No one drank more than the scientist. Every night, after whatever patriotic black-tie gala we’d played props at, he could be found at the hotel bar, trying to extract existential meaning from a banana colada. It was an odd drink of choice for such a serious man, but only once did he respond to our interrogations about it.
“It pleases the nerve fibers,” he said, all baritone to his voice, before disappearing into the chilled yellow muck again. We were in New Tulsa, debriefing after a grueling dinner with a bunch of white-haired solar energy execs. We’d been on the road for months, and morale had gone the way of the glacier. I ordered a round for the table, and we toasted to the hustle. Heroes of the nation, peddling war bonds by day, drinking like froufrous by night. Our drill instructors would not have been proud.
Maybe it wasn’t New Tulsa. Maybe it’d been in Charlotte after the fund-raiser with the nanofinance douchebags. Anyhow.
There were 11 of us on the bond drive, 12 if you included the JungerBot. The Forever War had just entered its sixth decade, and our politicians didn’t pretend they were going to end it anymore, even during elections. They couldn’t. We’d tried everything: nation-building, nation-destroying, sending terrorists and their families to the Mars penal colony, sending the insurgent Young Siberians to actual Siberia. Nothing had worked. We were at war because we always had been. We were at war because we always would be. We were at war because we were at war.
The government decided to celebrate the Forever War’s golden anniversary with loud, shiny bombast. We were part of that bombast. AMERICA’S HEROES, TOGETHER AT LAST, went the tagline. We were like a roving variety act, but without name recognition or singing or sex appeal. Without anything, really. Just pasts wiped clean with the antiseptic of narrative. So we stood there and smiled and waved while other people told our stories to the crowds. The crowds cheered. We waved again.
After the coladas, I settled the tab and excused myself. The younger vets’ night was just beginning, but mine was nearing its end. In the queue for the teleporter to the rooms, a man about my age waited behind me. He wore a rumpled dress shirt and an overlong tie and a goatee on the brink of coherence.
He was looking everywhere but my hoverchair. People with legs always do that. It reminds me of the way some men used to try very hard not to look at my cleavage when I was younger. The effort just underlines the fixation.
“Thank you,” he said. “For what you did.”
“Thank you for your support,” I said, a response as hollow as it was practiced. He must’ve been at the event earlier.
“Can–can I tell you something?”
“Sure,” I said. Women in military uniforms have this effect on men in dress shirts, for some reason. “If you’d like to.”
“I wanted to be a recon marine when I was a kid.” He said it like it was a church confession, something hidden away in the lost fissures of his soul for decades. “Did the recon workout at the gym for years,” he continued. “Stupid, I know.”
I nodded, both because it was stupid and because I knew.
“You’re a bona fide hero.” The man’s segue was as graceful as a startled dog, but it was late. “That scientist, though. He’s killing people. And not just the enemy.”
I thought about the man’s words. They were true enough. “So what would you do?” I asked. “If you were him.”
“Me?” The man stroked his goatee. “I wouldn’t even know.”
“Pragmatically,” I said. “You’re the scientist. You live in this country. The war’s happening. You can maybe end it or not. Either way, people die. What do you do?”
“I–I object to the question. And to the idea. I’m not him.” The man’s voice had a quiver to it now. Not an angry quiver, either. A frightened one. “I was just saying–I don’t think it’s right. That’s all.”
“OK,” I said. “‘Night.” It was my turn at the teleporter. I got in and went to my room. I didn’t begrudge the man his opting out. We all had in some way. Even us.
The Federals had found me at my sister’s, on the porch, scrolling through a holopad article about the rabid lemur that’d killed Justin Bieber Jr. “Furious George Howls With Delight!” read the headline. It’s always spooky when sons die the same way their fathers did. The past grasps us all, eventually. Even Biebers.
I was on my seventh year of an indefinite visit, still sleeping in a bare guest room. A potted flower or framed picture would have felt like marks of permanence, somehow. I’d been living in increments since high school and wasn’t about to stop just because I couldn’t figure out what to do with the rest of my life.
