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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

Three Parts Shell

Gemma Noon is a writer and librarian living in Alberta, Canada. This is her second story published by Daily Science Fiction, and the first is available to read here.

***Editor's Note: Adult language
She manifests about three feet away from him, a moment of static and then a perfectly formed human being. She is a blend of his favorite aunt, his primary school teacher, and the barista in his local coffee bar. She is pretty, in a nonsexual kind of way. She is as bland and nonthreatening as the plain white room they are standing in, and he knows instinctively this whole staging point is designed to put him at his ease.
"Hi Jack, I'm Avi," she says with a wide smile.
He looks her up and down. "Weird. I thought my therapist was a fifty-year-old guy called Marcus."
She laughs. It sounds genuine. "Well yes, Marcus is of course monitoring our conversation, but the program thought that I would be a less threatening presence during the simulation."
"Let me guess; the guys who wrote the program don't have any combat experience."
Her eyes flick up and to the right for a moment. "None of the programmers have served on the front line," she confirms. "Marcus would like to know why you feel this is relevant."
"Because you're just as likely to be a combatant as a six-foot tattooed bloke named Smasher," he replies, shaking his head. "There's no such thing as a nonthreatening person. Even kids have been trained to kill for centuries. Everyone is a potential threat."
Avi's eyes flick up again. "Would it help if I wasn't human?"
Jack sighs. "You aren't human. Isn't that the entire point of this?"
"Marcus wants to remind you that this is entirely voluntary. Your vitals are displaying a degree of agitation and discomfort that could be detrimental to your overall health. We can terminate the program now if you wish, or reload it with different parameters."
"No it's fine, it's just that people like you don't understand. Civilians, I mean."
Avi smiles, spreading her hands wide. "Of course we don't, but that's why I am here. We want to learn what it's like from your perspective, so we can better help veterans assimilate back into society post-combat."
He sighs. "We better get started then."
Avi stretches out her hand to him. He hesitates before taking it. She feels solid. Real. Her smile is engaging and gentle.
"This is possibly the most screwed up date I've ever been on," he mutters.
"Only possibly?"
That makes him smile. "You never met my ex. Come on, let's get this over with."
He pushes open a door and steps into a large, open-plan office high up in a skyscraper. Debris, broken glass, and abandoned computer equipment litters the floor, while a cold breeze blows in from the broken windows.
Avi looks about her. "This is how you remember things?"
He walks past a long row of white cubicles, trying not to look at the burnt corpses inside. "No."
"Please explain, Jack. We are supposed to be revisiting your trauma."
"We are," he says as he continues to walk.
He hears her picking up her pace to catch up with him. "I'm afraid that I don't understand you."
"Whenever I close my eyes, this is what I see. Whenever Marcus asks me about my time in service, this is what I think about."
He walks to the large corner office at the end of the floor. There is a gaping hole where the windows once stood, and paperwork dances in the wind like giant flakes of snow. He does not enter the room.
"Where is this?"
"The result of my first command. I called in a localized drone strike to knock out an insurgent leader."
"What went wrong?"
He feels his face twist. "Everything. Intel was bad for a start; the woman we were after was at a meeting six blocks away when we hit. Then something went wrong on impact; maybe they'd rigged the place up with explosives, or maybe it was faulty wiring. God knows. Either way, it blew out this entire floor and killed fifty two people."
Avi places a hand on his shoulder. "If they were enemy combatants-"
Jack barks out a laugh. "Look around you! These people weren't soldiers; it's just an office block. They were just normal people going about their normal day and I killed them all. The twenty-year-old intern, the woman three days from retirement, the guy who had just become a father. All dead because I screwed up."
There is a brief silence. Jack looks down at his feet to stare at the photograph he already knows will be there.
"How do you know all this?" asks Avi.
"It was all over the internet within hours of the strike. How could I not know?"
Avi bends down to pick up the photograph. She studies the face of the smiling boy for a few moments. "The footage that you saw was filmed by enemy insurgents. The government has classed it as propaganda."
Jack snorts, but says nothing.
"Is this what you always see?"
"No, sometimes it's worse." He takes her hand and walks towards a door at the far side of the room. He takes a deep breath and pushes it open.
