“JOIN THE SERVICE TODAY,” the poster screamed in bold letters that reached back into the horizon. A hard-jawed man, drawn in simplistic lines at the forefront of the poster, stood watch over the letters and the world at his feet. He was in standard unit attire, his uniform drawn in crisp lines and his backpack, gas mask, sidearm, and rifle were all proudly attached.
The poster was torn in one corner and the brick wall it was plastered to was crumbling, a dying border to a bombed out lot.
The sound of boots on the sidewalk came around the corner and a troop of soldiers walked under the poster. The men were varied in height, their uniforms long since personalized and modified to suit their needs, the only thing uniform about them was their slumped shoulders. The man in the poster looked out over them, unmoving, perfect in his soldierly pose and unwilling to interact with the reality of the corps that was hustling along under his gaze.
Captain Tomorrow watched all of this from the corner, disgusted. His brown hair was cropped close to his head and his eyes, empty and bottomless, were framed by the creases on his smileless face.
They were down to the half-blind and the mostly short now. He was half-surprised there wasn’t anyone with a limp in the passing platoon. And for what? The war was over, the rats were fleeing the ship, but the enemy continued to pound their cities in to rubble for no reason, so they kept rounding up younger and older soldiers to go off and catch shrapnel in their teeth.
He took a hard look at the poster, but decided it was too torn to bother with, plus the glue used to plaster them onto brick walls never came off easily.
He turned and continued walking down the street. He was here on leave, and was struggling not to while away time in despair. Plus he was already late meeting up with Sky Kid at a local bar. He glanced down at a grubby piece of paper in his hand and read the address again. He looked at the intersection he was on, made a best guess to where he was supposed to be going, then continued on.
As he walked his eyes glanced up to the massive dirigibles hanging in the sky. Their searchlights were cutting slow paths through the dusk and, difficult to hear this far back from the front, their speakers were broadcasting the usual cycle of announcements. Captain Tomorrow caught a few words, a sentence here or there, and he noted how foreign it sounded.
He had never quite picked up the southern dialects and he found it made it feel more like a vacation listening to the PA systems in a language that wasn’t his. He was on leave after all.
He found the address, or so he hoped, and took a step back to look over the doorway which was covered in dirt and paint that was mostly stripped away. He glanced at the sheet again and was about to step up and knock at the door when a hand clamped him on the shoulder and held him back.
“Pretty sure it’s down there,” a familiar voice said, and he turned to see Sky Kid pointing at a second doorway down a few steps leading to a basement bar. Sky Kid was smiling and his shock of blond hair and bright red bandanna were at odds against the ever-present dust that covered their uniforms, especially here in the southlands. But his deep blue eyes sparkled with that ever-present Sky Kid mirth that made some people love him and others worry about his sanity.
“You get your errands done?” Captain Tomorrow asked.
“Oh yeah, postcards sent home. Beautiful shots of the Southland’s colorful nightlife and beautiful buildings.” He glanced up and down the crater-strewn street and then down the steps to the dingy bar. “They really captured the essence of the place.”
“Gotta imagine that pre-war photographs make for better postcards.”
“Made for better vacations too,” Sky Kid said as he went down the stairs and opened the door.
There was a tingle of a bell as he stepped inside and the two men walked into a cramped room with wooden benches and tables scattered throughout it. It was empty.
“You sure we can get a drink here?” Captain Tomorrow asked.
“That’s what my guy said,” Sky Kid answered.
On the back wall was a poster of a woman in a dress with her sleeves rolled up, digging heroically at a garden in the backyard of her perfect-looking ranch house. “The more I grow for me,” the woman was saying, “the more he has to eat in the field.” On the other half of the poster was a soldier in some hellish warscape opening up his ration kit, clearly having his day made by the fact that it contained an ample amount of food.
Sky Kid didn’t even react as Captain Tomorrow continued walking past the tables to the wall. With a simple gesture of his arm, a knife handle appeared in Captain’s hand, with a press of a button a knife appeared, and then Captain Tomorrow busied himself cutting away the tacking that held the poster in place with quick, expert strokes.
Sky Kid was sitting down when a small boy, maybe twelve years old, came into the room.
“You want drink?” the boy asked, his face lighting up until he saw Captain Tomorrow at the poster. “No. No no no!” he yelled, along with a few sentences that Sky Kid didn’t quite catch.
