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Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Silent War

Gary’s feet ached, and his legs were stiff. Sweating, in full combat gear, he watched the line of men and women in front of him. He couldn’t turn his head, but he knew many more lines of soldiers stood waiting and marching to his left and right.
As one, they all marched forward at a pace so slow it was painful. A din in the distance followed each step. Then, there was a silent pause before they all took another step forward.
At six-foot-four, Gary towered over most of the others. The line in front of him seemed to stretch forever, but Gary knew this protective wall of humanity wouldn’t last forever. The stillness of his body belied his racing heart and cycling thoughts.
An image from a story he’d once seen on the news flashed through his mind. The story was about a captive tiger and the image showed the beast inside a cage so small it would have been hard for it to even turn around. The story portrayed the animal as a man-eating monster, but Gary had felt bad for the poor, trapped beast, which only followed its nature.
Within the cage of his own body, Gary knew exactly how that caged tiger felt. As the lines of soldiers moved up another pace, Gary ran through every unlikely scenario he could imagine.
Maybe the Chip in his head would malfunction and he’d be able to move at will. He would dash between the lines, running until he found safety. Certainly there were holdouts here in this vast African Desert. Surely he could find a remote village, a local commune where people lived simply, without a Chip to guide them.
Even if that happened, Gary knew that the ranks of men and women around him would not be left to let him go. Another soldier would be signaled to catch him as he tried to dart past.
They all took another step forward.
Maybe the Gover-Nets would fail and suddenly, like a fresh breeze, they would all be free. The young men and women surrounding him would become his new compatriots and they would create their own commune. 
And then what? Even if this extremely unlikely circumstance came to be, life would be unbearable. Sure he’d be safe, and God knows right at that moment safety was far removed from reality, but could he really live like that? Live life alone? Gary had never known life without the Chip and the idea terrified him almost as much as the steady march.
They took another step forward.
How long has it been?
Almost before he asked himself the question, the Chip responded.
Four hours and forty-two minutes.
The line in front of him still seemed to stretch on forever. He pretended there was hope. Maybe the war would end before he reached the front. He could go back to his life and everything would be as it had been before. He imagined the Chip waking him in his own bed… connecting to a multi-player game while he brushed his teeth… putting on a pot of coffee while he listened to the news.
An immense sadness swept over him. That life seemed perfect from this perspective. Longing brought tears to his eyes. He’d never really known what he had.
They took another step forward.
Now, it was too late. He’d never get that back. The Gover-Nets wouldn’t back down. No agreement could be reached between his own Gover-Net system and that of the enemy. In the arid heat of the desert, a chill spread through Gary's body, raising goosebumps on his sun-burnt flesh. Would the Silent War continue until there was no one left to fight? Gary screamed,  “I shouldn't be here! I didn’t cause this! Damn you! Let me go!” 
The woman in front of him yelled, "Shut up!" He watched the back of her helmet and the long black hair that hung down from under it as the Chip sent a pep talk directly to the language center in his brain.
Come on soldier. You have a duty to perform! Your country needs you! Straighten up and make it easy on yourself.           
Right, he thought. It’s a Silent War.
His feet moved him forward another step, and this time he could identify the din in the distance. He heard a rush of gunshots followed by the cries of men and women. Rage washed over him again, coloring everything red.
Silent War? Silent fucking war?
He set his jaw with determination. For the first time in his life, he tried to fight the Chip. He concentrated on holding his feet to the ground. He willed them not to move. When the signal came, he grunted with the effort to hold his position, but his right foot lifted up and forward and his left came up to meet it.
For the next dozen steps he struggled for control of his legs, but it was no use. The caged tiger popped into his head again.
“Shut up.”
“Don’t you see what’s happening here? They’re going to kill us all!”
“Shut the fuck up!”
Come on soldier. You have a duty to perform! Your country needs you! Straighten up and make it easy on yourself.
They took another step forward.
Adrenaline and rage continued to course through him, building up like trapped steam. Unlikely was all he had, and when that was gone he moved on to ridiculous. Gritting his teeth, he focused the fury in his heart on the Chip in his brain. As the natural fight or flight chemicals flooded his brain he thought, maybe I can use this. He put all his energy into using the momentum of his steps to fall forward. The frantic, absurd reasoning here was that if he fell they might bring him back for more training. It could buy him some time. Maybe it would be enough. Maybe the Gover-Nets would come to their senses and the war would end….
It didn’t work. No matter what he did, his feet moved forward one terrible pace at a time. Tears streamed down his face as he searched for another answer. And another. There had to be something! Some way to break free!
“God Damn it! Let me go!” he screamed as he struggled to will the evil thing from his head.
“Shut the fuck up,” a man called out from behind him.
Come on soldier. You have a duty to perform! Your country needs you! Straighten up and make it easy on yourself.
Insanity was upon him. He didn’t care. It couldn’t be any worse than reality. Maniacal laughter bubbled from his mouth, but even then he knew his body would move forward, step by step, despite any psychoses he could muster.
He closed his eyes against the blinding heat and searing reality and found himself reliving the last free moments of his life. 


