The Body Remembers

WRITTEN BY
Kameron Hurley

ILLUSTRATED BY
Robin Eisenberg

It was the last war. That’s what her mother told her. What her commanding officers told her. It’s what she told herself, now, a decade after that war ended. The last war.

But she still carried the war with her.

Nieve dreamed of water, of the way blood purled and dissipated in the greater sea; sometimes she dreamed while awake. Her shrink said this wasn’t a waking dream, but a flashback, one of the many manifestations of her PTSD. Nieve preferred her version. Early on, they had treated her with exposure therapy, asking her to relive memories of the bloody waters again and again. It reduced her reactions, yes, but the side effects… after twelve weeks of exposure therapy she didn’t feel much of anything at all. Not fear. Not joy. Never happiness.

Just emptiness. A vast pit of nothing.

From the bow of the little skiff heading out to the floating therapy facility called OBX2 – a nod to the Outer Banks of North Carolina that it had once been, before the sea swallowed it – Nieve threw out little handfuls of fish to the dolphins pacing them. The skiff’s captain had handed the little pail of fish to her as if she were a child. She indulged the captain, and herself.

“They bite,” said the woman next to Nieve. She bore the telltale golden eyes of the violet-gassed from the Antarctic skirmishes. Now she was a relic with slightly curled fingers, the glint of her eyes nearly lost in the folds of her face. The Antarctic skirmishes had ended nearly twenty years before, back in the thirties. Nieve could easily spot the veterans aboard the craft. They had a way of holding themselves as if they or the world around them might break unless they maintained vigilance.

“The fish or the dolphins?” Nieve asked.

“Both.”

“What have they sent you out here for?”

“Same as you,” the older woman said. “They take the broken ones out here, maybe put us down for good. We’re deadwood soldiers.”

“You’re about as optimistic about this new treatment as I am.”

The older woman took a fish from Nieve’s hand and tossed it into the sea. A white dolphin broke the surface.  “There’s always some new therapy,” she said. “Some cure for an old war.”

“Only cure I ever saw for war was peace.”

“You sound like a fucking politician.”

Nieve could not argue with that. She did sound like a politician. She sounded like her mother, before her mother voted to send Nieve and her friends to their deaths on some newly melted continent. Different wars. Different resources. But for all the same poor reasons. Old rich people asking the young and poor to die to maintain the old world.

What they didn’t understand was that the world was changing, and no war would stop it.

#

Blood in the water.

First day out in Chaco, Paraguay, where the world’s rich had bought up hundreds of thousands of hectares of land sitting above the Guarani Aquifer, the second largest in the world. The Great Artesian Basin in Australia had been won in a heated battle the year before, but still suffered from attacks by terrorists and increasingly aggressive protestors funded by state actors. As far back as the late teens, aquifers were being depleted faster than they refilled. Nieve had still been a child when parts of Nebraska burned for days during the Ogalla Aquifer riots. Smoke had stained the sky for months; every sunrise felt like the dawn of a nuclear winter.

Nieve got her boots on the ground in Chaco the day she turned twenty-one. She made her best friend in that same instant, when the new draftee next to her tripped and face-planted herself in the sand. Nieve laughed harder than she should have. The draftee grabbed Nieve’s leg and pulled her down with her. Nieve threw sand in her face. The draftee screeched and spit it back at her. Their brief struggle turned to mutual laughter at the absurdity of it all.

Her name was Amyl, and for months they went on like that, chasing after locals, drinking too much, sharing videos and music from back home, splitting care packages, moaning over rations. The platoon joked that they were lovers, first, then sisters, separated at birth.

The Water Wars were a strange time; long, intense periods of boredom interrupted infrequently by some insurgent blast or supply convoy sabotage.

Nieve sat next to Amyl in the chopper that day, skimming over the Atlantic coast, coming back from a training exercise out on one of the carriers. Amyl was shouting at her over the noise, showing her teeth, gleeful with some joke or petty bit of gossip. Nieve could not remember a word of it, even now, even in dreams, when she ran the conversation over and over again, trying to read her lips. It was probably something stupid.

Then Amyl’s face blew apart.

And they were falling, falling…

Into the sea.

#

The techs at the facility gave Nieve a physical first, an injection, and three shiny green pills. She swallowed them dutifully, expecting it was a tranquilizer, but felt nothing. She got dressed, and the techs led her to a great circular room with a clear glass wall that looked out over the ocean and the choppy black line where the horizon met the water.

The new therapist arrived a few minutes later. She was a bouncy young thing, maybe twenty-nine, thin as a fence post, with luminous black eyes that put Nieve in mind of a cool, dark well in the desert.

