“I sprayed a mouthful of beer all over Teddy and Gris when the Bug stepped into the Wildlife Tavern. I wasn’t alone. Rows of grizzled backwoodsmen wore their neighbor’s drinks as the first Alotan they’d ever seen lumbered back to our table. Things like that just didn’t happen in Ladysmith, Quebec (population 1,400).”
What happens when the survivors of long-dead Lieutenant Tom Callahan’s squad meet for their annual reunion – and one of the Alotans they spent years killing shows up. An alien going by the name of… Tom Callahan.
Read more after the break, or buy the novella and find out!
I sprayed a mouthful of beer all over Teddy and Gris when the Bug stepped into the Wildlife Tavern. I wasn’t alone. Rows of grizzled backwoodsmen wore their neighbor’s drinks as the first Alotan they’d ever seen lumbered back to our table. Things like that just didn’t happen in Ladysmith, Quebec (population 1,400).
Surprises weren’t much fun for me after the war. That’s why I moved to a leaky old cottage a long walk down the road from the middle of nowhere (population 1,400). The big surprise out there was if the electricity didn’t go out in rough weather, which made the blue bastard standing in front of me one mother of a surprise. I never wanted to see one of its kind again.
Combat reflexes are hard to shake, especially ones hardwired into your body. I fought mine down, but when Teddy caught sight of his first Bad Guy since peace broke out he went green and his venom sacs puffed up, painful-fast. Meanwhile, Gris bobbed his smooth, egg-shaped head and kept on talking. “I’m just saying he’s late — again!” The Shelev put his tiny, four-fingered hand on my arm, mistaking my beer geyser as a response to his bad-mouthing of our friend. “Jake, I don’t care if Dru is between jobs, or if he’s gotta stand in line to get on a fastship. I told him I’d fly him in, first class!”
Gris’s blinking slowed to human pace when I didn’t answer, then glacial when he finally took stock of Teddy’s darkening complexion. He followed our eyes to the Bug and froze. I could feel his hand warm up as extra blood pumped through him, another wartime souvenir at work.
Suddenly, I was real glad Dru was late for the reunion.
I don’t spend much time thinking about the war. Oh, I remember most of it, not like some vets who joke that their implants were scooped out with a melon-baller, and I loved the reunions with Teddy and Gris and Dru. You just won’t catch me swapping stories over beer. It was our sixth get-together since the War, always in Ladysmith (the guys knew I didn’t like to travel) and always on the same day we’d agreed to back in the trenches.
What with operations to yank or neuter our implants, and the re-integration classes we had to take before returning to civilian life, we missed the first year. Maybe that was a good thing, because by the second year we were all hell-bent on keeping up with each other.
It meant a lot, sharing the same table every year with the only other soldiers that had served under Lieutenant Callahan and survived. I could’ve done without the Bug showing up, though. It was young; you can tell their age by the length of the spikes. I let the programming that slowed my breathing and snapped things into focus do its thing but I wasn’t sure how long that would last. So I did what any jar-head would do: I emptied my beer in one slug and got my feet under me, in case I needed them.
I’d forgotten how thick Alotan exoskeleton was. Then again, I’d never been so close to it before. As much as I hated the war, right then I sure missed those big beautiful guns we used to carry. Thinking of which I flicked my eyes behind the bar and saw the Tavern’s owner, pale with fear, reach slowly under the counter. I shook my head, once. Eddie turned even whiter, but I was the only human he’d ever met that fought in the war, so the short wood handle of his sawed-off shotgun disappeared again.
Pretty soon the hurtin’ song on the old DVD jukebox in the corner was the only sound in the room.
Gris still hadn’t moved. Literally. Some Shelev biology the military hadn’t beat, though his army mods would get the blood moving a lot faster than was natural. His skin was turning rock hard too, and pumping out toxin that warded off predators on his home world. Smelled like the worst skunk you ever caught a whiff of in your life.
