‘So this is how it ends,’ he thought as two large soldiers lifted him from behind and pushed him against the door of the transport ship. ‘How did it come to this? And so quickly?’
“Remember to turn off the safety, Private Tropp!” The voice of the sergeant called from somewhere deeper in the ship.
‘Private Tropp,’ he thought bitterly.
Only 10 months prior, he had simply been Billy Tropp – private citizen. He was sitting outside Mickey’s Ice Cream Shoppe enjoying a chocolate and vanilla twist in a sugar cone, his brand new game system was on the table unopened in front of him. It was an early birthday present from his older sister who lived in the metropolis and worked as a chemist for Pharmcorp.
“All the good genes went into the first one,” everyone used to joke. Even his mother would laugh.
His sister was different. She would defend him against everyone, but especially against any slight from their mother.
“If you think he’s so great, then you take care of him,” their mother had screamed once.
His sister had grown silent for a moment, but then she turned to him and smiled.
“When you turn 16, you’re coming to live with me,” she said. Their mother simply laughed, grabbed her purse, and walked out the door, destined for her nightly visit to the local pub.
“What’s wrong with me?” he had later asked his sister.
“Nothing,” she responded while scanning through messages on her wrist-phone. Then she looked up and saw his frightened look, so she put her wrist down. “It just takes some people more time to figure things out. There’s nothing wrong with you.”
“What if I never figure it out?”
“In the end,” she laughed. “Everyone figures it out.”
He smiled at this memory, and at the fact that in a week he would be living with his sister in the metropolis.
He finished his cone, and then placed the game system in his backpack, as usual forgot to close it, and slung it lazily over one shoulder. He walked towards home with his mind far away in time and space.
And then he walked directly into the table where the local mothers were raising funds for wounded soldiers He fell onto the table, and as the table legs broke, the mothers went tumbling in all directions, while everything on the table jumped and momentarily defied gravity. His backpack sailed into the air as if it were flung towards the smoggy sky by a trebuchet. The game system leaped free, but was saved by landing on a patch of soft artificial grass. The backpack came to rest near it, as did the contents of the table and a few of the objects that had moments before been held in the manicured hands of the neighborhood mothers.
At this point, out from the doorway of a nearby pub Billy’s mother walked up and looked down at him. She glared at him with undisguised disgust, and shook her head.
“If I could rename him, any one of those would do,” she sneered and turned away.
The other mothers squinted at her in uncertainty for a moment, but soon began to laugh at the red-faced boy.
“Just pick up your stuff and go, you stupid retard,” she snapped as Billy tried to right the broken table. A few passers-by gasped, but Billy tried to become invisible as he pushed his belongings haphazardly into his pack, and placed the game system on top. And with his chin on his chest, he walked quickly down the street and towards his empty home.
However, he would never see the inside of that home again, and he felt this the moment he lifted his head and noticed the police closing in on him from all directions. Two officers were standing on the walk directly in front of him; two officers emerged from between two buildings and slowly converged on him as they shadowed his walk; three officers had stopped traffic and were crossing towards him from the opposite side of the street; and when he turned around to look behind, he not only saw 4 officers stealthily approaching him from the direction he had just come, he also saw the neighborhood mothers following at a close distance and pointing at him. His mother was just behind them, a strange gleam in her eye and a small smile lifting her red and wrinkled cheeks. All the officers had their assault rifles pointed at him, all but one were looking through the digital sights. Billy noticed all of this in the span of a few seconds and promptly pissed his pants, a large dark spot forming quickly and a small amount trickling down his legs.
“Boy!” One officer gestured with his gun. “Down on the ground! Now!”
Billy very quickly sat down on his wet backside, his ankles crossed in front of him and his hands fidgeting nervously with this wet socks, just as if her were sitting for story-time in a kindergarten class.
“Face down, boy!” The officer yelled as all officers tensed their arms, ready to fire. “On your stomach! Now! Or we shoot!”
Billy stood up in confusion, and the officers were just about to shoot when the one in charge raised his hand as he squinted at Billy’s face. He lowered his weapon, and cautiously approached Billy.
“Down to your knees now…” the officer spoke more gently. “Go on now, get on your knees.” Billy looked the officer in the eyes, tears were streaming down his frightened face, and he slowly knelt. “Now on your stomach for me, go on… just like doing a push-up. Don’t be scared…” And Billy complied.
