The sun is sharply angled on an old white farmhouse, punching through orange clouds, giving the carefully manicured fields a golden glow. A hunched man painfully navigates his walker to a chair on the porch, plopping down with a sigh that’s half contentment and half pain. A nurse wheels another man in a wheelchair out onto the porch next to him. “Alright, guys. One hour until the sunset. Don’t make any trouble tonight, alright?”
“I didn’t mean you, Jim.” She looks at the man in the wheelchair pointedly. “Don’t you remember? Wilt almost burned the whole place down last night.”
Indignant, he shakes his head. “No, that wasn’t me. I would remember that.”
Gently, she pats him on the shoulder. “Well, all our memories are definitely getting worse here. But yes, you almost caused some serious damage.”
Wilt harrumphs. “Probably just my defensive instincts kicking in.”
“Maybe you should check his chair for lighters.” Jim laughs.
She sniffs, walking back inside. “More like I should check his brain for gremlins.”
Jim waits until the door is closed, and then leans over conspiratorially. “Well, I thought it was impressive how you built that improv flamethrower.”
Wilt looks confused. “Definitely don’t remember that.”
“I think you were just still worried about the bugs.”
“It’s hard to be defenseless after a lifetime with a flamepistol on your hip.”
Cicadas fill the air with a calming rhythm.
Shaking his head, Wilt turns to look at Jim. “Still can’t believe we never crossed paths in any system of those roach fights, until that last big one back home.”
“Well, obviously couldn’t avoid being in the same place at that point. We’d been pushed back to the brink, eh?”
“Yup. So wait. Were you on Optimist-6 when they figured out the brainwave gun?”
“Nope. Sounds like it was godawful.”
“Before any real defenses got thunk up by the engies, all we had were Faraday helmets, and they didn’t really work.”
“What was it like?”
“It was like the strongest drug you never took. It was like someone had gone through the trouble to create your perfect mate, introduced you to them, let the sparks fly… and then tortured them to death right in front of your eyes.”
“Sheesh. I guess I’m glad I was on Hepha when that went down.”
“Oh, cripes. That’s a devil’s bargain right there. Wasn’t that when the roaches figured out skinsuits?”
“Yeah. They somehow got our colonel, and it took way too long for us to realize what the hell was going on. He’d rerouted all supplies and nearly tipped the entire Hepha system into their grubby claws. Wish I could say I was the one to figure it out, but that was our boy Benny. Always the swift one, him.”
“How’d he deal with it?”
“How do you think? He recorded proof of the skin banding, and then he dealt with it. With his service weapon.”
“Crap. Just awful.”
“Yeah, we were gunning down the right roaches and the wrong people for a while after that. Benny himself went down with the wrong suspicion.” Jim shakes his head.
Wilt slumps down, relaxed in his chair, looking satisfied. “Man alive, this sunset reminds me of the campaign to take Wellbringer back from the ‘roaches.”
“Oh yeah… those damn bugs. At least Wellbringer was way before they started to really get under our skin, though. I didn’t even have to pull a trigger there.”
“Wait, you were on Wellbringer too? I thought we never crossed paths back then.”
Jim frowns. “Well, yeah. We were in the same system, but never actually deployed at the same time. We talked about it last time, remember?” He pauses for a bit, expecting something, but Wilt stays quiet. “Well, uhh. I never had to eat dirt. Us 43rd humps were stationed at the Lagrange point, ready to deploy for any close-orbit combat. But that one I never got to see up close.”
“Well, it was quite a sight, let me tell you. Our sub-chaining packers just raining down white rocks on the poor bug sling-gun installations. All them big lava derricks glowing brighter as that big orange sun set.”
“Yeah, I bet it was somethin’. To all of us floating sim-frozen up at the point, it was just a red speck and a big orange star. Isn’t it funny how even after all these years, when your feet are on a planet, any old planet, you can’t help but call it the sun?”
“Heh, yeah. Even if it’s not a G-sequence. That frickin’ big orange cheese wheel floating over a red planet with lava shooting everywhere, and it still made me homesick to have my boots on that red mud, after all the frickin orbital jaunts.”
“Tell me about it. In the 3 tours I spent as enlisted, I got to actually enjoy real gravity maybe four times total.”
Wilt raises a shaky hand from his chair’s armrest, pointing up at the fading dotted line of red, as the last rays slice through the valleys of the mountain range in the distance. “Hell, we call that a sun too. Even though it’s just a frickin’ fake!”
The sliding glass door swooshes open, and the nurse comes back out of the house.
“Okay, boys. It’s time to head back in. Your old timey porch run is over. Thanks for not starting any fires, this time.”
“That was fun, Jim. Let’s do it again in a few subjective years.”
“Back to the grind, I guess. May it go well with you, Wilt.”
“Too much to do, always. I like these little moments we carve out. I won’t miss this decrepit host body, though.” Wilt shakes his head, and punches at his useless legs. “I don’t know how people did it.”
“Good to be reminded where we came from, though, I guess…”
“Hey! Did you see that? I could swear a big ol’ roach just ran out between the boards there.”
“What? Come on, Jill. Did you guys program in roaches as a joke, now?”
She sighs, rubbing her temples. “No. It’s probably just the senescence simulation messing with you. Come on already, hit your failsafes. We need to clean this sim up already.”
Jim shrugs, and makes a gesture with his hand. He winks out of existence, and his walker wobbles for a moment.
“Maybe you need to tone down that dementia. I feel like a damn fool right now.” Wilt shakes his head, gestures with his wrist, and he’s gone.
The nurse checks something on her wrist, and stares at the horizon where the sun’s hidden light is turning the atmosphere purple over the black ridges of the mountains.
Then she disappears as well, cut out of reality, and everything freezes. The wheelchair sits empty. The cicadas make no noise. A little black shape peeks its head out from beneath a wheel of the chair, and tunnels its way into the armrest. Now nothing moves.