[Short Story] The Promise

I’ve spent this afternoon doing a little digital housekeeping, and I found this short story which I penned a while back and never did anything with it. I thought I might share it here; it’s another first-person-with-a-scifi-bent jobbie, inspired (as far as I can recall) by a conversation about 80s SF movies with my good friend Peter Organ. As ever, I hope that you enjoy it.

It’s always been about you. Did I ever tell you that? Every action, every engagement… every invasion, every defence. Every time I made it back alive, every time I survived to fight another day, it was because of the thought of coming home to you.

The Program made us strong, of course. Skin resistant to fire and steel. Lower heart rate. Faster reflexes. More efficient lungs and muscles. Better eyesight, sharper hearing, unbreakable bones. When I stepped out of the treatment chamber I was damn near convinced I’d look like a comic book monster, rippling muscles, blue skin and glowing eyes – but I still looked like me. I still looked human. Human enough for you to fall in love with me.

Do you remember when we met? People talk about eyes meeting across a crowded room but ours really did, in that bar on Proxima III. There you were, wearing what my mother used to call your “Sunday finery”, quietly drinking a soda with your two friends in the corner. You listened politely as they blathered on about shoes, people they fancied, soap operas and such – and there was I, nineteen years old and fresh out of the Academy, choking down a beer with my squad the night before we shipped for peacekeeping on Ceti Alpha V. Worlds apart, spending an evening in the same bar on the same little backwater planet.

I was terrified, consumed by the choices I had make and afraid to look any of my fellow soldiers in the eye for fear of bursting into tears right then and there. I peered around the bar, desperate for a distraction, and I met your gaze. Hard grey locked with soft brown, and I felt… I don’t know. A jolt of electricity? Magnetic attraction? Love? I didn’t know what it was. I just knew that I had to meet you.

I tried to play it cool. Do you remember?  I sauntered over, thinking I looked laid back but actually  looking every inch the idiot, and asked you what you were drinking. I guess I thought I’d buy you another, or something. You told me it was a cherry fizz, and that threw me, ‘cos I’d had a line about a Bloody Mary ready. I mumbled something about a soda probably being better for you than booze, and you just laughed. It wasn’t unkind, you could just see I was trying too hard. It was okay, though, because I deserved it. But you smiled, and you asked me to sit down. I couldn’t help myself, though… I wasn’t expecting such a warm welcome, so I lost what little cool I still had and slipped right back into who I really am: just a big, dumb guy from the country. I took off my hat, called you ma’am – oh, and you loved that, didn’t you? You were seventeen. And you laughed that beautiful laugh all over again, and you said “Ma’am? Did you just call me ma’am, soldier?”. And what did I say? “Yes ma’am!”. God damn, I never thought you’d stop giggling.

I don’t remember when your friends left. Guess they got bored at watching you flirt with a jarhead. I don’t even remember where the time went or what we talked about. All I know is hours felt like minutes, with me lost in your eyes and your smile, and then the company Sergeant came in and told us to haul ass back to the barracks for some last-minute briefing. You asked me where we were going and I told you, even though we weren’t supposed to. You asked me when I was coming back, and I said I didn’t know. And that’s when you took that ribbon from your hair, those sandy curls falling about your shoulders like a waterfall, and you tied it around my wrist. You kissed my hand, and made me promise to take you dancing. I said I didn’t know when that would be, and you said you didn’t care, you wanted my word as a gentleman. I gave you my promise and you let me slip away.

It was the memory of that promise that kept me fighting when I was long past hope in Colony Prime, after the rest of my squad had been killed. The enemy wouldn’t stop coming; there were so many of them, tireless, ruthless, deadly. But my new skin and my new muscles served me well, and my new eyes let me hunt them from the shadows. I killed them all, every one of them, and took one of their shuttles so I could fly back to our command carrier. My heroics – if that’s really what they were – earned me a promotion, and that captured shuttle earned me a medal, but the only reason that I did any of it was to keep my promise to you. They kept me in quarantine for three weeks because I wouldn’t let them take that ribbon from me for incineration, and when I got out there was only one place I wanted to go on leave: back to Proxima. Back to find you.

