Table of Contents



Zachary Tyler Vickers


We've been buckshot, limb-barded, and T-squared—well, some of us have. The rest of us are still here but not, practicing MOPP gear and gas mask protocol, checking the functionality of our auto-injectors, looking and looking and locating nothing.
     Last leg we got ambushed, turned around in the brobdingnagian apricot forests of Geghi. Now it's a voided non-partisan route, stale crust intel. We were inspecting a cider mill's rusted silos for irritants, vesicants, organophosphates, precursors of nerve and/or nuclear. Not so much as a fermented swill to wet my teeth. The Pointy Siberian Bear Hunters of Moscow, in their blowfish-like spiked armor, charged and woofed. Private Damico got bear hugged into that armor. He sounded like a car trying to turn over, flooded.
     I don't like how they look at me when they die. Like they need my permission to do it.
     Waiting for the YMQ-18A "Hummingbird," I found a swallowed keyless remote in one of Damico's sudden sucking perforations. I held it to my weak chin and made my head an antenna. I've got the A.M. radio hurts, so to speak. Married four times and divorced five. It's possible. You just have to not want something bad enough.
     All four wives were guests at this chain motel where I worked, near the casino. I made each of my beds then lay in it. Got a kid with Wife Two. When she pissed positive, she choked me until I saw stars. I never thought to wish on a single one. They all should've been for Kelsi. Soon as somebody at the store asked her how far along she was, she left in the middle of the night. Years later, drunk at the Duds 'n Suds, I mistook a lanky Indian for my kid. In my defense, he had long, greedy black hair like Jesus, or a daughter. Thought I saw myself in the slouch. He socked me, told me I was soft. "Like punching a butt cheek," he said.
     "There are things I like about myself and things I don't," I said. "I like my metabolism, my liver, my feet, my teeth…" My Crisco jaw fattened, a blood-rushed pout. "But I don't like my weak chin. It reminds me of my father. You didn't have to get personal."
     He plugged his nose, "Did you shit yourself?"
     "I don't like that about myself either," I said. "Good thing I'm at the laundromat."
     He turned his back and said, "No wonder your fucking kid won't come near you."
     I closed the dryer on his head. His braid locked inside, I chose the delicate cycle. "See?" I wept. "I can be goddamn compassionate!" The back of his head ripped off. I got ten years at Montana State. I sweated the booze and found just enough Christ to get out in five. But there was still the $25,000 fine and pending civil suit. So I enlisted.
     I drive the Humvee. I try to teach my body to do new things like piss and sneeze at the same time. Lately, I've been wondering what it'd be like to do something crazy and sober, like go through every motel ledger and bookie in the tri-state, find Wife Two, bring Kelsi a—what? Stuffed bunny? Rollerblades? A subscription to Columbia House? "What do nine-year old girls like?" I ask Private Mayo one night. We traverse shrublands, savannas, potash mines, fish markets stacked with last spring's newspapers, slopes of shriveled sugar beets, fields of wild hops that make my nipples ache and my tongue hairy, pastures of livestock—deadstock—the bodies bloated with methane, these big spotted whoopee cushions.
     "You got a daughter?" he asks.
     "I think so," I say. "I can't imagine any version of myself."
     "They all like presence," Mayo says.
     "That's what I'm asking," I say. "But what kind of gift?"
     "My folks didn't even attend my graduation," he sobs.        
     I peel off a sock. I don't know why I feel like I need to impress them or cheer them up. "I won five hundred bucks in a Tinactin contest," I say. "No purchase necessary." I wiggle my big toe. "It's Stallone. See it? He's a little callused now, trench face."
     He rolls over on his cot and curls up. Kabooms sink into our armpits, our everywhere. Dogs bark shrill as they murder each other at every distance. Tracers scintillate the sky, whiz like shooting stars, Kelsi after Kelsi after Kelsi. The air smells sour with the curdled milk in the deadstocks' udders. I pull the sheet over my face. It smells like a lint trap full of Indian hair. Do debts get passed to your next of kin? I click the keyless remote under my chin, wondering what Damico had locked away. Curiosity is one of the last things yet to kill us.

