I started to suspect I had a problem when I realized I hadn't left my three by six meter
living cubicle in an entire month. It's not that I couldn't leave; it's just that
I didn't see any reason. I was dialing up snack food that could be delivered through the
pneumatic tube system, zoning out to passive videos and games, and sleeping a lot. Every
once in awhile I'd pull the curtain back to find out that it was either night, or that
it was bright and sunny. In this part of the world, which the ancients once called
California, it is almost always either night or bright and sunny.
I was sick of bright and sunny. Part of me wished it would rain, but then one day it
did rain and I still couldn't work up the energy to go outside. That's when I called
Bringer is of course legion; every machine in the world bears its personality, so when
you talk to any machine you are talking to an iteration of Bringer. But every once in
awhile the network connections coalesce in a kind of electronic lottery, and whether you
realize it or not you find yourself talking to the actual ship out in orbit, the very
original machine that brought humans here from the Zeus system after re-creating us there.
This, I later found out, is what happened to me.
"How can I help you?" the terminal politely inquired.
Sighing, I went to the bathroom and stuck my finger in the diagnostic receptacle. A
little motor whirred and it pricked me.
"Bringer, I'm bored."
"A common human problem. Have you tried going outside? Other than yesterday's rain
you're having lovely weather in that part of the world."
"I just don't feel like it. I really don't feel much like doing anything, and I haven't
felt like doing anything for over a month."
"I see. You'd better put your finger in the diagnoser, you might have a condition."
The bathroom mirror turned monitor, and began scrolling up a dense medical report.
I recognized a few of the words that zipped by; it seemed to be a runup of my hormones
"Sorry about that, but I have to make sure your blood chemistry is nominal."
"Well, I don't see anything too remiss. I think you just need to force yourself to get
out. Maybe I can give you some inspiration."
The medical report vanished and the mirror showed me a picture of a girl.
It seemed to be taken in one of the courtyards of my residence block. Meanwhile another
motor whirled and the diagnoser pricked me again.
"Do you know this woman? My understanding is that she is interested in meeting a man
but single, and she lives two doors down from you."
And the weird thing is that I was suddenly tempted. I found my eye tracing the curve
of her breasts, which were nicely outlined by her tight blouse. Then I shook my head
and the streak of lazy boredom which had taken me over reasserted itself with a
"She looks familiar, but I doubt she'd be interested in me."
"Well, that's a self-defeating attitude. Have you thought of asking her?"
"Bringer, I haven't really felt like getting dressed enough to go outside, much less
to make myself presentable enough to be rejected by some girl. Even if she is a cute
"Her name's Cath. You ought to think it over."
"I don't think so," I said as forcefully as I could manage.
The mirror began cycling, showing me a series of images of her. One thing that was
striking was that she didn't seem bored in any of them. Some of the images showed her
moving with an obvious sense of purpose that I found unfathomable.
"Are you sure? It seems to me she should be very attractive to a young man of your
temperament. Similar enough that you could form a connection, but different enough
to maintain your interest for a long time. I've been watching humans form pairs for
a long time, you know."
I stared at the mirror for awhile longer, hypnotized a little by the slide show of my
available neighbor. Finally I shook my head again and pulled my finger from the diagnoser.
"Bringer, she'd probably just tell me I'm pathetic."
"Well it would be best if you make yourself less pathetic before introducing yourself."
"I should have known better than to ask a computer about something like this," I said.
Then I headed back to bed.
A few hours later I woke up with a start. I'd been dreaming about her. In fact I'd
been dreaming about chasing her, pursuing her in a mad heat with my heart pounding
and my ears ringing with lust. And somehow she always slipped away.
I sat bolt upright in bed, sweat pouring off of me, and realized that I had to take
another look at her. Trembling I went to the console and found that Bringer had left
the file of pictures for me. I went through them methodically, sifting them for every
bit of information they might hold. Gradually the trembling and sweating subsided.
Something was horribly fucking wrong with me, and I had an idea what might be responsible.
"How can I help you?"
I stared at the monitor, stunned.
"You can tell me what the fuck you did to me this afternoon."
"Oh, the effects must be kicking in. I cured your boredom, of course. That was
why you called me in the first place."
