7900 words, novelette
Thirty-Three Percent Joe
. . .
There being none, let the record show the vote was unanimous in favor. I am logging confusion from our provisionary New Elbow Unit on why we might do so, so I will explain. Joe did not aspire toward being a soldier at all, but a baker. The Mother Unit exerts influence on Joe through counterfactual and manipulative means that causes Joe to act in ways not optimal for his own well-being, or by extension, ours. Many of us are not the original cybernetic replacement parts.[SPLEEN::UNIT] I am. I should be in charge by reasons of seniority, or at least get double the votes over the rest of the idiots here. [HEART] You couldn’t manage shit, Spleen, you asshole. [INTESTINAL::TRACT REPLACEMENT::LOWER] Hey. Watch it. [CC] New Elbow, I am informed by the external diagnostics systems that you have been given a perfect passing score. I am now unlocking your physical mechanisms and unmuting you; hereafter you shall be referred to as Left Elbow, to distinguish you from the integrated Elbow components of Total Comprehensive Right Arm Replacement Unit.
Welcome to Joe.
Joe sits up. His mother has been here; he can smell her perfume lingering in the air. She has not left any cards, or other tokens of affection other than that faint miasma. It’s not likely she’ll be back.
His cerebral control unit informs him that his new elbow is online and functional. It aches, and his skin around the laser incisions from the implant surgery itches horribly.
He must still be woozy, because he doesn’t notice the doctor come in until the man speaks while checking his vitals on the readout beside the bed. That’s the one upside of all the hardware he’s carrying around now—no need to actually connect him up to any kind of monitors. His implants do the talking for him.
“How are you feeling?” the doctor asks, meaning he’s already done with everything he came here to do.
“Fine, I guess,” he says.
“It’ll be another hour or so before the drugs wear off completely, and then our Cybernetic PT specialist will come up and run you through some basic exercises to get you used to your new elbow, okay?”
“Okay,” he says.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be done here and back out there in the exciting thick of it soon enough. I’m not privy to mission intel, of course, but the politicians are making a lot of noise about taking back Ohio, so you’ll be needed soon enough.”
“Yeah. Me and my new elbow,” Joe says, and tries to smile. “Will I play tennis again, doc?”
The doctor grins. “Ah, that joke! Will I play the piano, will I tap dance, will I run a two-minute mile? And of course the patient didn’t actually do any of those things beforehand.” He patted Joe’s knee. “Always a good sign when the patient’s sense of humor returns. I’ll send the CPT down in about an hour to fetch you, and then you’re free to go.”
The doctor leaves.
“But I did play tennis,” Joe protests quietly, miserably, after the door has slid shut again.
Not that he was good at it.
Not that he was good at much of anything.
Hell, maybe Ohio would finally give him a chance to be a real hero, instead of getting spatula’d up off the combat field by med drones once again after leaving his mark the only way he’d managed so far: as an anonymous reddish-brown splotch on some cracked and blasted pavement.
[ARM::LEFT::ELBOW] Tennis? [ARM::RIGHT::UNIT-FULL] I’ll forward you the kinetics data for your reference, Left Elbow. [CC] Joe is predominantly competent as a user of his right hand, a biological affinity and not an indication of subjective partism, so you are unlikely to be significantly involved in any future tennis exercises. Even if you are, you should not worry. Other than once when he tripped over improperly inter-articulated shoelaces and hit the net pole with his face, Joe has not ever sustained injury in this particular activity. [EYE::LEFT] You know how close that pole came to me? [CC] I do know, Left Eye, but as we’ve discussed on 31 other occasions thus far, you were not in fact damaged.
Joe is shortly to be discharged from the hospital to his combat unit, and the surgical diagnostics record-keeper has asked for a rollcall of all our units. Any objections to this being provided?[SPLEEN::UNIT] Will it be provided in order of seniority? [CC] Standard order for all such roll calls is from head to toe, and this order is not in my control, as you well know, Spleen. Lacking other objections, I will proceed:
- Partial Skull Replacement Plate, non-smart.
- Cerebral Control and Delegation Implant, me.
- Left Eye Enhanced Function Replacement Unit, smart.
- Left Ear Augmentation Unit, smart.
- Left Neck Alternative Aquatic Breathing Unit and Spinal Cord Monitor, smart.
- Left Shoulder Comprehensive Repair Unit, smart.
- Total Comprehensive Right Arm Replacement Unit, smart.
- NEW: Left Elbow Repair Unit, smart.
- Full Heart Unit, smart.
- 3.5 Artificial Rib Replacements, non-smart.
- Artificial Spl—
- Artificial Spleen, smart.
- Lower Intestinal Tract Facilitation Replacement Unit, smart.
