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Demarcation (short story)

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posted on Mar, 26 2011 @ 05:30 PM
Terran stayed at his post, despite a strong desire to join the fray. He stood atop the red clay cliffs that struck out from the dirt clearing. Beyond that was the Alaska Highway, badly torn up, exposing the ancient row of logs placed to combat frost-heave degradation. No regular vehicle would be able to pass this way, not that any sought to. Across the road, thin, crooked, sparsely needle-topped trees jutted from the permafrost. Every few dozen accentuated by a blood red pine beetle kill, global warming having moved their infestation nearly to the arctic circle, in the last few years. Further east, Terran saw only more of the same tundra forest. Looking west, the black peaks of the distant Alaska Range were completely shrouded in the gray smoke of the forest fire, started three weeks ago by airstrikes against the HAARP facility, near Fairbanks. Two clicks north was the abandoned Yukon/Alaska border checkpoint. The same distance south was Beaver Creek, an outpost community, exactly half way between Whitehorse and Fairbanks. This was to be their station, where the Russians turned back.

They heard a man scream. Terran shouldered his rifle, scoping some movement in the thin woods. His young spotter, Newman, laying prone on the ground beside him, nervously asked, “You seein' somethin' Chief?”

“Take it easy,” soothed Terran. “See that swaying tree? Ten o'clock.”
“I got it,” Newman was peering into a large scope on a short tripod.
“Watch for bodies underneath.”

Newman was a good kid, he didn't need to watch anymore of what was happening in the dirt below the cliffs. Fresh from Dawson and only just turned eighteen, Newman had healthy eyes and hadn't hesitated to use up the last of the fifty caliber ammo last night when an armored humvee arrived, firing on our boys. The humvee now stood in the morning sun, shattered and smoldering, flies buzzing around it. As far as anyone knew, Terran was the only man left with ammunition, which totaled thirty eight shells for his .308 rifle. It was a relic, but in working order, given to him by one of the locals that had refused to leave. “I didn't leave when the polar bears came,” he had said, “why would I leave for Russians?”

“Anything?” asked Terran.
“Negative,” said Newman.

Terran didn't blame Newman for being excited, or green. When the Russians came all at once, screaming out of the woods, rifles swinging, eyes bulging, teeth baring, it was terrifying. Terran presumed they too must have used up their shells, for no one fired. They battled hand to hand, face to face, with what they had, the butts of their rifles, machetes, knives. Some stabbed with bits of branches, whittled into spears. Terran had seen a man killed with a rock, he was glad to shake the memory of it. Newman had jumped up cursing and ran to the fifty, which of course spun its barrels without roaring to life. “What are you doing?” he had squealed at Terran. “Fire! Fire!” Newman couldn't yet understand how his orders excused him from any feelings of helplessness.

Their instructions were clear: Hold this position secure, fire only if fired upon, reinforcements are en route, do not pursue, do not retreat. He and Newman had simply watched, as they did now, the men fight and die as men have for thousands of years before modernity, like animals. Presently surveying the battlefield, Terran estimated two dozen men were actively engaged. He suspected there were others hidden in the feeble woods.

“There's gotta be less than thirty of 'em out there now,” whined Newman. “Why can't we just light 'em up?
“Keep your eyes on the treeline!” ordered Terran, thinking, if you're going to treat me like an Officer... “We don't fire because we were ordered not to fire. What if forty riflemen arrived? Remember who you are.”
“Yes, sir! It just sucks, is all.”
“That's war.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Keep your eyes on the trees.”
“Yes, sir.”

Terran noticed a humming sound to the south. He turned, trying to see if it was their reinforcements, real Canadian army. Princess Patricia was sending men out of Edmonton, they were supposed to arrive this morning, it seemed they had. “Here comes our boys.” When Terran said this, Newman turned his attention from the tree line to the highway south. Both of them heard the bullet whiz past and smack Terran before the crack of the distant rifle fire. Terran dropped to one knee then laid on his belly. “Look for smoke!” Newman was already doing so. The drone of the vehicles approaching from the south continued to build. The excited noise of the men below the cliffs had picked up since the shot erupted. Some pointed at a particular spot in the woods. One man pointed south.

