“Hey, Mister. Can you spare a dime?” The man at the mouth of the alley had a rasping voice.
Zeb turned to look, about to tell him to get lost.
He stopped short on seeing the stained cheesecloth rags tied around his head and face.
“It’s okay, Mister.” The man’s sloping shoulders slumped further still.
Zeb dug in his pocket to see if he had some loose change.
The sight of a double row of campaign ribbons and the Military Medal wrenched at his guts and made his heart beat faster.
“What are you selling?” Zeb recovered quickly.
The man stood awkwardly, trying to stay out of the streetlight’s glare, and yet still make a pitch to passing strangers.
Zeb handed him a three-dollar coin, one of the green-anodized hexagonal coins the government had just issued to commemorate the Empire’s final defeat of the Republic.
“Here.” The guy handed over three apples, as Zeb sniffed the air suspiciously. “Thank you for your kindness.”
Zeb was hungry enough, as dinner had been three or four hours ago. He stood there a little self-consciously polishing the apple on his jacket, and then taking a bite out of it. The fellow didn’t smell as bad as he looked, although there was a perceptible aroma. The hands seemed clean enough.
“It’s good. Really good.” Zeb chewed, wondering at his feelings. “I hardly ever buy them, myself.”
Normally he brushed past such people without a backward glance.
“So…if you don’t mind me asking…what happened?”
The head jerked in the semblance of a nod. The question was a familiar one, and the answer came easily enough after years of dereliction, deprivation, and despair.
“Laser blast. The cavity—that’s like the breech of a gun. It failed and blew up in my face. Most likely it was stress cracks from overheating.”
“Ah.” Zeb took another bite.
“We were on Alpha-Seven.”
Alpha-Seven was a glorious page in Imperial military history. Its small garrison, seven hundred Marines, if Zeb remembered the news stories correctly, had held out for three months before being overwhelmed by vastly superior forces. Alpha-Seven was an airless rock not much bigger than Rhode Island. In Zeb’s private opinion, the Empire had provoked the war with its trade embargo of resources vital to the other’s economy, although the Republic struck first, in a surprise attack that had come within a whisker of success during the first six months.
Zeb couldn’t think of a thing to say.
He had an inspiration.
The man twitched and expelled breath noisily.
Zeb took another bite, working his way around the core.
“That’s a good apple.”
“I steal them.”
“Can’t say as I blame you.” Zeb threw the core into the alley.
He stuck out a hand, after carefully putting the other two apples in the side pocket of his jacket.
They shook, as the liquid pools of darkness that were the man’s eyes searched his face, looking for signs of contempt or pity or even compassion.
“Thank you, Mister.”
“I’ll give one of these to my little sister, and one to my mom.”
Zeb could almost sense a tired smile under the bandages, and the fellow inclined his head.
“Good luck to you.”
There was no response.
Catching someone’s eye, the fellow leaned forward into the light.
“Excuse me, nice lady. Can you spare a dime for an old soldier down on his luck?”
Zeb moved out of the way as she gasped, stopping short. Her hand went to her throat, and then dropped.
“This gentleman was on Alpha-Seven.”
“Oh.” Her eyes glazed a bit and then she remembered. “Oh.”
Her hands reluctantly opened up her small clutch-purse and fished around for some coins.
“The apples aren’t bad either.”
She sized Zeb up with an odd look, and the veteran took something from her outstretched hand. Zeb had the impression she wasn’t all that enamored of either one of them, although she accepted an apple with as much grace as she could muster. There was no room in the purse for it, and the likelihood was that she would throw it away around the next corner. Which didn’t seem right, somehow, but what could you say? It would just embarrass all concerned.
Zeb decided that was the psychological moment to move on.
Yeah, it was a disgrace how the Empire treated the maimed, the crippled and just plain lost veterans, to whom they all owed so much. Their pension benefits were abysmal, and while media reports on the rehabilitation centres invariably glowed with praise for the good work done there, the need was so great that inevitably, far too many fell through the cracks and ended up in the gutter. Zeb had been a year too young for the service, or he might have joined up himself.
That’s what he always told himself.
It was always the way, wasn’t it? When the war started the promises were legion, the recruiting calls patriotic and made with fervent calls upon men’s honour. When it was over, the Empire turned to other priorities, not the least of which was putting millions of returning, able-bodied soldiers back into society, and the workplace, and of course paying down the colossal debt. Wars were won, as everyone knew, by the massive expenditure of blood and treasure. The balance of power remained. Nothing had really changed.
The balance had been maintained. Zeb figured within twenty-five years, maybe less, they’d be at it again, for nothing would be decided until one or the other system had been destroyed.
That’s what a lot of people said, and it seemed true enough.
This was the true face of glory.
Author's Note: my new science fiction novel, (set in the same external frame of reference in relativistic terms as this story,) otherwise known as Third World will be available in the near future.