The other officers rushed in, cut the straps of the backpack and removed it from Billy’s shoulders, pulled his hands behind his back and zip-tied them tightly.
“Damn! The boy pissed himself!” One officer spoke sharply, and the others began to chuckle.
“Enough…” the officer in charge rebuked them quietly. “Put a blanket around him, get him into the truck. Be gentle now… he’s no threat.”
The other officers grimaced, but did as they were ordered as the officer in charge took the backpack from the officer who had just scanned it for explosives, and approached the mothers who were watching from nearby.
“Ok, ladies,” he spoke casually. “Who called this in?”
For a moment, the mothers all looked at one another in uncertainty, a few looked behind at Billy’s mother who seemed reluctant to come forward, but finally a woman spoke up.
“Um… I called. You see, we thought about just handling it ourselves, but his mother said…” the woman gestured towards Billy’s mother, who grimaced noticeably.
“Ma’am? You’re the boy’s mother?” As the officer spoke, the other mothers parted and allowed her to walk to the front.
“No denying that, I guess,” she mumbled.
“I see… Tell me about him. He seems… well, a little awkward, perhaps a little slow…” the officer watched the woman’s reaction to try and gauge the situation more accurately.
“A little slow!” she guffawed. “Somethin’ seriously wrong with that boy.”
“I see, so perhaps this was all just a mistake…”
“Slow don’t mean the boy’s innocent,” she cut the officer off. “I hear him at night sometimes, saying things against the government, saying things against me – his own mother!” She began to look around at the other mothers, and kept glancing off in the distance at something to her left. “In fact, to be completely honest, officer… I saw him put that money and stuff into his bag. He sort of looked around to see if people were watching him closely, and then he got that little smile of his on his face, and he shoved it in and put some stuff on top of it.”
The officer quelled a sigh and wrote down everything the woman said, but he knew she was lying. He thanked the mothers as he returned their belongings, including the cashbox and the credit collector, and then turned to Billy’s mother.
“We’ll take him to the station, book him, and then get him a court date. Do you want to ride with us?” He squinted at her and watched her reaction.
“I’m sure he’ll be fine with you, officer,” she laughed. “No need for me to miss my appointment,” she turned and walked away with the officer continuing to watch her.
Two days later, Billy was sitting alone before the judge at the defendant’s table, his brown prison jumpsuit nearly blending in with the rich décor, his eyes darting from the empty judge’s seat to the prosecuting computer across the aisle, to the defense computer next to him, and then down at the table in front of him. He heard the voices behind him, thought he could pick out his mother’s voice amongst the laughing crowd, but he was straining to hear a particular voice and did not dare to turn around. ‘Will she come? Does she know?’
The judge was all ready to uphold his office by sentencing Billy to 5 years of military service in order to fill his quota and be able to afford a nice vacation on the quarantined islands between North and South America, but when Billy’s mom testified that Billy was actually a subversive who had gone mostly unnoticed due to his feigned stupidity, the judge suppressed a smile and sentenced Billy to 10 years in the space infantry.
By the time Billy’s sister heard about the situation, she barely had time to take the hovertrain to the prison and shout to Billy through the fence.
“Be strong, Billy!” she yelled and Billy heard her. He looked over at her and she could see the tears on his cheeks. “Ears and eyes open! I love you, Billy!”
When the hovertrain departed for the training camp, she went to town and walked straight into her mother’s favorite pub. Everyone inside turned towards the open door and instantly tensed when they recognized her. Instead of approaching her mother at the other end of the bar, she walked up and called to the owner.
“You’re right,” the bar owner started talking and held his hands up. “You are, but I still don’t want any trouble in here.”
“So you know who I am – good,” she reached in to her bag and pulled out her credit stick. “Take my info, and when she runs out of her own money, you keep serving her. Understand?”
The owner nodded with a questioning look on his face, took her credit stick and plugged it into his computer briefly, and then pulled it out and returned it to her. When he returned, his grim face told her that he understood, and his extended hand told her that he approved. She shook his hand, and without looking once at her mother she left.
She departed the town on the next train and never returned, not even to collect anything from the house when her mother drank herself to death by the end of 18 months.
