6 Soldiers of Fortune

By Robert Coover Illustration by Kilian Eng

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6 Soldiers of Fortune:

Once there was an aging veteran of foreign wars whose body, after too many consecutive tours of duty, was little more than an assemblage of hinged prostheses wired to an embittered brain, and one hot desert night he lost what cool his contraption contained and slugged a bitchy officer half his age with his spring-loaded steel fist, leaving the tight-assed little Napoleon with his teeth lodged in the back of his throat and in need of a prosthetic jaw of his own. The old veteran was a military hero many times over, having fought an endless series of wars for the owners of the world, but for this minor indiscretion they unceremoniously threw him in the lockup and, when they grew tired of his loud obscenities and violent cage rattling, they discharged him dishonorably, sending him out into the world with nothing but the pack on his back. He deserved more than that. Was there a way to get it? Sure there was, but he’d need a lawyer, and they were the species of diseased subhumanity he loathed above all others.

He was describing all this one night to a disgruntled ex-airman in a bar popular with professional killers like themselves, on or off duty, in or out of the ranks, when he spied across the room, sitting alone, a stunningly gorgeous creature with a haunting enigmatic smile, and he fell instantly in love with her, saying as much, though more profanely, to his drinking companion. Yeah, you and everybody else, the guy replied, but she’s too hot to handle. The airman had just been telling him how he’d been used in a failed advanced-weapons experiment to create flying soldiers by lining their lower bowels with the sort of ceramics used in space launches and fitting their rebuilt guts with miniature turbo jets, too small to keep aircraft aloft but enough to send a single body with a full pack rocketing up, which was fun if you didn’t mind hard landings. I shit out my side like Jesus, he said, pointing. But now the guy wanted to know, after what the old veteran had told him about all the essentials he’d lost, what he could do about it even if she were available. They fitted me out with an automated electromagnetic dick, he explained, and what happens is different from orgasms, as best I can remember them, but I still get a charge out of them, and the girls, too, get a buzz that has them coming back for more. I even had access to a sperm bank back at the base if I wanted to fire real bullets, but I knew the brainless jerkoffs who had contributed to it, and I didn’t want to pollute the earth with more of them. But I can handle anything with a slot in its fork, so what’s the problem with that beautiful thing over there? Watch, the guy said. There comes the Ripper.

There was a brouhaha developing in a cleared space near the bar where a screaming woman was suddenly bent over, skirts up and knife at her throat, to be taken fiercely from behind by a snarling brute with filed steel teeth. That evil dude’s genes got fucked up when he was nuked in a desert demo for a bunch of fossil fuel barons, the airman said. They gave him lifetime immunity in compensation, so he does what he wants. Always a bloody mess to clean up in here when he’s done. The beautiful woman with the mesmerizing smile walked over to the man and peeled her face away. Everyone else looked away and the Ripper hit the floor like a petrified tree. Then she put her face on again and sat down, smiling benignly as before. Holy shit, said the old veteran. How did she do that? The airman explained that she was riding shotgun on a truck transporting nasty chemicals into the war zone when a mortar hit the truck, and she was so hideously disfigured that a mere glimpse of her can be lethal. She wears a mask not to have the world drop dead around her, he said, but the word is out and people are afraid of getting zapped by an accidental glimpse, so they steer clear and keep their heads down. She leads a lonely life, as you can see, though they say there’s some blind guy who hangs out with her. We can use her, said the old veteran, and he got his apparatus into motion and clattered over to her table.

You’re beautiful, baby, the old soldier said. Somebody should paint your picture. Somebody already has, she said. A few centuries ago. He nodded down at the steel-toothed mauler, lying stone dead at her feet, his cloudy eyes popping in final terror, and he told her that was pretty impressive. Was she still in uniform? Nah, I’m an embarrassment to them. I suppose you’re at least drawing compensation, he said, and she said she was, but it wasn’t half enough for what they did to her. Ever feel like getting some of your own back? All the time, she said with that strange sweet smile. So he proposed that she team up with him and the guy he was drinking with, reciting the ex-airman’s peculiar abilities and his own. Together, he said, they could make something happen. She was interested and suggested they discuss it with her partner, a punitively demobbed ex-ranger, now self-employed as a burglar and safecracker, a guy with permanent neon-green night vision but otherwise blind. By daylight, he can’t find his hand in front of his face, she said, but in the dark he can see into things and through them, has the nose of a beagle and the ears of a bat, and can open anything.

