Post-Conflict Combatant

They were no longer comrades, but post-conflict combatants. The war is over, he said, a phrase he would keep repeating throughout the day without emotion. It’s over.

January 24, 2024

Green everywhere. Green everything and always and all of the time. A familiar sight, comforting like the jungle’s never-ending soundtrack: crickets and birds, parrots and mosquitos. And then there’s the ever-present river, like electronic feedback from the broken radio. Why hadn’t the Radio Operator taken better care of it, in the days before he left? Left here. Left her.

Being here, alone in the jungle without her comrades, is a strange experience. Even after a whole month by herself, she’s still not used to it. That’s why it’s important to maintain her routine. It’s important to keep things orderly, or as the Commander always said, to maintain the dignity of the struggle. Laying out black plastic garbage bags, in a never-ending battle to keep the ground from turning into mud (a battle she rarely wins). Cleaning the mosquito net, which gets clogged with flying ants that smell like eucalyptus when she crushes them between her fingers. Sweeping, sweeping. Has there ever been anyone in the history of earth who has swept away as many leaves? She’s finally run out of cigarettes, so the daily slot usually reserved for smoking has now been replaced with staring into space and picking at her nails.

Crackers and biscuits. Rice with no salt, pasta with no oil. She boils it until it’s mush, dumping out the water on the ground, right where she’s standing. How the Cook would protest! But the Cook isn’t here, not anymore. None of them are. Gone, gone. And she, alone. For now. She checks the sky anxiously, looks over her shoulder when the bushes rustle. Staying on the move, marching, hiding. A new camp every night. Straining to hear the tell-tale sounds: the buzzing of an engine. The humming of descent. But thankfully, the jungle’s soundtrack is never disturbed; the sound of an engine (however distant) never comes.

Other ways of passing time in the camp don’t involve chores, or surveillance. (How ironic—once she was watched; now she’s the watcher.) She tries to play chess daily, with rocks collected from the river and a board scraped into the mud with a sharpened stick. If only the Sniper had left behind his hand-carved pieces! The ones he carefully worked on every night by the fire. It’d taken him nearly a year to carve the full set, but how beautiful they’d been, especially the knights. On the rare occasions she’s lonely, she tries coaxing out the tarantula, the one that lives in a hole under the giant acacia. She visits it whenever she can, depending on her route. But it shows no interest in her crumbs of bread, or her desperately eager songs. She can respect that, though: keeping to itself. She would always respect that.

She uses her fingers to tug through her hair. Uses the last of the sugar and oatmeal to make herself a face mask—the Machine Gunner’s special recipe, who had the softest and least acne-prone skin of them all, despite being the youngest in the camp by far. Using food like that is a decision she’ll regret in upcoming days, once the hunger starts to get bad. Real bad. But it’s not like hunger is something she’s never experienced before.

Boiled egg, spoonful of beans. Coffee with no sugar. What she would do for a piece of fresh fruit, even an apple! Apple—that was the code word the Commander himself had chosen. The word they would shout out when a drone attack was taking place—the signal to throw themselves to the ground, crawl to the trenches. What a wit the Cook thought he was, randomly shouting out Pear, pear. Laughing at how everybody flinched.

She impulsively shoots an enormous spider monkey with her rifle, which is a terrible mistake because it hits every branch on the way down. Its curled-up hands look like a child’s. Sick with guilt (what would her comrades think? They’d always hunted peccaries and deer, never monkeys), she tries to dig a hole to bury it. But the tip of the spade breaks off, so she lets the river take the corpse instead. She places the spade next to the radio, so that they can commiserate together in their uselessness. “Happy now?” she asks in the brightest voice she can muster, but they just stare back at her miserably. Voiceless objects, unable to articulate their newfound purposelessness. How depressing it is, to no longer be able to do the job you’re meant to. So she turns them away from each other—the spade facing the tent, the radio the trees—so they don’t have to confront each other directly.

If (when?) it ever happens, she probably won’t have time to react. After all, she’s seen it herself: they move so quickly. In this sense, —listening, watching, keeping alert—is depressingly pointless.

If—when—it finally finds her, it’s doubtful she’ll even know what hit her.

Sardines and powdered milk. Cans and bags licked clean with a sticky index finger. Maybe if she lies on the ground long enough—very still, not moving—she will disintegrate into the soil. Like the rotting logs of trees, crumbling away, embraced by loving white tendrils of fungi. Perhaps if she’s patient, soon enough she too will be nothing. Gone. As if she never existed at all.

