By Miles Klee.
The president’s coma had taken a turn for the worse: she was dead. The VP shot himself before they could do the oath. Whoever came next in line met the void, called the wars off and undid the draft. Those of us in the last week of boot woke at dawn, synchronized, to find the top brass had already split.
First thing we did was whoop it up. Then we showered and set out for the women’s barracks to get it on. The women had had the same idea. We collided over the mortar range, which was dry and pockmarked and not ideal for fucking, but in the party that ensued we all got laid except Taylor, who despite running fifteen miles a day could just not stop being fat.
Taylor’s fatness was a joke at first, when he couldn’t keep up, but soon the joke became myth. We punched him on the pretext that he couldn’t feel. A lady soldier half-wearing my camo rode me in the hot dead grass, and I saw Taylor taking shade under the only tree, massaging feet that must have hurt like hell under all that weight.
The party depressed me after two days. By then I honestly couldn’t believe I was me. I hiked to the airbase and hitched a plane to Jersey. Except it was resupply to Jersey the goddamn island. I got to London and fit a southy crew that mugged tourists in the Elephant & Castle pedways. Other gangs raped down there; we mugged. We’d rip cams and phones from helpless fingers to fence in Camden for hash. I beat up an Italian for his hat.
Hash didn’t go far. Kyle burned through it so quick that we had to keep pace to smoke our share. My name is Kyle too, so they called me Kyle The American. Didn’t like sharing my name, not with a gobshite who smelled of rotting vegetables. When the hash went, a game began: first to say “Morely’s,” the name of the foul kebab stand, had to walk down there and buy kebabs for all.
“Cah need another hit,” Aliza was explaining. “Sorely.”
“Ap!” Vernon pointed, and the rest of us shouted also, except Kyle The Englishman, who’d pushed a drunk banker in front of the Jubilee that day, fled into the two o’clock drizzle, all of it on CCTV.
“What,” Aliza said. She wrote poetry that I read when she’d gone, because I am a sensitive monster. It was okay. The whole U.K. was okay, except for a low and troubling drone in my head. Anything not loud was a whisper.
“You said … it,” I said.
“I didn’t say Morely’s!” she cried.
O, we howled. We howled more when she returned with kebabs. It plays in the mind like I was howling at this weeks later, well after the gang dissolved, when I got tackled and hooded in Paddington by two men I never saw. I thrashed and screamed it was just panhandling, but the hood was soaked in fumes and it was a purple bloom that answered.
“You’re awake,” I was told. I tasted my snot and spat. It hung inside the hood with me. The bustle of Paddington had silenced. Ears felt pressure: we were in the air.
“Son, relax. Not so bad as that. Just there’s protocol for recovering property. You ain’t the first, and it’s worse if we don’t scuttle.”
“Not your prop, Yankee cunt.”
“Oh Jesus,” the other man laughed. “You didn’t pay for that accent coach I hope.”
“Son,” said the nice one. Son. Didn’t load me up or push me out and I don’t like the ones who did. My sister was into the money machine, she was set. I had a cousin who played the pro tennis circuit. Me, I was swimming in my own skull, no idea who to blame. “Face it. The company trained you. They own what’s there, see? Invested.”
I decided I wouldn’t speak. We landed and shuttled to a camp that from smell I’d say was downwind of Philly. Looked around and if I looked as sorry as this lot I was sad: everyone had a black eye or slung arm. None could meet another’s gaze.
A drill sergeant came into the tent and told us we were deserters, degenerates and subhuman retards for supposing the military disbanded in peacetime. A deserter with some teeth knocked out said he’d been discharged for self-harm. They hauled him off and told us to wave goodbye for good.
We were too tired not to.
The weird passed again into normalcy. There were meals. The exercise was good; body was juiced at the lack of dope. I shared a triple bunk with Wilt and Johns, who were always together and much alike, so I never clicked who was who—we were pals. After we’d got some shape back they fitted us for flamethrowers. It was fun torching the straw men, but our fuelpacks weighed a motherfucking ton.
Job was to penetrate some pines and flush out the ferals who lived there. Halfway through, the officers stopped calling them “ferals” and said “mud-eaters.” The mud-eaters, inbred trash that went into the swamp a century back and walked on all fours, had killed a resource exploration crew. With rocks.
The story made us mad. Wilt or Johns said they gave us something in the food as well, a dose of giddy insomnia. Johns or Wilt disagreed with Wilt or Johns, said they put a hard drive in every head they buzzed. I had to admit, that barber had nicked me bad. An elsehood had driven me since, some cloud of simple demands.
We slogged through muck with flamethrowers and chased whatever ran. The muddies didn’t eat mud; they were covered in it, camouflaged. Wilt and Johns, walking shoulder to shoulder, had a snakepit open under their feet. By the time we got a rope down, the bodies lay together, puffed with poison.
