The World Today

The World Today
Earth in 2013

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Stardust: Towne, Chapter 9

Chapter 9

Lieutenant Sharpe stared straight forth into the pink skies with a cold smile on his face. Finally, after all this time, they were moving against the Reds and gangsters of Tropico. They were a blight on the world, and the true enemy of The State. It was an island infested with elves, and their plans for world revolution. As one of The People, it was his duty to stop their schemes and keep the world pure of genetic deviants.

The whole concept of socialism left Sharpe disgusted. It was a system in sharp contrast The Party’s views. It was unnatural; Reds give everybody everything. They treat all humans the same. They constantly interfere in the natural processes of genetic selection. Sharpe was not handed his position. He earned it, worked hard and proved his skills and strength superior to other pilot candidates. After a life of proper struggle, he now found himself flying south to the staging area in Rhodes.

His Arrow was state-of-the-art in piston engine aircraft. The fact that jet engines were notoriously inefficient was all that kept them from flying south instead. Not only could they not make the round trip, Daggers could not even make a one way trip. It would not be until airstrips were built in Tropico, would the jet fighters rule the sky. Until then, The State’s swept-ring prop-driven fighters would have to escort the bombers all the way.

He glanced down at the dark, dank swamp below. He cursed the dragons and their hold over the swamp. Much of the fertile and potential productive lands across the continent was already ruled by the creatures. Even parts of The State were off-limits to The People. All because of some flying lizards. In the past, they were hard, if not impossible, to kill. Now, now he suspected his arrow could take down a dragon with ease. All in good time. One day, The People will put the dragons in their place. The People shall dominate the planet.

Sharpe glanced around to the rest of his flight. He was Atl Three, out of ten. A squadron of ten Arrows ruled the empty skies above the swamp. Fortunately for Rhodes, they saw the logic in complying with The State. If they had not, Sharpe would be swatting them out of the sky. He knew he would have to anyway, since their traitorous navy defected to the elves and gangsters. Of all the creatures of the world, he loathed elves the most. They flaunted their perfectly sculpted bodies and wealth for too long. They were leaches, and arrogant ones at that. They drained resources of The People, and would rule over them with an iron heel if given the chance.

Before The Party came to power, they laughed at and looked down upon Sharpe. Soon though, the human genome would be purged, and then we shall see who is laughing. They will be driven from lands that by all right belong to The People. They shall be forced into marginal and barren lands. Then it shall be seen how strong they truly are, how long a race that never worked a day in their lives would fare. The future would set itself right once The State comes out victorious.

“Atl Leader, Alt Five, contacts at zero mark fifteen,” called out one of his squadron.

“Copy that,” came the wing commander’s reply.

Sharpe’s eyes went dead ahead and elevated to see what Cobble saw. His eyes were clearly superior to Sharpe’s. He could barely make out several black dots on an approach vector. Something was approaching, but what? Surely it could not be Rhodesan aircraft. They have already fallen under The State’s control. Another enemy? Perhaps carrier-based aircraft. Yes, it would be like the navy to screw up a simple job as patrolling the ocean. They certainly were too small to be long range bombers. And if so, why would anyone fly over this swamp? It was a bit out of the way for the nearest enemies.

Perhaps they wanted to disrupt the convoys below– not like they could make out the lone road and rail snaking from north to south. That did strike Sharpe as odd; these roads would be stretching the range of Marlonian aircraft of any size. Flying the wrong way to be what was left of Endopia’s air force. Even the suggestion of those being Tropican made Sharpe laugh. Most likely, Rhodes’ traitorous fleet was making an attack.

“Are those ours?” this question came from the rookie in the wing, Atl Seven. Sharpe cursed his foolishness. Clearly the newbie did not pay attention to flight plans.

“Negative Atl Seven,” the wing commander replied. “I don’t know whose they are– but they are approaching fast. Prepare for evasive action, but don’t fire until I give the order.”

That was obvious. No soldier would dare to do anything without authorization. The State does not take kindly to lack of discipline. The colonel in charge of Sharpe’s air company made it painfully clear that no ammunition should ne extended. No combat was even mentioned. Lack of commands spoke as loudly as the command itself. A soldier was not suppose to think or suspect, only act and obey.

As the unidentifies moved closer, Sharpe could tell they were carrying something. A bomb? No, wrong shape for a bomb, or a missile at that. Certainly an odd shaped drop tank. With each passing second, more and more detail came into view. They were indeed black, with long tails. He could make out no rudder or aileron. The wings were oddly shaped too. Not swept, not delta, not even the lift-capable shape one might expect from an airplane. They were wings alright, but their leathery appearance gave them an organic feel. Almost like a–

Sharpe’s thoughts were interrupted as the fighter to his left burst into flames. “Break!” Came the sharp, crisp command of Alt Leader. Sharpe banked quickly, dodging bolts of white light. Of hot light, so hot it boiled the air around it as it passed. At lightning speed, faster than organically possible, the hostiles flew past. Sharpe made out every detail of his new enemies. The black leathery skin, the sharp talons, the ears flapping, and even the cold, bird-like eye piercing into Sharpe’s very soul.

They were dragons. Six dragons. Six dragons with guns! Once upon a time, somebody might say a dragon to be the most feared creature in the world. Then Sharpe would have agreed, but not now. He now saw armed, angry dragons were far more lethal.

