Back | Next

War Stories

Elizabeth Bear

No shit, there I am.

So it's 2030, right? And I'm sprawled on my belly in the pile of rubble that used to be 100 Constitution Plaza, rifle fire skipping over my head, a broken rock gouging my groin just down and to the left of my armor. My neck wants to crawl into my helmet like a turtle jamming itself into its shell. There's a crater the size of Winterpeg under my nose, and busted rocks and shattered glass scattered all over Main Street. Suicide van bomb.

Any asshole can die for his country. The scary shit is living for it.

Old joke: join the army, see the world, meet interesting people and shoot them. And hell, I could be anywhere. Anywhere in the newly reconstituted Commonwealth, say. Where there's fewer places to see every week, and I—so I'm what, eighteen when this is going on?—would like to get a look at a few of them before they're under ice, or under water.

Ah, the Commonwealth. Back again like it never left.

I could be anywhere. I could be in the UK, evacuating Glastonbury or helping sandbag, or process refugees, in London. London, which is not holding. I could be in South Africa, putting down the warlord-of-the-week. Hell, I could be in Canada, guarding the home front.


I'm face down in a pile of bricks in Hartford, Connecticut, in the good old U.S. of A., pinned under enemy fire, wondering when they're going to bring in the sonics to relieve us and if we're going to catch friendly fire when they do—and not loving a minute of it.

Shit. If I'm going to get my ass shot off, you'd think they could send me someplace pretty to do it in.

Carter's yelling at me from better cover, shouting something I can't catch over the noise. His mike might be on the fritz, or maybe it's my earpiece. His electronics seem okay, at least—he isn't eightysixed on my heads-up.

Good thing, too; you can see it yourself when it happens—unless your whole rig goes dead—and it's creepy as shit. Your icon grays out on the map and there are all your buddies, looking around to see if you got garroted or picked off by a sniper while the team was otherwise engaged.

Modern technology. Used to be, you got shot, you screamed and bled on people until a medic got there. Now, they have machines to do your bleeding for you.

So I wave back at him, hand down low beside my ass: yeah, I have enough cover.

Yeah. Enough. He's just a private anyway, which means . . . 

. . . which means, technically, this is my action.

Mother pus-bucket.

I hope the rest of the guys show up fast.

I'm still thinking about that when I catch a little motion down in the hole.

That thing about your life flashing before your eyes? It's bullshit. Never had it happen, and I've been scared. What did happen, even before I was wired, was the adrenaline-dump shocked-time thing, and that's what I get, a freeze frame image of the crater and the sunlight shattering off broken glass.

Fuck me with a chainsaw. There's a child down there.


The social position of a MWO in the Canadian Army is a little odd. You're not a commissioned officer. But you're not really one of the grunts any more, either. The "I work for a living" joke only works until you get past warrant.

It's more like you're a vassal. A country of one, owing absolute allegiance, but generally trusted to wipe up your own ass—and your own spilt milk—as necessary.

It's an uncomfortable kind of freedom to get used to. But yanno, I never would have made it to RMC with my math skills, and we don't have enough college grads anymore to keep all the whirlybirds for lieutenants. And the way it works out, the rest of the pilots are scared to death of me, anyway.

So I don't have to leave the service to move in with Gabe Castaign. He got out before I did, and then we could be friends in public, even. The way we couldn't when I was a corporal and he was a captain and he saved my life.

Thank god he was never in my chain of command. I don't think we could have managed to stay pals; it would have gotten all knotted to that feudal thing, and that would have been the end.

Of course, I don't quite get to move in with him in the sense that I really wanted to, because by 2053, Gabe's married and has two beautiful, ridiculous, towheaded baby girls. And when I de-enlist, I do it to stay with him and Geniveve.

Because they already know that the transplants haven't taken, that the stem therapy and the chemo aren't working. And Geniveve wants to die at home. She needs help doing it, if she's going to do it comfortably. And Gabe, well.

Gabe doesn't really want to live through it alone.

So Geniveve comes home to die with her husband and her children, and I—

I go along because I don't have anyplace else to call home, and they need me. And yeah, I know going in it's going to be hard. And some poisonous bit of me hopes that Gabe will rebound in my direction when she's gone, because you think things like that, even when you don't say them.