“It’s okay, he collects them,” Sky Kid said, even though that in no way made it okay. But something in his tone of voice got the boy’s attention.
The boy was clearly flustered and he stared at Sky Kid with worried eyes under upset eyebrows. He glanced from Sky Kid to Captain Tomorrow and back and few times, and only started yelling when Captain Tomorrow finished up his handiwork and came over to the table, rolling the poster up into a tube. “No!” the boy yelled, though clearly this was already over.
Captain Tomorrow took a coin out of his pocket and set it down on the table, keeping two fingertips on it. “Drinks?” he asked.
The boy looked at the coin, then at Captain Tomorrow. “Poster!” the boy yelled pointing at the rolled up tube of paper under Captain’s arm.
“It’s not even your poster,” Captain shot back, “they put these things up everywhere. Drinks. Drinks,” he repeated, and slid the coin over towards the boy, still keeping his fingers on it. “Two drinks.” With his free hand he held up two fingers.
The boy kept his upset face on. He looked at the coin and shook his head. “Poster. Drink. Drink.” He held up three fingers.
“I’m not paying you for a drink and a poster,” Captain Tomorrow started, “and it’s not even you’re damn poster,” he finished, yelling as he remembered this fact.
“Just pay him,” Sky Kid said, a smile on his face as he enjoyed the back and forth.
Captain Tomorrow turned to say something to Sky Kid and argue some more, but the smile on Sky Kid’s face made him stop as he realized he wasn’t getting any support. Captain reached into his pocket and pulled out two more coins. “This is your drink too on the line.”
“So it is,” Sky Kid agreed.
Once the money was on the table the kid scooped it up eagerly and ran off, disappearing through the door.
“Why do I feel like I just paid thirty bits for the right to sit in an empty room?”
“He’ll be back.”
“I want my drink.”
“I know, and he’ll be back.”
“And what happens when he doesn’t come back with my drink?”
Sky Kid shrugged. “Then you can have my drink.”
Captain Tomorrow started to say something back to this before he tripped over himself, his brain catching up to what Sky Kid had said. He shook his head. “Don’t make me kick your ass.”
Sky Kid smiled and waited.
The boy came back with a bottle partly filled with clear liquor and two glasses that could pass as not being dirty.
“Ah, the owner’s special reserve no doubt?” Sky Kid said as the boy set everything down and then waited.
Captain Tomorrow lifted the bottle to his face and sniffed it, his lips curling a bit before he nodded and poured out two glasses, nearly emptying it. “This fucking place,” he muttered.
“Hey, it’s hard to find vacation spots you can get to on such a short leave. You were the one who didn’t want to just hang around near base.”
“You see how many squadrons were landing at our strip? We’re throwing some mighty defenses up around there. I’d rather not spend my leave dodging smoke and shells from bombing raids.” Captain held out his glass.
“You’re not supposed to talk like that,” Sky Kid said, half-listening as he picked up his own glass. He tapped glasses with Captain and took a drink. It wasn’t bad.
“You that hear that?” Captain Tomorrow asked the boy who had taken a seat at a nearby table in hopes of more coins. “Don’t go telling anyone we got planes landing in the east. There are people who would pay much coin for that information.”
The boy looked at him, clearly not understanding.
“You never take anything seriously,” Sky Kid said, taking another gulp.
“It doesn’t matter who I tell. They know where they’re attacking us, they’re the ones doing the attacking.” He took a drink and rolled some of the liquor around in his mouth. “And don’t tell me what I take serious. You haven’t been around this fight as long as I have, everything goes upside-down. You get all riled up over stuff that doesn’t mean anything. And the stuff that means something? You barely care about that.”
Sky Kid actually stopped his glass halfway to his mouth to shoot a look at Captain Tomorrow. “As long as you have?” he mimicked. “I went through basic with you, you idiot. Don’t try swinging your bars around me.”
Captain glanced over and for a second his eyes had death in them. Not anger, or hate, or the wishing of death on another, but emptiness and hurt, like death was sitting just inside his skull. He faltered and then came back to himself and realized who he was talking to. “Yeah, well,” he said, trying to keep up some sort of conversational tone. “You weren’t at the run into the Arripines. Your hand was all busted up then.”
“And you weren’t there for either run over the foothill cities outside of Glaustony. You had the clap.”
