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To celebrate memorial day, we’re posting a story from ‘Blips’, a collection of short stories that combine into a narrative that explains the creation of the universe – or something.
‘But Why?’ is set in World War 1, the ‘Great War’ and the ‘War to end all wars’ that didn’t quite manage to deliver on its advertised promise.
This story takes the whole idea of way and asks the question in the title.
A.P. Atkinson... mostly...
“Heaven help us!”
He closed his eyes, screwing them shut as the world around him descended into a level of insanity that went far, far beyond regular, run-of-the-mill madness. Explosions echoed through his mind; roaring thunderous crashes tore through reality as fiery metal shells tore into the earth below his feet. His heart pounded in his chest as the darkness behind his eyelids flashed to white with every seething-hot eruption of energy.
He panted desperately, as his lungs drew in short breaths of the acrid air, tinged with the stench of burning flesh and sulphur. He felt a sudden jolt as his body slumped to the ground. He had been dimly aware of a wooden ladder leading up to the land between the two opposing armies, and now, here he was, flat on his back in a damp, muddy puddle.
The air was filled with triumphant roars as men cleared the trench wall, which quickly turned to agonised screams as the staccato roar of gunfire ripped through their soft, fleshy bodies.
His mind was lost. He was swirling into a pit of complete chaos that his brain just couldn’t comprehend.
But suddenly, everything was silent. It was a sharp suddenness that bathed his entire world in nothingness, ripping the previous something directly out of his mind as if it had never been there at all.
Slowly, gingerly, he began to open his eyes. In place of the foreboding carnage of a bloody war was a white, sterile room that seemed to glow with effervescent energy. The walls, if there were any at all, seemed impossibly far off in the distance leaving him with the impression of being inside a white cube with no actual sides.
“What is this?!” he muttered to himself nervously. He sat up slowly, blinking in abject confusion.
“Corporeal Nonsense?” a voice behind him asked.
He turned to see, and his eyes widened, a cold tendril of dread tightening itself around his spine.
Could things get any worse?
The voice was cool and heavy and had the tone of cold honey poured across hot coals. The person whose face it had exited was a woman that looked, oddly, exactly like his uncle Jim, right down to the little scar on his right eyebrow that he’d got cleaning his pistol without checking that it wasn’t loaded. Beside him sat a man that looked exactly like his aunt. This didn’t make a great deal of sense, but he was oddly certain it was them. Also that it wasn’t, couldn’t be, and also couldn’t be anyone else.
“What?” he said with a nervous whimper.
“Your name?” the woman who probably wasn’t really his uncle said. “Your name is Corporeal Nonsense?”
“My name? My name isn’t Nonsense, it’s Jerry. Jerry Nostridge. I’m a Corporal in the King’s army.”
The two people that looked incorrectly, but precisely, like his aunt and uncle looked at one another behind a white, and very functional-looking desk. They stared blankly for a moment, and then, in unison, turned back. His aunt said, “Is that not what we said?”
Jerry sat for a moment in his damp military uniform, black dirt smeared across his face, just staring back at them. “No!” he said. “Not really. It was really quite different.”
Uncle Jim shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s close enough!”
Jerry tried to stand up, but felt the uncomfortable heft of his equipment packs strapped to his back and sides. He unfastened the metal clips and let the weight fall off and clatter noisily to the polished white floor, if there actually was a floor beneath him. He stood, gently easing himself up from the uncomfortable position he had landed in. There was no wet puddle to be seen, although a great deal of it was now uncomfortably clinging to his skin having soaked through his heavy, course green uniform. “Where am I?” he said. “Am I dead?”
“I don’t think so,” said his aunt. “But I’m not an expert in the matter.”
His uncle scratched her forehead in a strangely familiar gesture while tapping buttons on a small, flat device on the table.
“No!” she said finally. “My research suggests that you’re alive. Would you like to be dead?”
As she spoke, his aunt pulled out a polished metal rod and brandished it with a friendly smile. “I can arrange that if it’s what you wish! We have technology that would make it spectacularly hilarious and, I can assure you, almost entirely painless. I’ve tested it on many people and I never felt a thing, apart from a ringing in my ears from all the screaming.”