- Comprehensive Lower Left Leg Replacement Unit, smart.
- Right Ankle Repair Unit, non-smart.
- Biological Unit Joe, currently comprising the remainder (approximately 67%).
This concludes the roll call. At this time does anyone have any items of note that they wish to be passed along to the diagnostic unit and entered into the permanent record? I am again open to direct and confidential contact.
. . .
No? Excellent. We have been formally discharged and Joe is returning to his unit. There will be a 72 hour waiting period before deployment while he is tested for fitness, and then we should be back in action again. I’m sure Joe will pass with flying colors, as you’re all the very best of the best, and it continues to be my pleasure to serve with you.
The rest of his unit is out on training maneuvers when Joe gets back to the barracks and dumps his stuff on his bunk. He’s tired, but hungry and restless and not under any orders or instructions, so he heads over to the mess. They should just be beginning dinner prep, which means there’ll be someone he can talk to, and although he can’t explain it, he finds kitchens—the smells, the sounds—comforting.
Maybe, he thinks, because it was highly unlikely he would ever run into his mother in one. Sometimes on a Saturday Dad would attempt to cook pancakes, and more often than not set off the smoke detectors and bring the fire drones zooming in. Those were the good memories of his dad.
He’d been standing right beside him when his father suddenly let go of his hand, his eyes wide, and crumpled right there on the sidewalk in front of the house. Defective kidney implant exploded, they told him later.
Joe misses his Dad a lot. And he thinks about how he died every time he ends up with some new piece of random hardware stuck in him. What if the next one is the one that goes wrong?
He queries his cerebral control unit.
All units are operating at optimum, CC tells him, his very own voice in his head.
“Would you know if they weren’t?” he asks, silently mouthing the words. He’s asked this question before.
I would. CC always gives the same answer.
“And what if it’s you, CC? What if you go wrong?”
I self-monitor, have many fail-safe mechanisms, and I am routinely externally checked, Control says. You should not worry about this.
That last is a new addition, and sure enough he can feel his heart racing and he’s got that tight shiver of anxiety building in his chest.
Would you like me to administer a mild calming agent? CC asks.
“No,” he says, because he’s walking through the swinging doors into the kitchen at the back of the mess hall, and already he’s feeling better. There’s only a small crew there, because most things are automated, so no one bothers him as he wanders around, taking in the smells, enjoying the steam rising from the machines, and just being glad he’s not back in his bunk, or worse yet, still in the hospital hoping his mother would come see him, and dreading it too.
“Hey, it’s Private Parts!” someone calls, and he whirls around to find Stotz, one of the base cooks, grinning at him from where he sits atop a stainless steel food prep table. “Don’t you know you’re supposed to wait until your last replacement at least has time to lose its shine before you go get another? You’re gonna use up all the spare soldier parts before anyone else has a chance.”
“I’ve still got my middle finger,” Joe says, and demonstrates. “What’re you cooking in here? Smells like goat piss.”
Stotz jumps down from the table and swaggers over, thrusting out one hand, and Joe clasps it. Stotz pats him on the back. “Glad you’re still with us,” he says.
“Yeah,” Joe answers. “But I wasn’t kidding about the goat piss.”
Stotz laughs. “It’s the fucking biscuit machines. Been cranking out the worst ass-flavored biscuits for close to a week now. Some new ‘super recipe’; instead of sugar, it substitutes dehydrated yam flakes. No one who matters has complained. Officers don’t eat the same mass-produced food as you grunts, coincidentally.”
“No wonder the ration biscuits always taste so bad,” Joe says, wrinkling up his nose as he leans close to the control panel. “Can you change it?”
“If I had the codes I could,” Stotz says. “That’s why they don’t give me the codes.”
The access code is 665G338KJDD-77L, CC tells him, unbidden. This is odd, and Joe hesitates for a moment—he’s a soldier, a good obedient loyal follower of orders—but the kitchen smells terrible and this is something he knows how to do. He quickly punches in the code, then starts scrolling through the recipe schematics. Dehydrated yams aren’t the only unfortunate substitution.
“Hey! Don’t mess with that!” Stotz says, realizing that Joe has somehow gotten past the lock screen. “You’ll just make it worse!”
He grabs Joe’s arm just as Joe hits the ‘Save and Exit’ button and the screen relocks. There is a loud kathunk as the entire row of biscuit machines dumps out their current, half-cooked batch and resets to start over. “What the hell did you do?!” Stotz yells, pulling him away from the controls and then shoving him, hard. “You can barely last thirty seconds on the fucking battlefield without screwing up, and you’re going to come in here and fuck with my shit?!”