Terran came to realize the hot pain in his left shoulder. An electric burning radiated out with his pulse, down his arm, into his neck and armpit. His arm remained functional, so he continued looking for the sniper in the woods. There was no smoke, no movement. Terran tried to think about how it had felt, the force of the shot and from which direction. He glanced at his shoulder.

“Are you alright, Chief?” Newman's huge, wet eyes ran clear trails on his dusty face.
“It's okay,” said Terran. “It just grazed me.”
“I'm real sorry, Chief.” Newman sniffed and swallowed, then furrowed his brow, puzzled. After a moment, his face relaxed completely, like a man sleeping he emoted nothing. “What's that?” he whispering, his jaw slack. Militia activity and chatter ceased, it was quiet enough to hear the breeze.

The wave hit Terran next, or perhaps he hadn't noticed it right away, due to his wound. A calming, clouding sensation came over his faculties. His pain lessened, enough that he had to move his arm to make sure it still hurt. His excitement now all but forgotten in this strange befuddlement. He saw Newman, plainly panicking only seconds ago, now lay prone beside, staring like a wax figure. They weren't Canadians, Terran thought, “They're Americans.” He crawled on his elbows angling himself south, grunting as his shoulder scolded him. How could I have missed it? Through his scope he spied the black satellite dish on the roof of the lead vehicle. “It's the wayfee.” He said it stonily, inflectionless. Crawling to the cliff edge, he could see the battle below had apparently been suspended. Men looked around at each other indifferently, in silence, like commuters on a train. One militia, who had been receiving first aid, calmly and horribly died as his attendant watched impassively. Noticing the ringing in his ears Terran thought, it's like shell shock when it first hits you. He yelled loudly, to be heard. “It's the waaaaaayyyy-ffffeeeeeeeeeeee!” He saw troopers train their attention, on him. Newman, blinked... stupidly.

A deep male voice with a southern drawl, blowing his “wh” sound said, “We call it the whefi.” Terran whipped his weapon around, pointing it at an incredibly tall man, grinning under a white mustache. The man put his giant hands above a head of thick hair, white as his smile. The sleeves of his camo jacket were rolled, exposing his muscled arms. “Hell son, you must have some 'Merican in ya.”

Although he pointed his rifle at the soldier, Terran noticed he didn't particularly know why. He didn't feel threatened, or even surprised. He knew he should have been, but he seemed peculiarly incapable. “What?” he managed, after some effort.

“Well, look at yer friend there,” the soldier pointed. Terran observed Newman, who blankly watched, his eyes switching between them. The soldier lowered his right arm slowly, extending it to give Terran a hand up. Terran took it and got to his feet, using his rifle as a crutch. His shoulder throbbed. The soldier noticed his bleeding wound. He tipped Terran's chin up to look down into his eyes, examining them closely. Terran thought, he's too tall. He shouted in Terran's face, “Medic!” The soldier turned Terran around, positioning him to view the Americans arrive on the field. Newman, like the rest of the men below, watched what was happening, seemingly interested only by action, noise, or light. The Americans moved about the militia like men for whom time stood still.

“Name's McKintry,” said the soldier. “I head up this unit. Landed in Juneau two days ago. 'Sposed to go in the backdoor.”
Terran had a thought, he decided to say it, which took longer than he expected, “You're not supposed to use the wayfee outside the States. UN said.”
McKintry spat, “Son, the whefi just saved your life, the lives of those men down there. Look...”
Terran saw that, somehow, Amercian soldiers were flushing several Russian riflemen out of the woods. Everyone walked serenely, weapons slung, at ease. The Americans disarmed them as they were loaded into the makeshift paddy wagon.