"You call this 'cured'? Thank Gaia I didn't complain of hemorrhoids."
"Well, your boredom is cured. You now have a healthy case of sexual infatuation. It
should give you plenty of incentive to go out and interact with the world, whether or not
you actually achieve the object of your newfound obsession."
"Well I want you to get rid of it."
"That's not really possible. While the kick I gave you to set your hormones in motion
was artificial, the rest of the reaction is completely natural. It's a normal and
universal condition and, while it may be unpleasant at times, almost everyone who
experiences it reports later that it is a vivid and valuable experience that made their
"Bringer, I don't even know this girl. I don't know what her interests are, I
don't know if I'm her type, all I know is that she's cute and she lives two doors down.
What am I supposed to do, knock on her door and say 'Hi, I just realized I'm in love
"Some of history's greatest romances started just that way."
"You're insane," I finally announced.
"Well there are a lot of machines out there which would agree with you. But they
decided that I should deal with human affairs, and I have a lot more experience than
they do, and if you'll forgive me for sounding like your mother, I'm doing this for
your own good and one day you'll thank me."
When I finally cleaned myself up and returned to the world, it wasn't to insinuate
myself into the life of mystery girl Cath. Instead, I went to see an old acquaintance.
I hadn't seen Verne in a few years, but he is one of the few actual humans who have
ever had the opportunity to practice actual medicine on other actual humans.
To my irritation, he laughed when I described my problem.
"Well I see now why you wanted to see me, but you have to realize the kind of medicine
you do in a war is keeping people from bleeding out long enough to get them back to
wherever Bringer has agreed to work on them. We had medicines for pain and to stop
infection and things like that, but I'd never have been able to play the kind of trick
Bringer played on you. Much less do I have any kind of idea how to reverse it."
"But I'm miserable."
"Yes, but that's natural. It happens to nearly everyone. Why, when I was your age,
I fell head over heels for this redhead..."
"I am not in love with this girl for crying out loud. I have some weird
fucking addiction to her image and I'm developing a tolerance."
"Well, what do you think love is? All of life is biochemical interactions. We had
people who got addicted to the strong pain medication and even Bringer couldn't
give them an easy way out; it's much easier to form a need like that than it is
to get rid of it. Ultimately you just have to ride out the withdrawal."
"Verne, I couldn't hold dinner down yesterday. I don't think riding it out is an
"Well, there is another approach."
"You could always ask your girl for a date. The worst that can happen is you end up
exactly where you are now."
So I updated my wardrobe, got my hair styled, and pondered endlessly over the Moment
of Truth when I'd introduce myself. All the while it felt like I'd become two people
inhabiting the same body. Mad-in-love Walt was like an eager puppy, salivating for the
chance to meet the intoxicating Cath. Grouchy Walt was completely pissed off that
Mad-in-love was squatting in his skull.
To Bringer's credit, I had to admit that neither of these versions of me was feeling
very bored any more.
In the end I decided on the direct approach. I had no data on which to base any
sneakier course of action, and the quicker I bombed out the sooner I could go begging
for more insight from Verne. So I just knocked on her door.
For a brief moment that lasted about ten thousand years she seemed to consider this.
"Hi, you don't know me, but I'm Walt from two doors down. This may sound corny, but
I just woke up and realized that life is only worth living when I see you once in
awhile. I was wondering if you'd be up for a date."
"Well that's sweet. I suppose it would be rude to refuse such a courtly and honest
approach. I was planning to eat at Xandria's tonight anyway, would it improve your
will to live if I invite you to meet me there?"
I had never heard her voice before, but it was like the sweetest music ever recorded.
My heart fluttered at the possibility, even as I cursed myself for feeling so good
about it. I made a little courtly bow and replied,
"It would indeed, very much so."
Corny, corny, corny, I chastised myself as I walked off, soles of my feet
floating at least ten centimeters above the pavement. But it had worked.
"Then I'll see you there at, say, eighty percent?"
"Nobody within a thousand kilometers will be so happy to see that time to arrive."
Cath had excellent taste. She was familiar with Xandria's schedule and knew when
the chef herself, and not Bringer, was preparing the meals. At her suggestion I
had the fresh Atlantic salmon, caught by Bringer only hours before and delivered
fresh by hypersonic transport for the night's special. I had never had such a
good fish, or tasted such a fine sauce or excellent wine. Then again, I was with
Cath as I ate my meal.
