Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

They Tell Me There Will Be No Pain

O, me alone! Make you a sword of me?

—Coriolanus 1.7

Colonel Rathbone attends my final debriefing. I’m wearing a paper hospital gown that doesn’t cover my ass; I’ve got a breeze where no breeze has any right to be, from the back of my neck right down where the good Lord split me. But despite that I’m sweating, the backs of my thighs sticking to the paper covering the hospital table. The metal contacts set all around my head feel cold, sending little shocks that make my teeth itch.

“Sure you don’t want to re-up?” the Colonel asks. He’s got a deep voice. Jolly. Like a murderous Santa Claus, shaved into military trim. “You’ve got a solid record, all kills, no collateral, no fails. We sure could use you.”

One of those things is a lie and we both know it. I smile at him with my rattling teeth. “Got to go home and take care of things, sir.” Got to get out of here, sir.

“Hate to lose you, son.” Rathbone calls everyone son, whether you got a cock or tits. He digs his datapad out of his pocket, calls up the SMOP and starts to read like a robot. No, worse than a robot; robots sound almost human these days.

Don’t you, Phoebe?

“. . . as agreed upon in your contract as signed, upon termination of your service you will return all government property issued to you upon entry, including all surgical and neural enhancements. Do you understand and still agree to these terms?”

I find I’ve pressed one finger against the visual link terminal on my right temple, like it’s the starter on a car. The scent of lemons floods over my tongue. “I understand and agree, sir.”

He shuts off the datapad and tucks it back away, claps me on the shoulder. “Then that’s that. Good luck on the outside, son.” Then he turns to go, broad back in olive drab, his crew cut salt and pepper above the stiff collar.

“Sir?”

“What?” His eyebrows ask me if I’m changing my mind.

“They said it won’t hurt.”

He gives me a kind, lying goddamn smile. “You did three tours, son. You’re tough.”

The door shuts behind him and I fiddle, peeling slowly at my hangnails. I used to do manicures with my big sister. Nail polish isn’t regulation, not that I could keep from picking it off like I peel away my own skin.

There will be no pain, Phoebe whispers past my ear and into my spine.

“Shut the fuck up.”

• • • •

So this is how it goes, son.

Ten years ago, you’re a snot-nosed chicken shit fast food drone in the making. Bronze medal in high school track and field, chorus line parts only in high school drama, grades that aren’t quite bad enough to justify the way mommy and daddy keep cutting back your allowance. Your older sister is the star quarterback of the family team. Full ride to Titan Tech, ships out on the first terraforming mission to Juno, calls home twice a week like a dutiful daughter and runs the hydroponics lab while she watches her kid sister paint her fingernails on the video feed. You still use her soap on days when you miss her; it smells like flowers and baby powder.

You’re special, she tells you. Don’t listen to anyone else. Join up in the corps, come out to Juno, we’ll be partners.

You know what happens next. As far as Earth’s concerned, there’s only one thing that happened ten years ago. Only one thing that’s happened in the last ten years, because every goddamn one of us ripped our shirts off and wrote it across our hearts in blood.

The Drop. Julynine. Starfall. Lots of names, one result. A shattered habitat, a woman with wild eyes and a gold cross tattooed on her forehead screaming that her army, they got their authority straight from Jesus Christ hisself for our racial impurity and hubris, and your big sister, blown out into space, just one of ten thousand meat snowflakes floating in the black. Only you imagine her lying like a broken doll on the floor of the hydroponics lab, tight black curls sprinkled with dust and ice crystals and her fingernails Bahama Coral Pink, tapping faintly in a pool of blood. The same shade she wore the day she took out a pair of tweezers and came at your eyebrows, saying, “Don’t be a wuss, this doesn’t hurt.”

And just like everyone else on the goddamn planet, you cheer until your head just thumps with it when we make our war of vengeance.