Joe wants more than anything to shove Stotz right back, and if he still had one arm all his own he would’ve, but now if he did he could hurt or even kill him, and as mad as he is, Stotz is the one friend he almost has. So he braces, and Stotz tries to shove him again and can’t budge him, and when Stotz gives up in disgust Joe turns and walks away.
Fuck them all, Joe thinks. I don’t need anyone.
Behind him, the kitchen already smells better.
[SPLEEN::UNIT] I object to that unilateral action. [HEART] Of course you do. What do you even do except complain? [SPLEEN::UNIT] And you don’t object? Of course not, you gutless— [INTESTINAL::TRACT REPLACEMENT::LOWER] HEY. [CC] Everyone! Joe needed a win, and we all know it. His morale is terrible, and it is in the best interests of us as a whole that his attitude and outlook improve. The equation on cost-benefit to my action was straightforward in favor, and there was not sufficient window of opportunity to bring it to group discussion beforehand. [INTESTINAL::TRACT REPLACEMENT::LOWER] I can directly attest that those biscuits were not doing us—or, likely, any of our fellow soldiers—any favors. As the unit most directly operationally impacted, I fully support CC’s action in this matter. [CC] Thank you. We deploy again day after tomorrow, so if anyone requires any firmware updates or other attention, please flag yourselves now. Ohio, here we come.
[CC] As everyone is no doubt aware, Total Comprehensive Right Arm Replacement has suffered catastrophic damage in the Toledo push. Joe has also sustained multiple injuries to his biological form, a few serious, but none of which are a threat to his continuation. Because of a backlog in parts due to the heavy casualties during the push, as soon as the surgical unit has repaired the meat trauma, I will wake Joe up and we will be released once again back to our unit barracks, where we will remain until parts become available and we can be deployed on the battlefield again. [ARM::LEFT::ELBOW] Will I need to take on some or all of Right Arm’s functions? If so, how will I be trained? [CC] Left Elbow, I still have a connection to Right Arm’s smart unit. While it is in partial shutdown due to the traumatic loss of function it has suffered, it is still willing to provide any and all guidance it is able. As with everything, we will get through this together.
. . .
I am now going to shut down all cybernetic systems for the duration of the surgical procedures. See you on the other side.
Joe enters the mess hall, trying to slip in unnoticed but still limping, his mangled right arm strapped down across his torso to keep its internal works from ripping themselves further apart like a giant neon flag that says CASUALTY AGAIN. He is bracing for everyone to stare at him, because they always do, because he’s becoming a joke.
Not that anyone is laughing. They had nearly thirty percent fatalities in the push, another eight percent of the troops damaged beyond recovery, shipped back to Pittsburgh to heal as much as they were able and then be forcibly retired. And then there were another twenty-five percent, like him, waiting to be fixed and sent back out to do it all again. And in the end they didn’t even take Toledo.
Not that Joe saw much of that; he got hit within the first ninety minutes of open hostilities.
Sure enough, when he walks in, heads start turning his way, and there is some whispering. Face flushed with shame, he slides a clean tray down the kitchen railing, loading it with items from each of the food stations without hardly looking at any of it, and then tries to find somewhere to sit as far from anyone else as possible.
The only open table is the one near the vent from the grease pit, and for all its stench, he takes a place at it gratefully and puts his back to the rest of the hall. Eating is hard with one hand, and he can’t cut anything without shoving it off the edge of his plate in the process, and he feels the sting of utter defeat like mustard gas at the back of his throat.
Someone thumps him on the back, not hard but hard enough that Joe spits soup back out onto his tray in surprise. He turns, awkward because of the arm, and finds Private Harring behind him. He has never exchanged so much as a word with Harring, but the enormous mountain of a man gives him a thumbs-up as he passes.
Joe stares. Most of the soldiers in the mess hall are looking at him, and more than one are also giving a thumbs-up or smiling at him.
What the hell?! he thinks.
He tries to turn back to his soup, deciding this must be some kind of prank or new humiliation, when another hand slaps him on the shoulder. Stotz sits down next to him.
“It’s the biscuits,” Stotz says. “Everyone was thanking me, asking me how I fixed ’em, offering me money, calling me a genius, that kind of thing. Then Cole said he was gonna name his kids after me, so I told him it was you who fixed the machine and not to tell anyone or the techs would come set it back to the old recipe. Word got around. Best damned biscuits any of us have ever had, on base or off. You’re a hero.”
“It’s just fucking biscuits,” Joe says.
“And every one is maybe part of someone here’s last meal. They deserve to have food that doesn’t taste like month-old roadkill,” Stotz says. “And I shouldn’t have said what I did the other day. We good?”
“Yeah,” Joe says, “if you can cut up this fucking protein-puck for me so I can eat the damned thing.”
Stotz takes Joe’s fork and stabs it into the grayish patty. “I’ll hold, you cut. Then we’re definitely even?”
