by Christopher Clagg
Ten years passed before I ever missed my arms. The war went on, and my claws and guns served just as well.
But in the quiet times, when I lie in the mobile transport crate and wait to be taken to yet another battlefield somewhere, another world -- yet another battle, or conflict or skirmish where men without faces like myself stand in the dirt and fire rockets and machine guns until either our guns jam or we are destroyed or we fall into the mud and feel the grind of our motors whining as we try to turn ourselves over, but are still unable to stand -- then I remember. When the panic of those times settles into the only flesh that remains to us, our minds, then sometimes I will remember when I was a man, and had hands, and I held my wife in my arms on the day before I joined the war effort. Before I shipped out for retrofitting and training.
It meant losing my body.
It was that or run. But where do you run when the war is everywhere?
And if I ran who would stop the rockets from falling here?
Who would stand and fight and keep the soldiers from burning my family and my home?
I lie in the mud and feel my rotors spinning automatically trying to right my frame. But there is no purchase in the slick muck that will hold long enough to get a claw into the soil deep enough to hold my weight.
I burn out a rotor trying to stand.
With a final whine the bearings scream and smoke pours out of the mechanism as it sparks and shorts out and then goes silent.
Above me the rockets continue to fire and machine gun bursts tear up the ground. The air is a screaming mass of radiation with daylight and nightfall flickering against the sky as troops from both sides jump forward into tonight or back into the early morning in an effort to get an edge in the battle.
Bullets ping off my skin, but I cannot see where they are coming from.
I pull a spare rotor out of the storage compartment in my leg and slap it into place and start it up and try to stand again.
This time I lean my elbow into the mud and push, feeling the mechanism catch, then feel the lurch of the cabling as it suddenly goes taut and I am pulled up onto my knees.
I start firing immediately.
Guns blazing away.
I can feel the bullets as they pass from the traveling tubes up to the loading chamber, then into the gun itself and as they explode the shells are swallowed back into the reload chamber. I stand and am firing both my guns with smoke still pouring out of my side from the dead rotor when I am hit in the chest with a rocket.
I am knocked off my feet and back into the mud. There is an automatic shutdown on my guns.
The tubes stop feeding rounds into the mechanism.
I stare at the sky through my infra-red. The noise is deafening.
The smoke pouring off the fields obscures almost everything.
I lie in the mud and wonder what I am fighting for.
What cause is so important that it can't wait while I hold my wife and kiss her slowly. Undress her and dream once more that I am a man of flesh and blood.
But I'm not.
And the memory only burns up time.
And chokes me somewhere inside my casing where once I had a heart.
I lie in the mud and eject the now two dead rotors and pull two more from storage and slap them into place and elbow my way to my feet. Smoke pours out of the cavity of my chest, but I stuff mud into the hole and try to seal off the broken lines as best I can.
I stand but when I move forward my left leg freezes up stiff, refusing to bend. I stuff more mud into the open hole of my chest and slap a quarter-inch-thick sealing plate over the top of it.
Somewhere in the back of my turret one of my optics shuts down suddenly, going completely blank.
We all make choices.
I made my choices.
I had stood at the window and felt the breeze over my skin as she slept. Ev stirred in his crib in the corner, turned his cheek, his eyes closed and there was an innocence in his face that I have not seen in the world since I was a child.
Katie moved under the covers and pulled the covers up to her chin, drew her legs up underneath her in the small chill of the night air. I closed the window and watched her.
I had a choice.
I could run.
But that is not true.
Who would take care of them if I ran?
I stood at the window and felt the chill against my skin, but I didn't mind.
I would only have that luxury of feeling for a short time more.
After I shipped I would only have a memory of a body that I used to have.
Breezes and chills that I used to feel.
All of that would be gone.
There would only be a memory left, but that would have to be enough.
I shut down the feed to the dead optic and fire up my rotors once again.
There is a whining scream of metal as they spin up and the cabling winds up again. I dig my elbows into the soft dirt at my back and push up into a standing position.
The air screams with shrapnel and noise.
I tear loose with twin rockets off my arm launchers. Watching on my scopes as the missiles target in and then explode.
Once upon a time, I remember holding her face in my hands and looking into her eyes, when I still had eyes. Felt her cheek against my face as I held her.
"Come home." She had said.
And I had smiled and pressed my lips to her hair and whispered.
Above me on the ridge Gen rises up and suddenly is framed in a halo of microwave light. Caught transfixed by the enemy beams he stands completely still.
There is no sound from his speakers as his metal frame turns black, and then brittle and begins to fall apart. Collapsing into a pile of burnt rubber and electronics and fractured metal plates.
He is gone.
WHUMP ! WHUMPP!! WHUMPP!!
Incoming rockets explode into the infrared daylight. Red overlays all.
And spilled crankcase oil.
Hulks lay in smoking burnt heaps in the mud. All silent under alien moons.
Half a mile away I can hear the waves of a crimson sea on some nameless shore.
