What is the secret behind the old Veteran’s claim to have seen the Hand of God? He is one of the few survivors of humanity’s greatest battle, but if his story is true, what does that mean for his world?
This is one of the six science-fiction short stories found in collection The Power of Six, now available on Amazon.
Hand of God
The bartender rubbed a soiled glass with a dirty towel, not quite sure which one was cleaning the other. The bar might be a dusty, crummy drinking hole, but it was the closest one to the Academy. As such, it was busy every evening, as soon as the cadets were allowed to leave the walled premises. He stole a glance at his watch; soon the bar would fill with uniforms.
A chuckle made him look up at the only full table. A bunch of cadets had gathered around the Veteran to listen to his story. The bartender had to admit the old man knew how to hold a crowd’s interest. He’d better; he must have told that story a million times in exchange for a drink.
The Veteran had just started his tale. Staring into his empty glass, his eyes opened as if he was watching the Beasts approach once more.
“You see, girls, things were different back then. Nowadays, each colony has its Academy and barracks in every major city. Back then, mankind had built a vast fleet of transports, but only a handful of military ships, safe in the illusion of its uniqueness.”
A cute redhead with freckles interrupted him. “Surely you suspected we were not alone.” She scrunched her face as a blonde with short hair dug her elbow into the redhead’s ribs to stop her.
The Veteran continued as if he had not been interrupted. “We were finally at peace after millennia of conflict. No one was prepared for the shock of encountering a hostile alien species; so alien, that communication was impossible. When we lost contact with the more remote colonies, we thought it was a glitch with our transmitters. As one colony after another fell silent, we sent ships. Not military ones, either. We had too few of those.” He took a napkin to his forehead to wipe beads of sweat and looked suggestively at the empty glass.
“Can we have one more over here?” the blonde yelled across the bar, without even bothering to look at the bartender.
A sweet smile played on the Veteran’s lips, and he licked them in anticipation. “Thank you, my love. Now, as I was saying, when the ships disappeared as well, we realized we had become complacent. I still remember the day we first saw the Beasts. A boy had beaten the odds to send us a video of their attack. I was a designer back then, waiting to go into a meeting. One of the secretaries rushed into the meeting room to switch the vid on. The poor thing aged ten years in a single moment.”
The girls around him leaned away to allow the barman to deliver the man’s drink. The Veteran picked it up with slightly trembling fingers and swirled the amber liquid around, careful not to spill a drop. He listened to the clink of the ice cubes, the tips of his lips curling upwards.
“Meanwhile, even more colonies fell silent,” he continued. “We dropped everything to prepare for the invasion. Colonies were evacuated, millions of people returning to the welcoming cradle of mother Earth. Only, it wasn’t a haven, but a tomb. Or at least that’s what we thought back then, as one line of defence crumbled after another. I fought in almost all of the big battles, losing every single one of them. ‘We haven’t lost yet’, we’d tell each other. ‘We’ll get ‘em next time.’ Until they entered the Solar System, crushing the Jupiter garrison, then the Mars one, then finally reached the moon. Not the sorry affair you see in the sky nowadays; it was a full, nice round moon back then.”
He took a swish of the drink and swirled it in his mouth, before plonking the glass back onto the table. Smacking his lips for a moment, he lost himself in memories of a full moon. “The moon was our last line of defence. After that, there was nothing but women and children on Earth. It was down to us to stop them.”
The Veteran drew a line on the dirty table, pushing the fine dust with his finger to mark small dots. “They had kicked us out of each planet we had colonized, but this was different,” he snarled. “This time, we were fighting for our home. If we failed, nothing could save humanity. Next stop, Earth.”
He glanced at the wide eyes of his audience, hanging on his every word. “If you think that’s what was on my mind as we landed, you’re wrong. All I cared about was making it out of there alive. I don’t care what those teachers of yours tell you at the Academy; not even half of us made it to the moon. The rest, deserters. Some wanted to stay back on Earth to die with their families. Others took off for any corner of the universe with a rock they could crawl under, thinking they’d wait it all out.”
