Daniel Ross Goodman
Ron hadn’t seen his former comrades in over seven years, and he wasn’t much looking forward to it. Since the last Arab-Israeli war, the Golan War of 2047, he had avoided all contact with his former comrades, and even though peace had finally come in 2056, he had tried not to think about the war at all. His friend Jeremy had invited him to a party at his Tel Aviv condo to celebrate last year’s historic peace agreement, and Ron had grudgingly agreed to come, but only for Jeremy’s sake. It was Jeremy, after all, who had saved his life.
As he pulled his old beat-up slate-gray Toyota into a vacant spot along the street of Jeremy’s high-rise beach-front condo and killed the engine, Ron tried to wipe the sullen look off of his scruffy, unshaven face. He flipped down the interior driver’s side mirror, threw a quick glance at himself, and grimaced. The drive from Netanya had only taken twenty-five minutes, but he felt as if he had aged two years since he had put on his old washed-out light blue shirt, his wrinkled dark blue trousers, and his faded camel-brown sandals before leaving his cramped, cluttered apartment and setting out southward along Highway 2. He squinted his cloudy blue eyes as he looked at the clear, unmistakable visage peering back at him: a worn-down forty-five year-old man with thinning straw-blonde hair, a heavily lined forehead, hollow cheeks, and no prospects.
“It’s great to be here,” he imagined himself saying to his former friends, anticipating the imminent reunion that he was dreading. “It’s definitely worth taking a vacation day to spend some time with you guys—I had to ask my supervisor at the A.I.-troop manufacturing plant for a day off.” But that would’ve been a bold-faced lie. He had been jobless for six months, and was nine months’ behind on his rent. He had been rejected for the three-dozen-plus jobs he had applied for since he had lost his job. He had been laid off for an intemperate, reckless outburst; in a sudden fit of rage, he had destroyed two of the artificially intelligent soldiers he’d been assembling, furious at how the AI’s were taking over even the most human of activities—and his only field of expertise—warfare. His only two interviews, for a high school gym teacher position and a tryout to be a pharmaceuticals executive’s personal trainer, had gone terribly. Now that peace had come, who would hire a depressed middle-aged man with an anger-management problem whose only item of significance on his résumé was his army service? What was a career soldier supposed to do without war?
“Damn good question,” he muttered to himself under his breath as he slammed the car door. He didn’t bother locking it. “Let someone take this useless hunk of metal . . . if there is anyone out there who’d actually want this thing.”
He trudged toward the entrance of Jeremy’s building and forced himself to move his leaden legs into the luxurious lobby. “Looks more like a Four Seasons than an apartment building,” Ron thought as he gawked morosely at the gaudy marble sculptures and glittering crystal vases and garish abstract paintings that adorned the ornate lobby. “It’s not even the ‘doorman’ here, it’s ‘the concierge,’” he mumbled to himself as he checked in at the front desk, eyeing the concierge’s solid granite desk with disdain. “What a bunch of . . . .”
He sauntered straight to the elevator bank without stopping to look at the abstract paintings on the building’s Jerusalem-stone walls. Nor did he give much attention to the varnished mahogany pool table with its serene green felt, the lavish lounge room with its crocodile leather couches and wall-screen televisions, or the entrance to the building’s health club that he had passed along the way. He sensed he had stepped into an alien environment. Such luxury was utterly foreign to him; he felt like an earthling trying to breathe on Jupiter.
“Jeremy Silver, apartment 49G,” he said upon entering the solid glass elevator. He was startled at how raspy his voice sounded; he hadn’t said a word to a single soul all day, yet he sounded as if he had been lecturing for six-hours nonstop. The solar-powered elevator immediately recognized the request and lifted him up to the forty-ninth floor with the speed of a jet-propelled ballistic missile.
Ron hesitated upon stepping out into the long, well-lit, rose-carpeted hallway. His face was as tense as a freshly strung tennis racquet. “I should go back . . . I should get back in that elevator, go back down, get back in the car and drive home . . . yes . . . .” He kept on babbling to himself as he walked toward Jeremy’s penthouse. Why did he feel so strongly that he didn’t want to be here? Why did he so desperately desire to contrive some last-second excuse that would get him out of having to make torturous small-talk with “friends” who hadn’t bothered reaching out to him even once over the past seven years? Why did he suddenly feel the urge to pull the hallway carpet over his body like a blanket and bury himself beneath the floor? Of course he didn’t want to be here. But then again, he had nowhere else to go.