And there you were, sitting at that same table, drinking another cherry fizz. The bartender told me you’d been there every day at the same time for two months, always the same table, always the same drink. And there I stood, battle-scarred and grim, but your smile was even brighter than I remembered. You hugged me, then you took me by the hand and led me to the dance hall. We danced the night away, not speaking, just enjoying one another’s company, and then when the dancing was finished you told me your name and I kissed you. You asked me when I had to leave again, and I told you how much time we had. We made it count.

My next posting took me to a planetoid so barren it didn’t have a name, only a serial number. I had a new squad, a command of my own, and our orders were simple: defend. Survive. Win.  This time it wasn’t living troops that we fought but machines. Artillery. Automated tanks. Airborne strike droids. They’d even managed to get some of those nano-swarms from the Rigellians. I think we’d been there for about three days when that mech landed, so heavy it caused a groundquake when it touched down. That thing must have been thirty, forty feet tall easy. My squad were on the perimeter at the time, looking at the damn thing in horror, and they were all looking to me for their orders. Nobody speaking, just staring. So I swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and gave the order: retreat. Run. Hide. Command questioned that decision later, but what would they have done? Six men with pulse rifles against a fifty-ton mech? It had wiped out our base just landing.

There was nothing to salvage, no-one to rescue. We just had to dig in. Defend. Survive. Win. So I gave the order, and I kept the men in line. I made them wait, bide their time, until the enemy were sure we were all dead. I told them how I survived on Ceti, and how we would strike from the darkness. And when it came time to draw straws, to see which of us would be stealing to enemy territory to place a detonator on that mech’s plasma generator, I knew – just knew – that it would be me. And as I strapped on my armour, attached my stealth modulator and checked my ammunition, I thought of your smile, and I tied that ribbon around my wrist once again.

I came home to you again, after the debriefing, the quarantine, the ceremonies and more unwanted medals. I smiled, I nodded, I shook hands, I posed for holographs. And when they finally let me go, I boarded the first shuttle to Proxima. To your waiting arms. I’d been away for near enough a year, and had a fresh scar across my eye where the mech shrapnel had caught me, but you had waited for me. You still called me handsome. You still kissed me like I was only thing you would ever kiss in your life. And as we stood there together, embracing in the park under the stars, you told me that you loved me, and I asked you to marry me. Your father didn’t approve, and I worried that I would have to dishonour him, but he didn’t stand in our way. Funny how things work out, though, isn’t it? A year later, when we told him you were pregnant, he embraced me and called me “son”; we were the best of friends from then on.

We only had a few days together and man and wife before I had to ship out again. The Alliance was always fighting, always expanding, always defending. I always wondered why we all just couldn’t work together, like in those old science fiction shows. Some great big council or federation made up of all the different species, all just trying to make the best of the universe. Although I guess that didn’t always work, even on TV, so what do I know? All I do know is that every time I shipped out, I made it back. And I made it back because I had you waiting for me. I made you a promise that I would always return to you, no matter how long it took, and I kept it every time. When I fought on the plains of Corneria, you were in my heart. When I was made a prisoner of war near the Tannhauser Gate – as they beat me, cut me and drowned me – your sweet voice in my thoughts kept me alive. The Archeron Campaign, the Border Wars, the peacekeeping mission to Orion… through it all, as my squads, platoons and units suffered and died around me, your memory made me survive. All for love. All for a promise. Mine to you. Yours to me.

I can see Proxima now, blue and inviting outside the window of the shuttle. How long has it been since I last came back to you? Three, four years? Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of time out here. Every planet has its own calendar and clock, and every jump to lightspeed screws with the perception. But I’m coming back, my love, and that’s the important thing. I’ve missed talking to you. I’ve missed walking through the grass, and bringing you flowers. And despite my sorrow I don’t regret a thing. I don’t regret joining the Academy, for volunteering for The Program, for letting them screw with my DNA and making me just keep living. Because if I hadn’t been in that bar four hundred years ago we never would have met. And I wouldn’t trade my memories of you for anything in the universe, even a quiet and finite life.

And so here I am, coming back to you once again. I love you. I miss you. And maybe one day I will join you. But not today. And not any time soon.

I made a promise.


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