THE LONG GAME
By Colin R. Sinclair
Earth2 , 10th October 1996
He was almost killed by a magpie in the Botanic Gardens.
Kelsey was sitting alone on slabs of ice, staring out across a chill emptiness of leafless trees and tumbles of jagged bushes. Here and there a glowering figure, shuffling and shivering through the midmorning glooms. Everything was slow and silent. Breath steaming off as he thought about things.
The one thing. All that ever mattered.
Caught sight of a black white flicker and flash. Looked up as the bird hop skip stepped from the snowpeak rooftop of the Tropical Ravine. It dropped. Wings spreading wide. Black white green blue, and straight for his head.
Banking sharp left inches from his face, landing dead stop on a nearby wooden railing. A single magpie. Turning in circles on its perch. Peering at him.
Oh, you know, said the magpie. For Sorrow?
Kelsey watched it. "You're just taking the piss, aren't you?"
The magpie simply smiled.
"And what of Lieutenant Kelsey. Will he make it?"
"I should think so, Sir. There's every chance."
"You've given him some time?"
"As you suggested, Sir. He's headed back to his home town. Relative quiet there at present. I should think he will manage all right. Put it behind him. Move forward."
"I hope so, Dawson. He's a good man. And of course one understands his feelings..."
"We all do, Sir. The War has damaged everyone."
Kelsey was not insane. He was single minded. Dedicated and cold focused on his goal. Not quite mad. Not yet.
Here he sat in the bleak midwinter, with the dead and dying landscape all around a perfect barometer of his mood, while an alien army ravaged the world.
He had better things to do at the moment. Other battles to be fought.
Start by thinking positive, he decided.
His daughter Beck was lost. As if she had wandered off to the Woolworth's toy department, while he was prowling Household Goods. That was the way to look at it. Lost.
Not dead. Not trapped in the K`thari cattle pens. Misplaced. That was all.
If only he had kept her from the army, she would be safe. Kelsey shook his head. He should have argued stronger. Couldn't think of anything to say to stop her joining up. The human race was being crucified. They needed everyone, and Beck had dreamed of this forever. It was the fire in her soul. Without the heart and courage that took her to the front-line, she could be with him now. Just wouldn't be the same.
Kelsey remembered her, years gone. Still a child and racing around her grandparents` sprawling townhouse. That awkward age flurry of long blonde hair and clumsy limbs. Trapped in a maze of antique artefacts and bric-a-brac trash.
Every day brought a new disaster. Another toy mutilated in destructive testing gone astray. A different ornament consigned to splintered oblivion.
Few items survived the onslaught. Beck's all time favourite, untouched by her chaotic play, was a cheap ceramic tableau of some peninsular engagement. Two rough figures standing on a badly moulded rutted farm track. The mediocre wash of paint long worn faint by Beck's loving clutches.
She could stare at it for hours.
Kelsey's dad called it boot-sale rubbish. Thought of controlling Beck's antics by threatening to dispose of it, if she did not for heavens sake calm down and take more care. He only tried that once. The despair in Beck's eyes was too great a shock. From then the vulgar piece took up favoured ornament status, a new position in the centre of the mantel. Always in view, safe from harm.
The Soldier's Daughter Carrying His Musket.
Beck said that was cool. Ever so.
Stood there in the dark panel hallway one morning. Grubby clothes, scuffed shoes and gathering up the cold seriousness of all her nine years.
"When the war starts, Father, you'll be sure to let me help you. Won't you?"
Kelsey frowned and sagely shook his head, because parents know best.
"I don't really imagine there will be another war, Rebecca."
So maybe she knew something even then, and now the reality was science fiction nightmares walking tall. Walking the world.
An alien force was biting deep into eastern Europe. A ragged all nations army strung itself out across the low countries, testing and skirmishing, waiting for a Zero Hour that never came.
And Beck was gone.