By Tom Anderson
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write vignettes on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The eighth theme was "World War One"
Private Jim Morris stared cautiously over the parapet of the trench as he clumsily rolled a cigarette. He had fought in this hell for a month, and one of the many things he had still not become accustomed to was the colourlessness of it all. That bitter, ravaged landscape...browns and greys of earth, the muddy khaki of his uniform and the grey of the enemy’s, the murky green of painted shells and the battered remnants of plant life...the joyless pale mists rising from the distant, murdered river combining with the black bursts of exploding shells and ack-ack. It was as though someone had leached the colour out of the scene—and had taken any sense of hope with it.
Jim dropped his roll-up and cursed, managing to snatch it out of the air before it fell into the muddy rubbish at the bottom of this lookout point. He had just about learned all the mechanical motions to do with stripping, cleaning and of course firing his rifle, not to mention the parade-ground stuff that tyrannical officers sometimes demanded at a moment’s notice, despite the farce of saluting and marching in this hell. But cigarettes...maybe he just didn’t have the experience. He had the body of a sixteen-year-old boy, though he could barely have spoken about that life. Endless briefings about how this big push would be the one to make the difference...only a month, but they had successfully blocked out any of the memories he might have possessed of where this body had come from. He was just a soldier now, a little cog in a big machine, a disposable, replaceable cog.
Before, he would have found the thought depressing. Now, he was too emotionally numb to even feel that. He lit the cigarette, carefully concealing the match he struck imperfectly, and smoked it disconsolately. They said this tobacco was a terrible substitute; he didn’t have the experience to be certain, but he couldn’t imagine this was the experience that had led millions to take up the habit in defiance of all its disadvantages.
He continued staring out over the trenches, ostensibly serving as a lookout, in reality lost in thoughts. He thought of the men over in the opposing trenches, in grey uniforms with spiked helmets (or so the pictures suggested—he’d seen they weren’t so consistent). He might well have corresponded with some of those men, before—he had been to Berlin in the year ’13, before the madness began...he couldn’t afford to think about that. They were trying to kill him, so he had to kill them first.
The shriek of descending shells was his first warning. Jim threw himself to the irregular, murky ground of the lookout point, now careless of the muck and rubbish down there. He braced as the barrage of German shells impacted. They had fallen short, which surprised him; they had been fighting over this pointless piece of ground for as long as he’d been here, and there were obvious traces that it had been going on long before that. Why would the Germans start missing now? He tensed all over again; gas shells? But no, those loud bangs rattling his already-punished eardrums said otherwise.
Jim almost jumped out of his skin as a hand fell on his shoulder. He turned and managed a hasty, crooked salute. It was Lieutenant Connor, his eyes still bright behind his perfectly-waxed moustache. To give the officer credit, he did often descend into the trenches with his men, yet somehow never seemed to pick up their grubbiness. Maybe he had his own laundry operation following him around. “Come on, Morris,” Connor said briskly in his cut-glass accent. “You saw that, hey? Work of one of our agents,” he said importantly. “That’s the signal that he’s sabotaged the Hun’s lines of communication, he also switched the numbers on their artillery rangefinding. Come on! We have to take advantage before Fritz realises!”
Connor slapped him on the shoulder and, mechanically, like the cog he was, Jim allowed himself to be manoeuvred into line with his comrades in the forward trench. He looked around muddy faces, saw men he recognised. A lot tried to put a brave face on it; maybe one or two were sincere about truly believing this was the push that would make the difference. Madness came in many forms, in the trenches. Then there were those who were clearly just as despairing as Jim, but they would not break. They had volunteered. That was a point of pride, no conscripts as of yet in this company. Although, Jim thought, it was an interesting definition of ‘volunteering’. He remembered what had happened to his brother when he had expressed ’bje—that is, conshythoughts, and had been promptly covered in sparkly white translucent feathers by the enraged recruiters. Going along with it had always seemed like the easier option—right up till now.
As Connor and the other officers looked critically up and down the line, the sounds of the German shells dying away as the enemy realised his mistake, Jim quietly muttered a prayer under his breath. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was even praying for. Deliverance, perhaps. If the liturgy he used was not quite authentic for the person he was pretending to be, the person he was down as in his service record, well, they couldn’t see into his head—probably.
