The Fifth Day

By Ed Hurst | Posted at 4:51 AM

In this short story, Ed Hurst introduces us to an semi-apocalyptic army training scene. Our protagonist faces a difficult question: what does one do when one is required to train a new group of enlisted men for a cause that seems hopeless?

Sundays were dead slow at the camp. Because of vestigial customs, the regulations didn't permit training, per se, but command expected all sorts of nifty propaganda activities in the middle of intensive cleaning and polishing. This cycle of conscripts were not yet allowed to attend chapel because of a mix up in scheduling chaplains. This mix up happened just about every cycle, and was the same mix up that put him on first Sunday duty among the drill instructors in this battalion. It was nice to have friends in the camp scheduling office. It allowed him to offer the one hour of sanity these trainees would see for the next twelve weeks.

Though his speech hadn't changed much since he was drafted into this position two years ago, he was constantly moving the session location to prevent other cadre from catching his performance. Not that most of them loved this job any more than he, but there were always a few spies, zealots who would have him before the commander, who in turn would be forced to act if someone presented an official accusation of disloyal speech. So far, virtually everyone in authority in this training camp was just one incident from deciding serving as an inmate in the stockade on the central base upstate might be more pleasant duty. But the paranoid atmosphere cultivated by the government prevented most of them from discussing with each other. But he knew, and it figured into his speech.

In his light body armor, he stood out from the drab brown-covered mass of bodies. He marched the company as one mass element down the one paved road, off the right at the end of the pavement, and up the hill to a dilapidated training area. They no longer used the weapons for which this range had been designed, but the caged bleachers and roof were still standing. Most of the newer cadre had no idea what was there, because the typical tight scheduling of training events didn't permit any reasonable measure of personal time, even if any of them cared to explore the unused corners of the camp. He filed the men into the bleachers with his hand resting against on his sidearm. Conscripts in this day and age were more dangerous than ever, and those who didn't wind up in prison during the first three days could still be pretty surly. This, even with armed cadre authorized to shoot a dozen trainees without much more than filing a few extra forms on the training cycle. The conscripts knew it, and were still somewhat in fear for now.

“Ready…. seats!”

They sat, almost as one.

“Trainees, I welcome you to the Sanity Hour.” There were puzzled looks on some faces. “You have already entered twelve weeks of intensive training. By now, you realize you will be herded from place to place, with non-stop training sessions, and will be hard pressed to remember who you are. That is by design. Keeping you confused and disoriented, not knowing at any moment what's about to happen, and too busy to think, helps minimize the difficulty of our job as cadre.”

Some of the men nodded, and there were even a few smiles. Suddenly he became very animated, using broad dramatic gestures and facial expressions.

“Don't make the mistake of thinking we are all sadistic SOBs who enjoy your misery. While our training attempted to make us that way, we aren't any more interested in being here than you are. However, aside from that frank admission, nothing we say or do during this cycle will betray that to you.” Some were laughing at his well rehearsed comical posturing.

“There are a few things you need to understand, things which our training documentation assumes, but which no one will bother to explain. It is likely this will help you a great deal, as I give away the secrets” — he looked broadly back and forth, as if worried someone else might hear — “of how this training company has maintained the lowest dropout rate in this whole camp. Officially, this block of instruction is filled with moralist sermons on how to love your country, and be so proud of your appointed leaders … and a bunch of other senseless crap. Today you will know the truth and become the best training company, because you will understand things nobody else gets told, things nobody else will tell you.”

Despite the laughing and whispering to each other, he knew they were paying as much attention now to him as they would anything during the entire training cycle.

“You and I know there are thousands of individual humans wearing variations of this uniform. Inside the uniform they are all different in ways they are not permitted to express. We talk of 'The Army' almost as a person, yet refer to it impersonally as 'It'. Thus, The Army does not care how you feel about this or that, but It will demand you obey. We know it's nothing more than a convenient way of discussing what amounts to the official policy of the United States Army at any given point in time.”

