The following is the first episode in a series of short stories based on the near-future.
I can still feel it. Every minute of every day, like it is still there. The pain is profound, intense. Heat still radiates from the wound. Sometimes, when I glance over at my shoulder, I see my mangled flesh dangling, tendrils dripping with blood.
The War is over now, but not because there was a winner. They are calling it a truce, pretending that it was some great moment of diplomacy. The leaders on both sides are being hailed as heroes. The talking heads on the TV are gushing, and the coverage has been glossy, hopeful. They want us to believe that this was the intended outcome. They want us to believe that everything is better now.
Here is what really happened. There was no peace. There was no truce or great moments of diplomacy. The fighting didn’t stop because both sides collectively realized the nihilistic futility of the conflict or suddenly decided that all the wanton slaughter was wrong. The fighting stopped because everyone, the soldiers, the officers, the civilians… everyone was dead, vaporized, gone.
They are calling it the “Korean Tragedy.” That sounds nice, doesn’t it? A tragedy, unexpected, devastating, how could anyone have known? Sure, people are going to die in a war, but not like this.
Fifty million is the conservative estimate, and that is just from the blast.
Over at the V.A, they tell me that I’m lucky. There aren’t many Korea vets because, well, you know. My sponsor even suggested that I should be thankful. “Only a couple more hours,” he says. “A couple more hours and you would have been toast.”
Only a couple more hours. If those KPA fucks had only waited a couple more hours to blow my arm off, I would have been another statistic. Another name on the big wall or statue or whatever bullshit monument they end up dedicating to the memory of this bloodbath. Yeah, lucky me.
This fucking prosthetic. Over at the V.A, they called it “State of the Art.” My sponsor, the same gutless fuck who calls me lucky, had the fucking balls to suggest that I wouldn’t even notice the difference. “Maybe even better than the real thing,” he says. “I almost wish I had one myself.”
I stopped going to the V.A, but I’m still stuck with this fucking useless arm. “State of the Art,” but I can barely pick up a goddamn cup of coffee without spilling it all over myself. You might think that our wonderful government would shell out for more than a cheap plastic replacement for someone like me, but you would be sadly mistaken.
Can’t do any of the shit I used to do. Can’t hold a gun. Can’t fight. Always figured I would go work Special Activities or something like that if I ever left the service. There was never a contingency plan for having my fucking arm shot off. When you run special forces for a decade, you tend not to envision a life after operating. You either die on the job or retire alone to the woods. There is no in between.
Well, unless you end up a cripple. You lose a limb and end up in limbo. How fucking poetic is that?
Though, sometimes I wonder if the plan would have stayed the same if I somehow had survived it all unscathed. If that bomb goes off and my arm is still attached, would I really wanna keep going? Keep fighting? Keep fucking jumping out of planes to clear out some remote bunker in Pakistan because the people who sign my paychecks have determined that somehow all the killing will eventually lead to peace?
The allure was already fading before all this shit went down. Korea was… different. Mindless. There is an element of absurdity to all human conflict, but what was happening on the peninsula went above and beyond any conventional notion of reason. The politicians and the people on television will tell you that it was about peace, about security. You already know the speech. We have heard it a million times over. War, so terrible but sometimes you just gotta do it! Fucking hell.
Or maybe I am just getting older. I was 22 when they sent us to Iran; still young and bold and all jacked up over how goddamn badass it all was. It was exactly the sort of shit I dreamed I would be doing when I quit my cushy desk job to enlist. From Excel monkey to Navy SEAL, I was living the fucking alpha male dream; jumping out of planes, going on dangerous raids, kicking ass and taking names. The rush is unlike anything you can imagine and like all great highs, it’s real easy to gloss over the details and not question what you’re doing or why you’re doing it.
But after a couple years in Korea the doubt started to trickle in. It didn’t help that shit hit the fan almost immediately after we wrapped up our obliteration of Iran. Korea though, that was another story. Twenty-something months in and the battle lines had not moved a single goddamn inch. The trenches in France were more fluid that what was going down along the border. It was almost a relief when they finally started driving us back, just because that was the first time it felt like there was a scenario where the war could possibly end.
The People in Charge love to point out that technically the war only lasted three years; chump change compared to shit like Afghanistan or Vietnam. Similar to my sponsor suggesting that my useless arm is actually a blessing in disguise, the big names have all implied that humanity should be thankful that this whole episode was wrapped up quick as it was. Apparently duration is the only meaningful measurement for how terrible a war is. They would rather the great masses not think about how fifteen million people died in the first fucking year alone.