Towards the end, though, he realised he had started to mumble out loud. “—from the Enemy’s pla—” he continued, then realised that they would really realise something was wrong if he used that word in its usual sense here and now, and hastily amended it to “—plans. Protect us from the Enemy’s plans.”
Connor hadn’t been listening anyway. He looked at his new watch, imperfectly strapped to his wrist and glowing with radium, and nodded. “All right!” he cried, just as the British counterbattery fire began to die away. “OVER THE TOP!” He inflated his lungs and blew his whistle with all his might.
Jim didn’t even stop to see if anyone was following him; he just knew that every door of choice had closed and this was it. His boots hit the wooden steps and he launched himself up and out of the trench, his legs pumping beneath him as he charged, farcically, absurdly, through the hell of No Man’s Land.
That spy might have sabotaged the enemy’s communications and artillery rangefinding, but he clearly hadn’t been able to do anything about their machine guns. Jim saw Private Clay sliced in half before him by a fusillade of murderous bullets, the sudden explosion of red mist an offensive blast of colour in this landscape of grey hopelessness. Corporal Panton just disappeared in a blast of mud as he stepped on a mine or an unexploded shell, adding another tiny, forgotten crater to this devastated landscape. Ensign Kenwood, that nervous young subaltern, seemed to be a miraculous survivor, but then a red Fokker triplane buzzed down out of the consuming mists and shot him to the ground. Of course the officers got a more memorable and interesting form of death, Jim thought with black humour. It was all that was left to him.
Barbed wire tried to trip him, enemy bullets scythed past him, yet Jim seemed to be living a charmed life, if one could call it that. He was beating the laws of probability. He was almost there! And then what, said a voice at the back of his mind which he pushed down.
There! The enemy trench! Not a machine-gun in sight, they were all busy with his comrades. Just a few frightened-looking soldiers in grey, one of them a young man—
A young man who had his pistol trained on Jim’s head.
Jim’s whole life flashed before his eyes, and not just the bits he was officially meant to remember. This was it, this was the end—
And then the world filled with the sound of a trumpet.
It seemed to echo from everywhere at once, reverberating in Jim’s skull. His would-be assassin lowered his pistol in confusion, then shook his head. Wha...
Jim felt something vibrate on his arm. He looked down to see his single private’s chevron had lit up with a glow more wholesome than the alien green of Connor’s radium watch. The chevron began flashing, accompanied by a beep. A locator beacon.
The guns fell silent. He saw that one soldier kept trying to shoot out of reflex, but his weapon had ceased to function. And now, descending out of the mists, were craft rather different to that red triplane with its buzzy little engine. They were silver, floating impossibly on a faint blue glow, morphing into different shapes as they descended, creating landing gear out of nothing.
A door opened in the nearest landed craft, and out walked a tall man in white. His clothing brushed through the muck and horror of No Man’s Land, yet rejected it, remaining pristine. It was made of materials that the year 1915 had not yet dreamed of.
The year 2615, on the other hand...
The figure clapped his hands. Jim’s stripe beeped again, and he felt the restraints released. He could morph his synthbody again, and reflexively he returned it to his usual default state, even though some of the resulting bulges tore holes through his ragged uniform. He glanced over at Connor, who had also survived, and saw ‘his’ body revert to a female form. Jim nodded to himself, obscurely pleased—he had suspected that all along, though (as his grandma was always complaining) someone’s ‘default’ gender was increasingly irrelevant on their birth certificate now a lot of couples patterned their kids into synthbodies as soon as they were born.
Of course. Jim hadn’t been meant to retain enough memories to muse about things like Connor’s true gender or recall his 'bjectionist brother being showered with holographic feathers by the Remembrance recruiters, but he’d noticed the memory block they’d all boasted about was very imperfect. At most, it had made him uneasy when thinking about his old life, his true life, but it hadn’t blocked his memories as they had claimed. On the other hand, maybe that had been deliberate. If all of this had happened to ‘someone else’, what was the point of it?