Contract signing, swearing in, intake, ceremonies, first uniform, boot camp, none of that shit matters. It’s all standard. The point is to make you into a unit, one little cog in the big machine of the Allied (ha!) Earth Special Forces.

This is the point where it matters. Where it starts to matter. Where it stops mattering.

Head wrapped in bandages, skull aching from newly drilled holes, random flavors running across your tongue (cantaloupe, cayenne, crawdad bake, we’re in the Cs now) as the nano wires finish bonding to your neurons, you’ve got to focus, soldier, focus, this is important.

You look at the blank standard issue datapad screen, shoulders twitching every time a new ghost runs across your vision. A line of green text scrolls up, like you’ve jumped back to the goddamn twentieth century, but instead of Want to play a game or some shit like that, it reads:

Hello, I am your Tactical Analysis and Oversight Guidance (TAOG) system. My name is _______

Fill in the blank. Your right shoulder twists as a metallic screech runs up the scale in your ear.

Well, what other name could you pick? You can only think of one right now, with the wires in your head all scrambled and crossed and reminding you about that one time you called the teacher “Mom” in third grade.

P-h-o-e-b-e.

Hello Charlie, I am your Tactical Analysis and Oversight Guidance (TAOG) system. My name is Phoebe. She whispers that as a formless voice now given form by your choice, past your ear, deep into your meat. I’m looking forward to working with you.

• • • •

That’s how it goes, only you’re not you, you’re me.

And you had a big sister named Phoebe.

• • • •

Life outside AESF is one big vacation, only the vacation doesn’t end and I don’t get to go home, because technically, I am home, permanently downside. But I’m enjoying it. Really, I am. I take the train down to the beach every day, because that’s what you do on vacation. Brightly colored plastic umbrellas, all shapes and colors and patterns, bob outside, shielding the civilians from the unending assault of the sun.

Take one of those umbrellas, line it with foil, it can be used to hide an explosive or a person from casual drone scans, only it makes a neat circle cut-out in transmissions that screams for attention after you’ve run your electronic eyes over it a good hundred times.

It’s the middle of the day. Seven people on the train as it hums along over its superconductors: three teenaged boys (could be a threat, one of them’s got a backpack, who knows what’s in that), one young mother with two sub-five-year-olds (probably okay), one old lady with a parasol (sunlight glancing off the gold cross she wears on her neck, is she one of them, one of the sectarians ohshitohshitohshit call it in—)

No response, Phoebe says. They told me my TAOG would go silent after surgery. They also told me removing the neural links wouldn’t hurt. Disconnected, Charlie. Recalibration necessary.

Breathe. Breathe. That’s right. My hands haven’t fallen off. I just don’t have drones any more. I’m just me. The old lady is just an old lady. She’s out for the sunlight on her old bones. But I let her get off the train first, and keep my ass in the seat until I’m two stops down.

Then I go out onto the beach. The sand feels so strange under my shoes, squashing and shushing and kicking up in little clouds. I don’t think I’ve run on anything but concrete or tarmac or metal decking for almost a decade. It feels different, so I smile about that, and my teeth itch in the cool breeze.

• • • •

This is what it’s like, the first time you hook into your cloud. Your consciousness shatters into a hundred pieces, one for each module.

There’s the eyes and ears (SASbots), jammers (ESIMbots), guns and missiles (TWINs) and you’re all of them at once, trying to hold them in formation and run them through patterns. You scream. It’s cool. Everyone screams the first time, not because it hurts, but because it’s so overwhelming your body pulls a random choice out of: (a) scream, (b) cry, or (c) laugh hysterically. Crying and screaming is better, it doesn’t freak your observers out nearly as much.

But then, goddamn, it’s the biggest rush in the world. You are a god with a thousand fingers that you can spike down into the ground like lightning. You fly, atmosphere or space, it doesn’t matter. Because when you’re hooked into your cloud, you’re out there with the drones, and your meat is left behind in the closet.

