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NEW FICTION: Simplify (Earth/Ryka War Series)

December 15, 2002

From the personal data files of SDS Ariel Baxter (PFA Division 10-13):

December 18. The holiday season is upon us. Throughout the halls of Central there are various reminders of this fact though none more apparent than those within the mess hall where our daily rations include a wheat gluten-based cracker in the shape of a Christmas tree. The top of this crispy biscuit has been colored with red food dye to resemble a shining star. It is a pathetic reminder of just how far away from civilization we really are. Meters distant, in the food preparation area of the mess hall, Bing Crosby is singing and swaying to the tune of White Christmas on the bubble VDT.
On Earth, Christmas shoppers busily scroll through thousands of screen displays in search of the perfect gifts for friends and loved ones. Several corporations (most notably FAO Schwartz, Clinique, Victoria’s Secret, and Columbia House) have made available their catalogs to PFA personnel via satellite. However, fearing the software would either corrupt or slow the network feed, PFA command has limited to three the number of processors on which the fuzzyware may be loaded. The terminals have been placed in the mess hall and there is always a queue.
CMA Preston Iberman is standing at one of the terminals scrolling though screen upon screen of the Winter 2113 2.35 Victoria’s Secret catalog.
“Preston,” I call, walking toward the food queue; he is too engrossed to respond.
“Any day now, Iberman,” one of the personnel in line behind him shouts.
“Yeah, c’mon already,” another says.
I look over my shoulder to see Iberman turn to those behind him.
“You grunts wouldn’t understand. I got a special lady on Earth, I’ve got to find her a special gift—so back the hell off!”
As I walk through the luncheon queue my tray is loaded with the latest in scientifically engineered foodstuffs, all enhanced with vitamins and nutrients, all developed to convert chemically into energy (thus eliminating the need for biological elimination as it were), all of which tastes like recycled paper pulped from sewer water.
“What’s this?” I ask, as the tree-shaped gluten cracker is dropped onto my tray.
The mess chef, a stoic little man with a wafer-thin moustache and a heavy, almost comical, Soviet dialect says, “Is Christmas tree. What, you don’t know Christmas tree?”
“It’s very nice,” I tell him, and step out of the queue with my tray. I bite into the top of the biscuit and walk toward a table where AGS Bobby Sawyer is seated.
“How is it?” he asks, examining a similar gluten tree with his right hand.
“Ever have tira misu?”
“Once or twice.”
“It’s nothing like tira misu.”
Sawyer sniffs curiously at the item before returning it to his tray. Across the room several personnel express their growing displeasure with Iberman who is still drooling over the VDT. “Do you believe this holiday shopping shit?” Bobby Sawyer asks.
“It’s not as bad as all that is it?”
“I dunno. Seems way too surreal. I mean, we go out onto the surface of this godforsaken terrain and kill kill kill, then back inside to shop for Christmas presents. That’s some messed up shit.”
“It may be messed up, but it reminds us that we’re still alive. And it reminds us of whom we are.”
“Maybe so, but it’s not easy being all ‘ho ho ho and Merry Christmas’ when you’re lying next to a dead man and trying to avoid being picked off on a Rykan fly-by.”
“Christ, Bobby. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I’m not about to let this war strip away my humanity. I’m not about to forget about the folks back home who—”
“Alright, alright. Point taken. You can climb down off your soapbox.”
A moment of silent tension hangs in the air like a leaf caught in an updraft, but it soon passes as a half-dozen personnel begin to applaud as SDS Preston Iberman at last completes his purchases and steps away from the VDT. Iberman ignores their sarcasm and caustic remarks; he walks toward the lunch queue.
“Christ, that guy must have some sweet piece of ass candy back on Earth,” Sawyer says.
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean is, he’s always ordering lingerie, flowers, all kinds of shit.”
“He hasn’t anyone.”
“Must be shopping for someone.”
“No. I think he just likes to shop. But don’t call him on it, okay?”