Lethal or not, they were still just glorified animals. “Break and attack!” Atl Leader amended his order, and instantly all nine surviving Arrows made ready to avenge their fallen comrade. No way flesh and bone could handle aluminum and tin. Sharpe quickly lined himself up with the nearest dragon, and let out a burst of his four, ten millimeter machine guns. He roared as tracers spat ahead of the dragon. In the blink of an eye, the dragon pulled of a maneuver impossible for any airplane. The dragon folded his wings and dropped like a stone, easily dodging the metallic barrage.

Off to Sharpe’s right, he glimpsed one of his comrades attempt to line up a dragon. Too much speed. Even with his attention focused on his own kill, Sharpe could see his comrade had too much speed. The Arrow shot just beneath the dragon. At that same instant, the dragon lunged down, digging his talons into aluminum skin. Like it was nothing more than paper, the dragon ripped the skin right off the wings, revealing the Arrow’s glimmering frame. With no skin, the wings instantly lost lift and plummeted into a vertical glide. Sharpe could not see a parachute, but would not count on the dragons letting any ejected pilot live.

Sharpe managed to line up one dragon, who pursued Atl Two at unbelievable speeds. He was not sure how, but the dragons were flying as fast as the Arrows, which could top six hundred kilometers per hour. No matter how they did it, this one was not going to dodge Sharpe’s attack. While focusing on his prey, the dragon completely ignored the fighter behind him. Sharpe squeezed the trigger, letting loose a deadly hail of rounds into the dragon. This time the dragon did not dodge.

After several seconds of continuous fire, the dragon did not fall either. Sharpe knew the dragon was dead on in his sights. He knew bullets were going forward, for he could see the red tracer rounds mixed with the normal ones. He even saw many flashes of lights in the path of the bullet, but not a single drop of blood. Even if they lacked the strength to penetrate their hides, it should still cause great discomfort to a dragon. This one did not even look slightly fazed. Instead of evading, he simply lined up Atl Two in his own sights, and with a flash of white light, the Arrow transformed into a flying scrap yard.

Now the dragon took notice of Sharpe. He flipped over onto his back, losing a great deal of speed, and let Sharpe overshoot him. While overhead, the dragon’s head snaked back and snapped forward. Sharpe could faintly see spray coming from his mouth. The dragon spat at him. It was common knowledge that dragons were venomous. Now what did Blacks spit. Then it hit Sharpe, like a club. Their venom was highly acidic. Sharpe glanced over and saw the fluid crackling and popping across his wing. If he could not get it off there, it would eat right through to the fuel tank, and that would shorten his trip.

Sharpe dove and frantically waggled his wings. While engrossed with his own problems he failed to see the fate of Atl Leader. The squadron commander, too, overshot a dragon. Instead of spitting acid, this one dropped onto his Arrow. Talons dug into aluminum skin, and the dragon managed to get a grip on the canopy to his cockpit. With a quick snap, he managed to rip the canopy right off, instantly exposing the interior to several hundred kilometers of wind an hour. Whether the pilot was rendered unconscious or killed, Sharpe would never know. All he knew, was that Atl Leader went into a power-dive and shot past him as he tried to shake his plan free from dissolving.

Sharpe’s problems multiplied the moment his right wing burst into flames. Fuel combined with acid and produced a trailing fire. Had he not known better, he might have thought they installed a jet engine in that wing. No such luck. Along with the fire, the dial of his right fuel tank plummeted faster than a fallen aircraft. He dove closer to the treetops, hoping to bleed out the fire in the process. Not only that, but perhaps he could lose the dragons too. All he had to do was reach Rhodes and the lizards would not dare follow. Once over friendly territory, a hail of anti-aircraft artillery would detour any pursuit.

A blinding arc of disruptive light flew scant meters in front of him. Close enough and hot enough, he could feel the flames as they passed. They landed in the moist swamp, sending up a plume of steam in Sharpe’s wake. He just had to make it a little further. Just a few more minutes. If he could stay alive just a few more minutes, he would be safe. With all the burning hulks falling from the sky, survival was in doubt. Should he die today, his own regret would not being able to take a shot at the Reds, and he did not mean the species of dragon. He seen enough of their kind to last him for the rest of his life.

After hours upon hours of nothing but endless tracks of open seas, the sight of land passing beneath came as a relief. Tropico. The Green Island. Not even the slightest hint of orange beneath the lumbering, four-engine Anvil. Dozens of the bombers flew over the land of the new enemy. Yet another enemy to a long list of them. According to The Party, the Reds were the main enemy of all Sapiens. None of the racial and genetic ideology made the least bit of sense to Corporal Grune, and he was not happy about having yet another enemy to fight.

Unlike the hotshot fighter pilots, Grune was not here by choice. Like so many enlisted men, he was conscripted. One day, out of the blue, his notice came to show up at the recruiting station. Like so many under The Party’s heel, he reluctantly obeyed. Much to his surprise, he was not given a rifle and sent off as cannon fodder for the army. The Western Front was a nasty business; it turned healthy young men into dead men if they were lucky, and something much worse if not.