Commander Ferlong wakes me in the middle of the night and asks me to differentiate the windchill. Sometimes he tells me to grin on an alp or in a leaky ravine. I've got thin enamels and can tell the temperature with my teeth. But only in Celsius, living so close to Canada. Ferlong's from the Heartland of Fahrenheit. Mostly, time kills us.
     Mornings, we take PB tablets with hydration, do calisthenics to remind ourselves that we have hearts. We have pissing contests. The women, too—ass up, heads tucked between their knees to fountain a competitive stream. I had a dentist friend who sold me IV bags to get me out of the beds I was supposed to be making. I'd piss hydrants. Now I try to sneeze and interrupt my flow. Perez wins again with her vice-grip Kegels, vigor surging long after our dicks sputter. She could strip the moss right off the trees of this Romanian reserve.
     She points at my eyes, "Look! A man is feeling something. Quick, throw him a parade!"
     "I was just thinking about chia pets," I say. "Had them along my sill. Kelsi after Kelsi."
     "That her name?" she says. "Your daughter? Wait, don't tell me." We've got this superstition that if you get to know someone they'll die. Without privacy, you'll become part of the eternal public domain. You can't mourn what you don't know.
     Perez plugs her ears as I shout, "That's what I like to call her anyhow!"
     Technically, she's an it. When Wife Two got to the door I called out, "Wait," and then looked around for who spoke. Silhouetted by the motel porch bug zapper, suitcase in hand, she said, "I'm going, Scott." She said, "I'm going to take care of it."
     I should've said: Stop. Or: Let me be a part of the taking care of because that kid is every part of me. Or anything other than what I said, which was, "I thought we could make it work if we just pushed through until we were too tired to be mean to each other."
     Wife Three wasn't long after, in these long linen dresses. I called her My Parachute.
     How could I ever look these kids here in the faces and explain my kind of freedom?
     Intel's on an artist colony along the Curonian Spit—plunged contrivances in the lagoon. Once a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Curonian Spit is now more aptly the Curonian Shit—dammed with the feces of hundreds of thousands of refugees, algal blooms so thick and buoyant you could theoretically anchor ordnance to their undersides. We leave no bloom unturned in MOPP gear and gas mask because of the algae's toxins flourishing from an upstream fertilizer plant's runoff and local insecticides. We look and look and locate nothing. Then Ferlong receives the next transmission, more coordinates of possible WMDs.
     But my Humvee gets stuck in the lagoon's shallows, spinning its wheels on red murderous growth and caustic refugee dung. It smells like a violin sounds when it's played out of tune by an idiot. Ferlong gives me a look, and I think of my father. He smelled like highway Cracker Barrels, did the newspaper crossword every Sunday, and slept in a separate twin bed next to my mother strapped with her CPAP. His Adam's apple was often mistook for his prick chin. One time, I filled in his crossword with my name, SCOTT, in pen. Try as he might he couldn't erase me. So he made me redraw the boxes on blank paper.
     "I'm sorry!" I say to Ferlong as we push and pull the Humvee, slipping and stinking.
     Clank clank clank. Around the Spit come a flock of Hags of the Prussian Revitalization—all noses and jaws and wigs, wielding rifles and harpoons, riding muscular, glittering eight-foot scorpions on chains, taken from the extinct Huns of Mesopotamia. Stingers as big as forearms. You feel them move in your ankles and knees. Sand leaps as they scurry.
     We raise our rifles. The Hags raise their hands—they wave.
     They glide forward. We clear a path, keeping our rifles particular. They fasten the chains to the Humvee, whisper Nub-anese into whatever must be the scorpions' earholes, and the stupendous things lurch and chirrup. They tow us out. Then they glide on.
     "Hell," one of us says. "They're trying to kill us with kindness now."

