by Carlos Hernandez
I realise I’m putting this up at Christmas Day when all the world should be hankering for peace. So shoot me for being contrary, but here’s a story set in the middle of a future war that not only reminds us why war is insanity, but that it also warps our — we hope — normally sane minds.
Carlos and I first crossed virtual paths (we still have to meet in the flesh, and the first drink will be on me!) at the old — now defunct — message boards of Creative Guy Publishing. CGP head honcho Pete Allen has published such talents as Adrienne Jones, Jack Mangan, Marlo Dianne, Carlos Hernandez, Kaori Praschak and me (OK: I’ll leave it up to others to decide if I’m a talent) in his Amityville House of Pancakes series from 2004 onwards. I have very fond memories about the discussions we had on that forum.
So I was quite chuffed when Carlos sent me a couple of stories for Interzone later on, of which two were published: “The Macrobe Conservation Project” in IZ #202 (sharing a ToC with CGP mate Jack Mangan) and “Exvisible” in IZ #211. And while Carlos also had stories printed in literary magazines like Written Word Magazine and Cosmopsis, and in a mystery anthology called Hit List, the Best of Latino Mystery, he also kept writing speculative fiction, and his contribution to Interfictions 2 — “The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria” — is a doozy (effortlessly mixing magic realism, SF, fantasy and Cuban voodoo rituals), while his Futurismic story — “Homeostasis” — is a must-read, not only because it’s a thought-provoking piece about how tomorrow’s medical technology can change your very being and identity (with philosophical zombies and Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’ thrown in for good measure), but also because “Fembot” takes the premise of “Homeostasis” a step further, and into the battlefield. And while you can go read “Homeostasis” with the click of a mouse, it is not strictly necessary as “Fembot” (like “Homeostasis”) can be read fully stand-alone. Also, this is Carlos at his very (so far, I hasten to add: he just gets better and better) best, and most humane.
Because this is, even if it’s set in a very dirty war zone, a story about love: how it can blossom in the harshest of places and survive even the strangest of transitions…
As we approached the Folk Hotel, a dog emerged from the entrance, loping happily toward us. So I looked at Travis, and he leveled his rifle and shot it. One yelp and it fell.
It didn’t explode. That was disappointing. If the dog explodes, everything’s clear, everything’s right. But dogs don’t explode too often. Most of the time, the bullet goes in through the head and comes out the ass, dragging half the mongrel’s guts out with it. But even that feels a little bit good. And sometimes, not often, but way too often, a dog explodes. Then you’re justified. Then you sit there and watch the carcass burn and say, “Sorry buddy, it was you or me.”
A dead dog will rot in no time during the Changma. Rains nonstop, and even if it does stop it’s like it didn’t: instead of obeying gravity, the rain just hangs in the air like someone hit the pause button. I wondered if some local would find the carcass in time to harvest the meat. And then I wondered how many of my squad wouldn’t mind being the ones doing the harvesting. We had 22 Chicken à la King MREs to split between the seven of us — plenty of food if we made it back to our FOB on schedule. But if we were detained even a couple of days, things could get dicey. So, starting now, we had to eat like things would get dicey. If we each ate half an MRE a day, we’d have food for a week. We’d be starving — half a Chicken à la King MRE will give you about 650 calories — but we’d make it.
So I knew we’d be starving, and here was a fresh kill in front of us. If we didn’t eat it, someone else would. We’d have to make sure the dog wasn’t diseased, or that it wasn’t an IED — a single bullet won’t always set off a gutbuster. But if it wasn’t either of those things, we’d be fools not to eat it.
I signaled the rest of the patrol to cover me. But as I started to make for the dog, Ludmilla said, “Don’t to be stupid, Sergeant. Send the Fembot.”
Her bad English always stopped me in my tracks. I hunkered down again on the cool stone path and looked at her. Her face was placid and Slavic. “Shut up, Corporal,” I said.
“Yessir. Right after you send Fembot.”
“I hate sending Fembot.”
“Yessir. I hate lots of things. I hate North Hwanghae province, and I hate Kaesŏng, and I hate celebrated Folk Hotel that we’re standing in front of right now. I think safe to say I hate North Korea, period. But here I am. I would also hate for you die.”
“And I would hate for Rafael to die.”
Her big face smiled — motherly, without a trace of irony. “Rafael not Rafael, sir. Rafael is now Fembot. And Fembot we can reboot. We have backup of Fembot. We don’t have backup of Staff Sergeant Darnell Wall.”
“Bullshit,” I yelled, trying to sound angrier than I was. “The army has a million of me. I die, someone else steps up. That’s how the military works. That’s why the military works.”
“Now you’re changing subjects.”
I liked Ludmilla. She knew how to challenge her superiors respectfully. And I liked her bad English, and especially that she wasn’t even a little bit pretty. Made things so much easier. “You joined the army for expedited American citizenship, didn’t you?” I asked her.
“Yes. You are changing subjects again.”
I sighed, turned to Ezekiel. “You got Fembot, Easy?”
“As always, Sarge. In my pack.”
“Well, unpack him. The rest of you: circle the wagons around Easy. We’re standing out in the open here like idiots, and if they’re here, they sure as hell know we’re here.” The squad — Ludmilla and Travis and Cindy and Jo and Frank and me — surrounded Easy, encircling him so he could put Fembot together in relative safety. Ludmilla squatted down to my right. I didn’t look at her, but I could feel her smile. It was like a sun.
Easy unshouldered his pack, flipped it onto the stone path that led to the Folk Hotel. From it he pulled a 70-pound Explosive Ordnance Disposal robot. It had been partially disassembled so it could fit into a pack; Easy could reassemble it in under five minutes. First he installed the battery. It was the size and weight of a bar of gold, but worth a lot more: more than a staff sergeant’s annual salary. We called it a fizzbrick and tried not to think about all that fissile material fizzling our chances to make babies. Next, Easy socket-wrenched the treads onto the chassis. He attached the manipulator arm — two flat fingers and an opposed thumb, hanging limply from a four-jointed, scorpion-tail arm with a reach of 4½ feet. Then lights, cameras, action. By lights, I mean two halogen headlamps, and by cameras I mean the four swivel-turret cameras, each mounted on an ordinal compass point on the chassis, that served as the EOD’s eyes. By action I mean the front-mounted .50 caliber rifle.