He gave a weak, meek knock on apartment 49G’s carved sandalwood door and gritted his teeth, hoping that no one would answer the door—hoping he wouldn’t have to speak, hoping he would have an excuse to turn right around and head back home. No one answered. He knocked again, less because he wanted to than because it was the expected thing to do. There was still no answer. He tried turning the nob, and after finding it unlocked, he pushed the door open, revealing a spacious, cream-colored living room filled with over twenty middle-aged men, most of whom he recognized as his former infantry-mates. They were standing around three round oaken tables covered with plum tablecloths and stainless steel trays of food, talking and laughing and filling the room with sounds that would have been cheerful to most but were menacing to Ron.
He felt a hard slap on his right shoulder and immediately turned around.
“Ron!” said a tall, thin man sporting a slim-fitting dinner jacket. The man had a fair complexion, floppy black hair, golden wire-framed glasses, a small, bony nose shaped like an eagle’s beak, and a beaming, radiant smile. The man put his slender arms around Ron’s upper back, and Ron reluctantly received his warm hug.
“Hey Jeremy,” he sheepishly responded, reciprocating Jeremy’s sincere smile with a forced, half-hearted one of his own.
“So glad you could make it, Ron. It means a lot to me that you’re here . . . well, what are you waiting for? Come, mingle, eat!” he exclaimed, pointing with his almond-brown eyes to the elaborate buffet spread upon the three round oaken tables. “Come celebrate! Isn’t it great to have peace! I mean, finally, Ron, right?” He let out a small chuckle. “After all these years, all these wars? It’s peace, Ron, peace! And we finally have it! Isn’t it great?”
Jeremy quickly moved on from Ron to attend to the other guests, gliding across the room with the ease of a deer. Ron recognized most of his former field-mates, but felt no inclination to strike up a conversation with any of them. From a distance, he saw Hassan, the Palestinian lieutenant who had protected Ron and Jeremy during the war when they were POWs in northern Gaza, making sure they were properly fed, clothed, and cared for. That was probably the first sign that peace was approaching, Ron remembered Jeremy telling him during those frightening days in the POW bunker seven years ago—the fact that the other side was treating them in such a civilized manner surely presaged peace. Jeremy had been right . . . so why was Ron now wishing that he had been wrong? He scolded himself for the thought and tried to move toward his former friends.
Ron’s eyes fell upon the succulent-smelling food that Jeremy’s kitchen staff had arrayed across the three round tables. The sumptuous spread consisted of all his favorite foods: humus, bourekas, falafel, lamb kebabs sprinkled with cilantro, baba ghanoush with garlic, schwarma with cloves and curry leaves, Turkish salad, Israeli salad, and a wide assortment of grilled, cumin-flavored vegetables, pita-breads baked with olive oil, za’atar-seasoned eggplant, and Yemenite-spiced fish garnished with pomegranates, pistachio slices, and dried rose petals.
But when he saw the thin flakes of turmeric which coated the Moroccan carrots, he immediately thought of Shlomit. Shlomit, with her rapturous ruby-red hair wrapped around her apple-round shoulders. Shlomit, with her slender, dexterous, perfumed hands expertly slicing the long thick carrots into thin little slivers, making the Moroccan carrots just the way he liked them—soft enough to melt in his mouth, but hard enough to maintain the attention of his tingled palate; sufficiently spicy to stoke his taste-buds, but always sweetened with a hint of honey.
They had been together for six years when he had come home that day four months ago after another fruitless day of job-hunting to find that she had taken all her belongings and had moved out of his apartment. Why had she left him? Was it because he would yell at her whenever she overcooked the mushrooms? Because he was constantly apologizing to her for losing his temper? Because he was a fierce lieutenant colonel who could brilliantly command a tank battalion, but couldn’t hold down a non-military job if his life depended on it? Because he hadn’t seemed to have made his peace with the fact that they were now finally living in a time of peace?
