Pat Some on the Back, Put Some to the Rod

I was one of the few volunteers. Oh yes, I was paid to screw that bear—paid very well, actually—but I started having second thoughts almost immediately. I realized I was in way over my head when the zoo gates closed behind me and the cages began rattling, the slavering detainees behind the bars smelling fear emanating from my every pore. There was no turning back, though, and the incentives were irresistible, so I trudged into the maw of necessity and received my orders like a good little cadet. The day I was inducted into the Non-Conformity Patrol may have been the first day of the rest of my life, but in many ways it was also the beginning of the end.

I know that now, of course, only after a gauntlet of truly horrible experiences that have scarred me deeply, and I only hope that others reading this avoid the same pitfalls that ensnared me. Anyway, once I enlisted, I was charged with enforcing the all-powerful Mandates of Truth, and was backed up in these endeavors by special Force Authorization Quotients. I was to adhere strictly to these vague generalities, but was sorely tempted more than once to suspend them whenever it suited me. I learned really quick to not think too much or too often—the mildest dissent would compromise my unit’s morale, and I’d always had a propensity for Tourette’s when I got nervous. None of it happened by accident, but I liked to tell myself that I chose to do what I did for the sake of a higher power and greater good, and for a brief instant, I even believed it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I made major within six days. I met the demands of command in such a commendable fashion that my superiors nodded in impressed approval, and my new squad sought to get in my good books whenever they didn’t quiver in fear of my displeasure. Admittedly, I was often capricious with that latter, but lots of blood flows under the bridge in time of conflict, and like I said, the most important lesson was not to dwell on things outside my control. Which was a lot, when you really think about it. I know I did, and I was highly conscious of how tenuous my position really was—but by the time I’d actually got to the point where I had time to think about anything, I’d already become too invested and entrenched and beholden to The Way Things Are.

I should have realized something was wrong when I’d get annoyed at the slightest hint of irregularity. Didn’t these idiots know that the quest lay perpetually on the edge of a knife? Discipline had to be maintained at all costs, and I’m not just dicking around when I say that. Court-martials weren’t enough after a while—we had to pat the good boys on the back and put the others to the rod in case their poor bowel control would infect the whole regiment and expose us all to complete annihilation. Inspections became brutal affairs of anal-retentive fury: stray specks of dust prompted swift and decisive punishment, and woe fucking betide any fool who didn’t shine his own boots with sufficient zeal. The standards were there for a reason, after all.

The stark nature of this existence periodically exploded into a vicious riot of repressed ids running wild. I needed some way to safely vent the squad’s pent-up collective angst, and to my surprise I was given a free hand to try anything that delivered results—a professional, disciplined force able to overpower any threat, real or imagined, was essential, and no expense was spared to allow my squad’s achievement of this ideal.

I do not exaggerate when I say that shore leaves were the most intense jolts of sensory overload any of us had ever experienced. We’d regularly detonate our own brains at three-week intervals, and every establishment within a five-block radius of the red light district learned to open its doors when we went on leave. English rakes’ clubs had jack shit on us. Hell, Alexander’s sacking of Persepolis paled in comparison to the things we did as a matter of policy, all of which were approved and encouraged at the highest levels of command.

Oh Christ, I still piss myself with fear when I remember my COs. I had to report to seven of those bastards—four men and three women—none of whom had the slightest amount of patience for failure. They were almost machine-like in their insistence on absolute loyalty, and despite the aforementioned latitude in regards to improvisational thinking to combat disciplinary dissolution, the robotic hand under that soft skin—especially on the three women, especially Valerii—was one of firm, unrelenting authority. Not to be questioned. Not to be gainsaid or second-guessed at any time or for any reason whatsoever.

The tipping point ended up being a routine patrol through the market street, when my squad was suddenly ambushed by a crack insurgent patrol of raging, screeching civilians, who began throwing anything they could get their hands on in our direction—rocks, scrap metal, and even improvised Molotovs. To them, we were traitors. Collaborators in the worst tradition of Vichy and the DLC. Many of my men and women lost limbs and lives under that day’s evil overcast sky, because the promised air support never materialized. I cursed the callous commanders back at HQ for withholding the necessary cover, and then made the pivotal decision of my young life.

I ordered a retreat.

Hell yes I did. I ordered a pre-emptive fall-back, to be precise, but I could sense the iron discipline ebbing away. What was once so powerful was now disturbingly fragile, and all our lives were at risk from the projectiles of angry mobs who’d had enough of the repressive regime for which I worked. I ordered a retreat, and to their vast and unflappable credit my surviving privates did exactly what they were told. They blazed bloody trails away from the main lines of fire and broke out of the confined street toward the open highway.

I still don’t know how many of them made it, but I have my doubts that everyone survived. As for me, I chose to hide out for a while. Laying low in a foreign capital for a few years might ameliorate my superiors’ potential lust for punishment should I ever decide to return. Maybe it will have to be under different circumstances. Maybe it won’t happen at all—which would be one hell of a bummer, especially considering the way Boomer used to look at me. She was my superior officer, sure, but we could have been something special. I just know it. Takes one to know one, you know?

Cold comfort, but what else is new? Some people get lucky and others eat shit and die. The law of the jungle is only separated from any of us by eight square meals, after all—and speaking of which, I need to find my next one. Over and out, so say we all, blah blah blah.