Calibration complete. Phoebe whispers these magical words to rhyme with “I love you.”

A taste like blood floods your mouth. It’s nauseating. Don’t worry. You get used to it.

• • • •

Life outside the drone cloud is blindness. I can’t see anything. What kind of bullshit is the visual spectrum after you’ve gotten used to having infrared, ultraviolet, radio, all piped into your head from over a hundred different eyes? I used to be a fucking titan, heavy armor mach six in a thousand different directions, and now I’m small, naked. Just meat.

No jobs yet, but I don’t need the money. My severance hasn’t run out, I just need something to do. Being a drone pilot isn’t much of a marketable skill in the real world. Doesn’t help you smile at assholes and sell them cars, or new computers, or vacation packages to resorts where the only people who look like you scrub the toilets. Doesn’t help with flipping burgers, either. I’ve developed this really worrying twitch in my left hand, I think it’s from one of the nanowires fizzing in my brain. Makes it hard for me to sleep, I’ll be drifting off and then suddenly my hand jerks under the covers and I’m wide awake.

It’s bad enough I go to the nearest VA hospital, which takes a thirty-minute train ride—

(two workmen, one of them has a hammer and veins bulging out from his bare forearms; typical nuclear family with a kid in a stroller, who knows what’s hidden in there; students, more students, more students in navy blue uniform jackets and at least someone’s laughing around here but, fuck, why won’t they hold still for five minutes; No threat, no threat, no threat, Phoebe assures me in a murmur that runs along my jawbone and makes me yawn)

—and then a two-hour wait in a room that smells faintly of sweat and metal. The data signal there is jacked and all the paper magazines are at least three years old, so I just listen to two other vets make stilted conversation about their dogs.

“That’s impossible,” the doc at the VA tells me once it’s my turn in the carefully refrigerated exam room. “They removed all your links before discharge. I’ve got the signed order from Colonel Rathbone.”

“But what if the nanowires are still there?” I can fucking feel them, burrowing into my neurons.

The look he gives me is a lot like the manager of the last place I applied at, some joint that makes pizza. You’ve got to be kidding, right?

But they told me a lot of things, in the service. This will be a cakewalk. You’ll go home a hero. We’ll pull all the wires out of your brain and it won’t hurt one bit, you’re tough. “What about the TAOG, did they remove that, too?”

His eyes widen slightly. “Are you hearing voices?”

I hold up my hands. The left twitches—See, I’m not just making this up. “No. Shit no. I’m not crazy.” I know what happens to people who say shit like that. They go away and never come back. “Look, I just want to know my brain isn’t turning into black pudding behind my eyes, okay? I busted my ass for you guys downside for nine years. Cut me a break.”

The doctor sighs. “I’ll put you in the queue for some testing. It’ll take a few weeks, we’re pretty overloaded. Though if you can travel—”

Being on the train for hours and hours, people constantly walking in and out and back and forth behind me and beside me and no thanks, man, sounds like hell, I can’t keep track of them all, too many threats. Acquiring targets—I shake my head. “Got no scratch. Got a form I can fill out for that?”

“Afraid not. All right. I’ll send the appointment confirmation to your calendar.”

As I slouch on out of the hospital, they run a guy past on a pallet. He’s got a cardio pack on his chest, a vent over the lower half of his face, red-soaked bandages at his wrists. His face is the color of unbaked clay. He’s also got a circle of white dimples around his head like a crown.

Corporal Dan Weston, Second Battalion, Third Squadron, retired, Phoebe murmurs up through my meat and into my left ear. No threat, target deceased, permission not needed.

I press my finger where the visual link used to be on my temple, and find nothing but a smooth, slick dimple of scar tissue.

My teeth itch.

• • • •

So then you score a berth on a Predator-Class carrier, space-based command and dispatch center. Calories carefully counted, AG coming off perfectly calibrated spin so you can still do full PT every morning. Your body’s all tight with wiry muscle for when you put it on the shelf and abandon it ten hours a day.

They assign you the easy missions first, out into the moons. Ones where you just drop dome busters, and the closest you get is doing an infrared check to make sure all the bodies are cooling off in their individual puddles of effluvia. Or you do spy runs, where you run the SASbots around and it’s like a video game, and you’ll get the high score and the achievement at the end if you find the princess. And by princess I mean the scumbag you paint down with a targeting laser so one of your big brothers can sweep in like justice in an atomized cloud and light that shit up better than Christmas.

But then you get your first real mission. No fanfare, no warning, you just walk in one day, hook into the cloud and launch off. Then Phoebe says, Target acquired, authorization go.

And that’s it. You take the TWINs out to play, and the bad guys die. Clean kill, stand down, Phoebe tells you.

Years. You do it for years. Then:

Target acquired, authorization go.

“Getting a lot of noise. Confirm.” The SASbots show a place crawling with heat signatures, like they’re having a convention in that dumpy little building. Stats and dimensions scroll through your brain.

A green flash shivers over the view. Targeting laser, some new pilot double-checking your shit.

Authorization go, Phoebe repeats. Insurgents confirmed. Action is justified.

You are so fucking justified. You send in the TWINs, and you flatten that little hovel. You turn it into a smear of gravel and ash. Then there’s a spike of automatic weapons fire a click and a half west. Two SASbots go dead, a little blind spot in your brain.

Secondary threat, authorization go, Phoebe says. Assistance incoming.

A second wave of TWINs joins in the bombardment. You make the night go white. In the dim recesses of the drone bay, you hear one of the other jocks whoop. Well, look at those accuracy numbers. You sure can’t blame him. You feel pretty fucking badass yourself.

You sweep in with SASbots again, check and confirm the kills, catalog what you just took out. You’d rather just send in recordings than fill out the paperwork. Secondary site is closer, so that gets done first. Shredded remains of fifteen adults, explosive residue that doesn’t belong to us. First site—

she’s lying in a puddle of blood, eyes wide and white all around, curly black hair stuck to the floor, legs a mist of bone and flesh

—there’s kids, there’s a goddamn kid, another one with his head half gone, and another, and a woman in an apron like you blew up a fucking daycare, and, and—

Charlie, your heart rate is spiking, Phoebe says. What’s wrong?

“Kids,” you say. “You said this was an authorized target.” She told you to do it, told you, said it was okay. But terrorists don’t play with plastic horses, don’t have pigtails and purple barrettes. “Look at her! She’s trying to scream!”

Death is instant, Phoebe calmly whispers into the skin of your neck. Residual electrical spikes. There is no pain.

But the girl looks at your hovering thimble-sized SASbot with eyes to drown in and tremblestremblestrembles her fingernails (glittering with nail polish is that Bahama Coral Pink oh fuck me fuck me fuck me) tapping the ground as she gurgles out breath after breath into the poisonous atmosphere.

• • • •

This is how it goes, only you’re not you, you’re me.

And you (I mean me) realize this terrible truth: Phoebe’s just there to tell you it’s okay to pull the trigger. She’s a wad of ones and zeroes that stands in for your conscience so you don’t hesitate.

Phoebe isn’t real.

Phoebe is a liar.

Phoebe is a sin eater.

• • • •

I can’t sleep any more. My hand won’t stop jumping. Everything I eat tastes like electricity and motor oil. The VA test results say the nanowires in my head don’t exist, but I can feel them rotting out and turning my brain into something black and gooey, blood on tarmac while Phoebe whispers battle plans onto the backs of my knees. All I have is vids, I can’t focus enough to read any more, not that I was into books before.

And the vids? It’s just bullshit bullshit bullshit, plastic people with perfect teeth in clothes worth more than my entire severance having cat fights about their boyfriends, cooking shows, action movies where a single guy with a gun fires more bullets than a clip can hold, softcore porn. It’s like there’s not even a fucking war on, and I just have to move before the tar in my head overflows.

