The war has turned us into light.
Transforming us into light is the fastest way to travel from one front to another, and there are many fronts, now. I always wanted to be a hero. I always wanted to be on the side of light. It’s funny how things work out.
But I’ve been doing this long enough now to know what I really am.
I didn’t believe we could turn people into light when I signed up for service after the San Paulo Blink. When you saw what the aliens did to that city without even sending an army there, you knew you had to do something, even if it was dangerous. What happened to all those people doesn’t compare to what I have to do. I guess the Blink gave me an idea of the tech involved in what we were expected to do, as corporate soldiers. But it’s hard to understand a thing when all you know about it is what people say about it. It’s like having sex, or getting into a fight. You don’t understand it until you do it.
We jumped first during our six-week orientation, which the CO still calls basic training, even though there hasn’t been a public army in almost a century. They inject you with a lot of stuff in training. They don’t even wait to see if you wash out, because even if you wash out, they still need you. You don’t opt-out of this war anymore, not like you could in the early days. If you want to eat at the corporate store, you support the war.
Anyway, you don’t even know what any of this shit is they’re pumping you full of. They say it makes you faster, smarter, tougher, and who wouldn’t want that? You can’t say no. Not that you’d want to. Not if you’re a real soldier.
And I am. I’m a real soldier.
A real fucking hero.
I’m made of light.
• • • •
They say the first drop is the toughest, but it’s not. It’s the one after that, because you know what’s coming. You know how bad it is, and what the odds are that you’ll come back wrong.
Who are we fighting? The bad guys. They’re always the bad guys, right? We gave these alien people half the northern hemisphere to rehabilitate, because it was such a fucking wreck after the Seed Wars that nobody cared who settled it. Nothing would grow there until they came. The aliens had this technology that they developed when they split from us on Earth and built their colonies on Mars. We cut ourselves off from them when they left, so it was a real surprise when some of them asked to come back. I guess they thought they were saving us, but we don’t need saving. The tech, whatever it was, got rid of all the radiation and restored the soil, probably the same way it did on Mars after the Water Riots. And stuff grew. We trusted them, but they betrayed us. That’s what the networks say, and that’s what my CO says, but I’m here because they betrayed San Paulo.
That one I could see. That one I could believe.
Anyway. The drop. The first drop.
You burst apart like . . . Well, first your whole body shakes. Then every muscle gets taut as a wire. My CO says it’s like a contraction when you’re having a kid, and if that’s true, if just one is like that, then I don’t know how everybody who has a kid isn’t dead already, because that’s bullshit.
Then you vibrate, you really vibrate, because every atom in your body is being ripped apart. It’s breaking you up like in those old sci-fi shows, but it’s not quick, it’s not painless, and you’re aware of every minute of it. You don’t have a body anymore, but you’re aware, you’re locked in, you’re a beam of fucking light.
You’re a Paladin. A hero of the fucking light.
My first drop, we came in on our beams of light and burned down the woods the alien insurgents were in before our feet had even corporealized. We burned up at least a dozen of the enemy right there. But the worst one was the second drop, like I said, when we came down to protect a convoy under fire in the aliens’ territory in Canuck. We came down right there in their farms and traded fire. It’s confusing when you come down in the middle of something already going on, okay? Sometimes the energy weapons go right through you, because there’s not enough of you stuck together yet. But sometimes you’ve come together just enough, and they hit you, and either you’re meat enough for it to kill you, or all your atoms break apart, and you’re nothing. You ghost out.
I’ve seen a lot of people ghost out.
I came together and started firing. It’s what they train us to do, so it wasn’t my fault. I hit an alien girl—some civilian at the farm. She wasn’t even fifteen. I could hear her and her mother screaming. Their whole family, screaming, because I’d hit her and her legs were gone.
When the fight was over, our medic went to help them, but it didn’t matter. She wasn’t going to walk unless somebody regrew her legs and only executives have those corporate benefits. I only fired once. One shot. But one is all it takes. You just have to deal with it, when bad things happen to you, especially if you’re an alien, because nobody wants to help you.
I deal with it when bad things happen. So should she.
I still hear her and her mom screaming sometimes.
They’re aliens, sure.
But it wasn’t so long ago that they lived here, before they all ran off to Mars and made some big colony. We welcomed them back like they weren’t aliens, but they are. They are aliens. They aren’t like us. They are really different. They have a whole other language. Different clothes. They have these socialist ideas that mean shitting on you if you’re an individual at all. They’re just drones, really, doing whatever their collective tells them. They’re aliens. They’re the enemy.
I can hear her screaming.
• • • •
You still don’t get it.
