Nom De Guerre

From the Story Arc: The Fading Flame

Previous Story in the Arc: The Conquered by Seraphic Flame (Sunday, April 29, 2007)

Next Story in the Arc: Something Old, Something New by Seraphic Flame (Sunday, May 20, 2007)

(posted Sunday, May 20, 2007)

Nemo me impune lacessit. “No one wounds me with impunity.”

Tao never looked up from his feet, but methodically plodded forward, not really caring where he was headed. He hated paperwork, but the triplicate reports he'd been poring over at the Consulate had clouded his vision and driven an electric spike through his temple. It wasn't so much the massive piles of wood pulp and ink, but the grotesque machinations they were reporting.

"We never move forward, do we?" Sun murmured.

He numbly kicked the little shards of concrete that were occasionally scattered across the sidewalk. Taking a deep breath, he finally looked up to see where his feet had brought him. He was still in Kings Row. Lincoln Street to be precise. The block was comprised of the usual brownstones and brick buildings that made up the Row; corner shops, apartments and tenements, everything had that same brick red-brown tinge. A newly painted wooden sign caught Sun's attention, however. It was colored with a simple half-white half-blue pattern, with gold lettering advertising "The Nom de Guerre Bar and Grill--Fine Dining, Open 24/7". The sign hung directly above a set of steps, guarded by a set of black iron railings, leading down to a weathered door. A basement establishment of some sort.

Sun pursed his lips in what could almost be called a smile. "Tsingtao solves all problems." Tao walked down the steps, pushing aside the seemingly ancient door; despite its appearances, it felt surprisingly sturdy. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the change in light levels; whereas it was a bright and sunny day outside, it was abysmally dark in the bar. A maitre'd podium stood gathering dust in the corner. Around the first bend, with his eyes finally able to register more than vague shapes, Sun saw that there were a number of tables, most of which were filled. The lighting was intentionally toned down, with candles set on the small tables. The patrons were definitely of a rougher sort; bikers, steel workers, off-duty cops, and other assorted blue-collar types made up the majority of them. Spying an empty seat at the bar, Sun wove through the scattered tables until he reached the vacant bar stool.

An older man --presumably the bartender--was wiping down the counter. He had short-clipped, graying hair, a leather biker's vest and blue jeans, a stogie that he was puffing on merrily, and a pair of blue-tinted aviators. His most noticeable feature, however, was the pair of gloves that covered his hands; they looked like something that Tesla's Revenge or Petrograd might have fashioned, with glowing readouts and relays. Turning his head to the potential customer, the man spoke. "Afternoon, stranger, and welcome to the Nom de Guerre. I'm Jones, owner an' operator. What can I get ya?"

"Tsingtao." Nodding, the bartender turned to face a sandy-haired youth at the other end of the bar.

"Hey, kid! Some Tsingtao; I think we got some in the back. You know, the Chinese stuff." After a moment of confusion the young man shook his head, then complied, bringing Jones several bottles of Tsingtao. Jones set the bottles down under the counter, and then uncapped one, holding it in his hand. Sun was perplexed for a moment, but waited. Jones set the bottle in front of Sun; it had chilled in his gloved hand. "Lemme know when you want a refill. And don't try to skip out without paying. I wouldn't take kindly to it." Jones shuffled down to the other end of the bar, apparently to occupy himself with rousing some drunkard from a stupor.

Tao slipped the glass underneath his black knotted mask, slowly sipping the beer. At this point he no longer wanted to think about anything of consequence, particularly his liason work at the Consulate.

Jones caught a glimpse of Tao drinking under his mask. "What's the matter? Afraid someone might catch ya having a beer, man?" Jones chuckled, but then shook his head and raised his hands beseechingly. "Ah, don't mind me. I don't mean nothing by it." He shook his head, walking back to the drunk at the other end of the bar. "You're done, man. Settle your tab and get on home."

Tao glanced towards the source of his disturbed peace. Jones was busy with the drunk again, shaking his arm. The man, wearing an olive drab jacket and some fatigue pants, was resting his head on the bar counter. Finally annoyed with the prodding from the bartender, he looked up. Tao looked straight through the raddled man, about to look away. Then, through the gloom and tobacco smoke, the drunk's features finally brought a spark of recognition. It was Murdock. His face was haggard. His chin was covered with dark stubble, his eyes were sunken coals, and his skin was almost translucently pale.

"Commi... John?"

John and Jones both looked over to Sun at the same time; the former was a wash of sadness, and the latter looked confused. Jones was the first to speak. "Do you know this guy? Who is he?"

"My commanding officer."

Tao set down his glass and walked over to Murdock. "Are you ready to lie down at the headquarters, sir?"

John shook his head; just watching him was enough to fatigue someone. "I'm off duty, Kai. Cut the 'sir' crap." Not waiting for a response, John took a swig from a sweaty beer bottle that he had seemed to have forgotten about till right then.

Dropping enough cash on the counter to cover both bills and then some, Sun tried to pull Murdock to his feet. John shook off his grip, shifting in his seat. Jones shook his head, though Sun Kai couldn't read his expression, and scooped up the cash, leaving John and him alone.

Tao sat on the next stool over, staring towards, or maybe through, a crack on the far side of the wall. "It is not over."

"The hell it's not. Leave me alone, Kai. I really don't need any big speeches, or anyone tellin' me t'get back on the horse. I'm dealin' with this." John couldn't bring himself to actually look over to his subordinate officer; his shame and hurt were almost palpable. Shame for being in his current state, over what had happened to his family, and even senseless shame for simply being in pain.

"Have you given up, then?"

"What's there left to do?" John barked a harsh laugh. "They're gone, comrade. Garvey...it's pointless, now. I shoulda died years ago, but because I didn't, they're dead. There's nothin' to give up on."

Nothing even to surrender. An insurmountable obstacle. Tao leaned back. There were fights that couldn't be won, and no amount of zeal was realistically enough to alter that. Was this one of them?

But who was to say that a sacrifice would be in vain? Or that a weakness could not be exploited? As far as our own desire is concerned, we don't want to fight even for a single day. But if circumstances force us to fight, we can fight to the finish. the words from a Party speech coalesced. He even remembered the day that the Chairman addressed the determination of the Liberation Army.

This army has an indomitable spirit and is determined to vanquish all enemies and never to yield. No matter what the difficulties and hardships, so long as a single man remains, he will fight on.

Tao pondered a moment. He was no poet, and could not offer the words to inspire men to action. He only had the words of others.

"John -- imagine an iron house."

"Sun, what'd I just say? I don't wanna hear--"

"An iron house without windows," Sun rushed on, "absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation." He took an even breath. "But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?" Sun paused. John sat there, staring into his bottle and listening. Appraising the Commissar, Sun decided to continue.

"But if a few awake, you can't say there is no hope of destroying the iron house."

He paused.

"This is our call to arms." Nodding once with finality, stood up from the bar, pushing his seat back against the counter. He walked towards the exit, paying very little mind to the other patrons; few had noticed the exchange between he and John to begin with. Standing in the open doorway, Tao called over his shoulder, "I have a copy of Lu Xun for you. When you're ready for it." And then he was gone.

John spent several very long minutes sitting stock-still, barely breathing. His face reddened and contorted as he struggled with himself, warring with different emotions eternally. He went for one last drink to finish off his bottle of beer---but couldn't raise the glass to his lips. His face went calm, and then became animated again. Several of the bar patrons that happened to be looking towards him became very quiet and unnerved by his expression. John smashed the bottle to the floor, and then left the bar at a jog.

He had a Plan.