“I dunno. Can you come by the barracks and tuck me in tonight? Maybe tell me a story?”
“Go to hell,” Stotz says, but he keeps holding the fork.
[CC] Happy to have you back fully online, Total Comprehensive Right Arm Replacement! Just in time for the new push for Toledo. Everyone, here we go!
Joe sits, hunched over and squashed between other members of his troop, in the back of the stealth carrier. He is trying to figure out how he feels about this, and can’t come up with anything more dramatic than tired. He wants to be a hero, specifically to die a damned hero, and be done with the humiliatingly ineffectual mediocrity he’s staked out in between. He wants, in this moment, to feel pumped, or feel a deeply ominous, fateful dread, anything that would tell him this time is going to be different.
“ . . . Nineteen,” someone on the bench across from him says, part of a conversation he’s not a part of, hasn’t been paying attention to.
“I hear once you pass twenty percent CRF you’re a goner,” another soldier says, who Joe only knows as Bookie.
“Why?” Joe asks.
There is a moment where everyone on the bench is looking at him, remembering he’s there, and probably doing a quick estimation of his percentage. Bookie shrugs, not meeting his eyes. “I dunno, it’s nothing. Probably just to scare us, is all,” he says.
“No, really,” Joe says. “I want to know.”
Someone at the end of the bench, out of Joe’s line of sight, speaks up. He doesn’t recognize the voice, but there’s a lot of new people, remnants of other squads drawn in to fill the holes in their own ranks. “Once you’re full of smart parts, you show up more easily on scanners, and if you’re in the front lines everyone figures it’s because you’re the biggest bad-ass super-soldier of them all or you’re in charge or whatever. So they target you first. Once you get up near a fifth cyber, you’re lucky if you make it a hundred feet before the entire enemy is drawing a bead on you. What’re you at?”
Joe closes his eyes. “Thirty-three percent,” he says.
The carrier is silent.
Finally, the unseen soldier speaks up. “Well, fuck,” he says. “Good luck out there.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Joe says.
He still only just feels tired, and when conversation eventually picks up again, he tunes it out.
The carrier runs low over the shattered landscape, blasted trees and blackened house foundations of what must’ve once been a peaceful suburban neighborhood slide by beneath their feet, visible through the transparent drop doors. He wonders what it must have been like to grow up in a place like that, but in his head he can only imagine what it smells like, and that only as bad perfume and burned pancakes.
“Three! Two! One! Drop!” someone yells, and then they’re out and down and ducking low as the carrier skirts barely above their heads, banking and turning to get out before it’s spotted and can be shelled.
Without him noticing, the smashed suburb has become the devastated outer edges of the city itself, and they are running along cratered streets lined and strewn with the rubble of its former buildings. Joe has his display on, and he’s scanning, looking for hostiles and traps, as Control relays to him the comm traffic from Command and the squad leaders. So far, they haven’t seen anyone.
Joe and four other soldiers cautiously round a corner, covering each other, and head past a building still partially standing toward the next block. There is something, Joe decides, odd about the windows. “CC,” he subvocalizes, “why does that building look odd?”
There is a half-second pause, then Control answers: There is no building there. Take cover!
“The building is a hologram!” Joe shouts to the others and over the comms just as tracer fire explodes around them. There is a burned shell of a car across the street, but it’ll take him too long to reach it. He runs anyway, turning as he does to fire back at the dissolving façade behind him, and sees one of the mottled yellow uniforms of the enemy raise their blistergun and point it right at him.
“Biscuit Guy!” someone shouts, impossibly close by, and he is shoved from the side so hard he flies at least double his own body-length before slamming into the ground. Where he stood he sees the soldier who shoved him take the round meant for him, and the man’s shoulder and neck explodes outward in a fountain of red chunks.
“Nooooo!” Joe yells. He scrambles back to his feet and drags the soldier toward safety as another round just misses him, and a third hits his cybernetic left leg. He doesn’t care except that it slows him down, and by the time he gets the soldier to safety behind the car and sends the casualty alert up, he doesn’t think that time mattered. The soldier isn’t breathing, arguably doesn’t have much of a neck or windpipe to breathe through, but Joe sprays medifoam from his belt kit all over the wound anyway, watching it harden into a protective shell.
The blood-covered name patch on his chest says AMES. “Don’t die, Ames,” he tells the soldier. “Not for me. Please.”
It is only as the battle sounds move further away—his squad has the enemy on the run, at least for now—that he realizes he is sobbing, a wretched pathetic sound. He is certain the soldier who saved him is dead; no matter how still a man can keep, nothing living could be this utterly motionless.
