PEACE IN OUR TIME by Carrie Vaughn

Jeremy Lyon @ 07-12-2004

Carrie Vaughn‘s “Peace In Our Time” is a story about the last man standing, when war is fought by machines.

[ IMPORTANT NOTICE: This story is NOT covered by the Creative Commons License that covers the majority of content on Futurismic; copyright remains with the author, and any redistribution is a breach thereof. Thanks. ]

Peace In Our Time

by Carrie Vaughn

Two trumpets in harmony called Taps through a cemetery at the edge of a winter prairie. The congregation stayed rigid, forced to stillness by the song. Ken and I stood on the other side of the grave, apart from the others. The last sad note held, echoing with the wind, and faded. Ken shut off the digital player, and I presented the flag.

The words came rote. I didn’t hear myself saying them. They were a continuation of the recording.

“On behalf of the United States of America, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post Eternity presents this token of respect and appreciation for your husband’s service to his country.”

We had a recording of Taps because no one could play it on horn anymore. Matt Barber was the last one I knew who could do it, and he died five years ago. I gave the flag to his son at his funeral.

I had done this so many times, given tightly folded triangles of American flags to widows, sons, daughters, grandchildren. I never wanted to give away one. When I was twenty-one and coming home from China I thought I was done with death. But it started again, a dozen or so years ago. Now, I watched my friends fall to old age, and once again there was nothing I could do but stand at their funerals. I hated this duty then and I hated it now. But someone had to do it. Someone had to stand at attention by the caskets, play Taps, and carry the flag to the family.

There were only two of us left.

VFW Post Eternity was the last. It was a special outfit, unlike any of its predecessors. It wasn’t tied to one town or community, its members hadn’t necessarily served together. As people died, as memberships thinned, we combined our posts, clinging together for numbers until there was just this one. We traveled to funerals all over the country with our vests, our medals, the recording, and the flags. None of us would be buried without the last respect, the last military honor.

None of us, except the last.

I used to think they’d stop burying people before I came to this, but some traditions lingered, like the old farming town of Hope’s Fort with its single main street and faded buildings. No matter how big the cities got, there’d always be a few small towns with an old brick post office attached to the feed store, and there’d always be people who wanted to be put in the ground in the same crowded cemeteries their families had been buried in for decades.

I thought I’d be dead and buried myself by now, before I had to serve at the funeral of the third to last American war veteran.

Paul Hoover had been well-loved in this community. Three-quarters of the town must have been there, wearing somber dress clothes, huddling in their coats, fending off the February chill. The family sat in plush-covered folding chairs, staring at us over the casket with round, stunned eyes. All eyes were dry. There was a sense of relief; Paul had been ill for some time.

To most of the congregation, Ken and I were a surprise, and I could sense the unasked question: who are these guys, what are they doing here? We looked out of place with our blue caps and vests dotted with pins, commemorations, awards, the red ribbon with the blue and black stripes for service in Pan-Asia. No one knew what any of it meant anymore.

Allison Hoover was, like her husband Paul had been, pushing a hundred. Small, wasted to bones and wrinkled skin, she looked like she’d blow away in the stiff winter breeze without her sons and grandchildren bracing her on both sides. I couldn’t read her expression when I handed her the flag. Her squinted, dark eyes looked past me, her mouth was an immobile line. She took the flag from me with a strong grip, though, cradling it, stroking the fabric with a finger.

Out of all of them, the spouses seemed grateful when I gave them the flag.

I wondered sometimes if the families and friends resented our presence, the reminder we represented of an episode long since faded to history for most of them. But the oldest ones, the wives and siblings who remembered the looks on their loved ones’ faces when they’d come home, they always seemed grateful that someone else remembered. The worst were the funerals where only the children and younger generations survived.

#

Theorists said there would always be war. No war to end all war ever had. They also said that there would come a time when countries wouldn’t need soldiers anymore. Computers and robots would fight the wars. From a room a thousand miles away from the battle, anyone could push the buttons that launched the missiles or guided the rovers.

They were right.

#

I was too old for this. I was too old to be alive. I was too old to survive the days ahead.