Instead he was sent up into the air. He was trained in the operation of a ten millimeter machine gun and placed as waist gunner aboard one of the feared Anvils. He survived many missions over Langoon and Endopia; probably due to lack of a decent interceptor on their behalf than any other reason. The Anvil flew high enough that only high performance fighters, or jet-powered ones, could reach it. It might make him safe from the enemy, but not the elements. At this height, his oxygen mask was his constant companion. As were several layers of clothes. How it could get so cold on a world as warm as Towne was beyond him. Perhaps flying part way to space had something to do with it.

He stared down at the Green Island. Was there really anything worth bombing down there? As far as he knew, Tropico was filled with lazy socialists and elves so obsessed with their own beauty that they did even less. Their top industry, aside from organized crime, was cigars and rum. Why fly all this way to bomb a rum distillery? Maybe they had a munitions factory. Grune did not know the mission, he only knew his part.

His eyes moved from the green back to the blue-green. Plenty of puffy white clouds, but none of the metal filled black ones. Did Tropico even have anti-aircraft artillery? Surely they could not have missiles. According to the media, they had nothing but horse drawn carts and sailing ships. He seen no sails thus far, but could not rule out horses from so far above.

“Anything?” a voice came from behind Grune.

“Not a thing,” Grune told the left-waist gunner. Giallo seen many more missions than Grune, and served in the air force a good two years longer.

Giallo sighed. “I don’t know why we’re looking. Not like the beach bums could do anything against us.” Giallo was a member of The Party, and ate up everything they said. “Maybe if the Rhodesans came down here– no, not even then. They would not waste their forces on this island.”

Giallo was more vocal than Grune. He learned long ago that it was best to keep his opinions to himself. However, with Giallo was an exception. “If you say so, general.”

Giallo snorted. He knew he was right, and was about to give his own two dinar, when a third voice shouted into both of their headsets. “Mouths shut, eyes open!”

“Yes sir,” both said to the pilot, a major in the air force. As far as they were concerned, the commander of the airplane had the same absolutist authority as a ship’s captain or a tyrant. And as far as the Major was concerned, anything less than one hundred percent concentration on their assigned duty only was a waste of time.

Grune’s eyes went back to scanning the skies. His eyes went over to the distant mountains in western Tropico. There he spotted a new color in the sky. A glistening red off in the distance. What was it? It was far enough away that he should not worry about it. Grune turned his eyes away from the distant objects and scanned the sky below them. Still nothing but green, some of it forest, some of it farm. Must be coffee.

He looked back up at the mountains, trying to pick up those red spots. They vanished from sight, perhaps they were just figments of his imagination. A few seconds passed before he spotted more red dots. No, not dots, but circles. They were red circles, and they were moving. Not just moving, but doing so impossibly fast. “Giallo, what do you make of those?”

Giallo glanced over, peering out Grune’s window. “Of what?”

“Those red circles–“ Grune never bother finishing his sentence. The circles were already gone.

“I think you need another bottle of oxygen,” Giallo reported as he went back to his own window and gun.

Grune cursed his luck. Maybe he was just seeing things. The thought went through his head only once. Another flash of red did appear from his window, towards the rear. It was not a disk, but a rapidly expanding cloud of fire. The bomber off to his Anvil’s right went up in a fiery explosion. The shock wave was enough to shake and rattle him across the room.

“Hostiles!” came the cry from the tail gunner, followed shortly by the burst of his own machine gun.

Giallo jumped back at the sudden whoosh of air. “Looks like you weren’t seeing things,” he said as his eyes slid off a red disk climbing in his view. The disk vanished outside of the gun’s arc before he could even bring it to bare.

“What are those cursed things!” The top turret gunner hammered away at the swift red discs. For all the good it did, he might as well try firing at the sun.

Another hostile came into Grune’s view. He wasted no time in trying to shoot it down, but to no avail. The disc– not the aircraft, flew too fast to allow him to lead it. At least, he thought it was an aircraft. In the middle of the disc sat a cockpit and a pilot. The cockpit was the only thing conventional about the flying object. Its wings were completely circular in design, making the aircraft an almost perfect circle. The enemy pilot heeded no attention to gunners. Instead, he focused on the bomber behind Grune’s. Grune caught a glimpse of trailing flames as one of the fighter’s air-interception missiles leaped forward.

“Looks like a bloody saucer!” Giallo called out, still trying to score a hit on one of them.

Grune could not agree more. They were flying saucers, something Tropico certainly should not have. Nor should they have missiles of any sort. They were suppose to be primitive, lazy and nothing but a bunch of gangsters. Instead, they fielded an aircraft far in advance of anything Grune ever saw. He doubted that The State’s own jets could match these flying saucers.

One of the saucers finally did pay him some attention. It charged straight at the Anvil’s midsection. Grune hit the deck, abandoning his one chance to shoot down the saucer, the moment he saw lights blinking out of its circular wings. An instant later, the sound of hail echoed through the fuselage as bullets punctured the bomber. Giallo shouted, not in pain but surprise as the bullets whizzed past his head. He tried his own luck once the saucer over shot him. Again, he score no hits. Could these planes be outrunning the bullets?

No, that was nonsense. If they did, they would run into their own ammunition. “Casualty report!” the pilot called out over the headsets. One by one, the Anvil’s crew reported in, and in perfect health.

“Maybe the infantry isn’t so bad after all,” Giallo told his gunning companion. “At least then we could dig into something.”