Finally, Easy took out the chrome, Rubik’s-Cube-sized box that was Rafael. Easy fitted it into a port on the underside of the EOD. Once it was in, he righted the robot and wiped off a little mud that was sullying the Distinguished Service Cross painted on its hood.
Easy looked at me. “Ready for Rafael?” he asked.
“What do you think, numbnuts?” I said.
He flipped a switch and the EOD became Rafael. Rafael revved his engine, his four cameras moving independently, surveying the scene.
“Well, good morning, Fembot,” I said to Rafael. “Have a nice nap? You know, while the rest of us are out here fighting a war?”
All four cameras locked onto me. A voice that sounded like a recording of Rafael said, “Sorry, sir. But I don’t have a choice when I am turned on, sir. That’s your decision.”
“Did you just accuse me of turning you on, Private?”
The squad laughed, Fembot included. He didn’t miss a beat. “Sir no sir!” he yelled. “I am sure you have never turned anybody on in your entire life, sir!”
I think Fembot was funnier as a robot than he’d ever been as a person. I laughed along with everyone else. “That’s good, numbnuts. That’s pure hilarity right there. But now it’s time to work. There’s a dog about fifty yards ahead, right in front of that big Asian gate. We need you to see if it’s an IED. If it isn’t, tell us. If it is, neutralize it, and tell us when it’s safe. All the while, scan for any nearby hostiles. We’ll cover you from this position.
“And Fembot, for fuck’s sake, don’t get yourself killed. You may think you’re here because you want to be here, because you thought it would be good for your dumbass robot psyche to play soldier again, but the truth is you are here at the pleasure of the American government. And you are one expensive motherfucker. You get destroyed, it’s coming out of my paycheck, and I’m already broke. Got it?”
“Yes sir. Don’t die. Got it. Heading out now, sir.”
“Make a hole,” I said, and Ludmilla and Frank got out of Fembot’s way. Fembot trundled toward the dog. “Good luck,” Easy said softly.
After a moment, Ludmilla said, “You know, sir, I was thinking. We are low on rations. Maybe we should consider … I mean, if dog is not IED, maybe …”
“Way ahead of you,” I said.
Pfc. Rafael “Fembot” Toledo was killed in action on November 7th two years ago. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for saving me and six other soldiers and almost three dozen Korean civilians through his sacrifice. He should have gotten the Medal of Honor.
Back then, our division — 10th Mountain, light infantry, specializing in difficult terrain — was stationed in the coastal city of Wŏnsan, which the U.S. had recently captured. My division was brought in after the major fighting to stabilize the region. And that meant keeping the emaciated locals alive.
If you’ve never seen a person starving to death, don’t. A lot of Americans have seen African kids with bloated bellies on Sunday-morning infomercials, but to my mind seeing starving adults is worse. Some North Koreans were as small as American tweens due to a lifetime of malnutrition, and their skin was so thin it split sometimes for no reason — sometimes they’d be walking or talking or eating or laughing, and out of nowhere a gash would appear, sudden as a sign from God. Elbows, knees, the corners of the mouth and the webbing of fingers and toes: the cuts could appear anywhere. I’ve literally seen side-splitting laughter. And you’d be surprised how eager starving people are for a laugh.
We papered the countryside with pamphlets, broadcasted via armored cars with speakers, texted, e-mailed, and tried to friend every last sonofabitch in North Korea, always sending the same message — if you’re a civilian in Wŏnsan, get to one of the abandoned universities. The Americans will feed you.
We knew the enemy would exploit civilians: use them as shields, set off explosives in their midst and try to blame us, blend suicide bombers in with them to attack us with. To counter these tactics, our generals wanted to record all of the extraordinary measures ground troops were taking to minimize collateral damage, while at the same time documenting the tactics of the enemy. But past methods had failed. How could we make it work?
Here’s how: people back home were getting these computers installed in their heads that gave them unbelievable memory. Maybe we’ve forgotten a little how weird and scary eneurals sounded when they first came out, how collectively terrified we were when we first heard that they interfaced directly with the brain, read your eyes and ears as information entered your head, recorded everything, past and present. We used to think tech like that would be our grandkids’ problem, not ours. It came so fast.
But the American military has never been scared of scary tech. It took them about ten seconds to see how valuable it would be to have soldiers whose memories could be downloaded, read, and presented before tribunals as evidence of their innocence. Or even their guilt. Taking responsibility and being transparent had become all the rage.
Soon the army was piloting a program where volunteers were having their skulls fitted with bulletproof eneurals. These enhanced soldiers would be embedded with soldiers on the front lines, recording everything that happened, sending it all directly to the Pentagon for evaluation.
That’s how my squad got Rafael. First time I met him, he was already halfway to fembotdom.
“How’s your dinner, Corporal?” I asked Ludmilla. We sat in a circle at the gate of the Folk Hotel, huddled around a big autoheat pot that was still half full of Dog à la King.
We’d done a preliminary search of the Folk Hotel: I broke the squad into fireteams, had them use their handhelds to look through the walls of the hanok-style buildings for signs of life. All clear. So then we sent Rafael to cruise the hotel grounds at his more leisurely pace, since his built-in scanners were better than our handhelds. They’d been here before, he told us, but they weren’t here now. So we took the opportunity to feast.
“Dog is much better than expected,” Ludmilla replied. “If I don’t know what this is, I think I would enjoy.”
I stood up, triumphant. “All you motherfuckers hear that? Ludmilla’s enjoying her meal. All you all enjoying your meal. And now we got enough food to last us. What’s the lesson? What’s the lesson, bitches?”
“Always grab the Chicken à la King MREs,” said Cindy, rolling her eyes merrily. She looked like a young Mrs. Claus.
“That’s right. All MREs taste like shit, except one — Chicken à la King. And you can dump whatever the fuck you want into it, and it’ll still taste like Chicken à la King. Even mangy North Korean mutts.”
“I’m partial to beef stew,” said Travis. “You could put dog in that, too.”
“The best MRE is the Spam one,” said Jo.
“The fuck is wrong with you, woman?” I asked her.
