Citation

The glow had long gone down behind the serrated edge of the mountains. It was late.

The order had not come in yet. Earlier Ary had asked Major Kenner if he and John could take the patrol of the outer encamp.

(“Why?” Major Kenner said.

“Everyone’s tired,” Ary said. “We thought since we’ve got no orders yet that we could take things off C-2, sir.”

Major Kenner was one of those people who was always calm. He stopped writing and looked up at Ary.

“They got hit three days ago,” he had said. “Three deaths.  They need something to do.”

From another person that might have been cruel. But Major Kenner was not like that. He leaned back in his chair and gave Ary a look that said, go on, say what you think.

Ary only said, “I understand, sir.”

“No,” Kenner had said. “You are right. I can’t unfuck this situation for C-2. Hope they get through this.”

“Have they been to Combat Stress?”

“Do you know what C-2 is like? They were teasing Danks all the way through because he’d not got his first kill. He was the loader, of course he hadn’t done it. They said he needed to do it so that they’d be a hundred percent. They will not go to Combat Stress. I can’t make them.” He stopped. “Well, I could. But it wouldn’t work if I made them do it. I need not to be the asshole here for a while.” Kenner grinned and looked tired. He did that. Ary was not used to it. He never did it if there was a Lance Corporal around but if he was with anyone from O2 onwards he sometimes came across like the rugged, fundamentally decent guy, the guy just a bit tired of it all, the guy that he must have been when he was a Corporal.

“No-one thinks you’re the asshole, sir.”

He shook his head. “Do Perries do platitudes now?”

Ary was about to say that he had meant it something but Kenner waved it away.

Kenner called Sergeant Friend and said, “Leave C-2 off it tonight.”

“Yes, sir.” Surprise.

“The Perries will be doing the patrol. Tell C-2 to rest for tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir.”

Kenner turned to Ary and said, “Thanks, I guess.” Not like an O5 at all.

“No problem, sir.”)

The night was still. Ary walked but was not thinking of anything in particular. In the distance the grinding gears of the terrainers and the Big Ts moving. It was strange how even in the most urgent of times everything seemed to move slowly. There was something good about the patrol. The stillness came from outside and went into him. Vague tonnage of exhaustion coming away, one small weight off his shoulders. There were not many times when he could feel this way.

He noticed the soldier because he was holding a cigarette and he could see the light a long way off. He was standing against the perimeter and smoking. After some time the guy put the cig out and then stood there, not moving, looking out. He held his rifle to his chest with one arm and did not move.

When Ary was close and coming around the corner he made a noise with his step so that the soldier would know.

The soldier turned and started violently. There was panic and sudden terror on his face. He jerked around and fumbled nearly unconsciously let the handguard tip from his right hand into the palm of his left and before he knew it the muzzle of his AR was pointed straight at Ary. Then he realised what he had done.

“Oh, shit. Shit. Fuck. Sir, I’m sorry sir, I didn’t mean to do that. I just—”

Ary saw the name stitched onto the sleeve of the soldier’s BCO: Hasse.

He did not recognise the name but he thought he recognised the face. Hasse was in C-2. He was a big guy but there was a tilt to his eyebrows that always made him look a little sad even when he was laughing.  Ary had seen him with the others neatly painting letters onto one of the FOB terrainers: FUFB. Fuck you FOBbits. Someone might have called him Doleface.

Hasse backed away and slung his rifle. “I’m sorry, sir. I’ll go back now, I just needed to get out for a while, you know, for – for –” He stopped. “I’ll go back now, sir, if you let me.”

Ary did not say anything. He knew how Hasse felt, the shock of seeing something alien come out from the dark like that.

“Muzzle discipline,” he said. He nearly said Corporal but did not. “You’ve let it go to shit.”

There was a moment of hesitation where Hasse did not know if he was looking at an Officer (Spec) or just another human.

“Why are you here?” Ary said.

People did not know how to speak to Peregrines. You could see the way their eyes moved, looking for a mouth or the eyes in the mechanical head, shuttling, searching. Most people looked away after a while. They talked normally but they looked away. Hesse looked right at Ary. He hesitated and said, “I was looking for you, sir.” Then he leaned against the wall and slumped against, let himself be pulled down until he was sitting with his back against the perimeter, rifle between his knees. He put his forehead on the butt and let out a long shuddering breath.

“Things have gotten so fucking—” He put both hands out in front of him and clenched them hard. “I needed to get out, talk to someone outside, you know, not outside, but not part of the whole – this whole –”

“Have you been to Combat Stress?” Ary said. It felt stupid as it came out of his mouth and he knew how Hesse would read it; an inquisition, a command.

“I can’t,” Hesse said. “I don’t have a problem. It’s about Tom. The care packages came in earlier today, do you know? I stood in the line and got Tom’s because he was my best friend. I didn’t think he would wake up, I didn’t know, so I opened it.” He shook his head and held the AR very tightly. “Look at this,” he said, “Isn’t this pathetic? Me, here, bitching to a fucking Peregrine.” He hit himself on the side of his head, lightly, twice. “I’ll go back in. Sir. I’m sorry.”

“If you need to talk,” Ary said, “You should talk.” He did not know what else he could do.

