The Hand of Retaliation

He was chosen because he listened empathetically to what people said before giving advice. Too many people, too often, give advice to others based on their own personal beliefs and personal experiences, disregarding the feelings of the people they are trying to help. But in sympathizing with someone’s position before offering advice, you validate their emotions and they know you understand them. This leads the person to be more receptive to listening to what you have to say. Michael always did that with friends and family. That’s what Vega said.

Michael huffs, out of breath again as he takes a few steps backwards. Then, he takes off in a sprint, gains momentum, and leaps across the stars. When he reaches the surface of the closest moon, his boots skid across the dirt.

“I’m certain there is an easier way,” Michael mumbles as he heaves in air and feels his lungs expand with the sensation. He is thankful that he no longer feels as light-headed as he did a few seconds ago.

The darkness of the universe is dotted with white, pink, blue stars and as Michael exhales his breath turns into ice crystals that mix in with thousands of celestial dots.  For a second, it is difficult to tell the difference between the two; that is, until the crystals dissipate.

Michael scans the infinite universe. It is annoying to be left here alone with no idea what direction to go. But at the same time – this experience is exhilarating! The protective shield that Vega mentioned remained despite Vega’s disappearance; Michael is still able to breathe, is somewhat protected from the cold, and is not drifting about in space as Vega told him he would without it. Michael smiles, and to no one says, “I’m the first man in space.”

“Depends on what year you are in,” a voice echoes from behind him. “If it’s your time, then you’re the first man.  But if it’s after April 12th, 1961, it’s a Russian, named Yuri Gagarin.”

Michael turns around, smiling at the familiar face and voice saying, “Those are the first words from your lips? You left me alone out here for almost an hour.”

“Yes,” Vega answers. A sparkling crystal bridge forms under his feet as he swiftly strides towards Michael.

“What?” Michael asks bewildered. “All I had to do was take a few steps forward?”

“Yes, Michael.” Vega gives him a stern sideways glance. The “look” is the same that Michael’s father gives him when he has forgotten something that he should have already known.

Michael looks down for a moment and then suddenly remembers what Vega said before he disappeared: it’s a leap of faith. When his eyes meet Vega’s, Vega gives him a crooked smile.

Michael asks, “Russia is the first to make it to our moon?”

“No, the Russians are the first to go to space. The moon is different.”

“Are you going to tell me who gets there first?”

“Not tonight.” Vega answers seriously as he turns to face him. Vega’s clothing and demeanor are casual: leather jacket, dress pants, and boots with hands casually draped and folded together in front of him. But his words are earnest, “Michael, you remember your task this night? Millions of lives are depending on you. General Usia’s course must be corrected.”

“That’s right. Give me the most arduous task to start.” Michael answers louder than intended and with a crackle in his voice.

A few hours earlier, Vega explained to Michael that he was born from the stars. His role was to travel across time in search of a person who was empathetic to other people’s problems and who would offer neutral advice. Vega’s role would be to help the chosen person get to where they needed to be in time, explain the situation, how they must correct it, retrieve them, and guide them on their next mission.

Michael asked Vega why he couldn’t help General Usia to change her course. Vega simply answered: it’s not one of my strengths.  Vega, with god-like qualities, admitted he had limitations. Most humans are unable to admit their shortcomings. But Vega could. That’s the reason why Michael came.

“Michael, this will not be your most difficult task. There will be others, with much larger consequences.” Vega states this casually as if they were discussing how best to harvest apples.

Harvesting apples is what Michael should be doing tomorrow in Vernon, BC, with his father. He prays that he can complete his task in the next few hours, and return home in time to help.  His father needs him: his mother just passed, and while his father still works as hard as he does on the farm they own together, there are times Michael has had to hold his father up when he nearly collapsed on the fields. Grief has taken his father’s appetite, and in these early days, he will barely finish a meal. In combination with this, and the occasional spastic fit of weeping in losing his wife of over 30 years it has left what was a very strong man in a frail state.  The work is also terribly difficult and Michael is the only son.