“The Spam one is the only one that tastes exactly like what it’s supposed to taste like,” she said. “Believe me, I know. My family ate Spam three times a week. Army Spam is the real deal, just like Mom used to make. Other MREs are just a bad imitation.”
“She makes good point,” said Ludmilla, around a mouthful.
I stood up and, with the dignity of Cicero, said, “Bullshit. If I took a shit and put it in a hotdog bun, it would taste exactly like it should: like a log of shit in a hotdog bun. But that wouldn’t make it good.”
“You’re disgusting,” said Frank, who never said anything: he reserved the use of his mouth to eat or vomit. He hadn’t seen any combat yet, and he thought we were all deranged. This was war; people were trying to kill us all the time. And yet we were always laughing.
“Yes he is, Frank,” said Cindy, with that Glenda Goodwitch lilt of hers. “Even for a sergeant.”
“Agreed. And some are still eating here,” said Ludmilla.
“Bunch of pussies,” I said. “Act like you never ate your own shit before.”
Got Ludmilla to launch a mouthful of puppy with that one. We laughed for a hundred Mississippis. Even Frank.
“Sarge,” Rafael’s voice said from my belt. Laughter evaporated. “Girls sighted.”
We called the North Koreans girls because their latest megalomaniacal dictator was Kim Jun Girl.
I pulled my handheld from its holster. “Talk to me, Fembot. Where are they?”
“They’re not here yet, Sarge. They’re coming. I picked them up on satellite.”
I cocked my head. “Why’d you risk linking up with the satellites?”
“I could feel them marching, sir. I wanted to confirm.”
We humans couldn’t feel anything except the humidity. The squad tensed as one muscle. “Fine. How many little girls we got to kill?” I asked.
“Eighty or ninety, maybe more. It’s hard to count girls from space, you know. But they’re marching in formation right towards us. Double-time.”
“They know we’re here,” said Travis.
“Because of Fembot,” Ludmilla said.
“Shut up, Ludmilla,” I said.
After a second, Fembot said quietly. “She’s right, Sarge. They’re coming because of me. I run too hot. They can probably spot my fizzbrick from a hundred miles away. I’m like a big, nuclear ‘Kick Me’ sign on the squad’s back. And then, oh God, then I linked up to the satellites like an idiot. I’m so stupid! Why did you activate me, Sarge? Why the hell do you ever activate me?”
“Rafael!” I yelled. “Shut. The fuck. Up. All you retards think for a minute. It’s just about nighttime. They wouldn’t be marching in formation up the center of a road if they knew we were here.
“And Fembot, please, don’t flatter yourself. You know you ain’t that hot. I know you monitor your own radiation output. The girls would need some mighty fine science to detect the scintilla of radiation your fizzbrick gives off. And guess what? This is a poor-ass country. They don’t got shit. They don’t got our satellites, they don’t got our handhelds, and as far as I know, North Korea has yet to build a single gay robot. You hear that, Fembot? You’re the only homo robot in the whole goddamned world.”
Got the laugh, even from Rafael. “You’re a homophobe, you know that, Sarge?” he said.
“Here’s what’s is actually going on, children,” I continued. “These little girls are too far from their FOB. They’re trying to make it to the hotel to camp for the night. Which is, by the way, still horrible for us. They’re still coming to dinner. But at least they don’t know we’re here.”
No one was more relieved than Frank. “So there’s still time,” he said.
I turned to him. This was going to hurt. “Time for what, Private?”
“What do you mean? We’ve got to get out of here!”
“No, Frank.” I put a hand on his shoulder. “We’ve got to stay.”
When Rafael first arrived at our company, everyone hated him. He was a spy, a narc. Also, he had volunteered to have the army install a computer in his head. That was a weird thing to do. Back then, it was hard for most people to imagine what kind of person gets an eneural in the first place, but it was a hundred times harder to imagine why you would let the military be the ones to install it. They’d control your whole fucking life. Must’ve been a helluva bonus they got, we said. Must really want to go to college, we said. But mostly we said There ain’t enough money in the world.
And Rafael was short and skinny, chicken-boned, bird-chested. No way he’d be able to carry his weight in the field. And he had this scrawny mustache that made me want to punch him in the face. Because, see, he could always shave it off. Then he would have just looked like a boy, instead of a boy with a bad mustache. It was like he was trying to piss me off.
And he was quiet. Drain-the-will-to-live-out-of-you-if-you-drew-guard-duty-with-him quiet. It was part of his mission as observer to stay as silent as possible; if he talked, the events he recorded would be colored by his speech. He was basically a camera. A camera with a bad mustache. Everyone hated him.
And then it came out he was gay.
He didn’t keep the eneural running 24/7, but part of the protocol was not to tell the other soldiers when he was or wasn’t recording. So he was allowed to have private time, time when he wasn’t a camera: he just couldn’t let anyone know when that was. But we soldiers, we’re a cagey bunch. We figured he wouldn’t be recording when he was reading his personal correspondence. So we didn’t do anything against regulations like open his mail. We waited until he was reading his mail and then, under the guise of friendly army bonding and horseplay, pinned him to his cot and wrestled it out of his hands.
His lover back home had sent a few pictures.
Exactly the opposite of what you think happened happened. The military has evolved a hell of a lot since the days of don’t ask, don’t tell. Sure, we still attack third world countries, destroying their governments and infrastructure in the name of freedom. Sure, we call the enemy “girls” and drive the feminists back home insane. But at least being gay doesn’t automatically get you kicked out of the army. Or killed by friendly fire.
In fact, being gay was the best thing that could’ve happened to Rafael. Suddenly he wasn’t a camera. And now that we had discovered he was indeed human, he was ready to talk to us. He sat on his cot and we sat around him and he told us all the hard and human things he’d been through. His mom was dead, and his father had tried to kill him when Rafael told him he was gay. He had a double-sided scar that started between his index and middle finger on one hand that ran all the way down his lifeline, all the way to his wrist. His father had been aiming the knife at his heart, but once he had stabbed the hand, it seemed a good consolation prize. He grabbed Rafael’s wrist and worried the blade down the palm until Rafael’s hand fell open like a broken Chinese fan.
So Rafael enlisted to escape. We’ll give you a big bonus if you let us install a computer in your head, said the recruiter. Do whatever the fuck you want to me, said Rafael.