Captain Tomorrow cleared his throat and ignored this as he reached for the bottle. It was nearly empty and he managed to pour a fingerful into his glass before it was done. “Ay!” he yelled at the boy who had dozed off on his chair. “Unus…” he started, trying to speak in the southern dialect. He gave up and just waved the bottle, taking a coin out of his pocket with his other hand. “Another one of these.”
The room was growing dim and the boy ran from table to table setting out a few lanterns against the gloom. It was more crowded now and the walls echoed the sounds of glasses being drunk from and men arguing. There was a good mix of soldiers on leave and locals, although none of the tables themselves were mixed.
Captain Tomorrow sat with his chair back up against the wall, an inebriated sway in his shoulders, his hand curled around his half-full glass as he stared out over the room. His lips moved as he said something too soft to make it through the low clatter all around him.
“What’s that?” Sky Kid asked him.
The Captain turned and stared at Sky Kid, and to avoid looking scared Sky Kid put on a smile and picked up a coin from the table before setting it spinning.
“Cockroaches,” The Captain said.
Sky Kid flinched and looked over his shoulder, expecting to see bugs on the wall.
“Not there,” Captain said. “There.” He gestured into the room. “All of us. Just cockroaches.” His lips curled a bit in disdain.
“They should put that in the brochures.”
Captain Tomorrow shook his head and he slumped into his chair. “They’re not going to stop, you know. They could have a surrender on almost any terms they want, but they don’t want a surrender. They want to obliterate us.”
“Can’t kill all of us,” Sky Kid piped up in response.
“You want to live in a place, you don’t have to kill all the roaches there either. You just have to bomb, gas, and spray enough of them so that what’s left has to live a scattered lonely life in the walls.”
“I think they need water too.”
Captain stared, still swaying in his chair, watching the drinkers and the boy running from table to table. “This life is done.”
“This bottle certainly is.”
“You don’t fucking get it,” Captain Tomorrow said bitterly through his teeth. “It’s done. There’s only one rule left. Look out for yourself. It’s all going away, so just beat and cheat what you can out of it before it happens.”
Sky Kid held the coin on the table between his thumb and forefinger and gave it another spin. “That’s not the 115th Hellions I signed up for.”
“Ain’t no Hellions left. Ain’t nothing left. There’s just you,” Captain suddenly came to life and he lurched forward, banging against the table, knocking the coin off path to clatter to the ground as he grabbed Sky Kid’s shirt. “You don’t try to be something you’re not when that’s happening. You hear me? You look out for yourself and try to keep your own damn organs in place.”
Sky Kid, almost seeming more upset by his shirt being wrinkled than by Captain Tomorrow’s drunk breath lecturing in his face, simply stared back. “I always found it to be one big pointless trip from first breath to last. I always figured you may as well fill it up with things that might matter. It’s just as easy as filling it up with shit. Because if you live a selfish life, maybe it’s a pointless life.”
Captain Tomorrow, haggard and hurt, stared at Sky Kid for a few more seconds, hollow thoughts flickering behind his eyes, wanting to fight back against this thought. Then he let go of Sky Kid’s shirt and slumped back into his chair and looked out over the busy room.
Bright beams of light cut through the night sky, painting temporary visibility over the ruined cityscape. The defensive line of zeppelin’s hanging above them were dimly silhouetted against the stars.
Sky Kid was breathing in the air, warm and dank, but still fresh compared to the basement bar. His chest was moving a little too fast and his lips were wrinkled. “I might puke,” he said matter-of-factly.
“C’mon,” Captain Tomorrow said, fully in control of his faculties. “Flop house’s this way.”
They walked and stumbled along the empty street. There was a sound from far off, roars in the night sky.
Captain glanced idly up at the dirigibles all around, half keeping them in his sight as he walked.
Another sound, deep and distant, this one he felt as well as heard, the street vibrating slightly under his feet.
“Wha…?” he whispered, stopping and looking around. Another sound, an explosion, clear and not so distant and this time he saw a burst of orange flame, like a tiny blossoming flower, on the skin of one of the dirigibles.
Sky Kid, preoccupied with his sickly stomach, had made it a few steps further than Captain Tomorrow before the sounds registered. By the time he stopped and turned, the dirigible with the small orange blossom of flame was now peppered with orange and smoke and was slowly descending as it banked back towards the city. There were more explosions, and the sound of prop planes humming drew closer.
“Can’t be,” Sky Kid said.
“Shit.” Captain Tomorrow answered.