In his mind his arms were still wrapped around her rounded hips—but this scene was only taking place in his mind, and nowhere else. He would have to treasure that memory like a priceless gem, because he knew that the scene now taking place in his peaceful inner mental world would never again be realized in the new, harsh outer world. Ron quietly moaned. As he approached the small horde, his palms started to sweat. He swallowed hard. His heart began to pound. The faces of his former comrades were taking his mind to the place he didn’t want it to go; his brain was starting to replay the combat-scenes for him, the terrible battles that he had endured with those other men whom he had once called his friends. How was it, Ron asked himself, that those horror-filled moments were the only times in his wretched life when he had felt truly alive?
The thunderous claps of exploding Valkyrie-jet payloads, the skeletal shells of burned-through tanks, the ruined remains of three-family houses disemboweled by armored bulldozers and bunker buster bombs, the grisly sight of charred corpses strewn across smoldering city streets, the sound-barrier-breaking bullets whizzing past his helmet by a hair-breath and shattering his ear drums—he had hated it then, but years later it was beginning to feel like the only thing he had ever truly loved. He berated himself for the morbid thought, but somewhere in his heart he knew it was true. And Jeremy was the one who had ruined it all for him.
Instead of heading into the threatening throng of his former friends, he ambled toward the window, gazed with grim eyes at the gorgeous azure sky which reigned over the Mediterranean Sea on this glorious day in the middle of May, and let his thoughts simmer in his mind like a rotten beef stew.
But his mind returned him to another place he preferred not to go: to Ashdod, just north of Gaza, seven years ago. To the inside of his tank, where he had been with Jeremy and the other four members of his crew, as they tried to fend off an ambush. Jeremy had only been there because he was an embedded reporter, covering the war for the Toronto Star. He had already had a moderately successful career as a foreign correspondent for the Star, and he was looking to make a name for himself in the latest eruption of Middle Eastern strife—the war that would turn out to be the final war in the Arab-Israeli conflict—and perhaps write the feature-story which would win him the post of The Star’s Jerusalem Bureau Chief.
The Palestinian battalion had disabled the tank’s stealth-shield and was about to storm the tank. Ron had given orders for his crew to evacuate the tank and prepare for hand-to-hand combat if necessary. But the first of them to emerge from the shell of the tank was Jeremy, waving a white flag over his head like an excited fan waving a pennant in a sports arena. Ron, his eyes bulging with fury, had yelled at him mercilessly: “What do you think you’re doing?! You’re just a reporter! A spineless embed! You’re not even an Israeli! You’re a Canadian! This isn’t your fight! You have no right to—” But when Ron ducked his head out of the top of the tank, he saw that they were surrounded by over two-dozen Palestinian soldiers. He had wanted to keep fighting, but that would’ve meant a sure death; Jeremy’s cowardliness had saved his life and the lives of his crewmates.
“Sure, he did the right thing at the time,” Ron thought, turning around briefly to look at Jeremy and Hassan chatting amiably as if they’d been friends since childhood. Ron rolled turned his head back toward the window and fixed his gaze on the sea. “But look at me now . . . a useless hunk of flesh, just occupying space . . . I would’ve been better off if he’d never have waved that flag. I’d be better off d . . . .”
He quickly quashed the thought, but not before it had done its damage; it had risen in his mind involuntarily, like a reflexive muscle movement, but he had registered the sentiment without completely dismissing it. The worst part about it was that it felt true—irrational, idiotic, downright stupid . . . but true. And the truth of his emotional reaction stung him like a scorpion. His chest tightened, and his throat quickly grew parched. He felt himself fighting back tears. The color faded from his face. He suddenly felt sick. He gingerly approached Jeremy and said, with a sorrowful, subdued voice: “I’m sorry, Jeremy . . . I have to leave.”
“What’s a matter, Ron? You just got here! You haven’t even touched any of the food! At least have a drink!”
“I . . . I’m sorry, Jeremy,” said Ron, his voice catching. “. . . I can’t stay here.” “Well . . .” Jeremy shook his head and raised his eyebrows quizzically, indicating to Ron that Jeremy seemed curious at what was bothering his old friend, but based on the closed, troubled yet determined expression on Ron’s face, he sensed he shouldn’t probe too deeply. “Alright, Ron, whatever suits you best. Thanks for coming . . . hope to see you soon.”
