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Peace Time

by Chris Bullard

I get home and find that the Morphic Corporation has taken away Amelia and the girls. There’s only an empty space next to my bed. The rented deep-sleep enhancer that had allowed me to create my family is gone. The bastards have repossessed my dreams.

Out in the hall, old Jean is showing me his gold tooth and his crooked smile. “Uhm, uhm,” he says. “I saw those techs wheel that equipment out of your apartment, and I thought that, uh-oh, Connor, he’s gonna be fit to be tied.”

“Goddammit.” I think about what to do while I rub the port at the back of my skull. “How did those guys get in, anyway? I thought they had to have a warrant, or something.”

Old Jean almost dances with delight. “AR guys showed him a court order to take your equipment back. Landlord, he looks at the paperwork, and he just opens the door and there goes your good night’s sleep.”

I pull out the phone and call the Veterans’ Center. An avatar comes up on the screen and says to stay on the line. “We’ll take your call as soon as possible.” Oh, and by the way, ASAP means probably thirty minutes. I can get to the Center myself in less than sixty and I won’t have to use up my data minutes and my battery charge.

“I gotta see a counselor,” I say. I throw my camo jacket over my shoulders and head downstairs.

“Counselor’s gonna do zip for you,” Jean shouts.

“Watch your back, Jean,” I tell him. “They’ll be coming for your stuff, next.”

“Not me, babe, I’m good with the government.”

Twenty minutes later the autobus shows up at the stop on my street. It has the annoyingly cheerful voice that all the androids have adopted. The laser scans my hand. They haven’t repossessed the chip in it yet, so I can still get my free ride downtown. The autobus thanks me for my service to the nation and closes the door behind me.

I tell the autobus I want off at 14th and Locust. I move back to sit behind two old women who are reminiscing about the buildings that used to stand along the parkway before the war.

When I get to the Veterans’ Center, I select a counselor from the computer screen. They give you all kinds: hipster, businessman, maternal type, etc. I see that they’ve put up a guy in foreign headgear since I was last here. Like most of the young dudes, I choose the android with the prettiest face.

The android says her name is Charlotte, and she asks for my name and security number. When she tells me that she has my file, I give her my password, and we’re in business.

“What seems to the problem, Sergeant?” she asks with all the sympathetic intonation that her programming gives her.

I don’t really like her using my old title of “sergeant,” but we’re all patriots here, even the robots.

“My deep sleep enhancer’s been taken back by Morphic. That machine was prescribed for me by one of your doctors. My benefits are supposed to pay for it. I want to know how to get it back.”

“I’ll check your records,” Charlotte says. “Just wait a minute, please.”

I had to give up smoking to stay enrolled in my health care program. I do pretty well, but I’m thinking now I could really go for a cig. Since I left the service, the government has gotten concerned about my health. They were handing out everything from tobacco to meth when they needed me to shoot people.

“I’ve analyzed your case file, and I think that I’ve found out what happened here. Your ex-wife has had a court issue an order to have your benefits account garnished for unpaid back child support. This has resulted in insufficient funds to pay your sleep services provider.”

“But I thought that the Veterans’ Center paid them directly.”

“It works like this, Sergeant: we put credits into your account every month, and every month the sleep service takes out what they’re owed. This means that you don’t have to authorize the payment, because it takes place automatically. That’s for your convenience. But you still have to have the credits to pay the service when your bill comes due.”

“Goddammit,” I shout, but Charlotte says nothing.

Cindy knows I’m trying to get the credits together to pay what I owe for the twins. She told me she’d have her lawyer hold off for a few months. Of course, now that I think about it, it’s been more than a few months since we talked. Damn.

I don’t know what to do. I start rambling on to Charlotte though I know that it’s just like talking to a brick wall, only one that can talk back to you.

“I need that machine. I need the dreams it gives me. I can’t sleep without it. It stopped all the nightmares I was having. It let me beat my insomnia. I mean, when you’ve seen your buddies get broiled alive by a particle beam, you’re not ever going to sleep easy again.”

Charlotte changes her intonation back to “concerned” again. “You seem stressed, Sergeant. Would you like me to schedule an appointment with a medical consultant?”

“Yeah, whatever,” I mutter.

“I have scheduled the first available appointment for you. Please arrive promptly.” The date she gives me is two months away.

“Isn’t there anyone else I can see about getting my machine back?”

“Due to your distinguished service record, Sergeant, you have the option of speaking with one of our special financial consultants. Would you like me to put one on the screen?”

“Sure,” I say. This is a new wrinkle. I wonder what a financial consultant can do for me.

“I hope I have been helpful today, Sergeant. And thank you for your service.” The avatar disappears and a boy band music video comes up. I wonder if they did some psych profile to determine what music I like least.

A man’s face appears on the screen. It looks like I’m in real time now. He’s middle-aged and wearing a uniform. Oh hell, they’ve directed me to a recruiting officer.