I’m not stupid. I don’t believe everything they pump us full of. I don’t believe all the networks. I’ve been on too many grassy alien fields for that. Seen too many people dead—ours and theirs—and the faces all look the same. I ask about the San Paulo Blink a lot now, and nobody has good answers for me. Like, why did they pick San Paulo? And, why did these aliens come down from Mars but the others didn’t? And, if what they did in San Paulo was so bad, why are we using the same tech to fight them?
They don’t like us to ask questions. They try to train it out of you, not just if you’re a corporate soldier, but for workers, too. The corporation knows best, right?
I dated this girl once, this really smart girl. She was getting a PhD in one of those social sciences. She said there’s this thing called escalation of commitment. That once people have invested a certain amount of time in a project, they won’t quit, even if it’s no longer a good deal. Even if they’re losing. War is like that. No one wants to admit they’re losing. They’ve already lost so much.
You know what you are. What you’re becoming. And you can’t stop it. You’re committed. It doesn’t matter how much people scream or how many you kill whose faces looks like yours. This is your job. This is what you’re trained for. It’s who you are. You can’t separate them.
Do you get it?
When I signed up after San Paulo, me and my friends were shocked that the recruiting center wasn’t packed. Where were all the patriots? Didn’t they know what the aliens had done? Didn’t they know we had to defend ourselves? I thought all those people who didn’t sign up were cowards. While you were all upgrading your fucking social tech and masturbating to some new game, we were fighting the real threat. We were real adults, and you were cowardly little shits.
I joined up because the aliens were ruining the world. I joined up because I thought I was the good guy.
We’re the good guys.
We’re made of light.
I wish I was as stupid as I used to be.
• • • •
I see things, when I become the light. You’re not supposed to.
I want to tell you there’s a humming sound, when you start to break apart, but the shrink says that’s impossible. Light doesn’t hear things. They tell us that we can’t see or feel anything either, but that’s a lie, and anyone who’s been through it and tells you they don’t see or hear anything is lying because they don’t want to spend the rest of their lives in a freak house. We all see things in transit. It doesn’t mean you’re bad or crazy. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad soldier.
I’m not a bad soldier.
The first time I saw something I remembered was on my third drop. I saw a white rose on a black table. That’s it. Just a single image, a flash, fast as the moment it took me to make the transit. The shrink says it’s just my brain making things up. Faulty electrical charges, a side effect of the process that breaks up our atoms.
But I saw that image again a couple weeks later, in real life, inside my own meat. I went out to dinner with my squad, and we sat at these dark tables and this lady came around, this old bag lady, and I’m not sure who let her in, but she came around with roses and she was selling them to people.
One of the girls bought a white rose from the lady and laughed and put it on the table. A white rose on a black table. It was placed on the table just the way it was when I saw it in transit during the drop. I stared at it a long time, so long the bag lady tapped my shoulder and asked if I wanted a rose. I shrugged her off, but she squeezed my bare arm and said, “You will go back to the city. You will know why it’s full of light.” And then she left us.
I drank and laughed and tried to forget it, but it was creepy. And the visions kept happening. I kept seeing things twice—once in transit, and once in real life.
I told the shrink about it and she said it was just déjà vu, when you think you’ve seen something you’ve seen before. It happens a lot and it’s not weird, she said. No one is sure why it happens more to members of the Light Brigade than other people (we call ourselves the Light Brigade. The CO hates it). She said we get it even more than people with epileptic seizures. It’s the folks with seizures that make them think it has something to do with electrical discharges in the brain that cause faults in the way you store memories. It’s not that you’ve really seen what you’re seeing before, she tells me. It’s that your brain already wrote the memory, but the conscious part of you doesn’t register that it was written just a blink ago. You feel like it was a long time ago, but it wasn’t. It’s a false feeling. Or maybe, she says, it’s just that there are some familiar things in some setting you’re in, and so you feel it happened before.
It was when she gave me that, “Or maybe” part that I realized they have no idea what they’re talking about, just like with everything.
And once I started seeing things . . . I started trying to prolong them, those visions. I started corporealizing a half second after everyone else, then a second, then a few seconds, then a full minute, and lingering in those visions just a little longer.
If I was making it all up, if it was déjà vu, how could I do that?
But because I’m not stupid, I go along with it. I tell her yeah, sure, that makes sense. It’s just a faulty memory. It’s just being part of the Light Brigade.
You see things other people aren’t supposed to see.
• • • •
When did it change, for me?
Not orientation. Not the first drop. Not that girl I hurt. Not the déjà vu.