“Sure . . . .”
Shlomit’s face was the only one he wanted now before his eyes, with her lovely dark complexion, her full, satiny lips, her small, upturned nose, and her sparkling aquamarine eyes smiling at him in that playful, beckoning way she so often did . . . but now she had been whisked away from him liked a beautiful jewel whose true owner had suddenly swooped in to reclaim it. She was gone from his life, and so was just about everything else he had once cherished.
Ron slunk away from the small celebration like an athlete embarrassed by his poor performance at a tournament in which he had never wanted to compete in the first place; he was relieved to be leaving, but still felt ashamed at his pathetic showing.
“But I did show,” he said to himself as the elevator took him back down to the ground floor, futilely searching for some source of pride, for some scrap of evidence which would enable him to feel some modicum of self-worth. “Even if it wasn’t for more than ten minutes, I did show . . . and now I can get back to . . . .”
To what? “To what?” were the words that would’ve finished the thought, but the thought was too painful to finish, because he knew he had nothing to return to. As he walked out of the apartment, Ron kept his eyes locked on the marble-tiled floor, not wanting to have to look at the luxurious lounge, the billiards room, the health-club entrance, and the abstract paintings and sculptures again; it was too much for him, a sensory overload at a time when he needed nothing more than to cleanse all of his senses. To cleanse his entire being. Or perhaps to do something more drastic than “cleansing”; the thought crept up in the back of Ron’s consciousness like a persistent itch on his back that hadn’t quite gone away. He struggled to scratch it; he didn’t know if he was capable of reaching that far.
Upon exiting the building, instead of heading toward his car, he began drifting toward the sea, as if drawn by some strange craving for water. After walking down the slanting, stony path that led to the beach, he let out a relieved sigh and plopped down on the white sand. It was warm and inviting, like one of those beanbag chairs from his youth that he used to like lounging on during lazy rainy afternoons while reading comic books. “Nowadays they no longer make those kinds of chairs,” he thought, with a tinge of regret. “Today all the new chairs are only those AEA chairs, Automatic-Ergonomically-Adjustable, whatever it’s called, if that’s even the name . . . who cares . . . doesn’t even matter what the name is . . . nothing matters.”
He let his muddied thoughts drift out with the tide, trying to wash them away with the waves. “Maybe I can try to enroll in the Middle Eastern Union army again . . . maybe they need a former lieutenant colonel to . . . to . . .” He shook his head and shut his eyes, reproaching himself for letting his mind entertain such an illusion. He had already tried to apply to the MEU army three times, and received the same answer each time: the MEU only accepts soldiers who are under the age of forty; absolutely no exceptions. Besides which, he was told, the bare-bones MEU military hardly needed any human troops at all; in the past seven years, the Middle East had become one of the most peaceful regions in the world. The vast majority of the perfunctory border-patrol work was carried out much more efficiently, and with a far lesser risk of violence, with A.I. troops than with human troops. And now even the A.I. troop-manufacturing plants were no longer an option for him.
He let the sands of the beach mold themselves around the contours of his back and behind, caressing his entire figure like the beanbag chairs of his youth used to do. “And now they’re just relics,” he sadly thought, “museum-pieces somewhere . . . obsolete . . . just like warfare now is. And just like—just like . . . .”
Just like I am.
“Just like I am,” he said to himself, this time letting himself finish the thought. “Obsolet . . . .”
He slid his iGun out of his left pant-pocket and coddled it in his hands, then gripped it with a vicious strength which surprised him. The MEU government had outlawed the private possessions of all armaments, but were generously offering 10,000-dinar rebates to all former soldiers who returned their smart-guns to the MEU’s armament collection bureau. “I could really use that money, obviously,” he thought, contemplating taking the government up on their cash back offer for his pocket-sized firearm.
He knew he wasn’t allowed to keep the weapon anyway, even if he wanted to.
“But . . . .”
But what was there to consider? What choice did he really have?