A few minutes pass as more personnel enter the mess. SDS Iberman drops his tray at our table and sits down.
“Another fucking banquet.”
“Nothing but the finest,” Sawyer says.
“I’ve eaten tastier food of the hood of my Plymouth,” Iberman says.
“You, uh, all finished Christmas shopping?” I ask.
“Not quite. But I couldn’t concentrate with those savages breathing down my neck.” He looks over his shoulder at the VDT queue and shouts. “Savages!”
“So, uh, what’d ya get so far?” Sawyer asks, looking innocently in my direction.
“Well, nothing I can really relate to you grunts seeing as how you’re all unattached back home.”
“What’s her name?” Bobby queries.
SDS Iberman looks up from his plastic tray and stares at him from across the table. “I’m afraid that information is on a need-to-know basis.”
“Right, and I need to know.”
“That won’t be happening,” Iberman says, biting into the trunk end of a seitan-based tree-shaped foodstuff, “not now, not ever.” His face contorts from stone-like seriousness to one of utter confusion and annoyance. “The fuck is this?” he asks, spitting out the mouthful of food and drinking fast and deep from a bottled protein beverage.
“Christ, Iberman, we’re trying to eat here!” Sawyer shouts.
“Sorry. I just wonder if the science-techs who manufacture this shit ever actually taste it.”
“Not likely,” Martinez says, sitting down at our table.
“What’s the word of the day, M?”
Martinez pushes aside his tray and glances cautiously over each shoulder. He lowers his voice and whispers: “Got it on good authority that we may be entering a 1-week ceasefire.”
“The fuck out of here.”
“Serious dope.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“I’m in communications; it’s my job. But don’t say boo to no one else.”
“Man oh man, I seriously wouldn’t mind a week off from this shit,” Iberman says, as he begins to eat.
“No offense, Marty, but I’ll believe it when I hear it from someone official.”
“Low profile,” Martinez whispers as COO Lt. Commander Preston Stone enters the mess. He bypasses the VDTs and walks directly to the lunch queue, taking two protein shakes and cutting to the front of the line. Several personnel in the queue step back, a gesture based more on fear than politeness. As Stone walks away from the queue, one of the newer personnel, SAS Charlie Parker, who is carrying a tray replete with foodstuffs, collides with the commanding officer. The tray, along with its orange and white contents, drops to the ground.
“Parker!” Stone cries, setting the pair of protein shakes on a nearby condiment table. “The hell is wrong with you, soldier?”
“Sorry sir, I—”
“Watch where you’re going for Christ’s sake! And clean that shit up!”
“Yes sir, comm—”
“Semper Fi!” Stone yells, and walks out of the mess.
“Guy’s wrapped tighter than a 4,000-year-old mummy,” Sawyer says.
“Someday he’s gonna pull that ‘Semper Fi’ bullshit one too many times and send one of us over the edge, present company excluded, of course.”
“Too late,” Martinez says; we laugh for a moment at the joke.
“Good one, M.”
“No, man, I’m serious. It already happened.”
“The hell are you talking about?” I ask.
“If you’ll all just shut up a minute and eat your Wheaties I’ll tell you.”
“Wheaties. Man, I’d kill for a bowl of fucking Wheaties,” Iberman says as he swallows one final bite before shoving his tray aside.
SDS Howie Drake steps up to the table and joins us.
“How’s the throwing arm?” Sawyer asks.
“Fair to midland.”
“Saddle down, Howie. Mr. Martinez is about to regale us with a tale of our esteemed Lt. commander’s past exploits.”
“Semper fucking Fi,” Iberman says lazily.
“Alright, but this is wasted on the lot of you I’m sure. The first thing you should know about our Lt. Commander is that he’s been with the PFA since its formation in ‘91.”
“Christ he’s old.”
“Back when you and I were kids playing with Union Boxes and watching the Scour Show on ABCNN, Stone was rising through the ranks of the PFA faster than one of Mr. Drake’s javelins. By the time the Eastern War for Secession was drawing to a close in ’99—just before the dissolution of the Union—Stone was the AA Division’s Lt. Commander.
