The Stand at Fort Black Kettle

“Look, I’m just saying, isn’t it kind of funny they look like disembodied pocket watches? Don’t you feel like one of the mice?” MacDern asked from his crouch, left hand gesticulating madly in an attempt to compensate for the steady right. With the right hand, he was applying steady pressure to a large brass screw deep inside the heart of the electromagnetic field repeater.

At that last comment, Wills brought her eyes away from the enhancement goggles to cast a confused glance at MacDern. “What mice?”

He looked up at her, squinting against the high noon sun. “Hickory, Dickory, and Doc. The ones that ran up the clock.”

She smiled and put the enhancement goggles back to her eyes, scanning the horizon for Abberants. “Remember, Terry, they got their tails cut off with a butcher knife.”

“Carving knife.”

She grunted. “Close enough. No one likes a know-it-all.”

“Some of us like to use the knowledge we learned in school, my dear protector.”

“Some of us like to keep some brain room free for fighting, my annoying technician.”

MacDern stood, grimacing and shaking out his strained thighs. Wills dropped her goggles into her pouch and nodded at MacDern, who nodded back.

“Your en-gogs left a smudge,” MacDern said softly. He reached up to Wills’s bottom eyelid and gently wiped some of the grime away. She didn’t move away, just held his gaze with hers. Wills’s slight smile faded as his hand came back, this time brushing the side of her neck just above her high military collar.

“No,” she said, almost a whisper. “It was one time, Terry. And even if it wasn’t wrong, even if we wouldn’t be disciplined, we can’t think about any kind of normal life now. The Abberants destroyed Manhattan last week. Cairo two nights ago. They’re more bloodthirsty than ever.”

“You don’t have to tell me how goddamn bloodthirsty those fuckers are, Wills. For all we know, I could be the last living Scottish person in the history of the world. A thousand, or five thousand, or who knows how many years of history gone – left to be carried on by one thirty year old technician who can’t even get laid.”

“I didn’t mean –“ “Wait, Wills. I’m not done. In spite of all that – in spite of my family and my friends and my bloody country dying while I watched from the back of an old, piece of shit Osprey that barely stayed in the air – I know that it’s human things that count. Not just living, but being human. Joking, laughing, smelling your hair that morning when we woke up.

“Why do we fight, Wills? Are we brainless creatures like spiders and roaches who run from danger just because it’s our instinct, or do we fight so we can have the lives we used to? Lives that meant something. Something more than tinkering with a bloody pocket watch and scanning the hills for Abberants which we know won’t come out ‘til night.”

MacDern’s eyes were wet now. Wills opened her mouth to say something, but, afraid her voice would crack and let flow the overwhelming emotion she was just barely keeping contained, she didn’t. Instead, Wills buttoned her en-gog pouch and adjusted the EM rifle on her shoulder. MacDern turned away and silently gathered his tools.

“Wills! MacDern!” a booming voice called from further down the wall.

Wills stood to attention and snapped her hand up in salute. MacDern remained crouched over his tools for a moment, placing sunglasses over his bloodshot eyes. A powerfully built blonde man trotted toward them atop a large horse. He smoothed down his moustache as he rode.

“Colonel, good afternoon. How’s the east wall, sir?”

“Getting there, Lieutenant. They don’t have a MacDern over there, so synchronization is taking a little longer.” He turned his attention to the now standing MacDern, “Chief, good to have you in the conversation. All finished?”

“Yes, sir. Would you like to run through the synchronization test?”

“Indeed I would, MacDern,” he said, reaching into a saddlebag behind him. “I brought ablative helmets for you both so we could begin straight away.”

After securing the ablative gear on one another, Wills walked briskly to an EMF repeater further down the wall. “On my mark!” the Colonel shouted. Wills gave a thumbs-up.

“Three! Two! One! Mark!”

With that, Wills and the Colonel each flipped a switch on the side of the EMF repeaters, where the winding mechanism would be if they were, indeed, large pocket watches. A blast of electricity arced between them, the air smelling instantly of ozone as the plasma discharge burned the air. The blast was easily twice as powerful as it had been the week earlier.

As Wills walked back, the Colonel was loosening his helmet and grinning widely. He shook MacDern’s hand vigorously. “Good fucking job, MacDern! Good bloody show! That’ll blast those metal twats right out of the sky. Go get yourselves some chow. Wait!” he pulled his holographic ID card out of his breast pocket. “Go get some chow from the officer’s mess. The cook from Chicago is making deep dish pizza to order; any topping we have, you can put in that bowl of dough. I probably gained ten pounds the last time we had that special.”

