“We’ve been in this foxhole for eighteen hours and you still haven’t told me your name. Do you think I’m an alien spy or something?”
Renee Carlton considers the question. She doesn’t know this person. “You might be,” she concedes. “I don’t think we’ve met before the alarm.”
When the sirens sounded, she was walking home from her late shift at the 24-hour diner. Between checking the charge on her plasma projector and following her Sheltr phone app to the nearest community bunker, she had no time to call any friends. Besides, the Planetary Defence Authority comes down hard on breaches of the signals blackout. With Final Stand Protocol in effect, the only calls allowed are for emergencies or air strikes.
“Ask me something only a human would know.” Cheeky grin in the early evening light. We could be the Earth’s last line of defence, says their smirk, but why be morbid about it?
“Have you ever been on Final Stand Protocol that went for this long?” Renee’s almost ready to drop. She was already wiped at the end of her shift, and she’s seen a dawn and now a dusk since then. The shelter is a small concrete dome on the corner of Hubbard and Long. The steel door is locked and the gun ports have unobstructed views of the empty streets and the empty skies above them.
“No, but come on, that’s not a proper interrogation question. Ask something I can’t answer with yes or no.”
“Have you seen any Landers?” Renee checks herself. “I mean, how many Landers have you seen?”
The stranger rolls their eyes. “You need more practice at this. Let me demonstrate. What’s your opinion of the PDA’s latest announcement about extra heavy weapons drills?”
“I figured it makes sense for some civilians to know how the ionic disruptor cannon work, so I signed up for Mondays and Thursdays.”
“Do you always do what the PDA wants you to?”
“Of course not. I have a life outside of sky-watching.”
Her companion frowns at this obvious lie. Appearing to suddenly remember they are on the lookout for alien spaceships, they resume their watch, sighting along the barrel of a newer-model blast carbine. Renee feels a pang of envy. The weapon issued to her is bulky, snags on her diner uniform, and sometimes trips her when she lugs plates back and forth from the kitchens.
Renee is unsure whether her sense of guilt is because the Final Stand Protocol discourages distracting chitchat during invasion alerts or because she has bored her companion. “We just have to make the best of the situation, I suppose.”
“That’s more like it.” The grin returns. The flashing teeth banish the latter thought but spike the former with adrenaline. “You’re the ‘Keep calm and carry on’ type, then?”
Renee shakes her head, but she can’t quite conceal a smile of her own. But she says, “I’m not calm. I’m terrified all the time. I can’t go outside for more than a minute at a time without looking up at the sky for lights or missiles or whatever.”
“But you persevere. Look, you’re dressed for work. Come to think of it, I think I ate at your diner the last time I visited town.”
“I don’t remember you, sorry. I must have been off that shift.”
“Why, do you remember every customer who has ever walked through the doors?”
“I wouldn’t forget someone like you.”
They both lapse into silence and look out through their portal windows. No movement. Everyone is hunkered down in a shelter or a building. No aliens to speak of. Renee’s head is fuzzy with exhaustion. She needs something to focus on, so she asks, “No really, though. The alert invoked Final Stand Protocol but we haven’t seen a thing.”
“Are you that impatient for the end of the world?”
“No, but if it’s not about to end, I’d like to have a shower and get some sleep.” She takes a deep breath, tries to swallow but the words bubble up anyway. “I just think it’s madness, you know? For no better reason than I have good eyesight, I spend my entire day carrying around enough firepower to melt a department store in half. I work two jobs and I haven’t had a date since before the aliens vapourised Zurich. I’ve never ever seen a live invader but I train fifteen hours a week to prepare for a firefight which, statistically speaking, I’m likely to survive for no more than eight seconds, without pulling the trigger once, which is a good thing because I am so scared and tired that I am, again statistically speaking, much more likely to accidentally kill you, me and everyone else in a three block radius than I am to hit a bus-sized alien Lander travelling at nine times the speed of sound five kays overhead.”
The stranger’s mouth is slightly open. She is gulping air, as if she needs to breathe for both of them.
Renee blinks in embarrassment. “Sorry.”
The stranger stands, depowers their weapon and disconnects the power unit. “I’ve got good news and bad news, Renee. You can go home and have that shower.”
“Oh, thank– Wait, you know my name? Was this all a drill?”
The stranger folds her weapon into a case and slips it into a backpack. “Think of it more as an interview. And you passed. That’s the bad news.”
“The Planetary Defense Authority needs self-disciplined recruits who can think for themselves. Pack an overnight bag. You’ll be issued with everything else you need.”
Renee shoulders her rifle before she drops it. “Where are you taking me?”
“Someplace we can put that training to use. People with your resolve are wasted on the last line of defence.”
“So I’m just a pawn?”
“Sooner or later pawns move or they get knocked off the board, Renee.” The stranger’s eyes are sympathetic. “We’re pushing you up a square or two.”
Welcome to the start of Friday Flash Fiction Year Two! ‘October Music‘ was published one year ago this Saturday. I’ve decided to keep the project going for the foreseeable future. I’m putting together some thoughts about what I’ve learned so far and where I see this going. I’ll probably post it up in the next few days.
This isn’t quite the story I planned to write this week, but the one inspired by my recent visit to Paris hasn’t quite come together yet. This little idea saw an opportunity and muscled its way up the queue.