They–well, we–lived at the top of a windy hill in a suburb of a suburb, wedged between a stand of wild honeysuckle and a pond shaped like a swollen nose. It was green and quiet. The kind of place where big flags hung from porches with humility. I taught painting at the community center and took my nieces to soccer practice and spent my Saturday nights at the one townie bar that served rose.
The life didn’t make me happy or anything, but it could have. Maybe should have.
There were three of them. They all wore jeans and plaid shirts of varying blandness. I’d have expected suits and black sunglasses, but the decaying effects of after-empire were reaching and vast.
“Chief Warrant Officer Valerie Speer?” one said. Well, asked. I didn’t look my part, either. Female vets tend to cut a certain mold. A liter-sized pixie in a gardening hat wasn’t it.
They told me about the bond drive. About how it would inspire patriotism again in the hearts and minds of the people. About how it would get everyday citizens invested in the wars again. (Like they ever were. I knew the history.) About how the government needed the money, how 50 years of blowing up things in strange, faraway places had taken its toll on the budget, especially since the geothermal uprising in Blue Russia began eating away at Uncle Sam’s foreign trade.
About how the bond drive needed a woman on it, because they had an old guy, a blexican, a mexipino, and a robot, and showing that heroes were as diverse as the country mattered.
I laughed. “A woman.” I danced my metal fingers through the air. In the right light my prosthetics could look like flesh. We weren’t in it. “That’s why you need me.”
That made the two men in jeans and plaid look down at the ground, but the woman Fed just stared at me.
“You’re Valerie Speer,” she said. The tone in her voice sounded so earnest it snapped. “Do you know what you mean to my generation of women? I joined the agency because of you.”
She was lying about that, I was almost sure. But she’d appealed to my pride. I danced my fingers through the air again and took in all the green, all the quiet. Seven years here. Seven years that had made me soft. Did people my age go on adventures anymore?
I asked about financial compensation.
Here’s the thing about being labeled a war hero: You either love it or hate it. There’s little space for mixed feelings. Take the scientist. Invented a drone mosquito that gives people the runs, sold it to the military, and stopped the Arabican conflict practically overnight. You can’t fire a rifle when you’re crapping out your brains. But some of the mosquitoes weren’t as precise as billed. During strafes, they bit enemies and civilians alike. Which wouldn’t have mattered much had we been fighting in the developed world. We weren’t, though. Outbreaks of dysentery and super-cholera followed, and the last UN estimate I saw numbered deaths in the tens of thousands.
The scientist had ended a war all with his mind. Yet the only thing he wanted in the world was to return to his lab, to his anonymity, and forget any of it ever happened.
The JungerBot seemed to resent the attention for other reasons. It didn’t know what to make of people, and truth be told, people didn’t know what to make of it. They could handle robots, had been dealing with them all their lives. Even the rough-and-tumble behavior of a regular InfantryBot could be explained away. But an elite Infantry-Bot 5000 upgraded with the transcendental courage and philosophical musings of decorated German World War I soldier Ernst Junger? That caused some issues.
“The anarch wages his own wars,” the JungerBot said at a fund-raiser to a journalist who’d asked if it missed battle. “Even when marching in rank and file.”
Before a boxing prizefight, the JungerBot felt it necessary to remind the crowd what was what. “Trench fighting is the bloodiest, wildest, most brutal of all,” it said to 70,000 drunk revelers in Vegas. “Of all the war’s exciting moments, none is so powerful as the meeting of two storm troop leaders between narrow trench walls. There’s no mercy there, no going back. The blood speaks from a shrill cry of recognition that tears itself from one’s breast like a nightmare.”
And then there were the children.
