"What?!" Joe screamed as he spun around.
"Grenade!" he heard again. Then he heard nothing.
It was cool this time of year, the wind nipped at his cheek as the leaves wove a blanket of copper and gold across the ground. Joe recognized this place, this wasn't the dusty rock he was just on, clinging for his life, this was Ankwar, this was home.
He stood there for a moment while the familiar surroundings grabbed hold, he was on his way home from school, his house was just around the block. Joe slung his backpack back up over his shoulders, stuffed his fists in his pockets and started walking. He wondered where his mother was, she usually met him at the school for the walk home. Then it dawned on him. “The baby’s here!” he yelled as he broke out into a sprint. The excitement welled up inside him as his legs became a blur, “The baby.”
As Joe rounded the block he could see his house. His cars littered the street and driveway. “They must be here to see the baby?” he thought to himself, he didn’t notice police cruiser that had lead the pack. People were idling in the front doorway, their faces stricken with grief. “They should be happy?” Joe thought and then he screeched to a halt. He froze, the realization of this day crept into his mind. This was not his brother’s birthday. It was the day his father died.
Joe crept into the house. The air was thick. Men he hardly knew padded his shoulder as he was ushered to the living room. His mother sat sobbing on the sofa.
“Oh Joe!” she cried, “Your father.”
Joe ran to her, he already knew. He wanted to cry, he wanted to fight, but he stood strong. He knew he had to be a pillar, for his mother.
A man in the room said, “Your father was a hero son. The mine collapsed in on 3 men he went in an pulled them outta there, before it completely fell in on him.”
"He was a good man” another said.
“The best.” Joe responded.
He opened his eyes, a blanket of stars stretched over him interrupted by the occasional tracer or flash from an explosion. He was back on the battlefield. He reached for his fathers’ pendant that he wore around his neck, but he could not feel his arm. He grasped at his chest with his other until the cold chain was threaded between his fingers. He clutched the pendant as a symphony of explosions crashed around him. His eyes fell shut again.
It was spring and he was in the back yard. The cheerful laughter flowed out from inside the house. He could hear his brother Kain making noises in the tree house above his head. This was the day he graduated, he was leaving for Fleet tomorrow. The tree house danced in the wind as he climbed the rickety ladder to the top. He had built this place when he was a kid. It had been a fortress, castle, and army base while he grew up, but it was a cockpit now for his little brother who spent just as much time in here as he did.
“Hey Joe is that you?” the kid asked.
“Yeah, bud. How do you always know?” Joe answered climbing the last few steps.
“I don’t know, just a feeling I guess.” He shrugged as he buckled into a worn out bucket seat.
“What are you flying today?” Joe asked.
“What am I always flying? An Akionic Diablo 253. They’re the best! Now get up here and strap in I’m about to take on a Vecturian fighter squadron.” Said the kid as he strapped on an old motorcycle helmet and placed a broken joystick, from his older brother’s computer, between knees.
“What’s in the squadron?”
“Only twenty Orion class Star Fighters.”
"Only?!" quipped Joe
"No one can fly like me Joe, you know that."
"I know bud, I know." Joe laughed as he watched his little brother sway back and forth narrowly dodging the imagined oncoming missile fire. "You know I'm leaving for Fleet tomorrow, don't you?"
"Yeah, I know."
"That means you're going to be the man of the house now and you have to take care of mom. You'll do that won't you?"
"Yeah. You gonna kick some Vecturian butt?"
"I'm gonna try bud, I'm gonna try. It’s time for dinner. Let’s go in.”
“Awe, Ok.” Sighed Kain, who was truthfully just happy to spend time with his big brother whom he so admired.
He opened his eyes again. The once heavenly canopy was cloaked by the battle's smoke and refuse. The cacophony of destruction was no more than an echo in the distance. The air was heavy now, Joe struggled for breath, the sky went black.
“Congratulations Joe!” yelled Kain, as he sprinted up the aisle. Joe outstretched his arms to embrace his brother.
“Man you’ve gotten big.” Said Joe, as he ruffled Kains hair.
“You’re a soldier now Joe! Now you can really kick some Vecturian ass.”
“Hey now,” their mother scolded as she followed up the aisle “There’s no reason for that language.” She grabbed her boys and wrapped her arms around them. She sniffled.
“You okay mom?” Joe asked.
"I'm all right." His mother said, as she dabbed a tear from her cheek. “I’m just so proud. Here take this," a pendant was shoved into Joe's hand, "it was your fathers and now it is yours. It's our family crest, it's not much..." she choked.
"But it's everything." Joe finished.
Joe opened his eyes once more. The battle was now a distant rumble. A chill was creeping over him. Death's fingers slowly wrapped themselves around his body. Just before he faded from consciousness Joe heard a voice.
"This one's still breathin'!" Joe strained to keep his eyes open. A man knelt beside him. "But he's in pieces." Another man walked up beside him.
Joe closed his eyes ready for the end.
"That's fine, tag him, he’s good for the Balthazar Project."