Intel's on a Carpathian ski resort. Ferlong orders us into MOPP gear and gas mask.
     We look and look and this time we locate something.
     Two-thirds up a double black diamond, hidden among the moguls, is a white autonomous vehicle—the MMIST CQ-10 "Snowgoose". It's as big as a VW Beetle, with a healthy dent over the U.S. flag from the shockwave's impact. A salvo of limbs jut from the hillside like slalom poles—work of the Pseudo-state of Crimea—and the verglas hands grip concussion grenades: the two-seamer, the knuckler, the splitter, the slider. Limbs closest to the vehicle are blistered and a deep periwinkle, something between frostbit and bruised. My teeth enamel tastes the minus-eighteen degrees Celsius—subzero to Ferlong—which only makes it all the more peculiar that the snow is melting in a hemisphere away from the transport.
     "Why're we in MOPP gear and gas mask if this is ours?" one of us asks.
     Ferlong opens its busted hatch. Inside, ten foam grooves miss what look like .50-caliber bullets. We find a stainless steel tube in the nearby slush—most of some red paste scooped out. We skim an M8 detection paper across it. Red indicates blister. Yellow indicates Sarin or Tabun. Green is VX. The M8 detection paper turns blue. "What's blue?" we ask.
     "Blue's new," Ferlong says.
     "Is blue a G or a V?" we ask.
     "It's a C-agent," Ferlong says. "That's all I was authorized to know."
     We neutralize the steel tube until the paper doesn't turn blue. "This looks like something from our resupplies," one of us notes. "The new camous?"
     Ferlong's gas mask fogs. A whiteout storms in. We march to a charred chalet where limbless torsos of frozen skiers lean in the racks. We break picnic tables for kindling, camp in the rental shop. From my cot, I put the keyless remote to my chin and click it until whatever dawned inside Ferlong unlocks. "A drone is a third-party," he explains. "If it carries a weapon, the weapon is a fourth-party. These canisters, they're a fifth-party. We were to neutralize and bitumize—pave a tarmac with the nullified sixth-party side effects. We've removed all the accountability we can." He looks at the blistering-agent scars between his knobby fingers. "Forty years," he says in his castrato wheeze. "Forty years of tasting it on my breath and feeling it, sometimes smelling it—but I never sensed it." His hands palsy. "My mission was to eliminate the cruel randomness of war. But it appears we've become impatient with diplomacy. We've attempted to gentrify randomness." He undresses before us.
     "Isn't this in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention?" we ask.
     "It's not a weapon," Ferlong says. "Don't you see? It's a cosmetic."
     We don't see.
     "The sister of war has always been vanity," Ferlong says. "They're both ways we strive for immortality. The mohawk haircut originated to prevent scalpings. Deadly Nightshade was used to poison arrow tips and dilate pupils. The apricot was believed to reverse age—but the first Pharaoh, Menes, discovered cyanide in its pit. Arsenic was in the herbicide Agent Blue in Vietnam." He pivots his stringy torso, pointing to puckered cyan scars kissed along his arms and neck and scorched gray bush. "Agent Blue denied the enemy foliage cover and rice. It ate up the earth. But arsenic was also in beauty washes to glow cheeks—Quacks after the Civil War pitched Complexion Wafers. Today, it treats leukemia." His body reddens from the fire's heat, except for his prosthetic testicles."Science," he says, "is the battlefield."
