A depressing, uninspired routine.
Sergeant Klaus Kurry, the junior NCO of this recruiting team, knew he was little more than a clerk, maybe a glorified receptionist. That, except that he was never permitted beyond the cipher-locked door he guarded with a spotless green uniform, gold chevrons and service stripes, the Combat Infantry Badge, Close Combat Badge and four of rows of colorful service ribbons. Most important, he was expected to produce a warm, welcoming smile for anyone who passed through the doors from out there in 'the world'. There were few of them.
More senior sergeants, a couple of warrant specialists and the frequent senior officer passed back and forth scarcely acknowledging Kurry's presence. They did actual recruiting, testing and, because the officers, several of them Navy, wore medical and legal insignia above the stripes on their sleeves, he assumed that recruits were also given legal advice and physical exams. Kurry felt left out most of the time but he should be grateful, he chided himself, to be serving stateside after five tours - Afghanistan, Iraq twice, Sudan and, most recently, Liberia. Already wounded more than once, he had grabbed the first duty offered which did not qualify for hostile fire pay.
But he'd been kidding himself. Like so many, Kurry was hooked on the adrenal drug, the roller-coaster ride of cowering terror and destructive vindication, the battlefield. Already he itched for some action, something to do.
For the umpteenth time he glanced around the walls, at the photos of attack helos, armored vehicles, weapons and smiling soldiers, both sexes, of every race and creed. Down the center of the room were tables of books and magazines devoted to military service and manuals for the more serious visitor. Beyond the plate glass windows and door was a wide walkway, a faux-cobble piazza studded with benches and flowered trees to shade them. Sometimes a fountain sprayed tiny rainbows on the still, hot air. On the right was a game arcade frequented mostly by children between eight and twenty, but not as many as one might expect. Almost all of them were male, but not the kind Kurry would care to serve with. Hardly prospects for the Army of One. In the stores to the left stood an import shop selling oriental, primarily Chinese electronics gadgets. It did not have many patrons, either, but its managers seemed well dressed and prosperous. And out back, in a closed off parking area, lots of civilian vehicles were guarded. Where did those soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians work? Curious.
Before the latest monetary and commercial crisis, the mall had been a favorite gathering place, day and night, for casual shopping, dining and entertainment, the occasional art show, book signing or theater production. Now hardly anyone ever came. Litter blew around and became trapped in doorways, shrubs. It lay like scum on the fountain surface, water which looked stagnant to Klaus, the kind he had learned never to drink in far-away places.
This day, like the others since Kurry had checked in, no one was around except the usual protestors boycotting the place. Their signs were looking weathered, tired. Kurry did not know how long they had been demonstrating there. Months, probably. He wondered how they were permitted to gather. Courts had upheld private property rights for malls, or other business, to restrict or even ban such gatherings, regardless of their purpose, be it political, religious or simply social. That was part of the reason military recruiters had moved away from courthouses and other public places. The official reason was that Malls were where potential recruits gathered, therefore the change. But getting away from constant anti-war sentiment was the principle, if unacknowledged reason. However, this retail complex did not enforce their regulations. Like many others, they could no longer afford security guards.
"Peace!" and "Army of None," the protestors called out occasionally, but they were few and, at least for the past several days did not seem to have their hearts in it. On the other hand, their messages definitely fell on deaf ears and sightless eyes. Not a single potential recruit had stopped to look at the Army posters and no one had entered through the glass doors in more than a week.
So Kurry was a bit surprised when First Sergeant Holcum showed up at mid-morning, a woman and two small children in tow. "Make yourself comfortable, here, Missy," he told the woman. She sat on the couch as she'd been told, hands folded. "Sergeant Kurry, here, will get you anything you need."
And then Holcum took the children, a boy of three and a girl maybe four or five, into the secret rooms.
Kurry sat with his mouth open for a moment or two. What the Hell?! The children unnerved him. Poorly dressed and not exactly clean, they could have been Iraqi or Afghani, or, except for their skin color, Liberian. And that immediately conjured a nightmare of memory for him.
Unaware, he crumbled his Styrofoam cup and did not feel the dregs of coffee dampen his hand.
