The Sweet Sound

“That’s one of our Advanced Infantrymen?”

Doctor Sato’s first impression of Staff Sergeant Damascus was a surprise to her.  She was expecting a man somewhat different from the one who sat in her office.  She gazed at him on a monitor in the adjoining room for a few seconds.  Her supervisor stood beside her, an older and gruff man by the name of Doctor Mariella, silent for the moment.  He had insisted on the monitoring equipment, which would normally be a clear violation of the client’s rights, but both of them were begrudgingly convinced of its necessity by the higher-ups in the military.  After all, Staff Sergeant Damascus didn’t have any rights, yet.

Sato nodded at Mariella, and entered her office.  Damascus stood up and came to parade rest, his eyes fixed on the back of the room.  Sato self-consciously crossed to her desk, unused to the formality.  Her preconceptions continued to be shattered as she passed the man.  In addition to his thin build, he was only an inch or two taller than Sato’s own height of 66 inches.  Both of these features seemed to belie the image of a hardened warrior that she knew him to be. 

He had been ordered to report in his physical training uniform rather than his battle fatigues or dress uniform, presumably to help him feel at ease.  His shorts and t-shirt revealed svelte limbs with muscles that looked like they were carved out of solid granite.  His green shirt was emblazoned with the logo of the Solar Defense Fleet, a winged dagger flanked with palm fronds or the like and other various small flourishes.  He was pale, and his short hair had that odd spikey quality that you often see with low-g lifers, though he obviously had none of the other associated physical difficulties.  He also had the scars from a burn on the right side of his neck, and a few other thin white lines on his arms.  Doctor Sato found herself wrapping her lab coat around her waist guardedly as she sat down.

“Sergeant, please have a seat.  You can relax, I’m just a civilian.”

Damascus made eye contact with Sato for the first time, and smoothly settled into his vinyl padded chair.  “Thank you, Ma’am.”

His vocal tone was soft and measured.  He certainly sounded relaxed, though his facial expression was still blank.  Sato picked up the tablet in front of her and accessed his file.

“I’m Doctor Eudora Sato.  Have you been briefed on the purpose of this visit?”

“You’re a clinical psychologist,” he replied.  “Beyond that, no.”

“I’m here to begin the process of evaluation for your retirement.”

A hint of expression wandered onto his face, around his right eyebrow.  “Retirement?”

“Haven’t you been brought up to speed?  Don’t your superiors tell you anything?”

“I’m usually quite well informed of my operational requirements,” Damascus replied, slightly defensively.  “Did you mean reassignment, doctor?”

Sato glanced over his extensive combat record before replying.  “No, retirement.  The war is over, it’s time for you to have a new life.”

“We live and die for the Fleet.  There is nothing else.”

The doctor looked up at the wall-mounted camera for a moment, hoping to communicate her sudden consternation to her colleague.  The shock of revealing the end of a career to a life-long soldier was not something she was expecting to do.  She resented it; such an exchange would very likely cast the messenger in a negative light, and would make her job more difficult.  Starting off with such a disadvantage was undesirable, to say the least.

“I suppose it will have to suffice to say that your superiors are considering your retirement.  You can always refuse.  I’m simply here to discuss the possibility of integrating you into a new life as a civilian.”

“Then these proceedings may be nothing more than an academic exercise.”

Sato nodded.  “Fine.  Consider our conversation to be beneficial to a greater understanding of Fleet soldiers in general.  Perhaps some of your compatriots are ready to move on.  You can help me prepare for similar conversations in the future.”

Damascus shrugged.  “We don’t talk about retirement any more than we talk about doing EVA in our underwear.  It amounts to the same effort.”

“Uh, you mean extra-vehicular activities?”

“Yes, Ma’am.  If any of my men have discussed ‘retirement,’ they didn’t do it with me.”

Sato opened a new window on her tablet and prepared to take notes with a stylus.  “Okay, I think we’ve established a good baseline here.  Your skepticism is duly noted, and we’ll consider this conversation to be an exposition, nothing more.  The most important thing is that you feel safe.”

“Feeling safe and being safe are two very different things, doctor.  You know that.  Besides, any disparity in safety is diminished by my presence, not the other way around.”

The doctor made a few notes, then looked up.  “I noticed from your service record that you have completed over one hundred self-study programs in a wide variety of subjects.  Can you tell me more about them?”

“One hundred is the minimum.  The core curriculum is only twenty subjects, such things as military history, astrophysics, et cetera.  The rest are electives, but you have to do at least eighty.  Most of us choose a well-rounded program.  As Heinlein said, ‘specialization is for insects’.  Each course contains a representative text and a final exam.  If you actually read the text, the exams are usually easy.”