It was an unprecedented bloodbath, unlike anything the world has ever seen. After being boxed out of Iran, our friends in Russia and China were determined to make their presence known during the next big tussle, and boy did they ever succeed. You have not experienced true terror until you spend a day on the battlefield where smoke and rocket fire have literally blocked out the sun.
The news doesn’t talk about this. They don’t talk about about the enormous casualties. They don’t talk about how we turned the DMZ into a meatgrinder. They don’t talk about how Seoul was already pretty much destroyed by artillery fire before the bomb went off. The don’t talk about the bodies in the streets or how civilian deaths were keeping pace the military ones.
They definitely don’t talk about how we were losing. Not just losing, but on our fucking heels, impossibly outnumbered and outgunned. And they definitely don’t talk about how that nuke went off right as we were about to lose control of Seoul.
Rumor has it that the order to retreat was given just minutes before the detonation, but naturally any such transmissions were destroyed by the blast.
They blamed it on rogue actors, a few renegade bad guys that somehow managed to not only to get their hands on a tactical nuke, but also smuggled the fucking thing into the heart of the city without anyone noticing. I am not one for tin foil, but given the timing and general implausibility of this whole charade, you can forgive me for being a little suspicious.
Better to kill everyone than admit defeat, I guess. I’d wager that the call was a lot easier to make from seven-thousand miles away.
Anyway, I am telling you all this because something strange happened to me the other day that has dramatically altered my fortunes.
It started with a phone call from a woman identifying herself as Karen Hayes, a journalist from No Quarter magazine. As you probably already know, but in case you don’t, No Quarter is one of very few no-bullshit outlets still in operation. Formed by the survivors of the The Intercept, No Quarter is a true relic of a bygone era, back from when free press was actually a thing and the media was not exclusively controlled by corporate interests.
In a lot of ways, it is kind of shocking that they are even allowed to exist, given how just about every other similar publication has been sued to death, quashed by crusading politicians, purchased and gutted, or in the case of The Intercept, brutally murdered by a rampaging gunman.
I’m a fan, if that wasn’t obvious, which is why I agreed to meet with this Karen Hayes for an interview. She was hardly the first journalist to reach out – like I mentioned earlier, there aren’t many Korea vets walking around – but as a general rule of thumb, I would prefer for my story not to be fluffed up by some quack from the press and turned into yet another piece of heartwarming pro-war propaganda. Talking to someone from No Quarter was the exception. If they were looking to run a story about me, you could bet that there would be no bullshit.
We met at a bar in Charlotte’s NoDa district, which is a sleek and colorful neighborhood overrun with powerful tech companies. A cluster of futuristic towers leer over endless apartment complexes whose ground floors are lined with microbreweries and fusion concept restaurants. The big names out here – Starship Armor, Biotec Evolve, QBIT, Tungsten Robotics – have transformed what was once considered an art district into a sprawling scene ripped straight from a science fiction novel. The other day I watched a car go airborne and fucking hover right over a red light.
Karen Hayes is a few years older than me, tough-looking but attractive, fit, probably a runner. Her dark hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail and she was already on her second whiskey when I arrived at the bar, an elegant joint called The Long Weekend. It was three in the afternoon on a Thursday, and there were only a handful of other people drinking along with us.
“Jake Diamond?” she asked, but it was more of a statement. She already knew who I was.
“You must be the journalist.” I took a seat across from her and one of those robotic servers immediately rolled up to take my order. I selected a whiskey+water from the touchscreen, then turned back to her. “So, what do you wanna know?”
She smiled and drummed her fingers along her drink glass. “Actually, I already know everything about you.”
“Oh yeah?” I said, sitting up a little. “Let’s hear it.”
“Chief Petty Officer Jake Diamond, thirty-one years old, ex-Navy SEAL who lost his right arm to sniper fire in Seoul and was airlifted to a hospital in Tokyo a miraculous two hours and seventeen minutes before detonation.”
“Not bad,” I admitted. “I see we lurk the same message forums.” Being crippled and all, I’d been spending more time venting online than I’d probably care to admit. Call it my version of cheap therapy. My days of tight-lipped secrecy about my life as Tier-One operator were over. Fuck all that Top Secret bullshit. They yanked my clearance after the war anyway.
The robot came back with my drink. “Anything else?” it asked with a pleasing feminine tone.
“Yeah,” I grunted. “Go ahead and get me another drink, thanks.”
“Ditto for me,” said Hayes.
“So, if you already know everything about me, what are we doing here?” I asked after the robot left. “I’m confused. Do you want some quotes or what?”