Grune nodded as he climbed back to his feet and re-manned his gun. “Can it, Giallo!” the captain commanded. “Stop crying about it and shoot those hostiles down.”

Giallo muttered just soft enough to go undetected– or ignored. Grune returned his attention to his view port. How was he suppose to hit one of them, much less down it. The flying saucers were in the middle of a deadly dance amongst the bomber formation. Trails of exhaust from their jet engines created an almost tapestry out of the sky. Above was a magnificent sight, below was one from a nightmare. Several bombers were plunging ground-wards, their engines trailing its own flames, and in a few cases– their engines and wings missing altogether.

A couple bombers had machine gun fire hit their bomb bays. The explosive force of a thousand kilograms of payload igniting did not leave enough left to crash. Their crews were lucky in a way, they did not have the chance to fall to their deaths. Falling from a plan without a parachute was the greatest fear of most bomber crews. Grune carried his at all times, but that was no guarantee it would open after he made that leap of faith.

Saucer pilots need not have such worries. The only concern they had was that of running out of ammunition before depleting the targets. It was a bet either way how that would end. Targets were rapidly falling out of the sky, and gunners quickly expending bullets. Once that happened, they would be defenseless. “I’m out!” called the turret gunner.

Grune frowned. So much for defenses from above. If a saucer dove on them, they were dead. Odds were, no matter which way they attacked, the crew was likely dead. Grune might run one of his own belts up to the turret. He was doing little good here. By the time the bullets reached its target, the saucer was long gone. The Anvil shook again. Grune had to almost stick his head into the jetstream to see the flash from below. Tracers filled the sky below, as did missile contours.

The Anvil shook again, but this time it was not an impact. It felt as if the Anvil lost something. Several somethings at that. Grune had enough combat experience to know when the bombs were dropped. Were they over the target? Grune had no idea. In fact, he knew not what the target was. Perhaps it was a retreat. Never in his time in the air force did he ever experience retreat. How could The State turn tail? The question was rhetorical today, seeing the Tropican flying saucers changed his mind.

Surviving bombers released their payloads soon after. They twisted in a sharp arc, turning northward. Grune braced himself as the Anvil rolled. His heart stopped for a second, fearing this was a death roll. After a sharp turn, the Anvil leveled out on its new trajectory. He was relieved to be heading home, but that was not enough to call off the attack. The saucers might be out of missiles, but they still threw plenty of metal Grune’s way.

He could only hope on reaching the continent, but then what? Would they be sent on another mission to Tropico? How many bombers fell today, and how many more could the Tropicans shoot down? Grune was in no hurry to learn the answers. He just wanted to get back to base, and never see the Green Island ever again. Even as he hoped, the losses continued to grow. As soon as the second-to-last bomber fell, Grune knew the next saucer would have his name on it. For once, he gave more hope to the other guy than himself. If they survive, then so would he.

Katrina looked up into the sky as soon as she departed Contra’s drug store. She picked out four of those red flying saucers fly overhead. She never imagined Tropico would have such sophisticated aircraft. Those circular wings were barely wings at all. Why did they not tumble out of the sky? Must be traveling too fast to fall. Aside from the saucers, only a flock of birds flew overhead, and headed somewhere in a hurry.

Katrina decided it much better to watch where she headed as opposed to sky-gazing. Nothing to see above of much danger. Those saucers kept the sky free of The State’s bombers. Some did try to attack a couple of weeks ago, and in fact dropped their bombs harmlessly on some distant plantations, but none have tried yet. They did not dare attacking at night either. Though the fighters might be limited, Tropican missiles had infrared sensors in their noses. High in the sky, in the chill of the night, engines burned as bright as flares.

Katrina assumed Tropicans would resent her, just for being one of The People. She was not even sure she could think of herself as such anymore. Sure, she received a few odd glances because of her accent, but once the initial shock wore off, Tropicans just treated her like everyone else. The last couple of weeks have been a very alien experience. She never lived in a place where everyone was treated equally. Sure, back home, The People treated each other as equals, but never would a sapien treat a pygmaeus as an equal.

She never seen the reason to do so, not before reaching Tropico. In truth, she never seen a non-sapien in person before the Golden Hammers crashed into her workplace. Her work sure changed in that astro. She went from a teacher to an account. Crunching numbers was simple enough, but she loved teaching. She wished she could catch such a job, but none are available. Socialism kept to its quotas rather stringently. That did not stop her from interacting with the town’s children during the nightly festivities. Tropicans sure did love a party.

Katrina made it back to her new home, half of a long house. Basic housing was provided by the government, and Katrina was stuck with it until her pay came in regularly. She was paid two hundred dinar an astro, smaller than her teacher’s salary. A country house costs fifty dinar an astro, same as an apartment. She spotted a nice looking apartment above Contra’s drugstore.

She shared the longhouse with an elderly woman, a former fish monger by trade. She was a big woman, one who was not to be trifled with. She was also one of the friendliest people Katrina ever met. She would do anything to help out a neighbor. Because she retired a couple of years past, she spent much of her time watching the neighborhood children while both parents worked. That was another oddity in her life; in The State, women only worked traditional feminine jobs until they marry. Then they are expected to do what their men-folk tell them.