“You don’t look so good, John,” said Ken. We sat together at the shuttleport in Denver, at the gate to his flight. His suborbital left first, to take him back to Boca Raton, mine to Seattle. This was the last for us. There would never be another meeting. We had only each other to bury now.

“Well, thanks,” I said with a drawl. We’d both lasted so long, now it was a race.

“Just tired,” he said. “You just look tired.”

“Of course I’m tired.”

He grunted and turned away, a gruff response to my snapping at him.

I stared at him to gauge how he looked. How tired was he? How much life was left in his wiry frame? He had a narrow face, uncommonly long limbs and body. His skin, soft and wrinkled, hung on his bones like crepe. In his young days, he must have been a burly man, overwhelming. Now, he sagged, like the air had gone out of him. I hadn’t noticed any change in the year we’d been attending funerals together, since Frank died and Ken stood with me while Taps played at his funeral. No cancers were eating him, no organs had failed or been replaced. But I knew how these things worked. His heart could just give out, and that would be that. On the battlefield or in old age, I had never been able to guess who’d die next.

“How are you feeling, Ken?”

“Tired.”

“Too tired to do another one of these?”

“If I have to do another one, I will.” He looked me up and down, squinting, lips pursed during a thoughtful pause. “You know something I don’t?”

“I don’t know a damn thing.”

“Glad I’m not the only one,” he said, chuckling.

“I’ve been thinking about the war.”

“Jesus, why?”

“Back then, dying didn’t seem so bad because I wasn’t alone. I knew there’d be someone there to bury me. “

“I don’t think about dying.”

“I don’t believe you. Not even back then?”

He stretched out in the padded seat, pulling his arms over his head. Joints groaned, but he seemed pretty limber for a ninety-seven year old man. He had sharp eyes; he was always looking farther away than anyone else around him, to another country, another set of skies. A smile always wrinkled the corners of his lips.

“This one time I remember. Outside Bangkok. A guy next to me stepped on a mine. Tore him apart. I still see it, how close I came. But I don’t think about it.”

I still thought he was lying. We’d lain on death’s door back then and managed to survive. Now, here I was again. My chances had seemed so grim, then. I didn’t know anything when I was a kid.

A shuttle rolled up to the gate and an electronic voice announced the Atlanta flight. My heart began pounding, for no reason at all.

“That’s my flight,” he said, taking hold of his bag and preparing to stand.

“Ken—” I didn’t want him to go. I’d never see him again; I’d never known anything so firmly in my whole life. We had a few moments. How could I beg him to stay alive? Stay alive long enough to play Taps at my funeral. It wasn’t right, to ask him to make that sacrifice for me, to be the last one. Let fate decide, as it always had. Don’t think about dying. He looked at me, waiting expectantly for whatever it was I was going to say. Kill me, kill me and bury me now, who will play Taps when you’re gone?

I held my hand to him. “Ken, take care.”

“John. You too.” He shook my hand firmly. The shuttle boarded, and he was gone.

They all walked away, in the end.

#

When I was eighteen the draft came, I was made a soldier, and we fought, huddled in trenches, smelling gunpowder and blood all around us. No matter how many planes dropped bombs and satellites fired missiles, people still had to fight on the ground with their hands. War called for blood, blood had to be spilled, until war itself died. Or was reinvented.

When I was twenty-one, my battalion pushed through to Beijing and stood guard when the armistice was signed. The film is famous: all of us—American, Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Indian, Pakistani, EU and soldiers of a half-dozen other multinational contingents—gathered in Tiananmen Square and piled our guns outside the walls of the Forbidden City as the generals watched, smiling and shaking hands. And it was over.

That young man in Beijing had been thinking of age. The age of the country I was in, the nations gathered, the flags, the hatreds that had brought us here. The age of the walls, almost buried under the mountain of weapons. The age of the ritual we performed. Military ritual was powerful. Nothing matched it. Nothing else had ever made me cry, not even the birth of my children.

#

My granddaughter who usually met me at the shuttleport was away on a business trip, so I took the monorail home, to a one bedroom retirement condo with a view of the mountains. Sometimes I sat and stared at the peaks for hours. This time of year, a solid mass of white snow covered them.