     Hungover once, I took so many Tylenol that my skin jaundiced. Soon-to-be Wife One found me passed out on the white sheets in her room, IV bag in my arm. She said I looked like a piss stain lying there. It was the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me.
     "But civilian casualties?" we ask. "From the sixth-party side-effects?"
     Ferlong squints at the bottom of the stainless steel tube. "We put an FDA warning on them," he says. "My Christ, a seventh-party! It was en route to Bethlehem. This must've been another voided non-partisan route. Randomness is triumphing."
     My ears throb watching Ferlong sulk. Is this what I looked like to the wives? I'd have left, too. I'd have taken care of the kid myself, too, if I weren't me. They were beautiful. Looks can kill. Mutch when we looked in the Alluvial Lowlands. Polk when we looked in Mesopotamia. Gusto when we looked in Transylvania. Crest when we looked in the Balkan-Turkic. Rolf when we looked in the Peninsula Korea. Damico when we looked in the Armenian Fief. And almost Terenzetti and John Remington and others—all closing distance on something unquantifiable, shepherded home by the YMQ-18A "Hummingbird."
     And they all looked at me just before they died. It's not how the Indian looked at me, clutching the back of his head, gaping like he won the lottery. Maybe that's why I never looked for Kelsi. It's not. But I am terrified to know how she might look at me.
     Or, he.
     Because he or she might look like me, and I know how I look at myself.
     I find that just-enough Christ and choke him out—I think some people call this praying.
     "Do you believe in God, sir?" I ask.
     "I believe in liars," Ferlong says. His eyes grow rheumy. Of all the horrible things we've witnessed him accomplish over here, this is the worst. His eye milk curdles, past expiration. He reaches between his legs and removes the prosthetic, "I'm going to get comfortable." He dabs his cheeks with his white beard and laughs, "We've failed the mission! I've failed! Amounted to a great heap of hypocrisy! Forty years!" He looks at the prosthetic in his hand. "I gave my left and right nuts to this futile duty. Before that they created two sons. Grown up now. Missed the whole damn thing." He sighs. "All I've done is lose four boys."
     You remember the first time you see your father cry. That weak chin trembling. You see him feel like he never has about you. Ferlong's scars shine in the firelight like newness. They make me think: what have I ever done? Less. Less-than-less.
     "So this is what surprise feels like," Ferlong says. "I'd forgotten the horror and joy of it."
     "What now?" we say.
     "Now," he says. "You go home."
     "Us?" we say.
     "I'm going to say their names," he says. "Joshua. Michael." Then Ferlong walks stark-ass into the whiteout. Even though we follow, he's already gone. The snowflakes cut like spurs. Ferlong knew how to find, and he knew how to not be found.
     Morning, when the storm clears, we look and look and locate nothing.