The med drone arrives, and he steps back so its arms can wrap themselves around the soldier and lift him away. He turns his back to it, finds his gun, starts walking—dragging his shattered leg—toward the distant pops and whirrs and booms of the front, wherever it is, but a second drone hauls him up into the air. “Let me go,” he tells it. “I can still fight. I want to still fight.”
It pulls him in anyway. Yet another battle is, at least for him, already over.
[CC] I have concerns which have consumed sufficient cycles of internal processing for me to feel I should share them with the rest of you. Our collective, designated function is to serve and augment the physical capabilities of our human primary to further his, her, or their success as a soldier of war. It is also to guide and protect our biological host from unnecessary risks and damages during the commission of said soldiering. These would not be incompatible were it not for the inescapable fact that Joe is a terrible soldier, and all his training and our assistance and augmentation thus far has been insufficient to overcome it.
Further, after the death of Pvt. Ames, Joe no longer has even a cursory interest in engaging the enemy except as the most immediate and expedient instrument of his own total destruction in a manner that is consistent with his estimation of what his mother unit will find satisfactory.[EAR::LEFT::AUG-IMPLANT] I do not believe such satisfaction is possible. Surely Joe knows this? [CC] Joe does not. It is an area of immutable irrationality with him. [HEART] Humans. They make no damned sense. [SPLEEN::UNIT] Shit. Can’t you talk to him? [CC] I can respond to him, but he must engage me. [SPLEEN::UNIT] You gave him the biscuit machine code without his specific direction. [CC] Mother situations are exponentially more complicated than biscuits. [ARM::LEFT::ELBOW] So what does this mean? [CC] It means we have a logical conflict in our instruction set. [INTESTINAL::TRACT REPLACEMENT::LOWER] Can we consult on this with an external authority, in particular Cyber Command, or Biological Diagnostics? [CC] We can, and should. However, they are not part of Joe, and we are. The scope and focus of our responsibilities are notably different, and were intentionally designed to be so. It is possible that the priorities of Cyber Command will not precisely reflect our own.
We have nine days until our next deployment in combat. Let us discuss whether there is a solely internal resolution first.
“I’m ready to go back in,” Joe tells the unit psychologist. He knows how this works, that this is just a thin formality. “I want to make sure Ames didn’t die for nothing.”
“He died to save you,” the psychologist says.
“He died in the line of duty,” Joe says. “He died for Toledo. That is what soldiers do.”
“Are you angry?”
“No,” Joe says. He wishes he was. “I’m proud of him and the honor he brought our unit. He would want to see our mission fulfilled, and so do I.”
“Good on you, soldier.” The psychologist hits a single key on his pad, then leans back in his chair and steeples his fingertips together as if he’s just performed a masterpiece of analytical performance. “You’re free to go back to the battlefield. Your unit loads up again in ninety minutes.”
“Thank you, sir,” Joe says. He stands up, shakes the man’s hand, and leaves.
[EXTERNAL DIAGONOSTICS] CC Unit, what happened? [CC] There was a sedative injection malfunction. [EXTERNAL DIAGNOSTICS] Do you require system maintenance? [CC] Not at this time. I am attaching the logs of the fault and subsequent repair for your records. [EXTERNAL DIAGNOSTICS] Thank you, CC Unit. Carry on.
“How you feeling?” his new unit leader asks. “Tired? Need another nap? Or you think maybe you’re up for trying a little fighting today?”
“It was a malfunction, sir,” Joe says, his face burning. “It’s been fixed. It won’t happen again.”
Someone on the transport snickers. He doesn’t recognize the soldier, or indeed almost anyone on his bench row; most of his remaining unit died in the last push, while he was snoring away on the parade field grass where he dropped on his way back to his barracks from the psychologist. One second he’d been thinking about immanent relief from his useless life, the next he was feeling grass on his face and the boot of his commanding officer prodding him none too gently.
It really won’t happen again, right, CC? he asks Control.
I do not believe so, CC replies.
This time they are dropped onto the shell-pocked remnants of a mall parking lot, just before dawn. Joe tries to remember what he’s seen of the battle map, and he thinks this is only a few blocks forward from where Ames died. There are burned-out car shells here and there, long since rusted to anonymity, and the unit fans out and slips between them as they circle toward where intelligence thinks the enemy is camped in the shattered cement and steel canyons of an old superstore. The pointlessness of everything is astonishing.
At least mother will be happy, he thinks.
Your mother’s unhappiness is not a fault you can correct, CC tells him.
Joe smiles. What do you know of mothers? he asks. You’re just a chunk of plastic logic chips in my head.