Wills couldn’t sleep. She and MacDern had eaten lunch together and it had been fun; full of the usual joking and good conversation, the strain from earlier forgotten or, if not forgotten, set aside. But now, in her lonely quarters, MacDern’s words came back to her. Why did she fight? She tried to take her mind off the question by watching a DVD, reading, or listening to music, but the origin of all those items intruded on the escapism they provided. Each one had been scavenged from one of the old cities. Most of the items available to her at Fort Black Kettle had been found in nearby Boulder. Each one was now a limited edition. She looked at the plastic case for the Amazing Spiderman 3 that lay near her DVD player, fully aware that there would never be a sequel. She would never know what happened to Mysterio.

Why did she fight? To watch Pineapple Express and read Fables and listen to the Bravery? Or just to live?

Why did humanity fight? Did they actually think they could beat back the Abberants and restart civilization? Or did they just want to keep fucking and birthing and killing and dying; the meaning of life explained by so much bodily fluid?

Wills wanted to walk the short distance to MacDern’s quarters where he was likely fighting insomnia, as well. She wanted to tell him that she fought because she liked feeling, she liked being a human. But then, with her hand on the doorknob, she wondered if that was true. Or did she just tell herself it was to justify continued existence? Maybe this fight was useless; maybe every loss was a needless pain. If humanity was destined to die out, a mass suicide would be preferable to this fighting hell.

Could humanity win? When the Abberants first attacked, they were clunky and easily beaten. There weren’t many of them. The world governments initially thought they were fighting each other, then an alien ground invasion. By the time they realized they were fighting nanomachines created by the US government, the Abberants had almost been eradicated. The last remnants had been pushed back to East Asia where a combined force of the American, British, Israeli, Russian, and Chinese militaries had them cornered between large artillery and the South China Sea. There, the Abberants had found an artificial intelligence developed by the Chinese military. Up to that point, the Abberants were running on a war algorithm that was difficult, but possible to trick. After the AI was incorporated with the nanomachines, the Abberants were unstoppable. What parts of cities they didn’t destroy, they consumed and used to build reinforcements. They had taken many forms before finally deciding on the Abberants everyone knew and feared today. Wills thought of the dragon-like beings the Abberants had become. Why dragons? It was the question everyone asked when they weren’t in immediate peril. Was it a coincidence, or did the AI control in Hong Kong have a reason?

The klaxon exploded into sound without warning. Though alarmed, Wills’s training kept her from jumping. The Abberants had been sighted. In moments, all power to Fort Black Kettle would be diverted to the EM array. It was the first line of defense against the Abberants. Most times, upwards of half their number fell out of the sky when the EM blast was triggered, leaving few to be finished off by Wills and other troops with their EM rifles. With the modifications MacDern had made to the field, none should get through. It would be a quiet night again in no time.

Wills put on her combat uniform and ablative gear, grabbed her rifle, and stepped out the door. MacDern was a few feet away, looking tense.

“Ready to put the new field to the test?” Wills asked.

MacDern smiled and nodded. They walked to the west wall.

Once there, they could see hundreds of Abberants flying swiftly toward the Fort, a larger force than any intel said they should have had.

“Jesus…” MacDern exclaimed quietly. “That’s a lot of those bastards.”

With that statement and a final, meaningful look at Wills, MacDern rushed over to the EM field command bunker. Wills directed her troops to spread out along the wall. She took up a position behind them, ready to call up men from the bunkers to take places of fallen Protectors.

The Abberants passed the large, white rock that marked the extent of the EM field. MacDern cried out a loud, “Now!” from his bunker. Everyone crouched, putting that much more distance between them and the dangerous electricity. The powerful blue-white blast arced through the canyon, catching the flight of Abberants in its path. Two fell.

Wills waited for the energy to fry the rest. Nothing happened. They just kept coming.

The EM field blasted again, hotter than before, hot enough that some of metal rails on the wall turned red. One more Abberant tumbled down. Wills ordered her troops to fire. Two thousand EM rifles and a dozen EM anti-air guns brought down a handful of the beasts.

Then the Abberants launched their assault. Liquid fire spewed from inside their metal jaws, charring flesh and melting metal. Wills ordered her line to hold.

Hell had broken out all around her, but Wills refused to yield. Her reinforcements had been depleted. The last of the line were falling as she watched. Still she fired.

“Wills!” came a shout from behind her. She turned to see MacDern, covered in black soot, cradling a badly burned arm.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Me, too. Wills, I love you.”

As Fort Black Kettle razed around them, they shared a third and final kiss and never parted.


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