Behind the large concrete barriers of the Tibetan Neutral Zone, we debrief General "Six Knuckle" Paddington. We describe the ambush along the fecal Spit. How the Hags sicced their scorpions on us, how they surrounded Ferlong. How he took out a half-dozen behemoths in the lagoon shallows before their stingers turned him into a jigsaw puzzle piece. How we all stabbed our Anascorp antivenin auto injectors into him but it was too late. How the last thing he did before the algal blooms took him was speak his sons' names.
     "A hero," Six Knuckle says, "But what about Operation Sixth-Party Tarmac?"
     "Nothing to pave with, sir," we say, and describe the limb-barded, empty "Snowgoose." I've seen more color drain from these red-blooded leaders than I have from those who looked at me right before they died, when I became whatever they needed. Or maybe they saw something in me, expected something, believing I could save them. Maybe I never liked that look because it was possible, and I wasn't just an asshole. I could actually let them down.
     We don't ask Paddington any questions. Ferlong surrendered and we follow him, always.
     A stadium echoes within me whenever a Hooded Refugee Suicide Bomber throws him- or herself against the concrete barriers. "Is it possible to be jealous of an inanimate thing just for its capability to hold?" I ask Private Mayo over ping-pong in the rec hall.
     "I've been jealous of our winch," he says. "Holds five tons." He offers me a beer.
     I shake my head.        
     "Our war is over," Mayo says.
     "I've got some fight still," I say. "Another forty years if I'm damn lucky."
     "You think we'll get a graduation or something?" he asks, jaw quivering.
     "A ceremony maybe," I say.
     "What will I tell them?" He swallows. "You know, if my parents show up this time?"
     "You explain-without-explaining," I tell him, "that they should be fucking grateful."
     He laughs and serves. We volley. What will I explain-without-explaining to Wife Two? I was here to defend my daughter. To put distance between her and threats that are intangible and tangible, anonymous and defined, direct and indirect—right now she only knows these things as a father. But I'll have a ribbon or a pin to indicate the toughness of my decisions, the difficulty of my doings, my newfangled regimentation, my sobriety...
     The ping-pong ball veers off behind a crate, and a rat scurries out.
     Soldiers laugh or jump on chairs. Perez unsheathes her bowie knife.
     "I'll take care of it," she says.
     "You'll do what?" I say as she end-over-ends the blade and pins the rat to the floor.
     Its arms swim in the air. Then it turns and looks at me. Then it sinks and stills.
     "She took care of it," I whisper, dropping to my knees. "She took care of it."
     You can't mourn what you don't know. You can't know what you don't mourn.
     So I mourn and mourn and mourn.
     "You need some fresh air," they say, lifting me, walking me outside.
     Perez sits with me while I catch my breath. "Do you want your parade now?" she asks.
     "I want to know what you would have liked to get on your ninth birthday," I say. "I want to know what I should be doing with the rest of my life." I put Damico's keyless remote beneath my chin and click. She takes it from me and sticks it down her pants.
     "Will that work?" I ask.
     "You underestimate the technology of the uterus," Perez says.
     "I've underestimated everything," I say.
     "The bigger the cavity the more range the remote has. You should be flattered. You're one of the few men I've met who apparently has a brain." She clicks the remote with her steel Kegels and somewhere in the huge salvage yard there's a chirp. We walk, stopping every couple cars so Perez can clench and click. Eventually, we notice the single flashing taillight of a chirping, rusted junker Humvee on cinder blocks, stripped of parts. "Pop the trunk," I say. She touches her knees together and the trunk lifts. It's empty. The glovebox, just a mouse nest of old napkins. Tobacco tins under the seats, nothing but foam padding inside them.
      "There's got to be something here," I say. "Why would Damico swallow the remote?"
      "Why were you crying in the rec hall?" she asks.
      "Because," I say. "I realized I'm only going to be remembered as an exam question."
      "No, you won't," Perez tells me, "because you were never here. And neither was I."
     Then she kisses me.
     "I tried not to know you," she says, kissing my neck. "I didn't want to hear, I didn't want to die. But there's something about you. You remind me of my job at the airport—that last piece of luggage on the conveyor belt, the unclaimed one." She puts her hand up my shirt. "I always wanted to know what was inside it. Why nobody ever wanted it."
      "There's got to be something in this vehicle," I say and check the undercarriage, the engine, the drained wiper fluid reservoir, the exhaust pipe. "Come lay with me on my cot," Perez says. "Let me show you what I can really do." She could be Wife Five, divorce six. I feel under the bumpers, the wheel wells, only rust and dust and flecking paint.
      "There's nothing there," she says to me. "Whatever it was, it's gone now."
      "Wait, I think I've found something," I say, hoping for a little more time.






"The US defence department considered various non-lethal chemicals meant to disrupt enemy discipline and morale…

The plan for a so-called 'love bomb' envisaged an aphrodisiac chemical that would provoke widespread homosexual behaviour among troops, causing what the military called a 'distasteful but completely non-lethal' blow to morale.

Scientists also reportedly considered a 'sting me/attack me' chemical weapon to attract swarms of enraged wasps or angry rats towards enemy troops.

A substance to make the skin unbearably sensitive to sunlight was also pondered.

Another idea was to develop a chemical causing 'severe and lasting halitosis', so that enemy forces would be obvious even when they tried to blend in with civilians.

In a variation on that idea, researchers pondered a 'Who? Me?' bomb, which would simulate flatulence in enemy ranks."

—["US military pondered love not war," BBC News]