Folsom stumbled backward.
He stepped on something that rolled under his foot. He staggered abruptly two steps right, banging his shoulder into the laser-cut wall of the subsurface cavern, dropping his cane on impact. At least he didn’t drop the beer. The cane, Malacca with pure silver inlays in the ivory grip, reminded him of his wife. His ex-wife, but that was long ago.
“Goddam lunar gravity,” he muttered, kneeling to pick it up.
Folsom lifted the cane, careful, in case someone was watching, not to show the heavier weight of the lower half. Settling it in his hand, he shoved himself upright.
“Shouldn’t go around flashin’ cash at every bar in Luna City,” somebody said in a growling androgynous contralto. Folsom looked up. There were two of them. One was a tall, skinny redhead wearing a combat uniform, hair to the shoulders and a smirk. Gender of this apparition was in question.
“Yeah, let us carry that f’r ya.” That was the sidekick, a shorter punk who played with a knife as they walked toward Folsom, smiling with every step. “That kinda thing will get ya robbed.”
“Thank you, no.” Folsom adjusted his grip on the cane. “Or is that your plan? If I’m right, do I get a prize?” He noticed that the redhead was flanking him. He glanced around.
“An alley? Seriously? You’re trying to herd me into an alley?” Stupid to back an old soldier into a tight space where they had to come head-on. Well, if that was what they wanted… Folsom backed into the alley. His assailants picked up the pace. A collapsible security baton appeared in the redhead’s hand.
Folsom turned his head from side to side, evaluating the situation. He wasn’t really drunk, just mildly buzzed, though it had been days of mildly buzzed. Couldn’t feel the ground with his feet and one arm half-useless, of course, but he had experience on his side, and the cane. He looked at the two youngsters, mebbe old enough to drink, but not by much, approaching him. “Best get home,” he told them. “This can only end badly for you.”
He hefted the Malacca. The heavy slug of high density plastic in its lower half required care not to over-swing. He listened in case one of the doors backing into the alley might lead to escape, but they were all closed tight, locked as things always were in this part of Luna City.
Choosing a place heavily covered with trash, Folsom shuffled through it and stopped at the wall at the end of the alley. He put down the bag of beer, and faced the two. “Best leave now,” he said, “or somebody’s gonna die.”
The redhead smirked, “Yeah, we know.”
Folsom shrugged and settled into a fighting stance.
The shorter man stepped forward, flipping the knife backward and forward and tossing it from left hand to right. Stupid. Folsom watched, timing him.
The punk stumbled on something buried in the trash but didn’t go down. Cat-quick, Folsom took two steps forward and flicked the knife aside. The weighted Malacca broke the smaller man’s wrist with a sharp crack, followed by a shriek. Folsom shuffled a step closer and jammed the end of the cane into the knife fighter’s chest, hard, breaking his sternum and cutting off the shriek. Folsom moved forward as the knife-fighter collapsed, and hit him under the nose with an upward swing of the cane as he passed him. Folsom felt a nano-second’s resistance and the knife-fighter’s nose collapsed into his face. A warm gush of blood erupted from his nose and eyes. The knife fighter fell to the ground, dead.
“Go home or die, Red,” he said to the redhead.
Red’s eyes were wide. “You killed my boy Tommy.” He narrowed his stare, and flicked his baton open, advancing. “Why’d you hafta do that?”
“Didn’t have much choice. C’mon Red, you can still leave.”
Red stepped forward and swung. Folsom stepped inside it, slipped his crippled left arm under Red’s right arm and gripped Red at the intersection of his left shoulder and neck. He took a short outside-in swing with the cane. The crunch of breaking bone at Red’s knee and his screamed curse were nearly simultaneous. As he dropped swearing to the ground, Red pulled a dart pistol from his pocket. Before he could bring it to bear, the Malacca crushed his left temple with a hollow “thock”.
Folsom retrieved his bag of beer. He checked his adversaries. “Definitely dead,” he announced. He gave a thought to checking the gender of the redhead, but decided it was long past mattering.
The City decided it was night and dimmed the lights. Folsom sat down with his back against a building and contemplated heading back to the center. His earlier buzz was gone. He looked around. The tunnel, the debris, the bodies… was this where it happened? His heart beat faster. He shook his head. No, that was another place, another crater.
He took out a beer and tried to open it with shaky hands. His exertions overcame him, and he passed out.