Damascus’ eyes had wandered away from Sato, and he gazed out of the window at the stark lunar landscape.  The subject seemed to be boring him.  She made another note, then reviewed his transcript again.

“I notice you took several courses in music, far beyond the required minimum.  If you retire, you can pursue any further education you want.  Is that still of interest to you?”

Damascus looked at Sato.  “I don’t know.  It might help if I could hear some music first.”

“Uh… what do you mean?”

He looked at her like she was simple.  “We’re not allowed to listen to music.  Now that you mention it, I guess there would be one advantage to retirement.”

“You’ve never heard any music before,” Sato said flatly.

“No.  I can read music, and I can infer tonality.  I can imagine a piece if I have the sheet music.  Never actually heard anything, though.  It’s strictly forbidden.”

“Well, I’ve got access to everything ever recorded right here,” Sato said, gesturing toward her tablet.  “When we’re done here, you can listen to whatever you want.  There’s no time limit on this interview.”

This time it was Damascus who glanced at the camera.  “If there are no objections, Ma’am.”

“Okay, let’s move on for now.  I take it with your level of education that you’re aware of the controversy surrounding the Advanced Infantry program.”

“Any concern for the ethicality of the nascent program seems to have been mollified by our efficacy in combat.”

“Do you believe that the ends justify the means?”

“You can’t maintain the moral high ground if you’re dead.  I’m fairly certain that most people wouldn’t be content to leave the ultimate evaluation of humanity to future alien scholars.”

“And now that the war is over?”

Damascus smiled slightly.  “In the future, we would be wise to avoid getting to the point where the Advanced Infantry is required at all.”

“Is such a thing even possible?  I mean, the Slug threat wasn’t something we anticipated.  As we strike deeper into the galaxy, we might encounter an even greater foe.”

Damascus rolled his eyes.  “If the AI program was so damn controversial in the first place, then the obvious solution is to put more research into offensive and defensive technology.  The AI was needed to provide superior combatants as quickly as possible, as we had to compensate for our inferior technology with overwhelming force.  Advancements in weaponry and defenses will mitigate the need for warm bodies.  Besides, as we’re still licking our wounds from our narrow victory over the Slugs, space exploration ought to be the last thing on our minds.”

“Indeed.  Command has already indicated that space exploration might not resume for another ten years, at least.”

“That sounds wise.”

“I agree.  I understand the battle of Proxima was quite horrendous.”

Damascus shifted in his chair, and folded his arms across his chest.  “I was wondering when you’d get around to that.”

“Is that not something you want to talk about?”

“Post-traumatic stress has been the most critical issue surrounding retiring soldiers for hundreds of years.  It’s obviously the most important thing on your mind, given your earlier preamble.”

“Advanced Infantry soldiers present a unique challenge, I’m certainly not going to be around the bush about that.  That’s why this dialogue is so important, Sergeant Damascus.  You were chosen to be the first one interviewed because of your exemplary service record and average rank.  Your superiors consider you to be an excellent representative of the AI as a whole.”

“Even though there are relatively few survivors of the battle of Proxima?”

Sato nodded.  “Your particular struggles only bolster your standing.”

“In other words, if I can function as a normal member of society, then any one of us can.  I get it.  You want to know if I’m going to end up living under a bridge, or worse.  We’re all quite aware of the past struggles of veterans.  It simply wasn’t anything any of us had to worry about.  Like I said, retirement was never presented as an option for the AI.”

“How would you feel about being released?  The idea is that you would receive enough compensation to live off of for the rest of your life.  You’d only have to work if you wanted to.”

Damascus shrugged.  “Do I strike you as someone who would be happy sitting on a beach drinking out of a coconut with a little umbrella on it?”

“You could do whatever you wanted.”

“Doctor, what I want has never been relevant.  Every one of us feels the same way.  We’ve been bred to follow lawful orders since birth.  The greatest success of the AI program was not our rapid generation, but our fidelity.  Good soldiers always put the needs of the mission and their fellow soldiers before their own, for as long as they can.  The AI simply took that to the next level and removed the breaking point.  I think ultimately that will be the greatest impediment to retirement.  None of us have ever cared about our well-being beyond adequate sustenance and shelter.  Entertainment is irrelevant.  We’re only good at one thing, doctor, and I honestly wonder if you can find a single AI soldier who wants to retire.”

“And yet earlier you quoted, ‘specialization is for insects,’ right?”

Damascus sighed slightly.  “I meant that within the context of soldiering.”

