I tried to be as spare as possible with this in order to get under 1700 words. Just barely made it.
by G. A. Lodise
Pono slammed another 30.06 cartridge into the old Ruger and dropped a second trespasser. The bullet caught the boy just high of the heart, spinning him around like an epileptic ballet dancer.
“Dumb ass teenagers,” Pono grumbled as he surveyed the rusted fence line where the clutch of young men had been trying to sneak by him. The others had taken off, running back to town or whatever hole it was that they crawled into at night to keep out of the way of the sporadic bursts of radiation that showered down on the planet.
Convinced that they had retreated for the day, Pono pulled himself to his feet and shouldered the rifle. The barrel clanked against the old Afghanistan Conflict-era helmet that topped his greying head. Groaning under the weight of the jacket he’d pulled from Molokai General Hospital he lumbered down the side of the hill toward the bodies and cursed again, not just for their stupidity but also for having to wear the extra forty pounds of lead. It was warm on the open slopes of the island and with his ghillie suit over the x-ray jacket he was steaming by the time he reached the first body. Most days he didn’t have to wear it but the meter he had also pulled from the hospital had been ticking loudly that morning when he’d headed out. If it weren’t for the trespassers he wouldn’t have bothered to go out at all. He’d just stay inside and read more of the books he’d stockpiled. He was halfway through a rather petite volume by a Chilean author he’d never heard of but was starting to warm up to. And there was Leikela. She required constant care, care he alone could provide.
Lifeless eyes stared out at him–an incongruous look of concern etched on the youthful face. Pono bent down and checked through the boy’s pockets, finding a small folding knife and a piece of paper that looked like a map. Just as he pocketed the two items, a groan made him turn. Struggling in the suit to get the rifle off his shoulder he plunged back into the tall, dead grass. A few yards away on the ground, lying on his back and breathing rapidly from the shock, was the figure of the second boy. Pono had the rifle ready in case it was a ruse, but as he got closer he saw that it wouldn’t be necessary. The boy was pale and sweaty, his unkempt hair matted and sprinkled with grass. The boy was trying and failing to get up, expanding the smudge of blood on the patch of desiccated grass under him.
Pono stood over the boy for a moment, considering his options. The wound wasn’t lethal. The boy would survive with even a modicum of care. He knew he should kill the teen with the long knife under his jacket rather than waste a bullet.
Damned kids, he thought as he pulled out the knife.
“Please,” the boy stammered.
Pono hesitated. It didn’t help that he knew the kid’s parents. But the boy, and all the countless ones like him before had threatened to steal from him and he couldn’t have that. Couldn’t afford to lose his crop, his bullets.
The frantic eyes burrowed into Pono’s frown and loosened some moor behind them.
The moon rose, large and pale over the Pailolo Channel. Pono watched the sky, lit up every hour with the bright tail of the ship lodged in a continuous circuit around the Earth. The thin ring of debris that trailed it caught the sun from the other side of the planet, crossing the Milky Way nestled in the background to create a giant ‘x’ in the sky.
“It’s part of their ruptured fuel core,” Pono said, referring to the tail in the sky. He’d spoken more in the past few hours than he had in the last year. It wasn’t yet a conversation, though. The boy had refused to speak after the older man had helped him back to the shelter. Pono figured the kid was scared out of his wits after almost being killed and didn’t blame him for not speaking up. The wound washed clean, sterilized and a fresh compress taped firmly in place, the boy had simply sat against the wall, partially propped up by a faded lawn chair pad.
“We can move back into the house pretty soon,” Pono stated. “The meter’s calming down a bit.”
The boy’s stricken eyes moved to the gauge hung from a nail on the two-by-four by the small shack’s entrance.
“What is it?” the boy croaked.
Surprised by the sudden voice, Pono hesitated. “What? The meter?”
“No, the ship.”
“Oh. Well, that’s kind of a mystery isn’t it?” He smiled, reassuringly as if he were about to launch into a bedtime story. “Some people said it was an experimental rocket we built that failed during launch. Some kind of nuclear-powered space shuttle. But that ain’t what I think it is. Nope.” He held a gnarled finger up toward the heavens and shook his head. “It’s an alien ship. Come here to make First Contact.”