I checked my voice messages right away. I thought I’d get the call already, that Ken was dead, that I’d have to get on another shuttle tomorrow and fly to Florida. But that was stupid.

My routine, interrupted less and less by funerals this past year, usually returned to normal quickly after one of these trips. Every morning, weather permitting, I walked in the county park behind my building. I took along my old pair of binoculars and dog-eared bird guide, though I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had to look up a species in this area. I’d followed a half-dozen generations of red-tailed hawks who made the park their territory. Afternoons, I maintained the family internet site. I had two children, five grandchildren, one great-grandchild scattered all over the country. Along with a couple dozen cousins, we kept in touch by posting to the site: photos, letters, gossip. Saved travel to reunions. I also read. At a loss for what to give me at holidays, my family gave me book disks because I’d read anything. If nothing else, I’d read what Alice would have liked. She died ten years ago. I still rolled over at night and woke up when I didn’t feel her beside me.

The morning after my return from Paul Hoover’s funeral, I didn’t walk. Wrapped in my robe, a cup of morning coffee in hand, I found myself sitting in front of the west-facing picture window, staring at the mountains. After hardly moving all day, I watched the sunset. The moon arced over, glowing three-quarters full in the rich blue twilight. With my binoculars, I could make out the strings of lights of Artemis Base on the shadowed quarter. I could just stop eating. The automatic cleaner that came once a week would bump against my wasted body sprawled in the armchair.

Seemed a shame to live through war, to last this long, and think of suicide now.

#

When we slogged through miles of rice paddies, I thought only of a glorious MRE and a dry blanket. I tried not to think of the future. I’d paid my dues, served my country. I’d put it behind me, forget the uniforms and medals, heat and wet and wounds and illness, look on war forever after as a thing that happened in movies.

Seventy-odd years later, I still saw that boy, wet from toe to scalp, hungry, sunburned, covered with bug bites, aching inside from the emotional wounds of burying a best friend the day before, and marveled at how naive he could be, to think that he would forget. To believe—to wish—that this would not change him.

I wanted to go back and tell him there would come a time when he would wish so hard and so fruitlessly for another man who understood.

#

I kept watch. The ritual of daily life. My grandchildren were busy. Volleyball games, bad grades, good grades, college dances, job interviews—some things never changed. I avidly soaked up the smallest piece of news. Ben, my youngest grandson, was growing tomato plants under black light for a science project. He posted the pictures on the family website. Growing was a charitable term; the poor things looked shriveled, like old men. Marcie got her license for a second baby approved. So that’d make two great-grandchildren. Bragging rights at the community center. I thought she was too young, and I’d told her so. At twenty-three, she had her whole life ahead of her, why worry about kids now? But she wanted kids, so there. Everybody wanted kids, now. After the plagues, no one was worried about overpopulation.

There had to be something better to do with my time than interfering in the lives of my offspring.

My son and daughter, attentive children, sent email asking how my trip went. I was halfway through writing my automatic reply—fine, fine, just fine, no problem—when I stopped, deleted it.

Alice used to pester me about writing an autobiography. She meant it as a joke, making fun of me because I was a fan of military memoirs. I’d read Caesar, Grant and Sherman, Patton, MacArthur, Churchill, Schwarzkopf, God knew how many others. From nowhere, the idea came to me again. I’d bill it as the world’s last military memoir. The last soldier tells all.

But I didn’t want to start it. I wanted to believe I’d die before I finished. Or maybe I was afraid that I’d actually finish it and still be alive to appear on talk shows.

My kids didn’t need to hear this sort of thing from a crotchety old man. I didn’t need them looking out for me. I started the note again: I’m fine, a little tired, but fine.

I was the one who kept watch.

I’d kept watch, waiting for—shock, danger, the enemy. For the moment when I was needed, so that I would be ready. I was still doing it, worrying when I didn’t see my pair of hawks in their favorite tree, when my kids missed a week of email.