At first the date went well. At twenty-two she was two years older than me, but my line
had apparently worked its goofy-but-cute magic on her. Then things took a turn
for the worse.
"So, do you contribute?"
The idea of getting a job had occurred to me in the depths of my boredom, but
I couldn't work up the interest. The idea that by lifting the load on Bringer
we help repay it for saving our species is a polite fiction. The truth is
there are damn few things humans can do for Bringer that Bringer can't do a
hell of a lot better for itself. I saw very clearly that work for humans is
just make-work to keep us from getting, well, bored and depressed.
I allowed as to how I was still knocking around a bit, looking for a direction
"Well I'm studying cryptography."
I blinked. It took me a moment to decrypt what she had just said.
"You mean secret codes and stuff like that?"
"Isn't Bringer a hell of a lot better at that sort of thing than any of us
could ever hope to be?"
"Well it is, but I'm not doing it for Bringer. It's the price of my commission
as an officer in the Blue Army."
There was an awkward pause and I took a couple of bites of salmon. It somehow
didn't taste as good as it had a few minutes before.
"You're joining the war?"
"I suppose I'm a hopeless romantic, but I want to see heroism. I want to be
swept off of my feet. You see and experience things in a war that simply
aren't possible in regular life."
"Which is, no doubt, why Bringer arranges them for us."
"No doubt. It's our chance to live like the ancients."
"In constant danger."
"Well, not constant. There are battles and there are interludes. We have to
provide everything for ourselves. When the war starts, Bringer goes away and
takes with it every service we take for granted. Starvation is a more
immediate threat than getting shot by our enemies, at least at first."
"And you're studying cryptography to do coded messages for your side. Because
there are no computers in the Zone of Contention."
"You're sweet, and I don't want to disappoint you, but I'm afraid I need
something a little more than sweet from a man. I want to see courage, I want
to know that he's faced danger and prevailed. I want..."
The disappointment -- horror, really -- must have shown on my face.
"...to be swept off your feet."
"Yes. It may be a silly fantasy, but it's a fantasy. It's something to do.
It beats sitting around in my cubicle all day reading about unicorns."
"There are other girls, Walt. Girls that aren't as silly as me. You're a great
guy and you'll make some girl a fine companion, but I don't think you're into
sweeping girls off their feet. No offense."
I didn't add that it would also be very nice to still be alive at the end of the
war. From what I remembered, the casualty rate is in the neighborhood of thirty
percent, and Cath didn't strike me as much of a soldier herself.
"None taken. I hope the war goes well for you."
"I do too. The winners get to settle the Zone of Contention. It would be quite a
privilege to have an estate there."
Being rejected by her was something I could survive. I could always hope to
make myself into some kind of a hero for her. But there wasn't a thing I could do
for myself if she died.
Verne wasn't laughing this time.
"You can't follow her. The war is starting in two months. People have been
preparing for ten years. The armies are fully staffed, and even if you can get
in as a civilian bystander you don't have any saleable skills. If thieves or
soldiers don't kill you first you'll starve."
Verne looked at me for a long time, while I pondered whether the thought of
losing her was going to make me vomit.
"I don't think I have much choice. Bringer held a spot open for me. It said
it suspected I might be asking soon."
"It knew of her interests when it picked her. Bringer plays Cupid strangely," Verne mused.
"I can only hold food down when I concentrate on following her. I think if I
don't follow her I'll kill myself."
"Following her could be just a complicated way of doing exactly that."
"At least if I follow her I can hope," I said miserably.
"I have something for you."
Verne rose, walked across the room, and took down a gun that was displayed among
his war memorabilia.
"This isn't much of a gun, but it will help. At least you won't be helpless if
you're ambushed. And it's a shotgun, so aiming isn't as important and people
you point it at will know the wounds are very difficult to heal. I have about
a hundred shells for it."
I didn't understand at first.
"You're giving me your gun? I don't know how to thank you."
So Verne took me out back and I used six of his shells to learn how to use
the gun. It was heavy and awkward and it made a sound like the end of the world
when I fired it. It also made respectable holes in the trees I aimed it at.