Then the night was torn open by sound as a low flying wing of fighter planes came screaming overhead, both men flinching at the noise. Sky Kid was staggering backwards, part drunk, part stunned, when Captain grabbed his arm and dragged him down the street shouting, “Come on!”
“They’re not supposed to be attacking here!” Sky Kid yelled as the background of explosions began to be mixed with air raid sirens and the steady low hum of approaching bombers.
“Tell them that,” Captain Tomorrow barked back. He stopped at an intersection and looked up at the walls, his eyes finding the familiar yellow signs indicating where a shelter was located. They were both running by the time they turned the corner and as they skidded to a halt at the shelter entrance there was a muffled but loud series of thumps as a payload hit nearby.
“Great,” Captain Tomorrow said looking at the shelter doors, one of which was hanging on one hinge.
“Better than out here,” Sky Kid said, as he pushed the door aside and walked down the stairs.
They made their way inside and down the stairs into a basement that smelled like rat droppings and urine. There was only one other person in there, a man passed out near the door who clearly had taken to sleeping there at night.
Sky Kid was breathing heavily, and he made his way to the rear of the room. There was a screaming whistle and a loud thud so close that the ceiling rattled, flecks of dirt and moss sifting down to the floor. They both braced for an explosion, but there was only quiet.
Captain shook his head. “I really wish that had exploded.”
A few seconds later a yellow smoke began pooling down the stairs. It was heavy, almost a liquid in the way it moved, sickly looking and dangerous. It began to spread across the floor, thick and soupy along the ground, tendrils of it slowly dissipating higher up into the rest of the room.
Captain Tomorrow ran over to the wall, feet skidding over the concrete floor as he halted. He looked at the emergency locker and his shoulders slumped. The door had been wrenched open a long time ago and its contents looted. He looked inside and saw a mess of empty boxes. Shuffling through them he spied a gas mask and his eyes opened wide. He grabbed it and hefted its weight and realized that the mask itself probably had no value to whoever had scavenged this place. He popped open the mask and, sure enough, the filters had been taken out, rendering it useless.
Holding the empty mask in his hand he continued to shove boxes around in the cabinet. He found two other masks, both depleted of filters before he spied one towards the back, wedged in against a shelf strut. He pulled at this mask and it held tight where it was. He leaned into the locker and yanked and wrestled with it and when he finally got it out and opened, he grunted in surprise to see two fresh filters, pink-capped and good as new, in the mask. He stood there holding one useless gas mask and one functional one.
He heard coughing behind him and he turned and saw Sky Kid, hacking in the corner on his hands and knees with a finger held up in his direction.
“That’s not the gas,” Sky Kid said between coughs. “That’s the liquor.” He coughed again and wretched. “Well mostly the liquor.”
Then another cough filled the room, horrible in its ferocity, and as Captain Tomorrow sprinted towards Sky Kid he glanced over at the shelter entrance to where the homeless man was now spasming on the ground, attempting to scream through the sound of his lungs melting, his body wracking hard enough to cause the thick yellow smoke to eddy and pool around him as it flooded towards the back of the room.
Captain Tomorrow stood over Sky Kid, a gas mask in each hand. His nose was screaming already, a deep mustard ache in his sinuses, and his hands trembled as he put a mask onto Sky Kid’s head roughly, the tight seal yanking his crop of blond hair and mashing against his skin. Then he put the other mask over his own head.
Captain Tomorrow sat down with his back against the wall next to Sky Kid, both their faces hidden behind the dark plastic and leather of their masks.
The thick yellow smoke pooled at their feet and drifted up their legs and the mist wafting off of it filled the room, hiding them from sight.
Then, in the dense fog of death, one of them began coughing.
Hailing from New Jersey, Joseph is sarcastic, caustic, abrasive, and yet a surprisingly good cook. As the eldest member of the arena’s cadre, Joseph has come to rely on discipline over flash and dozens of rewrites over bursts of creativity. He also sometimes remembers where he put his dentures. Joseph grew up fighting for attention over loud guidos and even louder New Yorkers and polished a knack for concise, striking imagery. A fan of most anything silly, Joseph also has a depth hidden under his love of talking animals that can rope in unsuspecting readers and make them think before they realize they’re reading anything of substance. Joseph is the author of the first two books of the Matthew and Epp trilogy, Probability Angels and Persistent Illusions and is hard at work on the third.