Where We Would End a War

Image: USMC

F. Brett Cox’s fiction, poetry, plays, essays, and reviews have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. With Andy Duncan, he co-edited the anthology Crossroads: Tales of the Southern Literary Fantastic (Tor Books, 2004). He is a member of the Cambridge Science Fiction Writers Workshop and serves on the Board of Directors of the Shirley Jackson Award. A native of North Carolina, Brett is Professor of English at Norwich University and lives in Vermont with his wife, playwright Jeanne Beckwith.

When Amanda came home from the war her family was there to greet her at the platform. She knew what to expect when she rematerialized, but she’d forgotten about the mortar-like chuff! chuff! chuff! as the others arrived after her. It didn’t scare her—she was beyond being scared by loud noises—but it added to her disorientation as she stumbled off the platform into her dad Ernie’s arms. Her grandmother Rosie and kid brother Larry rushed in to grab her as well. She could hear her dad Neal crying, but the thin skype almost got lost in the other families’ laughing and crying and shouting as their loved ones popped back home. Gramma Rosie smelled like her perfume and their kitchen and Amanda held on tightest to her.

All the way home Neal kept apologizing for not being able to be there in person, but the teardown in Indianapolis came up at the last minute and with the economy being what it was and all, he couldn’t afford to turn it down. Everything he did was for her and her brother. He hoped she understood. Ernie tried to reassure her that the light media presence at the platform was probably because her group was one of the last to get back and they’d moved on to the next cycle, you know how the nets are. It didn’t mean people didn’t care, because they did. Then he quit apologizing and just stared at her like she wasn’t real. From the back seat Gramma Rosie kept reaching up front to rub her shoulder. The car steered itself through the traffic even smoother than she remembered, almost as smooth as the sensed-up transports outside of Cotabato City had dodged IEDs. Probably the same tech by now. Larry was playing a game in the back seat but she knew he was glad she was home.

When they got back to the house Amanda went straight up to her room. Gramma Rosie had told her in the car that her room was just as she left it, which was technically accurate. Nothing had been moved, nothing was missing. But when she had been there it had never been that neat, and when she had come from work or school it had never felt that empty, so it wasn’t just like she left it, not really.

For the first week or so she slept in late every day. Ernie and Gramma Rosie were fine with that, and so was Neal when he skyped in from his next job in Ft. Wayne. Gramma Rosie kept saying she knew Amanda needed to catch up on her rest. That was true enough, but soon her days had more darkness than light. At night, when everyone else was asleep, all there was to do was watch stuff on screen, and there was nothing that she wanted to watch on, which meant all there really was to do was think, and she didn’t want to do that. So she started setting her alarm again.

Once she got back on schedule, she still mostly stayed at home but made it a point to go out during the day, not just to get out of the house but also to try to get a sense of what she had come home to. Before she left for the war she was in the same cycle as most people she knew. Get up, go to school, go to work, go out, come home, go to sleep, get up, do it again. Where she lived was just there and not anything to notice. Now she walked around the town and tried to notice things. While she was deployed she had had this recurrent dream where she was walking around the town and finding all sorts of new places that hadn’t been there before. But the town she returned to was like her room. There didn’t seem to be anything missing, but there was certainly nothing new, and the town didn’t feel any different than it had before when she wasn’t noticing it.

The closest thing to something new was the American Legion post. At some point while she was gone the town had found the money to fix it up. Parts of it were shiny and parts were fake old-timey, but it was at least somewhere to go now that she was a veteran. There weren’t too many people there her age, mostly older folks who had been in Iraq and Afghanistan, shooting pool, chugging beer, dancing on robotic limbs. There was one really old guy who supposedly had been in Vietnam. He had two robot legs but he mostly sat by the window and looked out at the town.

One evening she found herself talking to a woman named Sally who didn’t look much older than Ernie but said she had done three tours in Afghanistan. She still had all her original limbs. Sally couldn’t get over the jaunting.

“What’s it like in between? Do you feel anything?”