A fox shadowed me for a whole day’s march. Except that was back in London … the animal had trotted soundlessly along a low stone wall that bordered the gardens up to Borough High, perfectly happy to stroll at my side. The sun was the sun the day we got my brother to Canada, so bright and close it went through the leaves. We flipped a coin and it rolled into a storm drain, so I told him to hop in the trunk.
It’s true I was beyond sleep, but this was a bit much.
Adults couldn’t be taken alive. The kids were claimed by a TV show. We saw a taping as reward for abundant kills and captures. Behind the waxen flesh-colored host sat a wall of acrylic glass. Behind that: adolescent savages fought spiky predators and extreme artificial weather as though their lives depended on it.
A female unit was the other half of the audience, so the hour was seized by handjobs and clit-rubbing. At one point a girl I’d yanked from a tree—receiving a kick in the larynx—ignored the fire-making tools and stood there in her frosted chamber, gazing over the moany lot.
I went around bleacher seats to the rear control room. The man and woman inside didn’t notice. They weren’t even talking about what my mud-eater was doing, down on the stage. The woman worked the panel while the man just watched.
“Thought we could offset the cost of short-life organic LEDs with energy savings,” she said. “They’re efficient but decay fucks it up.”
“You say organic?” the man wanted to know.
“Next-gen won’t rely on polyanilines in the conducting layer.”
God, I could have strangled them for saying these things, but I blacked the fuck out somehow. Rebooted while choking on an oxygen tube they were trying to shove in.
“Hello, never mind,” said one of the doctors. The tube slid out. I rasped and retched a bit and rolled over on my side. The room was silver. I glitched out again.
The world underneath me tilted. A boat. Some boys were huddled off at a porthole, discussing where the boat was pointed. South, they mainly agreed.
“Word banged round the muddies had a natural cancer defense, insurance lobby said wipe out.”
“Christ. Extinction duty.”
“How far you bolt, Saul?”
“Vancouver. It was beautiful. I did a hooker and she came in three languages. They caught me at the zoo watching penguins.”
“Look who’s up.”
“Ey,” I said. “Real penguins?”
“Real enough, buddy.”
Destination we heard topside: Nicaragua. Vessel a destroyer, the USS Spangled. Here to dismantle the Zero Cartel with local cooperation. Commanding officer touched his face, hid beyond it. He dreamt of a classical democracy that worked, that was not crippled by its weak. If he could strike us from history, fine.
First run was a classic botch. Signal flew; we opened fire on a salvage tub and killed four civilians, one pregnant. They were trying to smuggle themselves up the Mosquito Coast—we waded through their sorry possessions.
“They shouldn’t’ve,” the commander began, confused. He never told us his name or rank, paranoid even for the kind of man he was. “Insurgents.” He had us heave the bodies overboard.
“Sir?” I said. “There’s a war?”
“Agitators in the wild, that’s all.”
Plain old rogue economy, working places the capital couldn’t. And the villagers were loyal. When we landed in a port, it was to explode their illegal spiny lobster fishery.
“I don’t think so,” said Saul before he swallowed the charge that splattered the deck with his self. Almost did the same but for some alien snag in my action. It was curious, now: whatever I saw or touched—ocean spray, my own hands—I sensed a simulation.
Cargo flowed out of the rain forest in canoes, shielded by triple-canopy that satellites couldn’t pierce, to open water. Mainly we floated at jungle’s edge in a skimcraft, hoping couriers were dumb enough to blunder at us. Finally some wake. We thought the fins were sharks. Dolphins, it turned out.
“Been getting aggressive,” our captain said. They began to breach as gray liquid missiles, knocking men into the water with their tails so that others could drag them down to expire beneath the waves. One landed square on the deck and flipped about, snapping her nubby white teeth.
No, this never happened. I was gone.
Wrong: I was here, reaching for a white preserver. They pulled me out of a life, they must have, though nothing about that life would assemble. I was crushed under the weight of things or falling through their total absence.
You’ll stay, a distant quarter of me said. You’ll steer out. You do not want for courage. I crawled around the kamikaze dolphin and up to the dash. I threw the accelerator, and soon we slammed into beach, where two or three of us climbed over the prow and lay breathing on the sand.
It was tropical night when one of us spoke.
“I’m for disappearing.”
Waited for my own agreement, but I was disappointed.
“Your call,” said the disappearing man. The jungle swallowed him. The stars: how I hated them. A star doesn’t have to know itself.
That far-away part of me spoke again, a subzero voice that echoed down the spine. It said I had rested enough, and to run. Back toward some rendezvous, an outpost—the loving arms of the company. But what did this voice imagine running to be? Did it really suppose I could run?
We wouldn’t ask if you couldn’t, it said.
You do magnificent work.
You are one of a kind.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Miles Klee is the author of Ivyland (OR Books 2012), a finalist in The Morning News‘ 2013 Tournament of Books that The Wall Street Journal described as “J.G. Ballard zapped with a thousand volts of electricity.” He contributes to Vanity Fair, Lapham’s Quarterly, BlackBook and The Awl.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, May 16th, 2013.