You never really stop being a soldier.
Even after you come home and take the uniform off, even as your memories of the war turn to nightmares, you never give up on the principles that define a warrior.
Courage. Commitment. Self-sacrifice.
Every man or woman who ever picked up a gun to defend this country knows that coming home can be the hardest part. Home is a paradise compared to Syria, Iran, or Afghanistan, but it’s unfamiliar. Here, nothing is expected of us, and yet we’re still the same people who ran head-first into the hail of bullets, the same people who dragged brothers and sisters, their legs or arms destroyed by IEDs, out of harm’s way.
We never really stop fighting—whether that’s against the dreams that come every night or the regrets we carry with us from our failures.
Failure to live up to the code.
Country. Corp. Family. Self.
A month ago, I managed to let all of them down in less than twenty-four hours. We knew the Máquinas were coming, and yet I made no effort to reenlist. When the machines crossed the border, the country fell, and I did nothing except focus on my family. All I could think about was getting them to safety, and I couldn’t even do that.
The least of my commitments is to myself, but it’s enough to keep me from putting a gun to my head. There is nothing left for me in this world, and yet I can’t seem to leave it. That’s not what warriors do. They don’t run from the fight.
We are the fight.
In the few books I’ve read about PTSD, I’ve come across the theme of redemption a few times. Now I wonder how a man can truly serve himself after the apocalypse. Is it enough to merely stay alive, or is there a higher purpose? I don’t mean any religious bullshit or spiritual destiny. When you get right down to it, why am I still here?
The country and the Corp are gone. Angie and Gretta are gone. It’s just me and the bunker—my home at the end of the world.
But it’s not all hopeless. I stocked the bunker in the hopes of bringing my future sons up for sleepovers and weekend-long games of Aftermath:America. I’ve got plenty of food, some weapons for hunting, and more movies and TV shows than a man could watch in two lifetimes. I’m sure there are bunkers out there better equipped for what’s coming, all filled to the brim with MREs and faded copies of Guns & Ammo.
I was never a hardline prepper like those Lost Pines nutjobs from the ‘10s. Though we operated in the same circles, I didn’t share the same worry that Iran was getting ready to invade and that we’d all be screwed because our own government was trying to disarm us. And no one truly believed the stories about domestic terrorists programming a MESH-transmitted virus that would turn everyone’s brain into pudding.
Honestly, this was all supposed to be for fun. These walls protecting me from the elements and the synthetic killing machines were just an expensive goof. None of this was supposed to be real.
And for a while there, it didn’t feel real.
After the war broke, after I lost my family, I stayed holed up in the bunker for two weeks straight, slowly losing my mind, coming ever closer to just shutting down and taking the easy way out. Later, when I finally did venture outside, it only reinforced what I already knew.
I was alone.
The first thing I noticed was the lack of MESH traffic. Despite being a peer-to-peer network, the MESH repeaters in Billings and Park City should have been casting a wide enough net to be heard up here in the mountains. With the MESH silent, that meant either there was no one left alive to transmit or they were too far away to be useful.
My only human contact at the time consisted of watching old videos of Angie and Gretta. Despite the pain of seeing them alive and happy, I kept watching, going all the way back to when Angie and I first met, our first trip to Vegas, to Big Sur, all of it. Sometimes I put them on a loop while I slept so I could dream of them.
Sure, I’d wake up crying, but you don’t avoid drinking just because there’s a hangover at the end.
The day I came out of the bunker, I’d told myself I couldn’t keep hiding from the world—whatever state it happened to be in now. If my life meant nothing, then the only thing left was to give it to someone else. I tempted the fates making the trip to Billings, searching for other survivors, but only because I wanted to serve. I wanted to protect someone.
Maybe it’s true that warriors need wars.
Or maybe it was selfish to want someone to take care of because it would make me feel okay about my continued existence.
For two weeks, I searched the mountains, avoiding predators both natural and unnatural. Máquinas, for all their killing prowess, have no gift for stealth. Stomping through the trees the way they do, they kick up a lot of noise, and that brings out the bears and the big cats and other beasts with sharp teeth. Even with training and a good weapon, I’m nowhere near the top of the food chain anymore.
I know for a fact that my Admiral 640-series Survival Bunker is not the only safe haven in the mountains. But either the owners of those bunkers never made it out of the city or they were too scared to even poke their heads out and greet me.
No other humans crossed my path. I went out twice a day and never met anyone.
Today was different though. Today my entire future coalesced into a single adrenaline-soaked moment. Meaning has returned to my life, and it feels like the bunker has pushed through to the surface and the walls have come down and I can breathe fresh air.
Angie, you would have been so proud of me.
I saved a life today.
It, too, doesn’t feel real. Every time I get up to piss, I peek into Gretta’s room just to make sure there’s still a woman sleeping in there, tucked in under those princess pink sheets Gretta picked out herself.