The instinct to hide grabbed Kyben like Teddy when nasties came around: his glass was on the table now, and both tails were coiling on the floor. His skin, nails and eyeballs were slime green, heading towards forest, and he’d slunk halfway out of the chair when I nudged him with my foot. He swiveled one eye my way while the other three kept an eye on Big Blue.
“You’re in a crap-brown coloured bar with straw on the floor, Teddy. Going green won’t help much.” Ah, there were the old soldier guts I remembered. I wondered if they were something Gov had hardwired into me and forgot to take out. I also wondered why they’d had to put back my fear of heights, which made re-roofing the cottage a real bitch.
Teddy didn’t speak, but I could see his color start to fade as his wits came back.
So we were cool, mostly. Three ex-soldiers facing a seven-foot tall monster from the ass-end of the galaxy, without so much as body armor or a mortar shell between us. The jukebox finished up, and nobody walked over to feed it dollar coins.
Some things never change. Just like in the war, the quiet was the worst. I’ve seen soldiers jump out of their foxholes and charge tanks just to shake the damn quiet, and I wondered how far someone in this bar was from doing the same.
I sighed and stepped around the table.
“Alright folks, let’s take this easy.” That was to the crowd. Then, to the kid-relative of the critters that had tried to kill me for ten years of my life: “Uh, can I help you?”
The Alotan stayed quiet.
I tried again. “Can I help you, Alotan?”
When I said ‘Alotan’, four of the Bug’s six limbs flicked up and back down, lightning fast. They tucked in against its chitinous torso with a crack, just as the lower limbs slammed together. It was a peaceful gesture, downright friendly like, in fact. Unfortunately for the locals, it sounded like a hiccup of small arms fire and looked a lot like a preying mantis ready for a light snack.
The bar was empty in six seconds. Everyone stampeded down the gravel road towards the parking lot or the highway beyond; even Eddie lit out, leaving his precious watering hole for us to defend.
I kept my good eye on the Alotan as the dust settled, and strained the lazy one -sometimes I wish they’d left the cybernetic one in, headaches and all- across the table to my drinking buddies. Benefit of a sliced up brain: I could watch the hockey game and the cards in my hand at the same time. Teddy was back to a healthy lime color and Gris was flexible again, although still crouched for flight or flight in the human-sized chair.
The bug was male. You could tell by the darker blue of the exoskeleton over his privates, visible as he swept aside the chair we’d been keeping for Dru and settled on the ground in its place. When he was settled he brought the closest, smallest of his arms over the table and folded the three fine digits on each clawed ‘hand’ together. I watched the third ‘finger’ twitch nervously atop the pincer grip of the other two.
I used to have a t-shirt showing that gesture on the front, and a human hand giving the finger on the back. That pretty much summed up how most vets felt about Alotans, although the eggheads had decoded it to be a ceremonial gesture. This bug wanted to parley. I’d seen the gesture in black market vids of a Bug prisoner being “tested” by gleeful med-techs too, so maybe Bugs used it to beg for mercy too, or something. After Callahan had bought it behind a wall of smoke, maybe under claws just like that, I liked watching what those med-techs did to Bugs. A lot.
I saw that all Teddy’s eyes were on the Bug’s claws. Humans had a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the poison they dripped, but his cold-blooded Kyben physiology wouldn’t have a chance in hell. I knew he could smell the tang of it, and I kicked at a tail twitching nervously under the table. Not exactly subtle, but I got one of his eyes back in time for him to catch me smile, and return the ceremonial gesture to the Bug as best I could.
Here is the church, and here is the steeple…
Reluctantly, my drinking buddies did the same as best they were equipped. After that, the Bug was supposed to tell us what the hell it wanted.
The Bug’s chest rumbled as he pitched his voice low enough for us hear. “My name is Thomas Callahan.”
I remember feeling something snap inside. Then I flung the table away, clawing for its eyes.
What happens next, dear reader?
Buy LAST MAN HOME on Kindle and find out!