“I’m Indira,” the therapist said. Nieve was surprised to get a first name, and no “doctor” in front of it. “You prefer that I call you Nieve? Or Corporal Beguan?”

“Nieve is fine. Everybody calls me Nieve.”

They went through the same old routine: some banal questions to warm them both up, asking about Nieve’s ride in (fine), and how long Indira had worked at OBX2 (two years). A dry review of symptoms: Flashbacks, anxiety attacks, night sweats, violent outbursts. Ticking them off into a bulleted list always diminished the actual experiences. The first time Nieve had a true panic attack, she thought she was having a heart attack. It felt exactly like she imagined it would feel to have her body betray her and give out. The night terrors were worse; her mind creating some new horror, more body parts she needed to collect, the endless thumping of a surf filled with razor blades that cut her feet as she treaded across the sand; the cloying stink of tar and ashes. The taste of orange and peppermint. During the day, she sometimes heard things that could not be: a man saying her name, though she lived alone. Twice she thought she had left a video running on some device. She smelled things – a whiff of shit or urine that had her hunting through her apartment to find the source of the smell, only to find that it disappeared minutes later. That was much worse than nightmares. It felt more like going mad. She had removed her retinal display, and even her mother thought she was a luddite to do it. But she saw too much all ready.

“These are all perfectly normal responses to trauma,” Indira said.

Nieve hated that, their insistence on the normalcy of her broken brain. “Plenty of other people came back fine,” Nieve said. And plenty of people didn’t come back at all.

“This isn’t a matter of resiliency,” Indira said softly, and Nieve hated that tone, too, as if Indira believed she were talking to a frightened animal that needed soothing, “or strength, mental toughness, nothing like that. Our bodies were designed to do one of two things when confronted with stress: fight or flight. If, for whatever reason, you are not able to do either – say, you must hold a position on orders, or you are being physically restrained from action – this can cause a break between your rational and emotional minds. Your emotional brain is like a faulty smoke detector now, hyper-alert to threats. Our job here is to restore your emotional brain so that it functions at a normal state of arousal during everyday activities.”

“Isn’t that what the drugs are for?”

“The drugs treat the symptoms, yes. The rapid heartbeat, depression, anxiety, but they don’t cure the underlying trauma. I see you’ve tried –“

“Yeah. I can’t meditate or positive-think my way out of this. Whatever you’re doing here… it’s a last resort, you know?”

“I can see that. What we’re proposing here is experimental. It’s inviting your brain and body to work together again, in synchrony. We need to teach your brain that what happened to you in the past is over. We need to teach it how to create memories instead of re-living them.  The moment of trauma, when you were out of control, was the moment your brain became disassociated. Your body needs to be fully present in this moment.”

“I’ve talked about it plenty.”

“This is a highly targeted treatment, however.  We know the specific moment, don’t we? And because we know the specific moment, we can create a therapy tailored precisely to you. Where you were out of control, we will put you back into control. Mind and body working together.”

“How does it work?”

“The therapy you took when you arrived should be active now,” Indira said. “Relax and –“

“I don’t want to face the sea.”

“You can close your eyes. There. What do you see?”

Nieve told her.

#

Amyl’s face blew apart.

It happened so quickly Nieve shouldn’t be able to remember any of it. Not the way Amyl’s teeth embedded themselves into Nieve’s face like shrapnel. Not the spray of blood. The meaty hunks of the torso. Not the long, long drop of the chopper as it foundered. She was aware of being restrained in her harness, holding her gun but unable to move, to act. She could not attack, could not flee. She could only witness.

“It was a crash and smash,” another of Nieve’s platoon said later, in group therapy. But Nieve felt and tasted the whole thing, over and over, as if her mind thought she could somehow go back and fix whatever had happened in that moment.

Nieve remembered hitting the water. Fumbling with her harness. Dropping her gun. Grabbing at a floating bit of meat – Amyl’s left leg, still barely attached to her torso. Nieve coughed up her gum, tasted peppermint. Blood swirled in the water.

“She’s gone! Nieve!” someone yelled at her. Dragging her. Water rushing all around, pulling them down, down.

Nieve clung to the leg. Hauled it out with her. Lost it somewhere between exiting the mangled chopper and sucking fresh air.

“I can’t leave her!” Nieve yelled, and splashed, but she didn’t recall feeling overwhelmed or panicked, no. She was dead calm, intent. “We don’t leave anyone behind!”

The rest, that was a blur. Treading water. Getting hauled into one of the emergency inflatable rafts. Someone handed her an orange-flavored carbohydrate gel. She had no memory of eating it, but she remembered the taste.

They were close enough to shore to get there on their own. All around them, bits of bodies washed up on the beach head, hunks of meat that had once been her platoon. She went along the beach with a few others and collected all the parts they could. Bit of a thigh. A wrist. Most of a foot.