Hesse was silent for some time. “I don’t know how you deal with it,” Hesse said. “How did you deal with it?”

“I didn’t,” Ary said. “It’s not something you deal with. That’s not what they usually say, I think. But that’s all I’ve got.”

“I got his care package and inside there was only a bar of soap. It was so fucking ridiculous. Why would Tom need a bar of soap? There’s so many other things you need out here. Photos, food from home. But all that Tom got was a bar of soap. Maybe his family was poor. I never asked and he never said. I don’t know, when I saw it I just broke inside and I stood there suddenly realising I wanted to collapse and cry but you can’t let them see you like that. So I didn’t do it, I smiled and made a joke. I said, well this is good isn’t it, because I don’t care what heroic shit he’s done, he’s a holy stinker, and I laughed. But then I had to go to the showers and cry like a baby for an hour.”

“When I started out,” Ary said, “I had a friend who was religious.”

Hesse stopped for a moment and then said, “What, like he prayed and all that shit?”

“Yes.”

“What happened to him?”

“He was the first one to die on our first Drop.”

“Didn’t help him, did it?”

“I’m sure it did. But it can’t stop you dying.”

“That fucked you real bad, huh? Sir.”

“When they read his Personal Effects Statement it turned out he left me his personal music player. He’d got an electric one, one of the old ones, just because he would never Woodpecker stop him listening to whatever he wanted, he said. I couldn’t use the player at first. I would look at it and it would be too much. One time I tried it and it wrecked me. But it helped. The loss became real and became possible to actually take, to grasp. The track at the top of the frequently played list was something from the Trove. It’s hard to imagine but there it was. From what is now our enemy. Sheep May Safely Graze.”

“Have you heard what happened to Tom? Sir.”

“It’s strange for someone to keep calling me sir. I went straight to this from sergeant. I’ve never been called sir before. And I don’t talk to people in the company very much. It’s strange.”

“Okay.”

Ary could see the way Hesse was holding the rifle, upright against the ground, both hands on the barrel. The barrel had been painted ochre but some of the paint had flaked off and the dark metal shone from beneath, small irregular patches. He felt a sudden surge of sympathy for Hesse, for the anguished thing seeing now the whole world that had been circling around finally closing in, bereavement  shrunk to a brute knowable fact.

“What happened to Tom?”

“We were clearing a street in Otley, the usual thing. We were in the APV.”

Ary had seen it. The C-2 APV, like many others, had had a message written on the inside of the driver door. Those who survived mines in anti-ambush vehicles felt the need to do these sorts of things: This truck saved the life of my friends and I four of us on Apr 02 04 Kilnet at 1700.

“It was all normal and then it went off right underneath us, lifted the entire APV up. It wasn’t a small thing. It was an EFMP, it went right through the front and killed Rewes, straightaway, cut him nearly in half. The change in pressure or something left Zima and Watters unconscious, bleeding from the eyes, the ears. The rest of us got sprayed with molten metal. When Tom and I came out of the back it was a complete fucking mess. We had been completely cornered. We got told at first that one of the worst things you could get caught in was a firefight. We didn’t believe it at the time but it is true We ran to Sergeant Savidge but she had been hit under the arm and twice in the chest. It was fucked-up. The flak stopped the two to the chest but the one under the arm was bleeding like skippy.

Tom looked down the alley and saw everyone pinned and he took the Handle from Savidge and he did the suppressive fire, he organised it by himself, and then he said he wanted to run down the front of the alley and get Odell and Wyer. I told Tom, no, don’t do it, but he just said no. I think he heard me. When he disagreed he never had a fight out of it. He just did his own thing. He thought about what you said and if he didn’t agree he would do his own thing, you know? So I gave him cover and he ran down and got struck immediately in the knee, I saw it ricochet off the guard and his leg fold in a bit so that he nearly kneeled, and although that sort of shot hurts like hell, he went on and took Odell and Wyer by their vests and hauled them back. I think he was hit again, twice, I don’t remember where. But it was when he turned to go back even though I was fucking screaming at him from behind the APV that he got hit in the face. I was crouching there and then Tom’s blood was all over me and he spun a little bit and fell like he was already dead. He was just lying there in the middle of all the scattered bearings from the APV. I think I lost my mind a little, you know? I didn’t imagine this sort of thing. I lost my shit. I screamed and ran – this is what they told me – I ran out to him and got him to the 9-ton, I must have done it. The thing I remember is that the round that got him was not the ordinary thing. It splashed something over his flak and the ARA had melted. Do you know what I remember? It was strange because it’s a smell I know from home. I was pulling him back and I smelt the barbecue and it was him, Tom, Tom was burning in my hands as I dragged him. It was in my nose. Didn’t go away until long after.

“Look, man, I know there are no heroes in the military. It’s all a lie. I’m as fucking – I don’t know – as fucking cynical as anyone else, but Tom was that sort of thing, he was very close to the real thing. That one time he got shot in the neck in Lome-I. He came around to us with his hand on the side of his head like that, the sick bastard, blinking like he knew it was the end, trying not to scream or shout, he just said, hey, I’ve been hit, what does it look like. And it looked like there was just a fuckload of blood coming out of the side of his neck, and I seriously thought he was a dead man. And Tom just looked at me and said, you’d better be scared shitless because I’m going to steal all your pussy now.”

