"Give me another grad on that gun!"
"Prepared to fire!"
"Prepared to fire!"
"Whoo hoo! That was a good one, sarge! Who'd'a thought he'd remember that girl who was sweet on 'im in sixth grade! The look she gave 'im when she realized he wasn't interested in her, was more keen on books than girls! Got 'im dead on!"
The crew chief surveyed the distant, smoking ruins of his host's mind through a pair of battered neuroculars, and spat in the mud that had stalled them here, too far from the prime target to be sure. War was hell when you didn't know what you were supposed to destroy.
He turned and surveyed the remaining loads. They'd fired off most of the good stuff already--first fumbling horrible sexual experience, some wonderfully vicious bullying, the disappointed yet somehow unsurprised look in his father's eyes when he graduated from college yet still couldn't get a job... There weren't that many left, and the bastard was still standing up to them...his eye lit on a shell in the back row, and he shouted to the crew to reload.
The voices in the meeting room droned on while he sweated in the cold conditioned air and his stomach churned it's mixture of fresh coffee and stale muffin into a glutinous morrass, as if was trying to weld him to his seat. He wondered if he could "plead his belly" like a woman criminal in Newgate could once have done, and escape from the room before the decision was taken. But that would be retreat. He tried to suppress a twitch as another memory loomed up, as if someone was lobbing mortar shells from his hind-brain into his cerebral cortex...
He'd been ten or eleven, and caught by a gang of older boys. They'd threatened him, threatened to beat him, to scar him, to hurt him. He knew they would, too, if they thought they could get away with it. He didn't fight them, didn't try to strike out or run away--the leader had him by the collar and waved a calloussed fist under his nose, saying, "I'm gonna cut you, you little shit." And he'd pleaded with them, not in reason, not in hope, but simply as something to do. He knew he didn't owe them the truth, so he didn't offer it.
Instead, he offered his friend Phillip, who everyone called Pillock--the only boy less popular than he was. "You don't want me," he told them, "You want Pillock--he was the one who was bugging you." It was all lies--neither of them would dare bother anyone. But in the wierdly distorted social context of these half-children, there were certain truths not worth mentioning. That was the lesson he'd never properly learned. Well they were teaching it to him now. His teeth seemed to hurt, as if he should be doing something with them.
"We don't want Pillock, do we, eh?" grinned the boy holding him. "We want you."
He hadn't been about to give them Pillock in any case--he'd say just about anything to get away. But it seemed a shame to put on such a good act and not get a single rise out of your audience. The boy shook him and the grip on his collar came loose for a moment and he was away, running through the long grass. He looked back and saw that none of them were following him--they'd grabbed him just as he was walking by, thinking he'd be safe in an open field between the school and the houses, where all the world could see. But he wasn't.
He tried to focus on the meeting again and his gut twisted and groaned. The boss aimed a plastic smile in his direction and interupted himself to say, "Can't wait for lunch, eh Walt?" He responded with a wane grin and felt underneath his chair for his briefcase. He'd been undecided 'til now, but the memory of that childhood shame had tipped the balance--bullies didn't deserve truth, but the public did...
The sargent was punched to the ground as the gun exploded, killing the rest of the crew. Only because he'd been bending over to choose the next shell had he been saved. He looked around him, deaf and half-blind. He'd made the wrong choice--damnit, he should have choosen the one that now lay at his feet! It'd remind the bastard what happened when you bucked the crowd, didn't fit in, dared to bring notice to yourself. He grinned as he examined it more closely...yeah, it still might work...
As he pulled the briefcase out all eyes suddenly focussed on him, and he felt a wave of shame and fear pass over him, and weirdly he heard within his mind a sound like the footsteps of someone dragging a heavy object over rough terrain. He hesitated for a moment like a deer caught in the dawn, and then let his breifcase fall to the table with a thud.
"It won't work," he said.
"What won't work?" The boss' tone changed in a moment from an oily "we're all in this together, let's be a loyal team" to a gruff, suspicious "I smell the blood of an independent."
"Covering our asses, covering it up."
"Now I explained that we aren't going to cover anything up. We're just engaged in a little strategic dissemination of counter-intelligence."
He suddenly felt very tired. It was too much. How did you argue with someone who called lying something like that? Then he heard a high, maniacal laugh in his head followed by a strange metalic clang, like something made of brass being hammered against a rock, and memory exploded.
He'd been five or six years old, probably in grade one when it happened. An older kid had grabbed him and held him in a headlock and said, "Hold still ya little fuck" and slowly and deliberately jammed a straight pin into the top of his skull. Perhaps the young thug had heard there was a soft-spot on children's heads, but didn't know it was long closed by the age where he was likely to be able to victimize them. It was the first time he'd felt the full force of the danger other people posed to him, the risk he was exposed to. He didn't tell the teacher. He didn't even have words to describe the violence against him--he couldn't have described it. He was six years old.
The boss was still looking at him, and he could see the executive gathering himself to make a final, "Well that about sums it up" proclamation that would close the issue.
The boss had gathered enough momentum that he wasn't going to let one little word stop him. "So that about wraps it up for this issue. I don't see that there's any need to report these irregularities, and we should open the full meeting now. Waffa, you can start the minutes with the next item, and we won't say any more about this."
The boss ignored him. He got to his feet and picked up the briefcase. "I'm tired," he said. "I'm going home. I'll be back in tomorrow to clean out my desk."
He brushed past the boss and caught a glimpse of a circle of down-turned faces around the table, already ostracizing him by body language. He wasn't one of the team any more. He felt like he'd been under bombardment since the irregularities had been discovered, watching the internal checks fall before the onslaught one by one until there was nothing left between the truth and company but a tired guy with a briefcase full of data that they didn't know he had.
He shivered a little as he walked out to his car, wondering how best to contact the media. They'd make a circus of it, he knew, but at least the truth would be out there. He could even put it on the Web.
He grinned to himself as he thought of the strange succession of memories that had welled up during the meeting--memories of past shames and social failures, memories that seemed to be trying to tell him he was only as good what other people thought of him. They'd just about broken him down. But the final ones were different, he thought--they'd reminded him that he'd survived bullies before, and he could do it now. He'd never be as helpless and alone as he'd been as a child, and even then, they could only hurt him--they couldn't stop him.
The jungled closed over the scattered remains of the bully sargent, leaving nothing but life for as far as the eye could see.