*

Last month, the Commander finally returned to camp, after many weeks away for the peace negotiations. It had been a long, tough time without him. As part of the negotiations, the never-ending drone raids had finally stopped, which had been undeniably beneficial in terms of the camp’s mental health (in terms of not being randomly killed). Still, the Scout had maintained his regular routine of anxious surveillance, despite constantly fainting due to such a prolonged period of reduced rations—what a baby he was! In contrast, the Youngest Recruit still had a months-old cut on her hand from a catfish wound that never fully healed, but unlike the Scout she never complained—a true comrade, indeed. All their equipment—rifles and transmitters, bullets and machetes—was getting dangerously rusty, stored as it was in the damp cave. She kept insisting to anybody who would listen that if they weren’t careful, soon enough it’d all be completely useless (like us, she’d added silently in her head). But that was the point, the Sniper kept saying. They weren’t supposed to use the equipment—not anymore. Still, even when no one else did, she checked on it daily, polishing as many rifles as she could. Her own rifle had never left her shoulder. Was never anything less than impeccably clean.

When the Commander finally returned, it was just as he’d left, in an army helicopter. They’d all watched warily, lurking on the edge of an open area which had been cleared years ago by a logging company. National military—and officials they would later find out were from international organizations—clambered out of the helicopter one at a time. They stood around awkwardly, men dabbing at the sweat on their temples, women tying and retying their elegant kerchiefs.

A drone came out last, flying at elbow height. It stayed close to the Commander, whose moustache was greyer than she remembered. Despite every instinct in her body, she couldn’t help it: she watched the drone with interest. What kind was it? The kind that rich elites apparently employed as personal bodyguards? Or was it the same kind that had pursued them for years, raining down fire from above? She’d never seen them this close before. Before this moment, they’d only existed as sound (buzzing) and consequence (fire, explosions. Blood, splintered bone. Running for their lives). Next to her, she could hear the Scout’s breathing quicken—he’d been in the field longer than any of them, so it made sense a drone would disturb him most. But this drone didn’t move from it’s spot at the Commander’s side. Hovering. Barely making a sound.

The Commander didn’t acknowledge the drone once. In a voice that trembled initially but later steadied, the Commander thanked them for their loyalty, for being such good fighters. In all these years, the Commander said, you’ve never failed me. And in this next phase of our conflict, I’m going to need you more than ever. They were no longer comrades, but post-conflict combatants. The war is over, he said, a phrase he would keep repeating throughout the day without emotion. It’s over.

That’s when the drone darted upward. She couldn’t help it; none of them could. The instinct to duck, to cover their faces with hands (like that could make a difference! Like that could protect them). The Scout even threw himself sideways, into the bushes. But all that followed was a gentle pop, like the bursting of a tiny balloon. It took her a second to understand what had happened, peeking through her fingers, still cowering down. Out of its belly, the drone had shot out a cloud of confetti. The men in uniforms were applauding, the women in kerchiefs laughing merrily.

Her blood boiled. She stood up straight and crossed her arms over her chest. The Sniper had tears in his eyes; the Machine Gunner just looked confused. The Scout was still curled up in the bushes, as if afraid to come out. Someone in the crowd was playing “Ode to Joy” on their phone, a song she recognized from radio broadcasts in her village. It’d been the official theme for the last peace negotiation that’d been attempted, many decades ago. Still expressionless, the Commander used his hands to indicate that everyone should come stand close together, to join the visiting officials for a photograph. She stood on the far edge of the group, near the pile of confetti. The dusty earth was already making the cheery bright colours look dull and faded. She kept trying to sneak glances at the drone, but it didn’t seem to acknowledge anything other than the Commander’s presence, keeping its black camera eye fixed on no one but him. As if he were the only person in the world, and nothing and no one else mattered.

The international officials and military generals were being taken on a tour around the country, accompanied by the Commander. Together, they were investigating spots where meetings could be held, weapons officially surrendered. Apparently, there were plans to melt their rifles down, transform them into a giant artwork, a sculpture of some kind. See? she wanted to say to the Sniper. I was right! We should have kept them in better condition! But the Sniper wasn’t listening; he was busy hugging everyone he could while weeping copiously. My children, my children, he kept saying. I never thought this day would come. That I would ever see them again.

She turned away, trembling with embarrassment, but nobody else seemed to feel the same. Instead, they were all crying too. Except for the Machine Gunner, who always laughed instead of crying, in that strange way of hers that sounded more like hiccupping.

