by Ken Dean

The human species is very special and unique. Just ask the cowards in the rest of the universe.

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There were four of them in the foxhole. A 105-millimeter German howitzer shell had dug it out when it had exploded. Four American Marines were hunkered down inside, hugging the dirt walls as closely as possible for maximum protection. The Battle of the Bulge had produced some good-sized artillery craters from both sides of the front. With bullets and shrapnel flying around, beggars couldn't be choosers. They had all dove in after a few close mortar blasts nearby. Fragments of metal exploding outwards from artillery or mortars were deadly as bullets. You could smell the cordite and almost taste the razor sharp shards of metal in the air. Paul had seen one guy from his squad whose head exploded like a ripe melon after being struck by a piece of shrapnel. In this god-forsaken war, when shit happened, it was real.

The four of them had made it to the front lines just in time for the Bulge to break out. Lou had been around since D-Day, and had invaluable experience. No matter what the rank lines, they all looked up to him for advice and leadership. His real name was Luigi, but he insisted on being called Lou. One newbie private kept calling him Luigi after being corrected. Guess he thought it was funny. It wasn't so funny when the newbie lost two teeth. Lesson learned. Everyone in their squad made sure to call him Lou after that. Lou hailed from the Bronx, where his Italian family had been in the olive oil business for generations. It was rumored he had a lot of pull with the mob, but he would never confirm or deny that fact. Georgie was from an upstate New York farm where life was more idyllic, and his innocence and naivete were well known. Given enough time, the war would shred his innocence away like yesterday's confetti. Charlie was from Detroit, and had been exposed to life in the streets enough to have a bad boy attitude. But the war was the great churning pot. It could turn a badass into a baby or cowards into heroes. It all depended on the situation, the desperation, and the frame of mind.

Paul was from a small farming town in Ohio, which was quite a switch as to where he was now. He remembered his mother begging him not to go, but his father had a look of pride on his face. After encountering some real battle action, he realized he was part coward and just wanted to keep his head down where it was safe until all this madness was over.

Lou had just peeked over the edge of the foxhole and ducked back down just in time to miss the bullet that came whizzing across where the top of his helmet had just been a half-second ago. "Guys," Lou whispered, "I just saw three Krauts inching their way towards us, about fifty feet away." There was desperation in his voice. "I don't want them to reach us. A grenade on top of them danger close should do the trick. That good with you guys?"

The three all looked at each other with round eyes. Danger close meant just that, dangerously close. They all nodded.

"If that's what it takes, give 'em a pineapple," Charlie answered.

"Okay, take cover against the wall of the foxhole, as tight as you can."

In this kind of situation, you wanted to be as insulated from the shrapnel of the grenade as possible. It would be powerful and close.

Lou pulled out a grenade as they hunkered against the wall of the foxhole. He pulled the pin with his left hand, while still holding the handle in place. Being a damn smart soldier, he also kept hold of the pin until the grenade left his hand, in case it had to be put back in. He looked at the three others wide-eyed, let the handle flip free of the grenade and counted one, two, three, and tossed it up above the Germans in a shallow arc. He immediately dove into the dirt wall of the foxhole. It was close. One second later it went off with a loud 'WHUMP'. It had been a perfect airburst.

Several pieces of shrapnel dug into the far side of the foxhole, leaving small smoking holes. The explosion left their ears feeling numb even though they had covered them with their hands. Paul opened his eyes immediately after the blast and saw pieces of clothing, a hand and wrist with the watch still attached, and a pair of spectacles fly overhead.

There were immediate, multiple screams of agony. Lou scrambled out of the foxhole. There were three rifle shots, and the screaming stopped abruptly. Lou jumped back in, showering them with dirt, and hunched down for cover.

"Three dead Krauts." He smiled. "The more the merrier."

Lou liked killing Krauts. It made his day.

Georgie piped up. "Guys, I don't think anywhere is safe right now. I think we should keep moving. Less of a target that way, right? Besides, I hate cowering in foxholes. Feel like a damn coward. Rather just get up and out, face the enemy and take as many of them out as possible."

"Okay, let's grab our gear and get…" Lou said just as a German grenade fell in the middle of the foxhole.

"What the…" Charlie sputtered.

"Everybody out!" Georgie yelled.

Paul saw the grenade land. He had heard that the fuse for the Germans' grenades was about four to five seconds. Two had already passed. There was no way in hell they could climb out in the remaining time. Of course it could be a dud, but you had better odds of winning the lottery. He looked around, seeing everything as if in slow motion. Georgie and Charlie were frantically trying to claw their way out of the foxhole. Lou wasn't trying to get out. Instead he was just standing there, his eyes closed, probably praying. He turned back to look at the grenade, a million thoughts running through his mind in a millisecond. Settling on the only course of action that seemed right, and going against instinct, he threw his body on top of the grenade. Immediately there was a white hot flash while a sledgehammer the size of the moon smashed his whole universe.

* * *

The whiteness hung around him like a cloud. He felt as if he was drifting in and out of consciousness, but he couldn't tell where it ended or began. Finally some clarity began to return to his thoughts, but he still felt damn funky.