“No. You just stand there and they throw the switch and then you’re someplace else.” That wasn’t true. There was a split-second when you felt like you were leaving your body, like you were dying, and the first time that happened was still the most terrifying thing she had ever experienced, way worse than anything she had encountered in the war. After a few times you got used to it. But she didn’t tell Sally that. She didn’t want to frighten Sally, but she didn’t want to reassure her either. Sally was just someone to talk to over a couple of beers. She didn’t know Sally, who shuddered and said, “Not me, sister,” and gulped down the rest of her beer.

“Never say never. You know they’re starting to phase it in for civilian travel.”

“Like I said, not me.”

“They say it’ll help the economy and the climate. Less fuel. Less time.”

“The climate was already fucked when I was your age. And time? Time for what?”

Amanda couldn’t answer that one.

“Besides, it was bad enough being back in the world just a couple of days after you’d been out in the shit for a year. It can’t help you guys any to be out in it and then back home just like that.” Sally snapped her fingers. “Turnaround in seconds, not days. How can that be any kind of advantage?”

Would having a day of travel time have made the return any less jarring? Amanda decided it wouldn’t have, but she didn’t tell Sally that, either. Instead she ordered another round. She looked past Sally, who was already talking about something else, at two guys her own age who were at one of the tall tables that lined the wall. One of them was wearing a t-shirt that said, BOG? AIC. TMF!

Sally noticed her staring, looked over at the guys, and smiled. “Cute. You should go over and talk to them. Maybe they were out where you were.”

“Nah. Drone jockeys.”

“How can you tell?”
Amanda gestured towards the t-shirt, but not enough so the guy might notice. “‘Boots On Ground? Ass In Chair! Telebombing Mother Fuckers.’”

“Shit. What are they even doing here? Like they’re really soldiers or something.”

“They are, officially. They get medals and everything.”

“Yeah, I know, but…shit.” The next round arrived and Sally raised her glass. “Here’s to real combat, girlfriend. Here’s to actual fucking risk.”

Amanda raised her glass, drank, and excused herself to hit the head. On the inside of the stall someone had scrawled, BJ4F. It seemed familiar but she couldn’t quite place it. Blow Jobs for Free? How generous.

When she came back they finished their beers and Sally asked if she wanted to go to another place she knew about that was quieter. Amanda begged off, and when Sally left Amanda went over and started talking to the two guys at the table, who really were cute. Turned out the guy wearing the t-shirt was the boyfriend of the other guy, who was the actual drone pilot. The t-shirt guy was an accountant or something. They were nice and it wasn’t too bad talking with them about nothing in particular, but when they started technobabbling about the war and the drone pilot started getting all superior about how trying to jaunt bombs to targets didn’t work, how any explosive device moved with the transporter showed up at its target scrambled and useless, she lost interest and went home. The next night she came back and met a guy who had been Boots on Ground and had even been in Bravo Company just like her, although they’d been in different platoons. They went back to his place and fucked, and it was OK, but the fact that he had seen combat didn’t really make any difference. Neither did the fact that he had a robot left leg. She said she’d call him but they both knew she wouldn’t.

The next morning she was in the kitchen with Larry and Gramma Rosie. Ernie had already left for work and Neal hadn’t skyped in yet. Gramma Rosie made morning talk as she prepared breakfast: how’d you sleep (fine), did you have a good time last night (yes, which wasn’t completely a lie), did you see the news, what is Congress thinking trying to push another impeachment so soon after the last one (how should I know, and what difference does it make?). But then when they were seated she started trying to talk to Amanda about what her plans were.

“I know you haven’t been back all that long, dear, but your fathers and I both believe you need to start thinking about what you want to do next.”

“You mean get a job? I told you I was setting aside part of my pay to help out.”

“I know, and that’s wonderful, it’ll really help. But that’s not going to last much longer, and—oh, what am I saying, it’s not anything to do with money. You don’t need to worry about that. Go back to school if you want.”

“I’m thinking about it,” Amanda lied.

“I’m sure you are, sweetheart. But don’t you need to make some plans? I’m glad you’ve got some friends to hang out with, and God knows you deserve some time to yourself, but—we just worry, is all. We just want what’s best for you.”

“They’re afraid you have PTS,” Larry said without looking up from his eggs or his screen.

Gramma Rosie glared at him, caught herself, and said, “Larry, that’s not true. Amanda is just fine. I’m sure she doesn’t have post-traumatic stress disorder.”

“It’s not a disorder,” Amanda said. “They haven’t called it that in years.”