It told a 10-year old with a JungerBot poster on his wall that killing an adversary would be a finer tribute. And when a bank president’s little girl pointed to us and asked if we were heroes, the JungerBot objected as only it could:
“Heroes’ deeds and heroes’ graves,” it said. “Old and new you here may see. How the Empire was created. How the Empire was preserved.” It paused. “We sought the death of heroes. There is no lovelier death in the world.”
The little girl’s face paled to glass as her father led her away. We all laughed about it, no one harder or longer than Dizzy. Dizzy was a walking, talking argument for breeding the remaining cis-males out of the gene pool, if only he hadn’t been so pretty. Drone pilots. They think they’re so starfish because they can laser insurrectionists dead from space. And Dizzy was an ace. He adored every minute of the bond drive, the attention, the parties, the hoverfloat rides, the certain type of female patriot who wanted to see the view from his hotel balcony. “Beats going back to Pueblo and coaching CrossFit,” he’d say, before unleashing that smile of full, fluoride shine. God, he could charm the magic underwear off a Mormon.
Would try, at least.
Dizzy and the younger vets on the bond drive were all privateers–mercenaries if you’re the protesting, virtual-petition type. WarriorCorps and Foreign Legion Inc. and Armed Humanitarianism Limited and the like. I was hybrid: part contractor but also part national military, before that went extinct during the Whig Revolt of ’36. Only Emo Carlos was old enough to have been GI from beginning to end. He’d earned the Silver Star in the Iraq war. Well, the Iraq war before the last one. Maybe it was three Iraq wars ago. Anyhow. We asked Emo Carlos about it over sushi, after a parade in Cleveland.
“Jumped on a grenade at a checkpoint,” he said, setting down his chopsticks with a shrug. “Didn’t go off.”
We hollered and banged the table just because we could. It’d been a couple decades since anything but a bot had been close enough to a grenade to do anything like that. Even the JungerBot expressed its admiration.
“Defective?” I asked.
Emo Carlos nodded. “One in a million, they said.”
“What happened then?” Dizzy asked.
The creases in Emo Carlos’ forehead folded into one another like papier-mache. He usually never talked about anything but drumming for his old-man punk band. They’d served together back in the day and were known across the greater Rochester area as the Infidels. Geriatric humor.
“Stood up,” he said. “Dusted off. Looked down. Realized I’d pissed myself.”
We hollered and banged the table all over again.
An elderly couple came over to us later. They’d overheard our conversation and wanted to say thank you. They said they had two grandsons in privateer training.
“I know our thanks is a small thing,” the husband said. He and his wife looked so cute in their nice old-people clothes, khakis and sweaters and thick-rimmed glasses. They looked like other -people’s grandparents always look. “But sometimes it’s all those of us here can offer.”
The wife nodded. “We’re all involved,” she said. “We believe that. As taxpayers, as citizens, that’s how it is. We’re with you.”
We thanked them for thanking us and they left the restaurant.
“What did she mean, ‘We’re all involved?'” Dizzy asked. “No they’re not.”
There were echoes of agreement and discussion over what the old woman had meant, and not just about the word involved. Also about the word we.
“Yo,” Emo Carlos said. The table hushed. “They’re from my time. When wars had ends. When citizens tried to keep up. America used to be young. That’s what she meant.”
“Then say that,” Dizzy said. “Taxes? Who the fuck cares.”
Emo Carlos shook his head again. He was trying to clear himself of frustrations, either with himself or with us. Then he pointed at me. “Sent her to the damn moon. Supposed to save us all, putting the wars up there. Preserve the land and resources, eliminate civilian deaths. Be tidy and simple. That was the plan.”
“And no one ever went back,” Dizzy said. “The game changed.”
“Well.” Emo Carlos laughed. “Military lesson numero uno, son,” he said. “No plan survives first contact.”
The rest of us laughed along with the old wisdom. Everyone but the scientist, who sat off by himself in the corner. He looked up at us with something between sadness and fury. It was hard to decide which.
“Tidy and simple,” he said. “I like that.”
