I was traveling by freighter to England in wartime — one of those classy wars where guys with rifles pose on the tops of small rises to admire the rising sun after an all night march, and have a drag on their cigarette, and no one puts a bullet through their curly brown locks — to either take a message or bring back a message. I wasn’t clear on the specifics, and looking back on the mission, it seems like I was played for a dupe by my side and ignored by the other. Which is probably why I’m still alive this morning.
I was just a kid when I left; still wet behind the ears, my girlfriend all concerned about the French girl I was supposed to contact, my mother all concerned that she’d never see me again, and me telling them both that I’d be fine and unchanged when I came home for dinner next.
Dad was fretting in his own quiet way, and kept fussing over my clothes. They have to be just right, he kept saying. You don’t want to look too good, because then you’re a target, but you don’t want to look like a bum because then no one respects you. Dad, I’ve got it. My suit jacket, the spats, and my Cary Grant will be just fine. He kept trying to pick lint here and smooth an imaginary wrinkle there. I kept trying not to throw a tantrum; after all, I was an agent of the government, and government agents most certainly don’t throw tantrums. Not the cool ones, at least.
If someone had told me then what I know now to be the truth, I would have grinned a little, pointed my index finger at my forehead while turning it in a slow circle, and gone on about my Very Important Business completely unfazed, except maybe by the person’s eyes, but nohow would I admit that little bit of connection, even to myself. That’s youth for you.
I was traveling by freighter to England in time of war upon flat, star-lit seas, when I realized I had on grey socks. It’s not like an agent of the government would let something so obvious as grey — I mean come on; grey? — socks pass without notice or comment. But then, not every agent of the government has my family: my Irish father; my Italian mother; my shi-tzu of a sister. I probably wore the socks to appease somebody and then forgot about them.
But now, with my grey trousers and grey spats, I was like one big monochromatic blob standing at the rail, looking over the sea. I had no definition, no place for the eye to separate foot from leg, no place for my bony ankles to hide. I fancied I looked like one of those photos you see in the windows of the uptown galleries during rush hour as the rip tide of commuters sweeps you from train station to station. I was Silver Chloride man, the government’s double secret weapon against the enemy, sneaking across the ocean in the black of night.
I sighed and turned from the railing and stumbled below into my bunk that I shared with the Engineer’s Third Mate’s assistant and wondered when I’d meet my lovely contact in France and would she recognize me even with my grey socks.
I traveled by freighter to England in time of war, and coming off the ship, at the end of the gang plank, I knew I was dead.
London lay smoking and ruined. Bricks and mortar made a crumbled, crumpled layer on the street two-and-a-half feet thick and made it impossible to move unless you were one of Them. The enemy. The things (People? Not people? You know now as much as we did then.) in the giant metal pods with segmented legs that dared us to look at them, much less attack in any way. People were running terrified in the rubble, trying to make sense of their new world. I stood still in my suit at the edge of the dock on soil that was more foreign than I knew and wished I was home.
Later, and I don’t know how much later because that all gets kind of jumbled when there’s no sun for all the smoke and stench of death, I was somewhere in Europe hiding in a ditch. I’d tell you where, because then maybe you’d have a chance of finding me, but I just don’t know.
I do know that I met the French girl. She was as pretty as my mind had made her out to be, if not more so. Pity she couldn’t have survived long enough to give me the message she carried. I never did find that. I also know that I lost the suit. Not, oh, gee I can’t find my suit, whatever shall I do, lost it. More of a, huh, I guess I look like both an idiot and a target, sort of lost it. My socks are still grey, but that’s just dried mud with a splash of some guy’s vomit.
I know that none of us carry riffles any more. The only thing they do against the enemy is give away our location, not that they can be bothered killing a single puny man. Now, we don’t shoot unless we have one of the heavy mobile cav turrets that spews eighty-cal bullets like a tomcat marking his alley. The turrets can do some damage to the enemy, but only if they survive long enough.
The turrets are good, you gotta give ‘em that. They can walk around and target pretty quickly and send a hail of spalling uranium that you just have to see to believe, but the fluid grace and grim, metallic joy with which the enemy counters and kills makes us look like a bunch of tottering, herky-jerky barbarians with bones in our beards and clubs in our hands. Which, I suppose we are, in so many ways.
There’s a theory going around in the ditches and trenches that the enemy doesn’t really want anything from us but war. They don’t seem to have any strategy but to engage us and keep us ragged. They don’t keep or use any of the objectives they take from us; just smash, burn, and move on. It’s almost as if the enemy wants only to fight and doesn’t really care who it fights or what happens as long as it fights. They haven’t, as far as we can tell, moved from Europe to any other continent, so we can at least keep getting ammo and sometimes food.
The sarge has a theory: he says maybe the war’s good for the world. Unemployment is down, fear and compliance are up. With all the manufacturing and funerals, the economy’s never been so good, he says. Maybe the enemy made sarge crazy, but at least he has something to fight for.
The sky is turning from black to a dim smoky red; sun must be rising. The camp is getting quieter, waiting for the whir of the enemy to come. It’s my turn in one of the turrets today. If you get this, tell my folks I’m gonna need another suit — grey is fine — to wear for the long ride home over the dark ocean.