I turn south forty-five degrees and begin moving toward that sound. Rico goes over the top but loses an arm to the burners as he goes up and over the rise. I can hear him cursing and screaming as he rolls down the other side.
It is a wonder.
That in this place of machinery and death, that there is any small piece of humanity left. Still cursing and yelling, laughing sometimes. Short talks in the blast trenches between the falling of the bombs.
I would smile.
But I don't have a face.
We had married in Fifty-three.
She was pregnant inside of three months and Ev was three months premature when he was born. She was worried that people would think we 'had' to get married. Ev spent a month and a half in an incubator before we could bring him home.
First night home I slept on the couch next to the bassinet just to make sure I could hear him.
Katie had laughed and called me silly, but had still come and held my hand while our little one slept oblivious to his parents' concerns.
In the morning she had made breakfast and we had held hands while we drank coffee.
I push through the dirt and feel the treads at the ends of my legs catch in the deep mud. They spin as they try to catch and for a moment I simply stand there before I stab a claw out and into the dirt and turn myself.
There is no feeling in my treads.
I feel nothing when the braces that hold the wheels buckle and explode as I move over a land mine. The leg fractures as the impact travels up the support of my leg and splits the brace completely in two. I topple onto my face and side as I lose the support.
It begins to rain.
Drops falling silently out of the red-gray sky.
On my side I detach my arm and swing it down and place it into the dirt beside my fractured leg. Then I have to smash the remaining pieces that are wedged into the lock before I can completely detach the leg and replace it with my arm.
It is not a perfect match up, but it is functional.
I leverage myself up and start firing again. Bullets ricocheting off the stone hillside as I move up toward the ridge above.
Smoke pours over the hill in great wafts as I move forward.
This is my life.
"Come home." She said.
I had tried.
In the spring twenty two months after I had shipped out, I came home.
I had stood in the yard and debated going through a door I could no longer fit through. Katie had stood at the doorway, still and silent and watched as I had wheeled myself on steel treads into the yard. I could hear Ev in the bedroom sleeping, his heart rate was 122 beats per minute. His respiration was five or six breaths per minute. He was asleep.
I could see through the walls and see the fault lines in the frames of the house that we had built.
I could topple it if I had wanted, it was only several hundred tons.
There were lots of things I had been trained to observe and to consider.
Not any of them helped Katie move off the porch and out to me.
I had stood there for over an hour in the yard, afraid to move or to say anything. When I did move the turret of my face turning in a long slow arc as I swung my primary optics behind me, to point my gun face away, she jumped.
But my voice was a metallic squealing voice box that had no feeling in it.
She had run then, into the house.
With my infra-red I watched her move through the rooms of the house as she ran. Back into the back bedroom where she caught Ev up to her breast and ran and hid in the closet in the back of the house.
As far from me as she could get.
Huddled down in a small folded form. Arms wrapped around our son. Her face turned away. Tears streaked down her face and fell silently onto her dress.
I had moved away from the house then, back through the gate and down the street and away. Back to the transport facility where I waited to return to storage. Or back to the war.
I move up the face of the hill and hear the sound of missiles incoming. There are explosions around me as I inch up and forward. The face shifts subtly and shakes as the missiles impact at some point further down along the ridge.
Voice boxes squeal and scream and go silent in the barrage of light and sound and falling rain and missiles and rocket fire and machine guns burping in staccato beats. Darkness and Light mix and time distorts.
They say that somewhere there are draftees who ran, who found refuge on a far planet with their families. The other soldiers and I discuss it sometimes during the lulls, but we've decided they're just stories.
An enemy warrior appears beside me for a moment. He is Green in his plated armor. I pump two rockets straight into him and then jump forward by 90 seconds. He vanishes, but pops back in two minutes later blasting his guns. I roll sideways and slip back 100 seconds, wait ten for him to show and blast two more rockets into his chest. Two more appear out of thin air, from before and detonate as well. Then I roll to the left and again jump forward two and a half minutes as he appears with his entire chest cavity gone. He is not shooting this time.
Merely slumps forward onto his face in the dirt and doesn't move.
I clamber over the top of the ridge, feeling the momentary burst of microwave burners on my plates. My outer skin coating quickly frying to a hard black, it begins to peel before I can get out of the beams and over the crest of the rise.
Slipping down the hill face smoking black, I hear my electronics screaming in protest.
I am screaming.
In my mics I can hear Rico laughing.
I wish I could smile.
I reload my guns and keep moving as best I can.
For just a moment I wish I had my arms again.
Just for a moment to hold her.
To hold my son.
To be a Father again. A husband.
But we all make decisions.
Some of them can't be undone.
No matter how much I want them to.
I move forward in the mud and can hear the sound of microwaves racking the ground, the sky full of smoke and debris and the screaming of incoming rockets.
I reload my guns and keep moving.
Story copyright © 1999 by Christopher Clagg <email@example.com>
Artwork "Soldier" copyright © 1999 by Thomas Miller <firstname.lastname@example.org>