A month before he was to ship out, he met Daniel, a middle-aged attorney coming off a long-term relationship. Daniel just wanted to hump a lot of young guys and forget, so he hopped onto gayhookupnyc.com and answered an ad posted by a chicken-chested Nuyorican with a scrawny mustache that was so Saturday Night Fever it drove Daniel wild.
They humped, and it was good, so they humped again. And again, and again. And then it was love.
They spent a lot of time before and after sex crying their eyes out because Rafael was going to deploy soon. I’ll die if you die, said Daniel. Then I guess I’ll have to make sure not to die, said Rafael. You can’t promise that! yelled Daniel. Haven’t you seen my lifeline? asked Rafael. That’s the scar your prick dad gave you, said Daniel. No, said Rafael. That’s my lifeline now. I’m going to live forever.
Basic training, then the surgery, then the convalescence, then advanced training in field reportage and documentary operations, then Wŏnsan, then getting naked pictures of Daniel ripped out of his hands by his asshole comrades-in-arms.
Rafael looked up at us when he finished, and immediately he knew. Our faces beamed it to him: we suddenly didn’t give two shits that he was recording us. Hell, most of us had already posted videos of ourselves doing horrible things, like cheering whenever we made a dog explode. And when I told Rafael to shave off that pussy mustache of his, he refused, because Daniel loved it and sometimes they got to chat by video phone and he wanted to look his best for his lover. Gotta respect that. Stand by your man.
There was nothing left to do but treat him as one of our own. I even gave him his nom de guerre, right there on the spot. Sure, it was a little homophobic. A nickname’s got to be a little wrong, or it’ll never stick. I said, Henceforth, Rafael, you shall be known as Fembot.
And it was so.
We had to stay at the Folk Hotel because if we tried to run they would find us. Those girls might not have America’s tech, but they’d have no problem sussing the likes of us out of the wilderness. It wouldn’t be that hard. We weren’t an elite unit with advanced ops training for long-term, out-of-contact survival. We were the cannon fodder. When generals calculate acceptable losses? That’s us.
We couldn’t call in for an airstrike either, because the last thing we needed was for the girls to intercept a communication from us. Then they’d know we were here, and the one slim advantage we had would be wasted. By the time the airstrike came we’d be dead.
I had no illusions. Surprise wasn’t going to help us much anyway. We didn’t have a good move: only less-bad ones. If we played this perfectly, maybe we could hole up here for a while — snipe at them, lob a few grenades, force them to lay siege. Maybe, if we held out long enough, we’d be rescued. The one thing our cannon-fodder asses had going for us was Fembot. He was almost science fiction he was so experimental; the only reason he was with us and not some more appropriate unit was because I was the only person he would serve under. And that was the best break we could have caught in this situation, because Fembot was the kind of tech the government would kill for. Would nuke entire cities out of existence in order to recover.
But even with Fembot we were probably SOL. There just wasn’t time. Sooner or later the girls would overwhelm us, and probably it’d be sooner. But maybe, if we played it perfectly, we could make it cost them.
We entered the hotel grounds, shut the gate — a huge, heavy pair of wooden doors, gorgeous and ancient — and split into fireteams: Cindy and Frank, Easy and Jo, Ludmilla and me. Rafael was Travis’s honorary partner, but Travis liked to work alone, to play at being a ninja-sniper-ghostmaker-whatever, and he was a good enough shot that I let him. Already he was somewhere high and invisible.
Easy and Jo were securing the perimeter of the hotel: locking down all the other entrances, checking the walls for gaps and weak spots, rigging explosives. Cindy and Frank had found two ladders and were busy hammering together more out some planks they’d yanked from the nearest hanok. Those ladders were going to be both our sniper stands and our escape route if we couldn’t hold. And as they worked, Cindy, who had two kids back home, was mothering the fear out of Frank. His eyes were locked onto her tits — her tank top had two crescents of sweat at the bottom of her boobs that cradled them like cupped hands — and he was listening to her family stories, nodding yes to everything she said like he had Stockholm syndrome. He’d be all right.
Rafael idled next to Ludmilla and me. It was too risky to have him link to the satellites anymore, so we hooked my handheld up to him and were looking at the pictures he’d been able to snap of the North Koreas marching toward us.
“The girls aren’t as close as I thought they’d be,” I said. “They’re going to have to push hard to make it to the hotel before dusk. And if they do make it, they’ll be exhausted.”
“Good. Tired girls are easy to shoot,” said Ludmilla.
I laughed. “Yes they are.”
More soberly, she added, “We need all advantage we can get right now.”
“Got that right.”
And then, a beat later, she said, “I will kill myself before I am captured. I thought you should know.”
I sucked my lips into my mouth and nodded. Then I said, “And why is that something I should know?”
“I want you tell my husband if you are not dead. And also, you are my friend. I wanted you understanding me.”
“But I don’t understand. Why kill yourself?”
“Sarge, I am woman.”
“Yes. Hear you roar.”
“No, sir. I am woman. I am raped.”
Rafael’s engine growled. I’d forgotten he was there for a second. No, that’s not it. I’d forgotten for a second he was human.
“Fembot, go help Easy and Jo scan the walls for structural flaws. Come back with a report.”
Rafael revved his motors a few times but didn’t move.
“Did you hear me, Fembot? I just gave you an order.”
“Yessir,” he said, low and dangerous. He took his time making a 180 and rolling off.
I turned on Ludmilla. “What the fuck are you trying to do? Break my squad’s morale?”
“No sir,” said Ludmilla, completely nonplussed by my reaction. “I … I wanted just tell you my thoughts.”
“No more thoughts, okay? Not one more fucking thought from you until we’re back with our company safe and sound. And especially no more talk about rape. You’ve already messed with Rafael’s mind. You know how hard he takes everything. And so help me, Corporal, if you say anything about rape to Cindy or Jo — ”
“Sarge,” said Ludmilla, cutting me off. “Please. I would never say anything to Cindy or Jo about this.”
“Then why’d you say it in front of Rafael? Or better yet, why’d you tell me? You think I want a picture in my head of the absolute worst thing that could happen if we fail, when in all probability we are going to fail? That’s your idea of being helpful?”
“Keep your voice down,” she said. “Squad will hear.”
