I am dying of the war, though not in it.
Such is the nature of wars. A person doesn’t have to die in battle to be killed by a war. A person doesn’t even have to be a soldier to die of one.
Wars have always been slow killers as well as quick. The war that killed my grandfather killed him thirty years after he was discharged, when his liver finally quit from all the self-medicating it took to deal with the aftermath. It killed both his wives, too, though they never served.
Dying of wars is strangely contagious.
If we were a more honest people, there would be a lot of statues of civilians on the National Mall. Maybe that’s something you can look into, when we’re done here. Imagine if all those wedding parties and starving children and violated women at least got the notice in death that life—and war—denied them.
Empty. Meaningless to them, since they’ll never know about it. But a gesture at least. A reminder for the living of the horrors that have passed. Not that we tend to learn anything from the sins of our fathers.
Case in point: my father also died of a war. Cancer, which certainly had nothing to do with chemical weapons or toxic environmental conditions where he fought.
How could it? There were definitely no chemical weapons used in his war, and just as definitely no toxic environmental conditions pertaining. Just ask the organizations—commercial, governmental—that could otherwise have been held fiscally responsible for treating a sick soldier.
If they had to treat one, in fairness you might expect them to treat them all. What possible reason could they ever have had to lie?
And then there’s me.
I’m not dying because I was a hero. I’m dying because I was the villain. I was a legitimate war criminal.
What can I say? Following orders seemed like a good idea at the time.
But I’ll never be brought to justice. I’ll never even go to jail.
And choices like the ones I made then eventually demand some kind of accountability—a reckoning—in the now.
I was a suicide.
It seemed like the least I could do. Not to make amends: you don’t make amends for what I did. There are no real reparations.
But a kind of restorative justice. A tiny little drop in the ocean of what I owe.
Perhaps I should say that I am a suicide, because I’m not done dying yet.
Maybe I will never be.
I am not a suicide in the normal course of events. I am a special kind of suicide.
Dying of a war is not a new thing. But the manner and purpose of my going… that’s where the revolution lies.
Dr. Cotter had a day job at the V.A., but she didn’t recruit her subjects where she worked.
She got us the old-fashioned way. She put an ad on the T.
DID YOU SERVE?
ARE YOU SORRY?
Underneath, there was a contact number, and some fine print about a study and the exact specifications of who they were looking for.
They were looking for me.
I might not have showed up, except it was a month or two after my dad died, and I was taking it hard. I didn’t have anybody: I’d driven them all off. I was as alone and adrift as I have ever been in my life.
Then I met Dr. Cotter and everything changed. For the better, for once.
Cotter wasn’t even a shrink. She was a neuro-something, I guess. Some other kind of brain doctor. I never can get the specialties straight anymore. My functions have been pared down. Let’s be honest: I don’t really have a consciousness. I feel like me, but I’m not an individual in the sense we’re used to. I’m just a set of protocols.
I’m not as smart as I used to be. When I had a brain of my own. When I wasn’t using something else’s.
But maybe I wasn’t that smart then, either. Because I didn’t use that big brain much. I just followed orders.
They were bad orders and I knew it. But they make it so easy not to think for yourself. Just to do what you’re told. They make it so easy not to say no.
I tortured people. I sprayed them with white phosphorous and burned them alive. I didn’t do it in person, but from a distance. I used a robot, like the reach of God’s clawed hand down from Heaven to pluck up the just and the unjust alike.
It didn’t seem so bad, from a distance. I know you know what I mean. You’ve seen the photographs, the films of smoking houses, smoking places of worship, smoking marketplaces.
Some of the people I burned weren’t soldiers.
A surprising number of them survived.
I was never brought to trial.
They will never be asked to testify.
I can only speak for them, in one last unsubtle irony.
Cotter leaned across her desk. Her grey hair was escaping her bun, as usual. Her gaudy earrings swung. “My parents were Holocaust survivors. Do you know what epigenetics is?”
“No,” I lied.
“Trauma experienced by your ancestors can affect your genetic expression. Your personality; your physical self. The environment you experience can affect the genetic expression of your children. It iterates. It’s handed down.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I know what you did in the war,” she said.
It was, in a strange way, a relief to be confronted. “I was just follow-ing orders.”
“There’s no just about it.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”
She sat back and suddenly relaxed. “How do you feel about it? About what you did, I mean. In the war.”
I shook my head.
I opened my mouth.
I shook my head again.
Some time later, Cotter leaned back, folded her hands, and said, “What if you could make people understand that? Really understand that? Really understand how you feel?”
I took a sip of water. It greased the words a little but they still had edges. “How many people? Until when?”
She shrugged. “Most of them? For a long time?”
I wonder how many times, in how many people, I’ve relived all that now.
Statistically speaking, if you are a human being in the Americas or Europe, you’ve already experienced it. As if you had been there. They’re working on drugs to fight the infection, I hear, but it’s already spread to Asia and Africa. Maybe not Madagascar. But the flatworms can live and reproduce in freshwater.
I expect they’ll be around for the foreseeable future. So I don’t have to tell you again what I did in the war, and how I came to feel about it later.
No point in beating a one-trick pony to death.
