by Esther Davis
Every scar tells a story.
Dark webbing still marks my shoulder from the day that bullets separated my squad from our company. The bleeding would’ve killed me if my comrades hadn’t bandaged it. But isolated from medical equipment, we couldn’t stop the scarring.
After days of wandering the Amazon I tripped, leaving a white slice across my stomach. A dumb wound. Not from a heroic battle with enemy soldiers or fleeing some hungry beast. I just got tired, so I fell.
Then came the jagged blossom encasing my thigh. Forever a vengeful red, as if still burning after all these years.
Some stories I’d rather forget.
* * *
I turned to the avatars for my escape. Avatars have no scars to pinch at every arm stretch. Pistons and cogs don’t grind with arthritis. I scaled the Grand Canyon with the arms of a robotic chimp. The wonders of coral reefs opened to my aquatic avatar’s photo-sensors. I’ve galloped across green fields, grandchild mounted on my saddle.
The world in a mechanical body never harbored memories of war. Until now.
Explosions rack my frame. Dust fogs my avatar’s view. I dig my claws into the soil and let my inertia swing my feline body onto its new course.
Across the ocean, cables suspend my true body—my scarred body—above the warehouse floor. I’m sure the camouflaged personnel still swarm below, checking my vital signs, the avatar’s functionality, the video and data streaming from the battlefield.
Command center may share my eyes, but they can’t taste the sandy air. They can’t feel the satisfying way my claws pierce the earth or how my padded feet launch me onward. The rolling tank doesn’t shake the ground beneath them. They don’t hear the fleeing birds’ squawks with such clarity, transferred straight from the avatar’s receptors to my brain.
They wanted their war hero back. We don’t need your body, they said. Your mind, your skill with the avatars, that’s all.
They dragged me back to the battlefield anyway.
* * *
We found the enemy camp on day six. The hostages, the data, the battle plans—everything we needed to end the war—tucked away in seven pale tents huddled beneath the trees. If we’d come in numbers, a guard would have heard us. But a broken, lost battalion in the Amazon becomes invisible.
I ordered the men to divide and surround the camp. Hidden in the greenery, they fired. The enemy panicked, thinking themselves surrounded. People ran in every direction, stumbling over one other, colliding, spilling documents and hard drives in the dirt, stooping to hurriedly gather their mess. I slipped in among the chaos.
I expected more guards in the hostage tent. But only a skinny man crouched, trembling, between me and the prisoners bound in the dirt.
When I flipped open the tent door he shouted and raised his weapon.
I reacted instinctively. My rifle hoisted. The trigger pulled. The guard fell.
Just like I’d trained.
I didn’t notice my burning thigh until I fell, my back slapping the ground. I ripped the box from my flesh. I didn’t recognize it. Some experimental technology, I guess.
The army took the barbed box later, when I delivered our rescued hostages and they gave me my medal. They never told me details. “Lethal,” was all they said. “Lucky you disengaged it.”
* * *
Power courses through my circuitry. My hind legs punch the ground and I bound forward.
A seventy-miles-per-hour limit hid me before. But I knew I’d lost my stealth at the first explosion. Military don’t fire missiles at stray cheetahs.
No more use pretending. I strain my machinery, pushing full thrust into every bound. One hundred. Two hundred. Three hundred.
Savannah grass snaps across my flank. My weighted tail whips behind, letting me steer and balance.
I reel back toward the camp, sending up my own dust cloud. The muddy tanks grind their noses towards me. One fires, hitting fifty yards behind.
I fly through the savannah, weaving to avoid missiles and grenades. Soldiers flee, though their commander’s foreign shouts order them to fight.
Mentally, I beg them to keep fleeing. Run, surrender, anything. Don’t make me fight you. Don’t let them get you.
* * *
The general met me at a steakhouse. He probably figured I’d find the country music and meat more welcoming than his stuffy office. Personally, I’d rather have a cold burrito than the too-rare steak the waiter brought me.
General Lee gave me the guilt trip, the same one from his email. The same one from his phone call. “I know you’re retired, but we need you. Your country needs you.”
I rolled up my pant leg, wincing as it tugged at my scarred tissue. The scar’s red burned bright against my pale skin. “This.”
He smiled sympathetically, like I was some naive child. “But we’ve discussed this. You’ll just be an avatar. Nothing can hurt you.” He rested his elbow on either side of his empty plate and leaned toward me. “No more scars. I promise.”
Not all scars are physical.
* * *
I reach the first tank. I leap. My avatar torpedoes through the metal and tears out the other side. I slice through the next tank just as easily, like stabbing melted ice cream.
I hear the drones now, their buzzing and distant pops. I try blocking out the screams. I turn away from the blood. I focus on the job I can stomach—killing lifeless metal.
* * *
The prisoners unbound, the enemy camp secured, I knelt alone in the once-hostage tent.
The young man still lay there, or his lifeless body at least. I didn’t regret my actions. I still don’t. I saved lives.
My heart still felt hollow.
We dug the graves earlier that day. We filled them with enemy soldiers and two of our men. I told them to leave this boy. I would search his pockets then fill the final grave myself.
I laid his pockets’ contents in the dirt. Bullets and bandages. Some stray coins. And a photo of a girl, maybe five- or six-years-old, with the young man’s black hair and round nose. Large, cramped lettering fill the back.
Months later, I found the strength to let the interpreter translate the note.
I love you Daddy. Come home.