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The Things You Do When the War Breaks Out

Peter M. Ball is a writer from Brisbane, Australia. He's a blogger, convener of the biennial GenreCon writer's conference, and the author of the novellas Horn and Bleed from Twelfth Planet Press and the Flotsam Trilogy from Apocalypse Ink Productions. He can be found online at petermball.com and tweeting @petermball.

Your stomach does this funny lift, when they activate the anti-grav. Nothing crazy, like you'd get if you were on a roller coaster, but my dad, he was never a roller-coaster guy. He had it in his head that the train was going to crash, clutched the armrests with both hands and focused on his breathing. Little shallow breaths, in-out, in-out, over and over for the whole thirty clicks it took to get into low orbit.
"Dad, it's fine. We're safe," I said. "Nothing's going to happen to the train, okay?"
My father wasn't having a bar of it. "Your mum said that, before she went up the first time. Perfectly safe, she said, and ever since she came back... well, you can't say it didn't affect her, eh?"
He was breathing again. Ignoring me. My mum, she went to space first, back when the trains were still a new thing. She left dad not long after she got back, ran off with a bloke who worked at her office. Dad could see a connection there. The rest of us couldn't. Mum said she couldn't hack it, after things got bad, and there wasn't any reason to doubt her.
Some days, I can't really hack it either. It seems unfair to say that.
Still, Dad got better, once we got past the Karman line and entered the thermosphere. You can see the dinosaurs from there, all the spacefaring pterodactyls that flit toward the train like moths drawn to a light.
Dad said, "it's amazing, isn't it? Seeing them out there?"
And it was, I suppose, from his point of view. They were still extinct, when he was a kid. Dad remembers when first we discovered them, after we went into space for real. They were hanging out on the dark side of the moon, waiting for us to come catch up and join them.
He always loved dinosaurs, my dad. Wanted to call me Rex, when I was born, 'cept mum refused. She named me Henry and figured I'd turn out okay, with a sensible name like that.
Things went wrong. Of course they did. You finally take your dad into space, despite his protestations. You take the train up--safest way to travel, everyone always says so--and you get him a good look at the thing he loves and maybe, you think, he'll soften a bit. Maybe he'll let go of this thing with mum.
So, yeah, of course that's the day that the dinosaurs go mental, start swooping your carriage, snapping their beaks against the windows. Loud noise, that. Loud as a gunshot. One crack, then another, and it makes you think of a chick breaking free of an egg, 'cept this time it's something getting in, not getting out.
Thing is, it's not my dad who freaked out about it. "This is brilliant," he said. "They're like bloody magpies."
They weren't. They were big, leather-winged, and dangerous. They could survive in space, and we could not. It was my turn to do the breathing thing, while my dad got his phone out and took a photograph.
"Dad," I said, "this is serious. They're trying to get in. they don't ordinarily--"
He shushed me, just like he did when I was a kid, speaking out of turn on a trip to a museum or library. The lights in the carriage turned red, and a polite voice informed us we should put on our seatbelts. A pterodactyl beak snapped against the window, right next to my head.
"Seatbelts," Dad said, and pointed at mine, like I'd somehow missed the announcement. Then he turned back to the window, cell phone in hand, and took another photo.
The polite voice was back again, telling us not to worry. They were going to turn up the anti-grav, try and make a run for it.
There were dents in the side of our carriage, when we disembarked at VS Station. There were soldiers in blue caps, guns slung against one hip, keeping a wary eye on the sky. One of them caught us looking at the dents, told us we'd gotten lucky. "The two-fifteen out of Belfast," he said, "she's a good three hours overdue. 'Dactyls knocked her off-course, sent her drifting into irregular orbit."
We thanked him and hurried into the station. Met up with my sister, who'd come out to meet us, after hearing about the attack on the news.
"Be an interesting kind of visit," she said. "They're paying all sorts of attention about what's happening on the dark side. No one's said evacuation yet, but it's on everyone's mind."
I sat in the back seat. My dad, up front, cycled through his photographs. He regaled my sister with enthusiastic details of the attack. "When we get home, I'll show you the pictures," he said. "You're brother was worried, silly duffer. Missed the chance to get all sorts of good shots of 'em up close."
"You were scared too, when we took off," I said.
"I," dad said, "was apprehensive. Not the same thing at all."
They sent tanks to the dark side of the moon the following evening. My dad did not approve, but then, he was an apologist. "Bloody ecological tragedy," he said. "Shouldn't be messing with their habitat like that, eh?"
My sister didn't agree.
"You're not from here," she said. "You don't really know what they're like. They're dangerous."
"Ecological tragedy," my dad repeated. He would not budge on that point. Went outside and taught her kids how to play Tyrannosaur. The game hadn't changed, since I was a kid. He'd snarl and growl and chase them around, then fall over and go extinct when my niece pretended to be a comet.
My sister called him a stubborn old bugger. She made a fresh pot of coffee.
"How is he?" she said.
"He's good."
"No." She put the coffee pot down, put both hands on the counter. "I mean, how is he, really?"
I didn't trust myself to answer.
A soldier came to my sister's door. A tall woman in a blue cap, blonde hair pulled into a tight, controlled bun. She had a gun slung under one shoulder and a sour expression. She told us the war was not going well. She made it clear we'd need to be ready for evacuation.
My father disappeared that evening, sneaking out after we'd gone to bed. My niece found a note on his pillow the next morning: Going to the dark side. Not coming back. I'm sorry.
The soldier came back to take our report. She made it very clear no one should go after him.
We went. Of course we went. He might be going bonkers, but he was still our dad. My sister called in some favors, got us let out past the city limits in this beat-up old rover. Stayed on the ground, went through valleys where we could. Avoided open spaces, kept a wary eye out for pterodactyls above.
"This is your fault," my sister said. "He would have been bloody content on the ground. I would have brought the kids to see him."
"You wanted him to visit," I said.
My sister's lips were a pale, tight line.
"We should have known this would happen," she said.
"It's been fifty years," I said. "No one could have known."
We went silent, the two of us. Evacuation was due to start within six hours. If we weren't back, we stayed behind. Her wife would get the kids away, keep them safe on the trains.
Then dinosaurs found us, seven clicks out.
Your stomach does this funny lift, when your buggy gets attacked while you're traversing the surface of the moon. Sharp beaks rap against the thick layers of glass and you hear your sister screaming. No calm voice to explain the situation, just panic and terror and the heavy crash of your own heartbeat. Deep breaths won't calm you. If the glass cracks, deep breaths are not really advised.
This is what happens when things go wrong.
You think about your dad, alone on the dark side of the moon. You think about those trips to museums to look at bones. You think about playing Tyrannosaur and how you squealed, as a boy, when he chased you.
You think about your mum, and how long it's been since you saw her.
You think about the crack on the windshield, getting longer. The hiss of oxygen escaping. The engine whining as you try to run, your sister screaming something about sealing the system.
You think about all the ways you could have helped your father, and didn't. How you brought him here, to the moon, to make up for things.
It hasn't.
And you think, it will work out. There will be another chance.
And you think, this is amazing, look at them all out there.
And you think, that crack is getting bigger.
And then you do the breathing thing. In-out. In-out.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 2nd, 2016

Author Comments

My friend, Kathleen Jennings, will occasionally take the weird diversions that twitter conversations will occasionally amble down and transform them into small, post-it note illustrations. One week, after a discussion about the history of flight, dinosaurs, and Terrance Haile's Space Train, she came up with a quick sketch that fused the three. I started wondering about the people on the train, and why the pterodactyls were there, and somewhere along the line the story took a far darker turn than expected.

- Peter M Ball
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