He starts off by asking, “Connor, do you mind if I call you that?”

I don’t say anything, and he plows ahead. He tells me I had a good record with the service, which I already know, thank you. He says that our forces are making a final push to end the war and that my country needs every able-bodied person it can muster.

I tell him that I’m not able-bodied. “I’m here at the Center, aren’t I? Doesn’t that mean I need help.”

He lowers his voice and says he wants to speak to me “man to man.”

He’s read my file and he knows that I’ve had some problems since I got my honorable discharge. He knows what it was like over there and he can understand how that sort of experience can take a toll on a man. The service knows how that is. The service cares about me.

Maybe he’s expecting me to try to shut him up, but I just let him go on. He tells me that now they have the capacity to treat my PTSD while I’m on the job. He adds, “Maybe we’re even better than the medicos at the Veterans’ Center.”

I won’t be sent to the one of the war zones, he assures me. The service just wants me back so I can use my technical knowledge to help train the other fine men and women who are going to do the fighting.

Then he sets the hook. There’s a credit bonus for anyone who’s willing to join up. It’s enough to pay off your back child support and then some. And, of course, you get the thanks of a grateful nation.

I ask if they have a deep-sleep enhancer available. He says I’d have to talk to the docs about that one, but that service supplies all sort of things now that it didn’t have when I did my tour. I tell him I’ll think it over.

On the bus, I try to remember the storyline that my dreams follow when I’m using the machine. I’ve got a place out in the country. Sometimes it’s a stone farmhouse and sometimes it’s a brick rancher, but I can see it. I can walk through it.

My wife and children live with me. My wife is Amelia. My daughters are Trish and Debbie. They all love me.

I’m sipping a cold beer while I sit in the glider on the porch. Amelia’s knitting. The two girls are running around the big oak tree in our backyard. Amelia looks up and smiles. I smile and give her the thumbs up sign. “Wonderful dinner, I’m saying. Look at the moon, it’s so beautiful tonight. Everything is so wonderful, so beautiful.”

The autobus calls out the name of my stop. It takes me a few moments to pull myself together and, by the time I get to the exit, the door has slid shut and the autobus is moving down the parkway. When I shout obscenities the autobus admonishes me for using bad language in public. I don’t want to have security waiting for me at the next stop, so I shut up.

I have to walk an extra mile to get back to my apartment because there’s construction on Market Street where public works is trying to fill in the bomb craters.

I put a beer in the microwave cooler. Thirty seconds later, it’s good and cold. I sip it while I’m sitting on my bed watching a cop show about Mongolians trying to knock over a bitcoin mining factory. I don’t think I’m going to be able to sleep tonight.

I’m on my second beer when I hear Jean whistling on his way down the hall. I find him opening his door.

“Jean,” I plead, “let me use you sleep enhancer for a few hours. I need it really bad.”

“No way, man,” he says, “you’ll just screw up my settings.”

“I won’t,” I tell him. “I know how these things work. I’ll be careful. I ran equipment a thousand times more complicated than this while I was overseas.”

“No, no, no.”

I don’t really like Jean. I don’t think he likes me. Neither of us has ever gotten into it, but I think he had it easy, working in a government job. He never had to live in a combat zone.

On his part, Jean’s made a few comments that suggest he doesn’t see me as a particularly worthwhile character. I’m sure that he sees me as just another nut-job vet.

Jean turns to enter his apartment. I’m behind him. I don’t know how it happened, but I’ve got my arm around his windpipe.

“You don’t understand,” I shout. “I need those dreams. There’re all I’ve got left.”

He tries to push away my arm. I tighten my grip. He relaxes. The next thing I know, I’m carrying Jean’s body into his apartment and locking the door.

I leave Jean on his couch. Sorry, I think, sorry, but you were old. You would have been dead soon anyway.

His enhancer is a different model than mine, but the neural connector is the same. It’s not hard for me to figure out the controls.

I deactivate the safety. The machine is supposed to turn itself off after eight hours. I make sure it won’t. I’ve never known a visitor to show up at Jean’s apartment. Nobody is going to break down the door looking for him, at least not until the smell gets too bad.

I know that once I’m in deep sleep mode, I’ll have Amelia and the kids back. I don’t know if the machine knows that what I want and creates it for me, or if I create it for myself.

I only know that what I’m dreaming is what I always wanted to have. I thought that I might have had it with my ex, but the war took me away and when I got back to her, it just wasn’t the same between us.

I’m ready to die for my dreams. Isn’t that what my country told me was right?

I make sure that the machine is functioning. After I plug the connector into my skull, I close my eyes and drift off. Before long, I’m home again. Amelia brings me a beer, and I sit on the glider and watch the girls play in the yard.

Copyright © 2018 by Chris Bullard

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