She was right. I could see Cindy and Frank pointedly not listening to me. It was a 50/50 chance Frank was about to start crying. Cindy shot me a look that I’m pretty sure is the same look Mrs. Claus gives to naughty children. No presents for me.
I whispered to Ludmilla, “Sorry.”
I could feel that daystar smile of hers. “No, Sarge. Was my fault. I am sorry one.”
“No, Ludmilla. I was out of line.”
“Fine. We both are the fuck-ups. But I tell you this because you are man, and you are leader, and to be both, you must understand ugly truths. I die before rape. American soldier cannot be raped. Too good for enemy, too terrible for us. I wanted you knowing that.”
“I understand. I don’t condone it, mind you. When American soldiers are taken prisoner, it should be because they ran out of bullets, knives, teeth, fingernails, and spit. But I get it.”
“And as for me, I am sorry I speak so near Cindy. I didn’t know she could hear.”
“And Rafael. Don’t forget Rafael.”
“Rafael?” she asked. And I could see that she’d been wanting to tell me this for a long time. “Sergeant Wall, you are most of time rational being. It does not matter what Rafael hears. It is just robot.”
“What did you just say about one of my men, Corporal?”
Nonplussed again. I watched her face think: she knew she’d made a mistake, but she was an honest person, so she didn’t know what to do besides tell the truth. “I said Rafael just robot. And is true, too.”
It is only because I considered her a great friend that I got in her face and said, low and dangerous, “Let me tell you something about Rafael, you fucking used tampon.”
We had gotten word that some civilians were trying to make it to Wŏnsan, but that, between the landmines and the shoot-first soldiers from both sides and just trying to survive in the wilderness, they needed help. So the 10th Mountain sent out patrols to escort them to safety.
Easy was the only member of my squad (besides me) who knew Rafael before and after. He wasn’t close to Rafael back in Wŏnsan. He was the one guy who’d say homosexuality was wrong to Rafael’s face. The rest of the squad would jump to Rafael’s defense — of course Rafael never defended himself — and Easy, whose brother and sisters all had Biblical names, who joined the army because he wanted to be a hero, wanted to protect his family and America, who thought he knew right from wrong, would be left dumbstruck. Where he came from, everyone knew homos were sinners.
Of course, later he felt guilty as fuck. It’s why he always wanted to be the one to carry Fembot. I would have liked to carry him sometimes too — I owe him just as much as Easy — but I let Easy have his penance.
We worked our way through the wilderness around Wŏnsan, disarming landmines and traps, looking for civilians. Typically, we’d find folks on the verge of death by dehydration and/or starvation, so we carried Gatorade and MREs. But sometimes we came across tiny makeshift villages of two to five families who, given the circumstances, seemed to be doing okay for themselves. They often would be the ones offering us drink and food. Sometimes they wanted to go with us and sometimes they didn’t, but they were always kind and welcoming, in spite of what we were doing to their country. I guess it wasn’t any worse than what their country was doing to itself.
Out on a typical patrol, we came across the biggest small village we’d ever seen — over forty people living in the middle of nowhere like it was paradise. They had a clean water source nearby, woven baskets brimming over with fruit and rice, and even livestock. That is to say, they had a pack of dogs. On the menu that night was a community pot of gaejang-guk: dog soup. Spicy and delicious.
We were surrounded by the happy dog pack as we ate. The squad felt like they were doing something wrong, eating dog. You can kill all the people you want out here and rationalize: just following orders, just doing your duty. But start munching on a little puppy-meat and suddenly you’re fucking Schopenhauer debating good and evil. And the Koreans weren’t helping things; we weren’t halfway though dinner when they starting letting dogs eat out of their soup bowls. The squad started gagging and carrying on until I got in their faces and screamed at them to mind their manners. Besides being rude, they’d missed the point. It was comforting, having the dogs there, sharing that meal. It was like they were showing us it was okay. Eat and stay strong, they were saying. That’s the meaning of life.
As we ate, the villagers told us how Korean soldiers also occasionally came by. They welcomed them in, fed them like they fed us. But whenever the soldiers tried to impress the men and boys into service, the villagers defended themselves, much to the soldiers’ surprise. The villagers had scavenged guns from fallen soldiers; they preferred American weapons, but Korean Kalashnikovs were more plentiful. Those villagers were better armed and about as equally trained as the soldiers (neither had much), and so far they had always outnumbered the small squads they had encountered. And so, when the soldiers were invited to leave, they did, without any trouble. Though sometimes they’d ask if they could finish their soup first.
That didn’t sound like the enemy I’d come to know, hellbent on preserving face, ready to kill for perceived slights to honor. But I didn’t dispute the villagers’ account. They’d just proven they’d kick us out if we insulted them, and the soup was really good.
Rafael, too squeamish to eat but polite enough to refuse without insulting the villagers, was petting one of the good-natured mutts. During a lull in the conversation I saw him cock his head. Then he asked, “You guys hear that?”
Only then did I catch the subtle sizzle of a gutbuster about to go off.
For you civs: a gutbuster is what they call an “insidious IED.” It’s basically a bomb you put in a friendly animal. The animal ingratiates itself to the enemy over a period of weeks before going off, thereby maximizing casualties. The principle is the same as they use to kill roaches. You smash a roach, that’s one roach dead, but the colony’s still growing behind the wall. But if you get a roach to ingest a slow-acting poison, it has time to walk back to the colony and die there. And roaches are cannibals. They’ll eat the dead roach, then they’ll die, and so on till the colony’s dead.
The girls substituted dogs for roaches. They’d take a young dog — one that Korean civilians would want to fatten up before they slaughtered — and force it to swallow a high-density explosive about the size of a persimmon. The dog’s stomach acid will slowly eat through the explosive’s casing. When it eats all the way through a week or two later, the dog explodes, its body flying apart at 8,000 meters per second. The dog becomes a loyal and loving fragmentation grenade.
Right before the bomb goes off, the chemical reaction going on inside the dog sounds like a glass of Alka-Seltzer in the next room — only just audible. Rafael was faster on the uptake than me; by the time I figured out what I was hearing, he was already moving. He reached his hand into the boiling-hot soup pot, and screamed in pain, and pulled out a dog leg. All the dogs instantly had his full attention. I could see he wanted to throw it, but there was no way he could hurl it far enough. Just didn’t have the arm. So instead he waved it over his head and yelled, “Come on, doggies! That’s right! Come on!” Then he looked at me and said, “Tell Daniel.” And then he ran into the woods, the entire dog pack bounding joyously after him.