Lurid sights and sounds tumbled out of the past. Shouts, a racing automobile engine, tires on a sand blown road, the brief fatal roar made by M-60, .50 caliber, M-4 autos followed by a crash of metal, a few screams muted by a fierce petrol fed fire. Indelible was that family, waving happily as they rapidly approached the road block. A grinning little boy looked out from a rear window just before someone shouted, "Car bomb!" and everybody around him started shooting. And afterward, Kurry could hear his squad leader sobbing, "Why didn't they stop? Why the fuck didn't they stop?" Later, after the tragedy had been played out many times throughout the country, military leaders realized that in Iraq a raised arm with an open hand was a sign of friendliness, of greeting. So they had simply waved back and proceeded to their fiery deaths.
After it was explained to the troops, though, nobody thought to protest, "Why didn't they tell us. Surely D-oh-D knew a simple thing like that before they sent us here!"
It was the same story with the blue and yellow bomblets in Afghanistan. Children, thinking they contained food, which some of them did, ran out to collect them up for hungry refugees - and were promptly blown to pieces! It was awful to see ... no, wait. Kurry had not actually seen that, had he? He'd only heard about it over beers in some EM Club. Hadn't he? DohDdy hadn't known about that, either, it seemed. Or so the generals claimed.
But he had seen the Iraqi children, promised five or ten U.S. dollars for every gun or grenade they turned in. They ran up to soldiers in the street shouting and waving deadly weapons. Many times a bewildered trooper had turned his assault rifle on the impulsive child. Kurry had seen that! Twice he'd come within a reflex of doing it himself. And ever since he'd wondered how to teach a new grunt that lesson, because just often enough children had been strapped with C-4 explosives. After that, every child became an enemy, at least potentially.
African children hadn't been any safer. For decades seven and eight year old fighters had been toting AK-47s, RPGs, ammo, even spears and food supplies for this or that rebel group, collapsed militia or toppling government police force. They'd been spies, saboteurs, drug runners, diamond smugglers, oil fief guards, mine-field clearers, rock throwers, well poisoners and valued members of execution squads. Children had done the similar things in Israel and Palestine for generations, lately in Lebanon, Russia and the Balkans. Viet Nam, too, of course. How long, before that?
Biblical David, Kurry supposed, had been little more than a boy rebel when he confronted Goliath's troops and his weapon was no more conventional than a road-side bomb.
Alexander and Ramses II had been mere boys when they led their armies out to conquer the world. Karl XI of Sweden and Napoleon had been labeled very young military wunderkind, too, but both of them had been spectacular failures.
The United States, for half-a-century, refused to sign a global ban on child soldiers because they wanted the willing 17 year old in their ranks. So seven and eight year old boy and girl warriors weren't even against international law, not as far as America was concerned. Some legal students did point out that the job, or career of soldiering fell under child labor laws, but no one was enforcing those any more, not even in America.
The sergeant did not want to think about children. Instead, as his combat stress advisors had suggested, he tried to remember the 'good' things he had done. Like the school his company had rebuilt outside Bagdad. Military PR people had praised them, taken film and interviewed some of the troops who tried to sound proud and upbeat. The news had shown grinning boys, and girls with book bags, but Kurry's suspicion was that the school wouldn't have needed rebuilding if his, or some other unit, had not blown it up in the first place.
Kurry did not want to think about how many Terry children had tried to kill him, or how many of them he might have gunned down in jungle and street fighting. Terry. When had soldiers started using that term. A generic term for terrorist, he supposed, like Jerry for Germans in his grandfather's war. The enemy, regardless of nationality or religion, was terrible. Or maybe it became easier to generalize anyone who wore turban-like headgear and maybe a little derogatory, as in the terry cloth towel women wore to dry their hair. But mostly, he felt sure, it was a way to designate them, as opposed to us. It didn't much matter whether they were children or not. But so many of them were.
And yet children, everyone said, are our future.
So what the hell were they doing here, in an Army recruiting office?
"Sir," an insistent voice said several times. Sergeant Kurry started and looked around. The woman Holcum had called Missy looked at him, forlorn and anxious.
"Yes," he said with a croaky voice.
"Sir, is there a place I can get a drink of water and maybe wash my face?"
