My son’s draft notice arrived earlier today—on his tenth birthday.
I haven’t read the actual letter yet, since it’s addressed to him, with warnings printed in neon green about prosecution if someone other than the addressee opens the black envelope. But I know the red ASCOPRU printed in the upper right hand corner means Army Special Co-Operations: Robots Unit.
Filled with dread, I stand at the living room window clutching the envelope. Outside, pink blossoms glow against purple leaves on the crabapple trees ringing the yard. The school bus, red lights flashing, pulls to a stop in front of our house, and my son, Pel, and four friends—here to celebrate his birthday—jostle each other down the steps. Four friends, not five. Jason, the missing boy, received his draft notice last week, and he no longer wants to “play.”
In the spring’s afternoon light, my son’s face is radiant, expectant, like he already knows what awaits him. I sigh, resigned, though I can’t stop the tremble in my hand.
The boys burst through the front door, pushing, laughing. “Did it come?” they shout.
I hold up the envelope.
“You’ll get your own opsbot!” Pel’s best friend, Ricky, says with a gleeful high five to the group. “What will you name him?”
“Takem,” Pel laughs. “Takem Down.”
The friends crowd around as Pel turns the envelope over, searching for the words “Pull here.” He finds the tab and tugs. A silver ball chain emerges, slicing through the top and side of the envelope. All gimmicks aimed to please the ten-year-old brain.
“It’s your dog tag,” Ricky says reverently as he touches the indestructible plastic medallion that hangs from the chain. “Put it on now.”
“Pelman,” David says, studying the raised letters on the tag. “That’s your real name?”
“It’s my mom’s maiden name. Grampa Pelman was a war hero. A major general. I’m proud to be named after him.” Pel squares himself, stands as tall as he can, and stares at David, daring him to make fun of a real soldier’s name. “I aim to be as good as he was in combat.”
David steps back, eyes on the floor. No one else smiles. Or teases. Pel’s transformation has already begun—from short boy with long legs, brown unruly curls, and bright blue eyes into something I know I won’t recognize.
Pel drops the envelope and its contents onto the floor along with his backpack and slides the chain over his head. He’s made it, won the prize: the dog tag tells him all he needs to know without reading the letters and handbook that fall in disarray at my feet. “Cake!” he screams. “Let’s eat birthday cake! Okay, Mom?”
The others noisily drop their packs, and then run toward the family room after Pel.
I stoop, pick up the scattered papers, and place them in a neat pile on the hall table. Later, when my husband returns home, we’ll pore over the paperwork word by word. My throat tightens. I don’t want him to grow up. Not like this. But how do I stop it now?
Boot camp for kids with spring birthdays happens in June. Without any fanfare, Pel is whisked away from home in the back seat of a powerful black car, his single wave goodbye more like a salute.
Time drags when we don’t hear from him. On the thirtieth day after he left, a shiny black van backs into our driveway and two uniformed men with crew cuts begin unloading boxes. After they knock on the front door, the taller soldier asks, “Where’s his room, ma’am?”
The other says, “Did you upgrade the electrical service, ma’am?”
I nod, trying to tame the anger that has built slowly, powerfully, for the last month. Though I expected someone to deliver Pel’s army-issue combat equipment, neither soldier wears any distinguishing insignia. How arrogant of them to assume they’ll enter my house without presenting any ID.
But that’s what happens.
The old stairs creak as I escort them to Pel’s room. I wish the hallway were filled with the sounds of six racing boys instead of the mind-dulling thuds of army boots. The door to Pel’s room is ajar. White, newly-painted walls, devoid of posters and pictures, glisten under the new, regulation ceiling light fixture. They push past me into the room, eyes darting, assessing, looking for the new electrical outlets.
“It’ll take us about an hour to install and test the equipment,” says the shorter soldier. He carefully lowers his boxes onto the bed. “We’ll let you know when we’re done. Then we’ll change your locks, front and back. The one on the garage door, too.”
When I start to protest, he holds up a hand and stops me. “Orders, ma’am.” He slips a small metallic rectangle, the shape of a six-inch ruler, out of his pocket, peels paper off the back, and slaps it at eye level on the outside of the door. “PRIVATE,” it says.
The taller soldier reaches past me to grab the door handle. Nothing, no shred of understanding or concern for what I may be experiencing, softens his eyes. He closes the door, and I know when Pel returns, I’ll have to get used to seeing it shut. “Regulations, Mom,” he’ll say.
Pel’s return home is anti-climatic. Outwardly, he’s the same short boy with long legs and bright blue eyes, though he now sports a military haircut.
