This short story is currently unpublished. I got the idea walking down the street of downtown Missoula on a bright a summer day. My habit is to always think of contrast, so my mind immediately drifted to a sci-fi apocalypse
The invasion of North America had been stopped temporarily along the Rockies, so we were relived at nightfall and marched into downtown Missoula, MT. Coming out of the hills, we hugged the east side of buildings to protect ourselves from the blast waves of an orbital bombardment, if another strike hit the city. Everyone was exhausted, the nets filled with our gasps and curses. After a week in a battlesuit, my skin felt slimy and infected.
Coming to downtown, we saw that a hypervelocity rod dropped from orbit had pulverized the Missoula courthouse. Its copper dome and three floors of granite had been vaporized into a 200-yard crater, the bordering buildings shattered with rubble. We detoured widely around it, fearing another strike. There hadn’t been any nukes, I mused, perhaps because the aliens wanted to preserve the real estate.
We found the billet marked on our HUDs. The basement of a looted army/navy store. A few old navy jackets and desert digicamos lay crumbled on its floor. As the company began descending into the shelter, a few troopers picked through the stuff.
A rifleman in First Platoon, Bill Starr, gave a whoop, and turned back from the basement. Next door to the army/navy was an old rodeo shop. Bill had been a ranch hand before the invasion, in some backwoods shithole near Red Lake, Minnesota.
The ranch supply store had also been looted, but there was a lot left on the shelves. Bill came out wearing a huge grey Stetson and massive chaps tied over his battlesuit. He tied the cowboy hat onto his helmet with drawstrings.
“Hellfire boys!” he yelled. “Let’s get this rodeo started!”
Troopers perked up at this. There was yelling about mixers from the basement and on the net First Sergeant Innings cursed: “Christ, someone left a case of Triple Sec down here–Paterson put that shit down!”
Men rushed the basement door despite the orders. At least some of them would sleep, I thought. My Platoon Sergeant, Malcolm Hammers, was shouting for everyone to wait, while troopers pushed past him. I watched him grapple with Rico and Stevens, while Stevens shouted, “To hell with you, Hammers! You gonna let First Platoon drink it all?”
Suddenly, Paea, our big Samoan mortarman, came out of the cowboy shop dressed like a Native American. She had on a Sioux chief’s full headdress, a beaded vest, and a tomahawk.
“Hey you, white devil,” she said, pointing at Starr. “Get off my land. Or I’ll split you open and eat your heart.” She raised the tomahawk and charged.
There was hysterical laughter and shouts from the crowd. Starr feinted, dashed back into the rodeo store away from Paea. A dozen troopers ran in after him. I yelled for them to clear the street, nobody listened. Soon half of my Platoon was in the middle of the road, dressed like cowboys and natives, doing war whoops and yelling at each other as if herding cattle. I shook my head at this, suddenly embarrassed, and wondered what Major Redbird, our battalion S-2, would say if we lived long enough to watch the vid.
Hammers worked his way through the crowd, snatching hats off helmets, pushing troopers down, shoving them toward the billet, the servos in his suit straining. Troopers scuffled, tearing at the clothes. I stepped forward to help Hammers. I caught Starr by the arm as he reared back to punch Rico in the neck.
“Starr, get that shit off. Get your ass in the basement.”
“LT . . . Here, wait.” He swept off the Stetson, reached to put it on my head. I swatted it away. “Please, Sir,” he said, a childish look on his face. “Just try it.”
I did. I don’t know why. I hadn’t had contact with my wife, my daughter, or any of my family in Seattle since the invasion started. What difference did it make? Starr adjusted the hat on my helmet. Him and Rico looked at me, grinned.
“Looks stupid, huh?”
“No, sir. You coulda been a hellva wrangler.”
“Un verdadero vaquero,” Rico agreed.
I couldn’t tell if they fucking with me or not.
“Let’s take a picture, Starr,” I said.
“You’re the boss, LT.” He flipped out his phone and the three of us lined up and snapped the photos. They looked ridiculous, our faces hollow, eyes dark and bloodshot, the cowboy hat perched precariously atop my helmet. Three zombies, one in a Stetson, grinning manically in front of a shattered storefront. I wondered if the photo would be studied someday by a revisionist alien anthropologist, trying to understand an extinct culture.
In that moment, another orbital rod slammed into the city, only a few blocks away, lifting us all off our feet, scattering us against the buildings. Only the suits saved us from being killed by the concussion. When I got my wind back, I sat up and saw the tattered Stetson had blown against the ranch supply doorway. Nearby, Starr lifted himself onto one knee, his nose bloody behind his helmet.
“Yes, sir,” he sang out. “The last cowboys all right.”