"I tell you, back in my day, we didn't have to take no shit off no muties!"
Heads slowly turned and eyes shifted to catch the speaker in the mirror behind the bar.
He was old. No - make that elderly. His hair was white, and the hair from his pate had migrated over the decades into his eyebrows. His eyes, though bright, were sunken into folds and crags of loose flesh. The only smooth skin on his face was the tip of his huge, hooked nose.
He took a long slug out of the highball glass and slapped it down on the counter, letting loose another slur even as the obviously transgenetic bartender filled it from a bottle of the house whiskey.
"Hey, pops," a stranger said as he put a friendly hand on the man's shoulder, "Why don't you come sit with me in the booth? Some of the natives are getting restless."
The older man looked down the bar and noticed the quick shifts and nervous gestures of people who've been caught staring. He looked at the hand on his shoulder, looked at the face it was connected to, and nodded as he stood.
"Name's Jer'miah," he said, with the tremors of age in his voice.
"Pleased to meet you. Smith," was the answer to match the handshake.
Smith could see now that Jeremiah's longsleeved shirt covered decades-old tattoos. Some of them peeked from under the cuffs.
"Sailor?" Smith asked. His response was a brightening in the old gray eyes and a grim nod.
Smith knew the look, knew the nod. "Right," he said, taking a sip, "My time was after the war."
The war. The Transgene War. It hadn't even been remembered as "The Squid War", because that hadn't even been the largest impact on history - it had been the technology that turned the tide.
Jeremiah raised his glass to clink with Smith's. Smith assumed that that was all that needed to be said, and they sipped in silence for half an hour, pausing only for refills.
"I was a diver, you know."
Smith cringed. "Fuck."
"Yep. That about sums it up."
Smith had long since taken off his coat, and Jeremiah had rolled up his shirtsleeves as they got into the business of serious drinking. Most of the tattoos had long since faded into darkened, runny blobs; two, though, looked no more than a few years old. A diving bell, and a butterfly, placed oddly on his left forearm among what might have once been anchors, naked ladies, or sparrows.
Smith mentally kicked himself for not noticing them sooner. Jeremiah obviously had them touched up every few years, and there was good reason. Divers during the Transgene Wars had a survival rate of about one in ten for the first two years. In the last six months, it had dropped to one in fifteen. They called them butterflies, because they were short lived and highly decorated.
But there was another reason; divers had been the first volunteers to undergo transgenetic modification. Highly experimental at the time, the first wave of fully transgenetic humans had been optimized for the deep ocean depths where the bulk of the wars had been fought. They would emerge from their laboratory cocoons with drastically strengthened bone structures, radically altered blood chemistry, and even new organs. They were the front line troops in a war where both sides found each others' mechanized solutions laughably primitive and easily defeated.
The squids tore through submarines just as easily as humans blew up their supermarines. The squids, however, had been totally unprepared for the divers.
Most died, of course. Some lost it, mentally, and were never able to reintegrate. There were rumors that some of them had refused to come back, and made a home for themselves somewhere in the Pacific. And those few who lived and survived the change back into stock humans couldn't help but remember the pain every time they saw somebody with a fashionable mutation.
Smith couldn't imagine the alienation. The technology had progressed drastically, as technology tends to do. Now, cosmetic procedures were an outpatient injection, and most other procedures required nothing more than a night's observation and a few weekly checkups. Kids were getting cat eyes as young as sixteen, and sixth fingers were more common than wristwatches.
Every time Jeremiah held his granddaughter's hand, instead of affection, he felt six weeks in a metal coffin while his skeleton warped and his tongue was replaced with a gill.
Smith knew Jeremiah and the rest of those poor bastards had gone through the comparative equivalent of open heart surgery performed by a surgeon with only a chainsaw.
In the end, the humans had won, of course, and there was no doubt that the technology pioneered in the war had drastically improved life - but there were still old-timers, divers mostly, marked with a diving bell or a butterfly, who wished it was otherwise.
"Used to be a nice place, this," Jeremiah said.
"Yeah. Used to be more of us."
Smith nodded and waved for another round.
An entry for Secret Santa Summer Nodeshell Challenge 2011
; inspired by a piece of short fiction by 256
, found here
and linked above.