“I’m familiar with that quote.  Heinlein meant it in the context of being a well-rounded, self-sufficient human.  Combat and survival was only part of the equation.  After all, why would your superiors have insisted on a full spectrum of education if you were only mean to kill?  Do you think they saw no future for you but combat and death?”

“The philosophy of our education was never a secret, doctor.  It was plainly stated that balanced knowledge in all areas would enhance our critical thinking skills, bolster camaraderie, and foster creativity, all with the goal of making us better combatants.  The human brain does not exist as a compartmentalized vessel.  Intelligence and a flexible mind depend on knowledge of all kinds.”

“I agree.  In what ways were you allowed to be creative?  You weren’t allowed to listen to music.  What about writing?  Games?  Recreation of any sort?”

“We were allowed to write.  Most of the guys in my company wrote philosophical treatises.  Occasionally someone would try fiction, but for the most part it seemed too trite and a waste of creative energy.  Same with games.  Recreational activities were non-existent in the traditional sense.  The greatest luxury we engaged in, if possible, was extra sack time.”

“Let’s use you as an example, as far as your interest in music.  Even if that’s the only thing that you’re curious about, isn’t that enough of a reason to try retirement?  I mean, you’re never going to be able to explore music unless the AI’s policy changes.”

Damascus looked out of the window.  “I’d say no.  Curiosity and relevancy are two different things.  I think you’ve hit on the more important issue, Doctor Sato.  Now that the war is over, the AI should be allowed greater access to entertainment and recreation.  Limiting emotion and distractions certainly seems less critical now, especially if technology allows the AI program to fade into the shadows of history.”

“So you would advocate a gradual introduction to civilian life, rather than simply kicking you guys loose with a paycheck and a stack of medals.”

“Precisely.  After all, if PTSD is an issue, better to deal with it within the organization.”

“One reason our superiors are so concerned is that so far, no AI soldier has exhibited any signs of PTSD.  It would be wishful thinking to assume that you’re immune to it, don’t you think?”

“History would indicate otherwise, to be sure.”

“You were at the battle of Proxima, the most critical and the most costly battle of the war.  AI losses were horrific.  How do you feel about the men in your company that died there?”

“It’s not fair to suspect us of being sociopaths when we don’t feel extreme emotions about their deaths, doctor.  That’s exactly what the AI program intended to do, make us immune from crippling emotional damage.”

Sato smirked.  “I can see it’s impossible to set you up for a line of questioning, sergeant.”

“That’s because I’m smarter than you.  No offense, it’s just a fact.  Actually, perhaps some of us should retire as clinical psychologists, I bet we’d be pretty good at it.”

Sato stood up.  “I think we should take a short break.  Help yourself to the beverage cart, and the lavatory is through there.  Oh, one more thing: you don’t have parents, so how did you get your name?”

Damascus stood up and examined the beverage cart in the corner.  “I may not have parents, but I have a genetic profile.  Trace it back far enough and you get to Syria.  So, I’m Damascus.  You’ll find that sort of thing throughout the AI.”

“Does it bother you that you don’t have a first name?”

“Not really.  If you ask a drill sergeant, though, it’s ‘Dumbass’.”

Sato smiled.  “Of course.  I’ll be right back, make yourself at home.”

“Whatever that means,” he muttered.

Doctor Sato exited to the adjoining room.  Doctor Mariella smiled approvingly.

“Good job in there,” he said.  “So, what’s your initial assessment?”

Sato leaned against the table and looked at the monitor.  “He’s intelligent, erudite, realistic, and he has a sense of humor.  He exhibited some minor narcissistic tendencies during the interview, but that’s to be expected from an elite soldier.  He’s good at what he does and he knows it.  He seems to have some disdain for this visit and sometimes acted like our conversation was more of an interrogation, but he never tried to shut me down completely.  He was evasive and defensive at times.  Honestly, he seems very normal to me.  Of course, it is far too early to assess his stability over time in any environment other than the military.”

“He doesn’t seem to see himself as any sort of hero,” said Mariella.  “Do you think that would be a problem in the outside world?  Being treated as a hero could be just as negative for these men as being treated as a pariah.”

“I didn’t ask him about it, but he must know that most people see them as heroes.  That’s more of an individual characteristic, though.  Some people shrink from any praise whatsoever, but at least as far as Damascus is concerned, I don’t think he has the humility to be bothered by it.”

“Perhaps not.  Doctor Sato, I think that’s enough for now.  We’ll do Master Sergeant Lima next.  You can excuse Damascus.”

“Sir, he wanted to hear some music first, if that’s all right with you.”

Mariella shrugged.  “Sure, it could be interesting.  I’ll keep the cameras recording.”

Sato went back into her office.  Damascus had made himself a cup of coffee and was standing at the window.