But I like Geniveve. She's got every right to be jealous, but Geni is five nine and blonde and pert-nosed and has the greenest eyes I've ever seen that aren't contact lenses. And look at my face. But . . . I could be Gabe's scary war-buddy who he owes some kind of life debt, and she could walk on eggshells. She could leave us in the kitchen and herd the babies away.

And she treats me like her best girlfriend.

The first time I met her was at the bridal shower, a kind of Jack and Jill thing, and if she'd been strong enough I think she would pick me up in a Gabe-standard bear-hug, just like him. She kissed my burned cheek, and nevermind I couldn't feel it, and she laughed at my jokes.

So what I'm saying is, I'm here for Geniveve as much as I'm here for Gabe. But it's not them I leave the army for. In '53 I get my 25 in. I always wear a glove on my left hand, and I'm heading down the back side of notorious into old warhorse. Infamy doesn't suit me.

I leave the army because it's time to leave the army. You can't fight all your life.

They've got a spare bedroom. Geniveve—the coincidence of names is no end of amusement, but Gabe calls me Maker not Jenny and so does Geniveve and so that's okay—has good days and bad days. Gabe mostly helps her. I mostly help with the girls and the housework, my Cinderella childhood all over again.

And don't I just look like the perfect fairytale princess, too?

Whatever else, this is how I get to know Leah. She's about five already, and Genie (see what I mean about the names?) is two, and not only had Geniveve gotten sick while she was carrying her, but Genie has cystic fibrosis, and she's all straw hair and straw limbs and big luminous eyes. She eats enough for a kid three times her size, and barely absorbs enough to grow on.

Gabe never once says a word to me about the hand he got dealt being unfair. I might mutter a few. But then you feel ugly. Especially when you know something about yourself that maybe the other guy doesn't.

Leah thinks I'm just a set of monkey bars. Just the right size for swinging on.

So we hold on about six months, while Geniveve has more bad days than good days, and big Gabe Castaign, with his wrists I could barely close my metal hand around, starts to look downright thin. Geniveve holds on longer than anybody thinks she might. Stubborn bitch.

But she's got two little girls to buy a few more days for, and you never know which one day . . . might be the day that counts.

You know, in a lot of ways, she reminded me of Maman.

Except, even when she was dying, Maman was funnier.


Hartford is after I quit dope, but before I start drinking. It's before a lot of other things; before Pretoria, before Gabe, before we—the Commonwealth, I mean—and the Russians team up to invade Brazil. I've still got both the hands I was born with, and Carlos' diamond ring is on the left one—when I'm off-duty.

I've got a man at home. I've got no business doing what I do next.

I have done things in my life that I liked less than that belly-crawl over broken glass and girders, but don't ask me to name three. There's a street down there under the rubble and maybe people with it, but it's hard to run a proper search and rescue when the whole world's blowing up. It's a hell of a thing to think about while you're crawling over them, though.

At least the site's cold. Not fresh, not likely to catch fire or explode under my belly. Just not cleaned up yet. If it ever will be.

The body armor helps some. Easier to keep your butt down crawling over plate glass shards when your belly's plated like a turtle's. And everything that isn't Kevlar or ceramic or leather is covered in ripstop, bladestop, breathable IR-defeating CADPAT digital urboflage.


I've got gloves too, dragged on over my blackened nails. The broken glass might have edges like a pile of rusty razorblades, but the combats can turn a thoracic stab wound into a bone bruise.

A little broken glass and a few gross of tenpenny nails are just what it was overdesigned for.

Good stuff.

Weighs a ton, makes you sweat like a pig, and the straps snag on every sharp pointy thing I slither over, but you take the good with the bad, like in any relationship.

The opposition hasn't seen me. Don't expect me to head down into the crater, I'm pretty sure, and are watching the near rim for a silhouette. Because that's what somebody would do in the war movie; send a scout out to distract them, draw their fire, and execute a pincer.

Imaginary soldiers don't actually have to crawl through rubble. And the imaginary enemies never seem to have somebody with a sniper scope and some elevation watching their ass.

