by Allen Stroud
The Veterans Association café is never crowded. Some days you wish it was, so you can share. Other days, it’s nice to be alone with your thoughts.
The television in the corner is on. The news reporter is outside a quarantined hospital. She’s talking about some kind of viral infection, spreading down the Canadian eastern seaboard. I’m sort of listening to it, but not over much.
There’s a coffee in front of me. I’m holding it with my right hand, watching the brown liquid swirl and feeling the warmth through the cardboard cup.
I don’t get the flashbacks when I’m here in the early mornings, it’s too cold and green. The place smells different too, there’s a sharpness to the air that wakes you up. That all makes the thirty minute drive and hard walk up the hill worthwhile. I try to be here whenever I can, it settles me down, gives me balance for the rest of the day.
I’ve been back here in Clinton for three months, after six weeks in a military hospital and physiotherapy ward. I’m still adjusting, but I’m getting there. People are friendly and sympathetic, but sometimes pity isn’t what you need.
There’s a man sat at my table. He hasn’t bought a drink, I guess he isn’t staying. He’s in a suit and he’s carrying a briefcase. I don’t know him. He’s not seen the things I’ve seen – what people are capable of when they’re pushed.
Or perhaps he has? I don’t know.
“Lieutenant Harlson, I came up here to offer you a job, working with our organisation.”
I can hear the words, but I don’t believe them. I raise my head and look him in the eye. “Why in God’s name would you want to employ me?” I ask.
The man smiles, but there’s no humour in the expression, it’s just a quirk of his lips. His eyes are cold blue grey, his hair, thinning and clearly coloured dark brown. He has that just turned look of someone in their mid-thirties or early forties, where the edges have started to sag and fray. “You have a unique set of skills, Lieutenant. You served your country with distinction and bravery, plus you still have two years left on your security clearance.”
“That make me valuable?”
“Yes indeed, it does.”
I frown. I can’t read this guy. All I have are the words. “I’ve done my time and given enough for my country,” I say.
The man nods. “Yes, you have. No-one could deny it, but this all depends on what you want, not on what you’re obligated to do, Lieutenant.”
“Who do you represent?” I ask.
“The organisation is called Vanadium, Lieutenant. We specialise in private security and high tech military solutions to problems that our clients encounter. I’ve been sent here today because my employers believe you could make a significant contribution to our work and in turn, working with us would benefit you, greatly.”
I raise my prosthetic left arm, the electromotor responding to the little muscle twitches I can make in my shoulder and bicep. The plastic fingers close into a fist on the table. “I’m not much suited to a desk job, Mister…?”
“Siennes. Albert Siennes.”
“Well Mister Siennes, as you can see, I’m about done with personal security too.”
Siennes gazes at the prosthesis. “That’s a Hyland model four. Really good work they do in helping improve people’s lives.”
“I guess,” I reply.
“It’ll never be a part of you, though. Nothing ever will really be a part of you like your own skin, flesh and bone.” Siennes reaches out and taps a finger against the hard plastic of my hand. “Might be technology could eventually make you feel that. Maybe get the motor control hardwired into your cortex and nervous system, but you’ll still be a man with a replacement arm. Not the same as before.”
“You trying to make me angry, Mister Siennes?”
“No, just being honest,” he says.
I think about that. He’s completely right, but these aren’t the words I hear from most people. From them, the emphasis is on ignoring change, not even mentioning it. People in the street think I can’t see the little glances when they’re being polite to my face. Old friends treat me like I’m broken and altered, but put a front on it. They’re not really accepting me for what I am now, learning my new strengths and weaknesses.
They just see limitations and that can be infectious, making me just see limitations, leading me to a dark place.
Siennes leans forward. “Lieutenant, you have a perspective on the world which we need. We aren’t looking to cure you, coddle you or do you some kind of pity fuck favour. We want you as you are, for what you are, to work with us.”
I’m staring at him again. This time I can read something – sincerity. Maybe I don’t have all the information, maybe I don’t know what these people are up to, but I think he’s being honest.
“You do this a lot?” I ask.
Siennes nods. “This is what I do. All the people I get sent out to find are profiled individuals with specific abilities and experiences.”
“Actually, no. That’s the point. You’ll see if you join us.”
I think some more. What am I doing that’s keeping me here? Maybe by staying I’m making myself part of the problem, trying to return to something that isn’t me anymore. Maybe I need the change.
“What will the job involve?” I ask.
“Leaving this town,” Siennes says.
Siennes is up and leaving. I follow, shuffling awkwardly between the tables on my crutch. I’m still getting used to using it. Outside there’s a grey SUV and a dark haired woman standing beside it. She’s all business too, but smiles and salutes as she sees me.
“This our ride?” I ask.
“Yes it is,” Siennes replies. He opens the back door. “Your personal affects and anything else you want from here can be brought up later. First priority is to get you where you need to go.”
I hesitate a moment, drinking up what’s going on. These people have selected me. I don’t trust them all the way, but there’s an opportunity here and a purpose.
My gaze falls on the SUV’s private number plate, New Jericho 16. “What does that mean?” I ask.
“It’s just a name,” Siennes replies. “We’ll talk about it on the way.”
I shrug, and get in the vehicle. The driver and Siennes join me and pretty soon, Clinton is left behind in my past.