It changed when we cornered them in their biggest city, a year into my service. Virgin target, the CO said; totally untouched by drones and viral bursts and our Light Brigade. They wanted to see how some new weapon would perform against a target nobody had touched.
I should have guessed what the weapon would be.
I was part of the squad that volunteered to deliver the weapon. They didn’t just inject us with shit for this one; they put us under. I don’t know what they did. When I woke up, the world was a little green around the edges, and it was tough to figure out how to make words for a couple hours. My tongue was numb. I couldn’t feel my toes. But after that I felt pretty normal. Or, what I’d consider normal by then; waking up with night sweats, puking after anxiety attacks. Normal.
Then they sent us out. Busted us down into light.
I broke apart fast, faster than ever, and in the agonizing few seconds it took us to reach this new front at the speed of light, I saw a glowing green field full of bodies heaped up like hay bales. They weren’t alien bodies. They were us. Our suits. Our faces. And they spread out all around me, as far as I could see. There was a big city in the distance, a city I didn’t know, its shining spires reflecting a massive sea that was so still it might have been a lake.
Something had gone very wrong here. We had done something very wrong, and we had paid for it. I stretched the moment out, tried to hold it. I didn’t just get a few seconds this time, but a couple minutes. And I could . . . sort of sense myself there, like I was visiting myself. But how was I there, over that city, and over this one, at the same time?
I had this moment of dissonance as I was coming together over the drop zone, like I saw that city and this one lying right on top of each other.
My vision blurred, and I was over the real city, the now city, the alien city again, the virgin target we were there to destroy. The city I’d come to obliterate.
We started corporealizing over the enemy’s biggest port city, the shining pearl of that empire they carved out in Canuck. It unfurled from the flat black desert they had turned into a golden prairie, the way I imagined Oz appeared to Dorothy at the end of the yellow brick road.
It was beautiful. The pinnacle of some great civilization. So clean and light and . . . new. New like nothing on the rest of earth was new, all of us building on top of the dead civilizations that came before us, the ruined landscapes. Seeing their untouched city, even our best made us look like what we actually were—vagrants living on the bones of something greater that had come before.
We landed and scattered inside the spiraling towers. I arrived a good two minutes after everyone else, and I heard the screams of those who had corporealized inside buildings or walls or those who’d gotten stuck in the pavers. One woman waved her arms at me as I passed, stuck halfway into the ground. Others I passed were already dead, their bodies put back together in a steaming mess of broken flesh and meat.
This was the stuff they glossed over when they pumped you full of drugs. This was the bad part about becoming light. Sometimes it fucked you up.
Sometimes you couldn’t put yourself back together again.
I once asked the shrink if maybe it’s not déjà vu and maybe we really do go somewhere else when we become light.
“Like where?” she said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe I’m visiting myself in other places, other times.” I tried to be nonchalant, only half-serious. “I jump ahead in time, maybe.”
She swiped something onto the cloudy data projection in front of her and grounded me for six weeks of psych evaluations.
I didn’t bring that up again.
But I was figuring things out. Things they didn’t want us to understand.
Overhead, waves of our drones came in behind us to draw fire from the shining city. They swept across the neatly tilled fields and buzzed over us. I expected to hear the enemy’s defensive guns, or see the wheeling kites of their own organic weaponry flooding the sky in response to the onslaught. But the air was silent save for the soft whirring of the drones and the chuffing of our boots on the paving stones.
I always expect the alien cities to be red, like Mars, but not even Mars is red anymore, they say. The people that went to Mars did the opposite of what we did back here. They took something red and dusty and turned it into a sea of light. I hear there are giant wispy trees and shallow lakes and a big freshwater ocean there. Here, except for what the aliens did in far Canuck, it’s gray and mostly lifeless; a paved-over world where we’re scrabbling for fewer and fewer resources.
They were going to save us, they said.
But they betrayed us.
I saw movement in one of the buildings and shot off a few bursts from my weapon. The façade cracked and wept brown sap. Everything was alive in their cities, even the buildings. Everything bled. But I didn’t see any aliens, just us in our boots.
We crawled over that place, looking for the enemy. But the city was deserted. Maybe they’d abandoned it, or they’d found out we were coming and hid in bunkers. I don’t know.
But we couldn’t just come all this way for nothing. We had to do what we came for. We had to be weapons.
We assembled around the heart of the city’s square the way we planned in training. We raised our energy weapons and set them on the new setting, the one engineered specifically for this mission. We pointed our weapons across the broad square at one another. Set them at a high charge. Waited for the signal.
I started to vibrate. We started to come apart.