Michael’s breathing becomes shallow as he thinks about the two problems he faces. He loves his father, but the one that weighs heavily on him is that he might not be able to help General Usia. If he had a second longer to consider his decision when Vega asked, he may have chosen differently.

Michael looks around wondering if the shield Vega provided to protect him is starting to fail; his skin is cold and clammy and small beads of sweat gather on his brow. The galaxy begins to spin around him causing the potatoes he had for dinner several hours earlier to be tasted again in his throat.

Vega watches Michael closely.

“I’m ready.” Michael says.

Vega nods and walks a few feet away from Michael. Then, he snaps his fingers.

Immediately, Michael is thrust forward into a vortex of stars and blackness. The uneasy feeling that he felt is amplified in intensity as he spins around in circles. It’s as if he is caught in a riptide. It stops only when Michael finally crashes to the ground on his knees.

***

Michael takes in a big breath of air as he assesses his surroundings.

Within the confines of the space, the room is cold and stale. The floor is steel and there is a grey, circular structure in front of him. On the circular structure, Michael notices thousands of buttons like what might have been on the bridge of the Titanic before it sank off the coast of Newfoundland last year. As his eyes drift across the knobs, he catches sight of something else: a woman with hair cut short like a man’s, wearing a black shirt, pants, and boots to match. On the woman’s jacket, Michael notices several stripes on her upper right arm etched into the fabric.

Her hands are steady as she points a silver, smooth object at Michael that looks like a weapon of some sort. It looks menacing. But the menacing part is really this: she’s pointed it directly at Michael’s head.

Michael shifts one leg from behind him as he slowly tries to move to a standing position while asking, “Do you know where I can find General Usia?”

“You’re looking at her!” She snaps. Before Michael can say anything else, she says, “Stay where you are!”

“Sorry,” Michael says with hands raised in the air. He hopes this is still the universally acknowledged surrender position. He abides with the order given as he slowly places his foot back behind him and resumes a kneeling position.

Michael looks closer at Usia: her eyes are reddened and slightly moist from perhaps rain, but possibly, also tears.

Michael steadies himself. With arms in the air he makes an assumption softly saying, “General Usia, I’m so sorry about your children.”

General Usia’s eyes narrow at the stranger. Hands tremble. A sharp pain is felt in her stomach as if someone punched a knuckled-fist into it. She says, “How do you know about them?” As her mind quickly pulls random facts together she barks, “DID YOU KILL THEM?”

“I had nothing to do with it, General.” Michael says his voice gentle, like the sound of fall leaves that swish together.

“Who the hell are you then?” General Usia asks with a growl.

“I am a friend, General.” Michael answers as he tries to formulate a plan.

“No friend of mine would wear those clothes,” she hisses. “You look like you just stepped off some 20th century farm. Fuck! Do I smell horse?” She asks as she swipes at her nose. A tickling nasal drip has commenced with the smell of horse and hay that lingers on Michael’s clothes.

“I’m an old-fashioned man,” Michael answers wryly. “General,” Michael says more boldly. Vega warned him the window to change the General’s mind was ephemeral. “I know your children were killed a short time ago.”

“Killed today,” she answers. Her voice is suddenly void of all emotion.

Michael pauses as he mentally questions Vega’s decision to deliver him so soon after the event. The General’s children: executed in the fields of their home by the other side were just seven and nine years old. Michael feels the blood drain from his face, stomach swirls again with nausea as he thinks, they were children? How could they? Their whole lives were in front of them and now they are turned to dust, carried away by wind, leaving behind a void of nothingness.   

Michael regroups, pushing onwards. “General Usia, I am truly sorry. But, I beg of you – as a General you must exercise restraint and keep your heart calm. You must not let hatred rule your troops and gunfire.”

“Have you ever been to war, Sir?”

Michael shakes his head from side to side while answering, “No.”

“Then, don’t tell me how to feel, or how to command my troops!”

Michael’s head throbs. Panic overwhelms him. The sound of a ticking clock pounds in his mind as he feels the window of time closing in on him.