He led her outside, to a public place which had water fountains and restrooms. Surprised to discover that it was already lunchtime, he offered her something at one of the fast food kiosks. She ate slowly, savoring each bite of what Kurry thought of as hardly food at all, not even after months on a diet of MREs (military meals-ready-to-eat). Food, most of it from some foreign country these days, was not what he'd grown up with. And it all seemed so expensive! This woman ate it all slowly, as if it were a seasonal banquet and she'd been on a strict diet for months. Startled, he recognized the signs of malnutrition around her eyes, in the tone of her skin.
"Where are you from," he asked.
"Back in the mountains," she pointed at the hazy horizon and smiled. She had one of those unfortunate smiles that curled her lip back to expose her gums. They were dark red and her teeth did not look healthy. "Rocky Point."
Kurry had never heard of it, of course. He ordered her some onion rings and another burger. A salad, too, as an afterthought. Softly, she said, "Thank you," and put it all into a paper bag which she kept in her lap. She kept it close all afternoon as she waited in the recruiting office for her children. When they appeared, near dark, they looked as if they had been crying.
"See that they get fed, Sergeant Kurry," Holcum told him, "and bring them back here. Someone will take care of their billeting." Someone? Who else was around so late?
"What's going on, Sarge," he whispered. "Something isn't right here."
"Just do it, Kurry. I'll explain later."
And later, when the frightened woman and her children had been taken away to a 'safe' place, Kurry and Holcum found a quiet booth in a dim bar. After a couple of beers, Holcum rested his elbows on the table and began whispering urgently. "You ever heard of a guy named Cytowic, or Synesthesia?"
Kurry shook his head. "Nope."
"Well, you still haven't. This conversation is never goin' to take place, never did and never will, got it?"
"Okay. There's been this study goin' on up at MIT for, I don't know, twenty years. Guy named Cytowic thinks most of us are born with the ability to see, smell, taste ... you know, feel things that aren't really there. You know, the guy who says 'I smell yellow', or 'I taste square things', or 'I see sound waves coming out of your mouth.' Druggie kind of stuff. Know what I mean?"
A blank face told Holcum that Kurry did not. He tried a different tact.
"Okay, you know anatomy a little ... the brain? Its got separate partitions which supposedly evolved at different times to do special things?"
"Go on," Kurry said, trying to remember if he had ever seen a map or diagram of the brain.
"There's this pretty recent part called the limbic system. Mammals got it. These MIT people seem to think that it came along at the same time as our reasoning faculties, the frontal lobe thing and the cortex." He rubbed his forehead as if he were getting a headache. Holcum was not accustomed to explaining things he did not thoroughly understand.
"So," Kurry jumped ahead, "what's that got to do with tasting colors?"
"I'm not sure. I've heard these guys talking about it for a year, now, and sometimes it makes perfect sense, other times its just mumbo-jumbo. Near as I can tell, it has to do with primitive intuitive skills. You know, the ones which tell animals and people what has to be done with certain foods to make them safe ... or when to fly south ... "
"Yeah, like tapioca ... I always wondered how many had to die before they figured out about leaching its poisons to make it safe to eat." And oh, so good. "Eight times. And acorns, too."
"So why keep trying to eat it when it kills you," Holcum responded, then grinned. "Sure, that's it ... that makes sense, 'cause this limbic system is what prods us with emotion, motivation, desire, urges ... determination ... there's a chaplain in the group who calls it 'will power' ... in the religious sense. That would make people try new ways to eat this tapioca, and keep on trying until they got it right."
Kurry shrugged. "Okay, maybe that fits. Ghost stories fit there, too?"
Holcum shook his head. "I'm not sure about any of that. But I did have this friend in the high school band who was always saying that the musical notes had other-worldly colors and long ribbons on them. Most everybody said he was crazy."
They drank some more beer, then Kurry came back to his earlier question. "I still don't see what that has to do with hearing colors or tasting shapes ..."