When my nieces turn 12 and gain access to FreedomNet, they will find these three paragraphs about their aunt, etched into the digital histories forever and ever:
Valerie Jade Speer (born May 2, 2011) was a chief warrant officer (air) and attack pilot in the United States Army and later the privateer organization Star Spangled Security. She was awarded the Star of Valor in 2042 for her actions during the Battle on the Moon, of which she was the only survivor.
Deployed to the moon as part of the NATO coalition during the South Seas dispute, Speer flew a Flying Yeager fusion helocraft during the battle, destroying five Chinese Federation space-helos and two Young Siberian cosmo-planes. Struck by an enemy dwarf ballistic, Speer crash-landed into the Titius Crater. She was thus sheltered from the surprise thermo-nuclear strike carried out by the Young Siberians that killed all other combatants and blew the hole in the moon now known as Putin’s Smile.
Initially presumed dead, Speer was found during NATO recovery operations two days after the end of the battle. She lost three limbs, suffered burns over much of her body, and survived over 90 surgeries. President Natasha Obama said Speer’s life and story are “a testament to the American spirit” at her Star of Valor ceremony at the White House.
Words can be funny beasts. “Her actions” suggest some sort of agency, even control. “Destroy” is such a clean term for such messiness. “Struck by” defied my memory of it. Same with “crash-landed.”
Less so with “lost.” And “suffered.”
“Testament.” As if enduring were a choice. I did what anyone would have. There are no atheists in moon craters. And there are no fatalists in survivor wards of one.
I was thinking about that ward as I zipped up my suitcase in my sister’s guest room for the bond drive. Thinking about the long stills of quiet during the nights. Thinking about being called the Burn by nurses who thought I couldn’t hear them. Thinking about the full-thickness graft done without anesthesia.
“You sure about this, Val?” My sister stood in the doorway. Her posture betrayed opposition. She was four years older and had always asked me questions that she already had answers for. “You have options.”
She’d said the same years prior, before I’d left for the moon.
“I am,” I said both times, even though I wasn’t both times. I’d always found power and resolve in ambiguity, though. Most people weren’t like that. My sister, for one.
“You’ve done more than your share,” she continued, moving to the bed and putting her arm around my shoulder. “So much more.” I leaned my head into her and tried to hold in some of the familial warmth. I’d miss it, I knew. Only sisters and nieces hug -people like me. “I don’t think it’s right.”
I smiled at that.
“It’s not,” I said. “But. If not me, then who?”
Even going can be its own form of opting out. I didn’t know that the first time. But I did the second. The last night in the guest room, as I tossed and turned in bed, I thought about that. Then I thought about the survivor ward again. And the long stills of quiet during the nights. And being called the Burn. And the graft.
Somewhere between Omaha and Tesla City, I began to realize just how different the younger vets were. It wasn’t just that they were privateers, either, or that they called enemy combatants “pixels” as an insult. Dizzy and his crew, they crowed about their service. Owned their superiority, then basked in it.
Do soldiers think they’re better than citizens? Of course. It has nothing to do with what did or didn’t happen in their service, either. It has to do with the very idea of joining up. America’s been at war since before most of us were born. We joined because we wanted to go. We’d been told we were special from day one of boot camp, doing something the rest of our nation couldn’t. Or worse, wouldn’t. Too fat. Too selfish. Too lazy. Which made the realization after we got out that citizens think we’re beneath them all the more shocking. If they’re fat, selfish, and lazy, then what’s worse than that?
We weren’t supposed to say any of that, though. My generation didn’t, at least. We were taught that part of our service was staying quiet about it. To rise above, because that’s what Jesus and George Washington and Beyonce would’ve wanted.
That’s what I did. Or tried to, at least. Let the citi-zenry think what it wants, went the logic. All part of being a republic.
Maybe we had it wrong, though.
I wondered about that the night the protester confronted us. We were in Washington for a gala. Normally we were ushered in through side or back doors for events, but the organizers of this one had us walking in on a red carpet, through a galaxy of flashing lights and holographic cameras.