“You’ll recall from modern history that most of the fighting during the Eastern War occurred in the former states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and New York (though by this time the Big Apple was little more than a radioactive sinkhole). As you know, most of the war was fought on the ground. Both the USCDF and the PFA realized the folly of the New York attacks and no one wanted a repeat in other geographic areas.
“Stone was the same hard-assed son-of-a-bitch he is today. He said little but when he did talk he spoke loudly, always ending each command with his signature ‘Semper Fi.’ He was well liked by the upper brass and was subsequently given the most experienced personnel as well as the most perilous assignments. ‘Course, at the time, ‘experienced’ personnel were few and far between.
“On March 21, 2098, Lt. Commander Stone and AA Division are ordered into the mountains of West Virginia, specifically, the hill known as 1001-01. Hill 1001-01 serves as a strategic communication post for the US Central Dissolution Forces. It is heavily fortified with personnel and munitions. The conflict between AA Division and the USCDF begins more than 50 miles away from the hill. Communication is of the utmost importance to the USCDF; its leaders cannot allow the communications post atop the Hill to be captured or destroyed; AA Division cannot not allow it not to be captured or destroyed.
“COO Stone commands more than 3,500 PFA personnel, about one-half of whom are Marshall 21 sharpshooters.”
“Okay, I got a question,” Sawyer says. “Why didn’t the PFA simply bomb the hill. Could have used any number of non-nukes to get the job done—SCD bombs, ATTA-missiles, Detno-charges.”
“Part of the USCDF’s success was due to the 2094 kidnapping of four of the PFA’s top weapons-development researchers. These individuals were conditioned with IDC-9, an iodine-based mind-control drug developed mid-century in Istanbul. Once under its influence, the brains of the PFA techs were like ripe pumpkins ready to be scooped open. Wasn’t long before the USCDF knew the strengths and weakness of the PFA’s arsenals—as well as what the techs had been developing prior to their abduction—and how to negate them. Thus it comes down to ground troops and weapons fire.
“Most of the men under Stone’s command are new to combat, and some are less than ideal PFA candidates.”
“Why’s that?” SDS Howie Drake asks, hanging on Martinez’s every word.
“You kidding? Look at the PFA casualties between ‘94 and ‘98. The units were starving for personnel; the PFA couldn’t afford to discriminate. That said, lemme just say a word or two about SDS Franklin Moskowitz.”
“I’ve heard that name before,” Iberman says.
“Not surprising. Moskowitz joined the PFA in August of ’97. His first tour of duty was with the 172nd Airborne. Plane was shot down over Johannasburg on September 2; nearly all aboard escaped alive but were captured and tortured by a renegade USCDF kill squad. For five months the personnel of the 172nd were maimed and murdered, one per week, with a slowness and attention to detail that would make psychotics like Ted Bundy, Albert DeSalvo, Henry Lee Lucas, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Oskar Nucero gasp in admiration. Moskowitz was the last to be tortured, though no doubt, the psychological horror of watching his fellow troops be slaughtered over the course of 25 weeks was far worse than any physical punishment his captors could inflict. When he was finally rescued, Moskowitz’s captors were in the process of nailing him to a roughly fashioned crucifix. Amazingly, he was reassigned to AA Division after a two-week recovery and assessment period.”
“Wait a second. I thought you were telling us a story about Stone. What’s all this shit about Moskowitz?” Iberman asks, looking curiously toward the VDT screens. Like so many of Iberman’s questions, this one is ignored.
“The battle over Hill 1001-01 begins on March 31 at 3:21 a.m., when the first shots are fired. AA Division is 50 miles away from the actual hill, and the actual target. The killing continues daily over the next several weeks. Everyday AA Division gains a little more ground, moves a little closer toward its target. During this time, SDS Moskowitz suffers a 50% hearing loss when a Marshall 21 is fired only inches from his right ear. He is an excellent marksman and Stone needed every marksman available, injuries be damned.