So the masked woman took them to meet the former ranger, whom they found in a blacked-out room, feeding an armless man. The light from the doorway, which was blinding the blind man (he cursed them and they returned his curses in a friendly manner), revealed that his pal, dressed in miscellaneous scraps of field gear, had one arm missing altogether, the other replaced by a high-powered assault rifle, with a flaking hand that might once have been his own wired up to the trigger. He explained that his arm was ruined while trying to defuse a boobied turkey in the officers’ mess, where he’d been sent on latrine-cleaning duty for disciplinary reasons, and because there was a shortage of disposable marksmen at the front, whichever front, the medics were ordered to reconstruct it this way and send him back into action. You’re a marksman, the old soldier said, why the hell were you defusing a bomb? They had a problem and I volunteered, the marksman said. Couldn’t help myself. Soft spot in the will. It’s the secret they hold over us. In the end we’re a bunch of comedians, playing to an audience that’s killing us and laughing their asses off about it. Yeah, I know, said the old soldier. I used to think of myself as a patriot. Not just a bad idea, a dead one. Like countries. What was worse, the marksman said, the goddamned sawbones was ripped that night on meth-laced martinis and took the good arm off, so after he gave me this one, the other had to come off too. His last fucking mistake, which is why I’m on the run. But no big deal, later I can get me one of those souped-up bionic gizmos you’re wearing, and meanwhile this one is a cooler arm than either of the ones I had before. The rifle uses target-seeking bullets that can change direction to hit things in motion, and the ammo’s not only stored in my armpit, it’s produced there, so unless things get really hairy, I can bang away all day. Amazing, said the old veteran, but does it really work? Sometimes, the guy said, and he fired off a shot over his shoulder through the window into the dark and a screeching tomcat somewhere stopped screeching. You shouldn’ta done that, the blind ranger said. I like cats. He’ll be all right, said the marksman. He had his tail up and I just stoppered his asshole.

The old veteran, stroking his jaw with his mechanical digits, nodded thoughtfully. Together, the five of us have got all we need to take on the world and its owners, he said, except that we don’t know exactly what it looks like from the top down. To make the right moves, we need somebody with the big picture. Back when I had my own face, the masked woman said, I knew a guy in special ops who’d be just the ticket, but he’s no longer in circulation. They called him the wizard. He’s an ex-codebreaker whose brains got shot up and had to be reconstructed from an old video game, wired up inside a skull that’s mostly stainless steel. When he came on to me with his shiny head, I took a lot of heavy fondling, some of it pretty public and all of it inch-by-inch thorough. I thought he must be crazy about me and couldn’t restrain himself, but he was only taking measurements. Later he told me we’d made love hundreds of time, but I don’t remember one, though maybe I should because he has a way of projecting his games out into the world the rest of us live in, or think we do. I’m not sure, for example, he didn’t grow tired of his virtual me and send that mortar into the truck himself as a gambit in his world that spilled into mine. He got famous years back for inventing drone warfare and killer robots. Everybody does it now, but simple robotics is kids’ play for the wizard. He can dream up full-scale intercontinental conflicts that don’t exist and never existed, and then suddenly they do. A bi-hacker, you might say. Very useful for the owners of the world, the old veteran remarked. Yeah, but he’s an unreliable ally. He doesn’t believe in what we call the real world and he’s not on anybody’s side. It’s the game itself he lives for and he’s happy playing solitaire against himself. He needs a power source for his brainpan, and I hear they have him plugged in in some dark hidden place where they can vet his moves before releasing them into their own games, and no one knows where that place is. I can find him, said the blind man.

Through their multiple networks of connections and the ranger’s burglaries, hacks and phone taps, they learned that the wizard was being kept in a padded, fully equipped, steel-walled cell at a military base on top of an insurmountable mountain, the only access being a closely guarded funicular up the one side that wasn’t a straight drop. No problem, said the airman, I’ll fly the ranger up under the cliff face on the back side. The marksman said he could track their coordinates and cover them from below. The ranger probably nodded, but by then they were in the dark again and he was the only one seeing anything.

So they went there the next night and the airman took off his pants, pulled on heavy fireproof chaps to protect his thighs and privates from the blastoff, the blind guy climbed aboard, and up they shot. They first found and knocked out the generator to create a blackout, giving the ranger with night vision a momentary edge. They got set upon by guards and dogs, but, though they couldn’t hear the shots, their attackers dropped with little grunts, groans and whimpers, even those hiding behind buildings. In the blacked-out anteroom outside the wizard’s cell, there was an old sergeant standing guard whom the ranger once knew as a gutsy old boozer with more wounds than body parts, and he convinced him with the aid of his little fold-up Sten to open the cell in exchange for his life, which favor he was happy to provide for old times’ sake. The wizard was reluctant to give up his playroom and toy box and they had no time to argue, so they unplugged him, threw him over their shoulders and jetted out of there.

