Lanstead was a warzone. James was lucky enough to be in one of the more secure areas of the city--doubly so that he still had running water. Lying in bed, he rubbed his eyes and rolled to face away from the window. Artillery boomed and he mashed his pillow against his ears, but to no avail. Just like every other night for nearly a year, sleep would not be coming easily.
Lights flashed from behind him and there was the sound of an explosion. Against his best instincts, James got up and ran over to the window. There, not even three blocks away, an apartment complex was on fire. Sirens wailed and robotic response teams rushed to the scene even as winged silhouettes fluttered through the night sky, raining sparks of light down upon the city. There was a burst of glowing flak from an anti-air array, but James couldn't tell how effective it was.
Grumbling about wars needing curfews, he went back to bed and tried to go back to sleep. It was a long time coming.
The next morning James woke up and walked over to his kitchenette, opening the cupboard in a futile search for food. "Damn empty cereal boxes," he muttered, taking one out, shaking it, and tossing it aside. Grabbing a glass from the sink, he turned on the faucet. A trickle of water came out.
"Come on, come on!" he said as the glass slowly filled. Taking a swig, he quickly spat it out. "Damn. Guess I won't be showering today."
Power had been reallocated from the elevators to something deemed more 'vital' by the military command, so James took the stairs. Reaching the bottom, he saw Henry, the landlord, sweeping dust out from the lobby again.
"Morning, James," Henry said. "How'd you sleep?"
"Terribly," James admitted. "And you?"
"Something's wrong with the water, Henry."
"The pigeons blew up an apartment last night," he explained. "It was on top of a water main, and now there's dust in the supply. The engineers assured me that they'd do their best to handle it by tonight."
"You off to work?"
James shrugged. "If it's still standing." They shared a laugh.
James worked at a distribution center. In the mornings he helped to hand out bread and other rations, along with gallons of water--until supplies ran out, anyway. They always did, but Genesis Industries always airlifted in more each night.
The distribution center was located in what used to be a parking garage. The top floors had been bombed out but made an excellent target for airdropped supplies, and the parking on the lower levels served the supply trucks well during the days.
"I don't know why they'll only drive at night," James grumbled as he handed the final bag of toiletries to a woman who was sobbing with relief and gratitude--emotions he found wearisome after the first few months of siege.
"The Flame Dawn will shoot us to pieces if we drive during daytime, you bloody fool," growled a supply driver who was chomping on a cigar. "There's only one open road out of Lanstead and it's covered by their artillery. As it is we lose too many trucks."
"Why isn't the army doing something about that artillery then?" James responded, his patience wearing thin after hearing the same complaint time after time. Cowards.
There was a boom in the distance and the supply driver gestured emphatically. "What do you think that is, a picnic? The military's doing what it can--if you think you can do any better, why don't you enlist?" He stomped off, throwing his cigar onto the ground as he went.
"So," Henry said over a hand of cards later that night, "what happened to you, Jim? You used to be an engineer, right?"
James nodded, staring at his hand. Looking at the cards, then at Henry, he folded. "Used to."
"So why the past tense?" Henry asked, shuffling the deck and dealing out another hand.
James shrugged. "Severance package post-Sleepers was too good."
"Was that before the war started up?"
He nodded. "Yeah. By that point I had too many friends in the Dawn to rejoin and watch them get killed."
"Friends in the Dawn, eh?"
He wasn't going to win this hand either. He folded again. "Yeah, what of it? Happens when you fight alongside other people."
Artillery boomed and the building shook, dust raining down on their heads.
"The fighting's getting closer," Henry commented as he won a round, shuffling the deck again.
"I'm sure we'll hold them off. We can't lose the city."
Henry raised an eyebrow as he dealt the next hand. "Can't?"
James ignored him and looked at the cards. "Damn it, Henry, why can't I ever win at this?"
"I made this game, James," Henry reminded him, packing up the deck of cards. James rolled his eyes and retired to his room to listen to the thunder of not-so-distant cannon before falling asleep.
There was a knock on the door the next morning. "James," Henry said from the other side, "a word."
James let out an unintelligible groan and rolled out of his bed. Scratching at his hair, he opened the door.
"The Flame Dawn is advancing farther into the city from the north," Henry was explaining. "The military has begun to evacuate more and more people from the contested zones, but we lack housing. Even with the supply trucks evacuating refugees there simply isn't enough room in the secure parts of the city for everyone to stay." He paused, and James looked over his shoulder at a line of men, women, and children with suitcases. "I volunteered to house them in the complex."
"No," James said, crossing his arms.
"I knew you would understand," Henry continued forging forwards through his speech, "since you work with supply distribution. You've seen these people. Anyway, the math works out to approximately 4 people per apartment now."
"Haven't I given enough for this damn war?" James demanded. "Haven't I sacrificed enough?"
Henry ignored him and moved on to the next apartment, three refugees filing into James's room as he stared on in disbelief and outrage.
He fumed about it all day at work, of course, handing out relief packages to those in need. Like we aren't all in need. He scowled at the drivers of the supply trucks, the pilots of the airplanes. The men who should be evacuating the refugees so he didn't have to house them. And when it was all said and done he went back to his apartment, lost a few more hands of cards, and returned to his now-crowded room to try to eke out some sleep--fuming, perhaps, but without lashing out at those poor unfortunates around him, the helpless masses displaced by war and angels' vindictive greed.
The next day work got out early. The Overseers had seized the last open road out of the city, so supplies couldn't be brought in by truck anymore. And the refugees couldn't be ferried out either. With fewer incoming supplies, there was less for James to hand out at the distribution center--and a long line of people going without necessities like food and water.