The tall figure, whom Jim was now able to recognise as Gamesmaster Pi, lowered his hands. As he did, Jim was able to see that his modern white metaclothing was interrupted solely by a single red poppy. “This relatick’s Remembrance is concluded,” he boomed, his voice emanating from everyone’s stripes as well as the speakers on the vehicles. “The casualty figures will be available on your cyphones, which have now been reactivated, shortly.”
Jim immediately squinted his eyes in a certain way and his cyphone HUD came up overlaying his vision. It had taken him a few days to train himself out of that motion, which he had known since birth as reflexively as walking or sitting, because of course his cyphone had been disabled. He had one alarming glimpse of the number of messages that had built up in his inbox over the past month (despite the recruiters assuring him that they would just be blocked by his Remembrance status) and then the pop-up Pi had described appeared. He winced at the numbers. Only a month, only a hundred thousand volunteers or conscripts, nothing compared to what their ancestors had gone through, but...
All those thousands of ‘dead’ people would be subject to ten years (relaticks, he remembered he no longer had to auto-correct that to be period appropriate) in mental prison before being permitted to be re-patterned into a new synthbody. The ‘wounded’ would be forced to spend five relaticks locked in partially disabled synthbodies. Even many of the ‘survivors’, like Jim himself, would randomly be selected to have their patterning overlaid with a programme that simulated the effects of Trauma Induced Mental Degradation, or whatever the brain-tinkerers were calling it this centick. He remembered a scandal on the news from the Remembrance about twenty relaticks ago when one of the TIMD-programmed veterans had tried to have a black-market hackboy remove it, naturally killing her in the process. There hadn’t been much sympathy for the woman, he recalled.
Now Gamesmaster Pi was walking around, shaking the hands of each of the survivors as he went. A few of them, of course, had disappeared—they had never truly been here, but had just been AI programmes to bulk out the scenario. That sense of uncertainty, whether a comrade was truly real or not, was part of the design, or so he had read. Jim heard the Germans speaking in their own language for a moment before his cyphone translation belatedly initialised. A lot of them were continuing to speak of their hatred for the Engländer, to whom they had lost friends they would never see again. For that matter, Jim felt the same about them.
That thought stuck with him and unwisely loosened his tongue as Pi got to him. “Well done, Britizen Jimo-114,” Pi said, using the short form of his name for informality. “Do you have any reflections on the scenario?”
Jim took a deep breath. “I’ve come out of this hating the Germans, Gamesmaster, and I think they think the same about me. Is that really the Remembrance we want?”
Pi frowned at him. “Remember your history, boy,” he snapped, his beatific appearance gone. “Remember what happened five hundred relaticks ago, in the twenty-second century, when they decided enough time had passed, and the dead could be forgotten.” He pointed savagely at his poppy. “How dare they use...plastic,” he muttered, his cheeks reddening as he used the dirtiest word in the language, even though he meant it literally. “How dare they force everyone into this parade of...” He shook his head. “You know what happened, Britizen Jimo-114. You know.”
Jim nodded. He could scarcely know otherwise. Everyone learned about the War of 2114 in their schoolfeed. It was hard to believe that the Earth had once been able to support double figures of billions of people. As it was, the Remembrance Commission scarcely had a shortage of ruined global zones in which to plant their artificial trenches. He knew that if he had tried to walk away from the trench and had managed to get past the barriers, he’d find that this seemingly hellish No Man’s Land had in fact been cleaned considerably compared to the surrounding area: at least unmodified humans could live here, after a fashion.
“I know, Gamesmaster,” he said quietly. “The theory is that the only way to truly prevent future wars is for enough of our people to live the way our ancestors did, and then to move through society to remind those who are spared. No matter the cost, another war is still worse.”
“Then you do understand,” Pi said, raising an eyebrow.
Jim sighed. “I do. But, I can’t help wondering...the men who begun the Second World War, the one whom they do not name,” he nodded at the Germans, “...they went through this hell. But it didn’t stop them sending their children to war again.” He cocked his head on one side. “So how do we know this works?”
Pi fingered his poppy restlessly and avoided his gaze. Jim noticed that others were watching him, including Connors. She was pretty, he thought irrelevantly, in her default form.
The Gamesmaster shrugged, turned away and raised his voice. He addressed the battlefield as a whole, his voice once again emanating from everywhere. “Thank you, soldier. LEST WE FORGET!”
But forget what?