A friend paged him almost as soon as he woke up, trying to entice him with a game of Battle-Builder. He responded in the negative, and then turned on the shower while he recorded an away message.
Standing under the steamy spray, he mentally signaled the kitchen to start the coffee and toast an onion bagel.
Dudley, his Golden Retriever, pushed into the partly-open bathroom door. He nosed the shower door, tail wagging.
Gary sent a signal to the dog’s Chip, telling him to go out and do his business. He signaled the front door to open and mentally watched the dog as he ran down the back stairs to the small plot of grass in the yard. Gary scrubbed as he told the kitchen to feed the dog.
Dudley was done. Gary signaled the dog’s Chip, calling him back home. Briefly, Dudley thought of going for a run, but the Chip prevented him from doing anything except return to the apartment.
Gary toweled himself off and shaved quickly, but closely. The interview wouldn’t bring him the job of his dreams, but it was a step in the right direction. He needed to make a good impression. Eyeing his reflection, he wondered if he should have gotten a haircut. A shorter cut might have made him look older.
He posed, setting his jaw in an attempt to add years to his twenty-year-old appearance. It just made him look pretentious. He’d worked hard to graduate early. Surely that counted for something.
He headed for the business attire he’d set aside the night before.
Ten minutes later, he wiped his mouth to remove any remaining cream cheese, and then filled his travel cup with hot, sweet coffee.


Gary took another step forward and landed on a rock. His ankle twisted a little on the uneven ground but he was helpless to move it until the next signal came. He licked his parched lips, still dreaming of that coffee.
Despite the gravity of the situation, a ridiculous amount of his attention was turning towards his overfull bladder. The stink of urine, old and new, didn’t help matters. Like many around him, the woman with the long black hair had given up and peed right through her clothes only moments before. On his next step, he’d clomped right into her puddle.
Blocking out the wretchedness around him, he closed his eyes again.


The throng of people waiting for the Bullet was a little overwhelming, but if he got the job, it would be worth the chaotic morning commute. Waiting was tedious without the Chip and its continual connection. Gary fought the constant urge to plug in, reminded himself that this day was too important to risk getting lost in a game or a movie.
He looked at the faces around him, checking to see if anyone else was disconnected. Some were having animated conversations with the air around them. A few showed signs of excitement or distress depending on the probable outcome of whatever game they were playing. Most had blank expressions. They all appeared to be lost in their own inner worlds.
It had only been three minutes, but his mind kept looping back to the Chip. He wondered what messages he’d missed. He panicked for a moment, thinking there might be a Battle-Builder tournament that afternoon. If he wasn’t on the queue, he’d never get in.

His stomach rumbled him back to reality. The hearty breakfast they’d all been fed that morning was not enough to hold up through the afternoon. And damn his full bladder. He’d piss right there if he could reach down and open his fly.
Six hours and five minutes.
The lines moved in a rhythm he’d come to anticipate. According to his Chip, the time between each step was twelve-point-two seconds. It seemed as familiar to him now as his own heartbeat.
He looked over the heads of those in front of him, glad for his height. Being stuck behind someone taller than him would have made this even more oppressive. It seemed like he could see a space up ahead.
There it was, visible in the distance.
Middle Ground.
He took a step forward.

When the Bullet arrived, he stepped into the silver tube and grabbed one of the straps hanging from the ceiling. He didn’t really need to hold on. The straps were there more for mental security than physical need. The Bullet quickly dropped below street level, but the floor under Gary’s feet never shifted more than a degree off horizontal. Even when they reached two-hundred miles an hour, the pressurized inner compartment was stable enough to easily remain standing without swaying.
Suddenly, several people gasped and a man right behind Gary whispered, “Oh my God.” There was something chilling in the quiet utterance of that phrase. Gary looked around, confused. A buzz arose as conversations sprung up all around him. The Bullet continued to speed along towards the city.
He tuned in to his Chip. An over-cast was in progress. He hadn’t heard an over-cast since the day the president was shot six years earlier.  
The emotionless computer voice drone, “…negotiations ended in a stalemate. Our enemies will not agree to the terms of our treaty. To protect our lives and way of living, the Silent War, as proposed by the world security confederacy, will commence immediately. The President assures us that our lives will not be affected. There will be no innocent victims. Resume your day. This message will repeat in its entirety.”
Because he’d tuned in late, the shock hit Gary a few seconds after everyone else. By the time he uttered his own, “Oh my God,” most of the faces around him had already tuned into something else. A few people were having conversations with loved ones, discussing the Silent War, but as the president said, there would be no innocent victims. There didn’t seem to be any real danger.


His bladder was really getting to be an issue, but it was still easier to ignore than other discomforts. Hunger was calling but thirst was screaming. The left side of his face was blazing hot from sunburn. Now the sun was working hard on the right.
Eight hours and two minutes.
The gunfire and screams were louder now. Gary had become used to the pattern.
As they all stepped forward again, Middle Ground came fully into view. For the first time he could see the actual ground and it appeared to be carpeted in crimson.


The bullet was coming to a stop and the prize was right in front of him. He sipped the last of his coffee, and stepped through the sliding doors. He took two steps towards his appointment – and then he turned around and walked away.
What the hell?
As his feet moved of their own volition, Gary listened to the calm voice with the alarming news.
“Gary Wellright, you have been called into active duty, effective immediately. You don’t need to do anything. Your Chip will direct you to training. Everything will be taken care of.”
Confusion. Anger. When the voice told him he had two minutes to put up an away message for his family, panic set in.
Two minutes.
What can I say in two minutes?
His feet moved him towards a destination he’d been told but had already forgotten. The clock was ticking. He opened the recorder and said, “Mom… Dad… I’ve been called to duty.”
What else could he say? That he was terrified? That he was furious? That he was supposed to be at a job interview in three minutes and instead his entire life was turned upside-down?    
“I don’t get it. Isn’t there some law protecting me from this?
“I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, but I’ll contact you as soon as I can. I’m heading to training now. They are going to cut my easy access in like a minute… I… I love you….”


He took another step towards the soaked, red Middle Ground. He was so thirsty he couldn’t swallow the sandy grit in his throat. His mouth felt like it was lined with felt. Nine slow and sickening hours, and still he marched forward, one unavoidable step at a time. The barrage of bullets after each step was now deafening. Shrieks sang out and died away quickly. A blister on Gary’s left little toe chimed in, pulsing its own searing beat to the death march.
The lines moved up another pace. He peered over the heads of those in front of him, counting. There were thirty soldiers between him and his inevitable destiny. He wanted to turn around and see how far the line stretched behind him. Had more soldiers joined the ranks, or was there an end?
He imagined a message coming through.
We have enough. You can go home now.
He mentally flogged himself for clinging to hope. He had no tears left, but his eyes burned with grief. His life, so many lives, maybe every single life… how far did the lines extend behind him? Had anyone escaped?
Gary knew there were people who’d refused the Chips. They lived in communes and it was said they kidnapped infants and removed their Chips. He remembered the chants and the celebration they’d had on Signing Day. All those people signing the papers, giving up all rights to insurance, healthcare, legal support and financial assistance the government had to offer by refusing the Chip and they celebrated as if it was a good thing.
Of course, Gary’s implant had been done at birth. It was hard for him to imagine life without the Chip. As a little child, his parents had been amazed with how fast he could learn with the Chip in place. His infant brain had grown with the Chip, forming neural pathways that drew directly from the vast universal knowledge of the Gover-Net. There was no need to learn counting or the alphabet. The ability to understand any text and comprehend calculus was within the Chip. A question never went unanswered. Problems were solved in an instant. All he needed to do was plug in, and he could do that with a thought.
He remembered how he’d looked forward to turning twelve – the age of consent for an upgrade. It had been a simple procedure, popping out the old Chip and putting in a new one. He’d gone back for replacements whenever he was eligible and each new Chip was more marvelous than the last.
In that moment, Gary realized with sudden ferocity how much he hated the Chip. If he could move his arms, he’d dig the thing from his brain right then and there.
Only twenty people remained in the line ahead of him.  
Twelve-point-two seconds times twenty…  
Aproximately four minutes, the Chip responded immediately.
He took another step forward.          
He’d avoided acknowledging the reality; now he felt drawn to face it. His turn was coming.  He watched the front, catching glimpses of commotion in the Middle Ground between the lines of waiting soldiers. People scrambled in the cacophony of blasts and roars of pain, and then dropped below his line of sight. Others appeared. Dressed in red and white, they rushed in from the sides, bent down, then backed away.
They took another step.
Twelve-point-two seconds.
Apparently, that was how long it took for the shots to be fired and the bodies to be pulled from blood-soaked Middle Ground. Like puppets without strings, the seemingly endless lines of men and women stepped forward to meet the enemy.
The enemy. He’d heard stories, and he’d heard the Gover-Net’s line. He’d assumed the reality was somewhere in between but now one thing was obvious. The enemy was not in the endless lines of condemned men and women who faced him. No. He’d been embracing the enemy his entire life.
The enemy was inside him.
The enemy was the Chip.
No one near him had spoken for at least an hour. Gary had become quiet himself when he’d gotten his first glimpse of the front of the line. Lost in his thoughts, he jumped inwardly when the woman behind him spoke. In the lull between the steps and shots, she said, “Just let them hit you.”
Her words came to him loud and clear but the meaning escaped him. He knew there was no way to avoid being shot, but why would he not even try?
“Are you nuts?” He asked.
“A kill shot is best. Let them hit you.”
The black haired woman shouted, “Shut up!” Her pants appeared to be dry. The desert was brutally arid. Maybe he should have just let go hours earlier but his last shred of humanness seemed to depend on containing his bladder.
“Believe me, I know,” the woman behind Gary went on.
They took another step forward. The noise from Middle Ground prevented any further conversation for a few seconds.  As soon as it was silent again, Gary asked, “Why? Why would a kill shot be better?”
The voice behind him said, “Believe me, I know.”
Gary’s mind raced as he tried to understand what the woman was implying.
Three more minutes.
The lines moved forward. Shots and screams commenced again. In the silence that followed, Gary yelled, “How would you know?”
Shouts of “shut up” rang out all around them, but were quickly drowned out by the explosions and screams which were now so unbearably close.
Gary wished he could turn around and see the face of the woman behind him. It suddenly occurred to him that this was the person who would witness his moment of truth. She would see him race forward, blasting his gun, and she would watch him fall. She would be privy to a moment Gary almost certainly would not as the medics dragged his bloodied body from Middle Ground.
His mind screamed at him to stop visualizing this certainty. Until the bullets pierced his flesh, he had hope.
But what the fuck did she mean?
“If you know something, tell me!” Gary screamed.
The lines moved forward.
He studied the back of the head of the dark-haired woman in front of him. He wondered about her family. Did she have a lover waiting somewhere? Or maybe standing in the lines nearby...
The woman behind finally answered his question. “I know because this is my third time in line.”
Gary’s heart pounded wildly as hope soared. She made it through the line twice and survived!   
They moved forward again. This close, the bangs and shouts blurred together. The silence echoed the dead.
“If you make it across Middle Ground they let you live?” Gary asked.
Gary thought he was already at the far end of emotion, but the laughter behind him brought his anger and fear to a new level. Finally the woman got hold of herself enough to speak. “Nobody makes it across!”
They took another step forward. The silence that followed was less complete at this distance. The scuffle of feet rushing forward, the dragging of the bodies across the sand…
The dark-haired woman called out, “If no one makes it across, then how can you be here for the third time?”
From behind, Gary heard, “They drag your battered body away, patch you up, and send you right back out.”
They moved forward again.
“Some must make it out,” Gary called out.
“Think about it,” the faceless voice behind him continued. “They can’t send you back home and let you plug in. You’d tell everyone what’s really happening here.”
Gary shivered despite the heat. He fought a wave of nausea as he sought for some flaw in this logic.
“I don’t believe you,” a male voice from somewhere to his left called out.
“Shut up!”
A voice from further back said, “It’s true. No one goes home.”
“Shut the fuck up!”    
Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
Gary was tempted to say the words aloud, just to hear them. If he could give up hope he might be able to push the panic away. He began to clutch at the seconds he had left.
The line moved forward.
Only seven people were in front of him, now. The man at the head of the line was quite tall, but all the people in between were shorter than Gary. In a few seconds, his view of Middle Ground would be completely open.
The tall man charged. Deafening shots rolled like thunder down the lines. Almost instantly, the frontrunner dropped to the blood-soaked ground.
So fast.
The medics rushed onto the scene. They grabbed the fallen by the armpits and dragged them backwards, out of sight.
They all took another step.
It took him a moment to identify the pattering sound to his left. The tang of urine hit his nostrils. Gary clenched the muscles in his groin, gritting his teeth to keep control as he listened to the drops hit the ground at an ever slowing pace.
They all moved forward again. This time, it was a woman who ran forward. She made it almost half-way across, dodging left and right, before she fell.
In the distance, just before they all stepped forward again, Gary saw the enemy - unwavering lines of soldiers, a hundred yards ahead. The ambiguous forms were dressed in brown instead of green. They stood still and waited in their own despair.
Maybe they could wipe our memories clean, Gary fantasized, still searching for a way to believe he might be sent back to the life he once knew.
He could hear the sobs of those next in line. Some blubbered unabashedly. Others wept softly, sniffling, exhaling in long wavering sighs even as the first signal came. Their arms moved to pull their guns up and point them forward.
Gary screamed, “Fuck!” and topped it off with, “God Damn you!”
Come on soldier. You have a duty to perform! Your country needs you! Straighten up and make it easy on yourself.
He studied the lines ahead, looking for a chink in the armor. He counted the soldiers in the line facing his, finding the one he was meant to shoot. He found himself trying to find a way across, but the enemy facing him stood shoulder to shoulder.
He closed his eyes, wishing he could close his ears. In the ringing that pounded in his ears, it was hard to tell when the actual noise had stopped. There was so little time. If he was truly in his last moments of life, he wanted to spend them thinking about something other than blood, piss, and his own death.
He thought of his parents, again. He remembered how they looked the last time he saw them. His body stepped forward on command, but still he kept his eyes shut and focused on the past.


