We Are the Dead
by Ian Cordingley
“We’re getting close.”
The rainbow of greys and browns and desolation sped by. Rocks piled in clusters, a few stunted trees stood over what scummy green plants there were. The road was a best guess, a suggestion of what one would be. Rusted machines from the past war, burned and blasted, resting where they had been destroyed. Going on a century now. Some of ours are down there.
“You made your will?”
“I poked at it.”
I’m still not sure of who would get what. I was in the army, on the front line, and I hadn’t made up my mind. Someone in Ottawa probably stayed up all night because of it.
“You are going to die, you know?”
“Yeah,” I said.
We were two hundred meters over the ground. The older rockets, intended for Warsaw Pact hardware, had thankfully expired peacefully; there was the issue of ground fire, but with active optics on we were as indistinct as a trick of the light.
We were fatalists, but that only went so far.
My armour was charged one hundred percent. A few bullets had bounced off, but only stray shots from distance and awkward angles. Sad to say, I hadn’t fired my weapon yet. It rested by my side. If what I read was true, I’d never have the chance to use it.
“So, are you...?”
“You’re not getting anything.”
Roy wasn’t going to buy it until sometime after we landed. Scouring a poppy field, coming under fire, hit by a chance shot. Thirty-third casualty so far: Roy Lane, 27. He had shown me the clipping, and assorted other media. Unloading his flag-draped casket, the parade and some obituaries that he had become quite indignant about and had sent in information in advance, requesting clarification.
For fun I did the same, making sure that this was a dream of mine, not some impulse of boredom or desperation; that I believed in the military and all those things. I’d seen photos of my coffin being offloaded. Better make that sure, just in case one political faction decides to make hay from my passing.
As for myself, my death would be more random, less dignified. Roy, at least, would take a couple of them with him.
The second I step off the vehicle, I die.
My left foot dangled out of the door. I wasn’t supposed to do that. It would break up the optic camouflage line and allow our enemy to determine where we were. Fatalism had set in. Not because we were “advised,” but because we were at war.
Officially, the military doesn’t take our “advice” seriously. I can’t help but notice the mountains we’re flying past are very similar to the ones in my obituary. We’ve flown past them before.
Two hundred-odd people are going to die, and goodness knows how many civilians displaced.
It’s not easy to get video feed: too blurry, and the sound is garbled. With computer assistance some words are intelligible, mostly negative ones: killed, destroyed, displaced. Some would-be peacemakers crawl over the mountains, trying to save some people they’ve identified. Success has been limited.
But let’s talk about me.
“Anything below?” I asked Roy.
“No,” he said.
Roy’s face was obscured by an augmented reality rig. Identifying and pinpointing every potential source of resistance. Quiet so far. It had been quiet for a while. The cliché thing to say would be that it was too quiet, and that this wasn’t good. Not always the case.
“So... how come we get them now and not, like, ten years ago?”
“Technical limitations,” I said, repeating some watered-down fact I got off a website. I’m better informed than most, on account of the fact I click and read the news links rather than just the headlines.
“I know someone tried at the turn of millennium,” I said.
“Quantum entanglement, mutual... I dunno, about how particles behave over time as well as space. I don’t think they know what they’re talking about.”
Roy nodded. “Some guy had an idea?” he asked.
“Sending information back in time, based on this particle thing.”
“But it was a good idea?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Some success too, apparently, but nothing compelling.”
“Till a year ago?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“But what exactly?”
I shrugged. “Some molecule danced. And that was it for a while.”
“But not now?” Roy asked.
“No. Apparently, those on the receiving end have gotten better at it.”
“So who is behind it?”
“His students, they say.”
“Kids today.” Roy laughed.
I bought my first beer before coming east.
“So, they’re trying to stop us.”
“I hear that’s what it is, or maybe some political faction has gotten hold of it, or our enemies.”
“Well, that’s what they say.”
You’d think that Ottawa or Washington or Brussels would be having tantrums over how all their plans were going to fall apart. Maybe by now it’s begun to sink in. Too many things are going horribly right.
When I signed up, I got my message. Something from ten or fifteen years from now. Its urgent headline: You are going to die. It pinged on my messenger, and I raised a curious eyebrow and wondered how I got something from twenty years down the line.
My first leave from basic was at the same time. Everyone kept saying I looked different, more like a giant baby than a man. “Just my luck,” I said, and we joked and laughed over it. They all told me how proud I was.
This was something I’d wanted to do all my life. It wasn’t going to stop me.
That was a year ago.
I got here after a couple of ’copters went out. Panty raid, they said. Back in one piece. Don’t believe that crap. The future isn’t written.
Both were lost. All dead.
We all started paying attention then. Some tried to resign, but after the initial wave of panic passed, almost everyone who had signed up was still in the field. Not that there weren’t changes, of course.
But the surprising thing was how little didn’t change. I was still here.
My family said they were proud of me. Of course they would say that. But their messages became more frequent, and their smiles seemed forced, as if without some invisible agent they would crumble.
“We’re proud of you,” they said, their voices very frail. If anyone asked, of course they were proud of me, my mission, my country... But in private? They were kind enough not to tell me their deeper thoughts. Maybe next time I was at home, they’d pull me aside and spill their guts and betray their emotions.
But their message files were always encouraging.
Maybe they had reservations, reservations they held all along. Like my advice: Don’t waste your life over some meaningless cause!
I’m still here, and I’m going to be here for the duration.
And so there was the region’s local warlord, his vast fields of narcotic drugs. Impressive ground and air defences. It’s amazing what several decades of incredible poverty will do to people. Not even our allies’ national armies are that large, or even that well-equipped.
I made my decision.
“Why are we here?”
“Why are any of us here?”
“Come on,” Roy said.
“It’s what I want,” I said, “in balance with this life and death.”
The field spilled below. A flood of red flowers. A pale pink stone wall ran around it, and some buildings. The vehicle’s guns were focused on the houses. Nothing yet. But in a minute or so we’d both be exchanging heavy fire. I brought my foot back from the edge, stood up. First one off would be me.
“All right.” Magazines clicked into weapons. “See you on the ground. Nice knowing you, Alex.”
The vehicle whined as it dove in. My foot rested on the threshold of the door.
Copyright © 2009 by Ian Cordingley