- - -
U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Giles I. Folsom looked back at his team; twenty-two highly-trained, heavily-armed soldiers, stumbling around in unfamiliar lunar gravity. He didn’t even know half their names. “Goddam circus,” he muttered. He couldn’t impart his month of low-g combat training in the three days he’d had with these grunts. They followed him into the excavation off the completed end of the lunar tunnel, bouncing off the walls noisily. A parade would’ve been less noticeable.
They were part of the U.S. contingent brought to the moon to put down the rebellion. The “putting down the rebellion” part was not going well.
They pursued a dozen hired corporate rebels into a partially-carved tunnel. Rock and gravel littered the floor. Muffled curses filled the air as the men tripped and slipped. Folsom’s assault was falling apart. He raised his hand in a fist, signaling the company to stop. At that moment, the rubble ahead exploded, sending huge chunks of rock into the company. A nine-inch blade of basalt slammed edge first into Folsom’s chest, splitting the Kevlar. As he fell, he watched a blast-propelled rock massing twenty kilos slam into his arm, crushing it. He saw bodies and blood. One of the men grabbed him, shouted at him, but he sounded so far away. The tunnel went black.
- - -
Folsom screamed, then felt his chest and his arm. No rocks, just scars and pain. He always woke up in pain. He rolled over and reached for the bag with his pills and the beer. No medicine bag. No beer. Where was he?
A room, was he back on Earth? He rolled over on the single bed, threw back his old scratchy woolen blanket—it wasn’t scratchy and didn’t feel like wool—and sat up. He grabbed the bed frame to stop himself flying off the bed. Definitely not Earth. The barracks? He opened his eyes for the first time. As he did, his brain began yammering for attention.
“Um-m-m...” he said to the woman in the armchair facing his bed. She had dark skin and short hair, halfway to gray. She was in civilian clothes, but from her posture he guessed she was military. He maintained his grip on the bed frame with his functional right hand.
“You’re naked, Sergeant Folsom,” the woman informed him.
“Ung...” he told her, slinging his nearly-useless left arm and hook of a hand back and snagging his blanket, pulling it forward and throwing the end over his lap, again nearly flinging himself off the bed. He said something he would not normally say in the presence of a woman. He tried again. “Where in hell am I?”
“VA hospital, Shackleton Crater, Luna. You were sent here last week as part of an experimental pain management program. The lower gravity is supposed to help. Remember now?”
“Oh yeah, I remember. Boy do I remember. Can’t imagine how I forgot.”
“Beer sometimes has that effect.” Her voice dripped with disapproval.
“Where’s, what’s-his-name? Rodriguez? The caseworker.”
“Dave Rodrigo transferred your case to me. I get the pleasure of working on the more… difficult cases for the VA.”
He scowled at her. “Effin’ useless, you VA people. All of you. Won’t allow me enough pain medication to actually control the pain I’ve been suffering for years. When I won’t shut up about it, you ship me back to Luna, tell me there’d be less pain with fewer pills.” Folsom paused, looking around the room. “Well, it doesn’t seem to be workin’ so far.”
“How would you know? You haven’t cooperated with the program! You haven’t let us chart your pain since you got here. ‘Twelve’ is not a useful answer to a one-to-ten scale question. Scans of your parietal lobe don’t show as much pain as you claim.”
He spotted his pants and shirt. “Wanna hand me my clothes?” he asked.
She tossed them to him, his clothes arcing through the air. “You’ve been here almost two weeks. Three days ago you took a maximum allowable withdrawal from your bank account and left against medical advice. You’ve been basically drunk since two hours after you withdrew it. Last night we found you in an alley with two dead men nearby. Can you explain?”
“Both of ‘em men, eh? You a cop?”
“Nurse. Sandra Williams, RN. Lt. Colonel, U.S. Army Medical Corps, Retired. Now a VA chronic pain specialist. For the moment, however, something else is a bit more pressing… keeping you out of jail. Now, what happened last night?”
Nurse Williams seemed to be used to obedience. Folsom suspected the attitude had little to do with her military rank; she was just that kind of nurse.
“My guess? A mugging turned killing gone bad… for them. I can’t really fight, and I look like it. I’m sorta one-handed.” He turned over his left arm, showing a mass of scar tissue from elbow to wrist. “My left hand doesn’t work,” he tried to make a fist but his hand only made a hook, “and there’s no wrist rotation. I can’t outrun ’em either. Turn away please.”
When she did, he pulled on his boxers. “You can turn back. You’ve seen my torso,” he indicated wide, primitive-looking scars from mid-sternum to the underwear’s elastic band and showed her the similar scar crossing it below his navel. “My feet are arguably worse.” He showed her the soles where some bones had been removed and ulcerations were beginning again. He took a breath. “Can’t run far on those.” He looked her in the eyes. “As for last night, there wasn’t any choice at all. Somebody was gonna die in that alley. Turned out it was them. Always has been so far.” He tried to get up from the bed, but winced in pain. “I need my pain meds.”
She handed him a two-ounce paper cup with three pills in it, different from his usual meds, and a bottle of water. “No beer to wash these down. We need a good evaluation. In case you missed it, those are—”
“I didn’t miss it. We’ll see how they work.” He swallowed the pills dry.
He looked at Nurse Williams and said, “Breakfast.”
She bridled. “I’m not here as a—”
“I’m inviting you to breakfast, not askin’ you t’ make it.” He pointed vaguely outside the room. “We’re at the hospital, right? There’s a nice little restaurant two doors down. There’s a Navy fella from Oregon runs it, great buffet.”
She stared at him for a moment. “Okay. Breakfast, then we discuss your stay here on Luna.”
Folsom nodded. “Uh-huh. I need a minute, OK? Bathroom?”
In the bathroom he found a kit with a razor, toothbrush and comb. He washed, shaved, brushed his few remaining teeth and soaked his hair with very hot water to cut the oil. He dried off and combed his hair.
He stepped out of the bathroom. “Ready?”
She nodded and stood.
“Then let’s be about it, Nurse Williams.”
Once outside, he turned left and they walked to a restaurant within a short distance. Behind the restaurant was a fenced-in farm with chickens, some roosting in stubby trees and some pecking at the ground. They went in.
Inside, he motioned to the large tables laden with food and backed by cooks. “All buffet except eggs. Those they cook to order.” He filled his plate with fruit, sausage, bacon, and home fries, then added two slices of rye toast with butter and ordered two eggs over easy.
At the table, Nurse Williams looked at his plate. “We’re going to have to talk, Sergeant. You’ll have a coronary.”
“I’m already fifty-nine, might as well enjoy my breakfast.” Folsom grinned. “Y’know, you sound like my ex-wife, always nagging me about eating better.”
“Yep, a couple of grown kids who hardly know me. How about you? Married? Any kids?” At her blank stare, he chuckled. “It’s a question, not a proposal.”
“I have children, three, all grown and a husband lost in the Rebellion. I am here by request because your chronic pain seems more intractable than most cases.”
“I’m sorry about your husband. Lot of good men died up here.”
She shifted subjects. “You should know, I don’t make friends with my patients. It’s not personal. If I seem to be too hard on you, I am only pushing you to get better.”
Folsom laughed. “I’ll try to remember that…”
A shadow covered the table. With a thud, their table was kicked ceiling-high and away from them. Table and breakfasts drifted down, distributing themselves like fall leaves throughout the room, much to the vocal dismay of other patrons.
“You killed my brother!” A massive, angry, ginger-haired man loomed over Folsom.
“Could be.” Folsom was smiling. It wasn’t a welcoming smile. He knew his smile made his particular version of a sick old man look absolutely dangerous. “They tell you he was trying to kill me?”
“Like hell! You killed him! You killed my brother!”
“Outside. We’re not gonna bust up Mr. Chang’s restaurant.” Folsom stood and started for the door. The large man took three strides, caught up with Folsom and grabbed his shoulder.
Snap quick, Folsom stepped back, turned under the arm holding him and hugged the big man, jamming his face into the man’s throat. The redhead let go and took a half-step back, making terrible sounds as he tried to breathe through his partially crushed larynx. Blood poured down his chest.
Folsom spat and raised the Malacca. He stepped forward and crushed the big man’s nose. There was a break in the astonishingly fast violence. Folsom leaned in and said something.
The man gave an inchoate roar and reached for him. Folsom stepped into him and hit him several times very fast and hard. A crunching snap and the big man’s left arm had a new elbow when Folsom stepped back, breathing hard. “Will you stop now?”
The man staggered forward again and reached for Giles, but abruptly collapsed, shocky from pain and blood loss.
Folsom raised the Malacca for the killing blow. Swaying, sweating, ears buzzing, he missed Nurse Williams’ approach.
She grabbed his arm and stepped in front of him. “Sergeant Folsom, stop! Stop right now!”
Folsom looked at her in confusion. His knees buckled. He found himself on the floor, propped against a support column.
Nurse Williams turned to his adversary. The man began to stir, even tried to rise using his good arm. She held him in place using a single pressure point.
The entire fight had not taken ninety seconds.
Everyone in the restaurant resumed breathing. The stillness after the incredible violence of the fight was oppressive.