Everything swings to the right, and they emerge in the midst of a busy triage tent. Medics run from gurney to gurney in a pattern that must make sense to them, but looks chaotic to an outsider. The air reverberates with distant gunfire and shell explosions. The edges of the tent blow inwards as helicopters bring in more casualties from the front line. There are groans, sobs, screams, and the shouting of medics as they try to make themselves heard over the injured and dying.
"Where is this?" asks Avi. "I can find no record of this place in the archives."
"It's classified," says Jack, unable to resist smirking.
"Why did we come here?"
Jack nods over to the furthest table, where medics are frantically trying to stop blood gushing from the remains of a soldier's lower leg.
"Because I did this."
Avi studies the scene before her. "These people are wearing our uniforms. We appear to be in a semi-urban area somewhere in Western Europe, but you were never stationed here during active service."
"Did Marcus even upload my therapy notes to your database?"
"No. The point of this simulation is for you to guide it, not me. Please explain what we are witnessing here."
Jack stares at the young soldier laid out on the nearest gurney. Her eyes are open, her chest still.
"This is the other place I go to in my nightmares. This is where every death that resulted from my mistakes, my inadequacies, comes to haunt me." He points at the young woman before him. "This is Trooper Tam. She died when a supply convoy was attacked. I could see it all happening from the satellite cam, but their radio was down and I couldn't tell them about the ambush. Twenty-seven soldiers died that day, and their names are engraved on my heart."
He walks deeper into the triage tent, the medics moving around him as though he isn't there. Jack stops before a weeping man. His legs are gone, and the bandages are sticky with blood. "Corporal Gardner. I didn't spot the heat signature from the bomb in time to prevent him getting hurt. He never adjusted to life outside the military and wound up a homeless addict. He committed suicide three years ago."
Avi tilts her head to the side, her eyes scanning the faces of the wounded. "This space represents all the soldiers whose death you feel responsible for."
Jack nods and takes her hand. "Yes, but it gets worse."
They leave the tent, pushing open the flap and stepping into the ruins of an abandoned cathedral. Thousands of people stand before them in row upon row of silent accusation. They are a mixture of soldier and civilian, ally and enemy. Some bear the wounds of combat, others clutch photographs or weapons. The air stinks of hatred and anger.
"Where are we?"
"The place where my sins come back to haunt me."
Mumbles begin to emanate from the crowd. They draw together into a close formation, every one of them staring directly at Jack.
"Marcus wants to end the simulation," says Avi. "He thinks he has a better idea of what you are battling with."
Jack raises his eyebrows in mock surprise. "He does? And how many people has he killed?"
The mumbles are growing into shouts. People hold up their photographs and shout out names and threats.
"It is time to leave, Jack. Marcus says you are resisting the discharge protocol. We must withdraw from the simulation before permanent damage is done to your brain."
"And what the fuck does the good doctor know about damage? Look at them, Avi. Look at all the people whose lives I have touched. Can you blame them for wanting to thank me for my work?"
The crowd moves closer, then rocks and bottles are being thrown at him. Avi places a hand on his chest and begins to push him away from the mob, using her body as a shield.
"These people are not real, Jack. They are just your subconscious trying to make sense of your time in the forces. You did nothing wrong, but you are suffering the psychological effects of combat. We need to leave the simulation now. Please, stop resisting the discharge."
Jack smiles, but his heart is pounding out a violent rhythm. "Marcus wants to know what it feels like, doesn't he? He wants to know why some of us go crazy?"
Avi shakes her head. She winces as a bottle impacts her shoulder, but otherwise ignores both it and the increasingly hostile crowd.
"Marcus only wants to find a better way to understand your trauma. Get out of here, Jack, before any more damage is done to your mind. Please."
There is a note of panic in her voice that he guesses is truly coming from Marcus.
"This can't hurt any more than it does in my nightmares," he says, spreading out his arms. The mob surges forward, screaming at him and hurling missiles as they run.
"Jack!" shouts Avi, and then the mob is upon them.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Author Comments

PTSD and chronic depression are very real issues for many war veterans, and it is often difficult for sufferers to share their experiences with people "back home." This story was the result of a discussion about how advances in medical technology could be used to treat mental health conditions, or at the very least to bring about a greater level of understanding of the way pain can manifest in the mind. The title is a reference to the poem A Terre by the WWI poet, Wilfred Owen, who captured the trauma of combat in a way that is just as poignant today as it was a century ago.

- Gemma Elizabeth Noon
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