The flames in George’s hip jumped, entrails devouring the tissue below. He limped to Lora’s bed and stretched his bad leg across it.
“Alright,” he said. “Alright. I’m here.”
“Pop Pop!” Lora said. “I’m on the last level!”
Lora always begged George to watch her play video games. Sometimes, her tone was just perfect.
The screen flashed logos and went black.
“Are you ready to make history?” a voice said. “To become immor–”
“This’s the loading screen,” Lora said from the floor, legs crossed, neck folded back.
A dial appeared in the corner, counting to one hundred.
George went to his leg. He rubbed it. The pain wasn’t new, nor was its timing — he always chased Lora around during her visits. But he believed sight guarded against the pain’s advance.
An explosion burst. He ducked, folding into his leg. Fire scorched his right side. He shrieked.
“Pop Pop!” Lora said. She laughed her high giggle. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” George said. “I’m fine.”
He rubbed his forehead, air hot through his nose.
“Patterson,” the voice said. “Get your ass out there.”
“Look at the graphics Pop Pop,” Lora said.
Patterson’s hand appeared, cutting the corner of the screen on a slant.
In front stood a man in dress uniform, dipped and soaked in blues. The major, George spotted right away, snapped a salute. His uniform stayed one block, unmoving. Nothing like the one in his closet.
“What,” he said. “What is this?”
“Dawn of Solar Force!” Lora said. “Remember?”
* * *
The screen shook and the speakers filled with rumbles, loud and varied, but formulated. Inconsequential.
Patterson sat in the cockpit, the sky outside the glass clear and free. She fiddled with the yoke, hands steady.
“Patterson,” the major said. “You sink that Grand Castle or Centra-Pacific sinks us. Make it count.”
The Grand Castle loomed, a backstop for the blue light from Earth, which illuminated its hull and deepened its shadows.
A gold star appeared above the ship with a message — Infiltrate the Grand Castle.
Light like fireworks, silent in the vacuum, burst from the Grand Castle, its direction easy for the tiny ship to evade.
Patterson docked without a scratch and a new message appeared — Reach the bridge.
The ship’s layout bent and turned, funneling her to the right spots. She took out enemies unaware, until the game deemed she be spotted. From there she went live, firing thousands of shots.
The poor souls in her way melted, collapsing and disappearing in whisps, while Patterson absorbed hundreds of bullets without a care, much to Lora’s joy.
When Patterson reached the bridge a new gold star appeared — Set a charge. And when the Grand Castle blew up, Patterson was flying back to base.
It was that simple.
* * *
George sat in back, squeezing until the pain in his palms was something to focus on.
“THREE MINUTES!” the pilot yelled.
The Quill went dark, the only light coming in through the portholes, spotlights exposing green faces and white knuckles.
Together George and his buddies bound left and right. Their stomachs dropped, eyeballs pressed into their brains. Percussions slammed the Quill, its body whining and walls rattling, accompanied by involuntary yelps and vomit slapping the floor.
But their wills were steeled, minds forcing concern only for the buddy next to them.
The North American Quills were to overload the Grand Palace by launching explosives, both to activate the floating mines and breach its hull. The Quills would then penetrate a breach, mouths flowering to create a seal and even the pressure.
Light like fireworks, silent in the vacuum, burst from the Grand Palace, smashing the oncomers. Quills became shrapnel. Hulls crumpled like paper and the soldiers inside burst out with a force that split the fat from their blood. They were considered fortunate, for their deaths were instant.
The unfortunate pounded the walls and flight controls, screaming until the oxygen in their coffins ran out, helpless as their home shrank to a blue dot.
For hours George and his buddies inched toward the bridge. Gunfire exchanged and ripped the lines. Explosions turned flesh to tathers.
Human sandbags littered the corridors, forcing others to duck behind or tread over, blood oozing like stamped grapes. It was either advance or die.
When the bridge appeared, George followed in line charging it. He tripped, burrowing into a pile of corpses, mouth filled with cloth and blood.
He felt the pain in his hip before he discovered his knife. When the pain did come, George crawled. They were so close.
The adrenaline numbed his wound, but when he tried to stand again, he couldn’t, for his hand braced on slimy, wet rope. Rope that turned out to be the intestines of a fallen enemy.
A lifetime passed, broken only by George’s loss of blood.
That night and for nights over the next forty years George dreamt he was lying on the ground, arms carrying the wet rope, the bridge rushing further from him, the bullets and screams muted under the never-ceasing request from his enemy that the intestines be returned.
George punched his hip with all his strength.
* * *
The pain drew him back, but the fire in his hip couldn’t dry his face or soul.
A medal was bestowed upon Patterson. The major lauded her work, an incredible victory for North America.
The screen went black and the credits rolled.
“I hope there’s more!” Lora said.
There’s plenty more, George wanted to say.
The casualties for North America was a hundred and forty thousand. Ten thousand names were etched in marble, for the Heroes Buried in Space. Half never broke the atmosphere.
Nineteen soldiers that day were awarded the medal Patterson now wore. Only four could accept.
There’s plenty more, George wanted to say. Five years’ worth.
Instead, he swung his leg to the floor and left. He didn’t want his granddaughter to see him crying.