Before he goes to bed, he still places a sloppy kiss on my cheek and hugs his father. Yet, as the days pass, his shoulders slump a little, his skin pales from never playing in the sun, and his hair grows into a wild tangle.
Over the remaining summer vacation, he and Jason spend a lot of time together upstairs with the door shut. When I hear them laughing, I cringe, wondering what just happened, remembering those same laughs when they used to annihilate or overpower the enemy in their computer games.
Those games—hundreds, fabricated and sponsored by the government to challenge and strengthen the talents, reflexes, and mental capacity of each player—are free to any US citizen. At the beginning, none of the games were violent. Not a one. For Pel, with his set of skills and agility, the games quickly evolved to challenge his quickness and decision-making ability.
Before Pel and Ricky and Jason became best friends, I sat beside Pel, controls in hand, as together we ducked and dueled our way out of precarious situations. My hand-eye coordination was good, but his was so much better. For years, I stood proudly looking over Pel’s shoulder at the computer monitor in the family room, watching his hands fly over keys, maneuver toggles, wield imaginary weapons as he out-smarted, outpaced, and outplayed each opponent. We celebrated each advance to a new level or game with M&M’s when he was younger and with hot fudge sundaes after he started second grade.
I thought the games harmless. But Ricky’s mom ranted about the army covertly watching—seeking, and finding, a few good boys with the talent to man the opsbots that comprise the core of our foreign-based infantry.
She warned me, and now I wish I had listened.
Before fall arrives, we receive paperwork detailing Pel’s new school schedule. Because he tested out of math for the next several years, he needs only to attend morning classes for social studies, writing, and science. The rest of the time he’ll work in Co-Ops.
In a meeting with the school principal and Pel’s ASCOPRU captain, I insist that he continue receiving the school’s tuba lessons and playing in band, which meets every other day before school. They agree without a fuss.
The captain walks out to the school’s parking lot with me. He’s got a nice smile and an easy, friendly manner. As I unlock my car door, he stops and says, “Pel’s a good soldier, ma’am. You should be proud. He co-ops well with his opsbot: keeps it out of trouble, keeps it alive.”
He grins. “Functioning. Some kids have a lot of turnover. They never last beyond their first year of enlistment.”
“How long will Pel be doing this?”
“He’s good. It could be his career.”
He notices my flinch. “Don’t worry,” he says, his voice soft and without the army-speak I’ve grown used to hearing when I try to ask questions. “He can’t co-op with the opsbots for more than four years. Once he hits puberty, he needs to focus on building his body strength. The Army grows strong men. Can’t do that in front of a computer.”
Puzzled, I pause before sitting in the car. “How do you tell when he reaches puberty?”
“Same way doctors have for years…the size of his testicles.” He grabs the door’s handle. “Didn’t mean to make you blush.”
My blush deepens, of course, and the laugh lines around his eyes crinkle. I’m so uncomfortable, I blurt out the question that bothers me most.
“How many men will he kill during that time?”
The captain looks me straight in the eye. “The opsbot does the killing, not your son,” he says calmly. “He’s the opsbot’s second pair of eyes, its second brain. His superior reflexes aid the opsbot in conducting its combat duties.”
And makes it the most efficient killing machine known to humanity.
I lean against the car instead of climbing in, so he can’t shut the door on me. “I listened to the news last night and the terrorist casualties are high. What does that mean for Pel? What is he seeing through the opsbot’s lenses? How many men, captain? What’s the average number of hits for opsbots manned by men? Boys, I mean. Surely, the army keeps those statistics.”
He nods. “Depends on the combat situation. I can tell you that Pel’s opsbot is in an advance unit. The fighting, at times, is heavy. So are the casualties. We monitor Pel’s actions and reactions in real time. He shows no undue stress. None. I checked this morning.”
The captain lets go of the door handle and backs away, raising his hand in a brief salute. “Nice speaking with you, ma’am. I’ve another appointment.”
He leaves me sagging against the car thinking, Pel may not actually kill the enemy, but he does pull the trigger.
Winning the battles about Pel’s tuba lessons and playing in the band emboldens me. I reread my responsibilities as a parent of a child in Co-Ops, paying attention more to what was not said in the handbook, trying to find more time for my son to be out of combat, out of contact with the opsbot he calls Takem.
We now listen to the thump of the tuba for at least half an hour in the evening. And dinner is a leisurely five-course affair. The first evening I did this both Pel and my husband revolted. I calmly insisted family time is important and that the army manual stresses the importance of family meals. Of course, I’m taking advantage by stretching out the meal, course by course, but after the first night, neither protested our extra time together. Time for homework, time for exercise, and time for bed are all rigorously enforced.
