Zippo clutched a yellow billiards ball in her fingertips, hitched up a knee, and zinged the ball across the stretch of green, felt-lined table. It smashed through the field of striped balls with a force minuscule in proportion to that which their galactic adversaries had smashed the Earth.
She bird-dogged the gold smear’s trajectory to the corner pocket, and when Hipshot nailed her with his signature body check, she didn’t lift her boot from the sand. She was no crud novice and wouldn’t give the ref a reason to cry foul. Neither was she a war virgin; she knew her duty. With tomorrow’s mission, she might save the remnant of human population from extinction, if she dared.
Zippo’s yellow ball sank the pocket, and Hipshot’s team of pilots howled. Her teammates cheered, kissed their talismans of tiny carved fists, and broke through the defeated airmen to whisk her to the place of honor, the makeshift bar. She wanted to win all the nights to come—the game, the war—and never play either again underneath a sky hung with clouds like thick, oil-stained wads.
“To our leader, General Zippo,” Hipshot said, and the company shouted hear him.
If she’d lost the game, Hipshot’s pilots would have wrenched off his boot and filled it with white lightning for her guzzling pleasure. Instead, it was hers the team pried off for him–the one she’d tramped about in all day, deciding do we fly or not? Beyond the thick wads, electrified sugar lit up the black. Tomorrow, the weather wizards predicted clear skies.
While a nurse filled Zippo’s dusty leather with forget-all-about-it-juice, she fiddled with the silver disk at her throat. If she used the technology, she could win. If she used it, she may not find her way back.
The feather-light disk weighed the heft of a man’s soul.
Trade one life for many lives.
She wanted to stuff the yellow billiards ball up somebody’s ideological ass.
Earth needed a home for its remnant…and the secret lives yet to come. Do it. She jerked the disk free, and her head swam. Civility landed on the trash heap the day she’d glimpsed the enemy’s fragile skin and savage gaze through a burning cockpit glass. Do it.
Her heart squeezed at the tilt of Hipshot’s lips.
Camp men embraced the caveman look, but he rose each day and scraped his face clean with a straight blade. Only grandpas grew fuzz, he claimed. Just this morning, he’d rubbed her cheek with his chin and then elsewhere to prove it.
Making nice and playing the gracious winner was for pussies. Do it.
She stealthily salted his white lightning with the disk’s silvery remains, slammed the sand-encrusted consequence into his fist, and hooked up her chin. “Drink, flyboy.”
“To our fearless leader,” he shouted. Glasses clinked in the night. “And to those poor bastards, our brothers and sisters. For them, and the fight.”
“The fight,” the company murmured.
Zippo gripped her own shot of reality and longed for its fire tingling into her toes; the ones left bare by her missing boot. A traitor’s work demanded sobriety. She tamped down awareness of the bright flecks clinging to Hipshot’s lips. His airplane talisman peeked from his unzippered flightsuit, and she inhaled the stirring dust. Flying regs required pilots to observe twelve hours between the bottle and throttle. He had precisely twenty minutes to make the evening’s frivolities count, and it seemed he would drink until cutoff.
She accepted the return of her beaten leather, his fingers sizzling like matchsticks against hers, and a crevasse opened inside. She should go back to the billiards table and the game of crud. Turning away was easier than facing what she’d done.
Pilots died every day.
If he didn’t buy the farm tomorrow, he doubtless would next week or the week after—
Stop with the excuses—shit.
Her hand, the one that signed his reaping, pressed against her belly and its secret within. She wanted Hipshot; heat burned into her cheeks. She wanted this one life for a lifetime. But leadership had its consequences, and he stood six foot tall, too damned dependable, and no longer hers.
Tomorrow, she would order the captain to fly inside enemy territory on a so-called intelligence-gathering mission. When the creatures opened their withering fire, he wouldn’t flee the airspace, not her best and bravest pilot. When he crashed behind their lines, Hipshot, in a signature body check, would deliver Earth’s final, terrible weapon tailored for the enemy, alone.
Withholding all the truth was cruel. She did it to shield him.
Her breath cut like razors—
She kept silent to spare herself.
Someday, when their child ran across a reseeded Earth beneath clear, cloudless skies, Zippo would play the old game with old teammates. Afterward, she would raise a sacred boot to her lips and dribble the warm, sour remains into her mouth and drink to those who made it. She’d salute her love who didn’t.
She entwined her fingers with his, and leading the way through the catcalls and darkness, dared imagine the new world to come.
Ara Hone writes speculative fiction. Before that, she climbed silos at sunset, joined the military when it wasn’t cool, and survived a sales career. She loves books and a great TV series. When she’s not writing, she’s editing for Flash Fiction Magazine. Her best advice? Drink coffee daily. @ara_hone