Nurse Williams waved to a server. Pointing to Folsom, she said, “Get me some juice for him, now! He’s hypoglycemic.”
The server hopped.
Folsom was awake, but detached. He watched Nurse Williams maintain a firm hold on the redhead. The man was sobbing now.
The server came back, along with Mr. Chang. Folsom fumbled with the juice as he drank.
Nurse Williams looked to Chang, and asked, “Which security company protects you?”
“Luna City Business, through the restaurant co-op. I’ve contacted LCB and they’re on their way with medics.” He looked at Folsom. “Is the sergeant okay?”
She nodded. “He’ll be fine. But I need you to call LunaCorp. U.S. Government is paying, this is an assault on a U.S. citizen. Sergeant Folsom here is a VA patient, and this man and his brother both attacked him.”
Chang pointed to the redhead. “This guy? O’Connor?” He looked puzzled. “He hasn’t had a brother since the Rebellion. They came up together as part of the U.S. advance on the rebels. His brother got killed, he blamed the guy who led the assault. But O’Connor’s brother died here, in Shackelford. Sergeant Folsom here, said he served up at Tycho.” Chang shook his head, then changed subjects. “Who’s gonna pay for all this? My tables, my—”
“The VA will reimburse you for all verifiable expenses. You will not be out of pocket, I promise.”
Chang frowned, then reluctantly nodded.
Black-uniformed LCB guards showed up a few minutes later and secured the redhead to a gurney. Folsom watched as Nurse Williams spoke to the security captain. He didn’t look happy. When the blue-uniformed LunaCorp detail arrived, he reluctantly accepted a chit for the call-out fee from her and turned the man over. LunaCorp’s captain spoke with her a moment, nodded, swapped LCB an identical gurney and hauled off the redhead.
Nurse Williams helped Folsom to a table and brought him a new breakfast from the buffet… no eggs. At his grimace she said, “You just had a hypoglycemic attack. You need a balance of carbohydrates and protein, not fats and cholesterol.”
Folsom did not respond; he simply ate.
“What exactly,” Nurse Williams asked, “was all that?”
Folsom realized Nurse Williams was angry. Furious might not be too strong a word.
“And why were you going to kill that man? Because you ‘can’t fight?’ Really? It looked like a fight to me.” She sat across from him, livid but saying nothing further.
“That was me staying alive. I can’t fight more than a few seconds at a time without a break or a snack. You saw my chart. I didn’t just lose the use of my arm in the rebellion, lost most of my pancreas. I have to kill or die, ‘cause my blood sugar drops. I really tried to save him, something I never do, it’s too dangerous. But I have a brother, so I know what it’s like. I’d want to kill anyone who killed him. In the end Red left me no more choice than his brother did. Without the breathers, I’d have killed him early in the fight.”
Nurse Williams’ body language was skepticism and outrage personified. “That’s why those men died in the alley?”
Folsom blew an exasperated sigh. "Look… a big part of me staying alive is, nobody gets a second punch.”
She looked at him for a long time, then spoke. “Sergeant, you need a positive outcome here. Getting drunk all the time, killing anyone who gets in your way? That’s not it. I want to help you, but I’m not going to let you play me.”
Folsom looked at her for a few seconds. He nodded. “Yes Ma’am.”
They finished eating, and Nurse Williams escorted him to his room. “Stay here, you’ve had enough excitement for one day. I’ll see that your meds for today take into account your… your altercation. I’ll see you in the morning.”
- - -
He could feel the shard of basalt enter his chest. He gulped for air to scream, but he couldn’t breathe…
Folsom woke up with a start, sweating. He was in more pain than usual. “Goddam nurse,” he muttered. He took his morning pills—less than made any kind of sense—and showered and dressed.
She picked him up outside the VA in a personal cart a little bigger than a golf cart. “We’re going to a Luna Veterans’ Club meeting,” she announced.
“You need to let me lead for a while, Sergeant.” She smiled. “I promise you, no explosions.”
“I don’t know…”
She spoke as she drove. “They’re good guys. Do charity work for the poor.” She turned to him. “I’m doing this for you. Don’t screw this up, Sergeant Folsom.”
“Okay.” Folsom sounded unwilling, even to himself.
“Listen, I found out some things yesterday. The man you fought, his name is O’Connor. He’s not the brother of the redhead from the alley. His brother died here, in Shackleford. Must’ve heard about your story, too similar, thought you were responsible. He’s got the wrong guy.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Folsom ruminated a moment, thinking about the men who died on his watch. “There’s a lot of responsibility to go around.”