Jason no longer spends afternoons here. And, frankly, I don’t miss him or the frightening boy-laughter that used to drift downstairs from behind my son’s shut door. Over the past few weeks, I noticed that Pel’s bedroom door often stands slightly ajar. And several times, against army regulations, I stand in the hall, peeking in at the action from the outside.
Today, I watch at the window as Pel gets off the small school bus that now stops in our driveway. He seems oblivious to our first snow as he slogs up the path to the house. He brushes past me with a flat “Hi, Mom,” and trudges into the kitchen, leaving snow tracks across the floor. I quickly follow, kicking the melting snow to the side. He sits in his favorite stool and eats the two-course snack I left on the kitchen counter.
“What’s wrong?” I ask. “What’s happened?”
He shakes his head, finishes the cookies, and marches upstairs to his room.
An hour later I hear voices, loud shouting, and automatic weapons. Softly I climb the stairs, skipping the ones that creak. Pel’s door stands wide open. I creep closer. He stands in front of the monitor with the desk chair pushed out of his way. On his head sits a complex set of black goggles. He wears metallic mesh gloves on both hands. The monitor is dark, yet the sound is switched on. I watch him for a while, listening in horror to the rapid fire of real weapons. Someone, somewhere is being shot. Someone dies as my son listens. And watches. Is he the one pulling the trigger?
I lean against the doorjamb for support.
During a lull in the shooting, I tiptoe into his room and place my hand on his shoulder, standing as I once did when he used to play games in the family room. The room smells of dirty socks.
He tenses under my touch and whispers, “Mom, you’re not supposed to be in here.”
Yet he doesn’t say, “Get out.” So, with my toes gripping the carpet tenaciously, I plant my feet and stay.
Without another word, he turns the sound down and hands me the second set of army-issue goggles that Jason once wore, so I can see what he’s observing through the lenses of his opsbot.
It takes me a minute to adjust to the green night vision and the feeling of being in someone else’s head. Immediately, I realize the quality of the picture is digitally enhanced, rendering the scene more like computer animation than reality, similar to the visuals in the games we used to play together. Anger stirs in my chest. So that’s how the army succeeds at this, by portraying real life as a game, by removing any onus for killing because the targets appear not-quite-real.
My skin crawls. The terrorists don’t use opsbots: they’re real men and women, sometimes children. I push up the goggles and lean in front of him to tap F3, the body count shortcut key I know he’s set up, and stare at the neon green numbers on the monitor: today: 36; since last summer: 4,347.
I reel in horror. My son. It’s hard to think of him as a mass killer.
“Mom!” He reaches over and touches the recap key lightly. “Don’t touch anything! F4 is the maximum damage button. It sets off all of Takem’s munitions and blows him up.”
The numbers flicker off the monitor. I rearrange the goggles, and I’m surrounded by green rocks. A slight turn of my head allows me to see a full 360 degrees. Jagged moonlit peaks surround us on all sides, standing out against the darker green sky. In the distance, clusters of smooth-sided buildings hug the base of a cliff. A vehicle of some sort burns to the right, casting a flickering white-green light into the night. There are no trees and no bushes. The experience is dizzying, especially with changes in the quality of light, but the opsbot’s enhanced vision melds the scene seamlessly together. Thin black brackets mark the opsbot’s straight-ahead view.
“Careful,” I say, despite myself. “Maybe they dug escape holes into the cliffs.”
“This village is our target,” Pel replies softly, sounding apprehensive. “Terrorists may be hiding in those three houses. Leaders, we think. We’ve got them cornered, but there’s only two opsbots left. Our orders are to get visuals, if possible, for combatant ID confirmation, but we’re to leave no one alive. No one.”
Since terrorists often hide behind innocent civilians, the Rules of Engagement for this war protect no one who’s armed or near someone armed. The approach changes when the terrorists are unarmed. No civilized person—or opsbot—kills an unarmed man.
I cringe, but I’m sure this isn’t the first time he heard those orders. Something must be different today, something must be wrong. Otherwise he would’ve asked me to leave.
“We got ambushed earlier. Our whole unit. Everything’s mined. That’s why there are only two of us left.”
No wonder he’s so edgy. “Where’s your support?”
“We’re deep in the mountains. No one can get here until light. If then. The drones are grounded because of the sandstorms near their base.”
Sweat tickles down my chest. “What about your commanding officers? The captain I met at school? Can’t they help you with the opsbot?”
