Big Echo

Critical SF


by William Ellwood

Field 23.

Between the Survivor, hidden in a hedge, and the farmhouse, was a field of barbed wire concealed by barley. The grain silo, a tower at the edge of the compound, was a known sniper’s nest. The day had cooled from its summery highs into a humid evening. The Survivor wore a thin green t-shirt patterned with sweat underneath his body armour: anything else was too much. After hours of hiding he was covered in scratches and embedded with thorns, and he hadn’t even started the night’s business.

At sundown the far edge of the Survivor’s squad pushed forward into the fat field of barley. When it was the Survivor’s turn he crawled into the field a few seconds behind Soldat. He started slowly, near the farmhouse end of the field, then rose to his feet and started to sprint. A crack came from the silo. The Survivor watched Soldat tumble onto the warm earth. Half of his skull rolled towards the Survivor.

A mortar landed in the field, bursting his ear drums. Through the stalks of barley the Survivor saw the edge of the farm. Another kick from a mortar explosion toppled him onto his front. He rolled onto his back. Above him, the sky was purple. Finally, lying at the roots of the barley, the Survivor rolled over, injured, onto his side for a last difficult breath.

Field 35.

Winter. The same farm. In between the Survivor and the house was a field of churned mud and other surprises. The barley was gone, taken by harvest or battle. Thin remnants of snow covered the ground. Three shells passed over the Survivor from behind and obliterated the grain silo.

As the squad of soldiers ran across the field more shells flew overhead. A fresh confidence filled the Survivor. Their fire team came closer to the farmhouse and its defenders rushed to meet them. The Survivor fired wildly, but kept moving. Momentum was everything. He was almost at the front door. His bayonet was ready.

Warm breath was pulled from his lungs as another shell exploded in the farmhouse doorway. The Survivor fell flat on the concrete road around the farm house. Blood poured from his broken nose. Mud and farmyard shit covered his laughing face. He lost his momentum.


“What did you do during the war?” Arbeitnehmer asked the Survivor every day between lunch and the afternoon break.

They stood together, pressed against a conveyor belt, looking for manufacturing defects in plastic figures for characters in children’s films the Survivor didn’t recognize. They made a good team. Arbeit had the arms and the Survivor possessed working eyes. The Survivor’s arms were gone, but his main problem, said the managers, was that he had too many memories. The managers said that with enough hard labor, the arms might be replaced, even improved. Those managers said nothing about healing the Survivor’s painful memories, or paying him fairly so he could replace his lost arms.

In an internment camp someone’s crude job repairing Arbeit’s head injuries had involved a partial lobotomy and applying stainless steel plates with staples. They hadn’t worried about the rest of Arbeit’s face. One of their eyes had been stapled shut, while they had accidentally cauterized around their better eye. That was all the Survivor knew about Arbeit’s experiences.

“I survived,” Survivor said.

“What happened to your arms?”

“Sharks,” Survivor said today. “Sharks did it.”

“Oh,” Arbeit said. “I didn’t know that sharks were used.” They laughed.

“Yeah,” Survivor said, trying to make the reason more absurd than the day before. The Survivor mocked Arbeit when they asked and had never told them the truth. To the Survivor, who understood that Arbeit had no other mental impairment, the repetition of this question daily seemed a strange consequence of Arbeit’s surgery.

“So what are you doing after shift?” Arbeit said.

“Forty-Four Fields,” Survivor said. “More simulation therapy to help me forget. Or remember. I don’t know which it is. I fought in the rust belt slums, so the simulation is too quiet.”

“If it works then that’s good. It works, right?”

“Gradually. Maybe. I don’t have a choice. I am doing this as a condition of my release, like working here. But I’m starting to feel lucky with it. I finished field thirty-five and feel that I might win the good ending.”

“Nine left,” Arbeitnehmer said.

“Sort of. There is an after game.”

A badly painted figurine of a blond haired knight in armor passed by them on the conveyor belt. Survivor said, “Take that one.”

Field 44.

Fresh blossoms covered the hedgerows and stalks of barley barely pushed through dry soil. The farm house stood a ruin, with broken windows. The walls were pockmarked with bullet holes. The Survivor walked across the field alone and unarmed. As he crossed the edge of the field and into the farmyard proper the Survivor counted to forty-four.

At the front of the house, the Survivor gently pushed against the unvarnished and unpainted wooden door closed tight by rusted hinges. The Survivor looked through the small gap he made towards the top of the frame and found no traps. None of the earlier grenades, trip wires, or balanced beakers of acid that had surprised him in earlier iterations of the scenario.

The Survivor shouldered the door open and went deeper than previous journeys.