Hesse stopped and breathed. “I looked at him in TRR. He’s not got half his face. Can’t imagine all that pussy he’s going to get now, huh?” He tried to make his voice sound playful but there was much more in it, uncertainty and much more. “All those pity fucks.”

“You’ve been lucky,” Ary said. “To know Tom.”

Hesse tried and failed to avoid crying.

His shoulders moved a bit.

“I thought when I came in I’d just try to do the good thing, get a little respect, try to do the correct thing, but look at this. I think he was keeping me alive and now. I don’t know. Maybe I’m broken. Maybe I’m not. I’m okay with explosions, I don’t flinch or anything. I can get back in the APV. But I’m – I’m fucking diminished, you know what I mean. Suddenly it’s all gone from under me.”

Ary remembered the look of sudden terror on Hesse’s face when he had seen Ary appear, that reaction that without any words or thought had spoken: kill, kill, kill.

In the distance there was a loud blare from a terrainer backing up, probably involved in some delicate negotiation with the Big Ts. “Grief is the correct thing,” Ary said. “It’s not a problem. It’s the necessary thing. It says something. This is what it’s about, really. You know it and it is not a bad thing.”

“I feel,” Hesse said, almost drowsily. “I feel—”

“Yes,” Ary said. “Me too.”

Hesse got out another cigarette and tried to light it but could not and threw it away. “They came to me, just earlier today. They’re starting to work on Tom’s Full Citation for valour because they think he’s going to die. I knew what they wanted me to say so I said he was selfless, you know? I said he didn’t care at all about himself, he cared for my squad. That was what it took, to run out into the fire like that. He probably wasn’t even thinking about it. Selfless. It was easy to say because it was all true. And I got so fucking angry then. I felt like reaching out and hitting them. So much violence you might as well call it grief, call it trauma, CSR, call it what you want to. Because I thought, if only the fucker had been less selfless, if only he had been a bit more of a fucking coward and come back when I called. I wanted to tell them about how he was a great guy, like where the real value in him was, that it had nothing to do with the fact that he was a fucking idiot—” Hesse stopped to pull the sleeve of the BCO over his face. “—fucking idiot who ran out into, into fucking intense fire, nothing to do with all that shit, it was just that he knew but to make tired people happy, he made people feel like they could not die, he knew when not to talk and when to talk. But they don’t give a shit. I looked up what citations before I entered. I thought it was cool to get one of those. They were all the same: ‘complete disregard for personal safety’, ‘extraordinary calm and presence of mind under intense pressure’. How could Tom be that? Was he calm? Who the fuck knows? Was he disregarding his safety? We were his safety and he was mine. He’s not just like everyone else. Fuck, this is – this is – just –”

Ary did something he had seen someone in Combat Stress do once. “What’s your name, Corporal?” he said.

“James,” Hesse said.

“James,” Ary said. That was all he knew.

Three kinds of fire support: suppression; neutralisation; destruction. Discourage or maim or kill. And Ary knew that these were not just things to be done by one army to another but things that each army did to itself, to each single thing in it, when the promises of departure began to dim, and maybe even well before that, when all the lives crowded themselves out, all perfect and all past repair, and forgot about all the time that had to steal by before they could say it and not have as a lie: all is well. All is well.

“I can’t believe it,” Hesse said. “How did I not imagine it?” He took in a long breath and as he let it out he tried not to let it shudder. He stood up.

“James,” Ary said. “I don’t think anyone imagines it.”

“If there were proper war films people would never go. The honest film would not be a story. It would be someone smiling and coming towards the camera, laughing down a street, and then a round comes screaming and it all ends. Thirty seconds and that would be all. Or someone burning up ten thousand metres above the ground when the world below is still a turning marble. Or someone dragging themselves out of the hatch in a sub and then getting stuck and drowning in foam, in the surf.  I watched all the movies, you know? Even the ones that were about the horrors of war. All lies. All lies. All of them were beautiful. They had images that stayed with you because they were so well put together. In this war nothing has been put together like that. Everything stays with you because you were there. That’s all there is to it. The only good thing about it is when you are about to fight and there is a thrill. It’s not joy, it’s a kind of yearning. You want to get the hundred percent. But you only get that if you want to kill and no film does that. It cannot make you want to kill. ”

Ary saw how Hesse’s hands were shaking.

“Do you get caffeine at the DFAC?” he said.

“Yes,” Hesse said. “They let me.”

“Sepaneurone?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t do it,” Ary said. “It does not help.”

“Yeah.”

“Go see Tom.”

“Yeah.”

“Ask the medics how he is. If you want to sit there for a while. I’ll tell them to let you.”

Hesse shook his head. He pulled at his hair, not violently but with force.

Ary waited for a while and then said, “You need to get some sleep, James.”

“Yeah.” Hesse sounded like he wanted to say something more but had stopped himself. “Do you know – do you know what I wanted out of this? I wanted people to respect me. When Tom was around I could really believe it. That’s what I wanted at first. People will always respect you. You can do these amazing things, you know? You’ve proved yourself. Me, myself, I’ve got nothing to prove. I mean – there is nothing I can prove. I hope people respect me because of what I’ve been through.”

Ary wanted to say that was not what it was about. But he did not say it. “I don’t deserve to be here,” he said. “Nobody deserves what they get whether or not it is good or bad. When I got into my first Carcass in the Peregrines I realised they were all broken too. It’s okay.”

Hesse was quiet for a while.

“What’s it like, out there? Sir.”

“Doing Wanderers?”

“Yeah, the Wanderers. Can you – are you allowed to say?”

Ary looked out. Now nothing was moving. Things had moved out of sight. “It’s lonely,” he said, “but in a good way. I have my partner.” He realised his mistake as soon as he’d said it.

But Hesse said, “That’s what I’d thought. Just imagine what it is like to be invincible, to be like that.”

Again Ary wanted to say, no, that was not it, but instead he looked at Hesse. There was nothing left in Hesse anymore, like he was empty, unspooled too fast, dissolved from the heat of friction.

“Let’s go in,” Ary said.

“I can’t even know your name,” Hesse said. He looked at Ary. He was young but his face was lined everywhere with anguish big enough to be invisible, all but invisible. “Thank you.”

“Let’s go in,” Ary said.

“Sergeant Friend will see us.”

“I was asking you about the patrol. Don’t worry about it.”

On the way in Ary realised that he did not know who Tom was, at all. He looked up the TRR (Critical) list. It took sometime time because only the surnames were listed alphabetically. But eventually he someone with the correct brief. Lance Corporal Thomas Eely was not expected to survive another 48 hours.

“Get some rest,” he told Hesse. The big shoulders were slumped but tight.  A note forever wrapped inside its own bell. “There are things to be done tomorrow.”

He watched Hesse disappear inside and then went back out to the encamp, hoping that nothing had managed to come through while he had been with Hesse.

Letters, Rewritten: 1

Dear John,

I am not dead. We are all waiting and tense – scouts never came back – but I am alive. This is my first letter to you – isn’t it strange that we are forced to do this, to actually write on paper before they scan it all – and that we enjoy it – maybe it is the sentimentality of it – what Hatherance calls Old School – but I am not familiar with this, and so I think I must right away reassure you that I am alive and well because that is probably what you are thinking about now – at least I must hope so.

I know what you will be thinking – but do not doubt this. I am alive. It is true, what you are thinking – what I know you must be thinking, if I know you at all – there are others who have written dozens of letters, prepaid for all of them, and asked for them to be sent in staggered order, automatically – one every two, three weeks, or so – all this so that even if they die the letters from them will continue to be sent – I ask myself when their partners will discover this and what they will think and if this is a kind of compassion or cruelty. But this is a letter from me, alive.

Exactly four years ago we met. I intend for this to be a brief chronicle of things that have happened to us – that we did – a remembrance of what I am told I should call an anniversary, when I saw you standing there over the opponent in the Ring, looking flatly, coldly – that is how you look – up at me, the one from S1P5 who had shot the exercise drone by accident – of the night we first spent together, I terrified, you amused – even now I am not sure, you are unreadable – amused, or wondering – us at the graduation where I tasted Muscatel for the first time and was shocked at its brilliance, and where you had far too much and sat there perfectly still and only very slightly smiling when I slowly slipped and fell off the chair without realising – and even then everyone too afraid of you to laugh – how I woke with a blinding ache the day after finding that the commanders had been honest about not letting the nanos help with the alcohol for that night and realised that I had to be carried back to the bunk and put to bed – that you had done it, impossibly, and I wondered what people must have thought who saw it. The first paired mission in Afar – two of us, two very soaked sergeants of the CM in the night not saying anything, just leaning over over the stele-light, looking at the warmth between us like a miracle – night over the great plains and navigating by stars that were only just familiar enough since we had no Globenet – no easy task even for me, you said – and then I for the very first time knew that maybe you respected me, in a way – finding the abandoned convertible and learning to make it move – the picnic, or so we called it, of rations and terrible coffee – the tent of light and warmth we made in the space under the rusting hulk of a while we did the twonight recce – the  bootlegged music you brought that Gryzhas had taken off the Stize web – Emperor Concerto, you had written on the black chip, assuring me that was not its real name – us listening with the muffler around us in that space and me wondering where such music came from and how it had been discovered as it roared around us in that small flickering space. After the success of that and our return the dinner at the Auburn – the privilege of that and the people who stared because we were too young and unranked for such a thing – the mission call – promises made – and back again this time to Lamarck – two nights before the departure us, again a little drunk, spending all night in a cinema and falling asleep locked in each other’s arms – waking and the shock of it and realising that we had not been discovered – me actually laughing in relief and you looking annoyed. Hatherance wanted a meal before we left but we – without speaking – agreed it was better if no-one felt our leaving and so we left her request unreplied to.

On Lamarck again nights like a prayer all strung together and punctuated by the fighting that you longed to throw yourself into but which we were not supposed to be a part of – the mountain pass and the wards all along it that made my heart hammer and that you said would not hurt us – the firefight in the ruddy mountain dawn – you losing an arm and high-fiving a child you saw on the way back down with your remaining arm, high on the meds – the bunk we found buried there in the mountain – the flare I sent up – cold blue in that crow sky as we watched  – I know what you noticed. I know you noticed and you did not speak to me about it. There are things about me that are not necessary to know about but I tell you now because we might be together again that what you saw happen was not something I willed – was not something that was important to me – not a part of me – come back and ask me and I will tell, I can explain. It was only a light, John – it was only a light.