“Nope. I’m on my own, Mom. They monitor my physiological stats and record the opsbot’s actions. But for security and accountability, the opsbot only responds to commands from this computer. If I take a break, the opsbot functions on its own. Takem’s got the house on the left. Shhh. I thought I heard something earlier.”
He turns the volume up and cocks his head. I listen, too.
Then we’re in motion. The opsbot dodges from boulder to boulder, cutting the distance to the target house in half. The focus adjusts so only the house on the left displays in the goggles. It’s a collection of small connected buildings backing to the towering cliff. The windows are tiny, and all but one is shuttered. The doorway’s a dark gaping hole.
Gunfire erupts from the unshuttered window, spits of bright light, and automatically, I duck. Pel’s opsbot delivers an answering round of firepower. Bullets ricochet off the rock and ground nearby. The opsbot slips behind a boulder. Its field of vision splits and part scrutinizes the ground. Perfect place to leave a mine, I realize with a shudder.
Pel still listens intently, his gloved hands moving ever so slightly as he communicates with the opsbot. And then I hear it—a baby’s wail.
Pel winces under my clutch.
“No one,” I whisper in horror. “Your orders are to leave no one alive.”
The opsbot starts running again. This time it leaps onto the next boulder.
“I heard the baby,” Pel says, his voice shaking. “But someone else is inside shooting that gun. You know the rules.”
The baby wails again.
“What should I do?” Pel cries. His body trembles beneath my touch.
“Rocket launcher ready,” Takem says.
I almost pull the plug. Literally. Yet that’s not the answer. Terrorists have attacked London, Berlin and other European cities, and these may be their leaders. The opsbot, of course, can act on its own, allowing Pel to abandon any situation he doesn’t feel comfortable in. At least that’s what it says in the Co-Ops handbook. But if he disengages, Takem will continue this mission without regard for the baby. How can my son live with that?
How can I?
As Takem peers over the boulder, rockets launch, and the houses to the right blow apart, sending rock and debris skyward. With each blast the vision shifts abruptly. The noise is deafening, and I cover my ears. I smell Pel’s fear, now, and perhaps, my own.
Pel tenses at my side, awaiting my answer.
As the explosions silence, the baby shrieks inconsolably.
My reflexes are those of a mother. “You can’t blast the house. Not yet. Not with a baby inside. You’ve got to go in. See what’s there.”
“It may be a trap.”
“Have the other opsbot cover you.”
Takem surges forward, keeping low, dodging from side to side. The house approaches rapidly. A mine explodes behind us. “We’re on our own,” Pel says, his voice devoid of emotion.
We burst through the doorway. Everything is clearly lit and no longer green, and I realize that Takem switched on a headlamp. Ten or twelve men, most holding a child, huddle toward the back of the room, against a colorful tapestry. The youngest child is a baby; the eldest must be four. All stare at Takem with wide, fear-filled eyes. The tapestry behind them hangs slightly askew, clinging to bumps on the uneven wall. The house not only backs to the cliff, it uses the cliff as its back wall. Standing near the open window, a boy—no older than Pel—holds out his gun in surrender and drops it at Takem’s feet.
No other weapons are apparent.
The image recognition section in the field of vision slides into place and compares the men’s faces to those of known terrorists. I don’t need the opsbot’s swift assessment to tell me that the world’s two most notorious terrorists stand in front of us, each holding a baby. When you consider all of the tragedy these men have caused in nations throughout the world, Pel’s body count is merely a grain of sand to their beach. I stare in fascination. Neither man seems awkward holding the life of a child in his hands.
Pel goes rigid as the opsbot displays the names and international wanted rating of the men.
“We’re unarmed,” one terrorist says, grinning, his English holding a slight British accent. “You can’t shoot.”
As if by secret signal, the men close around the two leaders, shielding them with their bodies and those of the young children. One leader pulls back the tapestry, drops his baby and climbs into the escape hole. The baby’s cry is silenced as its head thuds against the floor.
“I can shoot people trying to escape,” Pel shouts. “But if I do, I’ll hit a kid. What should I do, Mom?”
The other leader tosses the baby he’s holding to a young girl. The writhing baby slips through her arms and falls to the floor wailing. The man never looks back. How little life means to these men.
I can’t let them escape.
Neither can I let Pel take responsibility for killing unarmed men and children.
For once my reflexes are faster than Pel’s. I close my eyes, say a swift prayer, and press the F4 button firmly.
K. A. Gillett is a 2008 Writers of the Future winner and a graduate from the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop.