By Richard Paolinelli
© 2019 RICHARD PAOLINELLI . ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. NO COPYING OR ANY OTHER REPRODUCTION OF THIS STORY IS PERMITTED WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION.
Sinclair pulled open the hatch, stepped into the chamber and closed the hatch behind him.
Within moments the sterile, empty bay before him transformed itself into a virtual-reality replica of his mountain home down on Earth, the way it was before the Kustani had arrived in the solar system. Brilliant sunlight poured down from clear, deep-blue skies to reflect off the blue lake and the thick forest of trees between it and the Sinclair house above. Changing out of his uniform, Sinclair slipped into his favorite robe and walked outside onto the deck to breathe in the clean air and take in the scenery below.
“Duncan,” a voice called out from behind him, as a pair of arms wrapped themselves around his chest and warm lips nuzzled his neck. “It’s been too long.”
Even before he turned he knew what he would see: His wife Tonia, a woman almost as tall as he with creamy mocha skin and warm brown eyes that matched the color of her hair. Standing there before him, dressed in a robe that matched his, he could almost imagine that the last ten years were nothing but a bad nightmare.
While his senses were fooled into thinking that this was reality, his mind knew all too well that none of this was real and he could never fully lose himself in this computer-generated fantasy. Never once had he addressed the illusion by his wife’s name and no matter how many times the computer prompted he never told it that he loved her.
To him it would be a betrayal to his wife, trapped on Earth inside a cold sleep chamber from which she might never emerge, and he just couldn’t do that to her no matter the justification. So he would talk to “her” for a brief time, set aside that it was a device built to harvest sperm, camouflaged as his wife, he was making love too and get back to work.
“You look tired,” it said, massaging his shoulders. He could feel fingers kneading sore muscles, smell the jasmine that was her favorite scent.
“It’s been a bad day,” he replied. “It’ll probably get worse.”
“Why?” it asked, pressing her simulated body against his in a way that was almost the same as Tonia would.
“The war isn’t going well,” he replied. “I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll ever win.”
“If the alternative is losing and that is not an acceptable option,” she said, drawing closer. “Then perhaps you need to find an answer in between the two.”
They made love then, not in the frenetic way the soldiers had, but with passion as Sinclair forced himself to go with the program and suspend reality long enough to complete the procedure. But that last comment stuck in the back of the head and just as they finished a thought born of pure desperation laced through his brain.
“It’s not about us winning anymore,” he whispered. “It’s about not letting them win.”
“What?” she said, puzzled.
“Thank you,” was Sinclair’s reply, followed by a quick kiss. “Computer, end simulation.”
The faux Tonia, house and Earth quickly faded away. Sinclair ducked into the bay’s shower for less than a minute, donned his uniform and exited VR-Med so fast that Iacola never knew he’d left.
* * * * *
The trip to Earth had been swift and silent, save for Sinclair’s pounding of the passenger’s comm panel’s console keys. He’d steamed into the shuttle bay, bounded up the ramp and into the shuttle, barked out to Rogers to get going and no interruptions before settling in front of the console.
He didn’t say a word after that and was out of the shuttle fifteen seconds after Rogers had settled the craft down on the landing pad in front of the President’s office in San Francisco. Rogers was hard-pressed to keep up as Sinclair stormed his way through the crowded corridors.
There seemed to be an electric charge surrounding the General and everyone in his path saw it and quickly got out of his way. Rogers didn’t know what had happened back on Moon Base, but whatever it was, it had created a different General Sinclair. One that had some purpose in mind and, whatever it was, had every intention of seeing it through. Rogers hadn’t seen his friend like this since before the Kustani.
Arriving at the President’s conference room, Sinclair didn’t hesitate, plowing right past a loudly-protesting aide the General barreled past the closed doors and into the room filled with the President and his top advisors.
“General Sinclair,” said a surprised President Takahashi, “you’re early.”
“Yes, sir,” Sinclair replied, walking over to the podium directly across from the President’s chair and displacing a lieutenant who had been delivering a war update.
“Dismissed,” he snapped, hooking a thumb at the door he’d left open behind him.
“Sinclair,” barked General Blaine, the commander of Earth defense and one of the President’s cabinet members. “What the devil do you think you’re doing. We need that war update…”
Sinclair, keeping eye contact with Takahashi, interrupted his commanding officer.
“No, sir,” Sinclair began, “we don’t. The war’s over.”
“What the hell are you talking about Sinclair?” Blaine demanded. “Unless the Kustani just magically disappeared, we’re in a fight for our lives.”
“We were, General,” Sinclair said, still looking at Takahashi. “And we lost.”
The entire room erupted in protest with demands for Sinclair’s arrest being drowned out only by the shouts for his head. Amid the storm there were three islands of calm.
Rogers stood in stunned disbelief, sure that his friend had finally snapped under the pressure, unable to speak a word of protest much less support while Sinclair held his position across from the President without speaking another word in his defense. Takahashi, who had a reputation for calm that made Budha look like a raving lunatic, held Sinclair’s gaze for a full minute while ignoring the protests. Only when he slowly raised his hand for quiet did the room finally settle down.
“I assume, General,” Takahashi began, “that you have not taken leave of your senses?”
“Then perhaps you would share the reasons behind your view of our situation?”
“Certainly. We know that ten years ago the Kustani arrived in our solar system. We know they are a race of marauders that have conquered other planets and systems the same way they are attacking us and that no other race has attempted to make contact with us,” Sinclair paused long enough to upload the information he’d been working on in the shuttle.
“As you all can see,” he continued. “Even at our most liberal estimates, with no assaults against the Kustani, we have about six months of ships, supplies and manpower left to us and then there will be nothing standing in between Earth and the Kustani. In short gentlemen, we’re out of gas and there’s no cavalry coming over the hill at the last minute to save us. The war is over. We lost.”
Total silence and he’d expected little else. There was no arguing with the facts and the facts were very bleak indeed.
“We already know the Kustani won’t accept our surrender or any peace overtures,” Blaine said. “So what do you suggest? Just sit back and let them run us over?”
“No, sir,” Sinclair replied. “I said we lost the war, I didn’t say anything about letting the Kustani win it.”
“I must confess to being a little slow in my advanced years,” Takahashi said mildly. “But if we’ve lost the war, how do you propose not letting the Kustani win?”
“I’m sure you’re all aware of the concept of the scorched earth policy,” Sinclair replied. “What I propose is more along the lines of a scorched solar system. If we have to die, then we take those bastards with us.”
NEXT WEEK: Chapter 4: A terrible sacrifice.
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