“You a pacifist now?” Again, more of a statement.
“Well, if you’ve been stalking me online then you already know that I no longer subscribe to the religion of violence, yeah.”
“Curious,” she said. “A Navy SEAL with an aversion to violence. Highly unusual.”
“Ex-Navy SEAL,” I corrected. “And what can I say? I’m a reformed man. Having all your friends get vaporized in a nuclear explosion will do that to you.” I gave my plastic shoulder a firm pat. “Also, having this fucking thing as a constant reminder doesn’t exactly help.”
At this point I noticed that she did not have a notebook or a tape recorder or even her phone out. Some journalist.
“So, you’re just, done?”
“With fighting?” I asked, incredulous. “Uh, yeah, that should be pretty obvious.” I gave the prosthetic another pat. “Again, I am a cripple.”
“What if you weren’t?” Her voice was serious, rigid.
“Then all my friends have still been vaporized.” I was starting to get annoyed – this was not the interview I was expecting. “Okay, cut the bullshit. What’s going on here?”
“So blunt, brash. You really are a soldier.” She smiled and leaned forward. “What if I told you that I belong to an organization that has a tremendous need for individuals such as yourself?”
“A need for crippled soldiers?”
“That,” she said, pointing at my prosthetic, “can be fixed.”
“It already is. Supposedly this is the best. The folks at Veteran Affairs told me so.”
“Hah! We both know that’s bullshit.”
We paused as the robot came back with another round of drinks. I waved the machine off before it could ask if we wanted anything else.
“Yeah, and your organization can do better?”
“You have no idea what we are capable of.” It was line delivered with such latent force that it sent a chill down my spine.
I shifted nervously in the booth. “I’m starting to wonder if this is a conservation I really want to be having. I don’t know anything about this mysterious organization you claim to be representing, but I’m under the impression that maybe this is something I don’t want to be associated with.” I gestured towards my phone, which was resting on the table next to my drinks. “Especially since, you know, they are always listening.”
“I can assure you that this conversation is not being recorded by anyone, anywhere.”
“And how the fuck can you guarantee that?”
She smiled a produced a small black fob from within her coat. “Local jammer. Completely scrambles any communication devices within a ten foot radius. If you don’t believe me, check your phone.”
Sure enough, the screen on my phone was wigging out, glitching like someone was holding a magnet up to the panel. “I hope this isn’t doing any permanent damage.”
She clicked the fob and instantly my phone screen returned to normal. “Satisfied?”
“Yes,” I said slowly, “but now I am starting to wonder if you are CIA or some other kind of spook.”
“No, just a journalist,” she said, clicking the device again and then returning it to the inside of her jacket. “But I have some friends that are more in line with what you’re imagining right now.”
“Yeah? In this big bad organization of yours?”
“Now you’re getting it,” she said, taking a sip of her drink. “Interested?”
“You know, I’d rather withhold that information until you give me a little more to work with. Like, I dunno, what exactly this organization does?”
“We’re in the business of toppling superpowers.”
“Uh huh.” I suspected it was going to be some stupid bullshit like that. “Superpowers, plural, yeah? Sounds like some lofty ambitions.”
“You think I’m joking.”
“Joking, full of shit, insane, take your pick! Either way, I think we’re about done here.” I downed what was left of my drink in one gulp and slid the empty glass towards her. “Wanna grab my bill? Support a local war vet?”
“I can do you better than that.” She reached down and picked up a suitcase that was under the table and that I had originally figured to be for a laptop. A closer inspection revealed that it was significantly larger than something you would carry a computer around in. She punched a code into the keypad and there was some mechanical racket as the lock disengaged.
Inside was an arm; smooth, black, like something a cyborg in a movie might have. It had perfectly round edges and deft, narrow fingers with visible joints in all the proper spots. When she tapped on a panel inside the suitcase the fingers began to dance, weaving back and forth in an impossibly human motion. With another press of a button, they instantly transformed into a powerful-looking fist.
“Where did you get this?” I asked, in near disbelief. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“It is a prototype developed in a joint venture between Biotec Evolve and Tungsten Robotics. Two of our many partners in this struggle.”
“Partners?” I ran my fingers along the incredible cybernetic. The metal was cool to the touch. “Just who all is involved in this business of yours?”
“You will find that there are many lucrative endeavors operating underneath our umbrella.”
“Yeah? And does this umbrella have a name?”
“It does,” she said, closing the suitcase. “Have you ever heard of Concord Dawn?”
“I have not,” I admitted. “But I’m listening.”