Both my squad members and the villagers raised a commotion, but they didn’t have long to be confused. The first gutbuster detonated with a concussive force that caused the tripod suspending the cauldron of dog soup to collapse. We hit the dirt and covered our heads. The second and third gutbusters went off almost simultaneously.
I only waited long enough to be sure there wouldn’t be a fourth explosion before I ran after Rafael like an idiot. I could have easily stepped on a mine or set off a trap; I didn’t care, which was stupid. My squad came after me, as well as some of the villagers, also stupid. But we all got lucky. I came upon the newly-created clearing first.
It smelled of burnt plants and burnt hair and burnt meat. A few of the surviving dogs skulked around the perimeter of the blast, sniffing charily; a few wounded dogs within the blast radius lay on their sides, panting. A tuft of fur floated before me like a dandelion head. There were dog parts everywhere. Especially legs. But heads too, most of them skinned, and a lot of other bones, shattered and charred. They couldn’t all be dog parts, I reasoned. Some parts must have been Rafael. But I couldn’t pick out anything human. I saw shreds of army-issue clothing festooning the trees, but as I approached the blackened epicenter there was nothing, not even dog parts, just a black Rorschach flower burned into the dirt. There was nothing of Rafael left.
Except the eneural.
It was smoldering. Too hot to touch. I didn’t know if it had survived the blast. But it was all I had.
I knelt down next to it and asked, “Tell Daniel what?”
We spent a bad night in the Folk Hotel waiting for the girls to arrive. I made everyone update their wills and farewell letters; I helped Frank draft his. I made sure everyone ate plenty of Dog à la King. We struggled to stay awake during guard duty and struggled to sleep off-shift. The girls never came.
So we thought they had camped somewhere for the night. They’d probably still be headed here. We didn’t want to risk a satellite linkup to confirm their positions, so we waited the way our fathers waited for their enemies to arrive: looking through rifle sights at an open road. Still no girls.
Travis came down from his sniper stand for water. We wondered if somehow we’d gotten lucky: sudden orders calling them away or something. We felt giddiness rising inside us. In terms of pure pleasure, an orgasm is a poor substitute for the feeling you get when you escape certain death. We tried to control our euphoria until we were sure.
It was Travis, maybe because he was freshest to the scene, who asked, “Where’s Fembot?”
No one knew. It’d been a full day since anyone had laid eyes on him. The last time I’d seen him, I’d sent him to help Easy and Jo. He’d convinced them both of the wisdom of letting him inspect the outside of the wall while they worked on the inside. So they let him out the back gate and chained it shut and told him to ping them when he wanted back in. Then they went to work securing the rest of the perimeter. Fembot never pinged and, consumed by thoughts of death, they forgot all about him.
When we searched for Rafael, we found his tread-tracks. They headed off directly toward the enemy.
About a year after Rafael was killed, I was called to the Pentagon. I had no idea why.
I found myself in a laboratory enlisted scrubs like me weren’t supposed to see. Mostly it was populated by scientist-types in short sleeves and ties who looked so intelligent they seemed almost alien. If I had seen an alien in a lab coat there, I wouldn’t have been surprised. They huddled around semi-autonomous manipulator arms that spoke to them in sign language, or little RC rovers charily driving themselves through obstacle courses, or insectival clockwork drones that did aerial tricks on command.
Also in the room was Daniel.
I’d met Daniel before, when I delivered to him the news of Rafael’s death. I wasn’t required to; I was only required to inform Rafael’s father, which I did. The old bastard had the nerve to cry. I wanted to spit in his face. So I took a little of my own furlough to visit with Daniel, and he gave me what I needed. He knew the Rafael of love, and I the one of war, and together we built a fairer picture of the man to carry away with us. After that visit, I had about ten uninterrupted minutes where I felt life might be worth the trouble it took to stay alive.
And here Daniel was again, in the middle of a forbidden room in the Pentagon, coming over to give me a hug.
“It’s so good to see you, Sergeant Wall,” he said.
“Good to see you, Daniel. How you holding up?”
“Better than the last time we met. You?”
“Can’t complain. Oh, wait, I’m in the army. Yes I can.”
We laughed a little. Then, looking around, I asked him, “So do you know why we’re here?”
“Yes. In fact, I’m the one that requested you to be here.”
“You, Daniel?” I had raised my voice a little; the scientists and robots all took a moment to stare at me. More quietly, I said, “But you’re not even army. And, correct me if I’m wrong, you’re no robot scientist either. What’s going on?”
“The greatest thing that has ever happened, that’s what’s going on.”
Uh oh. His face brimmed with the kind of calm exuberance zealots have when they’re out proselytizing. I didn’t know what was going on here, but already I wanted nothing to do with it.
But I could see him see my face bunch, so I relaxed my expression and said, “Mind being a little more specific?”
“It’s probably better to show you than to try to explain. I couldn’t get my head around it until I saw for myself.” He put a hand on my shoulder and guided me to a corner of the room, where a six-wheeled robot with an articulated scorpion-tail arm stood inert. On the end of the arm was a very human-looking hand. The hand had been rent apart along the lifeline and stitched back together. On its chassis, the robot had a single camera mounted on the swivel turret that would normally house a gun. Someone had painted a Distinguished Service Cross on the hood.
I’m not the brightest lemming in line, but if I’m going to jump off a cliff, I’m smart enough to bitch about it before plunging to my death. “They put Rafael’s eneural in that thing, didn’t they?”
I knelt down next to the robot. Then I looked up at Daniel. “So now’s the part where you tell me why.”
He smiled. “Well, there’s a simple why and a complicated why. Which do you want first?”
“Simple. Always start simple with me.”
“The simple answer is that they could, and once they determined that the eneural was intact, they wanted to experiment with it. See how well it could function in what they call a ‘somatic surrogate’.”