It was over the next few weeks, with the Commander away on tour, that conditions in the camp began to irreversibly deteriorate. It was as though a certain understanding had become established among the comrades—an understanding shared by everyone but her. Four-thirty-a.m. wake-ups still took place, as did calisthenics and singing of the Party anthem. But some people (specifically the Youngest Recruit first, followed quickly by the Machine Gunner) began wearing ordinary clothes rather than fatigues. Glittery T-shirts with sparkling logos. A tank top, even! She’d scolded them harshly, only to be reprimanded by the Sniper. It doesn’t matter, the Sniper said flatly. Not anymore. Those exact words. Soon enough, most of her comrades were doing it: football team uniforms, jean cut-offs, even the occasional mini skirt. (How long had that been carried around, crammed at the bottom of their ancient, crumbling backpacks?) But some of them couldn’t fit in their old civilian clothes anymore; they’d been out here in the jungle for too long.

She personally didn’t own any. Hadn’t for years.

Thankfully, evening chores still carried on as normal: the chopping of kindling, and spreading sacks of sand over pathways to dry out the mud. Afternoon volleyball games still took place, as did the Sunday-night screenings of Sylvester Stallone films on the Radio Operator’s ancient but valiant laptop. But there’d been a change to Saturday afternoons: instead of lectures on political economy and the history of the Party, they now received visits from a bespectacled man. He, too, had a drone at his side, but this one was alarmingly more skittish than the Commander’s, jerking wildly at every sound the jungle made, even if it was just a buzzing bee. It disturbed her how quickly everyone became used to this drone’s presence. Even the bespectacled man ignored it, as though he’d long since accepted its stressed-out ways. The man said he was a comrade as well, just like them, from a battalion in the South. He too had been part of the ongoing peace negotiations, along with their Commander. He wasn’t here to talk about the past, though. Instead, he was here to talk about the future, their future. Mainly, their career options, so that they could be best prepared for a post-conflict existence.

Park rangers, the bespectacled man said. Guides for the ecotourists. Agriculture and ranching. The Sniper raised his hand and asked if the nearby Indigenous cave paintings would be of interest to ecotourists, and the bespectacled man acted like it was the most exciting thing he’d heard in years. That’s what I’m talking about, the bespectacled man exclaimed, gesturing wildly, while his drone lurched away from his hand as if terrified (she still flinched whenever the drone moved, but nobody else in the group did anymore, not even the Scout). That’s the kind of proactive thinking this country needs.

The more excited the bespectacled man got, the more exhausted she felt. She slumped down as far as she could on the tree stump. The man used phrases like “the laying down of arms,” and “disengagement from politics.” He also said things like: “We are no longer an armed organization.” By far, he used this phrase the most: “A new beginning: our lives under peace.”

What did that mean? What could that even look like?

Every evening, she marched up and down the riverbank. The very opposite of new: ancient, never changing. But nobody joined her, not anymore. Her boots left deep marks that were always gone by morning due to the nightly rains. As though none of it had mattered—like she’d never been there at all.

*

It was the bespectacled man who’d brought them to the military camp, for the post-conflict assessment interview. The Youngest Recruit had offered to lend her a dress for the occasion, but she’d refused—combat fatigues were just fine, thank you very much. The Youngest Recruit had pressed her lips together, as if holding back a smile, but hadn’t spoken. She’d wanted to take her rifle, but the Sniper had shouted at her in such an intense, horrible way that she’d left it behind in her hammock—the first time she and her rifle had been separated in years. Maybe even the first time ever.

I’ll wait for you out here, the bespectacled man said, unzipping the tent open. Unsurprisingly, his drone darted away, like the zipper was the most terrifying sound ever. These things were responsible for bombing campaigns? Surely they weren’t all this flighty, this on edge? Or perhaps that’s what made them good at what they did: their instantaneous reactions.

Don’t be nervous, the bespectacled man continued—it’d taken her a second to realize he was addressing her, not the drone. It’ll all be over before you know it. And then you’ll have it: your brand-new life. He smiled, but she didn’t smile back.

It was the biggest, airiest tent she’d ever seen—twenty comrades could have easily slept in it, thirty if they crammed close together (as they often had over the past few decades, in many a filthy wet trench). There was a fan rattling loudly on a plastic table, and potted plants in every corner. Contrasted with the tent’s smooth plastic, the plants looked bizarre—there were plants all around them in the jungle; what on earth was the point of putting them in pots? The tent walls were covered in brightly coloured posters, speckled with words she could only read if she took her time, sounding them out slowly in her mouth. REINTEGRATION. FROM COMBATANT TO CITIZEN.