Real bad guys can watch the war movies too.

As I get down closer to the bottom of the crater, I notice a few things. One is that the kid looks about eleven. Not a teenager yet; not really a child. Poor kid; that cusp is kind of the suck. Because you haven't changed, not really, but suddenly all the cultural slack and protectiveness, the puppy factor, is just gone.

He's a fresh casualty, though; I'd bet he was scavenging and took a fall, or maybe ducked stupid when the shooting started.

Well, at least he ducked.

He's conscious, huddled, bleeding between the fingers shoved against his scalp. I can't see how bad; one hand's balled into a fist and pressed to the flat back of the other. Head injury, not great. But up on top, not on the fragile temple.

If it's not depressed, it might not be too bad.

Once I got my GED I started studying emergency medicine on the side. It might come in handy if I pass the test, and if I live long enough being a medic beats being an ex-grunt with no job skills.

I cover him with my body and hope like hell we don't get blown up before the rescue comes, or I figure out how to get us out of here.


Five years old, Leah strokes the back of her hand down the back of mine and snatches her fingers away, shaking them like they sting. "Can you feel anything? Does it hurt?"

How do you explain phantom pain to a first grader? "No. Where you touch it, I can't feel anything."

"Wow." She peeks at me through bangs and eyelashes. "That must be nice."


Somehow, Carter must get through, jinky radio and all, because the next thing I know there's a helicopter slamming over like the Archangel Michael on a three day bender. Dusty air buffets us, dust that's half powdered glass and God knows what, like sticking your hand in a sandblaster. The kid squeaks—he's been quiet against my chest, both fists knotted around my LBE like a baby sloth clinging to its mother—and I pull his face into my neck. It can't be comfortable, but maybe it'll encourage him to close his eyes.

Me, I get in a couple of hail-Mary's, but the gunfire I hear is ours and not theirs. You really can pick out the make of the gun by the sound, after a couple of weeks. They use whatever they bought off the Internet; all our shit matches. Score one for the away team. Let's go for the hat trick, shall we?

"You grunts alive down there, over?" The last thing from regulation, but a voice I loved to hear. Chief Warrant Officer Tranchemontagne, the own personal hell-on-rotor-blades of the Canadian Armed Forces, Hartford franchise. There were only about two hundred of us in town; I didn't expect him to know me, but I sure as hell knew him.

The helmet mikes were voice-activated. I cleared my throat and spoke up. "We're alive, Chief. This is Corporal Casey. You gonna come pick us up, or do we hike back? Carter's radio's busted, but we're both unwounded. I've got a civilian casualty, though. A child. Over."

Carter and Casey. I'm not sure if we sound more like a law firm or a comedy team.

"Where's the kid, over?"

The kid kicks me in the knee, suddenly, and tries to squirm free, ready to dart out of that hole into the broken glass and flying bullets. All he's gonna do is bust his toe on the ceramic armor, but he doesn't know that. I grab, and get him over the shoulders. "Stay the hell down, you little bastard! Chief, the kid is under me. And seems to be alive. Ow. Over."

I hear the son of a bitch laughing. "Got yourself a live one there, Private. All right, I'll get you some evac."

I don't quite have to hit the kid to bundle him into the chopper, but his feet don't touch the ground on the way there, either. Just his luck I'm five eleven in my bare feet, and he—well, he isn't.

Once the chopper's off the ground he quits kicking me, though. I let him scramble loose; he jams himself sullenly into the corner furthest from the door.

"Great job, Casey," Carter says, in what he thinks passes for French. "You think it's housebroken?"

"Shut the fuck up, eh?" I've got half a pack of cigarettes left. I take one out and toss him the rest, and catch the kid watching. I shoot him a sidelong glance. He licks his lips. He's a good looking kid, broad regular features, behind the crust of blood that dribbles over one sharp brown eye. "Hey, Carter?"

He looks up from lighting his cigarette. I leave mine, still cold, between my fingers. "Give the pack to the kid."

And Carter looks at me, looks at the kid—eleven, right?—and shrugs and tosses him the pack.

