1510 words by Stanley Lieber
Mother didn't love me.
Well, who knows, but it sure was hard to tell. I assume she wanted me gone by graduation. Pushing me out of the nest fit symmetrically with first having introduced me to its warmth.
Only, I hadn't needed to be pushed.
Whatever the case, I wouldn't have stuck around once I'd secured my means of escape. In fact, my childhood agenda came to center upon vacating the nest at the earliest possible convenience. I told her as much on a handful of occasions, which may have been an early source of her resentment towards me.
Drifting, there. Such thoughts are useless for filling out my report.
I dribble a handful of words into the document and save before making a trip to the men's room. Time to call it a night.
Passing through the marketing department, I ponder the desks of the new-hires, noticing for the first time that their cubicle partitions and arm-thick contract binders serve as ballast against the accumulation of personal effects. The design is intentional. In my first few months at the company I never would have suspected such subtle architectures of control.
I round the corner to the men's room and take a seat in the furthest stall.
After a few minutes I'm faced with a problem.
No toilet paper.
I am out of work.
Real work, that is. My study group has been shut down.
It's the Greens. They're everywhere. Though admittedly they're less numerous than in recent years.
Take my former manager. Matters of consequence on his mind. A month ago he retracted our billet after deciding that my group had fielded too many atheists. A security risk, he said.
What is this, the 1910s?
For a while now I've been sitting at home, steadily freezing solid in my poorly insulated study. Not the best working environment, and I'm not getting much done. On top of it all, Mother won't leave me alone. I've had to resist the urge to flag her for rendition. I like to think I've made the right decision.
This morning I discover that the Greens have cut loose my former manager. I'm digging around in his account when the call comes in.
We're back on.
Patent disputes in the hinterlands.
The traffic orb on my desk glows a suggestive blue as I pick up the phone to contact my team.
Well, that didn't last long.
Back to retail.
I work the counter between calls because no one else knows how to operate the products we sell. Customers roll in and then they roll back out, au gratin waves of body fat wrapped in plastic garments. The typical specimen reeks of a public cafeteria.
A man wanders into my zone and starts fidgeting with the boxes of electronic equipment. He picks up a box and then sets it back down without examining it. He repeats this awkward choreography at several different positions along the isle. His movements seem aimless and there appears to be no intelligent pattern underlying his investigations.
What is going on here? The answer is that I don't care.
"Is there something I can assist you with, sir?"
Contractually, I cannot allow his anti-commercial behavior to pass unchallenged. I maneuver myself between him and the shelves and then read him one of the scripts I've been required to memorize.
"I am certified in twenty-seven dialects of formal sales semantics, with a top-five ranking amongst appliance technicians in the local Green. It would be my pleasure to interpret your needs today. Thank you for choosing AT&T."
"Son, let me ask you a question. Do you actually like working here?"
I have to admit, there's no easy way to answer. I don't let it show on my face.
From an obscured storage pouch the man produces a business card and communicates it smoothly into my hand. Affixed to its underside is a thousand dollar bill. I turn the tiny rectangle in my hand, staring at it quizzically. What has just happened here? Gradually, I realize that the currency is fraudulent. The thousand dollar bill is a facsimile, printed on the reverse of the business card. I smile and the man lights up, returning my grin. I swear I can hear his face skipping gears.
"Five minutes of your time and that t-note becomes real, deposits into the account of your choice. Spend it however you like."
It's hardly pocket change, and of course I'm well beyond broke, so I gesture for him to proceed with his pitch.
Before I know it, he has me filling out paperwork, signing papers. "Signing your life away," he announces, and smiles.
He doesn't seem to care about my previous experience.
I'm being sent to the front.
Well, one of the fronts.
In modern warfare, someone has to keep the breathers running. My orders are to install hotfixes and updates on the machines that control the mobile flow tanks, which in turn feed the breathers. We aren't permitted to install unauthorized programs, but everyone I've ever worked with does so anyway.
Our Sergeant hosts a fileserver from his backpack.
The men of the platoon have taken to calling me "Mother." I assume this is in reference to my careful maintenance of their breather apparatuses. I don't find it amusing in the slightest.
In spite of improvements to our equipment, signal degradation continues to render the mail unreliable. The satellite gear proved flaky and we dumped it after the first week in the field. At higher elevations we're sometimes able to establish line of sight with the fleet.
Mother would probably like to hear from me. Maybe I'll drop her a line the next time we're up the mountain.
Responding to aggressive stimuli, I discharge my service rifle into the crowd.
My round exits the back of a man's skull and strikes the man standing directly behind him. It then travels on to the next man standing behind him. For a split second the perforated heads sync up, their wounds aligning in a peculiar sort of optical tributary. As quickly as it is formed, the channel collapses and the illusion of coherence is lost.
This dynamic tableaux has been observed by several hovering cameras. I'm struck by the way each unit edges past its neighbor, vying for a better angle on the corpses lying at my feet. They seem to deliberately ignore me and my fellow soldiers. I don't understand why.
A hand falls on my shoulder. It is the Sergeant.
What's he doing here, I think to myself.
Prison clothing is uncomfortable. In my case it fits well enough. Some of my peers have been less fortunate.
I keep in step with the other prisoners. Occasionally, I catch my reflection in the back of another inmate's jacket. Even out of uniform we're unmistakably soldiers.
A guard shouts obscenities through a bullhorn and the man in front of me stumbles. I think that I recognize him. Latino, approximately twenty years of age. Infantry, definitely. Could it be?
When the guards aren't looking I kick him in the back.
"Keep up, asshole."
He gasps, flashing me the secret hand sign of our platoon.
I'm convinced now, and kick him again, this time less carefully. Less the actor. I have him on the ground by the time the guard with the bullhorn interrupts.
We do as he says.
The data has changed hands.
I am free.
The spring sun sinks into my face. Mother has passed away at some point during my incarceration.
I convalesce at home for two days before calling in to be reactivated.
The boys will be anxious to hear about my experience behind bars. I wonder how many of us are left.
And now it's back to the grind. Nothing has changed about the war we've been fighting, though the locales tend to shift with the seasons. We manage the periodic disorientation by assigning colors to each theater of operations. This quarter we're in the Red. The projection is that by next quarter we'll be in the Black.
One of our little jokes.
Oh yes, and no White after Labor Day.
Staffing is flexible, pending new developments. This rotation we're at home. For us, domestic deployment (as with training) constitutes leave. The boys are all present and we fall into our familiar rhythm as we pace the perimeter Capitol Hill.
A froth of reporters churns to and fro between our lines. The latest fashion in Washington is a press pass that authorizes the bearer to cross military checkpoints with impunity. A stupid idea, to be sure, but nobody asked my opinion. The cameras flit about as a few of the reporters spill over in my direction.
One approaches me, brandishing a microphone.
"Corporal! What's your take on the continuance of the war? Can you give me seven syllables on the reinstatement of compulsory military service? The draft?"
I regard her from behind my service rifle.
Seven syllables? Let's see.
"I'm afraid I enlisted."