“This is the closest I’ve ever come to Earth,” he said.  “You know, Mars may not be much more hospitable than the Moon, but this place sure looks depressing.  Does it bother you to be stationed here?”

“Sometimes,” replied Sato, “but being away from my family would be a challenge no matter where I was stationed.  I like looking at the stars, so there’s that.  Anyway, have a seat, there’s only one last thing for today.”  Damascus sat down.  Doctor Sato retrieved her tablet and opened a new program.  “Is there any particular piece of music you’d like to start off with?”

Damascus sipped from his mug.  “Yes, actually, there is.  Il Dulce Suono, Act 3, Scene 2, Lucia di Lammermoor, Gaetano Donizetti.”

Sato misspelled almost all of that, but the search program figured it out easily enough.  “Ready?”

Damascus nodded.  She started the song.  At first, a single flute began the melody.  Soon, it was joined by a lone female vocalist.  Sato recognized it as opera, beyond that she was unfamiliar with the piece.  As the song progressed, she watched Damascus.  First, his eyes unfocused and he seemed to stare off into infinity.  It was a beautiful song, and it was having an obvious and immediate effect on him.  He began to cry and his hands started shaking.  Less than two minutes in, he dropped his coffee, and he didn’t flinch as the mug clattered to the floor.  He sat, enrapt, tears flowing but without making a sound.  By the end of the piece, which lasted for almost fifteen minutes, his face was contorted with either joy or terror, or some combination thereof, and he collapsed onto the floor.  He curled into a fetal position and began sobbing uncontrollably.  Doctor Sato knelt down and held him in her arms, unsure of what else to do, and wondering if she hadn’t made a mistake.  She began to cry herself as the injustice of the situation hit her.  It hadn’t occurred to her at first, and obviously never occurred to the creators of the AI program, just how important music was in a person’s life.  Unless that was the whole point.  Sato hugged Damascus and looked up at the camera.  These interviews were going to be far more difficult than anyone first imagined.


Two days later, Doctor Sato met with Doctor Mariella in her office.  She had just come back from another visit with Sergeant Damascus, who had been assigned a small apartment locally.  Mariella sat down across from her and she shook her head with regret.

“Not going well?” asked Mariella.

“It may still be too early to tell,” replied Sato, “but unfortunately it looks like Sergeant Damascus has suffered a complete emotional breakdown.  Conversation has been difficult, but it seems that he has come to see the deaths of his comrades as a devastating loss.  He is crying for them, doctor.  He sees their faces every waking moment, he remembers their last moments, and he hears their cries over the radio as they died.  He’s in very serious pain right now, and I’m worried that the effect may be permanent.  Certainly it is going to take a long time and a lot of therapy just to reach a place of calm for him again.”

“What do you think happened?”

“You saw it yourself.  He was filled with joy when he heard that music.  Joy was something he’d never felt before.  The wonder and pleasure of it was far too short, however, as it also provided a stark contrast to something else: the despair of the loss of his colleagues.  He couldn’t experience one emotion without experiencing the other.  His joy unlocked his pain.  I’d almost go as far as to say that music may be too much for these men right now.  For the other subjects, it would be wise to avoid it.  Perhaps later… much later.”

Mariella nodded solemnly.  “What’s next for Damascus?”

“I think we should leave him alone for the most part.  I don’t think he’s at risk for suicide, so we can keep him at a distance for a few days.  This is something only he can work out for now.  We may have to accept the fact that he will never recover.  There is at least one glimmer of hope, however.”

“What’s that?”

“The music.  As painful as it may be, I encouraged him to keep listening.  He has dozens of favorite pieces that he’s never heard, and that he should hear.  As he does, we can only hope that eventually the joy will overcome the despair.  And that may be the only thing that can save him.”

About David Kantrowitz

I am the author of Reckless Faith, The Tarantula Nebula, and Bitter Arrow, a science fiction adventure trilogy, as well as The Fox and the Eagle and Dun Ringill, stand-alone sci-fi adventures. This blog will feature new fiction as I create it.
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2 Responses to The Sweet Sound

  1. John says:

    Overall, I think it is a good story. The end feels a little over-explained. Perhaps that information could be setup earlier so it could conclude with less explanation.

    At the start, I was a little confused about the rooms. Some clarification there could help.

    This has some feel of the super-soldier notion from Star Trek that lead to Khan and also the Next Gen. episode with the elite soldiers. I think it differentiates itself enough from those, but it did bring them to mind.

    • Thanks for the feedback. Marc also gave me some useful advice, so I’m set to start tinkering with it. As far as super soldiers go, it’s a well established trope and I’m not even going to pretend I’m forging new ground here.

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