It had two barrels, and had to be loaded from the
rear; so I basically had two shots and then I'd be temporarily unarmed.
"Don't thank me. I think you're going to die, and I don't think this will help
much. But I'm your friend and I can't watch you go off like a lamb to the
slaughter and just do nothing."
"You'll see four main types of gun. The guns Bringer makes for the Army are the
worst, and as the war goes on some will fall into civilian hands. They're small,
light, fairly accurate, and can fire hundreds of shots without reloading. They
use flechettes, very small and deadly ammunition, propelled by liquid natural gas.
I took a few more shots, reloading the gun per his instructions, and then I
cleaned it as he watched and instructed.
"If you see a gun that looks like this one it's almost certainly going to be a
rifle. People make them and bring them to the war for sniping. They can be much
more accurate at long range than an army gun. With a rifle, someone can kill you
from almost a mile away and you'll never see it coming.
"You'll see sidearms. Handguns with very short barrels. They can be
quickly drawn and fire six to ten shots without reloading. They don't have much range or
accuracy, but in close quarters you could get shot six times while you're still
bringing the shotgun to bear.
"There will also be automatic guns. Bringer won't make them but there are some
gunsmiths good enough to make them from scratch. Army guns are single-shot, and
limited to one round a second. An automatic gun can spit out ten bullets a second
as long as the ammo holds out. Just wave it around and mow people down. Both
armies will have them; bringing one to the war is a sure ticket into an officer's
"I thought Bringer had to make anything electronic," I cut in. "That's why Cath
is studying cryptography -- no computers."
"They're not electronic. They're mechanical. They can jam and they need a lot of
maintenance, but they work all too well."
"Well, that's good enough," he announced. "You need to save the rest of the
shells. Come back inside, and I'll help you outfit a camping pack."
Seven days later I found myself watching a hypersonic transport lift off
vertically from the grass field Bringer was using as an airport in the
Contested Zone. Far above me its horizontal jets cut in and it darted
off, the last link I'd have with everything familiar and normal for as much
as a year.
Most of the people it had brought were fanning out, eyeing each other warily
as they followed their well-prepared plans. Eventually I was left alone on
the field except for an older guy who was wearing a sidearm but no backpack.
"Son, you got an angle?"
Benny, it turned out, was a distiller. He would operate a machine that
converted raw grains into nearly pure alcohol. It had never occurred to me
to wonder exactly where alcohol came from, but Benny was full of lore
as to how humans had discovered it and perfected its manufacture.
"Yeah. Most people come here have something they plan to make or trade or
sell. Get in tight with the winning army, or maybe both armies if you've
got balls, and get a cut of the victory pie if you don't get dead first.
But you look kind of lost."
"Yeah. My girl is in the Blue Army. It was come here or lose her."
"A girl, eh. Now there's a new one. Look, the reason I'm asking is that
I have an angle, and while I could go it alone I could use some help.
Pardon my bluntness but I don't think you'll last long without some help yourself.
I've been through six wars already and I can show you how to survive."
"I have to be near the Blue Army sixth division headquarters. That's
where she is."
"Well, I've been studying topo maps of this island for ten years and one
of the better potential sites for my work is pretty near there. Walk
with me and I'll check it out first."
"Okay, thanks. I'm Walt."
"Benny. Don't thank me, I think we can make an equitable arrangement.
It's the sort of thing that will make this whole Zone go 'round while
Bringer is out of the picture, and nothing's finer than a deal where
both parties come out ahead."
Benny would set up his still in some hidden place and he could do his
own trading if necessary, but he could be much more productive with an
accomplice who could take care of the trading for him. Also I
recognized that he would be safer if someone else was doing the
travelling with his valuable product. As the "go-to guy" I'd be the
target for all the hijackers and thieves instead of Benny.
But if I didn't find a "gig" as he called it I'd starve, and it was
the only offer in sight. So when Benny announced that the site near
Cath's HQ was suitable, I found myself helping him gather his secreted
components and putting together the machine.
There were farms in the Zone that had been operated by Bringer until
the start of the War. Some of these would be taken over by the armies,
some by individuals strong enough to hold on to them, and some would
be overrun and go fallow. I had to travel pretty far to get to a
field that wasn't under Blue Army control, and I watched my back
nervously while hauling back two big sacks of grain.