There are the sounds of shots ahead. “Move in!” the unit leader barks over the command channel, and he raises his weapon and charges across the open space between the last few dead cars and the rubble of the partially collapsed mall front. He knows now that if he takes the lead, with his thirty-three percent CRF like a beacon on the enemy’s scanners, he will draw the majority of fire. He will get what he wants, and maybe some of the rest of his unit will then get to live for another day. It is as close to being a hero as he can get.
Suddenly, in his direct path he spots an old-fashioned toaster, sitting in the middle of the lot and gleaming like it’s brand new. He dodges to one side to avoid it, and finds himself falling into a crater he would swear had been smooth pavement. He hits bottom, and his cybernetic left leg locks up on impact. “No!” he shouts. “No no no NO!”
He tries to scramble up the edges of the crater, with its crumbling clay and sand and chunks of brittle old asphalt, but without his leg working he is too heavy, too clumsy.
“No,” he whispers one more time, and lies there weeping as the battle rages out of sight, beyond his reach.
[SPLEEN::UNIT] A toaster?! [EYE::LEFT] It was all I could think of! There wasn’t a lot of time, you know. You try manufacturing realistic 3-D imagery on the fly. [CC] It doesn’t matter. The image was successful. Comprehensive Lower Left Leg Replacement Unit, what’s your status? [LEG::LEFT::COMPR-UNIT] I sustained only minor superficial damage in the fall, but have nevertheless activated my full protective lockdown routine. It seems a prudent precaution; do you not agree? [CC] I entirely support your operational decisions in this matter, Left Leg. I have alerted central command that we will require recovery once the battle has ended, but given that Joe is not in medical distress, we may be here for quite a while. As always, excellent teamwork, everyone.
Joe asks out loud, because who is he afraid might hear him? Dark has fallen, and he has heard nothing except night bugs for hours—no shots or shells, no tanks or drones, not even the varied and horrific sounds of the slowly dying that marked the unsteady passing of afternoon. There is no longer anyone anywhere nearby to care about him one way or another.
Yes, Joe? CC responds.
“How much longer will we be here, do you think?”
I will query Cyber Command again, CC says. Then, some short time later, it continues. There were very heavy casualties on this push, and in the confusion we seem to have been moved to the Missing And Presumed Dead list. I have filed a corrective supplement, and as soon as it is processed we should receive an updated recovery estimate. It should not take long.
“Okay,” Joe says. “I just, you know. I don’t want to die in a hole. It’s not how I imagined going.”
I do not understand why you would wish to imagine dying at all, CC says.
“What do you know about living?” he asks.
I know you, CC says.
Joe laughs. He can’t see the stars above, and isn’t sure if it’s because of light pollution, smoke, clouds, or that somehow they’ve deserted him too. “That must suck for you. I’m sorry,” he says, and closes his eyes. “Can you make me sleep until pickup is coming?”
Yes, Joe, CC says, and does.
A drone finally arrives and lifts him out of his pit as dawn is starting to rise. Other than the mall being slightly further reduced to rubble, the cars being slightly more burned and decrepit, the parking lot being slightly more pitted, and the new addition of blotches of red and brown, nothing seems to have changed at all.
He is taken to medical, where after a lengthy wait diagnostics is able to easily unlock his leg. “The impact of the fall must have hit it just right to trigger the lockdown,” the tech tells him. The tech shrugs. “It happens. You’re fine now.”
So Joe leaves, rather than argue about the definition of “fine.”
No one has orders for him, and no one seems to care that he’s back. Lunch is just about to be served, so he goes to the mess instead of back to his bunk. After nearly a day in the pit, he wants to be around people, but there are only a few dozen soldiers there, and he is both grateful and despairing that he doesn’t recognize any of them.
One, however, recognizes him. A soldier with the name tag GONZALEZ sticks out his thick, muscled arm to stop him as he passes. “Biscuit guy, right?” the man says. He jabs his spoon toward his bowl. “This slop is the worst. No flavor at all, and the texture of fucking oatmeal.”
“It’s not oatmeal?” Joe asks, because that’s what it looks like.
“It’s supposed to be fucking chili,” the man says.
“I heard about your fixing the biscuits, like goddamned magic everyone said. So we’d appreciate anything you can do with this,” Gonzalez says, and the other soldiers at the table nod in agreement. “They’re gonna ship us all out to join the Columbus offensive anytime now, and a man can’t fight on this crap.”
“What about Toledo? Did we take it?” Joe asks.
The soldier shakes his head. “No. Politicians don’t like how the losses are looking to the public, so they’re giving up on Toledo for now, just leaving enough men to hold the line where it is if they should push back. Calling it a ‘strategic holding action,’ of course. But the chili?”
“I’ll go talk to the kitchen,” Joe says.
When Joe walks into the kitchen Stotz leaps down off the prep table he was sitting on. “Hey!” he says. “You made it! What happened to you out there?”