"Well, there is more to it than that. They think everyone is born with it but maybe just ten percent keep this ability ... they become writers, artists, inventors, actors, musicians ... but also screwballs, handicaps, savants, mystics ... like that. The rest of us lose the talent when we go to school, learn language, math, memory stuff. Well, actually we don't lose it, just cover it up with so much other crap we don't recognize it anymore. Most of us think that's a good thing. Try as I might, I can't imagine smelling purple or feeling my heart beat all the time or hearing atoms buzzing around."
"Atoms? Oh, yeah, gazillions of them whizzing around like mosquitos." Suddenly, from that awful place in his head, Kurry heard again the roar of automatic weapons, heard the screams, smelled burning fuel and flesh. Yet over the top of that horror he saw himself wondering what it would be like to hear individual rounds, to follow each of them simultaneously with his ears or eyes or whatever ... to their targets. Worse, he might feel them as they ripped into someone else, a mother, a child ... as if he were all of them and the bullets, too.
"Hey, Bud. You okay?" Holcum shook him gently and Kurry stared at him. "I'll get us another beer." When he returned, he found Kurry holding his head in his hands, moaning softly. "I know this doesn't make a lot of sense, not even to me, but one thing I heard them talking about was a blind guy who has a kind of sixth sense. Show him photos of people smiling or angry and he can't detect a thing. But if an actual person is angry or sad or happy behind a glass, in a soundproof room, this guy can sense that immediately, even though no sounds or motions are made, nothing at all said. That's part of what we're doing back there, behind the door."
Eyes red with pain, Kurry glared at his companion. He had wondered for years about someone like Homer, not so much that they could memorize long epic poems like The Illiad, but that they could tell which audience they were addressing. He had several versions of the tale, one for each side, and other variants because there had been many alliances. Otherwise, how did he keep from provoking this or that group. How did he stay alive long enough to travel from one drinking establishment to the next. Had Homer been able to detect approval in the faces of his audience from moment to moment? "I read somewhere that light is both a wave and a bunch of packets flying at you. Is that what you're saying?"
"Hell, I don't know. I guess I'm saying that certain people, maybe some of those we're studying, could see this light as a wave or a handful of something ... maybe they don't see it so much as hear it or feel it. Maybe, like one of those idiot savants, they just know!"
"Maybe they just know? Like, they just know that acorns have to be leached 'x' number of times to get the tanic acid out of them? How would they just know that when they can see squirrels eating them fresh and raw?"
"Jeez, take it easy. I told you. I don't know all that's going on back there. What the MIT geeks believe is that emotions like fear and well being, complacency and determination, urges to leave or stay, fight or flee ... sex ... all of that can be transmitted to somebody else without them even realizing it."
"Yeah, sure, unless they're blind? Bullshit!" Kurry made his way to the tavern's latrine, thinking as he went. Back in the booth, he said, "You are saying the same thing Madison Avenue did fifty, sixty years ago. How to make people want something they don't need. Maybe its even harmful to them ... how to make them do work they don't like in order to pay for it and finally, how to get them to want it now, even though it will be obsolete in two or three years, go in debt for it in order to have it right now, even though having done so makes them a kind of debtor slave ..."
"Okay, they did it with advertising and glitz, but ... yeah, I suppose this is like that. Only we have a real stealth angle ... nobody knows about it, that its being done to them ... they think all of it is their own idea if they see anything wrong at all ..."
"What? What is their own idea?"
"Oh, say ... throwing down their weapons and going home to their families. Or shooting their political or religious officers ... or maybe being so afraid they won't leave their bunkers. I even heard one doctor say that they might all be made to suffer from some psychosomatic illness. They'd have symptoms and everything, but nothing would make them better."
"I heard the Army tested that back in the last century with LSD and some other stuff. Didn't work. And a few years ago they were talking about this sex-bomb to turn enemy soldiers queer. Remember that? Is that what we're talkin' about?"
"Shhh." The bartender hovered near, cleaning tables. When she moved away, Holcum said, "Don't know, but this stuff really works. I've seen it."
"Really?" How would battlefields change if an enemy could be demoralized without being aware of it? "You mean propaganda ... radio, TV, leaflets ... like that?"
"No, I mean we beam it directly into their brains, their limbic system, and then on to the cortex and frontal lobe. They get obsessive about it. Not pictures or words or language, but real primitive emotions ... at least triggers to set their own feelings going against them. Everybody will start weeping and they'll all think they miss their mama, or they're sick or maybe they'll greet us with open arms ... whatever we want them to feel."