Without responding, she pulled into a parking lot. A sign over the door of a smallish building carved into the rock read, “Lunar RebVets – Post 15.”
“I’m U.S. Forces,” he objected.
“They know. One U.S. veteran who emigrated here came to them a while back and was granted membership. He died about a year ago. Give them a chance.”
Folsom shuffled in the door behind Nurse Williams. Inside, some men were sorting boxes of food and clothing, while another group sat at a table, talking. One man, maybe fifty with dark thinning hair, peeled off and introduced himself. “I’m Tommy.” He looked to Nurse Williams. “This him?”
She nodded. “Sergeant Giles Folsom.”
Tommy looked him up and down. Most of the other men were looking at him now, some giving him the thousand-yard stare. Tommy nodded to him. “Where’d you serve, Sergeant?”
“Couple of places. Tycho crater’s where this happened.” He looked down at his arm. “Chasin’ some… some of you rebels. There was a trap.”
A man from the group at the table stood up. “I was at Tycho. We set lots of charges, might’ve been my unit set the one that got you.”
Folsom looked at him with a hard stare. He was younger, maybe early forties, with blond hair and a scar on his neck. Finally, Folsom spoke. “Maybe you did. War is war.” Folsom looked around the room. “And soldiers are soldiers. When it’s over, I reckon it oughta be over.”
The younger man looked back at him a few seconds more. Folsom saw his jaw clench, then his face relaxed. He turned and spoke to a younger man behind him. “The man needs a chair.” He gave a nod to his fellow soldiers, then moved the chair into place at the table. “Have a seat, Sergeant.”
Folsom looked back at Nurse Williams. She looked to the chair, then back to him. She didn’t smile, but he could see it on her face anyway.
He shuffled forward and sat.
Folsom and a couple of the more welcoming veterans began swapping stories. He had the table laughing at the idea of two dozen crack assault troops trying to navigate a rock-strewn passage on Luna at a “run” with virtually no training. Then Folsom lifted his shirt.
“Same tunnel,” he said. “But I’m still here.”
“Do you still think about the explosion?”
Folsom turned. Tommy had pulled up a chair, was sitting just behind him to the side. “Yeah… yeah, I guess I do. I dream about it, sometimes…” He turned to face Tommy. “Why you askin’?”
Tommy said, “I didn’t introduce myself fully earlier, Sergeant Folsom. I was Corporal Tommy Sanders, Gamma Company, Luna. Now I’m Dr. Sanders. I work for Luna Military Corporation as a psychiatrist, and I contract out with the VA.”
Folsom looked over to Nurse Williams. “This a setup? I’m not crazy!” Folsom started to get up.
Nurse Williams stepped over and put her hand on his arm. “I’m an old soldier too, Sergeant. I spent thirty years as an Army nurse, six tours of combat duty. I’m not crazy either, but I watched soldiers die in awful ways. My drink was white wine. Dr. Sanders specializes in listening to us.”
“Yes, us! PTSD victims. We’re a dying breed. When they made memfuzz treatments mandatory for soldiers, first responders, and medical personnel, well, post-traumatic stress disorder is going to be a disease of the past. Most violent crime victims elect it, too. But us, we’re still here, long past any chance of blunting the emotional knife of our trauma. We still need help, the old-fashioned way.”
Folsom frowned at her. “You need help. I need my meds. And a beer.”
Nurse Williams gave him a hard stare. “You’re going to attend Dr. Sanders’ PTSD group sessions here, with me and these men from Luna, or you’re going to jail here in Shackelford. No beer, and not much in the way of meds. Now, are you going to cooperate?”
Folsom scowled. “Fine.”
She nodded, satisfied. “Now, tell me, why do you maintain a beer buzz, Sergeant?”
“I told you yesterday, it’s—”
“No. Tell me the real reason. Living with PTSD is better with friends. I sat with you all night after the alley fight. I watched you toss and turn and yell in your sleep all night long. Now,” Nurse Williams bit off the words, “truth. To me, and to your fellow vets here, all of whom have seen things like you have. Why do you drink?”
Giles looked up. He had an audience. He looked around at the men. Many had scars, a couple were missing limbs. They all had a look in their eyes, one he had seen before. In the mirror. “Okay… truth.” Giles Folsom sighed, and his eyes felt watery. He didn’t know what he was about to say, but he spoke anyway. “The beer, the meds… they drown the ghosts, blur the dreams.” He felt like he had failed, like he was weak.
He looked down for a moment, then looked up. Heads were nodding in acknowledgement.
Nurse Williams gave a hint of a smile. “Welcome to the group, Sergeant Folsom.”