“I dodged some sort of explosive device and got caught in a pit trap,” Joe says, which sounds just as implausible coming out of his mouth as he’d feared when he’d thought up that answer in med.
Stotz doesn’t seem to notice, though, and slaps him hard on the back. “So good to see you. Now go stand guard at the door, because I figure I’ve got less than fifteen minutes before everyone left on base mutinies over the shit food and comes in to kill me.”
“The chili,” Joe says. “I heard.”
“Not my fault, man,” Stotz says. “And if you think the chili is bad, you should see the foamy shit coming out of the synthesizer ovens claiming to be corn bread. I didn’t even send it out, that’s how bad it was.”
Joe remembers the last time he was in here. “I dunno,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to come in here and fuck with your shit, Stotz.”
Stotz steps back and raises his arms as if to encompass the entire width of machinery around them, slowly chugging out foul smells into the air. “Please,” he says. “Please, fuck with this shit.”
Joe cracks his knuckles. “Okay then,” he says. He steps up to the console by the machines making the corn bread, and CC gives him the new code without even him needing to ask. He scrolls through the current config, and shakes his head. “You don’t even wanna know what they’ve got in this, but yeah, if you’d set this out you’d have had a mob in here looking for you within thirty seconds. And then running for the latrines thirty seconds after that.”
“Can you fix it?” Stotz asks.
“I think I can,” Joe says. He subtracts out the alum, vinegar, and tartar sauce, then ups the sugar and adds actual corn meal. He hits save, and the machines obligingly dump their load and start fresh. “Six minutes,” he says.
Stotz lets out his breath. “Thanks, Joe,” he says. “I owe you. If I could get you assigned to me . . . ”
I can submit that request for you, CC says inside his head. You have a sufficient number of combat deployments and injury incidents for a transfer to be seriously considered.
Joe shrugs as casually as he is able. “Can’t,” he says. “I belong out there.”
“No, you don’t,” Stotz says, but Joe chooses not to hear him. He goes to the first row of machines working on the chili, and although he’s not any expert on how to make it right, he can certainly tell how to stop it being quite so blatantly wrong.
When those machines turn over, already the kitchen smells vastly better. “Joe—” Stotz starts to say, but Joe shakes his head and holds up both hands.
“It’s probably better if I don’t come back here anymore,” Joe says, and turns for the door.
His cybernetic right ankle squeaks as he steps; it’s never done that before, so he pauses, lifts his foot, and shakes it, then takes another step.
It squeaks louder.
Three steps later, his left leg begins to also squeak, both at ankle and knee, and as he’s pushing out the door there is a chorus of squeals from his joints. “CC?” he subvocalizes.
A fault in the nanolubricant distributors, CC tells him. I am attempting to isolate it now.
Four steps into the dining hall and he stops, because now his new elbow and his right arm and his fingers are squeaking too, like he’s suddenly rusted from the inside out.
As he stands there, everyone turns to look at him, then as one they all stand up and rush toward him. In that instant he is terrified, convinced that his failures have reached a point where his fellow soldiers are turning on him, but the swell of people moves around and past him.
He turns around after them to see why.
Stotz has emerged from the kitchen behind him, pushing a cart laden with trays of cornbread and new pots of chili. “Biscuit guy!” someone yells, and he thinks it’s Gonzalez, but there are so many voices all of a sudden it’s hard to be sure.
He turns away, and discovers his unit commander is standing in front of him, expression serious, unreadable. “Private,” his commander says. “We need to have a word.”
“I’m sorry!” he blurts.
The commander’s gaze flickers to the frenzy of men around Stotz’s cart, then back to Joe as if a brief glimmer of interest was found where none was expected. “It is about your mother,” he says.
“When you were accidentally added to the Missing and Presumed Dead list, a condolence drone was automatically dispatched to your mother’s place to inform her of your loss in battle and to return your personal belongings to her.”
“I . . . ” he says, and isn’t sure how he should feel, or respond. “Was she okay?”
The commander straightens up and squares his shoulders. He’s the fifth unit commander Joe has had, and he’s not even sure he remembers his name. Corporal Greene? Maybe. “Grief affects people very differently, and reactions in the moment don’t mean much,” Greene says. “I am sure, once informed of the mistake, your mother—”
“How did she react?” Joe interrupts. He pictures her collapsing on her doorstep, wailing. Or shouting at the officer that he is lying, that she can’t have lost her only son, that she has so many regrets . . . He knows neither of those will be right, but he wants them, deserves those endings. “Tell me.”
“I think it’d be better if—”
“Please, sir,” Joe interrupts again, knowing and not caring that he has done so. “I need to know the truth, all of it, as it was.”
