The Laughing Bombs
by Scott D. Coon
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
That was it. I shoved the drummer and singer backward onto the altar stairs. The bass moved next so I clothes-lined him with his own shoulder strap and took his instrument. The guitarist swung his ax. I blocked it with the bass and shoved him onto the pile.
I turned back to the bassist. Waving his arms, he yelled, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa... take the girl, dude. Just stop wrecking my bass!”
I threw the bass at him and grabbed singer’s gun and my little girl. “Xenek,” I yelled in my brain as we crawled back through the tunnel, “what the hell was that?!”
“They never did that before. Why didn’t you just give them the goddamn girl?”
I didn’t know how to answer that so I just grumbled, “Anything I need to know about my next stop? A homicidal banjo player, maybe?”
“Screw you, Krieger! I’m trying to save your life.” I felt his anger and his fear.
We popped out into a fresh blanket of grey. The SF trucks were on the move again so I jumped in a crater, barely escaping capture. The SF usually traded you back but not before a painfully unpleasant stay. That’s what happened to my dad. Aunt Jill once told me that it changed him, like they’d wounded his soul.
“Well,” I said, “send me someplace without crazy people in it.”
“You think there’s a safe house in that city without crazy people in it?”
He had a point. “Just quit arguing and get me somewhere.”
As the convoy rolled by, the wind shifted revealing what was left of the city, just rubble and armadillo-backs. What was the point in bombing rubble? Why did Briggs have to die for this? I liked Briggs. He was bad at poker. Now he was dead and all I could think about was that blank stare. Something just wasn’t right about that stare; I’d have to tell Uncle Eric about it. As I thought about all this, a chill wrapped my neck, Xenek’s chill. “You okay in there?” I asked him.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” insisted Xenek. “Let’s get you someplace safe.”
His someplace safe was an elementary school. The taller buildings around the school had crumbled over the squat, stone structure turning it into a hardened bunker. Only the face of the top floor remained exposed. Dragging little girl behind me, I climbed the slopes of loose stone, past an abandoned armadillo-back, and in through a shattered window.
Inside, dusty sunbeams illuminated a grid of tiny desks before a flickering, digital blackboard. I ventured into the inner corridor hoping to find a vending machine or maybe someone’s lunch. I should’ve stolen some food bars from the zombies.
As I searched, I heard the squeak of rubber on tile. I turned but saw nothing but shadows. Pulling the girl close, I listened as the squeak multiplied and then surrounded me. My heart raced. Xenek chuckled.
“Where did you take me, Xenek?”
He didn’t answer. The squeaky feet closed in. I retreated around a corner but found my path blocked by a filth-covered, little boy, no more than nine. He snarled at me. I put the gun on him.
More boys materialized from the shadows, dozens of them. They all held pencils, number twos with broken points and bloody wood. In my head I heard cackling.
The bombs fell. The girl laughed. And the pencils rose. Pulling the little girl close, I swung the gun around at every little boy in sight; the boys were not impressed. They attacked. I held the little girl over my head while the boys stabbed my thighs. I kicked them back but the swarm was relentless. Bombs or no bombs, I had to get out of there.
I ran, the boys crashing against my knees like waist-deep water while the little girl laughed above my head and Xenek cackled in my brain. Reaching the window out, I found my pants soaked with the blood of a hundred shallow wounds.
As deadpan laughter fell from above, I raced down the hill, heading for that armadillo-back. I made it, but the boys chasing me weren’t so lucky. As I dove in and locked the doors, half a dozen boys were blown into chunks.
The cackling stopped. Inside my skull, I felt pressure. That bastard Xenek was trying to push me out of my own brain, trying to zombify me! With all my will, I pushed back. The imaginary ground beneath my feet turned to mud, slowly swallowing me. I imagined it into rock and my legs into hydraulics. Xenek could only gasp as I threw him off my brain and into the sky. That’s how Uncle Eric raised me.
I came back to a roiling reality. Laughers crashed over the truck while the little girl clung to a lap bar. Crossing the cabin was like crawling through thunder but I got us both strapped in. “Xenek!” I screamed. “You did that! You killed Briggs! Why?!”
“Briggs was already dead,” swore Xenek. “He wanted to kill himself and he was taking me with him, just like Pallow.”
“You killed Pallow?! How many more?”
“We asked! We begged!” he said frantically. “We told command to ground them... or stop using the bombs... anything. They wouldn’t listen.”
“We?!” Anger shot through my veins like fast poisoning. “You mean the other Psyches are doing this? You’re all killing pilots!”
“Not you, Krieger,” he swore. “If you hadn’t figured this out, I would’ve saved you. You’re one of the strong ones, not like...”
“You monster!! I am going to get back there and I am going to pound you into dust.” I blasted Xenek out of my brain.
When the bombs stopped, I grabbed my little girl and headed north. Xenek had gotten me most of the way but I still had to cross no-man’s-land. For that, I needed a ride. What I had was a plan.
It must’ve been weird for those SF guys, racing their jeep across the barren dunes to find their path blocked by a little girl. When the baffled passenger got out, I hopped in and punched the driver out. The passenger pulled his gun but I kicked the door, bashing him down the dune. Now my little girl and I had a ride.
I tore through the SF lines too fast for them to figure out who was driving their jeep. Bouncing across no-man’s-land, I drew fire from both sides but that tough, little jeep limped across the finish line before choking to an eternal stop.
I was safely inside friendly lines surrounded by friendly uniforms, but they opened fire. Peeking out from inside my armored box, I saw my allies as blank-faced as Briggs. Xenek! These guys weren’t even chipped. What the hell?!