Nieve lost time at one point, came to standing over a scalp. One of her squad mates, Pavan, put a hand on her shoulder.

“It should be me,” Nieve said. “Pieces of me, here. Not them. God, not them.”

“Don’t say that,” Pavan said. “You hear me? Sometimes the bravest thing we can do is live, Nieve. Live.”

#

Nieve was up before dawn to jog around the walkway that ringed the complex. She paused during her second lap and watched the sun come up over the water. The older woman from the boat came out onto the walkway ahead and raised a hand in greeting. Nieve walked up to her and introduced herself, rank and regiment.

The older woman laughed. She wore dark glasses with a subtle retinal display in the left lens, and a long pale scarf that hid her neck, though the day was already warm. “I don’t even recognize that crew,” she said. “Just call me Ksenia. Spent most of my time doing private security. You were private?”

“No, TPP.”

“A government alliance force? Glad those are on the way out.”

“New world, I guess.”

“New world, old soldiers.”

“What they have you doing? Positive thinking?”

Ksenia snorted. “Calling it meta… genes? Meta, something. Environment changed us, they’re going to change us back. It’s why they brought us here. Yours happen in water?”

Nieve gazed across the ocean, saw blood in the water. Nodded once.

“Soothing place,” Ksenia said, “for people who aren’t us. I guess they want us to create new memories here.”

#

Nieve met with Indira again in the great round room that afternoon.

“How’s it work?” Nieve asked. “We didn’t get to particulars yesterday.”

“The body isn’t a single organism,” Indira said. “It’s a complex series of systems that all work together to power the whole. It’s a trick of the mind that makes us think we are a single organism with a single purpose. Those who experience trauma as children are prone to auto-immune disorders, even those who do not remember the trauma. We can choose what to think about, our minds can select memories, but the body’s systems keep the true record.  Trauma itself can change us at the cellular level. It can change our DNA. “

“How do you change in back?”

“In those cases? It helps to form deep and meaningful connections with others. A positive adolescent romance. The birth of a child. Even love for a pet. Love can profoundly change how our brain functions.”

Nieve said, “Nobody hit me as a kid. I was fine.”

“Today we are going to bring you into the water,” Indira said.

“They’ve put me in enough water. Water was the problem.”

“Indulge us one more time. We’re using metagenomics, a tailored bacterial therapy meant to repair your DNA and microbiome. This, in concert with our physical therapies, will help you form new memories and restore the way memories are processed between your left and right brain. ”

Indira went with her to the dock at the west end of the complex. They’d put in a sandy beachhead there over the ramps that went into the sea. The choppy water here made Nieve’s stomach churn. Indira stepped onto the sand and went into the water up to her ankles. She gestured for Nieve to join her.

Nieve sucked at her teeth and did as she was told. She was good at that. Always had been. Even as a child.

“Metagenomics,” Indira said. “Is how we cured the great viral plagues, everything from Ebola to the flu. Ten years ago.”

“I had those treatments, in the military. Didn’t know that’s what it was called.”

“We’ve categorized various microbial communities within the human body,” Indira said. “What we’ve discovered is that when one community is out of balance, it can have harrowing effects on the rest.”

“I have microbes in my brain?”

“Your brain is an intricate system. When one system has internalized trauma, it has a cascading effect. I want you to swim out there to the buoy and back. I’ll be there beside you. I want you to keep one thought in mind –“

“Positive thinking?” Nieve smirked.

“I want you to think about the future,” Indira said. “Not the past. And I want to hold that moment in your mind as you swim. Take this with you.” She handed her a small waterproof ear bud to insert in her ear. “I’m going to guide you through it.”

“Like guided meditation?” Nieve could not keep the sneer from her voice.

“Guided physical therapy, if you like. Will you do it, Nieve?”

Nieve inserted the ear bud and waded out into the water. As she submerged, Indira’s voice tickled her ear: “Take a deep breath, Nieve. It’s time to go forward. In this moment.”

#

The future. Peace. What came after peace? Soldiers didn’t go away. Horror didn’t go away. The people in charge didn’t want it to, Nieve figured. They wanted to keep people like her ready for war at any moment, held in reserve for the next big war.

Peace. War was so much less complicated, than peace.

Nieve had no idea what peace felt like.

They said they were at peace, now. The water riots had stabilized. The big reflectors at the poles would help cool the earth, eventually. The next generation might see stable seasons.  The governments had recommitted to a Global Conservatory Treaty that set standards for shared resource management: water, the oceans, the air, were no longer commodities to be fought over, but resources each human being was entitled to from birth. But for how long, Nieve always asked, how long?