“That’s what I told them,” Larry said. “I told them if you had PTS you’d be seeing things and shooting at them, right?”

The mandatory session before she left the islands: During a traumatic event, your higher brain functions are subordinated to the amygdala, the part of your brain that controls emotional responses and memories. When you remember those events, the brain wants to recreate the same processes that controlled your response to the original event. That’s what flashbacks are: your brain wanting your body to crank up the adrenaline and cortisol, to try to survive all over again. But even if you’re not reaching for your weapon if you hear a balloon pop, you can still be at risk. Some of our scientists think the trauma can actually shrink the amygdala, which also shrinks your emotional responses. That’s when we start looking at depression….

“Right. I’m fine. Don’t worry.” So far she’d managed to put off the mandatory check-in at her local veterans’ center.

“Of course you are, dear,” her grandmother resumed. “But you fathers and I still—”

“Why do they call it jaunting?”

Larry put down his fork and looked up from his screen. It took a few seconds for Amanda to answer, she was so struck by his eyes, how deeply brown they were, almost red. Had she forgotten that? Had she never noticed?

“What?”

“The transport. Why do they call it jaunting?”

“It’s from that sci-fi movie. That’s what they called transport in the book.”

“Did they use it for troops?”

“They used it for all kinds of things.” Amanda had seen The Stars My Destination like

everyone else and then read the novel while she was deployed. There was more down time than people realized. She had read a lot.

“How was it?”

“It was OK.”

“Maybe you should watch it, Larry, and then you and your sister could talk about it.”

Larry tapped his screen three times. “Got it.”

Gramma Rosie smiled. A bonding moment between her grandchildren seemed to have taken her mind off her granddaughter’s future. Amanda was genuinely glad if her grandmother felt better. Gramma Rosie had always been there, and when Amanda was in second grade and her dads needed some time to work things out, Gramma Rosie had been pretty much the only one there. Amanda loved her grandmother and wanted her to be happy, wanted to please her, but what she wanted now more than anything else was for everyone to just stop talking. The three of them cleared the table and Amanda headed upstairs. Out of the corner of her eye she caught on the news crawl on the living room screen the words BLIND JAUNT FOR FREEDOM, and she remembered. That was what BJ4F scratched inside the stall had meant.

When she got up to her room she checked online and yes, there it was. She had heard rumors when she was deployed, but it looked like since she’d gotten back the whole thing was starting to get noticed. Some people were calling it a fad. Others were calling it an epidemic. Veterans who had gotten to the war and back by jaunting were breaking into the control booths after hours, setting random coordinates, and running onto the platforms just in time to jaunt wherever the coordinates sent them. Some wound up just down the street. Others wound up in another country. A few found themselves a hundred feet above a thousand miles of ocean, and some found themselves inside a wall. Some even found themselves back on the front lines. But the ones who survived and chose to talk about it described how they’d felt before in terms that Amanda immediately recognized, and they all said afterwards they felt better. Some of the contractor firms were starting to post guards at the control booths.

Amanda read some more and decided the whole thing was crazy. Things weren’t that bad. Not for her. They just weren’t. She switched the screen to a book and closed her eyes. The book’s voice made her drowsy. She slept through lunch. Over dinner Ernie tried to have the same conversation with her that Gramma Rosie had tried to have over breakfast, but it didn’t last very long, and he wound up kissing her on the forehead and saying, “Just let us know when you’re ready,” without telling her what it was, exactly, that she was supposed to be ready for.

And then a couple of weeks later Amanda was out walking around town when she got lost. Not lost like she couldn’t locate her destination, because she didn’t have one. She was walking down Pickett Street towards Main, and when she turned the corner at Carter’s Drug Store, she realized she didn’t know where she was. She knew she had just turned onto Main Street and was walking past Carter’s. She knew Gramma Rosie kept her prescriptions there even though Wal-Mart was a lot cheaper because Carter’s was where she had bought her comic books when she was a kid, she knew it was where Larry had had his first summer job. But if the leader of the New People’s Army himself had at that moment put a gun to her head and asked her the name of the town she was in, or even what day of the week it was, he would have had to pull the trigger. Everything outside her was like a screen with the contrast turned way too high, and everything inside her felt almost like it did just before she jaunted. She dropped to her knees and stayed there until a girl about Larry’s age came by and helped her up. She said she was OK and walked away before the girl could start asking her anything. After a couple of blocks everything came back and she made her way home.