He cast a triumphant look around him, as if he dared them to contradict his story. In fact, less than 20% had deserted, but his claim made him feel special; brave.
Turning his attention back to the dusty line on the table, he continued. “We were deployed along the Line. The engineers had already dropped the bunkers while in orbit, so we moved in as fast as we could, followed by Blacks and Tourists.”
He shot a questioning glance at his audience, but they seemed familiar with the slang for the armoured units and air support. They probably knew that infantry was referred to as Dirts, too, but no one pointed it out to him. Besides, the animosity between the various units held fast even today. Back then it was worse; everyone really hated armoured units. Their missiles were notoriously unreliable, half of them missing their target to land among the infantry. In many battles, the Beasts only had to finish off the remains of infantry units blown to bits by friendly fire.
“There was so much dust around us, we could not see anything without infrared goggles. Central Command had sent everyone old enough to hold a rifle to stand on the Line. They knew we wouldn’t get a second chance; one mistake, and humanity’s gone. I was fighting alongside kids younger than you. Most had never seen a Beast up close, let alone survive one’s attack. I was the senior in my bunker, and the only real veteran. The oldest one after that had seen no action in two years.”
He took another gulp and wiped his unshaven chin with his napkin. A look of pride crossed his face for a moment, followed by a dark cloud.
“There is no sound in space, you know. Sounds need air to travel, but there’s no air on the moon. There is air in spacesuits, though. And microphones.” He flinched, a brief spasm crossing his wrinkled face. “When the Beasts attack, you hear your friends scream and the rip in their suits as they get torn apart, but the Beast slaughtering them moves in the vacuum of space, making no sound.”
“But we’ve heard the Beasts on the vids,” the freckled redhead blurted out with an involuntary shudder. “They sound like thunder.”
“The vids…” He pushed trembling fingers through the thinning hair on his head. “Sound can only travel through objects. When a beast impales a man, the microphones pick up its roar as a deep rumble. Beasts don’t breathe; it’s pulsing membranes in their neck that make the sound. That’s what you’ve heard.” He turned his bloodshot eyes at her, their gaze locking until she turned her head away. “In the absence of physical contact, however, it makes no difference whether a Beast is standing a hundred yards or an inch away; you still can’t hear it. The lack of atmosphere serves as sound insulation. So, we only knew they were coming when the motion-activated spotlights lit up the darkness around us. When the lights behind us lit up, too, we froze. No one understood how they could be attacking from both sides. We later found out they could burrow underground, but it was the first time they had used that strategy. Either that, or the Generals back on Earth couldn’t tell back from forth.”
Once again, he enjoyed the cadets’ shocked expressions. Coming from someone else, a jibe against the most decorated soldiers in history would be considered treason. Their new President was but a Colonel back then; she was one of the few people to have survived the Line. The Veteran was one of only a handful of people who could speak his mind about her, and he loved his freedom.
He dug his fist into a bowl filled with nuts and brought them to his mouth. After washing the salty flavour with a sip of his drink, he continued.
“Once the shock passed, we threw everything we had at them. Bullets, missiles, grenades, our knickers, anything we could lay our hands on. Our bunker was lit up like a Christmas tree by the explosions and the flares, lighting up their ugly faces. Two Blacks flanking us disappeared under a wave of Beasts, leaving behind only charred remains. A Tourist almost crashed into our bunker, downed by acid-spitting Beasts. Outside, hell itself had broken loose. All I could see were explosions and the thin lines left by tracer bullets. We felt more than heard a dull thud, and I spun around to see our door cave in under their blows. As I turned my rifle against the Beasts storming in, I remember thinking, ‘This is it; it can’t get no worse than this.’ When I saw a Queen standing so close to me I could touch her, I knew I was wrong.”
He paused for another sip, raising the glass to his lips with shaking hands, terror filling his eyes. The cadets exchanged looks of doubt, but he did not mind. He knew what they were thinking. Could he really have seen a Beast Queen and lived to tell the tale? This was not the part that scared him to death, though; the part that woke him up screaming in the middle of the night. That part was coming.
