Regular Joe Reading List: Science Fiction
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by Shannon Bond
Our world isn’t virtual reality, but the next one might be. Discover the truth as Jack struggles to end an eternal war, atone for his sins, and shed the chains of rebirth that have cursed him.
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“What war is this?”
Jack squeezed his eyes shut before opening them wide, trying to focus. The body armor dug into his neck as he turned his head to the soldier walking next to him. Their special forces tactical boots barely made a sound on the cobblestone street. The other man was wearing an Army digital patterned camouflage uniform so it must be a joint operation in Afghanistan or Iraq, or maybe he was on a training exercise. He looked down to find that he was wearing his familiar Air Force Special Reconnaissance tactical gear. He took stock of the street in front of him and decided that it wasn’t an exercise. Blown out shells were all that remained of the buildings along each side of the street.
Rubble flowed from the shattered structures like landslides, exposing rooms and furniture from a distant past. He noticed a brightly colored kitchen with antique appliances. Its yellow and red decor screamed in the midst of the war-torn gray rubble surrounding it. The dinner table was set with a salmon-colored tablecloth, and most of the chairs still stood as if the residents had just stepped away for a moment before their building vomited its wall onto the sidewalk. The soldier beside him had not heard his question or was ignoring him.
His hand rested on the grip of his M4 rifle, tethered to his chest by a sling in front of his ammunition rack. He tapped his index finger against the outside of the trigger guard, feeling a sense of security. The wreckage of a 1938 Phantom Corsair, black and smoldering on the curb, slid past as they walked down the middle of the cobblestone street. As a boy in the early 2000s, he remembered marveling at the sleek lines of a Corsair at an antique car show with his father.
“Wait,” he said, “this isn’t our war.”
Jack glanced back at the two remaining fire team members behind him and then at the street in front of him. They wore modern gear like him, but the street they were picking their way down was strewn with Italian signs and old cars. A baby cried somewhere in the distance. He looked over at his teammate in time to see the back of his head explode. A shower of red gore splattered the street when his body slammed into the stone. The rifle’s report came next, echoing off the shattered buildings. A high-caliber weapon from a long distance. He threw his shoulder into the man behind him, sending them both into a deep crater beside the street. He took a deep breath before raising his weapon above the lip of the crater. He pressed his eye into the advanced optical combat sight, searching for the sniper in the far-off building.
Instead, he sighted a German soldier writhing on the frozen ground in the middle of no-man’s-land. The last German charge had left bodies haphazardly lying about the blackened field, twisted in razor wire and strewn across countless craters created by months of shelling. He wondered where the street and the colorful kitchen had gone, but the thought fell away as he sighted the wounded German. He smelled the stench of burned flesh and the stink of gas from the trench around him but ignored it, focusing on the man in his sight. This man twisted and turned in the poisoned dirt, groaning, unable to stand. His leg was bent behind him and blood drenched his coat. Jack adjusted the sight on his rifle and turned on the night vision to compensate for the low light.
He didn’t feel anger or hatred toward the young soldier. He was probably nineteen or twenty, but it was hard to tell through the gore, soot, and filth staining the man’s skin. He had lost his helmet during the charge, probably blown off his head by a shock wave or carried away by shrapnel. It was a mercy to grant peace to the suffering man. His broken leg might mend, but the mustard gas was no doubt deep into his lungs and he would never heal from the chest wound.
Jack let out a slow, steady breath as he applied constant pressure on the trigger with the tip of his index finger. The round exploded from the barrel, from his instrument of peace, and in this case, mercy. The sudden report and slight recoil surprised him as it should. He knew if he held his breath or anticipated the round, it would go high or strike the earth just in front of his target.
Delivering a round without a killing finality would only add fear to this man’s suffering, and he didn’t want to do that. He simply wanted to deliver his fallen enemy from this hell. Jack watched the perfect hole open in the young man’s forehead. The soldier stopped writhing instantly as his struggle against the inevitable ended.
Satisfied that the deed was done, Jack looked up and down the trench, at the saucer-shaped helmets and filthy wool uniforms of the men. Again, he wondered where the old street had gone. He shook his head as if to clear the strange thought. Perhaps the gas was getting to him. They had been lucky to make it through that last German attack. He flicked the lid closed on his sight and tucked his 50-caliber sniper rifle under his arm between his body armor. It occurred to him that this wasn’t right either. Where was his M4?
“Wait, what war is this?”
The man propped up on the trench wall next to him stared straight ahead. Jack wondered if he was alive. Sometimes they seemed to die of shell shock alone. Or they went catatonic, unable to move or respond. He reached back into his memory, trying to recall the first battle he had been in, but couldn’t. Had it been so long ago? He heard the whistling sound and raised his eyes up to the darkening sky.
“What war is—”
The explosion shook the world, sending it sideways, tracers of color swirled through his vision. He heard screams, but they seemed far away, on a different planet maybe. Or in a different war. The dirt was cool and soothing against his cheek. He blinked and stared into the other soldier’s eyes. Inches away now, he could tell that they were brown with flecks of gold. He could also tell that he was dead. Even if he had been alive a moment before, leaning against the wall in shock, that last mortar round had forced the life out of him.
The brown eyes with golden flakes stared through him at something he could not see. Or it seemed that way. Jack knew they had become inanimate objects the instant life drained from the man’s body. It was always instant, not like in stories. One moment a person was there, a presence he could sense, full of emotion, and then nothing, dead weight. Bone, tissue, and muscle, nothing more. He closed his eyes, thankful for the darkness.
“Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away, if you could use some exotic booze…”
Jack reached to adjust his sword. No, that wasn’t right, it was his rifle, his M4, or was it a sniper rifle? He opened his eyes slowly. The kitchen came into focus across the room. Frank Sinatra was belting out cheerful lyrics from his phone, still resting on the table. He stumbled out of the recliner and pressed the end button on the alarm app. The room fell silent.
Images of blood, filth, and suffering lingered in his mind as he stared at the off-white numbers of the clock on his phone. The glass was perfectly smooth, clean, and cool to the touch. A reminder flashed on-screen telling him that history class was in twenty minutes. He swiped it away. If he was still alive, he might as well go to school. The semester was paid for. He shuffled into his bedroom and pulled on a fresh pair of faded jeans and a blue t-shirt. Moments later he was bounding down the stairs to the parking garage.