That evening down the post she told Sally what happened. She kept running into Sally and had decided she was OK.

“I told you that jaunting wasn’t right,” Sally said.

“It never bothered me before.”

“It’s a delayed reaction.”

“Don’t you fucking dare say I have Post Traumatic Anything.”

“I’d say dematerializing and popping up halfway around the world is pretty goddamn traumatic, wouldn’t you?”

“That’s not what it was.”

“Then what was it? I saw a post yesterday that said jaunting actually shrinks part of your brain, flattens you out—”

“Bullshit.”

“—makes anything that fucked you up in combat even worse.”

The mandatory session: …you may have heard that some preliminary studies have indicated that the jaunting process may affect the limbic system. At this point there is no conclusive evidence that this is the case….

“There’s no evidence for that.”

Sally looked triumphant. “There you go. If someone says there’s no evidence for it, that means someone else thinks there is.”

“Look, I just got dizzy, OK? I shouldn’t have skipped lunch.”

Sally lost her triumphant look. Now she looked more like Gramma Rosie over breakfast. “OK, whatever you say. But if it happens again, let someone know, all right?”

Amanda promised that she would. They had another round and Sally again brought up going someplace quieter, and this time Amanda said OK. By the end of the evening they were back at Sally’s place, but when it didn’t work and Sally started crying Amanda just walked out.

A week later, Amanda went with Ernie and Gramma Rosie to see Larry’s summer league baseball game. Neal skyped in from South Bend. It was the closest thing to a family outing they had had since she had gotten back. She hadn’t told any of them about what had happened outside of Carter’s, and she certainly hadn’t told them it had happened two more times since then.

The sun beat down as hot as it ever had in Mindanao, but she liked the flat perfect grass and the flawless lines of the diamond, and she liked watching the players. They weren’t scattered. Orderly. They were exactly where they were supposed to be. Larry looked perfectly at ease in center field, and when he came to bat she cheered as loudly as anyone. He struck out, walked and was left on first when the next batter flied out, hit a single that drove in a run, struck out one last time. It all made perfect sense, even the fact that the other team won.

On the drive back she was unaware of anything anyone said. None of the streets seemed to have names, and when they got home she wasn’t sure where she was.

That night she lay in her bed in her room that was still, technically, just as she had left it, and still, actually, had never felt so empty. She lay in her bed and stared at the blank ceiling and tried to understand what had happened, where it had all come from. The killing field where the bodies in the mud were so rotted away they didn’t look like bodies, they didn’t even smell. The housecall where the parents were silent and the little girl wouldn’t stop screaming as they tore the place apart before Lt. Jeppson declared that it was the wrong fucking house. The guy sleeping beside her waking up screaming with a leech on his tongue—but that hadn’t happened, that had been in one of the books she had read. It all should have meant something, but it didn’t. Knowing the New People’s Army had put those bodies in the field didn’t make her want to be there. Watching the lieutenant drag the screaming girl’s father outside and throw him on the ground and act like he was going to shoot him didn’t make her want to leave. It didn’t mean anything then, and it didn’t mean anything now, and she didn’t want it to. Not her dads, not the vets down the post. Not the guy from Bravo Company. Not Sally. Certainly not Sally. Gramma Rosie? Larry? She didn’t want any of it to mean anything, but she wanted to feel something, she wanted to be somewhere. So she went downstairs and got in her dads’ car and drove to the platform where she had popped back home and, feeling no surprise at all that it was completely unguarded, went in and set the controls just as the net instructions had said. “Here’s to actual fucking risk,” she declared to no one in particular and ran as fast as she could for the platform that was as perfect as the baseball diamond, as brown as her brother’s eyes.

Originally published in War Stories: New Military Science Fiction, edited by Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak, Apex Books, 2014. Read a review and an interview with Gates and Liptak about the volume at ArtofFutureWarfare.org.

Read an author Q&A with F. Brett Cox in which the author explores how he came up with the idea for the story, what returning home might be like for future U.S. veterans and how he makes time for creative writing while teaching.