“So? What happened next?” the freckled redhead asked after a while, her voice betraying her impatience.
Her voice returned him to reality, and he turned his gaze at her. She took an involuntary step back, hit by the strength of his glare. “What no one wants to admit,” he growled. “I saw the hand of God himself, is what happened!”
The cadet stared back at him, her look betraying her bemusement, but she dared not open her mouth.
“I don’t care if you believe me, I know what I saw,” he yelled and slammed the glass down, sending a cloud of dust to twirl inside a thin ray of afternoon light dancing on the table. He studied his hand until it stopped shaking. After a moment he continued, his voice a low growl again. “I know what I saw. Letters sliced the night like a knife. They were huge – bigger than a juggernaut! One after another, filling out the sky; only the wrong way around, like seen through a mirror. But crystal clear. Everything froze; I could not move, as if time itself had stopped by the strange words, written by the hand of God himself.”
He did not pause to see if anyone believed him. No one did, save for those on the Line; and most of them had tried to forget. Not him, though. He knew what he had seen, and had to tell everyone. “Time started its relentless flow again,” he continued, “only this time a white light engulfed me. I stared at my hands, trying to figure it out, too shocked to notice the Queen lunging at me. Not just me, all humans were glowing in that same light. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a huge tail whipping towards me, and I winced, expecting it to slice my body in half. Instead, it passed right through me.” He tapped a finger at the table, repeating every word. “Right through me!”
He shook his head and stared at the young girls, daring them to doubt him. No one spoke. “I don’t know who was more surprised; her or me. I’d run out of rifle ammo, so I fumbled with my sidearm and shot at her. I swear, I expected the bullet to barely scratch her. This is a Queen we’re talking about; I’d seen them survive missile attacks. And yet, as soon as my bullet hit her, she exploded! A boy in the bunker got caught up in the moment; so much so that he threw a grenade, not realizing we’d be caught in the blast. I yelled to stop him, but I was too late. The explosion nearly deafened me, but when the smoke cleared, we were all alive, standing over bloodied Beast bits.
We could not understand what was going on, and crawled out of the bunker. Outside, the few surviving men and women were bathed in the white light, and for the first time we killed Beasts faster than their Queens could spew them. We soon started our counterattack, claiming back first the moon, then clearing out the rest of the galaxy. It was the moment when everything changed, yet no one dares speak of it.” He banged an angry fist on the table, raising more dust.
The blonde cleared her throat. “We were shown vids from the Line at the Academy. It was the President’s strategy that – ”
He cut her off with a tired wave of his hand. “Yeah, yeah, that must have been it. She saved the day. Bah!”
The cadets exchanged awkward looks. “What are you still doing here?” he asked them. “That’s the story. There’s nothing more to say. Now scram. Leave me alone.”
The redhead patted him on the back as the girls moved back to their table, leaving the old man to his thoughts. The blonde made a circling motion with a finger against her temple and winked at the redhead, who nodded and chuckled, stealing a look at the Veteran, hoping he had not caught that. She need not have worried; he had bigger problems than a bunch of doubting cadets. He had seen the hand of God. He knew the world for what it really was.
The bartender standing next to him caught his attention. The young man pointed at the L-shaped medal hanging around the Veteran’s neck. “On the house,” he said and plonked a half-full bottle on the table, throwing a look of pity at the old man. The old man grunted his thanks as he poured the liquid into his glass. He stared at it, shaking his head and muttering to himself.
Mark glanced at the blinking cursor on his monitor, a wicked smile playing on his lips as he punched his keyboard. He paused for a second to check the message his mate had sent him; the one with the cheat code. “Cheat: godMode enable;” appeared on the screen. He hit enter, and the cursor blinked, along with a new message: “Cheat active. God mode enabled.”
“Let’s see how you like this, you suckers,” he mumbled under his breath and unpaused the game.