“UN wants to make it impossible to force peace.” McKintry put his hand on Terran's good shoulder, giving it a squeeze. “Ya see, son, this is the whefi in action.” He gestured below. “Wireless human emotion function interfacing.” He tapped Terran's head twice with a finger. “It's wifi for the brain.” Stepping around him, he looked Terran in the eyes again, bending over. “What's my name?” He held Terran's wrist.
“McKintry,” Terran responded without delay. An original idea was forming in his mind, he decided to speak it aloud, he waited, wondering what he was waiting for. “How do you guys live like this?”
“Bah, you get used to it. They run the domestic system at a much lower power.” McKintry continued stooping, staring, seeking. “You know that feelin', like your senses have been interrupted, disconnected? Well, they have. They're filtered and sent back to you, obfuscated... to the point of paralysis.”

Terran nodded, even now, McKintry's voice was under a pillow, and his face through a dirty window. His drawl echoed in Terran's memory, Ob-few-skated, he thought. “Ob-few-skated,” he said.
“Yes, but check out your friend. What's his name?” Terran looked at his spotter and said his name aloud. McKintry barked, “Newman, get on your feet, soldier!”
Newman complied easily enough. McKintry smiled at Terran, “See? The emotional man is easily manipulated when his emotions are turned off. But you, my friend, are a naturally cool customer. You have a focus most people can't get without training and implants.” He tilted Terran's chin up again. “I've seen your type before, but not often.”

A new thought was coming to the surface, Terran was curious about how it was going to be formed as speech. He was briefly distracted by realizing that he didn't know what the conclusion was, only that it was McKintry's words that brought him to it. He heard himself say, “You've got no soul.”

“There is no soul,” offered McKintry, after a thought adding, “there's only bioelectricmagnetism and radio waves. The whefi has made America the safest place to live.” He stepped closer to the edge of the cliff, gesturing to the tranquil battlefield below. “If you want to call it a soul, all we've done is pause it.” He shrugged, “But the results speak for themselves.” Terran's men were quietly helping to clear obstacles so that McKintry's party could continue northwest with their Russian captives “You might want to think about what you have to gain by resisting. You think we want to be out of a job? There's no money in taking prisoners.”

Footsteps approached, McKintry pointed at Terrans' shoulder. The medic placed a compress on it and put his face up to Terran's, “Move your arm!” he commanded. Terran did. McKintry said, “It's okay, Doc. He's one of us. Just tape it up.” Surprised and curious, the medic reached into his sack, drew a pill from a metal canister and pushed it into Terran's mouth. He ripped off the sleeve around the wound. Terran watched him tape the compress over it then walk away in the direction he came. McKintry left unnoticed. Terran and Newman were alone again, atop the red cliffs. They looked down at the militia, gently swaying in their stupor, many wept. The Americans were already a shrinking hum of slow moving vehicles. The high pitched ringing was gone, and although he seemed to be getting a headache, Terran was again able to think in real time. “Newman,” he said, “are you okay?”

Newman stared at Terran, first blankly, then furrowing his brow, confused, his eyes welled up, he caught his breath. Finally he spoke, “What was that all about?”
Terran didn't know how to answer him, not because of any mental manipulation, but rather because he couldn't decide well on what happened. Finally he said, “I think we were just saved by a ghost.” A new hum could be heard to the south, this time it was their reinforcements. Relieved, Terran thought he would go back to Watson Lake, check on his sister and her kids. Then, he might never come back to the front again. Despite not understanding how, by being semi-detached in the grip of the whefi, Terran couldn't help but discover a sad irony, perhaps the undoing of all war. Our souls may hide in our ability to destroy ourselves, but to deny us the option is to cheat us of all our humanity. Any real peace has to come from the will of the individual. That might make the peaceful soul impossible but wasn't it better to keep possession of the option? Terran thought that was an oddly obvious question, insulting really. He didn't like that someone had forced him to think of it. He gave Newman his weapon and walked away.


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