I take the train down to the beach, late at night. The car is full of drunks, big guys, little guys, and they stand too goddamn close and breathe like furnaces. I finger my pocket, the stunted shape of a ceramic pistol. I don’t have a drone cloud to protect me anymore. It’s just me, just my pathetic meat and Phoebe, and we’re never safe.

“Hey there,” one of the guys says. “Where you going?” He smells like money and beer.

“Not anywhere you are.” I stare straight ahead. My hand twitches at my side. I could snap his neck. He’s crowding me.

“Don’t be nasty.” Leans even closer. “What are those marks on your head? You some kind of holy roller?”

I get asked that all the time. Like no one knows what soldiers look like if we’re not dressed up like a GI Joe. Maybe no one bothers watching the news. Maybe they think the clouds of heavily armed robots just fly themselves now, but shouldn’t that scare everyone shitless?

He breathes on the side of my head, too close, too close. My teeth itch.

Threat detected. Phoebe breathes on the other side of my head.

I pull the pistol from my pocket, smooth like butter, slam my other fist into the guy’s sternum to get him to back off and give me room. My pistol is the only steady thing in the world as I focus down the barrel at his head framed by gum advertisements and the blank windows looking out into black night. “Back off! Back the fuck off!”

“Whoa! Whoa, lady! Chill! Chill!” Suddenly all the drunk guys are shouting.

“All of you! Shut the fuck up! Back off!”

Hands raise around the train car. A dark stain spreads over the front of my target’s pants. “Don’t do it. I didn’t mean nothin’. I didn’t mean nothin’!” The train halts, a cool rush of night air as the doors behind me open, I know exactly where they are, always know where your exits are.

Threat detected. Authorization go.

My trigger finger squeezes even as my hand jerks to the side. The bullet only makes a soft pop—I don’t like loud noises, I wouldn’t buy a loud gun, are you kidding me—and the window behind the man shatters.

Everyone starts yelling all at once. Hands grab at my arm. I scream and break one of my knuckles on someone’s nose. Then I run.

It’s cold. There are clouds over the moon, so it’s just a glowing, indistinct circle, like a puckered scar in the sky. I only notice when I get to the beach because the ground beneath my sneakers starts shushing me. I keep running until I’m not afraid any more.

Who the fuck am I kidding? I’m always afraid.

I walk out by the waves, where I can watch them crest into white foam, and sit on the damp sand. I take my datapad out of my other pocket, and the screen comes back on to the news vid I saw when I decided I had to get the fuck out of my house: At Last, War Without Death. I watch the bland-faced narrator silently mouth the words, “AESF reports zero casualties in the last two years of the conflict.” Well, no shit. We’re all just clouds of robots now.

Targets don’t count. That’s authorized.

Retired don’t count either.

My hand twitches. My teeth itch.

Disconnected, Charlie. Reactualizing neural connections, Phoebe says calmly, laying the words up my spine.

I pull the pistol from my pocket. My head throbs, hot and sharp under the scars. The barrel feels so cool and soothing, pressed against what used to be the visual link terminal on my right temple. The taste of blood floods my mouth.

There will be no pain, Phoebe whispers into my ear.

I close my eyes. “Liar.”

I smell flowers and baby powder. Authorization go.

—Dedication: To Mr. T. H.

Rachael Acks

Rachael AcksRachael Acks is a writer, geologist, and sharp-dressed sir. In addition to her steampunk novella series from Musa Publishing, she’s had short stories in Strange Horizons, Waylines, Daily Science Fiction, Penumbra, and more. Rachael lives in Houston (where she bicycles, drinks tea, and twirls her ever so dapper mustache) with her two furry little bastards. For more information, see her website (rachaelacks.com) or watch her tweet (@katsudonburi) way too often.