Meanwhile, when the hovertrain departed Billy cried for as long as his tears would flow, and when he ran out, his lip quivered until he reached the camp. He learned very little during the 4 hour trip, but what he did learn stayed with him right up until about 2 minutes after he set foot on the alien planet during the invasion.
The first thing he learned was that he was Burrell’s bitch. He had been mostly raised by television, and so he knew exactly what being Burrell’s bitch would entail, however since he was already crying as hard as he could there was very little more he could do. The second thing he learned was that he cried too much to be Steller’s bitch, but that he would be an alright peon. Now the word peon gave him some trouble, but since the first part of the word was pee, he felt that it was another position he did not desire.
When he hesitated in his crying long enough to inquire as to how he could possibly be one person’s bitch, another’s peon, and yet also have time to be a space infantryman, that is when he met Turner.
Tom Turner was only sentenced to 2 years military service, and his crime was sedition (he had heckled a politician). He was about the same size as Tropp (Billy disappeared, and now there was only Tropp), but instead of crying uncontrollably, Turner laughed at nearly everything. And he found Tropp’s question to be quite hilarious.
When Crunk, a crony of Steller’s with a very promising name, asked about the humor, Turner shook his head.
“You wouldn’t understand,” and he laughed a bit more.
Crunk looked over at Steller, who was clearly not amused and jutted his chin out at Turner. And so Crunk shoved Turner and asked, “You think this is funny?”
Turner stopped laughing for 3 seconds, during which time he punched Crunk in the throat so hard that Crunk’s windpipe collapsed. Turner then started chuckling, pushed the gasping Crunk to the floor and then winked and smiled at Steller.
“You know what’s interesting about these trains?” he asked the prisoners in general, but he looked at Steller, then at Tropp, and then quickly back to Steller. “No cameras. “
Crunk died in the aisle, and the guards didn’t even bother to question the prisoners as to how it happened.
And so it was that Turner was left alone, and he became Tropp’s friend. He was not Tropp’s protector however, and he rarely stopped any of the typical mischief from happening.
“Everyone is afraid of you,” Tropp once said to him. “Why don’t you stop them from always messing with me?” Turner laughed.
“These things are necessary, otherwise how will they get through boot camp? Better to have one person tortured and a few hundred guys get through properly trained and in good spirits, than to have everyone get through on edge and having no trust for one another.” He chuckled, but when he saw Tropp’s dismay he continued gently. “It could be worse, you know. What if you had no one to talk to? What if I didn’t caution them to not take things too far? Make no mistake, I am your friend. And you can trust me.”
Tropp looked at him doubtfully, but thought about how lonely it would be without Turner talking to him and even making him laugh.
“Remember though,” Turner gripped Tropp’s shoulder tightly. “You can trust me. And you should trust me.”
Tropp had never seen Turner look so serious, and so he suppressed his smile and nodded. Turner winked and laughed loudly.
And Tropp made it through basic training. Of course, everyone made it through basic training, unless they were killed during an accident or on the train in order to make an example. Turner knew this, so did many of the others… All of them would one day set foot on an alien world in order to try and exterminate whatever lifeforms they might encounter. Once inside the military system, no one referred to space infantry by that name; they were always called space exterminators, or Exterms for short.
The public was kept in the dark concerning this moniker, and as far as they knew it was always the alien species that attacked first. And it was an easy storyline to support, since the first contact Earth had experienced with extraterrestrials was when a device was sent from some as-of-yet unknown alien species, and when it was taken inside a physics lab the device exploded in a great cloud of lethal mercury, killing all 27 people inside the building.
“Remember to turn off the safety, Private Tropp!” The voice of the sergeant called him back from his memories, and the rest of the ship chuckled to try and calm their nerves.
Tropp started frantically looking at his gun in order to find the safety, which caused the troops nearest to him to shake their heads and swear.
“He’s joking, you moron!” Steller yelled. “There are no safety’s! Just go out there and start shooting!”
Turner laughed and smiled at Tropp, but not even his joviality could calm Tropp’s nerves.
‘This is it! I’m going to die and I never figured anything out! I’m still just as useless as I was 10 months ago!’ He kept back his tears, his lip did not quiver, but inside his guts were swirling and he thought he was going to pass out.
“I’m going to be sick!” He called out and Steller backed away.
