Warning: This work has been rated 16+.
Steve gently poured a glass of sparkling wine for himself in his office. John sat comfortably opposite the wooden office desk. Steve swiveled his chair around and sat down placing the wine glass next to his enormous pile of design plans. His eyes had sunken in, and the dark patches had grown more noticeable over the recent years. Steve was a planner. He couldn’t fathom a world where he’d wake up one day and have no elaborate plan on how to spend it. Though as time passed, his plans for every day remained the same. Check reports, examine the map, monitor SEKT activity, manage admin work and close off. It was, however, his lunchtime talks with his old friend that brought some unpredictability to his day.
“You wanted to ask me something?” Steve asked.
“Why’d you let Ethan stay? Wasn’t this all suspicious to you?”
“Suspicious? How so?” Steve asked as he took a sip of his wine.
“A guy who ‘unexpectedly’ dropped in on our operation and nearly died goes from wanting to be mind-wiped to wanting to join us in the span of… half an hour?”
“He’s trying to avenge his mother who was killed by a bioweapon.”
“I do not doubt his motivation. It makes sense. It’s just…how do you decide something that quickly? It doesn’t sit right with me,” John said.
“Yeah, the thought of him being a spy did cross my mind too,” admitted Steve. “I suggest you find out, without being exceptionally harsh, why he’s rushing into this decision that could very well get him killed. This isn’t like accepting a promotion in your job, it’s life and death. I accepted him for one reason alone…”
“And what’s that?”
“If he is indeed pure in his intention, then he’d make the most loyal soldier we’ve seen yet. Never have I seen a man with so much hate before. Hate, when channeled correctly, will mold him into our greatest asset. Unquestionable loyalty is something hard to come by these days,” Steve said.
“And if he’s a spy?” asked John.
Steve sat back in his chair and finished his glass of wine, “Then you’ll catch onto him. That’s why I put him in the infiltrators. Spies tend to miraculously disappear among the crowds. Keep him close to you, and he won’t be able to do much damage.”
“You seem a little colder than you were yesterday. What happened to guilty, self-blaming Steve?” teased John. “And I suppose you just talked out your ass when you said you placed him with me to protect him.”
“He may be Haley’s son, but he’s also a soldier now. I want to guide him, but I have no idea where he has been in the past decade. This wouldn’t be the first time Sigvald has used someone close to me to get what he wants. Both he and I haven’t survived by being foolish and unprepared.”
“Good,” John said. “Just wanted to make sure you knew. I’ll keep tabs on him until I’m convinced he’s one of us.”
John rose from the office chair at Steve’s ornate desk and walked towards the exit. The wooden floors creaked as his sturdy boots walked over them. He paused.
“Is something wrong? I can sense you’ve been stressed these past few months. More than usual, really,” he observed.
His eyebrows furrowed and his eyes narrowed. His hand stroked his clipped grizzled beard. There was something on his mind that he just couldn’t shake.
“Isn’t it weird how quiet things are?” he said almost in a whisper.
John raised an eyebrow, “there’s plenty of noise downstairs if you would like to talk there?”
“No, not that. Not a hint of activity from SEKT until this bioweapon was released. It’s like they don’t even exist. We’ve raided their bases for the past three months and all they’ve been doing is falling back.”
“I think you’ve been working so hard that Sigvald is feeling sorry for you and finally gave you a break. When’s the last time you’ve had some time off?” asked John with a smirk as he raised his feet and placed them on the desk.
“I took a day off last year, actually. But seriously... Isn't this at least a little concerning? It's like they're waiting for something.”
John’s smirk vanished, “Yeah, I’ve felt it too. I think SEKT was initializing their bioweapon plan. We have no idea how widespread it is already. We have no way to tell whether this virus is in its infancy or whether it’s a global pandemic. If we assume the start of their silence was when they released the virus, it’s been out for three months.”
“Then we’re already three months behind. We have no idea why he’s released a virus that is asymptomatic and non-lethal, where he released it, or how much time we have left. Until our recon units come back with some useful intel, we’re pretty much useless,” Steve said.
John’s right side of his mouth curled up into a grin, “then this would be the perfect time for you to take another day off and let me deal with the kid.”