Back at the blind ranger’s quarters, they plugged the wizard in and the old soldier briefed him on the game they wanted to play, omitting the revenge motive, though the fellow figured it out pretty quickly and factored it in. He told them they should start with the president. Whoa, sounds like fun, the old soldier said, but ain’t that guy just a flunky? It’s the thugs behind him we’re after. I know that, the wizard said, but we don’t have much time and it’s strategically smart openers. Your targets are mostly faceless and invisible, but they not only own all the world’s arms and armies and the presidents and generals who control them, they also need them like you need your prostheses. The president is one of their key front men, a man who made himself famous as an inventor of innovative professional interrogation techniques, which was how he got elected, as the owners’ selection process is sometimes called. His patented inventions are mostly variations based on old methods like waterboarding, electric shock, hamstringing, sensory deprivation and the thumbscrew, but technologically and medically enhanced to be more persuasive. The owners of the world love him. Removing such a central player from the game board sends a signal. The owners without their proxies might have to show themselves, and we can start tracking them. The model here is still kings and castles, the wizard explained, though the dimensions have changed and there’s a corporate twist. That is to say, networks of kings and castles under competing logos, which sometimes act like people but aren’t people. It’s my understanding it’s not your objective to choose sides, you want to immobilize the entire complex. You got it, dude. All right, we can go for that, but we have to move right now because, after your pick, they’ll be trying to shut me down, and I’m not hard to find. When I’m plugged in, I beep. That the wizard was using the first person plural was a good sign. He’d already forgotten the game he was playing before and was now excited about this one. The airman pointed out that the president’s mansion is a notorious fortress, how can this possibly be done? We just walk in and tell him what we want him to do, said the wizard calmly. We’ll have to get through a million heavily armed secret service agents and crack antiterrorist squads, said the marksman. I probably can’t reload fast enough. I’m aware of that, the wizard said. It’s time to send in the Mona Lisa. Why do I get the feeling, the masked woman asked, that I’ve been redesigned merely to be a player in one of your games? The wizard might have smiled, it was hard to tell. His stainless steel head was only minimally expressive. Now I recommend you unplug me and vacate this space instantly, he said, his eyes flashing red. So they did that, leaving the building on the double just as it was pulverized, the old soldier porting the blind ranger, the airman rocketing out of the exploding window with the inanimate wizard strapped to his back.

Capturing the president went exactly as planned. The masked woman, unmasked, led the way into his mansion, the troops guarding him falling with a flutter like that of a shuffled poker deck. There was a vast array of locked steel gates barring their way, but the wizard had provided the blind ranger with a sensory upgrade, and he clicked them right through. They reached the president’s bedroom, where they found him in flagrante delicto with an anthropomorphic corporate mascot. The masked woman, wearing her mask once more, seemed to be blessing their union with her inscrutable smile. The old soldier chased the mascot off and they powered on the wizard, assuming the owners would be reluctant to eradicate the president, he being a major asset, but the wizard told them they were mistaken. We have about two minutes and 40 seconds before they trace my signal and destroy this place, he said. Two minutes, 30 seconds. The president panicked at that and tried to run but got tripped up by his own tuxedo pants, still around his ankles. We need to get to the war room, a signal-proof shell that I designed myself, said the wizard. My powers will be somewhat diminished in there, but they can’t track or hack me and I can still run most programs. The old soldier picked the president up by his nape, pants dangling, whacked his honorable ass with his rifle butt and ordered him to take them to the war room. Why don’t you just turn that fucking beeper off or take it out? the ranger asked. Can’t, the wizard said. They implanted it in my heart. In fact, that’s the high-frequency sound it makes.

At the war room door, they were met by a bloated four-star general who tried to block their way with his bulk and a golden cross he held up at them as if they were vampires. Not only a damn bigwig but a Christer as well! The old soldier’s spring-loaded fist shot out 10 feet and sent the fat man, who was about five feet away at the point of impact, flying back into the war room, bowling over a dozen others. There were a few uniformed toughs to deal with, but the room was mostly packed out with top brass, notorious cowards who preferred to fight their wars from rooms like this, together with a few loose women and the customary clique of sleazebag politicos and corporate magnates getting their kicks out of the casualty numbers. They were quickly rounded up and herded into the war room’s on-site pet kennels, there to await their opportunity to test out some of the president’s famous inventions. Were some of them owners? They would find out.

