For the challenge Subgenre Frankenstein over at Terribleminds.
Don’t ask me how they found me. I’d changed my name, moved across the country, started over with a new job, a new life. I stayed off of the grid, paid for things in cash, and wasn’t exactly on the right side of the law. I’d never been one to kowtow to established high-profile authority, and while that’d put me in hot water more than once, I was still my own man and I still made my own way in this world, busted and broken and threatened as it was.
So imagine my surprise when old Colonel Richmond knocks on the door of my dinky apartment.
It was 2 AM when he came calling. I’d killed half a bottle of whiskey a couple hours earlier and my intent was to finish it off the moment I woke up. Big Jim had more work for me, but the fat fuck was keeping me in a holding pattern while he cleared something or other with his bosses, or at least found a way around ’em. I thought it might be him, but when I staggered up from the couch and looked through the peephole, I saw the old handlebar mustache and crisp military stance I both admired and hated. He couldn’t hide those behind civvies. I grunted, and opened the door until the chain was taut.
“No. You’re deactivated. For now.”
“What d’you want, Paulie?”
“I hate it when you call me that.”
“So go away, ’cause I ain’t stopping.”
“I can’t. I have orders.”
I’m not sure if I grunted or chuckled. Maybe both. “Those orders prevent you from drinkin’?”
Richmond gave me a thousand-yard stare. I closed the door, undid the chain, and threw it open. I turned my back on him and went back to the couch and my bottle. He stood on the other side of my coffee table as I took a swig. It burned in my throat and all the way down. Woke me up.
“What brings you to the ass-end of the urban sprawl, Colonel?”
“This.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a mini-tab. A couple of touches later, I was watching video footage of Los Angeles. Something at least fifteen feet tall and made of scales and bad attitude was smashing into buildings and roaring, something bright and probably acidic dripping from its jaws. I watched for a few moments before taking another drink.
“We don’t know why or how they’re here. But chances are there’s more coming.”
As I watched, two fighters swooped in. For a moment, the casual observer could have mistaken them for your typical military aircraft. But as they turned, they changed, weapons pods becoming arms and thrusters legs, grasping massive cannons that had formerly run the length of their fuselages. The monster turned and spat at one, dissolving the chest that protected the cockpit, while the other opened fire.
“We believe this is a scout. Others popped up in Tokyo, Singapore, Seattle, Vladivostok, Melbourne…”
“I get the picture.”
“We’re spread thin. The UN has authorized us to take steps to ensure we have the defenses we need. Last time, the threat came from above. We’re afraid this is something new, from the sea or another source. We’re working on it.”
“Can ya get to the part where you tell me what th’ hell this has t’ do with me?”
“You’re the Destroyer.”
I glared up at him. “Was. I told you. Retired.”
“Deactivated.” He tapped something on the minitab. An official document appeared. “This is a reactivation order. Full rank and privileges from the time of your discharge. Back pay. First crack at the new Variable prototypes.”
I set down my bottle. “You must want me pretty bad. Question is, what for?”
“We’re getting volunteers by the truckload. Somebody’s gotta train the ones good enough to pilot Variables.”
I laughed in his face. “Forget it.”
“I said no, Paulie.”
“We need you.”
“Why? Didn’t anybody else survive the invasion?”
“None of them are as good as you.”
“That’s because most of ’em are dead.”
“That isn’t your fault.”
I stood and started to pace. I didn’t like where this was going. “Explain that to me, Paulie, ’cause my understanding of ‘CAG’ is that I command the air group. Meaning the people under me are my responsibility. And when an entire squadron gets blown outta the sky by an alien death ray nobody told me about I might add, I figure it’s the CAG’s duty to feel shitty about it. You didn’t write out all of those goddamn condolence messages, Paulie. I did. ‘Destroyer’? Got saddled with that back at Acad. Didn’t think I’d be destroyin’ the lives of the people I called brother an’ sister.”
“We were at war. People die.”
“They got massacred, Paulie, because they didn’t know what they were flyin’ into. I was deliberately kept in the dark because some egghead in Intelligence wanted data on that superweapon. And now you want me to tell starry-eyed wet-behind-the-ears kids how to fly and fight without knowin’ what they’re going t’ be fightin’? Forget it. I got enough blood on my hands as it is.”
“So I heard. How’s the leg-breaking going?”
I gave him a thousand-yard stare of my own. “At least these chuckleheads have it comin’. Kids like Parker and Tibalt and Sanderson never did anything wrong. And I’m expected t’ just keep on goin’ when shit’s being kept from me that could’ve saved ’em? No.”
“Hear me out.”
“No, Paulie. Fuck your orders, and fuck you for knockin’ on my door.”
“These are monsters, Jack. Not aliens with tech we can use. Not an enemy with tactics we can exploit. These are just monsters. You’ll know as much as we do. Nothing held back, nothing under wraps. That is a promise.”
I sat back down. I turned it over in my head. Fuck Paulie even harder for having a point. Those kids were going to face combat if I trained them or not, but at least if I gave them the benefit of my experience, they might stand a chance out there. And if I knew what we were up against as much as the black-hearted so-called ‘Intelligence’ branch did…
I took another long pull from the bottle.
“Full restitution to the family of every man I lost. Their children’s children had better have college funds.”
“And I want a free hand to train these kids as hard as I like. I don’t want to give ya anybody only half-prepared for what’s out there. You’ll have hardened Variable pilots or you’ll have kids getting sent home to live long, healthy lives makin’ babies in suburbia.”
“Can I have a pony?”
“Fuck off, Jack, this is serious.”
I grinned at Paulie and finished my whiskey. I threw the bottle out of the window, and was rewarded with a shattering sound and some cursing.
“Fuckin’ vagrant out back thinks he’s hot shit.”
“Are you done?”
I walked to my closet. I didn’t think I’d ever be doing this again. But, against the voices in my head, the screams of the dying, the pleas of Tibalt to look after his son and Sanderson to tell her wife she loved her, I pulled back the cheap shirts and scuffed pants hanging there, and pulled open the false panel in the back. My uniform was there, preserved and crisp in the airtight container, from the beret with my major’s rank on the Variable Defense Force flash to the seams of the pants. I turned to Paulie and gave him a salute.
“No, sir. I’m just gettin’ started.”