“When, on April 13, Stone and AA Division reach the foot of Hill 1001-01, only 500 of the initial 3,500 PFA troops are still alive. All the while, Stone continues his standard ‘business as usual’ schtick.’ The fatigue of constant battle is wearing heavy on his troops and on Stone himself. He rarely speaks to his personnel, rarely says anything aside from ‘Semper Fi!’
“Unknown to Stone, Moskowitz, had begun using an hallucinogenic drug known as CL-235, a cocaine-lithium mixture with a 235 mg hit of trileminal, that he’d pulled from the supply bag of a USCDF advance scout he’d killed weeks earlier. In his altered state, and probably due in part to his compromised hearing, Moskowitz’s mind begins misinterpreting the words ‘Semper Fi’.”
“Misinterpreting in what way?” SDS Howie Drake asks curiously.
“Every time Stone cries ‘Semper Fi’—which as any of you Joes know is quite often—Moskowitz hears ‘Simplify!’ The fighting on the hill continues for several days, with Moskowitz ingesting CL-235 more and more frequently. The drug begins to affect the neuroprocessing centers of his mind, and his world transforms from a sharp focus to a dull haze. Leafy trees are seen as crooked lines of brown and green. The grass- and mud-covered terrain is viewed as a simple wave of colors. The sky becomes a paper cut out of blue and white. And the men and women around him become as nondescript as the environment. There is no difference between man or woman, between PFA and USCDF. They are all simplified round objects that bounce back and forth atop a simplified terrain on a simplified sunny afternoon. Moskowitz opens fire with a 2,000-round Ness-73 ARF, shooting at each moving shape in his deranged scope of vision. The ARF brings down more than one-half of the remaining PFA and nearly as many USCDF personnel. COO Stone is wounded but survives. The hill is lost and the PFA, now less than 100, retreat.”
“The hell you say. Hill 1001-01 fell.” Iberman says sharply.
“It fell; but not on that day; not by Stone or AA.”
“What happened to Moskowitz?”
“Depends on who you ask.”
“On who you ask?”
“There are two scenarios, each of which I will explain and deconstruct: The first, and most popular theory of what became of SDS Franklin Moskowitz, is that COO Stone, although wounded, killed Moskowitz as he was firing the Ness-73 at his fellow personnel. However, a review of the Stone’s medical report shows that he was hit with four Y-23 cadmium-laced concussion shells; it’s extremely unlikely Stone was conscious, much less about to fire a kill shot at Moskowitz, who was several hundred meters from Stone. It would, however, account for Stone’s slow ascension up the military career ladder since the PFA would have viewed Stone’s actions as unbecoming.”
“What’s the second theory?” Iberman asks, curiously reexamining his lunch tray like a grave robber who’s just exhumed a fresh cadaver.
“Not much different from the first: Moskowitz is seen and heard crying out ‘Simplify’ before putting a handgun in his mouth as AA made its retreat. This also seems unlikely, especially if Moskowitz had been using CL-235, a narcotic that inhibits the very neural centers of the brain that would have produced that type of outburst.”
“What do you think happened?” Sawyer asks.
“I believe Moskowitz survived the battle of Hill 1001-01. I believe he’s still roaming the countryside, which in his mind has likely been reduced to the most simple shapes and colors, the most basic of sensory input.”
“Maybe we could ask Stone?” Iberman says, smiling thinly.
“Ask Stone what?” a thick, unmistakable voice calls out. We look over our shoulders like school children who’ve just been caught defacing a desk. Stone lights a cigar and tosses the wooden match to the floor, stepping onto it a moment later. He takes two steps forward, and places one hand on the table. He sucks heavily on the cigar, the smoke hanging like a translucent wreath atop our heads.
“Ask…me…what?” he says, emphasizing each syllable with the skepticism of an inquisitioner and moving closer toward Iberman (whose thin smile quickly rapidly recesses).