"The military says it's going to retake the road," Henry explained over a hand of cards. Some of the refugees had joined them for the game, bringing their number up from two to eight.
"Damn pigeons," James muttered, and the table grumbled in agreement. In the distance, artillery rumbled.
"Why are we fighting them anyway?" a man whose name James hadn't bothered to learn complained.
"They attacked us," Henry shrugged, winning the hand and collecting the cards. "There was a disagreement between President Orion and the Overseers so they attacked." He shuffled the deck.
"Yeah, but why us?" the man insisted. "We have nothing to do with it!"
"Orion was here when they started the attack," James said as Henry dealt the next hand. "They killed him, but the army rallied and drove them out of the city. The Flame Dawn hates losing ground and High Command doesn't want to give up Lanstead to them. Neither side will back down until the meat grinder has claimed its fill of lives."
There was a lull in the conversation. Several hands passed--James even won one of them--without words. Then James stood up and walked over to the faucet to get a drink of water. He turned the knob, and nothing came out.
The group stared.
"I will murder each and every one of those angels!" James growled. He turned the knob again, but still no water. "Come on, damn you!"
Henry took out a phone and walked into another room. A few minutes later, he returned. "Military HQ says the Flame Dawn seized the nearest water treatment plant. They're currently fighting in the streets next to it, hope to have the water back online within the hour."
"Within the hour?" James exploded. "I accomplished more in less time back when I was with the UTF, and it's going to take them an hour to get the water running again?"
"James," Henry said softly, "I think you need to calm down."
James angrily pulled a set of headphones out of his pockets and jammed them onto his ears, turning up the music before stomping upstairs.
"He was in the UTF?" someone asked, barely audible above the music.
His room, however, was not his own. Three other people were there--a family huddled together against the distant sound of cannon and the fear of being killed in this inescapable city. James ignored them and turned up his music even more, going straight to his bed and falling into an angry sleep.
The water was working the next morning, and within the week the road was open again too, with supplies coming back in. A fleet of transport ships also arrived, bringing much needed relief supplies and carrying a horde of refugees out of the city. Henry's apartment was no longer home to three times its capacity, and their card games were down to just three people (a few of the refugees were still there, but not many). James was getting better, able to win one hand in three now more or less consistently.
"Things look to be on the up-and-up," Henry was saying, putting away his phone. "The military just notified me that they'll be able to evacuate more people tonight, including ones who aren't in immediate danger. Now's our chance to get out of here before the fighting reaches our homes."
"I'm not going," James said, shaking his head. "No one is going to drive me out of here."
Henry raised an eyebrow. "Not the Overseers? Not your friends among the Flame Dawn?"
A scowl. "Nobody." He kept his headphones over at least one of his ears at all times now, the music volume varying from quiet background to dull roar. "And with any luck my friends are already dead. I haven't heard from them since I was relocated to this side of the Rift. For all I know, they died before the Overseers arrived."
"What was it like, the UTF?" Marcus asked.
James's scowl deepened as Henry won the hand. "None of your business."
Henry began to shuffle up and deal. "Come on, James, tell us a story. Did you ever get to see any of the Overseers while you were in the New World?"
"I told you, I left the New World before the Overseers arrived. I saw some come through the rift, though."
"What were they like?"
James shrugged and adjusted his headphones so they covered both ears. "They were angels."
The next day when James got back from work, Henry was plastering a recruitment poster on the door of the apartment complex. "Hey there, James," he said, wiping a layer of sweat and dust from his brow. "How was work?"
"It was work," he replied.
Henry gestured at a pile of boards stacked a few feet away. "I think it's about time I dealt with the windows. Care to help?"
"Those pigeons are getting closer," Henry explained as they started to board up the windows. "I hate to do this, but the last thing we need is broken glass."
"So the military's recruiting again?" James said, picking up a board.
"When aren't they? You thinking of signing on, doing more than just handing out supplies?"
James grunted. "Don't know. Not doing much good as is."
"By the way, the Overseers and the Dawn blew up the water mains to most of the city. Strict austerity measures are being enforced."
"Well damn," James said, picking up another board. "They're putting extra pressure on the supply trucks too. Drivers say that half of them got taken out on the road last night."
"You think they're trying to starve us into submission since they can't take the city by force?"
"Maybe so. How strict are these austerity measures?"
"To start with, no showers until the broken mains get fixed or the working ones get expanded."
"Damn those pigeons."
"Amen," Henry laughed. "Amen."
"Does the military get to shower?"
"The soldiers? Don't know."
"How about batteries?" His music player had run out of power earlier that day.
"I'm sure that there are some perks involved. There have to be."
James grunted in agreement as they picked up another board. "Well, why don't you call and find out. I may end up enlisting again after all."
When he walked to the recruitment center, his backpack carried only five things: his music player and headphones, a spare change of clothes, a notebook full of old designs, what toiletries he had left, and Henry's deck of cards.
"I'll just make another one," the landlord had said. "You take these."
The gray and blue Genesis uniform that he had worn all that time ago--had it been months or years since then?--was already covered in the gray dust of a city slowly being pounded into rubble by war. There were three medals on his chest: one for valor during the Infestation, a Silver Cross of technical excellence, and a Crimson Cross of friendship from the Flame Dawn, awarded for battlefield bravery.
The recruiter looked up when he entered. "Soldier, what are you doing here? Shouldn't you be at the front?"
"James Sibello, here to reenlist."
Lanstead was a warzone, and it was time for everyone to start fighting to protect it.
By request of Omucupunga in Discord, who asked that I write a story about the life of a normal GI citizen. By way of disclaimer, James is not a Moose, nor is he related to any Meese. He enjoys listening to music and long walks through the rubble-filled streets of Lanstead however.