The trick was to wait, to be patient. But no one had actually tried to use the light like this before, no living person. It was something they’d done with simulators and robots that fired at each other. It’s easy for a robot, to fire at another robot. Harder for a soldier to fire at the person next to them. The one you’d take a hit for. I’d fire into my own face first, I thought, when they told me what we had to do.
But we’re the Light Brigade. We do what they tell us to do.
The vibrating got worse. Then the cramping. My body seized up. I gasped. Somebody shot their weapon; too soon. A scream. A body down. Another shot. Too soon.
Goddammit, hold it together.
The contraction stopped.
The world snapped.
I didn’t look at the mirrored helmet of the soldier across from me. I looked at the purple patch on their suit, the one that said they were one of us, the Light Brigade. I pulled the trigger.
Everything burst apart.
We were full of light.
• • • •
“I’m tired of taking care of living things,” my CO told me once outside the mess hall, right before that operation. “There’s so goddamn many of you. I can’t even go home and take care of my dog at night without getting angry at it. Too much fucking responsibility.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“For what? It’s not your fault. The war’s not your fault. Not my fault either.” But she said the last part differently, like she didn’t quite believe it.
And I wondered if she was right to doubt it, because it was our fault, wasn’t it? We fought this war willingly. We gave our bodies to it, even if we’re only here because of the lies the corporations told us. What if there was a war and nobody came? What if the corporations voted for a war and nobody fought it? You can only let so many people starve. You can only throw so many people in jail. You can only have so many executions for insubordination to the latest CEO or Board of Directors.
We are the weapon.
We fired on one another as we broke apart, and created an explosion so massive it obliterated half the northern hemisphere.
Everything the aliens made grow again, we turned back into dust.
We were the weapon. We were the light.
That was when it changed, for me. It’s like, you think you’re brave, so you carry out your orders. You do it even if you know what the outcome is going to be. You do it because you always wanted to be a hero—you wanted to be on the side of the light. It’s not until you destroy everything good in the world that you realize you’re not a hero . . . you’re just another villain for the empire.
• • • •
There weren’t many of us left to see what we did, and maybe it was better that way. It was all over the networks, the destruction of half a continent. They didn’t say how we did it. They didn’t say we shot each other up to do it, or say how many of our people died in the explosion, their essential elements broken apart. And right beside these pictures of this barren, smoking wasteland were pictures of our own people cheering in our dingy little cities built on the bones of our ancestors. We had scorched the fucking earth, but everyone cheered because we’d gotten back at those aliens, those liars, those betrayers.
I saw those images and I knew what I had to do. Because I still wanted to be a hero. I still had a chance. But it meant giving up everything I believed in. Betraying everyone I cared about. Being everything I’m supposed to hate.
I know what I need to do because I’ve seen it.
A white rose on a black table.
Heaps of bodies lying on the field like hay.
I know where I need to go. I know what’s next.
• • • •
The CO gave us leave, those of us who were left. I spent mine looking up the city from my vision, the one I saw in transit. There are a lot of cities by water, but none of ours have brilliant green fields like that. All of our shining cities are surrounded by gritty labor camps.
I didn’t realize how much they lied to us on the networks until I saw the alien cities. Until I killed the aliens myself. They had made a beautiful world from our shit, and we hated them for it, because they were free. No one owned them.
Betrayers, they said, on the networks. Liars.
They had made the land grow things again, but that was all they were supposed to do. They weren’t supposed to be free because no one is free, and they weren’t supposed to be able to defend themselves because no one can. When we found out they could fight back, when we found out about the organic kites that could take out a drone with a single shattering note, or the EMPs that disabled our networks the first time one of our armies rolled by to see what they were doing, the corporate media started building the narrative—the aliens were liars standing in the way of corporate freedom of commerce.
And then San Paulo.
In San Paulo, the aliens had retaliated. They had turned everyone into light.
A whole city had disappeared.
What nobody said is that San Paulo was where the corporations kept a lot of their most profitable labor camps. My cousin was there, so far in debt to the corps that she couldn’t get out. I joined the Light Brigade so that wouldn’t be my fate, too. The corps take care of you, as long as you give them everything.
Maybe the aliens did those people a favor. Now that I’d been light, I started thinking that maybe they didn’t die after all. Maybe they just went somewhere else. Maybe the aliens found out what we were, too, and tried to save us from ourselves, the way I was now trying to save them.
The San Paulo Blink showed the corporations what was possible. And they used the tech to fight back.
The aliens gave us the light.
Eight million corporate slaves, gone in a blink.
And our response: half a continent scorched of all life.
Maybe the light was our downfall. Or maybe we’d been falling the whole time.