He slightly loosened his grip on the smart-gun but still clutched it tightly, clasping his most-prized possession as if it were the leash which held his dog—his beloved dog, his best friend, his only remaining friend—perhaps the only thing in his life he still loved—and he was afraid of letting it too wander away, petrified at the thought of his best, truest, most loyal friend disappearing from his life and leaving him utterly bereft.
“These were amazing when they first came out,” he said to himself, admiring the way his teal-blue iGun glistened under the sun, gazing at it as if it were a work of art. “A top-of-the-line firearm, a work of genius, the greatest gun ever created . . . light as a feather, as powerful as a howitzer . . . infrared sensors and tiny computer chips connected to satellites tells the gun exactly where the enemy is . . . touch-screens let you toggle back and forth effortlessly between a semiautomatic and an M4 carbine; changes at the speed of a finger-swipe between Colt 9mm SMG, grenade launcher, Uzi, and AK-47 . . . and you never need to worry about ammunition ‘cause the gun’s solar-powered nano-engine inside the magazine automatically generates the bullets and shells right inside the gun itself.”
He swiped his right index finger on the grip’s touch-screen, transforming the firearm into a .223 caliber M16 rifle, then turned the barrel around so that the muzzle was aimed at his right temple.
“Obsolete . . .” he said to himself as he disabled the safety and moved his right index finger off of the touch-screen and onto the trigger. “. . . obsolete, that’s what you are . . .” He rested his right index finger calmly and comfortably on the trigger. “. . . obsolete . . . you have no function in this new world . . . you’re an anachronism . . . a person without a purpose, like a ghost from another time.”
He squeezed the trigger. The gun fell out of his hand, and all went black.
When he awoke, he was still lying on the soft sand along the Mediterranean coast. “What . . . how long was I asleep for? . . . but—I thought I’d . . . what happened?” He rubbed his eyes, confused at the gun’s failure to fire, frustrated by his inability to carry out his determined intention.
“Sara? . . . Sara, are you there?” he gently asked, speaking into the iGun’s computer-operated Speech Application and Recognition Assistant. “Sara, why didn’t you fire? . . . What’s wrong?”
There was no answer.
“Sara, answer me! Why didn’t you fire? Answer me, Sara!” And suddenly he remembered why. He gritted his teeth and tightly shut his eyes, desperately not wanting to have remembered—but he had no choice. The truth came rushing in on him like a rapidly charging cavalry brigade, and its cruel, lethal reality was impossible to ignore. “That’s right . . . damnit . . . of course—how could I’ve forgotten? The damn MEU government disabled all smart-guns once the peace was concluded . . . and when we wouldn’t give them up, they hacked into the password-protected software and just de-encrypted them . . . it was so simple for them—‘easiest disarmament in world history,’ they bragged, those smug techno-bureaucrat bastards. This thing is completely inoperable now . . . useless . . . a useless hunk of plastic . . . the thing’s so light I can’t even use it as a damn paperweight.”
Suddenly, he rose from the sand, gripped the smart-gun with the strength of a bear, cocked his arm back behind his head, and heaved the gun into the sea with all his might. “Damnit!” he cried out in a terrible, irate voice. “Damn it all to hell!”
He sighed, wiped his nose with his right hand and turned his back to the sea. With a languid, dejected mien, without scraping the sand off of his back or behind, he began walking away from the beach and bitterly marched toward the street, moving his legs as if his ankles were shackled with iron leg-cuffs.
Surrendering to the pangs of hunger which were finally starting to swell within his shrunken stomach, he approached the A.I.-operated food-cart stationed across the street from Jeremy’s condo.
“One falafel, please,” he said in a soft voice to the mechanized waiter inside the small truck, handing the A.I. a twenty-dinar bill. It had been over two years since a human being had operated a food-truck, and Ron felt he was at last getting used to being served by a robot.
“Humus?” asked the android.
“Yes, please,” said Ron, licking his dry lips.
“Harif (spicy sauce)?”
“Yes, please. Lots of harif.”
“Eh . . . umm . . .” Ron looked back toward the sea, exhaled, and suddenly caught himself smiling. He laughed, shaking his head in disbelief at his unexpected smile, and turned back around. “Yes. Moroccan carrots. With some harif . . . and a drop of honey.”