Until she arrived in Tropico, Katrina never thought about any other way. She knew she was too spirited and stubborn to be a good housewife. Her love of teaching was a reason she was still single, even in her mid-twenties. Yet, in Contra, nobody cared, and that was not because apathy was rampant. Quite the opposite. The town had a vibrant carefree atmosphere, and Katrina was growing to enjoy it. That left her thoughts very muddled, and conflicted.

Everything that happened in the past astro struck her as very unsettling. So many old misconceptions were shattered. Tropicans were not lazy, but very industrious. Even after putting in a hard day’s work, they are still ready to celebrate all night. And the children, they were very lively. She could hear them through the thin walls of the longhouse. Irritating at times, but she still smiled when she saw them. One in particular. What she learned about Saul left her lifelong assumptions destroyed, and her heart heavy.

Back home, genetic health was expressed above all. Even one’s own feelings. Defects were not to be pitied, or have resources squandered upon them. They were suppose to not be born. There were tests, mandatory of course, that could determine if a fetus would be less-than-normal. A simple retrieval of DNA decided whether the fetus would develop into a baby, or terminated and the couple would have to try again. A mute would fall into this category, and that described Saul.

There was nothing physically wrong with him, at least that was what the old fish monger, Matilda, told her. Saul simply does not talk. The doctors do not know why. Would he be considered defective back home? How could they tell he would not speak before he was even born? She knew not what they would do to him afterwards. She never heard of any so-called defects that matured to birth. They simply do not exist within the boundaries of The State.

When she reached the drab exterior of her new place, Matilda stood on her side of the house, waving at Katrina. Katrina waved back. “Good day, Matilda,” she said, ever so conscious of her own accent.

“Day to you too, Katrina, have you heard the latest news?” She asked, waving around a newspaper.

“Can’t say I have,” Katrina had little time to read the paper while she worked. Matilda brought her, her copy of the People’s Times. Katrina new how socialism was suppose to be for the people, but Tropicans took the word ‘people’s’ to a ridiculous extent. Still, the People’s Times was not the strangest use of the prefix. That honor belonged to the People’s Fruit– that being what they call pineapples. Yes, there were certainly some fruitcakes around here. Katrina believed this, but kept her mouth shut.

The headline of the paper screamed ‘Invasion’. A week ago, The State landed an invasion force almost unopposed. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of militia were killed defending the beaches. She knew her homeland invaded its neighbors and tried to dominate the world, but it was not until now did she ever think of them as ‘invaders’. That aside, seems odd that Matilda would be telling Katrina about that. Invasion was old news, but the slowly advancing invasion force was not.

“Read here what the dragons gone and done,” she handed Katrina the paper after flipping it over. The invasion story did take up most of the front page, along with cries for the people to rise up against the marauding invaders. In the lower right hand corner, a headline boldly declared a different sort of invasion. ‘Terror From the Sky’ it read. Katrina glanced through it, picking up key notes about what the black dragons in that great swamp did.

Her eyes went wide. “Unbelievable!”

“My thoughts exactly,” Matilda said, but then quickly amended her words. “Ok, perhaps not exactly, I added a lot more color when I found out.”

The dragons made no press releases or anything of the such. So, what could only be assumed to be in retaliation of The State’s incursion into their swamp, the dragons razed every human settlement within thirty-seven kilometers of the swamp’s northern boundaries, including a staging area of The State. Though nobody may ever know for certain, the death toll is speculated to be around half a million.

“I can’t believe they could kill so many, so fast.” Katrina shook her head, handing the paper back to Matilda. Katrina did not want to believe it. She did not want to read any more about it. “Dragons aren’t suppose to care what we do.”

“I don’t know about those dragons up there in that big swamp, but the Blacks in Tropico don’t like us going into the marshlands. Far as I’m concerned, they’re welcomed to the malarial pits.” The black dragons were immediately descended from those of the swamp. Before the greenery of Terraforms conquered the island, dragons never lived in Tropico. Their populations were always small, but a boom thousands of years past forced many of the then youth to find new swamps to call home. Thus, they flew south. Tropicans got along well with their neighbor dragons, and an occasional Black might even fly into one of the cities to take a look around. Though they did not mind if the odd human came to visit them, they frowned upon masses of the apes flooding into their territories.

“Aren’t you worried they’ll do the same thing here?” Katrina asked. The dragons up north were quiet, until The State sent an army across their lands. If The State ventured into Tropican Black lands, the dragons might just repeat the action of their ancestors up north.

Matilda shook her head. “Not really. We’ll stop the Naveinans before they can get south enough to bother our Blacks.”

Katrina could only hope it would be. She would also hope that The State never reached Contra. She knew little about what happened in foreign wars, nothing in detail. Only that The State wins time and time again. In their wake came the colonist, which was exactly how she ended up in Shownastadt to begin with. She never really gave much thought that, that too was once somebody else’s home. “I hope so,” Katrina said as she turned for her own door.

“I’m finished with the paper, don’t you want to read it?” Matilda asked. She believed in not wasting anything. Tropicans, in general, did not like to waste. They had so little to begin with.

Katrina shook her head. “No thanks. I would just as soon not remember the troubles of the world.”

Matilda shrugged, as if to say ‘suit yourself’. “See you at dinner then.”