“Finally,” Dizzy said, pausing to adjust his bow tie and lick his front teeth. “The treatment we deserve.”
Why the protester chose the JungerBot to cream-pie, I’ll never know. By the time the uproar had reached my ears and I’d floated around in my chair, the JungerBot had the young man by the throat. “Request order to eliminate home-front enemy,” it said, which was funny, and then not.
We got the young man free of the JungerBot’s prongs. He was reed-thin and had thick brown curls with eyes as dark and mad as the moon. I didn’t know what to think about him or his pie. People didn’t protest war in person anymore. It wasn’t sane behavior.
“You’re not heroes,” he said. His words were shaky. It’s never easy coming face to face with people you’ve demonized. Or cockpit to cockpit. “You’re tools of empire. Fuck you. Fuck all of you.”
The cameras along the walkway started popping off like mortars. We all just stood there, waiting out his tirade, because we were there to be seen and applauded, nothing else. His anger dazed me, and the others too. Not Dizzy, though.
“Get bent, joker,” Dizzy said, crossing his arms for the cameras. “War is bad? No shit. But it won’t go away just ’cause we want it to. Last month, two battalions from the same base got deployed. One goes to Kurd Mountain, saves those families from the horde. The other goes to Blue Russia, blows up some insurrectionists. One’s a humanitarian mission. The other’s combat. Both require destruction.”
I’d never heard Dizzy speak with eloquence and passion before. He was good, and he knew it. He pressed on.
“This JungerBot is a goddamn national treasure. I don’t know what brought you here tonight, and I don’t give a single fuck. We went so you don’t have to. Suck my hero balls.”
The arrogance. The entitlement. The narrowness of thought. I loved it all, and I wasn’t the only one. The red carpet exploded with applause. Dizzy even took a bow. But the acclaim wasn’t universal.
After the protester had been escorted away and we’d gone inside for the gala, the scientist found Dizzy. “Don’t do that again,” he said. He loomed over the younger man like an angry parent. “That guy is not your enemy. Neither is anyone else you’ve met on this stupid tour.”
“He ain’t a friend.” Dizzy was trying to sound unbothered, and he leaned back in his chair and put his feet on the table. “So what is he?”
“Only idiots speak in absolutes,” the scientist said.
Dizzy changed tactics. “You know what he probably thinks about you?” he asked. “What all these people say when they think we can’t hear? I had a woman tell me she didn’t think we were ‘whole human beings.’ Fuck her, and fuck that protester. Fuck all of them.”
I wondered what the answers were to Dizzy’s question–what did people say about us? When they thought about us at all. Beyond the pomp and ceremony of the bond drive, we weren’t anything, I thought. Just ciphers with stories people believed in, or didn’t believe in, even before they heard them.
“So. What.” The scientist’s voice turned to iron as he responded to Dizzy. “That’s the job. We have consequences.”
Dizzy opened his mouth, but the scientist cut him off. “You did. You did when you didn’t have to. That’s enough. It has to be.” Then he stormed off, presumably for the hotel bar.
The scientist opted out that night. The rest of us did too, by doing the job. We stood there and smiled and waved while other people told our stories to the crowds. The crowds cheered. We waved again.
We walked back to the hotel as a group after the gala. We stopped in a park with green lawns and a marble fountain and joked about the protester, laughed about the scientist. The scientist had been right, but so what? What did being right have to do with anything? Dizzy had regained whatever force it was that sustained him and began chatting up a pair of young women who considered themselves patriots. I watched it all and thought about the ward and then my sister’s home. The JungerBot came up beside me.
“You handled that pie well,” I told it. It didn’t say anything, so I continued. “Waiting for an order, I mean.”
“Here is our kingdom, the best of monarchies, the best republic,” the JungerBot said. “Here is our garden, our happiness.”
What a random thing to say, I thought. Even for a robot. But later, after considering it more, I decided otherwise.
Tales From an Uncertain Future