The farmhouse’s deep interior had been left apparently untouched by the violent skirmishes outside. It was a romantic vision where two thirds of a nuclear family provided by the simulation sat around a large wooden table sharing a breakfast. A low, bright spring sun shone through the kitchen window reflecting off the porcelain washing up basin. A woman helped a young boy spread strawberry jam on thick slices of toast. A small glass of orange juice and a cup of black coffee sat at the table’s only empty setting.

“Did you enjoy your morning walk?” the woman said.

“Yes. For a change it was peaceful,” the Survivor said, as he sat and sipped the sharp tasting juice.

“I’m afraid that it’s either toast or porridge today, as I didn’t get to the farmer’s market yesterday,” the woman said. She wore her long blond hair pulled back with a clip and even at this early hour had made up her perfect face with foundation and ruby lipstick.

“That’s okay. Porridge is fine,” the Survivor said. He wondered if she was his wife.

“Are you sure? I thought you’d be disappointed. I know you love a good fry up in the morning before work,” the woman said.

“It’s fine. I like porridge,” the Survivor said. He finished the orange juice.

As the woman started making porridge on the range stove the Survivor considered the morning. The child sat eating their toast and playing with a tablet without tantrum or apparent interest in the Survivor’s arrival. A thought intruded that he should feel gratitude at the boy’s timidity. Maybe this was a realistic relationship. Having a family was outside of his experience.

“What are you doing?” the Survivor said.

The child glanced at him before they continued tearing the toast apart and smearing jam covered fingers over the tablet’s screen. The Survivor realized that he could not name his son or his wife.

Still the quietness was pleasant, even enjoyable. The lack of immediate terror was a good feeling.

This wasn’t the Survivor’s real desire. The dark corridors of the factory loomed in the corners of his senses. Someone was trying hard to make him feel better and accept his real situation by pushing it away.

“Do you want jam or honey in your porridge?”

“Honey, please,” the Survivor said, after considering the question.

“You look upset,” the woman said, as she served his breakfast. “Is everything okay?”

“Did you ever enjoy working?” the Survivor asked.

“Not really,” she said. “I only ever worked in restaurants and pubs before meeting you. It paid some bills and I made a few friends, but I never really enjoyed it. You provide me with everything I need. I like that” She smiled, showing perfect white teeth.

The Survivor ate a spoonful of the sickly sweet porridge.

“I enjoy working, but not my work. I need to do something useful or else I’d do nothing. Does that make sense? I don’t even understand this breakfast. It isn’t me,” the Survivor said.

“Don’t be so silly,” the pretend wife said. She knelt down and offered the survivor a side hug. The Survivor did not know how to respond, so stopped eating and awkwardly accepted. “Once you get back from the office today and after Kleinkind goes to sleep, how about we watch The Black Hole Round Table Knights to make you feel better?”

Return to Work.

The warmth of the Survivor’s catheter leaking woke him. In the dark dormitory he felt the warm piss soak through his filthy clothes onto the already soiled sheets. The Survivor turned, dragging the bundle of cables that connected him to the fields via the back of his shaved head painfully behind him as the inflexible contacts of the data lead pushed against the edges of the port. The carers would be round soon to wake the workers.

“Help,” the Survivor shouted. No carer came. He shouted again and woke someone who slurred at him to shut up and deal with it.

Half an hour later the Survivor was helped out of the therapy dormitory and his nutrient drips and into a wheelchair. “Someone’s made a mess haven’t they?” the carer said in a sing song voice. “Don’t worry about that. We’ll get it cleaned up right away.”

The carer sprayed the Survivor’s lap with a disinfectant that stung the Survivor’s nose, before pushing him out of the dormitory to the minibus waiting area. A weak sun struggled through a cloud of smog and a gentle breeze brought with it the smell of a wood pulp factory.

As the minibus which took the Survivor and the other broken remnants of forgotten wars to the production line arrived, he dreamed of the farmhouse and hated it because it wasn’t his. The comforting warmth of that simulated life cut his pride when the thoughts of it left him. He had found his place as someone who’d tried and failed to get there. Today the Survivor told himself he would stop telling stupid jokes about sharks and would work out a way to earn the arms he needed and take the life that the middle classes lived, or at least one better than his own. He privately said this each morning.

After everyone had been helped onto the minibus the Survivor rested his head on the glass. A layer of condensation covered it which he cleared with his cheek. He had nothing, not even food in his stomach, and all that he was given was somebody else’s dreams.

The Survivor had a new idea. Today he would stop mocking Arbeitnehmer and actually tell them what happened to him. Then he would ask Arbeit more about their war.

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