“Uh huh,” Katrina said, as she turned the knob and gave a might push on her front door. All the doors here were heavy, and reinforced. To keep the boneheads out is what everyone told her. She would not argue that, not after she saw one in action. The flightless birds had a bald spot upon their head of thick bone. She watched one same headlong into a parked auto at full speed. Most animals would be out cold after that, but not a bonehead. The Towneform just shook his head and moved along.

Katrina sighed as she took a look at her spartan room. Back home, it would have been called a studio apartment. It was one a couple of rooms, the second being a bathroom. It was nice to have a bathtub parked away privately. It was even nicer to have hot and cold running water, not to mention air condition. Since the window did not open, it saved her a lot of misery. She did not have much of a kitchen. Tropicans tended to have big dinners for the whole neighborhood. It was like a party every night.

Strange part was, it cost her nothing. The basic rations were provided by the state. If she wanted anything extra, naturally she would have to shell out some of her hard earned cash. She did every now and then, but since becoming poor, she pinched every dinar. She could survive on fish and corn, but every few days she wanted a little something extra. If for no other reason than to keep from going mad at the monotony.

Her new place was rather bland and empty. On the floor in one corner, was a mattress of sorts. It was more like a pallet with a cushion on top of it. It was not the prettiest thing she ever saw, but it was still soft. She slept enough. She wished it was not upon the floor. No telling what sort of bugs might crawl over her in the middle of the night. Along with the bed were two old chairs and a rickety table. The walls were blank, and a bit worn. This place was likely as old as the Revolution– not far from her own age.

The few dishes she owned she kept spotless. She used them for breakfast. No point in dirtying them when dinner was a community affair. That still struck her as odd, as did many aspects of Tropico. She was use to eating alone, in her apartment. And eating quickly. The natives took an hour to eat dinner, and talked more than she imagined possible for hungry people. Katrina sat upon one of her chairs and leaned back against the wall. It was only a five hour work day, but she was still tired. A couple of hours until dinner too. Maybe she will take a nap before heading out. Nothing much else to do until dinner.

A string of lights illuminated the neighborhood square. The sun began its quick decent over the horizon, and the locals were all pouring out of the surrounding longhouses into the square. Katrina did not know how many of these little squares were spread across Contra. She could not hear past the festivities or see past the glare of the lights to tell. Orange lights. She shook her head. Why would anyone need lights that bright.

Musicians began setting up their own craft off in one of the corners. It was like this every night. She wondered if they were paid for their services or simply played for the joy of it. She did not think it very prudent to ask. They would not play until after the food vanished. Katrina stood away from the crowd, as she had the habit of doing since arriving. From her distant vantage point, she could smell the corn boiling and fish frying.

Once dinner was cooked, she joined with the neighbors at the tables. Like always, they talked their lives away, taking even longer to eat than they should. As always, Katrina listened but did not add anything. Tropicans spoke of farming and of football, neither Katrina knew anything about. Many Tropicans were mad that the World Cup will be cancelled due to war. Just like the All-Nations Games, the World Cup is a once-every-ten-years event that brings all the nations of Towne together in friendly– or at least non-lethal competition.

Katrina could not remember ever seeing the All-Nations Games. The State, once The Party came into power, never sent competitors to the games. They called them decadent and corrupting. They refused to allow The People to mingle with foreigners and non-sapiens. Katrina did plenty of that now. The square was filled with mostly sapiens and elves, something Katrina was still not use to, and even a couple of gremlins. She could tell they were not goblins since they wore welder’s goggles over their eyes. The orange string of lights was a little too much for their photosensitive eyes to handle. Aside from that, they were as social as everyone else.

After everyone ate, and their food settled, the music started up. Many of the adults went out to dance to the music. Even Katrina could feel the groove of the tune, but she knew nothing about dancing. Or at least what Tropicans call dancing. Too jazzy to compare with the mellower waltzing back home. She never paid a whole lot of attention to them, but to the children. Some of the youth tried to mimic their elders by moving their feet. Their attempts were cute, but not very effective.

Most of the children ran around the far side of the square. There was some order to their mayhem. They kicked a round ball back and forth, trying to keep it from landing in areas behind them. Football normally had nets, but not here. These Tropicans could not afford nets. Instead, a couple of posts set three meters apart served as goal. Each side tried their best to keep away the other. Katrina could not make heads nor tails of the action. Only the children could tell each other apart in their team warfare.

Not all children were out playing football. One of the boys approached Katrina. She smiled at the charming youth. “How are you doing Saul?”

Saul smiled, and said nothing, just as Katrina expected. She really wish he would talk, to say anything. Some of the women in town almost liked his silence. If one can not talk, one certainly can not talk back. Saul could do neither. He was an orphan, perhaps that had something to do with it. Katrina was certain she learned how to talk from her parents.

She looked at Saul carefully. Both of his hands were behind his back. “Are you hiding something?” she asked in the same tone she might have asked a younger brother, if she had one. Saul looked up and made to whistle casually. Yes, he was hiding something.

“Well, what is it? Can I see?” Katrina asked, trying not to laugh. There was just something magical about children, and she could not figure it out. She just acted so warmly towards them.

Saul drew his hands from behind his back. In one hand he held a rose. A dark red one at that. Katrina seen very few of them, and only in public areas. The city paid for groundskeepers to tend them, and they were suppose to be for the enjoyment of the people. Saul went an picked one, and Katrina was not sure if that was allowed. He handed the rose to Katrina.

