes.
“Josie grabbed my hands. I could tell in her face I needed to make the next move. I told the kids that everything was alright, that there is some trouble on Earth, but everything is fine. I was rudely contradicted the next second by a wheezy man who came screeching over the ceiling speakers, panting as he announced, “Uh-em, imminent attack on Colony Bethlehem-3 is, well…” He faltered and turned from the mic to speak frantically with someone then, “Please, remain calm. There is a terrorist attack attempt, in progress. We have no information currently of the target…” After a tense five minutes of bumbling, the speaker crackled out of life.
“It was a terrible feeling the long hours before impact. The roads were all closed. Advisories suggested we stay home and collect loved ones from school and work. I thought there might be emergency transports, escape pods maybe?… The police were blocking roads and telling those who dared to ask to ‘get off the streets and into the nearest home and lock the doors.’
“Everyone on Colony Bethlehem-3 vaguely remembers the section on the orientation video series that each home is essentially its own habitat and in case of a breach of the outer walls of the station, residents can seal themselves in and switch their home’s climate control to ‘self-contain’. None of us thought, or hoped, that we would ever need to do it, but the video series was so contaminated with its constant reminders that one could not forget.
“So Josie and I—and I’m assuming the rest of Colony Bethlehem-3—having locked ourselves away in our homes, huddled close and held each other’s hands. We prayed. I’m not a praying kind of guy but I’ll tell you I prayed. We all watched with longing our blue mother as she cradled us in her great orbital arm, smiling down on her condemned babes… ” I can’t look at the boy. My eyes sting with tears. My lip trembles. I concentrate on the corner of the kitchen until I regain my homeostasis with a deep sigh.
“Boooring!” the little devil crows, “when’s the fire coming?”
“Well, there was no fire. “ I confess. The boy frowns. “All I said was I was there when it happened alright? The attack compromised a small part of the colony, nearly on the opposite side of our house. We saw the missile hit, and flare up. And it was horrifying when all the emergency teams were sent down the main river, by road, by air, all in one direction. It was intense.”
The boy rolls his eyes, “Sounds like it,” slips off his stool, and trots to join his friends.
I find Josie staring at my grimaced face with raised brow. “What?” I ask.
“Don’t worry about it hun,” She says.
“What did I say?”
“Nothing dear. Nothing. Just—children can’t be expected to listen to old farts like us.”
“Like us?” I say bobbing my head. “I’m not old!”
Josie guffaws, leans past me, and strolls back to the counter with a bottle of Zinfandel. She stops before completely leaving the kitchen and shakes her head. “Let’s not talk about Bethlehem-3 anymore tonight.” Her eyes are gentle. Sad. She disappears into the hall. “You’ve scared enough of your children’s friends for tonight old man.”
I turn to face myself in the shining icebox, pulling up on my brow. “I’m not old,” I say.
This was a scene sketch I worked up this morning. I hope you enjoyed it!