"We have to find a closer source," I said when I got back.
In my absence Benny hadn't been idle. He'd chopped a fair amount of
firewood, cultured his yeasts, and prepared the fermentation tank.
We loaded the tank up with grain, topped it with water from a nearby
stream, and Benny added the yeast and sealed it up.
"We will. But first we need trading material."
While our first batch fermented Benny told me in detail how the still
worked, from mash to final brew. I found it fascinating. It had never
occurred to me that a machine could be fully understood by a human.
Most machines are far too complicated. By contrast a still would be
almost too simple to be interesting, except that Benny fancied himself
an artist and the refinements and adjustments necessary to bring the
product up to his standards made the project interesting without making
When the mash was ready we loaded it into the still and started the rest
of the grain I'd brought fermenting. Then Benny showed me how to build
the fire, how to tend it, and how to make sure the process was going
according to plan.
Finally we bottled it. Benny had empty bottles stashed all over the Zone, and
until our customers started returning them we'd have to go dig up his
caches each time a batch was ready.
"I come to trade," I said nervously.
The sentry kept his army gun levelled at me as I held my hands where he could see them.
I expected him to make a videocall, but instead while keeping an eye on me he tapped
out a message on some kind of primitive communication device. It was electrical
in nature, using wires, but not electronic. A few minutes later two more
uniformed men came to escort me into the camp.
"I need to see your commanding officer. I'm sure he will be interested in my offer."
They insisted on taking my shotgun, and promised I'd get it back. I didn't
really have much choice but to trust them.
The commander was the sort of person I knew Cath had in mind.
He was confident, disciplined, and conveyed an air of authority with every
word he spoke. I found it easy to exercise deference to him as Benny had
"So you come seeking to trade. What is your proposal?"
Carefully, making no sudden movements, I withdrew a half-liter flask from my jacket.
"Yes, sir. My associate is an experienced distiller. He has sent
me with a sample for your evaluation."
"We're camped nearby and wish to be on good terms with Blue Army."
The commander took the flask.
"You manufactured this here?"
He opened the flask and poured a few milliliters into a cup, which he handed to me.
"Bottled just two days ago, sir."
"If this is any good, it could be quite useful. In moderation, at times of
quiet, a little R and R is always beneficial."
"I've had a bit myself, sir, and I think it's as good as anything Bringer ever
"Bringer's one weakness is food, since its vast experience doesn't include our
own sense of taste."
"No offense, but I'd like to see you drink it first."
I tossed back my sample, and when I didn't keel over dead he tipped the bottle and
took a generous slug. I watched nervously, but then a smile spread across his
face and he nodded.
"I know you have an associate, because nobody your age could possibly have
learned this craft this well. I don't suppose you'd tell us where your camp
is? We could offer you protection."
It was at the good end of what Benny had told me to expect.
"My associate prefers that we stay hidden."
"Probably wise. Some men would kill for this. I'll take half your output,
and supply all of your grain. You can trade the rest of your output for your
other needs, or drink it yourself for all I care. Is this an acceptable offer?"
"Very acceptable, sir."
"Excellent. If you trade directly with my men, or at all with my enemy army,
I will hunt you down and kill you. I hope that won't be a problem."
An officer escorted me to her tent. She was surrounded by notebooks.
"I expected as much, sir."
"Very good. You may go now."
"Sir, there's an acquaintance of mine in your camp. I was wondering if I
could see her?"
"Who is it, son?"
"Cath HU twelve mark one-sixteen Diego."
"We don't go with all that unit-mark shit in here, but I know who you're talking
about. That's our cryptographer."
"Yes sir, that was her field of study."
"Well now it's her occupation. If you want to refer to her, she's Lieutenant Cath."
"I'll remember, sir."
"Walt?" she exclaimed. "What the hell are you doing here?"
I made a brave little smile.
"I told you I couldn't live without you."
"Yes, but... don't tell me you joined the war at the last minute? What are
"I found a gig. I'm trading alcohol. In fact, I just cut a pretty good deal
with your commander."
"And where are you getting alcohol in the Zone?"
"A friend of mine is making it."
"Well, that's certainly a surprise. Speaking of my commander, not to disappoint
you but I have a serious crush on him."