“Somatic surrogate,” I said flatly. “Yep. That’s the army I know and love. When a soldier dies a hero, you don’t let him rest in peace. You make a new body for him so he can go die again.” Again I noted scientists looking askance at me. Apparently, this was a place where people didn’t raise their voices. But nothing in my life in the army prepared me to eat crustless cucumber sandwiches and speak politely. I made a point of raising my voice even more when I said to Daniel, “I can’t wait to hear what the more complicated answer is.” And when I turned to stare back at those staring scientist motherfuckers, they looked away. Damn right.
Daniel waited for me to turn my attention back to him. Then he knelt down beside me, with a demeanor that was half invitation and half challenge, and petted the robot. But his smile waned as he did so. Pretense and irony fell away. When he next spoke, emotion clogged his throat. “The more complicated reason is Rafael … when they connected him again … the first thing … He asked for me, Sergeant Wall. He asked for me by name.”
“What do you mean, Daniel?” I put a hand on his shoulder. This was going to hurt. “Rafael didn’t ask for you. He couldn’t have. Rafael is dead.”
Daniel turned to me. “Not as much as you think.”
“Oh, Daniel. No, man, no. You know Rafael is dead. I know you know. You and I spent a good day together honoring Rafael’s life. He died a hero. Don’t dishonor his memory now by pretending that whatever robo-Rafael they’ve created now is even a shadow of the man who saved my life.”
There was a tear pushing up from Daniel’s lower eyelid, but he was still smiling. “That’s why I love you, Sergeant Wall. It’s why Raf loved you too. You’re so honorable.”
I spoke softly. “Do you have any idea how many human beings I’ve killed, Daniel? I promise you, no one will ever accuse me of being honorable.”
“I just did.” He stood up. “But to have honor, you have to be able to think through consequences. You have to be intelligent. So let’s be intelligent about this, Sergeant. What makes a person a person?”
I stood. Slowly. “Look. I don’t want to get into a lot of philosophical mumbo-jumbo.”
“Then don’t. Just answer the question.”
I sighed. “Their personality. Their decisions. Their desires. Their memories.”
“Rafael’s eneural has all of those things. It has a full map of his mind. All his memories are there, even the painful ones, even the ones he wishes weren’t there. He uses those memories, along with his senses, his desires, and his problem-solving abilities to make new, novel decisions. From the consequences of those decisions, he will make new memories that will help him make better decisions in the future. That’s all a brain can do, Sergeant. The eneural can do everything Rafael could do.”
“Except kiss you.”
My hands were fists. I got close to Daniel, the way I got in the faces of new recruits when I tore them a new one. All those namby-pamby scientists were going to need diapers after this. “That’s right, Daniel. He can’t kiss you, he can’t fuck you, he can’t spoon you in bed afterwards. The Rafael you knew was disintegrated by a bomb. Literally atomized out of existence. And as a great man once said, the rest is silence. Or it should be silence, but now the army has you convinced that the man you love is back from the dead as a fucking Mars landrover. You know what our problem is? Our problem is we don’t know when to let the dead rest in peace. We don’t know when to let the dead die and shut the fuck up about it.”
Since I had started weeping, Daniel hugged me. One of the many advantages gay men have over us straights is better hugs. When we parted, he smiled at me. “You are me,” he said. “You are me just a few weeks ago.”
I cleared my eyes. “You’re smart. Educated. Your job is all about poking holes through people’s bullshit arguments. What could have possibly changed your mind?”
He clapped me on the shoulders, then once again knelt next to the robot. This time he ran his fingers along its underbelly, looking at me the whole time with an expression on his face that I can best describe as lurid. Then he made a face like a surprised and pleased mime when he found what he was searching for. I heard a click. The robot came to life: engine, frenetic camera, articulated arm swaying like a cobra.
And then the camera, a long cylinder that looked like E.T.’s finger, locked onto me. “Sergeant, is that you?” asked the robot.
It was Rafael’s voice, but through a speaker. A good speaker, mind you. But a speaker.“It’s me alright,” I said. Feeling stupid.
“How you doing?”
“You’re in the army. Of course you can.”
I knelt down next to the robot; the camera followed me all the way down. He knew that joke of ours. It wasn’t a very good joke, but the soldiers of the 10th Mountain repeated it to one another like a shibboleth. And this robot delivered it perfectly. And its voice — it was a voice that knew things. There was irony in his response. And more: buried in that statement, rattling around like a madman in a cage, was all the art and innuendo that you hear from a mind that doesn’t fully understand itself. That’s the difference between an AI and a human: an AI has no unconscious. Its mind is all surface; an AI will never have to be told to “Know thyself,” since knowing itself is as easy for it as reading its own source code. But this robot before me had the voice of a sweet gay kid who’d had a hard life and was just coming into himself. It was the same voice that made “Tell Daniel” the most eviscerating statement I’d ever heard.
Vertigo destabilized my legs one at a time, like explosive charges destroying bridge piers. I reached out my hand and steadied myself by holding on to the robot’s camera. But once I was balanced again, I didn’t let go. I held on and on and asked, “What are you?”
The robot laughed, just once. There was way too much life behind that little chortle, too much that had nothing to do with humor. “What if I told you I don’t know?” it said.
“You are Rafael,” Daniel said softly, from above. “You know who you are.”
“I know who I think I am,” said the robot. It flung its camera around wildly; I let it go. It moved forward and back with startling speed. Its tail undulated hypnotically. “I have this weird body I’m in now. But bodies change. Minds too, I know. But that feeling that you are you, in spite of all the ways you change — I still have that. I know who I remember being.”
The tail stopped moving, and the hand’s middle finger gingerly ran itself over the stitched-together lifeline. “And my hand still hurts. Even though the hand’s fake, and I know it’s fake, and I’m the one who asked Daniel to cut it and stitch it back together, so it would feel right. So I’m still fucked up. That’s gotta count for something.”
Daniel knelt and took the camera in his hand like a father directing the face of a child. The robot softly lowered the tail until the hand lighted on Daniel’s shoulder. “You’re not fucked up, Baby,” Daniel said. And, looking at me, he added, “You’re just you.”
We followed Fembot’s trail for maybe a mile before it was obscured by the impact 80 or so girls can have on the local flora. We ended up east of the path to the Folk Hotel, where the thick forest made everything look green-black, even in daylight. Easy was like the faster apostle, the one who got to Jesus’s grave first. He paused a little ways from the clearing ahead, the one the girls must have made to camp for the evening. When I caught up to Easy, he showed me his handheld and said, “Low-level radiation, Sarge.”