In the army, I kept watch for death, waiting for death that rained on us in the form of missiles, that snatched us from under the earth in the form of mines, that killed us with fever in the night, that crept invisibly with poisonous gasses. Every inch we walked, we watched. Every night, I hardly slept; the buzz of crickets sounded like jet engines to my tense hearing.

What killed most of us, and what finally killed the Pan-Asia Conflict, wasn’t the weapons of mass destruction—we’d had them for decades and never used them. Most nations seemed content to brandish the threat of chemicals and bioweapons without actually deploying them. Enough defenses had been developed to make their worth doubtful, and the danger to their own troops was always a consideration. In the end, disease killed more people than died in the two world wars combined.

A fast-mutating strain of streptococcus developed that was resistant to penicillin, erythromycin, a dozen other antibiotics. This plague could be cured—in laboratory conditions, with expensive, experimental medications. But during the war several million soldiers from a dozen countries were traveling all over the world, living in primitive conditions, exchanging their infections as they went. The plague mutated and new cures had to be developed. In a short time, a half-dozen different strains had invaded most of the population.

Once, countries fought as if their supply of soldiers was endless. By the end of Pan-Asia, generals staged battles in which no troops were healthy enough to fight. They faced a choice: they did not have the resources to fight both the war and the plague.

The night before the cease fire, I kept watch over my platoon. I had to, because I was the only one standing, apart from the one medic still healthy enough to tend the ill. Soldiers lay on bedrolls on the ground, wet from recent rains. Row after row of bedrolls. Stripped to t-shirts and briefs, men complained of the heat and tossed, dehydrated, sweating with fever, coughing, grimacing, unable to swallow with searing throats. I made sure the fires we used to boil pots of water kept burning; we’d run out of butane and propane stove fuel. We always, always boiled our water.

I imagined them all dying. We were supposed to meet the battalion in two days. I’d have to go myself, carrying the stack of dogtags of my dead friends. If we were attacked now, we wouldn’t survive. One or the other, the plague or the Chinese, would destroy us. But the plague had leveled them just as badly. No one would be fighting when the armies met at Beijing.

Light, smoke from the fires that burned in the Beijing suburbs obscured the night sky with a hellish red glow. For a year I had waited to die, looked on every sweaty, noisy night as my last. I was prepared, I thought. I expected it. But still I kept watch. Something kept the plague from striking me, some obscene luck kept me from any injury greater than a cut from shrapnel.

That obscene luck meant that even if only one of us could join the battalion, one of us would, carrying the dogtags, ready to report.

But we didn’t join the battalion in two days. Orders came to hold our position, and we held for a week while supplies arrived, new medications that, if they did not induce miracle cures at least stabilized many of the ill. Not all of us died. Those of us who were well enough to march met with the decimated battalion and arrived in Beijing for the armistice two weeks later.

Once, I’d been ready to be the last.

I kept my dogtags in a cardboard box with my medals, my old insignia, odds and ends and souvenirs that had seemed like a good idea at the time, and a sheaf of official papers: shipping orders, discharge papers, that sort of thing. A box of relics that wouldn’t mean anything to anyone but me. I hadn’t looked at that stuff in years. I avoided the urge. Let the kids find it when I’m gone. And so they didn’t wonder, maybe I would write those memoirs. A few pages of explanation, of memory. Just for them.

#

Fifteen years after the armistice, resentment from the last war festered into new conflicts. Diseases continued to make populations unstable, and the supply of soldiers was unreliable. Governments started using machines to fight their wars. When they found they could claim territory and win arguments with machines, they didn’t need people anymore.

Machines didn’t care whether or not they were buried with military honors.

I asked Ken to email me every day. Nothing elaborate, just a note, a line: I’m alive. One last time, I keep watch, downloading my email every day, looking for that one note: I’m alive. When the day arrives that I don’t get that message, I will know.

I wait for my last funeral.

###

[ IMPORTANT NOTICE: This story is NOT covered by the Creative Commons License that covers the majority of content on Futurismic; copyright remains with the author, and any redistribution is a breach thereof. Thanks. ]

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One Response to “PEACE IN OUR TIME by Carrie Vaughn”

  1. Benjamin A. says:

    Beautiful story! Thanks.