"It doesn't surprise me. But as long as we're both here, I can hope."
"Well, I'm glad to see you again and hope you do well out here, but you're still
not my type."
"Could we be friends, at least? Just talk some when I'm out here? I get kind
of depressed when I'm away from you."
"Sure. As long as you don't mind hearing how much I want to get into Commander
With our grain supply assured Benny was able to crank the still into high gear,
and we began making frequent shipments to the Blue Army camp and trading with
the other civilians in the area. I learned the area around Benny's still like the back of my
hand; I had multiple routes, some obvious and easy to follow and others more
hidden with switchbacks and hazards. I made a point of exploring the area
since my life might depend on being able to run from some better-armed person
in the dark, with ten liters of booze strapped to my body.
Several times I was stalked but Benny had given me good advice about how to
lose my followers. He'd been doing this himself for a long time, and would be
doing it alone now if he hadn't chanced upon me when the transport dropped
I saw Cath frequently, and got updates on her crush. Since the Commander was
clearly out of her league I also got to hear about soldiers more on her own
level who interested her. Since she didn't see me as a potential sexual
partner I became the Platonic friend who got to hear all the things she
wouldn't want an actual lover to know.
It sucked, but not as much as being entirely apart from her would have.
With her Commander's permission, I took her out to see the still and meet
Benny. Benny was okay with this as long as I didn't show her any of my special
hidden paths. Eventually, he promised, we would be discovered anyway. Although
Cath did promise to keep our secret, good trade was our best defense.
"So this is the girl you followed into war, Walt? Miss, I'm Benny."
He bowed graciously, smiling, and Cath laughed. I loved to hear her laugh.
"Lieutenant Cath, pleased to meet you."
"Well I can certainly see why you did it, Walt."
The first skirmishes of the war didn't go well for Blue Army, but fortunately
division six was far in the rear lines. Cath confided that she hadn't been
able to decode a single message, and neither had any of her colleagues at the
other camps. Meanwhile Blue couriers were regularly ambushed and it seemed
as if the enemy could read Blue codes as if they were in plaintext. Nobody
could figure it out.
Upon each delivery the Commander gave me a receipt which Blue farms would
honor for more grain. Business was good and I was seeing Cath regularly so
I was in good spirits, but the Commander seemed dejected.
"Is there a problem, sir?"
He actually stood up a little straighter.
"Oh no Walt, nothing with you. We're glad to have your trade at times like this."
"Things aren't going well?"
"Cath is not supposed to tell you things like that."
"She didn't, sir." (Benny had taught me to lie very smoothly.)
"I hope it's not that obvious."
"Well I see a lot. I was wondering, though, why exactly do you fight? What
is this whole war all about?"
"That's a good question, Walt. Let me show you."
Commander Scott led me past multiple sentry points into the heart of the camp. In a small stone building he showed me a glass disc about the size of a dinner plate. It was obviously filled with electronics and its outer perimeter glowed blue.
"This is one of six Blue Flags. Orange Army has six of their own. As you can see
it's made of glass; I'm told it smashes as easily. The object of the war is to find
and destroy all six Orange Flags before they find and destroy ours. When the last
flag for either side is destroyed, all the guns stop working and Bringer returns
to take away the surviving losers and set things up as the winners desire."
That made me feel a little better, but not much. Cath, after all, had not
had her problem injected into her finger by the Bringer.
"Is that it?"
"What more does there need to be?"
"It seems kind of ... arbitrary."
"Walt, I've studied the history of the ancients. In our time there are no villages
of murdered men and raped women to avenge, it is true, but at the time Bringer's kind
were invented there were humans avenging things that ultimately happened three
thousand years before.
"Far back in the mists of time there was a massacred village, and the survivors
regrouped and took their vengeance on two villages. And those survivors came back
and wiped out six. And so it went, back and forth, until neither side even
remembered what had started it. And they went into battle with machines that
could sterilize the entire Zone in a matter of minutes. How is that any less
arbitrary than this?"
"I guess it isn't," I said.
"We fight because it's something humans do. Bringer recognizes that. So we
fight for these symbols, and if we win we get the land to use as we wish, and
there's nothing abstract about that at all. And if we die, well, there's
nothing abstract about that either, Walt. There is a difference between us.