Desperate, he takes a bold approach.

“General Usia, I’m not from your time. But I met a man that said if your military decisions are fueled by grief, a young woman will die that would bring an end to the war in a few short years. But with the young woman’s death, this war will linger on for more than one hundred years. Millions more will die that never should! As a mother you can be angry; but as a leader, you must exercise restraint.”

Usia looks at Michael saying, “as a mother and a General, I can do whatever I want!”

From behind Usia, the door swishes open interrupting their conversation. The General swivels around to face her second intruder.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Captain McKay says. He glances at the gun General Usia holds tightly in her grasp. “We just need the final order to release the 630TZ bomb.”

General Usia turns to face Michael.

But Michael has vanished.

“Where did he go?” She snaps at Captain McKay.

“Who?” Captain McKay asks perplexed.

“The man! The man! He was just here!” She barks as she circles the bridge.

“I didn’t see anyone.” Captain McKay’s face is lined like a geological map in confusion.

General Usia’s eyes dart around and with thundering words that are so loud they are heard several hundred meters down the hallway of the ship she asks, “Computer, how many people are in this room?”

“Two.” Computer answers. “Captain McKay, and yourself.”

“Computer, check again!” She roars.

“The result is the same, General Usia.”

“Computer,” General Usia says, “Has there been any unknown personnel on this ship?”

The Computer takes a few moments to review the data history of the ship, and then it responds, “None.”

“General Usia,” Captain McKay presses onwards unwilling to be diverted from his task. He never wanted to carry out this order but she insisted, and honestly, he can’t imagine how she feels. Both of her children – executed. The cruelty.

General Usia’s duty, like all of them, required her to leave her family behind – even if her husband had been killed in battle a few months earlier.  She left the children with her parents because the war had not extended that far. The General thought they would be safe with them. But then in a few short days, the war was on the city’s doorstep. General Usia wanted to move her family to another city but had to make arrangements on her own. And honestly, the General would never ask for help. She knew that many soldiers in the military have families that are under threat of being killed in the crossfire.

The only kindness given to the General was that her parents were left alive. But this is a doubtful kindness. One can only assume that her parents were left alive for the sole purpose to tell the General the details of her children’s deaths.

But even with everything that’s happened to General Usia, he knows obliterating a whole city in revenge to pay for the sins of a few is tantamount to murder. He’s conflicted as to whether he should follow this order. But, General Usia has always been a good, fair General. She must have other reasons for attacking the city that she has not shared. General Usia would not use her position for revenge, he’s certain. Captain McKay prods General Usia, “The bomb is prepped. We just need the final order.”

General Usia looks up at him. Then, she turns away from Captain McKay.  Was the man a creation of her mind? A guilty conscience? She knows killing millions of people, civilians, is considered a war crime.

But they were her children.

Her hands shake. Her mind fumbles. There is something that the man said. Something important. That as a mother she could be angry, but as a leader she must exercise restraint.

Choking on tears she hesitates. He was real, or he was a creation of her mind.  The computer found no trace of him. It seems more probable he was a ghost she fabricated, probably from all her historical reading of the early 1900’s.

She understands the implied meaning behind the words the spirit said: that she should lead as a leader would in battle, and minimize innocent casualties. Do only what needs to be done. General Usia’s face crumbles as she thinks of the deaths of her two children, but also because she nearly made the wrong decision.

She answers, “No, let’s wait.”

“Are you sure General?” Captain McKay asks with small droplets of relief peppered throughout his voice.

“Yes,” she answers. “Find witnesses. Get descriptions of the perpetrators. We’ll focus on the individuals responsible for killing the people in my city.”

“Very good General,” Captain McKay says as he feels his lower lip tremble gently. He bucks up though, before he loses control of his emotions. Then, he salutes her as a woman who lost so much, but also as a General who refuses to allow the savagery of war to change the leader she is.

***Originally published in the Scarlet Leaf Review***

https://www.scarletleafreview.com/short-stories7/category/penelope-s-hawtrey

 

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