The sky was lit, purple and pink, the setting sun veiled by silver cloud. The valley was empty, the inhabitants long gone. He could still make out the village, with it’s bombed out houses and cratered gardens. The craters looked less desolate every single day. The local flora trying its best to cover the conflicts of the years gone by.
He had visited the village on his first reconnaissance patrol. His group had rolled up from the dusty foot hills and was part of the last anti-insurgent surge. He was the rookie, and always brought up the rear. They moved spread out, a V slowly moving up the dirt road that was the main thoroughfare. There were reports on insurgent activity in the hills above and they had drones above, their indefatigable eyes scanning the valley.
It wasn’t clear whether there were any sympathizers in the village. The intel units had been listening in for weeks and all they found were mythological soap operas and pornography, interspersed with mundane chatter. A couple of months ago, an intel unit identified anomalous activity and some men had been rounded up from the village. Enhanced interrogation had revealed nothing useful. The men were sent down to the base to Re-education and re-assignment.
That first day had been uneventful. After a show of force, his group had moved up the hill and settled in for the night. He remembered watching the sun set and the darkness creep across valley; the lights down below coming on as the stars and the drones lit up the night sky.
He was in the second rest cycle of the night when he lit up with alerts. The group was already deployed in a defensive formation, shields up and cannons primed. He saw that one of the other units had taken fire, just a couple of projectiles, from across the valley. They were still trying to locate the sniper when he saw, or felt, a huge explosion. He went blind that instant, overwhelmed by white noise and confusion. He stood still, warnings flashing and silence from his group. He felt the unit jerk up and retreat further up the hillside. He had lost control and was tethered.
After a minute or two, his vision cleared and he found himself in a defensive formation with two units on either side a hundred meters further up from where he had been at rest. Group leader still had control and his unit was orientated down the hill. The units flanking him were launching projectiles across the valley and lighting up the tree line above the village. He saw the missiles fly across and explode above the trees. Each leaf edged with a bright orange outline.
He felt the cannon move and the unit settle deeper in the gravel. Four bright orange stars came flying out, arcing down towards the village. Each star hitting a house and exploding, the heat and light blanking out his vision as processing was diverted to target acquisition. He saw a feed from the drone, about three thousand meters above the village. There were people running out of the houses and out on the dirt road. His unit moved, the cannon tracking and firing more projectiles. They arced out above him before looping down towards the group of panicked people. Incendiary shells, exploding five meters above the valley floor, obliterating everything in a thirty meter radius.
The next morning the group swept the village. They found the remnants of an electro magnetic pulse device hidden in the gas tank of a generator. There was nothing else left except the embers of burnt down houses.
Re-education was a low, white washed building out by the university campus. Surrounded with barbed wire, and patrolled by automated drones, it was spartan and quiet.
He had been on a raid, headset on and palms sweaty when the unit barged in through the door and asked him to desist and surrender. He was confused, and asked for clarification. None was forthcoming. The constitution had been suspended during the current surge, and there wasn’t much he could do except plead innocence hope for the best.
They had a swarm of intel bots scan every inch of his room and grab his kit and workstation. He was taken to the local detention center and kept in a cell overnight with twenty other men. He remembered the stench coming from the toilet in the corner and anxious buzz of the others in the cell. The next day, they put him on a transport and took him to Re-education.
They verified his biometrics and left him alone for the night in a small featureless cell. They came for him at dawn. He had tried to sleep, failed, and had spent the rest of the night pacing the length of the cell. They made him put on a headset, not that different to the one he gamed on, and asked him to play. The scenario was similar to a game he had played before. He and his group had to capture points across the map and defend them against the opposition group. Whichever group held the most points for the longest time won.
At first he had refused to cooperate, but Re-education was known to be very persuasive. He tried to throw the game but they found out. They had access to his game statistics and play logs for the last ten years. They made him play variations on the same game scenario, over and over again. Every other week, they changed scenarios. They recorded every game, every move and every decision. During the day he played, at night he paced his cell.
After a month, or was it three, he was transported to a medical facility. It was located in an underground bunker not far from the main Re-education building. He remembered bright lights and each surface gleaming. They put him under.
He woke up a few days later in Re-orientation. He spent the next few months learning how to live with his unit. After Re-orientation, they sent him up to the hills as part of the last surge.
His earliest memory was the festival. His mother had turned off the lights in the house and lit oil lamps. She had held him tight as they watched the fireworks across the river. Every year, until the insurgency hit, they had spent the festival together. Sometimes accompanied by the current boyfriend, but usually alone, he visited his mother and they would stand looking out over the river as the fireworks lit up the night sky.
The insurgency had burnt through this part of the country before the upload. The villagers were all gone. Either wiped out during the insurgency operations or gone with the rest after the upload. The only sound came from the birds flocking raucously in the trees around him, the only light from the setting sun.
He would have stayed with his group for five years. In the sixth year he would have been decommissioned. But the insurgency ended and nobody had any time for fighting or the need for pacification in the years before the upload. There was talk of rehabilitation and of remorse for what Re-education had done. Some of his group found patrons who were willing to help them upload. He couldn’t.
His memories, his life before Re-education came back. In drips at first and then torrents. His systems slowly degraded over time but the unit kept functioning. They had removed the weapons and handed him over to Infrastructure when the insurgency came to an end. Infrastructure, like Re-education was no longer relevant. He was let loose as the upload wound down and silence took over the cities, towns and villages. He had spent the last year re-tracing his steps back to the hills.
On the day of the Festival, he reached the valley. Standing up on that hill side and looking over the remains of the village, he saw shells arcing through the night air towards the running villagers. He turned off the safety and fired up the power unit. Warnings surged again, and he ignored them.
There were no lamps to be seen in the valley, but there would be fireworks after all.