Jerry grunted to himself and edged away, holding up his hands. He swallowed hard as his head began to swim. “I don’t want to be dead…” he said urgently. “Please don’t kill me.”
The two people seemed quite taken aback. “You don’t want to die?! Am I hearing this correctly?”
Jerry just stared.
“But you were in the middle of a war,” said his aunt. “What were you doing in the middle of a war if you didn’t want to die?”
His uncle nodded her head in agreement. “It does seem rather an ideal place to be for someone who wants to die, and exceedingly sub-optimal if it was something to be avoided. You can see why we’re confused, can’t you?”
“Of course I don’t want to die!” he cried out desperately. “Nobody wants to die.”
“Our research suggests that you are in error. It appears to us that a great many people wish for their corporeal existence to cease. They put a lot of effort into it.”
“You mean the great war?” Jerry said, trying to follow as best he could.
His uncle chuckled to herself. She turned to the aunt and said softly, “He thinks war is great!”
His aunt shrugged and said, with a little chuckle of his own, “Well, compared to most of their other achievements that century, it was fairly impressive. Have you seen their space program? It’s embarrassing!”
“Wait…” Jerry said suddenly. “Who are you? What is this place?”
“Don’t worry about that. You wouldn’t understand anyway.”
“He might!” his aunt interjected thoughtfully. “Listen, young man. We’re part of a single, unified being that has chosen to project itself in the form of a pleasant memory from your youth, to make you feel more comfortable. Our technology is flawless, so, to you, this all seems perfectly natural and comforting.”
“My uncle Jim used to strangle neighbourhood cats,” Jerry said coldly.
“You’re welcome,” said his uncle with an accommodating smile. “We’re scientists, I suppose you could say. We like to borrow random people from various points in time and space at the exact moment of their death. We’ve refined it since the incident in Tunguska, but it’s still rough around the edges, as it still makes a bit of a disorientating flash. There’s only so much we can learn from people dying of heart attacks at fireworks shows. In any case, we study them and send them right back to the same time. That way nobody notices.”
“And you still get to enjoy your horrible death!” his aunt added. “We aren’t cruel. We don’t want to deprive you of anything.”
“What?” Jerry mumbled weakly. “I don’t understand.…”
“Tell us about why you were busy fighting a war!” his aunt told him. “I’m especially interested in why you put yourself in the line of fire, if your intent was not to die.”
“Well, of course it wasn’t my intent!” Jerry assured them. “I’m afraid to die!”
His uncle leaned over and suggested with a grin: “I bet he did really; they all do. I never met one that didn’t end up dying in the end. They’re totally preoccupied with it.”
“Well, I didn’t have any choice, did I?” Jerry said, shaking his head. “I was obeying orders. We charge on the whistle.”
“I don’t understand. Did they force you? What did they threaten you with that was so much worse than your apparent fear of death?”
“Well…” Jerry grumbled to himself and screwed up his face thoughtfully. “They didn’t really threaten us with anything. The rules are the rules: it is what it is.”
The two looked at one another. Eyebrows were raised.
“We understand,” the aunt said with a happy smile. “You enjoy being told what to do.”
“No!” Jerry said sternly. “Nobody likes being told to run headfirst into machine gun fire with explosions going off all around them.”
The two beings looked at each other again and simply shrugged. His uncle rubbed her forehead and said, “Then why do you do what you’re told, if you don’t want to do it?”
“We had to!” Jerry said simply. “That’s what we signed up for. We had no choice.”
“Ah, there’s no choice!” his aunt said. He began pressing buttons on his desk, and nodded as he scanned the results. “According to our research, you did have a number of choices.”
“Maybe!” Jerry said moodily. “When I and everyone I grew up with signed up, we were told it would be a great adventure. We didn’t expect there would be any actual fighting.”
“No fighting?” said his uncle, somewhat taken aback. “What exactly did you think a war was?”
“I don’t know. I guess I didn’t think about it at the time. I just assumed that heroics and getting horribly killed or maimed would be limited to people more qualified for the job. I never thought it would happen to me.”