"Bullshit. You'll have to prove that to me." Kurry wondered, how different would the African campaigns have turned out if he could have turned such a weapon on the child soldiers, instead of his M4? But he also knew that the vast majority had no family or home left to go back to, so what advantage would the weapon be? Couldn't it simply infuriate them with pain, make them even more suicidal? Had any of these geeks ever been in a war? Do they know what they're messing around with?
"Okay, you'll see it. Tomorrow. We'll use those protestors as targets. You'll see."
But the next morning, when Holcum came in to work and Kurry said, "I'm ready. Let's see it." Sergeant Holcum replied, "See what? What the hell are you talkin' about?"
"The damned mind control weapon, Sarge. Or was what you said last night just lies?"
Holcum, his breath still sour with alcohol, grabbed Kurry by his lapel and hissed, "I told you that conversation would never take place and it never did! You got that, soldier?"
Leaning in, locked together, they glared at each other with red-rimmed eyes. For an instant it seemed as if they might start throwing punches, but just then the front door opened and Specialist Myers brought in the woman, Missy, and her two children. They looked refreshed, clean and cheerful. All of them wore new clothes and Sergeant Kurry could not help but smile at them. So, after a second or two, did Sergeant Holcum. "'Morning, Missy. 'Mornin' Myers. Hi, kids." He said, getting his voice under control. "Why don't you just take them right on in."
Kurry, joining the game, asked, "How about some coffee, Missy?"
"Oh, no," she said, plainly wanting some, "I already had two cups at breakfast."
"That's okay. We've got plenty. You have just as much as you want. Sugar? Creamer?"
"Yes, yes!" she said, showing that unhappy smile.
"Comin' right up," Kurry grabbed Holcum's sleeve as he worked the security lock. "This isn't over, damn you!" he hissed.
Minutes passed. As Missy sipped her coffee, Kurry stalked back and forth amongst the tables and chairs of the center. Pretending he was cleaning and arranging things, he seethed, the thing he seemed to do best since he had enlisted six, seven years before. To himself he protested, "I'm a warrior! What the hell am I doing here?"
His mind gave him no answer.
And then he seethed at the demonstrators who began arriving in twos and threes. There were more than ever before and one of them carried a powered bull horn. There was a new sign or two as well. In addition to "Army of None", he saw "Peace of Mind, Peace at Hand, Peace on all the Land" and "Give Love a Chance". Kurry did not try to understand what might be meant by the messages. They opposed him, his friends, his government. He seethed.
Suddenly Holcum stood beside him, whispering. "Now watch this, but don't say a word."
They could see the dozen or so civilians clearly through the large windows. They were illuminated by a bright sun. Some of them were smiling and making animated gestures. All seemed determined and well briefed. But a moment or so later the smiles were replaced by worried glances and then a couple of them began crying. Soon they were consoling each other, embracing and mouthing soothing phrases. A moment or so later they were gone, dragging their signs, helping the weaker, more distraught ones to their cars.
Kurry's eyes darted to Holcum. "Shhh." The senior NCO said, "We'll talk later."
In the same bar, hours later, Kurry was still agitated, but for the past six hours it had been with intense curiosity. His mind had run wild with possibilities. Now, even before the first beers arrived, questions began tumbling out.
"Wait a minute, Bud." Holcum said. "I got to have a couple of beers in me first. I'm not supposed to be talking about any of this, but its got me worried as hell."
"Okay, but what about the children? What do they have to do with anything?"
"Yeh, the kids." He downed his beer, signaled for another and lit a cigarette. "I found them way the hell and gone out in the sticks. They haven't had any pre-school, not even day care. Best of all, they're too poor for TV ... can't get any out there and can't afford the satellite stuff. Took me months to find them."
"Why is TV so important?"
"It tells them what to think ... mostly through language, but it also reins in the wild ideas children have at that age. Oh, sure, cartoons show outlandish things, but not anything kids can really do, like jumping hundreds of feet or walking on air ... those kind of stories teach limita-tions early on, and also that infant minds are not trustworthy."
