Grandpappy has a tall tale to tell. Are you sure you want to hear it?
"I remember, it rained that day. Not just any kind of ordinary rain, but sheets of rain. And it was the first rain we had seen in months." Grandfather smiled toothlessly, reaching down from the heights of his chair to ruffle my thick hair. "We all did a little dance, right there in the dust, those of us that weren't wounded and could manage. We jigged until the dust turned to mud. Hell, we all knew it was most likely hot, you know, radioactive, but we didn't care. We were just glad to be alive."
"Well, son, mostly 'cause so many of our friends had been killed by then." Grandfather sighed wistfully, almost painfully, and let his gaze stray away from my inquisitive, clear, blue eyes, toward the front window of his tiny house. Outside, the weather was wet, a strange coincidence. Maybe this rain in reality had reminded grandfather of that rain so many years ago fallen and dried. He seemed reluctant to relive the experience, while at the same time eager to do so. There was a part of him that wanted to remember, and another, blacker part of him that wanted to forget, to deny, to dispel all rumor of that long ago war. It had been a bloody war. He had said as much many, many times. "And because most of the survivors, myself included, had so much to live for."
"I had your grandmother to worry about. And your father, and one or two of your aunts and uncles. People I cared about. God knew I didn't care one spit's worth of water for that conflict, or the people that fought it. I only wanted to do my duty, and get back home as fast as possible. Which is what most soldiers want, I suppose, in time of war. Most of them." Still looking out the window, which was darkened from the cloud cover, grandfather's face turned black, also. "Some of those men, though . . . they were out of control. All that violence changes a man's mind. Most soldiers go one way; they hate it, but realize killing is better than death. Some go another. Some turn bad, and grow to love death. They go kill-crazy, which is the worst kind of craziness known to humankind. We called it 'going to Snapland'.
"Old so-and-so's gone to Snapland, we'd say, and everybody would know what was meant. After that, the other troopers would avoid the Snaplander like some kind of plague. Death was a stink on them. If you got too close, some of it was bound to rub off." The old man suddenly lapsed into silence.
I grew impatient. I squirmed. Finally, I whined petulantly, "Aw, grandpa, aren't you going to tell the story? You promised to tell me the whole story, this time."
"Yeah, yeah." He grunted, and finally tore his gaze away from the window. Now he picked up a cup of steaming artificial milk, and a large chunk of stale artificial bread. Dipping the latter in the former to make it soft for his gums, he said, "I was just collecting my thoughts, is all. I didn't fall asleep, you know.
"Now, like I was saying; it rained that day, for the first time in months. My advanced task force had been deployed . . . "
. . . had been deployed near the Oxus River Delta, in an effort to finally take bombed out Chimbay on the Aral Sea. It was a gods forsaken assignment to the well chewed nipple tip of the world.
The scars of a conventional war fought with nuclear weapons were everywhere to be seen. The half melted husks of a hundred thousand fusion powered tactical tanks dotted the countryside outlying the ruined city. Fires burned here and there, illuminating the near darkness that was blazing noon in that sunless country. A heavy pall of dense, black smoke, the outpouring of ten thousand burning oil wells, all but blotted out the blue-white skies. Unseen high above the battleground, this manmade cloud cover mingled with a cherry red cumulus, which was as deadly as the nuclear tipped artillery shells that had spawned it. As the monsoon season was in full swing in the Indian Ocean, that high cumulus boiled and rolled in upon itself, thicker and thicker, heavy with moisture borne on southerly winds. Abruptly, it began to rain.
It was a tepid, oily rain, and it reeked of petrochemicals. How well it suited this spoiled, blasted landscape. How well it suited the men of this advanced task force. They cowered in holes, hid behind chunks of armor blasted from the carcasses of devastated tanks, or just lay in shallow depressions right out in the open, the only protection they could find. Now those depressions were filling with a viscous, reeking rainfall, turning to mud puddles that steamed from the ground heat.
Wraiths, half dead, starved, numbed by the holocaust of continuous combat, turned their masked and helmed heads to the sky and squinted into the tepid precipitation. Some smiled. Some sighed or wept with relief. To a number, those soldiers that could, stood and began to stomp in the mire, dancing to celebrate their individual victories over death.
Theirs had been a bloody battle, but a small part of a much larger, bloodier war. The entire world was burning, but they had been cast into the hottest heart of the inferno. And they had long lived here in hell, these men of the advanced task force. Here, where hours were days, days years, and years could be longer than lifetimes, here they had existed and fought. Many of them had died. Indeed, the number of the dead was now a greater number than that of the living, but the survivors were not forsaken or forsaking. They had come to win or die. They were an elite force, dedicated to the last man. They were, all of them, grim warriors come on a grim errand, but they were, none of them, beyond dancing and weeping for the joy of this seldom felt treat, this pleasure of rainfall.
It was radioactive, to be sure, and they knew it would burn if it struck exposed skin, but it was good. This rain was a small measure of life amid the chaos of slaughter.