“Gary, listen to me,” his father said. “The world isn’t what you think it is.” His father put down the box he was carrying. He raked a hand through his graying hair as he pleaded for Gary to change his mind. “That damn thing in your head has you convinced that your mother and I are the enemy.”        
Gary walked to the window and looked at his parents’ patchy grass. They were talking about moving to one of the communes, about removing their Chips.
“I’ve got a job interview next week, Dad.”
His mother took his hand. “We just want what’s best for you. Please, Gary. Have we ever hurt you?”
“No, Mom. You know that isn’t it.” His parents had always been there for him. He loved them dearly, but he was twenty years old. He knew how to take care of himself. They just didn’t get it. There was no way he was going to some commune doctor and getting his Chip removed. The idea of not having that constant connection, the aloneness of it – he couldn’t understand how his parents could stand it.
“You can always come back if you don’t like it,” his mother had coaxed.
“You still have free will… for the moment,” his father said, looking him in the eye. “But this thing their talking about—it’s going to change everything. If you don’t get that damn thing out of your head before the next upgrade, who knows what will happen?”  
“Don’t believe everything you read, Dad” Gary said, laughing.


With his eyes still closed, he tried to imagine the line in front of him as it had been when he first stepped into it that morning.
It was no use. He knew how close he was to the ultimate truth. A moan escaped him as he opened his eyes to face the reality. The dark-haired woman was now at the head of the line. She was shuddering and sobbing and her boots were sinking in to the red-soaked ground.
The feet of the dead and dying bumped along the ground as they were pulled away. The medics were quickly disappearing.
Gary felt his feet move forward.
“Ahhh!” the woman shouted as she charged. Two steps later, her gun firing off rounds at a pace too rapid to count, she collapsed to the ground. Her own crimson life flowed with the rest as she slapped face-first to the ground.
Here in the front of the line, a gentle breeze stirred the iron-tainted air. Medics ran forward, scooping up the bodies. For a moment, Gary made eye contact with the man who came for the dark-haired woman. His once white coverall was now mostly red.
The man looked away, quickly.
He’ll be coming for me, next.
Gary’s bladder released sending a searing stream down his legs.
Across from him, the tear-streaked face of a boy not more than sixteen stared back.
Gary had meant to count the seconds. How many were left?
Five, his Chip informed him.
Four… three… two… one… Gary raised his gun as his feet raced forward.


1 comment:

  1. Hello,

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    Much love,


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