“For me?” Katrina smiled. “Why thank you, Saul. This is the sweetest thing anyone’s done for me all year.” Saying that brought her thoughts to Andreas. That bum. He dropped her off in a Contra longhouse and took off at the first chance. She only seen him a couple of times since. She wished he would drop by more often, if for no other reason than so she could sock him a good one.

Saul pointed at the rose, then grabbed some of his own hair between his fingers. “Yes, it is the same color as my hair. You are just such a sweetheart.” To this, Saul could only smile shyly, and look down in an ‘aw, golly’ expression. “It’ll add some much needed color to my place.” Saul certainly took a liking to her. It was nothing new to Katrina; some of her former students were the same way. Except they brought apples, not flowers. Not very many apple trees in Tropico–

“I see you got yourself an admirer,” a familiar voice made Katrina jump in shock.

She turned around to glare back at the voice. “Well look what the cat drug in,” she said in a dry tone.

Andreas bowed. “At your service as always.”

“Just think you can show up once a week and everything will be fine?” Katrina was happy to see him, yet furious all at the same time.

Andreas sighed. He felt like the dark cloud that just passed over a parade. “I’ve been up to my ears in work. I don’t like dropping everything before I’m finished.”

“And are you?” Katrina demanded. By now, she noticed that Saul made a speedy getaway. Figures; Andreas could scare anyone away.

“For today,” Andreas replied. “I’m sure I’ll be buried again tomorrow. I tell you, it never ends.”Andreas eyed the flower in Katrina’s hands. “You know, you shouldn’t pick the People’s Flowers.”

Katrina scowled. “I did not. It’s a gift. Unlike you, some males know how to act kindly to a lady.”

Andreas rolled his eyes and was about to say something about that. Likely a retort. However, for once he decided to keep his mouth shut. His attention drifted away towards the band. They were winding down one song and starting up a new one. One that struck Andreas with recognition. “I like this song. Come on, let’s dance.”

“What!?” Katrina protested as Andreas grabbed her by the hand and pulled her to her feet.

“Let’s– dance–“ he said again, this time much slower.

Katrina was not amused. “I don’t know how.”

“It’s easy. It’s just a ten-step count,” Andreas told her in a way that convinced her, that he believed those words would explain all. “It’s very metric.”

“What isn’t,” she muttered.

“Just shut up and follow my lead,” he said with an exasperated tone.

For once, Katrina was inclined to do that. She kept a tight grip on her flower while trying to follow Andreas’s moved. She looked down at his feet, trying to copy the movements. Andreas laughed, and told her to move her opposite foot. Katrina snapped at him, but complied nonetheless. Many years had passed since she last danced, and certainly not in such close proximity. She watched many others danced as such, and knew it was not just Andreas. At first, her mind tried to resist enjoying the movement.

The resistance did not last long. Sure, she quickly grew dizzy from the spinning, but did not have time to complain. She had to focus with keeping up with Andreas. He was moving as if the tune had possessed his body. He was no longer in control, it was the music that commanded the dance. Katrina had no idea how to mimic that. When she tried, she ended up stepping on toes and almost tripping Andreas. Instead of his snappy comebacks, he only laughed at her follies. It was not a mocking laugh, but one of enjoyment. It was a bit contagious too, since Katrina found herself laughing.

Once the song wound down, a merciful couple of minutes later, Katrina tried to catch her breath. Catch her breath and walk straight. Andreas helped steady her back to her table. “Ok, that was a little fun, but only a little.”

“Told you so,” Andreas agreed with her. Out of the corner of his eyes, he spotted a pair of hobblers bobbing their heads up and down. They were scanning for any tidbits dropped by the humans. “See, even the hobblers agree.”

Katrina smiled as she watched the cute birds beg. “I bet they’d still be nodding even if I knocked you on your posterior.”

Andreas’s eyes went wide. “Ack! They might mistake me for a piece of food.”

Katrina laughed. “You have nothing to worry about. They’d take one bite of you and spit it out.”

Andreas gave her a wounded glance for her troubles. “That was uncalled for. Great, now I almost forgot why I came here.” Andreas paused to think for a moment. Katrina knew he knew, and had to wait. “Oh yes, Contra’s cinema is playing one of the Wildlife Warrior shows. It’s a few years old, but I bet you’ve never seen it.”

Katrina nodded. “You’re right.” She had not seen that show in ages, since The State forbade all outside media.

“But, if you’re not interested, I guess I’ll just have to go by myself,” Andreas said casually.

Katrina frowned. “Oh no you don’t! You’ve ignored me long enough. You’re taking me, like it or not. And you are paying for it too!”

Andreas grinned as her commands. “Next thing you know, you’ll be telling me not to act ‘difficult’.” He put heavy emphasis on the last word. He did not think as to whether she would understand it, but it had a double meaning in Tropico.

Katrina snorted. “You’ve been difficult since the day we’ve met. Alright, let’s just stop by my place long enough for me to put this flower in some water.” The day we met– little over two astros ago. Feels more like two calender years than astronomical ones.” Katrina paused before moving on. “One more thing, I expect popcorn.”

“Naturally,” Andreas muttered before leading her out of the square.

