Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 63
by K. D. Julicher
A World Without
by Aimee Ogden
Comrades in Arms
by Bud Sparhawk
Sin Titulo
by Dan Stout
IGMS Audio
The Life Cycles of Goldfish
Read by Stuart Jaffe
Vintage Fiction
The Rhythm Man
by James Beamon

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-   -   -   -   P   r   e   v   i   e   w   -   -   -   -

    by K. D. Julicher

Artwork by Andres Mossa

I awake. Someone pulls a parachute off my head and I see the world again. The briefing loads into my active memory, where we are, why, weather reports, but none of it matters. All that matters is fire.

The grass fire creeps along the hillside above us. I draw my Pulaski from my flank sheath, my four long metal fingers dark against the golden wood of the axe-and-hoe combination tool. The wildfire is in the dry cheatgrass ahead of us, three-foot-high flames lapping along the ground. Dark smoke billows upward, blotting out the brilliant blue sky and the spiky granite teeth of the mountains fencing this remote valley. There's twenty of us: fifteen lean men, four wiry women, and me, the four-legged metal monstrosity they call NK7 after the first three letters of the radio call sign assigned to my chassis.

I've counted a hundred and forty days on fires since I first deployed. I think it's been three years but I'm not sure. Something in my cybernetic brain doesn't do well at making memories. Facts, I know. Faces and names, how to fight fires, a simple tally of days on an incident, I can recall. Bigger things, like how often I've seen August burning red on the mountains, are as lost to me as the taste of bread or the feel of a bed or human touch. The things I knew before I became a centaur-bodied cyborg. I remember them less every day.

It should bother me. I want it to bother me. I want to care about where I am, what I do, anything but the aching emptiness inside me.

A hundred and forty days. Maybe thirty fires, maybe four dozen. They all blend together. I activate, there is fire, nobody looks at me or speaks to me except to bark orders. I dig my line, the fire burns out, and we are left with ashes and destruction. The others go home to their families. I get turned off, to wake up only at the next incident. Repeat for eternity.

I am going to kill myself. It's not a visceral want. I don't have those any more, or desires or hope either, just despair and emptiness. I cannot face this continued hellish existence in which I have no more volition than the Pulaski in my hand. Only it's hard to destroy yourself when your body is military-grade hardware, when your systems are hardened against fire. I could force myself to walk into the flames and wait for the heat to worm its way into my delicate parts, except my sadistic designers made sure that I can feel pain. No doubt to them it makes sense for the same reason a human nervous system needs pain. When you are burning a delicate sensing organ, whether that's a fleshy finger or a ten-thousand-dollar haptic sensor, the brain needs to be told stop that, you're an idiot. This body is a better prison than my cell ever was.

Up ahead is a stand of aspen, then another open patch, and then the hillside sprouts lodgepole pines like spines on a hedgehog. Once the fire reaches the treeline, it will be much harder to knock down. I don't think we have much hope of catching the fire before then. Not my place to make the decision. At the head of the line, Captain Ehring consults with Archer and Hill, the sawyers, who unsling and gas up their chainsaws as they speak. They laugh and joke with each other. Did I use to do that? I don't remember, but I miss it. Ehring waves us over to him. He points to a boulder field about twenty yards upslope. "That's our anchor point," he says to the rest of the team. "Line starts there. We're going to come at the flame from the side. If the wind stays low we may try to cut it off, but we start with the line here. We don't leave till the job's done."

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