Fortunately, someone had a plan. With no bombs to prompt her, my little girl started laughing. Ha-ha-ha, ha-ha, haaaaa. The bullets stopped and Xenek’s zombies scampered away to their holes, their fear of the bombs stronger than Xenek’s hold.
I picked her up and looked her in the eyes. For the first time ever, the little girl smiled. Then she said something, something very important: “You’re safe now.”
The end of my dream was there... but it wasn’t a dream, not at all. It was a lost memory, one that had been fighting its way back into my mind. Now I remembered it all.
In my memory, little Krieger lay in his bed, the sandman having come and gone. But, all was not well. One floor below, his father yelled, “Fall back! Fall back!” while his mother yelled, “Wake up! Wake up!” Dad was lost in a flashback, running for his life across an urban wasteland in his mind, while Mom stood in the kitchen with Dad’s body, trying to bring him back.
Little Krieger, in his blue pajamas with yellow duckies, pulled his blankets up high. Crashing and banging filled the air, followed by screaming and smoke. The world grew hot. It was hard to breathe. His bedroom door flew open and there was Mom with an orange glow roaring like a monster behind her. She gathered her little boy and they leapt from the second-floor window.
Lying on the lawn, awash in rain, Mom said, “You’re safe now.” Then she died. Dad had killed her. In his mind, he’d killed an enemy soldier but in reality he killed my mother and then himself. I remembered it all.
That memory answered so many questions echoing from my childhood but I still had one, a new one. Cradling my little girl, I asked, “Why were you laughing like the bombs?”
“Because,” she whispered, “if they thought I was one of them, they wouldn’t hurt me.”
I laughed. “Well, I guess it worked.”
We found a friendly jeep and headed for my squadron’s HQ. When I pulled in, everyone looked shocked, as if they thought I was dead. I barged into the Guidance Center. The Psyches all broke their connections and turned to stare as I marched across the Psyche floor. I ripped Xenek from his chair and slammed him to the floor. “Murderer!” I screamed as I bashed his face.
I felt the other Psyches invading my mind but they didn’t have time to do anything before Black Ops teams burst through the windows and started dropping clock helmets on everyone. They pulled me off Xenek and dropped a helmet on him too.
“That’s right, you murderer!” I screamed. “And the rest of you!”
Then they dropped a clock helmet on me.
I spent the next few hours in a world of darkness and noise. When it lifted away, I found myself in a cinderblock room, a bare bulb stabbing at my eyes. As I regained my senses, I saw stars sitting across the table from me, two on each shoulder. The man under them had a face chiseled from granite and male-pattern-baldness burning with anger.
“Uncle Eric!” I blurted.
He cut me a disapproving look.
“Major General Von Krieger,” I restated with some dignity. A weird silence lingered between us, his way of letting me know just how much trouble I was in. Timidly, I asked, “Am I going to be debriefed.”
“I am debriefing you.”
A realization gripped my chest. “Xenek! Don’t take his helmet off! He can control people, even without chips!”
“Your squadron’s Psyche has been ‘reassigned’ for ‘re-evaluation’,” he informed me.
That’s when it hit me. “You’ve been watching?” I said. “I mean, the Air Force has been watching all this happen?!”
He cleared his throat and waited for me to calm down. I took a deep breath and asked, “How long have you known that they’ve been killing pilots?”
No answers, huh? That was unacceptable. I slammed my fist on the table, nearly knocking it off its legs. Uncle Eric smiled. Uncle Eric never smiled. I guess he liked me asserting myself, especially to his face.
“Let’s just say,” he explained, “that my personal interest in you stopped this sooner rather than later.”
“Xenek will be a guinea pig, won’t he? What about everyone else?”
“They get vacations... Then new assignments.”
A thorough cleaning. After a few hours in the clock helmets, they’d believe any half-assed story the military fed them. I never wanted to punch Uncle Eric so bad in my life... But I had something better than a fist. I looked him right in the eye and said, “I remember.”
“There wasn’t any burglar. That’s what I remember.”
I expected to see anger or even regret but instead I got ‘oh that’. “Don’t blame Chuck,” he said of my father, his younger brother. “The SF turned him into... They tortured him. It wasn’t right.”
For the first time ever, I thought I saw a tear in Uncle Eric’s eye. Defending his brother’s honor had always been important to him, now I understood why. Part of me wanted to be mad at him for not telling me but another part knew that you couldn’t just tell that story to a six-year-old. And how would you bring it up later? Oh by the way, your dad killed your mom... would you pass the turkey, please? Yeah, fun for the holidays.
“What happened to the little girl?” I asked.
“She’s what now?”
He smiled and not a good smile. “Congratulations. You’re a dad. It’s what you get for not following E&E protocol. What the hell were you thinking, dragging a little kid all over a battlefield?”
“How the hell am I supposed to raise a little kid when I’m out dropping bombs every two hours?”
“You’re not a front-line bomber,” he informed me. “After what you did against your Psyche, we want to take another look at that brain of yours.” His smile deepened. “Raising a kid will be good for you, put some hair on your chest... Or take it off your head.”
He had to have pulled a bunch of strings to make that happen, and I realized exactly what this was really about. It was my turn to raise the next generation of Krieger warriors. What the hell were we, a family of Jedi?!
“Any other stupid questions?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, “just one. What about the bombs? You know what they’ve been doing to people — our people.”
“They’re being reconsidered. Done?”
All covered up... but at least they were going to stop with those crazy bombs. I shook my head no.
“Good.” Uncle Eric slapped a holographer on the table and said, “Let’s start your debriefing.”
Copyright © 2011 by Scott D. Coon