Only one Sergeant remained seated at the bar, and though he knew he had important work to do the following day, he dove deeper into drink as the clock struck 1:00 a.m. The bartender didn’t seem to mind; he was a young man, and had been listening to the stories told by the veterans of the Hubrin War. As a survivor of Waller’s charge, the mighty Sergeant at his bar was entitled to stay up as long as he wanted.
And Mike Strong would last a bit longer.
Being on the new world was never easy for him. Back on Earth, it was less difficult to ignore the memories of his dead friends. Under the two moons of the new world, there was no fighting off the images of the past –– and not just the joyful memories.
More than 700 of his countrymen, with whom he’d left Newfoundland, seen Egypt, warred in Afghanistan, and discovered the Hubrin… they’d all died, and he had not. They were all buried in the dirt of this world, all gone in a storm of light when most of them were barely Alex’s age.
But of course, being buried didn’t mean those b’ys weren’t with Mike Strong in the bar –– far from it. He could hear Sergeant Whealan raging away on the fiddle, Captain Sesk telling stories of a fight won, and Major Miller offering words of wisdom. There were laughs at the best kinds of bad jokes, claps with old shanties, and a few fights for good measure, because it was late enough for card games to have gone on one or two hands too long.
The empty hotel bar was full of soldiers from the Newfoundland Regiment –– Strong could nearly see them.
And if not for the drink, he feared he actually would see them. Talk to them.
So with a nod and a sad smile to the barkeep, the Sergeant summoned another drink. It was delivered with speed, and as soon as he had it Strong raised his glass, clinked it up against Major Tucker’s, and grinned, “Here’s to being too old, and too round.”
“Cheers to that, Strong,” the long-dead Major replied with a grin, and drank his own.
He downed the fierce drink, then laid the glass on the counter. The bartender watched him do that, but didn’t respond to the words –– not knowing who they were meant for.
Strong considered another… though he knew he was getting too close to his limit. Years of soldiering had taught him how much he could handle on a late night, and still function the next day; while many men didn’t have the ability to stop themselves, the Colour certainly did.
Especially when his ability to do his job might mean the difference between Alex and Stephanie living or dying.
When that grave thought slashed through his head, Strong straightened up, then shook himself, “Alright, it’s time for water. Lots of it, my good man.”
Some men thought coffee broke drunkenness, but Strong had always found water to be the best way to prevent a hangover. At his age, it also meant getting up a few extra times in the night… but that was a fair trade.
Hopefully, though, the booze would continue to stay in his brain long enough to keep him from seeing apparitions before his head hit the pillow. Just knowing the b’ys were with him was enough.
When one hopped onto the stool beside him, he actually groaned, “Dammit, I thought I’d had enough.”
Elspeth looked right at him, her eyebrow up, “It sure looked like you did.”
Strong hadn’t expected a woman’s voice –– let alone Lady Cornish’s common London accent –– so he looked to her quickly, then laughed at himself, “Apparently I did. I thought you might be George Tucker.”
“I hear I need to get older, and rounder,” her answer was pitch perfect, and Strong’s laugh grew louder.
Water was deposited in front of him, so he drank it before continuing, “I’m sorry, my dear Lady, but I am drunk. When I come to this planet, in the nights, sometimes I need to be drunk. It’s the only way to stay sane.”
Studying the Colour, Elspeth began to nod. She could see the puffiness around his eyes, and hear in his voice a sort of tension that wasn’t his custom. It didn’t take too much imagining for her to realize what it was all about –– to realize that the grief she felt when remembering those who’d died in Scotland couldn’t compare to the scale of his torment.
After all, she’d lost only eight men. He’d watched hundreds of his fellows be slaughtered in front of him.
“You’ll not turn out like me, Lady Elspeth,” Strong seemed to be invading the London Champion’s thoughts, and she turned a frown against him as he spoke.
“My loss wasn’t nearly as bad.”
Strong scoffed, and emptied the glass of water into his throat before insisting on another, “Don’t say something so foolish. No one can measure the pain of losing people you love like brothers… believe me. But you, you’re like my girls. You were raised right. You’re not too proud. Sometimes we b’ys who survived got too proud… tried to pretend we weren’t all bloody hurting for what we saw. And the ones who were best at that… lied the best to themselves… where are they? They rejoined the regiment, you see –– shot themselves, jumped off cliffs… whatever way seemed most sensible.”