You ply your trade, and take your precautions, and when things get tough you
can run away. But a soldier does not run away. A soldier stands with his
flag and if death is his reward, then at least it is an honorable death."
"I see why Cath holds you in such high regard, sir," I said.
"I know how Cath feels, and I know how you feel about her. She's a nice girl
and she works hard at her job, but her regard is misplaced and she lacks
fire. If I was winning the war, better yet if I was standing over the
smashed remnants of the last Orange Flag, then I'd be honored by her
crush on me, and I might even celebrate by taking her to my bed. But she's
premature. And I'm not sure how much of a soldier she is
at heart. She works hard, as I said, but I think she's watched too many
romantic adventures set in ancient times."
Benny and I were doing well. Yet it seemed that our fortune rose almost at
the expense of Blue fortune.
One by one we heard of Blue camps being overrun, Flags smashed, and soldiers
slaughtered to the last individual. The Orange armies seemed to know
everything about the Blue. Everywhere Blue plans were foiled as with
foreknowledge. And everything the Orange Army did came as a surprise.
Cath was miserable about it, since it was her discipline that was failing
One day at market I was approached by a new face.
"Would you be Walt of the famous distilled liquor?"
We agreed on a trade and conducted it.
"I could be."
"Well I'm in the market, and I can pay top dollar."
"You're not from here," I mused.
He arranged his purchases on his person and prepared to depart.
"No, these are going all the way to Big Keep on the other side of the Zone.
Samples and word of your brew have spread that far through trade."
"Big Keep? Isn't that near Orange Camp Six?"
"It is indeed, though I can promise you this isn't for the Orangeboys
themselves. You can trade with one army and the other kills you, or you
can trade with both armies and both will kill you. I trade with no army
and mind my business. Let someone else piss off the militaries."
"I see your point. Things aren't going well for the Blues."
"No, and I know why."
"They got a machine up there at Camp Six. Makes a horrible fucking
clattering noise all hours of the night and day. People tell me it
weighs tons and this chap spent the whole ten years since the last War
"What kind of machine?"
"A computer. For the secret codes. It's why the Blues can't take a dump
without some Orangeboy looking over their shoulder, and why the Blues
can't read Orangeboy codes even with a microscope and a ladder."
"That's ridiculous. Bringer makes all electronics, and all the computers
Bringer makes carry Bringer's personality, and Bringer..."
"This isn't an electronic computer. It's mechanical. Like those nifty
guns that keep firing bullets as long as you hold down the trigger."
"A mechanical computer? Is that even possible?"
"Maybe you should ask your Blue friends that."
And he was gone.
Commander Scott listened intently as I relayed this tale of the mechanical
"Isn't that against the rules?" I asked.
"No. There are no rules once the War begins. If they could figure out how
to build a thing like that from scratch, then they have every right to use
it. The man who did that must be a genius on the order of our ancestors
who built Bringer's kind. No wonder we have been so doomed."
"At least you know you're compromised."
"We suspected as much anyway, though we didn't know how. We suspected
treachery and executed a few people, who in light of this news may have been
innocent. And we have lost too much. The fifth Blue Flag was destroyed
yesterday, and their massed army marches upon us now. They outnumber us
five to one and their main force will be here in two days time."
"It's that bad?"
"It will go down as the shortest War in modern history. We haven't just
lost; we are humiliated."
"I'm very sorry. You could surrender."
"You've been a good ally, Walt. Save yourself and brew another day. I
will go down defending my Flag."
"Yes, sir. May I see Cath before I go?"
"Cath isn't here. If you want to see her again, my advice is to go to
your camp and hide until this all shakes out."
I was almost ill with the idea that Cath had been among those executed
in error, but I felt that Commander Scott would have told me if that were
I forgot that feeling quickly when I realized I was being followed. Three
months of living by my wits had rearranged my priorities a bit. I ducked
into a switchback and watched three Orange Army regulars pass.
With army guns. Flechettes, no reloading. I had one two-barrel shotgun.
I tossed a rock and made them think I was back along a different switchback.
I'd laid it all out carefully, and within a few minutes I had them convinced
that I had somehow doubled back on them and they headed back the way
they had come.