It’s what she asked her mother when she came home from the vote. How long would Nieve be gone for? How long until she came home? Would she come home?

Her mother could not answer. “We all make sacrifices,” her mother had said.

Six months into Nieve’s first tour, her mother died of brain cancer.

Indira’s voice, reminding her, guiding her: “Don’t look back. Only forward.”

#

Nieve was up again before the sun, hurling herself along the walkway, eager to sweat out her past. She scanned the horizon as she went, thinking of the whir of the choppers, of Amyl’s white teeth. The sun broke the horizon and illuminated a hunched silhouette just as it hurled itself from the walkway ahead.

Nieve’s heart leapt. She sprinted to the edge of the walk and peered over the railing. Below her, she saw the pale end of Ksenia’s scarf just as it disappeared in the water.

Nieve jumped over the railing. She dove into the water.

Rushing. The taste of oranges and peppermint. Crash and smash.

No, no. That was the past.

This was now. The present. Now, she could act. No five-point harness. No screaming descent. Just a plunge into darkness. She could move her long, strong limbs.

She pushed through the heaving water, chasing the long tail of Ksenia’s scarf. The scarf tangled through her fingers and rushed away. Her other hand found purchase – a wrist, an ankle – she had a moment of dissonance.

Blood in the water.

Amyl’s leg.

Hunks of meat. Her people. Her responsibility –

But that was the past. In the past. This was now.

She pulled Ksenia to her, tucking one arm under Ksenia’s, and kicked for the surface. The water surged. Threatened to pull them both back and down. Nieve let the pull have her, for just a moment. Relaxed. Let death take her, as it had taken them. Let the sea rip her into a thousand pieces.

Ksenia struggled weakly in her arms.

They broke the surface for a moment. A gasp of air. Spray of salt.

An inflatable appeared next to them, followed by an old life buoy. Nieve looped her free arm through it. Gazed up. A few dark, frantic figures called at them from the walkway. A man dove in after them and helped drag them both to the ladder on the edge of the bobbing complex.

Ksenia lay on the platform, coughing. Nieve took her by the shoulders and shook her. “What were you thinking?” Nieve said.

Ksenia coughed and spat, “It should have been me. I should have been with them.”

“The bravest thing to do is live,” Nieve said. “You understand? We live because they can’t.” And they clung to one another, as if they had been sisters long separated.

#

“It’s been three weeks,” Indira said. “How did you sleep?”
“No dreams,” Nieve said, though that was only partially the truth. She dreamed often of swimming languidly through the water, pacing dolphins. “I’m still on the anti-anxiety meds, though. You think I’ll be able to come off those?”

“Perhaps. Are you doing the yoga?”

Nieve rolled her eyes. “Yeah.”

Indira said, “We don’t know why it helps, but it does. It’s the same with the swimming. We’re bringing the emotional and rational minds together, repairing all these complex systems. It requires many different approaches, but your moods do seem to have stabilized.”

“My mother voted for what happened to us all, you know that? A lot of other people did, too. I hated her for it. Hated the world for it.”

“I’m sure she was thinking of the future,” Indira said, “in her own way. Do you think your mother was afraid of the future?”

“All the time,” Nieve said. “She didn’t like what she couldn’t control.”

“And you?”

Nieve snorted. “She couldn’t control me either.”

“I mean, are you afraid of the future? Afraid of what you can’t control?”

“Isn’t everyone? When you live in one moment for so long, it’s hard to leave it.”

“Like leaving a friend?”

“Like leaving… somewhere known. Not safe, maybe, but known. That’s what Ksenia was afraid of, that she’d lose that moment, and if she did, she’d lose her whole platoon again. It felt like abandoning them. Maybe… Maybe I feel like letting Amyl go would be a betrayal.”

“Planting a garden, forming a relationship, having a child… these are intrinsically hopeful behaviors. They assume a future.  I assumed there would be a future when I began this project.”

“You still believe in the future?”

“I do,” Indira said.

“What’s that future like?”

“It’s a future built on choices informed by hopes, not fears.”

“I still don’t know what that looks like.”

“You have time to imagine it,” Indira said. She held out her hand. “We all have time.”

Nieve could not bear to take her hand, not yet.

But that night, when she closed her eyes, she found herself swimming in a bright turquoise ocean among a pod of dolphins. No mangled bodies. No purling blood. No cries for help. They were swimming toward something just over the horizon.

She didn’t know what it was, but knowing it existed gave her hope.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kameron Hurley is the author of The Light Brigade, The Stars are Legion and the essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy and The Worldbreaker Saga. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Locus Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. She was also a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed and numerous anthologies. Hurley has also written for The Atlantic, Writers Digest, Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, Bitch Magazine, and Locus Magazine. She posts regularly at KameronHurley.com.