Back and still surprised at our survival – at least I was and that was all I could tell those who asked – you carried already the awe around you that suppressed questions – the first time we fucked in my bunk and the first time I asked  – just after you appeared at the door and again people stared. Us hoping that because we were lieutenants we would get more time – but two weeks and then the mission call came – the misery of realising that we could not go together – your anger – I know it was anger although you called it other names – the dangerousness that you carried with you – you hurt Gryz badly when he asked, do you not know? – and me standing at the seawall at Thysbe – we said goodbyes, you fonder than I ever remembered – me tearful and stupid – Hatherance calling you a bastard for not saying anything or telling me your departure hour – that did hurt – I wanted to tell her about your way of doing things but that too felt like a betrayal, and my stupidity can govern me. The last quick drive over the cliffmount to the perch you showed me where the ships leave – your great metal insect borne speckling into the light and a roar that came through the air long after.

I watched till I could no longer see your convoy and everyone though again that I was staring into nothing. There was a long contrail left that glowed after night fell, catching stray light.

Do you remember at Afar how I told you that – looking up at the deep sky – it was hard to imagine that there is not a kindness looming somewhere – and you told me how many of the people we knew were dead and I was a stupid dreamer – I must confess that is a large part of what remains with me, this looming kindness I postulate to myself in my head over and over again – what else is there? We come into this place, this world or rock or planet perpetually falling in whatever rut it is lodged in, we improvise, and then we leave, never having had a chance to practise. Everything turns out so thin. I want this war to end.

I hope I see you soon, my love – I will write messages from the field for there is no one here to talk to and you have quelled my tendency to silence.

Remember me,

Ary.

Carcharodon

“You come in with this idea that you alone are inviolate. All of us are thinking it. We have to be or we would be living in permanent horror. Don’t look at me that way. It’s true. Is your head replete with the idea of sacrifice? No. There is nothing in the head. There is no passion or fear or even malice.  And after a while so many die that you don’t really feel it anymore. It’s the same as if they got transferred out or they took leave. I noticed it first with Sovas – I think it was Sovas – and Akari. I thought to myself, oh, that’s sad, they weren’t that bad, but that was it and you know what? That was all there could be.

It takes something to really make you feel it all over again. The thing that came for me – that was it. I don’t mean to say it terrified me. It was bigger than that. It was as if someone had taken an idea and given it flesh and teeth and it had run out of some  philosophical catalogue of essential objects. It was altogether whole and altogether perfect and there was nothing you could add to it. You know what I mean? It was undeniable.

The killing came from underneath. I think that was how it got the rest but I don’t know for sure.

And I swear as it came for me I knew it was not alive. It sounds mad but I knew it. It was the eyes. They were black and there was nothing else. I was like watching a big torpedo had come out of the silo and its nubby head had become teeth. The eyes were black like a rock and I knew it was not alive but the gaze was deep. Seriously, man, I tell you, I knew it was looking and me and looking right through me. And then right as it was coming for me the eyes disappeared, they rolled back and there was whiteness, all whiteness, and then even that was gone and there were two holes. It was like it was in a trance but it was violence, all of it.

There is one other thing I remember. This might not be helpful but I thought as the mouth opened that it was very pink and human. It was terrible and soft-looking, but there were those veins of teeth. The jaw was huge and flabby like a child’s. The skin was smooth like very fine sand. You can see along here where it took off my skin. I don’t know what I was thinking when I got out of the water. I had forgotten about where all the others were and I called my officer screaming like an idiot and you know what else happened.”

And The Days Are Not Full Enough: 2

Part 1

The corporal looked surprised.

“Hey,” he said, not unpleasantly. “Uhm.” Just above his breast pocket it read: A. R. Mance. Mance frowned. He looked as if he had something worn and practiced to say but was not sure if he should say it. What he said was:

“How old are you?”

And the boy said, “Fifteen.”

“No,” Mance said. “Too young. At least semimajor age.” He looked at the boy again. He said, “You’re tall for your age.”

“I’m sixteen,” the boy said.

“Okay. Give me your hand.” The boy stretched his arm out. Mance put a sticker on the back of his hand. “You can get it off after an hour. If it turns warm come back but otherwise that’s all there is to it. Now I need your name.” Mance passed a form over. “Write it down here, and then sign.”

“Sign?”

“Just write your name twice. Write it here, and then here.”

The boy looked uncertainly at the paper. It was a little slip. Mance felt sorry. A large number of undocumenteds had signed up at first for the partial amnesty but very few this young tried. “Do you have parents?”

The boy was silent.

“The best thing to do probably is just write down what they usually call you. It really does not matter. We’re not going to try to find your parents or anything like that.”

Mance thought that an undocumented child probably did not want to give anything away. Then he realised he was an idiot.

“Do you write? Can you read?”

The boy said, “It’s okay,” and wrote something down.

“Odd name,” Mance said. “Is that all there is?”

“Yeah.”

“Right. That’s all I’m supposed to do. Lieutenant Crane handles undocced applications if you’re below full majority age, so you should go over there now.” He pointed. “She’s probably in and she’ll probably be glad to have something to do.”