“Whatta ya mean ‘What’s that’? What’s what? First Contact?”
“Crikes, kid. What were they teaching you in school?”
“I dropped out.”
“Well there ya go. See what you get for quitting school?”
The boy was silent.
“Well,” Pono began again. “First Contact is when we finally get visitors from a world besides ours. E.T. coming to check us out.”
“You think that thing in the sky is from aliens, Uncle?”
Pono smiled grimly. Uncle. Every Hawai’ian youth was expected to use the terms uncle or auntie when speaking to an adult. The Vicodin had definitely kicked in, shearing off the edge of the boy’s fear.
“Think about it this way. Would the government tell us if they picked something up on its way here? No. They’d keep it to themselves. Wait ’til they knew if it was hostile or not. Then they’d nuke it.”
The boy looked unconvinced.
“They tried to knock it down before it got here, but instead they busted it up and now that ship is up there raining down radiation on the world. That’s why everybody went underground or left.”
“Why not just go up and turn it off?”
“Turn it off? It’s an alien space ship! You don’t just turn it off.”
“Whatever, you know, do something.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. They tried that. Sent a Zed V up there with a crew to pull it out of orbit. Didn’t hear from them after that. Tried again, and again. Too much junk up there. ‘Stead they put the shields up and accelerated the second phase of the Mars colonial mission. Most folks who was left went on that.”
“Why didn’t you go?”
Pono looked away from the boy. “Same reason you didn’t. They wasn’t askin’ us out here. ‘Sides, they don’t need an old army vet on Mars. And I’m doin’ just fine here, me and my own.”
The two were quiet for a moment.
“Meter is good. Let’s get back to the house,” Pono said.
Pono watched distractedly as the boy wolfed down the bowl of thick, purple poi. It was obvious he hadn’t had the Hawai’ian staple in a while. Pretty well every child on the island was raised on it, was their first food along with a bit of ahi jerky or limu.
“You here by yourself, Uncle?” the boy asked, setting the empty bowl on the table.
The boy’s eyes went wide as he spied something on the shelf across the room. “Is that chocolate?” he whispered.
“You stay away from that!” Pono said a bit too harshly.
“What? Why? You have chocolate. I haven’t had chocolate in…”
“That’s Leikela’s!” Pono barked.
“Oh,” the boy said. But the draw of the bar was too strong for him to give up on it so easily. “Who’s Leikela?”
The boy looked around the room. “Is she here?”
“Yes,” Pono insisted.
“I got chores,” Pono said and got up from the table. “You need another Vicodin let me know.”
In the evening Pono made them a pitcher of ‘awa, the earthy, semi-narcotic Polynesian drink. They sipped it together on the porch of Pono’s house and watched the lights in the sky.
“Thank you, Uncle,” the teen said after a long silence.
“For what?” the older man said.
“For not killing me.”
“I’m sorry, too, about trying to take your stuff.”
“How many are there left in town?” Pono asked after an awkward moment.
Pono shook his head. “You’ll be okay to head back there tomorrow. I’ll give you a few more pills.”
“Maybe you wanna come too? You and your wife?”
Pono was silent.
The boy’s eyes brightened a bit at the thought. “We are running low on food, but we still got some canned stuff left. And you know how to survive. Maybe you could show us some stuff.”
“I don’t think so, kid. Leikela doesn’t want to go anywhere.”
Pono ended up giving the boy a canteen of water and a few plastic baggies of his precious poi for the trip. They stood for a few moments at the edge of the slender drive, the boy adjusting the sling Pono had rigged to keep the left arm from moving too much.
“You sure you don’t want to come back?” the boy asked.
“Pretty sure,” Pono replied.
“Thanks, again, for, well…”
“Tell those other boys not to come back here.”
The boy nodded, looked up to the older man and then turned away toward the empty highway at the end of the dirt track.
Pono watched him go and then made his way back to his house. On the way he stopped at a slightly raised patch of earth just off the drive. Overhead the strange ship and its shimmering trail of detritus slung its way across the sky.
“We’ll be just fine here, won’t we, Leikela?”