Placing one foot on a stray cinder block, he stood looking up and to the right in a gross caricature of the noble and dutiful soldier for a moment. A few of the trainees snickered.

“Would it surprise you to know the Army bureaucrats responsible for publishing that policy argue and fight daily over what gets printed in the official documentation? That the 'official policy' on some issues is changed back and forth several times a day before it eventually filters down to us? Some of those people can't find their own butts using both hands!”

He waited for the raucous laughter to die down.

“The reason I wear this rank and this body armor, and” — he paused to pat his sidearm meaningfully — “this weapon, is because I have come to terms with something I don't like very much. We humans are very complex creatures, and inside our heads we might be having internal policy disputes just like those bureaucrats. The Army senses that, and knows It can't force you to love what you do here. It can, however, bring to bear some uncomfortable moments if you don't at least pretend you like it. In effect, you are being told every day, 'You will do it and you will like it!' That's what it means when one of the cadre says, 'Let me hear some mo-ti-va-shun!' So you cheer and scream like idiots, and they stand there feeling like idiots right along with you.”

More raucous laughter, along with applause.

“If you find this whole charade revolting, go right ahead and resist. I won't blame you. At some point I'm sure those bureaucrats are going to come up with something I can't take. Until then, things are just about tolerable. They are tolerable because I have come to terms with reality. You know if you raise a hand against any of us, you'll be lucky if we don't pound you to a pulp. If we consider you an actual threat, you'll get your butt shot.” No laughing now. “That's reality. The same thing would happen to me, by the way.”

“You can take just a moment to think of much safer, smarter ways to resist. You can look at my compromises and judge them any way you like, because there's nothing anyone can do about your feelings. I am hardly good and noble, but a part of me can't resist sticking my finger in the eye of authority by helping you keep your sanity and your sense of self. Officially you are each just another fleshbot meant to nobly face enemy fire and gratefully allow your body to be shredded for Old Glory. If that works for you, go to it! Hoo-ah! But most of us aren't that stupid. We would like to go home someday without being in a box.”

Every eye was on him now.

“To do that means you have to know the system. You have to discern intelligently just what sort of facade The Army has to see. Don't fight it head on, because it's guaranteed you'll lose. The only heroes are dead heroes, regardless whether they fought The Army or fought for it. All you have to do is pretend, put on a show. The very fact you are human means you do not live by mere instinct, but can swallow a lot of idiocy from others. Don't let them draw you out; don't let them trap you and wrap you up in their idiocy. Humor them, give them just enough to pacify them, and get on with your life.”

Smiles and knowing nods.

“The biggest problem you have is getting used to the idea what they want is a pretty big chunk of your time. Twelve weeks is a long time, but it's not forever. Don't forget, I have to do this twelve weeks over and over again! What you experience as a little bit of fear and wondering what comes next is plain old dreariness to me.” He stood facing stage left. His shoulders slumped, his head hung limp on his chest. Then, he turned his head sideways, his face toward them, with all the weariness he could muster. “You mean I have to stomp up and down that dusty field and teach another group of hostile conscripts how to march? Something they don't like and probably won't ever do again once they leave here? Oh, gawd….” He let his chin drop back onto his chest, placed his hands over his face, and groaned plaintively.

The laughter was more restrained this time. He took a few steps closer to the front row.

“You can leave here in chains. You can leave here in ambulance. You can leave here in a hearse. You can struggle in senseless petty ways and leave here a lot later than any of us would like. You can leave here as a fleshbot and go die for Old Glory.” He paused a moment. “You can leave here as a compliant whiner and milk the system for all that gets you. It won't be much. I'd rather you left here with your sense of self intact. There is that other way to beat the system, you know: Be smarter than the system.”

He glanced around at them thoughtfully for a moment. Then he stepped back, locked his body to attention.

“On your feet!”

As they filed out of the bleachers, formed up, and marched down the dirt road, it was obvious this was not the same group which marched out here.