She was in, and she was glad to have something to do. She took a small bundle of papers out of the desk and adjusted them against the table. The cubicle was small; it could only hold two. The sound in the room was dry.

She said, “I’m going to ask you some things and you’re going to say yes or no. Some of these conditions you must agree to if you want to enlist; I’ll tell you which ones these are. Others you have a choice about but might affect pay. I’m authorised to advise you since you’re not yet full majority, which is why I look as if I’m stationed a bit below my rank. Just interrupt to ask. If you answer I will assume you have understood what I said. The full details are in here.” Crane waved the stack of paper. Then she looked at the boy and said, “What was it?”

“What? Oh. What made me enlist?”

“Yes.”

“It’s shit being undocced.”

“You know what the funny thing is? People say that, especially about the young ones, but no-one this young actually enlists. I’ve seen – what? – five, maybe, this month? What was it?”

“I thought it was the best thing to do.”

“They got your parents?” Crane said that very directly but she didn’t sound unkind about it.

And Crane was surprised when Ary said, “Yes. Well. No, they died.” And then he said immediately after, “I’m okay.”

Crane shook her head. “It’s a fucked-up world, kiddo. Anyway. Mandatory clause – do you know what mandatory means?”

“Yes.”

“Mandatory clause: Do you freely agree to join the Combined Military (CM) for a term of service not less than three years in length?”

“Yes.”

“Mandatory clause: Do you freely agree to carry out, to the best of your abilities and in good faith, all directives and commands issued by all superior officers, as specified the Codes and Protocols of Military Conduct?”

“Yes.”

“That’s it for the mandatory clauses. For all the technically mandatory clauses, at least. You get a pretty comfortable basic pay at this point. 4000 TUs monthly. All the percentages I will mention from now on are in reference to this amount. Do you understand?”

The pay was very good. Ary had always found it strange that the CM paid so much. But it took a lot too. And the CM had never conscripted people, so maybe it had to. “Yes.”

“Do you wish to waive a right to object to Class C missions? It gets you 20% more, which is quite a lot.”

“Class C –”

“Require or are very likely to involve the killing of self-aware AIs. If you object you exempt yourself.”

“Do I have a right to object anywhere else?”

“You have an overriding duty to report missions where you believe a commanding officer has ordered the deliberate targeting of civilians but that’s not a right to object. You’ve only got a right to object for Class C missions.”

“Should I?”

“Everyone waives it. It’s a big jump in pay and people don’t feel very much for the bastards. The Descendants, I mean.”

Ary paused. He looked as if he was about to say something, and then he stopped, and then he spoke. “What are the Descendants, really?”

“Small and stupidly lethal.”

“No, I mean –”

“Nobody knows.” Crane frowned. “I mean, really.”

“Okay. I’ll waive it.”

“Do you wish to waive your citizenship? Once you’ve got it, I mean. The little tab on your hand probably needs fifteen minutes to finish its job. Gets you 10% more.”

“What does this mean? Giving up citizenship.”

“It means that CM is not obliged to bring you back here once your term of service is up.”

This was difficult. Ary was not sure what he felt about Tyne. There were many things he was unsure about but this was a different kind of uncertainty. It wasn’t uncertainty that happened because he didn’t know things. That was true, but that was not important. The problem was that the more he thought about Tyne and what he had been through the more things became unparsable. It was not just that there were good things and bad things and that they were equal in number or intensity. It was that when he thought about what these things meant they unfolded, and unfolded again. It went all the way down. It was some time ago but he could remember that when he arrived back home he sometimes saw his mother, the person he called his mother and therefore was it, sitting at the table and she would be asleep in a chair and small bags of ice would lie melting on her arms as they were put on the table. There were patches of skin on the arms that were grey or blue and the ice helped to take away the pain. Its effectiveness was constant even though all the other stuff was not working as well anymore and soon would not work at all. Mother’s job, the day job, was difficult, and if she wanted to sleep the ice was sometimes important. She waited at the table for him to return and fell asleep among the bags of ice. You could tell how long she had been asleep by seeing how much of it had melted. The bags were small and clear, plain transparent plastic that bulged and sagged and was covered in condensation. If it was evening the light came in and the bags put folds of it all over the ceiling.

“What do you think?”

Crane noticed without really realising it that the boy had a habit of bringing his hands together when he was nervous. “It’s pretty shit being an undocced, you said.”

“Yes, but I’m not undocced anymore.”

“Legally.”

“I can pretend. People might not care. I don’t know.”

Crane looked at Ary. “You don’t talk like you’re sixteen.”

“Okay.”

“What?”

“Yes.”

“Okay meaning yes you’ll waive your citizenship?”

“Yes.”

“You haven’t asked about where you’ll end up.”

“It can’t be so bad, with my pay.”

“Okay.  There’s some things now that don’t affect pay but which you’ll need to make a decision about. Cohabitation: yes or no?”

“Cohabitation?”

“Fucking. In effect.”

“I don’t know.”

“Everyone says yes.”

“Is it important?”