More water arrived before him, and it was enough to stay his speech before the emotion beneath it started to spill over. Elspeth stared at the side of his face as he gulped from his glass, and recalled all she knew about the survivors of Waller’s charge. Many had taken their own lives because of the guilt… but not Mike Strong. He lived large enough for every man who’d died –– drank, ate and loved enough for 700 of his fallen fellows.
That was how he justified surviving, she supposed. But some nights he was obviously no better at coping with the reality of his life than she was when she woke up calling out for Bob Freeman… or checking to make certain her wrists and ankles weren’t shackled.
Swallowing at those difficult thoughts, Elspeth took a breath, “You’re getting by.”
Strong nodded emphatically, “That is exactly what I’m doing. You know what’s helped? I have two beautiful daughters, all of a sudden. You’ve seen my girls… you see how wonderful they are, bless them. You know how much I’ve learned from them? Having them… that’s why I lived, you see. The b’ys knew one day, one of us would have to look after them, and they chose me. So that helps, to know I lived for a reason.”
The drink was making the Colour far more candid than he would normally have wanted to be, and it didn’t take much intuition for Elspeth to realize he was saying things that she could never repeat… but which were true.
“If I have to die for those girls, I will. That’s what I’ve been left here to do… the last mission of my regiment. And it’s me. Hope to God I’m good enough.”
With that confession, Strong gulped down the last of his water, then fished into his pocket for some bills. As he slammed them onto the counter –– a week’s pay, and far more than he owed –– he looked to the young barman, “You sir, are a master of your trade. I am honored to say I’ve been drunk in front of you.”
Understandably, the bartender didn’t quite know how to respond. Strong didn’t mind; with the gallant words said, he slid off the stool, put his boots onto the floor… and started to keel over.
“Ohhhkay,” it was a good thing Elspeth was a Champion, because her speed allowed her to get one arm around him before he fell. “Time for bed.”
“I appreciate the help,” Strong chuckled. “God, I think I’m right on my limit.”
For some reason that assessment made Elspeth smile, “I suppose you’d know best.”
“Rarely!” Strong laughed as they stumbled out of the saloon and onto the stairs. “I was only a little less drunk than this when I broke the face of a politician. Did you hear about that?”
Though the Sergeant was a robust man, Elspeth’s strength meant she had little difficulty moving him, and had plenty of capacity to focus on his words.
She quickly recalled his dalliance with the wife of Newfoundland’s Minister of War: “Everyone knows that story.”
“Bastard was beating her, right there on the lawn. I swear, I couldn’t believe that. His neighbors should have put a stop to it –– for God’s sakes, we could hear her crying from up the street. But I guess a man like that… he’s untouchable, so they say. But I gave him a right touch, or ten, with my fists.”
Strong jolted to a stop when Elspeth did, though his drunkenness precluded him wondering why she’d halted halfway up the stairs. It had been surprise that stopped her cold: she clearly hadn’t heard the story about the Minister of War… or, at least, not the real one.
“Sorry, now, I think you’re right: the last time I gave him a touch, it was with my boot. I’ll tell a secret: I don’t figure I’m strong enough to break a man’s jaw with just my fist.”
Elspeth wanted to ask questions, but this obviously wasn’t the time. Slowly –– perhaps grudgingly –– she continued up the stairs with him, and then let him direct her to his room. Had she been more familiar with intoxication, she would probably have been impressed by his comparative lucidness; Strong was a skillful drunk, and a kind one.
As she sat him down on his cot, and crouched to start undoing his boots, he stopped her with a hand cupping her cheek. She froze at the touch, then looked up slowly. His eyes were still glassy and puffy when she met them, and his smile was sad.
“Look at you, Lady Cornish. You’re an angel and you don’t even know it. There’s a reason for you being here, don’t you doubt it. Just don’t you wait as long as me to find it. Be happy, and be loved. You’re more fit for it than I ever was.”
When he let her go, he flopped sideways onto the cot, then instantly started snoring. It was an impressive feat, though his half-twisted position would undoubtedly not do him any good in the morning. Mindful of that, the Champion from London carefully pulled off the Sergeant’s boots, swung his legs up onto the cot, and repositioned him so his head could rest on the pillows.
After that she moved to the door and paused there for just a second before shutting it. Everyone in the world knew what Mike Strong would do… but it seemed that few knew what Mike Strong actually did. To her, at least, the distinction seemed important. She decided to sleep on it.