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Beating the Drum
There is always one toy that stands starkly in the memory of a childhood. His memories happened to be dominated by a tin drum. It had a patent leather strap and was detailed with an acidic-looking red paint that after a few years usage had begun to flake away in suspiciously chemical-scented chips. Shortages had likely kept the manufacturer from making the sheet-pressed tin a thicker gauge and it corroded soon after the paint had increased his chances of becoming a lung cancer statistic. But as little boy, he didn’t worry himself about industrial poisoning or the necessities of limited supply. He loved that drum, and it would become an extension of him. He wore it over his shoulder when they took him out to play, just like he wore it over his shoulder when they took him and the rest of his dribble-nosed companions, packed them on one of the Earl’s freighters, shot them into the sky, and sent them far away from those concrete playgrounds to a world so incredibly different from the land of their youth that he needed something familiar to cling to. He been inseparable from that toy on the voyage over.
Years later, he found himself thinking about that drum as he sat under a lone, white birch on the top of a grassy hill, sleepily trying to make sense of the noise he heard wafting in over the prairie. He had already put his thumb, so to speak, on the wood-fire, burning-corpse stench radiating in gentle waves from the black plumes he saw on the horizon. It was mixed with an unmistakably industrial odor, not unlike the red flakes he stuck up his nose as a boy. It wasn’t a paint product, though. This was the more nuanced scent of spent nitroglycerin, one with which he had become all too familiar. As a child with the tin drum, when he played role with his slightly less dribble-nosed companions in the ancient, black-powder combats where the groans of men were drowned by the sound of pipes and snares, he might not have recognized this scent. At that age, he hadn’t yet been downwind from the barrel of the smokeless weapons so popular with the fighting men today. But he knew now what the odor was, just as he now had a label for the sound. It was the same sound his drum made when his toddler-friends asked him to flail cutely at the synthetic hide and give them a rhythm to play murder to. Only now, the flailing was the duty of a corps of enemy artillerymen and the unfortunate synthetic hide was approximately half those former playmates of his who had elected to join the Earl’s Own Regulars instead of the Agrarian Initiative.
It was still the same noise, though. He figured that’s why they called it drumfire.
Over the years, the tin drum was repurposed. After he had completed his coursework, had found a young woman from the Girl’s Orphanage and had been granted a fief to upkeep. His life’s-mate had repurposed the rusted relic he found in his trunk of possessions as a receptacle for some lilies native to her homeland. It was good that the tin had corroded, she said, for these plants had unique nutritional requirements. By the time they had to flee the fief, the lilies had blossomed from the broken bits of plaything into a convenient natural concealment for the Regulars to set up a .50 behind. Now, the white plants were probably scattered all over the burning remnants of the manor house like pale confetti. Fittingly, they probably also were scattered all over their tender-thumbed planter’s young corpse. Her spine had also been scattered like confetti when a stray lasgun split it open as they ran desperately off their property.
And he had been running ever since he had finished emptying out his insides in a violent, grief-stricken, projectile-like expulsion. All through that night, he ran down the dirt road his current perch atop the hill overlooked. The night of flight was a feverish show of absurd visions, lit lurid red by burning estates like the one he had just fled. First came the off-terrains and tank carriers. Then the animals, hauling gun assemblies and beam-cannons. He giggled madly at the thought of stoic fighting men in grey and green camouflage, mushing along pack-creatures like so many farmers. Like him. But the gravity of the desperation hit him when he saw the utility motorcars and weapon trailers cast clumsily, like children’s toys, into the roadside ditch. The crops had been burned; there was no ethanol. No new voyages had arrived; there was no petrol. When the animals couldn’t keep lugging those plows of destruction, lame under the burden, they blasted through the furry spines of the creatures—in the end not unlike his wife’s—leaving the carcasses to bloat on the side of the road. He kept moving, however, so that the circle which had turned the soldiers into farmers would not turn the farmer into a soldier. If they caught him, they would surely impress him into service.
So there he sat, having outstripped the fleeing/advancing/totally confused columns, resting half-consciously against a birch tree overlooking that axis of advance, that axis of retreat, listening to the distant drumfire quietly snuff out the lives of the people with which he had once played war. It was taking every shred of willpower to keep awake. He couldn’t stay here much longer. He couldn’t rest in the muted sunlight of the white birch tree with the rank wind drying the sweat and tears into salty trails down his cheeks. He had to keep moving. Even though the ground was cold, the dew moist on his hands, the wood firm and the sky blanketed in white clouds; even though everything was in splendid, restful contrast to the fever of the night, he could not stay. Soon this ground would be steamy with the moist blood of his former friends, their weapons firm in his levy-drafted hand, the sky blanketed in triple-A as the Duke who had petrol (opposing the Earl who didn’t) sent his rotorcopters chunk-chunking overhead to startle him in his grove of therapeutic tiredness from which he was spiraling down into a deep, crushingly leaden, beautifully restorative…
* * *
“Sir, are you awake there?”
His eyes blinked open. He had dozed off.
The sun was no longer muted, but was blood-red as it set. The popping and rumbling of the drumfire was no longer on the edge of his hearing, but was roaring in his ears. Just past the road, past the tree-line, he caught a sight of the ground rushing up in a liquid plume of fine, blast-sifted soil. He looked west, and saw a distantly tiny mushroom cloud rising leisurely from some ground zero. The Family had decided to defend the world with atomics, it seemed.
He looked up into the blood-shot eyes of the green-and-grey camouflaged soldier who could have passed for a scared, sleepless orphan. The Velcro badge on this man’s shoulder, bearing the coat of arms of their feudal Earl, had been torn off and discarded. His tactical goggles were cracked, and he had pulled the grey-beige scarf he wore over his mouth down so it hung at his throat. The latter was noticeable because of the patch of sootless skin it left exposed.
“Sir, you need to keep moving.”
That sounded familiar. He had told himself that several hours ago.
“This area is no longer safe for refugees, sir.”
As if on cue, the orphan-soldier reflexively ducked down; two of the grey-painted chunk-chunking rotorcopters were making a second pass low overhead. Their rear bay miniguns spat out projectiles. Two orbital beam cannons lit the sky orange-white in the distance, lancing down from the leaden clouds above.
“Yeah,” he muttered dazedly, pushing himself up and knocking the dirt from his elbows.
The soldier tottered back, glancing worriedly over either shoulder.
“Oberleutnant,” cried someone in the distance.
The soldier stiffened and turned his back on him.
A small figure at the bottom of the hill was waving his beret angrily in broad, beckoning strokes.
“We lost the kompanie comm operator! We need someone to carry his kit! Show that civvie to the CP!”
Armies didn’t march to the sound of military tunes, anymore. Instead, they marched to Constellation-sevens, requesting fire missions on map grids the squad spotters happened take umbrage with. But you wear both of the noisy little devices from which these different sounds issue on a patent leather strap. You cling to them with a little boy’s tenacity. He had let his drum grow lilies, instead of hanging it as a memento over the hearth of his platoon barracks.
He had already made his decision.
He was halfway down the opposite slope of the hill when the orphan-soldier turned to face him. He didn’t look back, he didn’t hear the warnings to stop and serve his Lord, and he didn’t see the assault weapon raised to shoot a traitor to the levy in the back.