The viewscreen inside your helmet lights up. It occupies a small square in the upper left where it doesn’t block your sight. You watch the figures take their places across from each other on the board. They are delicate boned creatures who fight elegantly, suffer exquisitely, die beautifully. They are the false face of the war you fight, the interface, the glamor of paint and graphic that hide the vicious truth from view. They are always the same.
You check your filter for the little light that indicates your mask is working. This is new. Before a few weeks ago, all you needed were your gun and your knife and your kit, the old stand-by accouterments of theater. But that was before some scientist – not one of yours, unfortunately – figured out how to vaporize, weaponize the Bravery compound.
(Everyone knows the Bravery compound was developed for war in the first place. By us. We thought we could increase soldier efficiency if we could put bravery in a pill. What better weapon than troops medicated against fear? Well, we know how that turned out.)
It’s a strange prayer, but you’ve all started to say it. Before you log-in for battle, you breathe out and whisper, “If I die today, let the one who slays me see my face.”
When you were young – well, younger than you are now – you often wondered where why the soldiers were kept in isolation. Why the news feeds interview analysts and politicians instead of the very people who fought to keep the rest of us safe. They always covered the funerals – and they were beautiful productions with flags and flowers and bullets – but you wondered why they never showed their faces.
Your father quoted Nietzsche and said it was because heroes were dangerous. He said peace had no room for heroes, only rules.
You remember that often now that the good of so many rests on the shoulders of so few, and you dream that one day you’ll dare to break the rules.
You mark the gates every time you’re near them. On the other side is your father and the rest peaceful world. And you have new questions.
The Stage has been cleared since the last battle. You don’t know who fought or how long ago. It could have been any number of countries. You only know it wasn’t yours – back-to-back battles are rare these days, nearly impossible to schedule without the right circumstances.
Circumstances are not your concern.
The Stage is set as determined by the two battling countries and the Administrative Panel of Global Theater. Today, there are rolling hills covered in tall spring grasses and flowers, and copses of skinny trees stand to your left. The sky is a clear, birdless blue. This is home field advantage, which means your opponent won some other advantage in the pre-battle negotiation.
The people at home won’t see this field, of course. Not in its current, picturesque state, nor when it’s been tilled with blood and bone and salt. What they’ll see is the board; home squad in white, visitor in black. Two sets of sixteen identical faces.
They’ll tell you this is how you civilize war.
You know they’re wrong.
Everyone signs the same contract. It’s short for having such long effects. In the span of a single page, you contract for 100 battles. All countries use the same one. All countries agree to maintain a single active squad (adjusted in the 22nd century to contain sixteen members), and ten soldiers in holding. This is so that you, the soldiers, fight harder and smarter. You become the elite.
Once there was a time when a nation’s might was determined by the size of its fighting force. This hasn’t been the case in centuries – it was a barbaric practice resulting in thousands of wasted lives. What we do now is superior – training a few to represent to the many, settling disputes with clashes of might and intelligence and science. It’s simply a better way to keep the peace.
You lost half of your squad to the first Bravery attack.
You were affected, too. You inhaled the yellow gas and felt it expand in your lungs. You felt your senses sharpen, your fear quiet, your heart tap-tap-tap in a steady rhythm. You moved with more confidence than you should have and if you’re being honest, you know it was largely luck that protected you from the rain of bullets, but you breached their frontline, you slid down their muddy trench, and you competently moved from one to the other.
You were black that day, remember. On the viewscreen, soldier dolls in white fluttered to the ground with bloodless sighs and vanished. Five in all.
You saw each of their faces.
Intel is Black Squad’s advantage. The first blast is too close for luck. It hits near enough to stun you, make you momentarily still and stupid. You hear the spider silk cry the girls on the screen make as they die. You know it was one of yours. Theater is in full swing.
You dive, you roll, you follow the grey-green of your squad’s fatigues to cover. Your Sergeant speaks into your headset, delivering orders like drill commands in a tenor sharpened with adrenaline. He wasn’t always this calm, but 50 battles under his belt have turned his core to steal. He is much older than the fuzz on his chin would have you believe. He will never leave this place. Not even when his contract is fulfilled. You know that as well as he does.
You’ve been watching all the ones who’ve been here longer than you. You know that at some point – around the 40th battle – every soldier changes.
The change goes one of two ways – either they commit like Sergeant, go cold and hard and maybe a little bit dead, or they don’t. Those are the ones who go suddenly. They make a rookie mistake, or just stop in the middle of a field and wait, or they tip into a moment of panic and never come back. And sometimes it happens quietly, outside of theater entirely in a bathroom or on a highway or in some dark corner somewhere. You don’t know which way you’ll go, which way you’ll change. Either way looks like death.
This is your 39th battle.
You’ve been drawing faces. On scraps of paper, tabletops, your own skin when there’s nothing else handy. Every one of them is different. There are wide faces and narrow faces, faces with long noses and alert noses, square jaws and soft jaws and jaws clenched around screams, there are long faces and pinched faces, eyes set close together and far apart, there are foreheads always creased in fear, anger, the last gasp of sadness.
They are not your face, but they belong to you now. They are the faces of war and peace and pain. They are the faces of children, which is why no one wants to see them.
You will be memorialized as one of the faceless. War is theater, they told you as they handed you the pen to sign your contract.
You didn’t believe them.
Long ago, you learned that a battle was like an ocean – it has a tide and hidden currents, a smell, a taste, and a set of demands.
Once, you thought you could ride it out without taking life. You thought there would be places for you to hide, ways for you to avoid, opponents with the same nonviolent desires. And there are. You have seen the regret in the faces across the field from you. You have seen the pain they feel as they pull the trigger. Some of them close their eyes. Some of them shed a tear. Some of them raise their hands and take the bullet instead.
But you have learned that once the curtain is up and the theater alive, there is no stopping the show.
Today is no different. The battle rages. The air fills with thin, yellow mist – Bravery Compound. Sergeant speaks in a low, intense voice, “Filters up. Do not remove your masks.”
In the corner of your helmet, the viewscreen begins to fill with dying, beautifully gasping bodies. You watch as three Black pawn-dolls collapse against one another, a White rook-doll sweeping by them with a paper smile on her lips. You think, This is wrong. You think, We didn’t know when we signed up. You think, This must end.
And when you’re done thinking, you are face to face with a girl in khaki-blue fatigues, her eyes painted with a black band beneath her mask, her skin the pale blue-white of a far away star, her nose long, her mouth narrow, her forehead creased with –
You both raise your guns, but you fire first.
She falls. You bend over her, take in her face once more, then unclip the small yellow canister from her belt.
You’ve realized that no matter who wins, you lose. Every time you take the field, you lose.
But this time, you didn’t lose as much. Because now you have the compound – enough Bravery Compound to dose your entire squad.
“Life is too short to waste any amount of time on wondering what other people think about you. In the first place, if they had better things
going on in their lives, they wouldn’t have the time to sit around and
talk about you. What’s important to me is not others’ opinions of me,
but what’s important to me is my opinion of myself.”