The kid pulls one out, looks at the pack, thinks real hard, and tosses it back to me with eight left. Then he flicks the one he kept with his thumbnail to light it, a practiced economy of motion. Yeah, I was like a fucking chimney at that age, too.

I keep an eye on him without looking like I'm looking at him. He takes two puffs before he picks the ember off the end and tucks the rest in his shirt pocket. Price of a meal at least, I guess, in a wartime economy.

You're not supposed to smoke in the Army's aircraft. I guess somebody might not like the smell. I stick my untouched cigarette back into the half pack and toss the whole thing back to him, with nine smokes now.


The genius behind chemotherapy is that you poison yourself a little slower than you poison the cancer. It's fucking barbarism; no different from the mercury treatments they used to give people who had syphilis, although maybe it works a little better.

I don't blame Geniveve for deciding that if she was going to die, she'd rather do it without the puking.

She's too proud to wear a wig, but her hair's coming back in patchy now that she's stopped poisoning herself. She keeps her head shaved and it makes her look elegant, Egyptian.

I maintain it for her: a couple of times a month I settle the moist, warm, tender skin of her nape against the palm of my living hand, my thumb resting behind her ear, the vibrations of the electric razor carrying up my machine arm.

I used to do the same for some of the guys in my platoon.

She closes her eyes while I shave her, dreaming like a cat. Her lips move, shaping words; her fuzz clings to my sleeve. I could cut myself touching her cheekbones; there's a dead woman just under her skin.

I thumb the razor off. "I didn't hear you, sweetie."

When people are dying, it's easier to tell them you love them. You know they're not going to hold it over you later.

She nibbles her thumbnail, a nervous tic, and presses her skull into my hand. "Maker." And then she says my real name, her eyes still shut. "Jenny. When I'm gone, you ought to marry him. Before he thinks to play it tough."


By the time I get him to the displaced persons camp, the kid's attached to my hip like he grew there. The dressing on his scalp is white and bulbous; I made the duty nurse shave the whole thing, and not just the part she was stitching, so at least both sides match, but he still looks like he's farming mushrooms up there. His name turns out to be Dwayne MacDonald; he's ten, not eleven, and he's got a fouler mouth than I do, which is saying something.

So yeah, all right, I like the kid. And the clerk at the resettlement office gets up my nose in about thirty seconds flat. "Name?" she says, without looking up at either of us, and he doesn't answer, so I say it for him. She taps it into her interface and frowns. "MacDonald's a pretty common last name. Parents? Street address?"

I look at him. He shrugs, shoulders squared, hands in his pockets. Cat's got his tongue. "What if you can't find his family?"

"He'll stay at the camp until we can find a foster situation for him." She still hasn't lifted her eyes from the interface. "It might be a while. Especially if he won't talk. Where'd you find him?"

"Downtown." Five more seconds, and I'm going to be as silent as the kid. I fold my arms and lean back on my heels.

"Look." She pushes back from her desk, and I catch her eyes, contacts colored blue-violet with swimming golden sparks. Distracting as hell. "We get a couple dozen porch monkeys through here every week. Either you can help me out, or—"

The kid presses against my side, and it's a good thing he's in the way of my gun hand, because there's a rifle across my back and if I could reach it, she'd never have gotten to the second syllable in "monkey."

"Or I can try to find his parents myself. Thank you, miss."

She a civilian, more's the pity. And they won't do a fucking thing about her, but I'm still going to file a complaint.

God, I hate these people.

I take the kid back to my billet. Halfway there, as we're trudging along side by side, I run into Brody. "New boyfriend, Casey?"

I look at the kid. The kid looks at me. "He's like a mascot, Sarge."

"Like the camp cat, Casey? Not gonna happen."

But Brody's okay on a lot of levels, laid back and easy-going with a full measure of sun- and laugh-lines. He likes to talk about his grandkids, though he can't be much more than fifty-five.

Yeah, so at eighteen, fifty-five is like the end of the world. The light from fifty-five takes a million years to reach eighteen. Brody sighs and hooks his thumb in his belt and says, "Get some dinner in him. And some breakfast. Tomorrow, you get his ass home, you understand?"

"Yes, Sarge," I say. "Thank you."

"Don't get too used to it, Casey."

One more shake of his head, a self-annoyed grunt, and he's gone.


We all want to die at home.

Geniveve gets close, but even her stubborn isn't quite enough to pull off that one. There's the hospital and then there's hospice care and Genie's way too young for this, and too sick, because she's stressed out and flares up. Don't ever tell me babies don't understand.

So God help Gabe, he's mostly with Genie, because somebody has to be and she wants her Papa. She wants her Maman too.

And Leah and me, we stay with Geniveve. I haven't really got a lot to say about it.

Except, Geniveve is so fragile by the end, a soap bubble. You know in movies where there's a Chernobyl event and then people die, crying from the pain in their joints, bruising in huge terrible flowers anyplace their bones press the inside of their skin?

That's leukemia. That's how leukemia kills you.

You know that thing where they say that God never gives you more than you can shoulder?

It's a vicious, obscene lie.


You know what happens. What with one thing and another, he stays a night, and then three nights, and then by four days in he stops being "Casey's kid" and turns into the whole camp's mascot. They call him half a dozen stupid nicknames—mouche-noir, first, which turns into Mooch overnight. Moustique, which is "mosquito" and also "punk." One of the guys starts singing the black-fly song at him—a-crawlin' in your whiskers, a-crawlin' in your hair, a-swimmin' in the soup and a-swimmin' in the tea—and pretty soon the whole camp is doing it, which drives him as nuts as the black flies would've.

Poor kid.

I ply him with hockey cards and cigarettes, and even get him half-interested in the games. We get them on satellite, and it's a camp-wide event when they're on. You really have to piss somebody off to draw picket that night. They're the old-fashioned cards mostly, you know the ones with the limited memory and just a little chip screen, maybe 90 seconds of highlights? He's fascinated by a couple of the "classic" ones—Bill Barilko, that kind of stuff—players from the previous century in grainy black and white, images set to radio broadcast clips. There's more highlights on those, and he listens to them for hours, curled up in the corner with his elbows on his knees.

And then after a week of this, I get my leave. Thirty-six hours, back in Toronto, and a unit transfer.

Everybody knows what that means.

I guess I'm going to get my wish. I'm going overseas.

Between us, Hetu and me hack one of the hockey cards—they have an uplink so you can check these dedicated web pages with scores and biographies and stuff—so the kid can use it for email. I show him the trick; it's awkward, but hey, it's free, right? Last thing I do, before I shake his hand, is rip the unit patch off my shoulder and hand it to him.

I won't be needing it anymore.

He takes it, crumples it in his fist until I can't see it.

"You gonna be okay?"

Jerk of his chin.

"Really okay?"

And he gives me this stiff little nod. He's not going to cry. He's not even going to look like he wants to cry.

Brave little toaster. But I'm dumb enough to push it. "I'll come back if you want me to. After. I'll come get you." What am I gonna do with a kid? What is Carlos going to want with some American refugee kid with PTSD who cries in his sleep like a puppy? How the fuck old are we both going to be before I could come back?

Fuck it. Sometimes you just have to pretend you're not lying.

But he stares right through me and says, "You won't come back." The finality of abandonment, of somebody who knows the score.

I don't argue. "Write me?"

And he licks his lips and jerks his chin down once, like he was driving a nail. Sure thing, Casey.

I don't lose my shit, myself, until I'm on the transport. Until I'm safe in Ontario, getting off the bus, and then it's okay because Carlos thinks I'm crying over him and it never does any harm to let your fiancé think you can't live without him.

Carlos has lousy feet and worse ankles. He works for the quartermaster. He's not going anywhere. From each according to his ability.

I get my orders for Pretoria. And the rest is history. I dear-john Carlos from the hospital, after burning half my fucking face off in South Africa. I never have the heart to find out if he makes it through the war.

Dwayne doesn't write. It's three months before I figure out that he'd been too proud to tell me he didn't know how.


I stick around Toronto for a little while after the funeral, until things are settled and the girls aren't constantly asking when Maman is coming home. I want to stay forever.

I . . . can't. Every time I look at Gabe now, I hear Geniveve telling me to marry him, and the hell of it is, boy, it would make the kids happy. It would even make me happy, for a little, until the whole thing went pear-shaped. As you know it inevitably would. Love affairs forged in crisis, they're like trashfires. They burn out hot and leave a lot of stink behind.

He says he'll call. I tell him I'll come visit for Leah's birthday, which is May. It's only a five-hour drive from Hartford. There's a lot of rundown old dumps there, and I buy one. On the worst street in the worst neighborhood of town, but who's going to give me a hard time?

It's barely got electric.

They call that area the North End. It's the kind of place where men in bedroom slippers drink forties of malt liquor from paper bags on bus benches that haven't seen service since the war. It's full of immigrants and poor blacks and West Indians. Which is fine with me; you can never have too much Jamaican food.

It's exactly what I want. A hole I can crawl into and pull up snug.

That's a joke, isn't it? Vets going back where they fought, where they served. Marrying a brown native girl who only speaks horizontal English. Happens every day.

It's the peak experience, maybe. Or maybe the thing where we can't go home and we can't stay here. Wherever here might be. Maybe they ought to just shoot the warriors when we come home.

That way, it would be over quick.

Anyway. I'm standing on a street corner smoking my last cigarette when I see him. This gangster, and he's like a kick in the chest. Threat response, predator response, because he's the king of the street. Swaggering down Albany Ave in a black T-shirt, boots, jeans, and a black leather jacket zinging with chains. His shaved head's glossy in the sun. Pink proud flesh catches the sun on his crown; he taps knuckles with a skinny guy headed the other direction. He's huge; shoulders bulging the seams of his jacket. And he's flanked by two toughs that trail him like pilotfish after a shark.

I'm supposed to be impressed.

One falls back a half-step to have a word with the guy the big man deigned to notice, and that's when I catch a flash on the head man's shoulder. Red and white and gray, sewn to black leather.

It stops me in my tracks. I stare uncomprehendingly and take a step forward. That sharp pink scar, the heavy neck, the massive hands, the swagger. The way he dips his head when he turns to his friend and half-nods.

The friend catches me staring and moves in. The big man turns, notices my face, recoils. I'm used to that, but it stings from him. If it is. Him.

The scars, of course. And I'm in mufti. I hope I can talk my way out of this before I get my head handed to me.

They move toward me, the big man and both his toughs, and the newcomer trailing like a remora hoping to attach itself to an apex predator. Four of them.

I can do it.

I can't promise to keep that many safe.

They pause three meters distant, the big one sizing up my scars and my face. His pistol's under his jacket, a hilt-down shoulder holster. I can tell through the hide.

I wear mine in plain sight, strapped to my thigh.

"There a problem?"

Right on script, but he reads it too softly. It could be an honest question.

I treat it that way. "No problem. I was wondering if you knew a Dwayne MacDonald, grew up near here." Pause. "He'd be about your age."

The silence stretches. He looks at me, into my eyes, at the shape of my shoulder and the angle of my nose. "Beat it," he says, finally, and he's not talking to me. I catch a glitter, steel teeth behind his lips. Some sort of cosmetic mod.

Not cheap.

Without protest, with a few unanswered promises to catch-you-later-man, the other three recuse themselves. Dwayne stands there looking at me, hulking behemoth with his hands shoved in his pockets. I think I could get a ting! out of the tendons on his neck if I flicked them with a thumbnail.

"What do you go by now?"

"Huh?" As if I've shattered his concentration. "Oh. Razorface." The sibilants hiss through his teeth. "They call me Razorface. This my street." A shrug over his shoulder. Sure. Lord of all he surveys. "War's over, Casey."

"Yeah." We stand there staring at each other for a minute, grinning. People cross the street. "Call me Maker. I live here now. Hey, you know what?"


"You should come over some time. And watch a hockey game. In fact, can I buy you a drink?"

"It's ten in the morning, you fucking drunk," he says, but he takes my elbow and turns me, like he expects me to need the support. "Fuck, you look like hell."

"Yeah," I say, 'cause it's true.

But that's okay. Because on the other hand, he looks like he's doing . . . all right.

So that's something, after all.


Back | Next