On the morning the world fell apart, Danny Kelso woke up next to Nora for the last time. The inside of his mouth felt like papier-mâché and he still had the stink of beer in his nostrils. Wiping the crust of sleep from his eyes, he flashed back to the argument the night before, the cruelty of her smile, the angry sex they’d had to make up for it all.
“Shit,” he grunted, quietly, so as not to wake her.
Truth was, the sex didn’t make up for any of it. Not in the morning. Not now that he was sober. This pattern of fighting followed by sex made him hate himself a little more every day. No matter how often Nora picked a fight, said something that crossed a line, he never got as angry with her as he did with himself.
They’d met in a dive bar in Ginsheim, a block from the Rhine River, him on a stool and her across the counter serving drinks. She liked the uniform, though so close to the army airfield at Wiesbaden there must have been American soldiers in that place every night. Still, he’d noticed the interest in her eyes right off, and the first drink had been on the house—though that too might have been standard operating procedure. The rest of the world had learned to hate the U.S. military over the past seven years, but most of the shops and bars and restaurants in the towns around the base went out of their way to cater to the Americans, happy to take U.S. dollars.
Danny rose and shuffled to the bathroom, pissed and washed his hands, brushed his teeth and then splashed water in his face. Fully awake, he went back into Nora’s bedroom and stood over her, watching her sleep, feeling nothing. No, that was a lie. The hollowness he felt actually had a name—regret. Regret that he knew he wouldn’t be coming back. Regret that he’d ever come home with her in the first place, those many months ago.
He glanced about at the mess of her room, the dirty clothes, the sprawl of makeup on the little pink vanity in the corner—the sort that belonged in the bedroom of an eight-year-old girl rather than a twenty-three-year-old woman. Empty lager bottles, half-full bottles of tequila and whisky, an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts. There were books, too. Nora might have a host of emotional problems, but she wasn’t stupid. If she’d been nothing but a gorgeous airhead with a knowing smile, he never would have stayed with her so long.
Now, though, it was time to go. Last night, she’d finally crossed a line she really couldn’t come back from. The words echoed in his brain.
Why don’t you go kill a few more babies?
He’d wanted to hit her, then. Even raised his hand—something he had never done. Danny served alongside female soldiers and had sparred with them plenty of times in training workouts, but beyond that he’d never hit a woman and didn’t intend to start. He hadn’t hit her. There were things violence could solve—you couldn’t be a soldier and not believe that—but this wasn’t one of them.
Nora, on the other hand, thought that there wasn’t a trouble in the world that couldn’t be cured with booze and sex. The time had come for him to stop going along with that philosophy.
He dressed quickly, not wanting to wake her but not overly worried that he would. Nora slept like the dead. The booze kept bad dreams away, she’d always said. More than once he had tried to tell her that it kept good ones away, too. But that was an argument he knew he was never going to win.
In jeans and a faded Five Finger Death Punch t-shirt he’d stolen out of his asshole older brother’s bureau when he was sixteen, he sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on his boots. The clock was ticking and he had to head back to base. His shift started at 8 a.m. Over the past decade the entire globe had fallen into chaos. Heat waves led to droughts which led to food shortages which led to riots. Fuel prices went through the roof, so high that only the privileged seemed to go anywhere these days. Alternative energy sources were available, but the bastards who held the reins were the carbon-barons, and they kept the horses headed for the environmental cliff. Rising sea levels. Flooding cities. Calamity after calamity, all punctuated by the usual crap—civil conflicts and international incidents, people rising up to overthrow oppressive rulers only to replace them with new ones who were just as corrupt.
In most cases, ten years ago when it was all unraveling, nobody had wanted to step in. The United Nations tsk-tsked but could never act, hamstrung by their own Security Council. China and Russia took advantage of the chaos, doing whatever they damn well pleased while the world was busy elsewhere. The only government in the world willing to step into any of those conflicts, to try to bring order to a chaotic globe, belonged to the United States of America. The US Army had spent the past decade doing their damnedest to keep things under control.
And the world hated them for it.
Over the past seven years tensions had only risen. They had a whole planet to patrol, keeping the peace by force, and Danny had to haul ass to get to the base in time. Sergeant Morello accepted no excuses.
Nora shifted under the covers, stretching into a sprawl that covered the space where Danny had been sleeping, already adjusting to his absence. Her blond hair half-veiled her face, but he could still see how pretty she was. All the roughness in her vanished while she slept. Without the nose ring and the three thin braids and the Japanese characters tattooed on her neck, she’d have looked as sweet and innocent as a little girl. When he saw her sleeping, he understood that vanity in the corner of her bedroom, a piece of who she’d once been. But you couldn’t love someone for who they were while they were sleeping. You had to love them wide awake, and he didn’t. Hadn’t. Couldn’t.