“Eventually, yes. It’s a war, darling. Sometimes there’s not a whole lot to do. And if you say no people look at you oddly. You’re undocced, mind. I don’t think you want to stick out more than you have to. We’re the niceish people, which is why we’re here doing recruitment. Not everyone up there has much truck with trying hard to be a nonshitty human being.”

“Okay. Yes, then.”

“You can record a sexual inclination if you want to.”

“I don’t know.”

“Thought so. And you don’t want to close down options at this age, really. Next: body modifications. I wouldn’t say no. I’ve actually not met anyone who has said no.”

“What do they involve?”

“I can’t say exactly since they keep adding things to the basic suite. You’ll get a bunch of them – the new stuff, usually stuff in the blood – when you’re offworld. But everyone gets the Interface and Implant. It is considered fairly important for communication and learning. You couldn’t do anything without them, really. Maybe you could become an admin in piloting. A slow one. No promotions. You but if you say yes I’ll take you round to the back and it takes all of ten minutes to get put in and there aren’t any real medical risks. Takes about a month to get properly used to if you’ve not had an Interface before. And it hurts  — I mean the putting-in in a non-trivial way. But it will keep you alive.”

“Do you have one?”

“Yeah, of course. Hard to imagine not having one now. So: yes or no?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. This next thing is quite tricky so listen. The Interface is basically a little computer that you use for communicating with people or machines. Usually that is all it does. But it can also be programmed to cause you to lose consciousness for an indefinite period. It’s a small function that Hynder sold to CM several years back. That idea is that if you are in extreme pain, you might want an Interface that, once you reach a certain point, knocks you out automatically. They’ve got the equipment onship to get you back out of it. I know it is a bit hard right now to see why this is such a useful function but if you’ve seen an onworld op you will know why it’s helpful. People get really fucked up.”

Mostly people became very quiet when Crane said this, but Ary said, “I think I understand.”

“The problem is that if you let this happen to you – if you lose consciousness in the middle of an op – you will almost certainly die, and almost certainly within an hour or so. You can’t defend yourself, you can’t get yourself to safety. There is an automatic signal the Interface sends out to indicate where you are, but we can only get you once the op is over and if you’re still alive.”

Crane paused because Ary looked like he wanted to say something. She knew what people said now. They said, I do not want to enlist.

Ary said, “Why do people say no to this? They would be dead anyway if they were in such pain.”

Crane was surprised again. She thought about this. The answer to the question was so obvious it was hard to articulate. “There’s two – no, three things. The first is that they want to have a higher chance of surviving. It’s not a much higher chance but it is higher. It’s quite difficult when you are in full gear to lose consciousness even if you lose a lot of blood. You can run around without an arm for a couple of hours before you collapse. You can seal up a punctured lung. That sort of stuff. The little Hynder protocol cuts out all that. The second is that it scares them. It’s automatic. Maybe you’ll die anyway if you manage to get to safety but you’ll manage to get that far at least, you’ll actually know you will get an operation. It won’t just be sudden blackness out of nowhere.

The third thing is the calibration. The Hynder protocol is suicide. I mean that seriously. If you say yes to it you are saying: there comes a point where I would say, I wouldn’t mind dying now. So we need to know what that point is.”

Ary realised what she was saying. “What’s the test?”

“They put a small filament up your arm into your brain and they make you hurt until you say stop. Then the Interface remembers that and if you feel that again – technically, if you go a little above that point – you lose consciousness.”

Now the boy was quite for a while. Crane knew what she had to do, which was to say nothing. Eventually: “Why — okay. Why does the CM let people kill themselves? It looks like a waste.”

“Because the war is awful beyond belief and because it takes a special kind of monstrosity not to let people find ways to let themselves out of it.”

Crane felt that she should not have said that, or that she should not have said that that way. She didn’t know even now if she actually wanted any undoccs to join CM and, if she didn’t, whether it was because she felt for them or because she could not feel for the war anymore. But the strange boy was thinking. He had a sort of wounded look to him when he was thinking. “Can I say yes without having the calibration?”

“Everyone asks this. No. It’s meaningless otherwise. We are asking you to tell us when you are happy to die. It’s not a numbers thing. You couldn’t possibly consent to having the Interface kill you unless you actually knew when the point came where you  would just want to fuck off into the great unknown. There’s no way you know it unless you actually go through it. And even if we developed some scale, a numbers thing, I suppose, it would be meaningless because it would be incommensurable – I mean the thing wouldn’t tell us a damn thing because point on this scale on it might make someone go: that’s it, no, more, press eject now no matter what and someone else might say: I can take this.”

“Did you get it?”

“Hynder? No. The idea that I would be made to sit and be forced to experience pain until the point where I would actually want to be dead horrified me.”

“How many others get it?”

“In Ebannen, where you get the most troop landings, nearly everyone has gotten it. When the troops got sent there the Hynder protocol had not been developed yet. But immediately after it got released, nearly everyone got it. It was very surprising then. Not so surprising now given what’s happening on Ebannen, or what we know is happening there. Most of the troops there had already seen combat when Hynder got released.”

“It must hurt a lot. Does it hurt a lot?”

“What – well, yes. It’s definitional. It goes to the point where you’d want to die. It’s a constant because that’s how it works. Everyone must go all the way to that point where, you know.” Crane looked at Ary with what might have been pity although it was hard to tell. “Look. There is no need to feel knotted up about this. You can just say no to Hynder. You don’t even have to answer now. Technically you have two days before you make a final decision on any of this. You could come back and say you don’t want to enlist.”