Katrina smiled as she walked down the packed dirt streets of Contra. It was late, and all the stars were out. She could see them clearer now than before. Capelleon was up there somewhere. She could not pick it out. Several other bright stars matched it in intensity. “I have to admit, I still like that show.”

“Who doesn’t?” Andreas asked rhetorically. Both have watched it for years, those Katrina had a wide gap in her attendance. “Though he got way to excited about hobblers.”

Katrina shook her head. “They are cute.”

“And annoying,” Andreas added. Tropicans had plenty of problem with hobblers eating their gardens. “But they’ll easier to scare off than boneheads.”

Katrina laughed. “You try and run them off, they’ll break your leg.”

“It’s not funny. I’ve know a few who ended up with broken hips on account of rutting boneheads.” Andreas had a few close calls of his own, including almost smashing his hand in the door.

Katrina could see Andreas’s face clearly enough to see his change in emotion. A tinge of pain flashing through his eyes. “Somebody you know get clobbered by a bonehead?”

Andreas shook his head. “Not something I want to talk about.”

“Was it Gus?” she asked, using the name for the first time. She heard it here and there, first from the cook in the People’s Pub.

Andreas stopped in his tracks and scowled. “Which dwarf couldn’t keep his mouth shut this time?”

“Did he?” Katrina pressed the issue.

“No. That’s not what happened,” Andreas was fuming from his revealed past.

“Who is Gus? Tell me, Andreas,” Katrina asked. It was something she wanted to know. She could sense it was.

“I told you, I don’t want to talk about it,” Andreas said sternly.

Katrina stood toe-to-toe with Andreas, having to stand on her toes to stare him down. “Tell me.”

Andreas let out a hybrid of a sigh and scowl. “Walk with me,” he said, continuing his journey down the road. No traffic was out at night, so there was little worry about getting ran over. “Gustavus was an orphan. In case you haven’t noticed, there are quite a few around here.”

Katrina nodded, thinking of Saul. “Yes, I’ve noticed. They are well taken care of.”

Andreas grunted in agreement, “Gustavus wasn’t like the other. Oh, he was physically healthy, but he wasn’t the brightest of boys. He was shunned by most, but I took him in. That really burns me the way he was treated. It’s not his fault he was slow, he was just born that way. Slow or not, he sure did love to have fun. If he wasn’t playing every second he was awake, he would be bugging me or one of the dwarves to play ball. He had a certain charm that just grew on you. The dwarves took to calling him Goofy Gus.”

“What happened to him?” Katrina asked, noting the word ‘was’. Something not good, she had the feeling. She knew little about mental impediments. Offspring with such defects would be terminated before birth, thus saving them from a life of the remedial.

“He got sick,” Andreas told her, pain in his voice. “At first, I thought they were just seizures. He had one in the middle of the night. He work me, his screams sounded like some sort of ghoul in the night. He went still for a few minutes afterward. I’m sure you can guess I how I felt. I’ve never panicked in the face of danger, but this– this was beyond anything I felt before. When he came to, I about passed out in relief. I thought it might have been a one time thing, but I made certain to take him to the hospital should it happen again.”

“And it did?” Katrina asked. She never imagined Andreas panicking. He was always cool in the line of fire. He did not even break a sweat when driving circles around the Knight on the savanna.

Andreas nodded solemnly. “It did, and I rushed him there as fast as he can. The doctors did their best, but it turned out I was wrong. It wasn’t seizures. Gus had heart problems, problems I never knew about.”

Katrina gasped. “Oh Andreas,” she reached out to touch his arm.

Andreas quickly shook her off. “He was dead before we made it. He died in my arms.” Andreas did not realize that his fist were clenched until his nails began to dig into his palms.

“Andreas, there was nothing you could do,” Katrina wished she never pressed the issue now.

Andreas laughed, but it was a cold laugh. “That’s what the doctors told me. But I know, if I would have taken him in the first time it happened, they might have done something about it. I didn’t. Instead, I waited to see what happened. I waited, and he died. He died because I didn’t act.”

“Andreas, you can’t blame yourself,” Katrina told him, trying to sooth his pain.

“Don’t you see, Katrina. I failed him. I was responsible for him, and I failed!” Andreas fought down his own pain, not liking to show it in front of anyone, least of all himself. “He brought so much joy into my life, and I failed him. When he died, they told me life just wasn’t fair sometimes. How true they are; if it were, I’d be dead, and Gus was still be here. He had so much more to offer than I ever did.”

“I don’t know what to say,” she muttered, thinking out loud. Andreas kept this anger, this guilt within him for so long. She could not imagine going throw that, or feeling so much pain for so long. No wonder he was so distant, so cold at times. If she lost somebody close to her– she did not want to think about it.

Andreas shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. It’s my pain, and something I have to live with. I guess that’s why I went after you. After Gus’s death I never dared to dodge responsibility. I landed you in a mess, and I just couldn’t live with myself if I walked away.”

Katrina grabbed his arm and leaned up against him as they walked. “I never imagined. I figured you were just some jerk who was looking for a reward.”

Andreas laughed, this time with a tinge of humor. “I would rather have gold. It don’t talk back.” Katrina rolled her eyes. She expected as much from him. This time, she knew why he pushed her away. “I’ll drop you off at your place, and head home. I have another long day of work tomorrow. I tell you, it never ends.”

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