“We were wondering…that is…I was asking if…” Iberman begins blubbering. He acts and sounds more nervous than an accused murderer called to testify on his own behalf.
“Cigars,” Martinez jumps in, casually. “We were, uh, wondering what brand cigar you smoke, sir.”
“Really,” Stone says slowly.
“Uh, yes sir,” Iberman says, averting eye contact with the commanding officer.
There is a full minute’s silence at the table as Stone looks slowly across the table at each of us.
“Well, I could tell you,” he says, assessing the stogie at arm’s length. “I could explain that the leaves of this cigar are grown in Ciabo valley, that fewer than 25 tobacco plants of its genus still exist on Earth, and that their production is illegal worldwide. I could explain that this particular tobacco leaf is fermented and aged for 14 months, that the leaves are sorted by hand and the sorted tobaccos are aged an additional two to three years, and that the box in which the finished products are stored contains a humidor to facilitate their freshness.
“I could also explain that I’ve received a box of these each month for the past 11 years from an individual in Montreal whose life I once saved, though my actions had been purely instinctual and I’d asked for nothing in return. I could tell you that this is the finest cigar known to man and that the pleasures derived from it are unparalleled with any enjoyments known to man, with the possible exception of looking into the eyes of an enemy the moment before he dies.”
He pauses, sucking in a long drag from the cigar, and slowly exhales with pursed lips.
“So while I could tell you the brand name, as Mr. Martinez so eloquently requested, it would be futile to possess such information, just as it would be futile to hope to learn the specifics of years old, life and death conflicts in which one was not personally engaged. Semper Fi!”
Stone abruptly exits the mess, the cherry, amber smell of smoke lingering behind his footsteps. No one speaks for several nervous moments; we watch as the trail of cigar smoke slowly dissipates into the filtered air.
“Fucking hell,” Iberman gasps, breaking the silence and wiping the sweat from his forehead.
“Fucking hell,” Martinez concurs.
Not much else is said during the remainder of the hour.
The afternoon and much of the evening are spent on a routine patrol of the Spokaine, an area northeast of the Trianalyte upon which the PFA is constructing a landing station for drop shipments. Twice in the last 30 days the Rykans have launched assaults on the site, delaying construction and resulting in several dozen KIAs. Tonight, however, is quiet and without conflict. We watch as the engineers work steadily. The roaring engines of Mech-300 cranes and McDonald-Douglas lifters are soundless here, like images from a vintage silent movie.
Hours later a relief squad arrives and we return to Central. We lose the zero-gs and walk across the station to the barracks.
“Goddam, I’m tired,” Martinez says.
“You’re always tired,” Iberman adds.
“Shouldn’t you be ogling the Frederick’s of Hollywood page on the VDT?” Martinez asks sharply.
“Ready for a succulent meal?” SDS Bobby Sawyer asks.
“Not too fucking likely, but ready for a week-long cease fire.”
Atop the small, somewhat uneven table that is typically reserved for games of chance, most notably Texas-rules poker, is a small rectangle-shaped wooden box.
“The hell is this?” Iberman asks.
“Open it,” COO Stone says, stepping across the archway into the barracks.
Iberman opens the lid of the box; the scent of tobacco leaves seeps into the air.
“Word from command is that a big push is going down in 36 hours. Early reports indicate that we’ll be outnumbered, perhaps by as much as ten to one. I’d tell you to save that box of stogies for Christmas, but there’s a good chance none of you are going to live that long.”
It’s clear to everyone that he’s serious; Stone does not converse with his personnel.
“Don’t worry about reciprocating. Watching you boys live and die is gift enough for me. Makes my dick hard just thinking about it.”
Stone walks away, then turns. But he does not shout his regulation sign off.
“Merry Christmas, gentlemen,” he says quietly, and leaves.
That evening, a full week shy of December 25, Division 0-13 celebrates the holiday. We drink and we smoke and we try not to think about what the future holds, because we each know it’s likely we haven’t one.

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