“Not that low,” I said. It was way more than Fembot normally gave off.
We back away from the clearing and regrouped. We had three rad suits between us. I put Travis in a tree, had Jo and Cindy and Frank watch the road. Easy and Ludmilla and I popped potassium iodide and rad-suited up.
The three of us parted branches and entered the clearing. Before us was Fembot, center stage. He was mostly disassembled: gun and treads and arm and cameras were detached from the chassis. The eneural was out too, attached with primitive wiring to some extemporaneous computer set-up, complete with keyboard, collapsible field monitor, and hydrogen battery. The keyboard was in Korean.
Around us, signs of a suddenly abandoned camp. We had food and guns and tents aplenty now. Some of our squad might have regretted eating dog if the food hadn’t been contaminated by the radiation. And anyway, probably some of their food was dog.
It looked like they didn’t like eating it either: there were a whole helluva lot of vomit patches throughout the clearing. Maybe the radiation was even worse than our handhelds detected?
I had Easy scout left and Ludmilla right. I approached Fembot.
It looks like whatever computer whiz had jury-rigged this set-up was trying to hack the eneural. The screen had a message on it, in English on the right and Korean on the left. It read:
Dear Korean Soldiers,
I am sorry for what I have done to you. I know you are normal people, just like American soldiers are normal people, and that you are just doing your duty. But I am too.
I ask that you take what I am about to say very seriously. It will mean the difference between life and death. I have been releasing low-level radiation throughout the camp since the moment of my capture by cracking my battery, which is made of nuclear material. I estimate that you all have absorbed 1-2 Sv (100-200 REM) of radiation. That dosage will cause about half of you to feel nauseated in a few hours. Then, you will vomit for about a day. Then you’ll feel better for about two weeks. Make the most of them, for, after that, many of you will feel very tired. In about a month, one of every ten of you will be dead.
All of you will be at least temporarily sterile.
Some of you can be saved, however, if you can get proper medical attention. I don’t know how far you are from the closest hospital that can treat radiation poisoning, but I suggest you try to get there. Right now.
I am erasing myself before your hackers succeed in breaching my defenses. I only wish I could explode this EOD as well, but I can’t. I hope the American government will forgive me for allowing this unit to fall into enemy hands. But I remind you that, even after my erasure, this EOD will be extremely radioactive and will continue to poison you and your men, should you choose to take me with you. If you care for your lives, you will leave it behind.
I am sorry that my duty was to kill some of you and poison all of you. I have probably shortened all of your lifespans significantly. Please, do everything you can to get treated for radiation sickness.
Private First Class Rafael Toledo
“Ludmilla, Easy, come here,” I said. “Read this.”
They did. We stood there a long time reading and rereading Fembot’s note. It wasn’t long before I could hear Easy getting ready to weep into our com link. So to head him off I said, “Ludmilla, what do you think of the note?”
Ludmilla was smiling; you could hear it. She said, “Sergeant, I think Fembot is bluffer.”
“Hear that, Easy? Ludmilla thinks Fembot is bluffing.”
The sniffling stopped. “Bluffing about what?”
She walked over to Easy and showed him the rad reading on her handheld. “Jungle would be glowing around us if what Fembot say is true. 200 REM? No way.”
“How exactly would Fembot crack the case of his fizzbrick, Easy? There a little hammer built into it you didn’t tell me about, or something?”
“No sir,” Easy said. He was smiling now, bigger than Ludmilla. He walked over to the chassis, flipped it, and plugged his handheld into the battery. “The fizzbrick’s intact. But it is drained, Sarge.”
“So Fembot drained his battery. Tell me why, Easy.”
“My best guess is he emptied it in one big burst. A few guys standing around him probably got a good dose of radiation. No 100-200 REMS like he was saying, but maybe enough to make a couple of guys sick.”
“He bluffed them,” I said. I took a second to survey the vomit puddles, then added: “A lot. He made a few guys mildly sick and convinced the rest they were very sick. So they hightailed it out of here to get treated. Away from the Folk Hotel. From us.”
“And then he erased himself?” said Easy.
“Seriously doubt it,” said Ludmilla.
I did too. It was highly unlikely that they had a guy in the field with the knowhow to hack into an eneural. And even if they did, they didn’t have the tech that guy would need — these poor bastards didn’t even have Geiger counters to tell them how much radiation they’d been exposed to. Fembot would’ve figured out about five seconds after those outclassed hackers started working that they posed no threat.
And then what? Then, Fembot lets them think they were making progress hacking him. And then he writes that note, and, pretending that they were just about to crack him, fakes his own erasure.
I walked up to the makeshift computer rig and, ever so gently, disconnected the eneural free of it. The eneural was hard and heavy, a nondescript cube of metal, and under the dark canopy of the forest, opalescent. I held it up to my face and said, “You tricky sonofabitch.”
“Yes,” said Ludmilla. She walked up next to me and stood on her toes so that she could address the eneural face to face. “That was very fine trick, Rafael.”
“He can’t hear you guys,” said Easy. “Not until we get him back in the EOD. Not until we give him his ears back.”
“You got an extra fizzbrick with you, Private?”
“Well then,” I said, handing the eneural to him. “Let’s see if all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can put Fembot back together again.”
- Explosive Dog: via Uncyclopedia;
- Talon EOD robot: via Robot Central;
- Starving North Korean: via Scrape TV;
- Distinguished Services Cross: via The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier;
- Dog à la King: via Giant Robot;
- ‘scrawny moustache': Luis Logic of Spork Kills via Last FM;
- Army Sergeant: via Iraq Slogger;
- Happy Puppies: Xandert via MorgueFile;
- Fragmentation grenade explosion: via US Marines in Japan;
- Tracks: Jade via MorgueFile;
- High-tech laboratory: via Eurekalert!;
- Talon EOD: via USAASC Army A L&T Online Monthly;
Carlos Hernandez is the co-author of Abecedarium (Chiasmus 2007), author of the novella “The Last Generation to Die” and many short stories, most recently in the anthologies Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery, and Interfictions 2. By day, he is a professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY. He lives in Queens, which is the best borough in New York.