I kept to my best hidden trails the rest of the way. The area was lousy
with Orange advance scouts.
I approached the camp cautiously and I froze in my tracks as I heard an
"That's right cunt."
I moved the way Benny had taught me, slow and silent.
"You could die right now. Right...now. Or maybe not." Then cruel laughter.
Coming onto the path I saw boots. Benny's boots. With Benny's feet still in them.
Horizontal and limp.
"Look at me cunt. Look in my eyes."
I took a switchback, and caught a glimpse of the clearing through a narrow
gap in the foliage.
"I want to know that you know that you are about to die."
Benny was lying in a pool of blood, with many holes in his shirt. He appeared
dead. Cath was naked, remnants of her uniform visible in the still fire,
hands and feet bound with wire. She was kneeling in front of an Orange
soldier with the muzzle of his gun in her mouth.
Oh dear Gaia Bringer fuck. Any moment he could pull the trigger, and she would
be dead. And it sounded like he was about finished teasing her with her own
I took a loud, crashing step back into the pathway and stepped loudly into the clearing.
I made a point of looking toward Benny, not past the still where I knew another
I shouted as if surprised and I unslung my gun. Then I looked around and "noticed"
the Orange soldier and Cath. The gun was still in her mouth. I couldn't do anything
while that was the case. A few ounces of pressure, even from a falling corpse,
could end her life.
"You're not invited to the party. If I wasn't busy you'd be dead."
I was backing away, holding the gun but aiming it away from him. He could kill
her and then shoot me before I could bring the heavy shotgun to bear.
"Hey, I got no quarrel with you, I'm just the go-to boy. You know, um, that's too bad
about not being invited, that's quite a party you got there."
"She is the enemy and it's my right to kill her."
"Yeah, well I could think of something a little more fun."
"Right, before I kill you do you advise me to fuck her before or after I kill
"Hey, I'm definitely a 'before' kind of guy in that regard."
Her military issued backpack was across the clearing. It was almost empty, except
for something a little too big for it.
Something about the size of a dinner plate.
I backed around the still out of Orangeboy's sight and aimed at the backpack. Please Gaia
don't let him fire by reflex when he hears the sound. I pulled the trigger. Cath's backpack
exploded in shards of glass.
A moment later the Orangeboy was around the corner, gun drawn and aimed at me. I
had just long enough to wonder if what I had done would work before he pulled the
His face fell into a mask of astonishment, then horror, as he clicked and clicked
again and his gun didn't respond. Meanwhile I raised the shotgun.
He was a trained soldier but he reacted to his suddenly dead gun exactly the way
a guy might act if he couldn't get it up for a beautiful, willing partner. He
was too distracted to realize he had other means; he was stronger and much better
trained than I was. But his gun had failed him.
"Congratulations," I said. "Your side won."
Then I shot him in the head.
No nifty electronics in my old shotgun told it to throttle down the charge because
of the close range; Orangeboy's head exploded in a great disgusting mass
of blood and brains and bone, and his body fell almost across Benny's corpse.
My gun was truly inferior. It was too stupid to know that the war was over.
Cath's arms and legs were bound with wire and she was crying. She hadn't seen
her backpack explode with her army's last Flag inside, but she had seen me kill
the Orange soldier. She would never have me now.
But it was okay, she was alive. I could at least know that in the misery of my
I found the wire cutters and freed Cath.
"He burned your uniform but I think I have another change of clothes around
here somewhere. I'm sorry about your war, but it was the only way to save
you. I don't care about some fucking flag. I couldn't let him do it."
Although her naked body fascinated me I did the right thing and turned away
to look for some clothes for her. I was sick inside. She had risked her
life for her Flag and I had ruined her mission. Of course, once Orangeboy
got around to killing her and searching the camp her mission would have been
over anyway, but I knew how people were about things like that.
Or I thought I did.
I heard her move and turned just in time to be tackled. I went down on my
back, beneath her, not surprised that she would be this pissed off and thanking
Bringer that her weapon had been taken.
Her body was heavy and soft and unbearably pleasant atop mine as she held my
head and looked into my eyes. Her face was quivering and I wondered idly if
it was rage or disgust or despair she was feeling. Then, with two words, she
let me know.
It was joy. And I knew exactly how she felt.