“It’s the one month in cryo!” Turner laughed. “Nothing to worry about! Maybe the aliens will think you’re saying hello!”
The entire ship laughed, and Tropp couldn’t help but join in.
Suddenly, the ship’s descent halted and the doors began to open. The men behind Tropp tensed and no one but Turner laughed now.
“First row, jump out and shoot!” The sergeant called. “That means you, Tropp!” A few chuckles. “Then first row hit the dirt. Second row, aim high, then kneel. Third row, keep your feet! Now let’s kill some shit!”
The men roared, while Tropp coughed and Turner grew oddly silent. Then the doors opened and Tropp stepped out… forgetting that they were hovering 3 feet from the ground.
He pitched forward and his gun flew from his hands. The men around him either swore and avoided his sprawled body, or they ignored him and nearly crushed him in their eagerness to follow orders and kill.
Screams erupted from all around him as he lay covering his head in the strange vegetation. Human screams. He heard the sound of their own guns, but heard nothing but that and the screams of his fellow Exterms.
He looked up cautiously and saw Burrell crouching in the fluffy orange bushes nearby. Burrell looked at him with disdain, shook his head, and then gritted his teeth and jumped from the bush, ready to fire.
Not even a single bullet came from his gun, he simply jumped out and was hit by a beam of light that erupted from the nothingness a few feet from Burrell’s position. Burrell’s scream was cut off as he disintegrated into nothing in the space of a second. Tropp cowered for a minute, waiting for the beam to find him and kill him next. However, when nothing happened he looked up again and saw nothing near him. He crawled forward, searching for other humans, for a gun… for Turner.
After crawling 40 meters, he could look down into a small valley. A valley of such beauty that for a moment Tropp forgot that he was there to kill things. And there in the middle of the valley, gathered around a small raised platform, stood the aliens themselves. However, it wasn’t a uniform species, but rather a strange gathering of a variety of creatures: some insectoid, some resembling different plants, some that looked like rocks that moved, some that were made of light, some that looked like monsters out of fairy tales, some that were a strange shining liquid, and others that caused Tropp’s brain to stop attempting to catalogue and simply observe. They were all facing the platform in the middle, on which there was something that looked like a miniature waterfall, without any cliffs or even any actual falling; a thing so strange and made more-so by the fact that it seemed to be communicating with all the other creatures present. And there amongst the aliens, slowly walking towards the platform, Tropp could clearly see Turner.
He was unarmed, he wasn’t even wearing his helmet or breathing apparatus, and he was walking through the crowd of aliens towards the water-creature. It even looked like he was laughing.
‘They caught Turner!’ Tropp thought frantically. He looked again down into the valley and could see other Exterms trying to make their way towards the gathering. Unlike Turner, they still had their guns and they were hiding behind bushes or rocks. ‘Where is my gun?!’ He looked around, but his attention was pulled away again by more screaming.
He looked down and saw someone emerge from behind a bush, raise his gun, and get instantly disintegrated. He saw Cooke and Smith behind a rock, obviously encouraging each other to be brave and nodding their heads. They both jumped out and raised their guns, and instantly two beams of light erupted from the nothingness in front of them and turned them into nothingness. Directly in front of him and down the hill about 20 meters he saw Steller, and Steller had spotted him.
Steller locked eyes with him, smiled grimly, and then jutted his chin towards a gun lying on the ground between Tropp and Steller’s hiding place. Steller smiled again when he saw that Tropp understood, then he took a deep breath and raised his gun to prepare to jump out. Instantly, he was disintegrated.
Tropp lay there in terror, watching the last of the Exterms disappear one by one. He looked again at the gathering and saw that Turner had reached the edge of the platform. The water-creature seemed to have noticed him, and it flowed towards Turner, stopping just within reach of him.
Tropp crawled down the hill and rolled quickly towards the gun. He looked back towards Turner as he reached his hand out for the gun, and Turner was looking directly back at him. Turner was suddenly yelling something, the water-creature looked as if he was on top of Turner, and Tropp’s hand was centimeters from his weapon.
His hand was nearly there, he was trying to imagine what he would do with it and how he could possibly succeed where all the better Exterms had failed; Turner’s voice reached him in a bellowing ‘oh!’ sound; and that’s when the thought popped into his head:
‘It’s the gun.’