“If I say yes now when will the calibration be done?”

“The day after you get your Interface put in, which is tomorrow.”

“You said that –” And the boy stopped and looked down. He breathed. “Hynder works because the Interface remembers when it is during calibration that you say you want to lose consciousness. Can Hynder be used for other things?”

“Like what?”

“If you just wanted to die, and you weren’t feeling any pain. Could you just.”

Ary has had a dream. It is a stupid thing but it comes again and again. In the dream a person, maybe even a thing, some living thing, carries a light in a vast blackness.  It is carrying the light and walking in a straight line, just like this, sheltering it with a hand, maybe two hands or maybe not with hands at all, just like this, going from right to left, slowly, shuffling. Sometimes it stops to look at the light because it wavers and then it raises its head to look ahead at where it is going. Sometimes the thing stops moving altogether before it starts again. The small circle of light moves as the thing carrying the light moves. That is the problem. Anything outside the circle is invisible. There is no tracking. What moves outside that circle, if anything moves outside, it is unknown. There is no line.

“No.” Crane leaned back in her seat and looked at the ceiling and shook her head slowly. “Gosh, no.” She looked at Ary. “Hey. Are you okay?”

“I’ll do it tomorrow.”

Part 3

And The Days Are Not Full Enough: 1

Nothing moved, even though this was not true. Something moved. In cities something always moved. You could look at a scene and even though its entire frame and posture was quiet something would be moving. The Rail, for instance. The small tight glow of a car on the Eastbound. Signs blinking. Windows. Small functions of light blunted by distance.

The boy looked at the city and waited for the sun to come up. This is what he was thinking; that something always moved. Sometimes when he looked at a scene that was perfectly still and saw something moving at last he found it strangely heartbreaking. It was like looking at a person sleeping; like looking at this person breathe. Modest and necessary actions.

War had not changed the city. There was, in some way, a tightening of things. Prices gestured in faintly dangerous directions, as they always did. Until the war came, actually came, to the city, it would not change. That was the thing about cities. They grew voraciously and then at some point having received some sign or signal they stopped and started falling apart. It was decay but it was gentle, untamed but idle, and reassuring. It gave resilience. So even though war had taken people and money the city did not notice.

People would come back from the war, alive and therefore unmourned, but people forgot to celebrate. But the boy thought that in any case there was no need to celebrate. Things were always moving, even moving on.

The Recruitment and Transfer tent was in the shadow of one of the larger buildings. In an hour or so it would open.  The boy had watched military take people for several weeks. They took people; yes. They told people the truth; they forced no-one; they followed procedure; they kept you informed; they accepted only the consenting; and they took people. The process was immaculate and venomous. It was hard to say what was wrong with it and in any case the boy thought, in a way that few people his age realised, that the military did something very good. Alchemising pain into something more soluble. Even if people died, which they did, there appeared something in that function that was not easy to dismiss.  The boy had watched people return from the war. Their faces were blank. They came to the offworld terminal and walked out of the tent with blank faces and put their bags down just outside the entrance. They talked to people. They bitched about the military, sometimes, and laughed. Some of it sounded very genuine. The voices were blank and relieved. Sometimes they did not talk to people and just sat and cried. Some of them held papers in their hands and looked at them for a long while. Some of them put their hands on the shoulders of other people. The hands were big or small or dark or pale and they clutched or were loose. The thing was that the military did not attempt to hide this. You signed up for the military while you watched people return. There was nothing to hide. It was a trick made unassailable by its honesty. Tell people about the duty and the glory of it; tell them about the death. And then say: but there is money, and this a death you are allowed breathe about. In an incalculable way it was, as they said, worth it. They never said what it was because there was no need or because any need had long since bled away.

The boy stood on the hill and watched the sun come up. A train rumbled in its slow inertial flight past the Old Interbank building. Metal shone. Even concrete has its inflections of loss and grief. The boy thought this, or came close to thinking this, in a way he might not have been aware of. He went down.

The inside of the tent smelled of paper. There was a lot of it around. The boy stared for a while; paper was very expensive. But information on paper could only be stolen if you took the paper. In the war that had turned out to be important.

How did you fight the Kingdom? They had their Descendants; they had their Leviathan. These things people knew about and spoke about. Then there were other things people knew about but did not really understand or did not want to understand and these things people rarely spoke about.

It was not now relevant. The soft bustle inside the tent moved around they boy. Dates were mentioned; someone asked for the PT Forms to be passed over please before lunch this time; a sentence that ended with “…total fucking dickhead, that’s why…” – and then laughter; more faintly: “Well I mean yes but you know…” There were no queues at this hour. Some people stared at the boy. They knew what he was here to do. Maybe they pitied him. The boy did not know what to feel about that. Maybe it was not so much that he did not know what to feel about it as much as the fact that he did not feel anything about it in the first place.

A sign said: UNDOCUMENTED ENLISTMENT. The corporal at the desk leaned over to look at the boy. He saw a slender wounded thing that was grey everywhere. Grey eyes, grey hair, hands that came together in nervousness.

Part 2