“You do realize I’m your boss, right? The leader of the Alliance is supposed to take a day off until his subordinates hand him some intel on a silver platter?” muttered Steve.
“And you do realize I’m your friend, right? I’m telling you as a friend that you need to take a day or two off and interact with the real world for once. You act as if those recon units are actually people. They’re a bunch of droids that record footage. They won’t be back until next week at the earliest if any return. Live a little. Stop being a workaholic,” he said endearingly before exiting Steve’s office.
I’m not a workaholic. I can stop whenever I want to, Steve scoffed. But I guess I could use a day off.
Steve got to his feet and walked over to a matt-black chest of drawers that was snugly placed next to the door. A picture frame lay face-down on the top of the drawers. Hesitantly lifting it up so that he could see the picture that was framed, Steve’s fond gaze instinctively diverted for a split second from the picture.
It was a picture of five people standing shoulder-to-shoulder in their ceremonial Alliance uniforms. Steve, John, and Sigvald stood in the middle. Haley, a small woman with jade-green eyes, only a few shades lighter than Ethan’s, stood to the left of John. The fifth was a stocky, bald-headed man who had an eyepatch on his left eye and stood to the right of Sigvald with a tall glass of whiskey in his hand. In the background, soldiers were unpacking supplies and reloading their artilleries. John towered over the rest of them placing his massive arms around Steve and Haley.
The glass in which the picture was framed had a vicious crack. It started as a small chip on the ragged edge of the frail frame, but it slowly spread across the picture as time passed. Steve spread his finger over the crack. He could barely feel the unevenness. The crack ran across Steve’s face in the photo splitting it in half and then curved down to draw a line between him and Sigvald.
“Why did things have to change?” Steve asked himself. “Why did you have to change?”
He placed the frame face-down once more and walked out of his office. The door closed behind him softly. Steve walked down the hallway and entered the teleporting room.
I haven’t used this in a while, Steve thought as he pulled out his teleporting card from his back pocket. He slotted it into the teleporter.
Teleporting in three…two…one… Please remain calm and keep your arms inside the terminal!
Steve vanished from the station in an instant. He exited the terminal and walked out of the station into the bright daylight. The sun beat down on Steve as he forcibly dragged his feet down the abandoned street. The dust lifted in the air as a car drove past him making him let out a violent cough. He saw a sign hanging loosely from a pole at the crossroads. In bold white letters, it spelled ‘graveyard’.
Steve followed the sign and turned the corner. The graveyard’s entrance was at the apex of the arid hill. The steep road was barely tarred and covered with potholes, a horrid nightmare for any vehicle. Steve felt the sweat run down his face. He used the sleeve of his shirt to wipe his forehead dry and began his ascension. The pigeons on the ground cooed and scattered as Steve approached them. With each step, another droplet of sweat formed on his forehead.
He reached the top of the hill. He was greeted by a rusted black gate. He tried opening it, but it didn’t budge. The battered door was rusted and brittle. He pulled more vigorously and the door flung open. As he entered the graveyard, he could feel the emptiness. It felt like returning to an abandoned house. A suffocating, hot breeze stroked Steve’s face. The arid climate felt like it sucked all the moisture out of him.
In the neglected corner of the graveyard, lay a simple grave with a signboard planted at the end of it. It was nothing but a pile of dirt held together by the shallow roots of a few frail flowers. Steve approached the grave and stood at its head. The wooden signboard was barely standing. Some of the inscriptions peeled off and the aging paint began to crack.
‘In loving memory of Commander Jeffery Jones, the one-eyed bullseye. A father, a friend, a loving husband, and a beloved leader. Rest In Peace.’
Steve clenched his fists as a wave of mingled emotions ran through him. I don’t think I’ll ever be like you, sir, he thought regretfully. You never made many mistakes, sir. Making me your successor, however, was certainly one of them.
A local man wearing a bright yellow cap passed by to water the flowering plants on the grave. The shimmering water ran eagerly down the sides of the grave and pooled by Steve’s feet. He watched it slowly seep into the soil deepening its color.
“Haven’t seen you in a while, chief,” observed the man as he was watering.
“I took a day off.”