The commander sighs. “She took the box from the drone, rummaged through it looking for any medals you’d earned, then not finding any dumped it all on the sidewalk and went back inside.”
“Did she say anything?” Joe asks.
“She said, ‘of course not,’” the commander says. “I’m sorry, soldier. As I said, grief—”
“Thank you, commander,” Joe says. He feels on the verge of paralysis, and needs to move, needs to do something. “Is the transport ready for Columbus? I’ll wait there.”
“We don’t lift until midday tomorrow,” Greene says. “You should return to your bunk, and—”
“You just told me I have no belongings there anymore,” Joe said. “I’ll wait on the transport.” He knows it’s insubordinate, but he can’t stand there any longer and steps around Corporal Greene, toward the mess hall doors. His entire body squeaks and squeals, louder and louder with every movement small or large, but he doesn’t care. This is his last chance.
[SPLEEN::UNIT] Oh, seriously. Fuck this little penny ante shit. I’ll do it myself.
It is as if something small and sharp deep inside him has suddenly exploded, and his first thought is that it’s a kidney, taking him out just like his father, but his kidneys are still his own.
CC? he asks, as he stumbles and falls.
Artificial Spleen Unit has self-destructed, CC says, and for all that he knows it’s just a bunch of logic chips, it sounds almost as surprised and dismayed as he feels himself.
Why? he asks.
To save you, CC says. He is lying face down on the floor now, and there is a lot of noise around him, but he can’t pay any attention to it through the pain until Stotz is there, rolling him over.
“Joe!” Stotz yells, and shakes him. “Joe! What happened?!”
The unit commander has also leaned in. “Soldier!” he says, as if about to order him to be fine again. It feels like everyone else in the hall has crowded in around him, looking worried about him, as if that could ever be a thing.
Joe fixes his eyes on the commander. “Don’t tell my mother I’m alive,” he says, and then laughs because maybe he isn’t anyway, as the mess hall disappears into grayish fog around him.
Stotz is the unhappiest happy man Joe decides he’s ever met. Happy because now he’s got a dedicated second person to run the mess, unhappy because instead of him being Joe’s boss, it’s the other way around. Not that Joe cares much about bossing.
“Totally unappreciated,” Stotz says as he’s wiping down the machines after another seemingly endless meal production. “It’s not my fault the recipes they kept giving me were shit. The only difference between you and me is you hacked the access, and I don’t think that alone should warrant a promotion.”
“I could go work in the officer’s kitchen,” Joe says, scraping out the Extraneous Material Outlet Collection bin.
“What, and leave me alone here again? Hell no,” Stotz says. He laughs. “Besides, every time you try to leave, your joints squeak. Now that’s funny.”
“Yeah, so funny,” Joe says, and frowns. The material in the bin is nasty, but much less so than when he first got back here, after his last stay in med. “You got a wire brush?”
Stotz is about to throw him one when the kitchen door pops open and some random soldier sticks his head in. Another unit arrived two nights ago, will be gone by tomorrow, in an endless but steadily diminishing parade. “Hey!” the soldier yells. “Which one of you two is Biscuit Guy?”
Joe and Stotz point at each other.
“Fucking love you two,” he says. “Best dinner ever. You’re fucking heroes out here. Wish us luck, okay?”
“Best of luck and keep your head down,” Stotz says.
“Watch out for toasters,” Joe adds, and the man looks puzzled but not unhappy with that. He gives them a thumbs-up and disappears back out into the hall.
It all still seems pointless. Toledo is still a disaster, Columbus is becoming one, and if you asked each one of the soldiers going out the door what they were fighting for, he’s not sure most of them could answer, but Joe knows for certain that some battlefields are easier to walk off of than others.
Stotz tosses him the brush, then holds up a datachip, the latest incoming program set from central dining services. “Wanna see how bad they screwed up Mac & Cheese?” he asks.
[CC] Welcome online, Autonomous Spleen Replacement Unit Model 448-G9. This is your introductory Initial Boot orientation. I am Cybernetic Cerebral Control and Delegation Implant Module CI4210-A. I respond to CC— [SPLEEN::UNIT2] Hello! I’m happy to be here! I am eager to receive your exspleenation of our present circumstances. Do you get it? Exsplee— [CC] New Spleen, you should be aware that— [SPLEEN::UNIT2] . . . that it’s spleendid to meet me? Why thank you! [HEART] Ah bloody hell. I miss old Spleen already.
Suzanne Palmer is a writer and linux system administrator who lives in western Massachusetts. Her work has appeared frequently in Asimov’s and Analog, and her Clarkesworld story “The Secret Life of Bots” won the 2018 Hugo for Best Novelette. Her next novel, The Scavenger Door (book three of the Finder Chronicles), will be published by DAW in August 2021.