"Why did you do it?"

Who the hell was talking?

His sight was beginning to return. Looking around revealed only white. He seemed to be standing on some sort of white stage in a huge auditorium, with white seats stretching outwards. In the front row were seated three men dressed in white.

All Paul could think of saying was, "Am I dead?"

"Hardly, or you wouldn't be asking, would you?" The man in the middle answered sarcastically.

"I guess that's true," Paul answered as his head continued to clear. "Why am I still alive? That Jerry grenade should have shredded me."

The sarcastic man in the middle, who was holding some sort of tablet and writing utensil, answered, "We pulled you out a millisecond before the blast, so we could ask some questions."

"How could you do something like that?" Paul asked in amazement. "I felt the grenade explode."

The man in the middle responded, seeming perturbed, "Most of the things we are capable of doing would seem like so-called magic to you. We can just do it, all right?"

"I'll take your word for it. My name's Paul. Who are you?"

"That seems appropriate. Your species values names for individuals. You can call me James, for familiarity's sake. The other two men won't need names, since they are here for observation only. We are an alien species to you humans, and represent many others in the study were are conducting."

Paul answered, "But you look so damn human."

"Amazing, isn't it?" James answered, slowly shaking his head from left to right, as if addressing a five year old.

Paul looked at the other two. All he got from his observation were steely, penetrating stares, as if they could see everything inside him, including his thoughts. He felt a chill run up his spine. It was as if ghostly fingers were touching his consciousness, reading his every thought.

"In a way of explanation, the other two individuals with me are familiars. In other words, they can tell exactly what your thoughts, feelings, and reactions are. There is nothing you can hide from them. They are here to make sure you answer honestly."

"Why wouldn't I answer honestly?" Paul said angrily.

"Well, your species is known for being dishonest at times. Plus, for you, it's wartime," he said with a disgusted look on his face. "You may feel as if you are being interrogated."

"Sure as hell feels that way."

"Let's not call it an interrogation… For us, it is a fact-finding mission. We've done it before with other species."

"Other species? Just how many more are out there?"

"A considerable amount. Some much more advanced than your own, some less. Your species has been given special priority."

"Special?" He was confused. "You say you are so far advanced compared to us, you're able to pull me out of certain death to ask me questions, and you say we are special?"

James looked at the two other men in white and they nodded their heads. James made a notation on his tablet.

"Yes, you are special. Every other sentient species we know of, including our own, value our own lives above all else. We have never fought wars or had any kind of violent disputes for the fact that we cherish our own life above having our own way. There is always a way to work out a dispute without violence. It's deeply ingrained into our being. But you, you humans, have violent conflicts strewn all down through your history. Some conflicts over pride or a single female! How ludicrous! Your species is reckless and violent. Also, you are very intelligent.

"That's why we are here. To try to figure out how intelligence and violence can coexist in one species. There is research being conducted at this very moment during your conflict by some of your governments that will unleash an unlimited amount of power, both peaceful and destructive."

"Do we humans scare you, James?" Paul said with a smirk. It felt good to give him a jab.

Paul imagined machine-gunning all three of them where they sat. The two silent men jerked as if startled, probably feeling Paul's violent thoughts.

"Yes!" James yelled. "You scare, as you would say, the hell out of us!"

Paul felt more relaxed and confident now, as if he had the upper hand. James had to take a minute to settle down, though you could tell he was still shaken.

James tried to put aside the conversation up to this point, even though it was difficult.

"Back to the original question. Why did you do it?"

"Do what?"

"Attempt to give your life for your comrades by covering the explosive device with your own body."

"I wanted to save their lives. I guess we humans cherish life to the point of giving up our own for others." Paul could be sarcastic also.

"Madness!" James screamed. The two other men were shaking.

"No," Paul answered calmly, "sacrifice."

Many minutes passed while the three men in white gathered their composure.

James said in as calm a voice as possible, "We can save you."

"Save me?"

"Yes, we can keep you here with us or even put you back in your own existence on your planet, safe and unharmed."

"What about my Marine buddies?"

"Oh… they will certainly die."

Paul jerked. No way… no way could he take the easy way out on his buddies.

He stood up at attention. "Send me back."


"Send me back to where I was before the grenade exploded."

"You are truly mad! You can save yourself."

"No! Not at the cost of their lives."

"Very well. But I must tell you, by our standards, this is sheer insanity."

"Right," Paul said indignantly. "I have a feeling our species will meet again."

James answered with a sigh as he made a notation on his tablet. "And I have a feeling you are correct. Prepare yourself. We will be sending you back in a few moments."

Paul tried to think of something poignant to leave with the aliens.

Just before he vanished to go back to his destiny with the grenade, he stood at attention and sharply saluted the three aliens, pronouncing loudly, "Semper fidelis!"

The three aliens looked at each other with bewildered expressions.





Copyright © 2009 Ken Dean

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Ken Dean: Living in Columbus, Ohio with my wife and daughters. Working in IT/Tech Support for the Hilliard City School System.

Previous Pubs: Silverthought, Scars Publications, Bewildering Stories, The Written Word.

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