"What do you mean 'through language'?"
"They learn that they should only smell smells, taste tasty things ... especially sweets ... hear things that make sounds, see things society claims are real."
"I see. You mean they no longer see sound waves or hear rainbows, like that?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"Then these mountain kids are special because ...?"
"They haven't had their natural instincts or talents distracted ... what's the word the geeks use ... desensitized, I think. They still use them to entertain themselves, to understand the world around them. You remember a few years back ... the great tsunami ... reporters marveled that so few animals had been drowned."
"Yeh, and the stone age tribes ... they all survived, too."
"Somehow they'd known what was coming and fled to higher ground. Well, according to the geeks, all humans used to have this talent ... still do, I guess, until it is educated out of us. There is something about having to learn a language by age four, too, or it becomes impossible."
"Wolf boys. I heard about them."
"Anyway, that's what the kids are doing here. Their limbic ... emotions ... language ... is being recorded and categorized ... all the really basic, primitive things." He finished off his second beer. "We'll have every Terrytop colonel in the world in a heel-kicking tantrum, bawling for his mama's tit!"
"Is that what you did to the demonstrators?"
Holcum laughed. "Damn right! Made 'em miss their dead and long-gone childhood, their baby bottles, their mindless diaper-hood. They didn't even know how to talk anymore, just feel! And mostly frustrated, waiting for Mommy to come give them what they need."
"And because they'd covered it up so long, they didn't even recognize what it was. Great tool for crowd control."
"Doesn't work in large groups. Too many conflicting responses. It gets violent rather than sad and passive. But in small groups, especially isolated groups who know each other, it is a killer!"
"Like a squad or platoon on the line? The one man army?"
Kurry lifted his beer and was quiet for a moment. "But wouldn't a weapon like that be big and unwieldy, use lots of power?"
"You're thinkin' of a micro-wave device, or laser cannon. No, those things will fry you up like steak. And yeah, they do use huge amounts of power. And everybody would know. Might as well use a nuke. What we're doin' here is more like nano-technology. Its been around for years. The radio frequency identification stuff. Remember?"
"The tags they put in clothing and television sets?"
"And most everything else. Even people and pets. Its just a chip that sits there 'til somebody with the right reading device activates it. Then it opens up and tells all. When it tells all it rides on a light wave or telephone line, even a satellite command."
"So it would be carried on any phone line, even a satellite link, or TV broadcast ... you said nano-technology ... how small?"
"Well, how big is a data chip? Gettin' smaller every day. One Gig stuff for your digital camera is pretty small and can carry every memory and hallucination humans ever had. Lots of depth and interconnect-ivity. We make them out of crushed sand. Embed the hard drive, give it a tiny solar powered battery, the solar cell is just a different colored bit of sand with random spots. Its all compressed into a indistinct piece of stone with say ... two or three hundred shapes and sizes to make them seem random ... and unbelievably cheap. You load them onto a spy drone and fly it soundlessly over enemy territory. Any kid in any arcade could do that as part of the game he's playing. How would he know? We use the one next door. Just add a few changes to the game and bingo, the kid is flying a real drone in some far-off place. Without realizing it, he drops a few hundred rocks and pebbles here, another thousand there, especially around fixed military emplace-ments, pipelines, police stations and highways ... wallah! You're ready for an invasion. But when the time comes all you do it signal a satellite, which beams an 'open' code to which-ever geographic point you choose. The next minute everybody within range of a telephone, radio, TV or automobile is walking off the job, going home ... "
"A spontaneous revolution."
"Everybody just wants to be free ... "
"Think of it. You wouldn't even need troops. A good door-to-door salesman could just waltz right in ... "
"Sell them junk, air, religiion ... anything!"
"And make 'em love it!"
"Scream for more!"
"You and me could find real jobs!"
"Shhhh! You're getting loud!"
"Hey, this is exciting stuff. No more wars! No more warriors!"
"Yeah ... that's part of what bothers me."
"Well, you know that we shipped all of our industrial capability out to the Third World some years ago. So the State Department ... those free trade dingos and DohDdy contractors just farmed out the manufacturing rights to Red China. They'll start mass producing these super rocks for us any day now."