The whole mortally damaged world was on view in the war room, shrunk onto an encircling and overarching panoply of multitudinous screens, a flickering patchwork of markets and market disturbances on nervous display. Old-fashioned pinpricked wall maps flagged the main action, with clouds of ashen spray paint indicating the dead and dying parts of the earth. You feel like you own the whole world in here, said the airman, except that it’s not so much the world as a fucking video game. What other world is there? the wizard asked, taking control of the array of touchscreens and keyboards. The marksman noted that the wizard seemed to know his way around the place. In the old days, I used to operate my drones and killbots from rooms like this, he said. A buddy of mine got zapped by one of those drones that went astray, said the blind ranger. Did you do that on purpose? The wizard shrugged but didn’t answer.

Once the wizard had things up and running, they informed the president that he was to order the removal of all the gold in the national treasury to another location. They chose a warehouse in a river town in the middle of the country where the poor lived, including an abundance of old soldiers out of work and luck. People would get wind of it, they knew, and it wouldn’t last long. Then they ordered him to sink all the ships, destroy all military aircraft and stockpiled weapons, and send the troops home. I can’t do that! the president cried. Waterboard him, said the old soldier. Give him half a bottle of schizoid pills, inject him with asthma and sinusitis, and use his own patented deep-throat techniques. I can do it, the president said with a sigh. But we’ll be at the mercy of all the rest of the world. No, we won’t, said the wizard, gleaming steel head down over the console and fingers racing. I’m taking care of that right now. If you dismantle all the armed forces, the airman asked, what will happen with all those unemployed people? I don’t know, the old soldier said. Should be interesting.

The world just went off the gold standard, the wizard announced, and its value has dropped to that of tin. Tough luck for those riverside folks. A couple of central African countries have been invaded, so cobalt may be the next marker. Or else scandium; someone just bought Madagascar. I thought they already owned all those things, the blind ranger said. This is a game, the wizard said. There’s more than one “they.” There’ll be arguments and saber rattling. Another opportunity to shoot each other and use up more of the world’s stuff. And people, the old soldier said. Like I said, said the wizard, the world’s stuff. These corporate teams are into some kind of nihilistic apocalyptic endgame with each other and are probably reveling in these new developments, as it was what they were aiming for all along. I’ll see what I can do to spread some disinformation and rattle the markets, shake a few of them out onto the streets. I’ve knocked out a few space stations and—ah, I think they’ve figured out where we are. They probably want to nuke us, but their aircraft are all grounded, all drones and bots except the ones I’m driving have been disabled, and I’ve hacked their computerized missile guidance systems and boomeranged them, so if they fire them, they’ll be blowing themselves up instead of us. Watch the monitors. Indeed, there was a lot of action there, not all of it pretty, and on the maps, which turned out to be digital whiteboards with drifting virtual 3-D pins, the cadaverous patches were spreading. There was a 3-D pin, blinking red, in the national capital. You’ve still got drones in the air? the old soldier asked. Sure, the wizard said. Since we have only a dim idea of who the other players are, personality strikes are difficult, but I’ve been able to use the whole robotic arsenal for signature strikes, targeting persons in the same uniforms, in this case business suits. My old man wore a business suit, the old soldier said, and he didn’t own anything, not even the suit. You’ll be erasing a lot of innocent people. In war, the wizard said, there are no innocent people, only numbers—oh oh! Hang on! Some of the hacks have been repaired and I’m being locked out. There’s apt to be some stiff incoming. It’s time to decamp. Fast. Where will we go? asked the airman. You own the world, what’s left of it, go wherever you want, said the wizard, his head still down, fingers flying over screens and keyboards. I’ve located your accounts and loaded them with a few billion each. Spend it while money still buys things. What about you? the marksman asked. Nah, I love this game, said the wizard. His steel head was shining, seemed almost to be perspiring. Best I was ever in. I’m staying to play it out.

At the door, the old soldier, wondering if the wizard was chasing them off to have the game to himself, turned back to take a last look at the whiteboard with its spreading ashen splotches. Old mother earth is putrefying, he said. What’ll we do with her remains, cremate them? Already done that, said the masked woman, guiding the ranger out the door by the elbow. So after the game is over, the marksman asked, will there be anything left? Sure, the wizard said from his console. The corporate logos. They’re indestructible. Like cockroaches.


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