“Life is quite unfair!” His aunt reached over and thoughtfully rubbed his uncle’s chin. “My records indicate that all human life comes out of a human female body in a most appalling manner. It’s almost as appalling as the way it’s put in there.”
“Research!” his uncle said with a rolling of his eyes. “Is that what we’re calling it?”
“It’s for science!” he snapped. More calmly he turned to Jerry and said, “You all breathe the same air and drink the same water. I think I read somewhere that you all have roughly the same stunted intelligence.”
His uncle stifled a chuckle. “Intelligence!”
“Concepts of fairness differ!” Uncle Jim said to herself. “It all seems fair to me. You’re all basically the same.”
“No!” he said. “It isn’t fair that one person is richer, better looking or luckier than me!”
His aunt leaned forwards and looked at him closely. “Better looking implies that you’re good looking in the first place, doesn’t it?”
Before Jerry could argue, his uncle added: “Richer? Does he mean more full of flavour? Are they eating each other again?”
He gave her a stern glare and said, “No, Jim. He’s talking about that money stuff.”
The uncle gave him a disgruntled look as if one of them had sat down too fast in underwear that was too tight. “But that doesn’t really exist. I thought we’d decided that it’s just a shared delusion.”
“It is!” he told her. “But he doesn’t know that, does he? That’s what delusional means!”
She turned to Jerry and said, “Money doesn’t really exist. We think it’s a joke that got out of hand.”
“Of course it exists,” Jerry said, scoffing at the idea. “How else do you think I pay for my beer?”
His aunt rolled his eyes and said, “It’s the carcinogenic poison that upsets the chemistry of their brains, to both reinforce the delusion and to use as a coping mechanism for dealing with living inside it.”
Jim looked to Jerry. She blinked twice and turned back to the aunt. She said finally: “We’ve got nothing else to learn from this creature. Just kill it with the hilarious-spectaculiser.”
He nodded and huffed a weary sigh. “Sure! Let’s find a better one.”
“Wait…” Jerry cried out. “You can’t kill me.”
His aunt brandished his metal rod and said, very firmly: “I most certainly can!”
His uncle flashed a supportive smile. “No, no. We’re not actually going to kill you, we’re not without compassion,” she said. “We’ll just turn off the machine and you’ll be sent back to the exact moment we snatched you from. You’ll die naturally of your horrendous injuries and we won’t be in any way responsible.”
“We sleep very well at night!”
“Please…” Jerry muttered weakly. “Don’t send me back there!”
His uncle rolled her eyes, in a very aunt-like way. “Do you see that?” she muttered. “He really doesn’t want to die, despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary.”
“Most peculiar,” said his aunt. “Shall we put him with the others for further study?”
“Why don’t we ask him? He was the one saying he was never given a choice.” He turned to speak to Jerry. “Eventually, we will need to switch the machine off and return you to your place of death, but so long as there’s a big splash of your DNA around it doesn’t much matter how long you stay here for.”
Jerry looked around the almost empty white box. “I’m in no rush…” he said weakly with a hopeful smile.
“You’re not the first specimen we’ve had pleading for a life extension!” his aunt said, pressing some buttons. “As bizarre as we found this, we decided it warranted additional research, so we created a dedicated artificial environment, a simulation within which you can live out your days. We get to learn about your species, and you get to temporarily postpone your inevitable, painful and horrendous demise.”
“It’s a win win!” added his uncle.
Jerry swallowed audibly and gave him an awkward smile.
“Are we to take it that’s your choice?”
Jerry nodded enthusiastically.
“Fair enough!” his uncle said. “You’ll like what we’ve made here. We designed it using all of our knowledge of your pitifully confused species. It’s grounded in your reality and is perfectly suited to house you.”
“It’s like a big muddy animal-cage,” his aunt told him. “But you get to change your own sawdust.”
“Before you know it, you won’t even remember your old life. You won’t even remember this conversation!”
As she tapped away at some buttons busily, his uncle learned over as if to share a secret.
“The residents seem to really like the mud!” she said.
Jerry cocked his head curiously.
“They call their new home Earth.”
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