Sometimes we captured people rather than burning them. Some of those people went to prison camps where they were tortured, and I have a responsibility for that, too.
It doesn’t sound so bad—caning the feet, stress positions, water-boarding, electric shocks, isolation, sleep deprivation. It’s not supposed to sound so bad. They show you worse things as entertainment, and the people on TV usually seem to walk away in the end.
It doesn’t sound so bad.
Because you have been lied to.
“Lee,” Cotter said. “You’re the one.”
“Planaria lugubris,” she said, holding up a tube filled with cloudy water. “A common flatworm. Not so common anymore.”
“Are they endangered?” I asked, interested.
“No,” she said. Light glinted through the tube. It was quite pretty. “We edited them.”
“Like a book?” I joked.
“More or less.” The tube clicked as she set it back in a rack. “Do you know what CRISPR is?”
“Sure,” I said. “It shows up in a lot of horror movies. There’s human DNA in your flatworms, right? They’re going to grow to the size of school buses and learn to use automatic weapons?”
“Well, no,” she said. “But we did use some bits of another flatworm. A parasitic one. And Toxoplasmosis gondii.”
I felt my mouth doing a funny thing. “Isn’t that the bug that makes rats walk into cat mouths?”
Her mouth did a funny thing, too. As if she were trying to smile, but didn’t really feel like she deserved to. “Do you know what’s interesting about planarians, Lee?”
“Wait,” I said, suddenly full of high school biology. “They can pass memories to one another, right? If they eat each other?”
“Fucking little cannibals,” she agreed.
“You want to feed them my memories.”
Her fingers drummed silently on the steel lab countertop.
“Then what? Make people eat them?”
She stepped away from the counter and faced me. “They reproduce in human brains. They can pass their memories along to their hosts.”
“That sounds like terrorism. Not to mention one hell of a violation of consent law.”
“Did you consent to what happened to you?” she asked me.
My lips clenched around the words, holding them in. I closed my eyes and got out a single one. “Technically.”
That was why some of the people I worked with went to jail. I didn’t. Mostly because the government wanted the prosecutions—and the attendant publicity—to stop as soon as they’d plausibly punished someone for what they told us to do.
“Is coerced consent really consent?”
“Who is ever,” I asked, “really free of coercion?”
She sighed and rolled her head back to look at the ceiling. “Yes, it’s terrorism. Yes, it’s a terrible, unethical thing. Yes, when it comes out, I will go to jail at the very least.”
“You’ll be dead.”
“Right,” I said. “They’re going to eat my brain. That’s how they get the memories, isn’t it? Just like they get the memories of other flatworms from eating each other.”
She just looked at me.
I waved my hand airily. “I’m okay with that. Are they going to eat other people’s brains?”
“The first generation will reproduce and die,” she said. “They’ve got a… I guess you would call it a kill switch. Their offspring will be commensal organisms rather than parasitic ones. We’ve programmed them to eat damaged cells instead of healthy ones. Infected people will actually, on average, live longer. The cure for war is also the cure for cancer.”
“Flatworms that will certainly never mutate back and just eat brains or something. All the brains. Everywhere. You’ve recreated mad cow disease, but with flatworms.”
“Planarians are a lot easier to kill than prions,” she said. “And parasites generally evolve to be less deadly to the host, not more.”
“You’re an even more awful human being than I am,” I said.
“Do you want to end war?”
I bit my lip. I looked down at my shoes. “It seems like the least I can do.”
“You will have to formally consent, and indicate that you understand what the process will require.”
“What, now consent matters? What about all those people out there who don’t pay their taxes in order to be parasitized by flatworms and traumatic memories?”
“I’m a hypocrite,” Cotter admitted. “And if I knew what else to do I would. Aren’t all those people out there who pay their taxes complicit in drone strikes on kindergartens, too? If they stopped trying not to worry about it, or thinking of it as necessary collateral damage, do you think things would change?”
My stomach clenched. I held out my hand, as if we could shake on it. “Okay. What is it, a lethal injection or something?”
She looked away. “Lee. You have to be alive while the flatworms work.”
“Well.” I swallowed and took my hand back. “Show me where to sign.”
I didn’t expect to remember.
No. That’s wrong. That was, after all, the entire point of the exercise: me remembering. Me remembering war. For you.
I didn’t expect that I would be self-aware through the process, however. My own private richly-deserved Hell.
I wonder how many times, in how many places, I’ve relived this now. I’m not sure I would have had the guts to commit to the process, if I realized that I would have to go through it all again. Billions and billions of times. I mean, moral cowardice is what turned me into a war criminal in the first place.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. When I had a brain of my own. And wasn’t just a parasite in yours.
The process of being converted into flatworm memories didn’t hurt. Your brain doesn’t have any nerves to feel pain with.
It was actually kind of a relief. I could feel the memories slipping away.
A relief, anyway, until I realized that the memories were all I was anymore.
War is a contagion. The contagion is in you.
The contagion is me.
Cotter died in prison, as she’d predicted, after the world figured out what we’d done. Too late to change anything. Too late to fix anything.
Too late to mean anything.
Sending her to jail was a nice gesture, I suppose.
(Editors’ Note: Elizabeth Bear is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2019 Elizabeth Bear