• • • •
After a couple days’ leave, after I located the coordinates of where the city in my vision used to be, I asked to go out on the next offensive. The city I’d seen in my vision had been one of the first we destroyed in the early days of the war, after we tried to invade and they retaliated. In the archives, I saw the city the same way I had in my vision: heaps of our bodies on the green grass fields all around the city.
In the here-and-now, we were still looking for rogue aliens, trying to find out what had happened to all of them, but I already knew. I wasn’t there to help them clean up. I was there because I wanted to jump with them.
I could blink forward. And now I knew I could blink back.
My CO gave me a look when I made the request, like she was trying to figure out if I was crazy. She told me that if I could pass the psych eval, she’d approve my next drop. I asked her if she ever gave her dog away, because it was too much responsibility.
“My dog’s dead,” she said.
“That makes it easier,” I said.
“No,” she said. “It doesn’t. But I guess you can’t save everything.”
No, I thought, you have to choose.
I almost turned back, then, but I was too committed. Escalation of commitment.
The shrink asked me a lot of questions, but I knew the ones that mattered.
“So do you still think you can travel in time, when you become light?” she asked.
I laughed. “I haven’t had any of that déjà vu since the last drop. Those aliens are dead. It’s over.”
I passed my evaluation.
I prepared for the drop. Closed my eyes. Held onto my sense of self while everyone else broke up around me. I pictured the city in my head, the place I wanted to go back to.
We broke apart.
And I saw it—I saw the alien city of my vision again surrounded by brilliant green fields. The shining spires. The inland sea. It wasn’t the city we had scorched when we became the weapons—though it was just as surely obliterated in the here-and-now as that city was. This was the capital. The center of everything. Those spires were their ships, grounded forever at the foot of the gleaming sea. I had arrived before our first offensive on this city, before the fields were full of the bodies of our people. Before we knew the aliens could fight back.
I came down into my own body, trying to yank myself together, but it was like trying to put together a bucket full of puzzle pieces as somebody poured it out around you.
There were no bodies yet. I had time.
I skimmed into the city, past crowds of startled onlookers. I still wasn’t fully corporeal, but I was getting there. I needed a few more minutes. I needed to tell them. Just as I was able to draw air into my lungs, I felt my body vibrating again. It wanted so badly to come back apart and go where the people in charge had sent it.
I held it together.
I yelled, “They’re sending us. We’re weapons. We’re going to scorch the whole continent.”
They all stared blankly at me, like I was some dumb beast, and I wondered if they understood Spanish. I tried again in English, but that was as many languages as I knew.
When I didn’t say anything else, the crowds dispersed and the people went on their way.
But one of them came up behind me, and I recognized her. It was the bag lady from the restaurant. She put her hand on my arm and squeezed, but it went right through me. I was coming apart again.
“It’s you who brings the light,” she said. “We won’t be here when it comes. You can do what you need to do now without fear for us.”
I broke apart.
Saw nothing. A wall of blackness.
Then, another city.
But not the one my CO had sent me to. Someplace else. I was skipping out of control. I was losing it.
I knew this city because I had grown up here, before it became a work camp. I was eight years old now, staring into the lights of San Paulo. The ocean wasn’t as close as it is now, but I could smell the sea on the wind.
I knew this place, and this day.
My cousin was with me, young and alive, laughing at some joke.
I wanted her to be safe forever. I wanted us all to be safe.
I stared up at the sky. Mars was up there, full of socialists.
But they hadn’t lied to us after all, had they?
It was my lie. My betrayal.
I held out my hand to my cousin. “Have you ever wanted to become the light? Go anywhere you want? Be anyone you want?”
“It’s impossible to be anyone you want,” she said, and I was sad, then, for how soon the corporations took away our dreams.
“Hold my hand tight,” I said. “There’s going to be a war soon. There’s going to be a war, but no one will come.”
That’s why the aliens weren’t in the city when we arrived with our weapons.
It was because of me. My betrayal.
And so was this.
I was high above the city now, still in San Paulo, but the sea was higher, the sprawl was even greater, and I could see the work camps circling the city one after another after another.
Eight million people.
What if there was a war and nobody came?
I broke apart over San Paulo.
I was a massive wave of energy, disrupting the bodies around me, transforming everything my altered atoms touched.
We became eight million points of light.
I broke them all apart, and brought them with me.
You can’t save them all. But I could save San Paulo. I could take us all . . . someplace else, to some other time, where there’s no war, and the corporations answer to us, and freedom isn’t just a sound bite from a press release.
This is not the end. There are other worlds. Other stars. Maybe we’ll do better out there. Maybe when they have a war here again, no one will come.
Maybe they will be full of light.