You won’t believe how she got here either. All this time I’d been searching under rocks for survivors. I should have been looking to the sky.
I was on my second trip out for the day when it all happened. I’d gone an hour up-mountain, but didn’t stay long. The wind had come up and flakes were already starting to fall, so I headed back to the clearing when the sun was still a fist above the horizon. I’d seen some deer tracks on the way up, so I kept my Dragunov rifle at the ready in case some foolish buck wanted to be my dinner.
When I got back to the clearing, I found a Máquina waiting for me. That wasn’t out of the ordinary; there was always one or two coming or going, usually the same synthetics operating on set patrols. By the askew beret, I knew it was my friend Mac. Normally, he just passed through, head not moving but eyes and ears taking in every piece of data available. Today, however, he stood rigid about two meters from the hidden bunker entrance, as if he were looking for patterns in the seemingly random arrangement of rocks and tree branches.
I had the drop on him, but the Dragunov is a firecracker of a weapon. I’d gotten the Vietnam-era rifle off a darknet trade some years back, and though I’d fired it at the range, I wasn’t prepared for the noise it made the first time I fired it amongst the trees. The echoes lasted forever.
It was one thing to take down a deer and drag it back to the bunker before anyone came to investigate, but killing a Máquina? It was like the feeds always said: where there’s one synthetic killing machine, there’s always another. Somewhere in the forest around us, Mac’s partner was stalking through the trees, maybe circling around me for an easy kill.
Whatever list of pros and cons I was building in my head was made moot by the distant sound of an engine. Mac and I both turned to the west and saw a single-prop Cessna fly low out of the setting sun. Mac broke off his investigation and moved to the center of the clearing.
Every last part of me wanted to signal the plane, to tell it hey, I’m down here, and I’m fucking lonely, but there was no time. It was too close, nearly overhead. What could I have done? Shot at it?
That’s a stupid idea for a human, but evidently it was S.O.P. for a synthetic. Mac ripped off a dozen rounds from his FX-05 as the plane passed overhead. He went to a knee, pressed the short scope to his eye, and put the tap on full open. Distant pings echoed back. The engine began to labor, letting out a chug-chug-chug that reminded me of ancient cars on their last drop of gasoline. Black smoke trailed through the shimmering sky as the plane disappeared beyond the pines.
Mac stood and took off after it, and for a moment I thought the danger had passed. There was a clear path between me and the bunker, just a few meters to safety.
But that’s not who I am, is it, Angie?
I’m the motherfucking fight.
I shadowed Mac from a safe distance, not wanting to let him know I was creeping up from behind. Each time his head turned, I stopped and took cover. This put me a hundred meters behind by the time we got to the crash site.
Once I could see the plane, I set up behind a tree and scoped the area with the Dragunov. Smoke drifted into the sky in thick, black clumps. Trees popped and crackled as their trunks burned. The plane had come to rest right-side-up, but its wings had come off and the tail was missing.
Downwind of the crash, I was treated to a sickening bouquet of smells: burning rubber, aviation fuel, and melting flesh.
I crawled on my stomach to a dense thicket about twenty meters from the left side of the plane. The blue and white paint job on the hull was marred with streaks of ash and soot. Wires and tubes hung from oblong holes where the wings had once attached.
The impact had busted every window.
Flames ate at the human silhouettes inside.
My heart sank. All dead. No survivors. Just me and Mac and a giant fucking beacon for all the drones to see.
Mac stood on the other side of the wreckage, the back of his head appearing hazy through the heat. He surveyed the crash with his rifle poised, ready to kill anything that might have survived.
As if anyone could be that lucky.
I was ready to pack it in when I heard it.
She was face-down on the loose pine needles, half-hidden by a smoldering wing.
Mac heard her too and moved into position behind her. I saw his black caterpillar of a finger inch its way onto the trigger.
She wasn’t me, nor my family, nor the Corp, but in a plane that small, she had to be country. I knew right then what I had to do. And yet I hesitated.
Just a second. Just a brief, human moment.
And then she lifted her head, looked at me.
She was the first human I’d seen in a month, and suddenly it didn’t matter if she died from her injuries right there in the dirt or on the way back to the bunker—I was not going to let Mac kill her. Even if it gave away my position.
Even if this was all for nothing.
I flipped the safety off and pushed the Dragunov’s long barrel through the thicket.
“Hey, Mac,” I said.
Daniel Verastiqui is a Science Fiction author from Austin, Texas. His latest novel, Brigham Plaza, is the sixth entry in the Vinestead Anthology, a series of books that take place in a shared alternate reality but aren’t direct sequels. His books explore the themes of relationships and identity in the context of advanced technology, pervasive violence, and gratuitous swearing.
tags: #sciencefiction #cyberpunk #robots #virtualreality #augmentedreality #artificialintelligence