And there, on the table. Next to the fan—was that…?

Name, a man in a white button-down shirt barked out. Sitting on a chair, holding a tablet. An empty stool was before him—was she expected to sit? She didn’t move, standing there stiffly with her arms crossed over her chest, but the man in white proceeded without missing a beat. Age, Ethnic Group. Educational Profile, Economic Status. What is your Party affiliation? What year were you recruited? How many years of schooling do you have? the man in white asked, tapping away on the tablet as she stammered out her answer. Who recruited you—family member or friend? Family members in the faction before you joined—yes or no. What were your reasons for joining? the man in white asked, never looking up from the screen as his fingers rhythmically pounded out the answers (her answers, her life. Recited in a hesitant, nervous tone). But as her life unfolded there in the tent, one terse answer at a time, the man in white never seemed surprised. As though everything she said in response to his questions were standard and run-of-the-mill. As though nothing she said was remotely out of the ordinary. What were your political goals? the man in white asked. What were your incentives for participation, and your incentives to remain? Your perspectives on corruption. How do you believe you can influence government policy?

Is that a drone? she blurted out, unable to hold back another minute.

The man looked up from his tablet for the first time since she’d entered. Oh, he said. Have you not been informed? All former combatants will receive personal accompaniment, for surveillance purposes. Just to make sure reintegration processes proceed smoothly.

He leaned toward the plastic table, tapping smartly on the surface. The squat, metallic object she’d observed earlier instantly hummed into life, rising into the air, hovering in place effortlessly. It didn’t have the enormous black camera eye of the Commander’s drone, nor the nervous jerkiness of the bespectacled man’s. She couldn’t help but feel a flash of admiration for the smoothness of its movement, but yes, there was horror there too. But was it horror at the drone, or at herself, for how effortlessly the admiration had arisen?

Hello, the drone said. It spoke with a faint accent—presumably, whoever had programmed it wasn’t a native speaker of her language. I’m very pleased to meet you. I’m sure that you and I will be getting along splendidly, in the many years to come that we’ll be sharing together.

It took her a moment to be able to speak. No, she finally managed. No way.

Pardon? the man in white said, eyes flickering over.

I don’t want that, she said. That thing. Following me. No. Not now. Not ever.

I’m afraid you don’t have a choice, the man said, not missing a beat. It’s a nonnegotiable condition for all disarmed combatants. Surely you were briefed, back in the camp?

Nobody told me a goddamn thing!

The man touched his pencil to his upper lip, as though there were a button there he wanted to press. I doubt that very much, he said. Perhaps you weren’t paying attention. I understand there’s been a great deal of information for you to absorb—after all, it’s a very big change in everyone’s lives. What with it being a new beginning for everyone. I don’t blame you for forgetting some details.

The drone landed back down on the plastic table, but the humming sound continued; its engine was still going. It didn’t speak again for the rest of the session, and neither did she. One question after another, voiced by the man, was left hanging there in the air.

Well, the man eventually said, lowering his tablet into his lap. We have enough info to form a basic profile of you, anyway.

When the bespectacled man led her to another session later that afternoon, the same drone was there. Many drones, in fact—one for each comrade. Pear, pear, she thought, trying not to laugh, but it didn’t take long for it to stop being funny. She sat in her chair, not moving as the drone hovered above her head like a ridiculous halo. When she moved left it moved left. When she moved right it moved right. When she stood up sharply, in an attempt to surprise it, it was already on the move. As if it'd anticipated her action before she’d even decided. Nobody else seemed to mind, or if they did, they hid it well. Not even the Scout seemed bothered, sitting up tall in his chair with his hands folded neatly in his lap. This session was led by a former UN moderator, who seemed absurdly terrified of them, poised in her chair as if ready to leap out at a moment’s notice. But how could she be so terrified of them, the comrades, and not the drones? Who’d been bombing who? The war was over—that’s what everyone had been saying, all afternoon—but how could it be over with weapons of war still in the air all around them, literally over their heads? No, not everyone’s heads—her comrade’s heads. Or post-conflict combatants, as everyone kept saying.

For effective reintegration, the UN moderator kept saying, her shaky voice betraying her nerves, you’ll need a project. A goal, a desire. Something to work toward. Something new to orient your life around. Who wanted to work in tourism? (Several hands were raised.) Who wanted to go back to farming? (Fewer hands than before—she noted coolly how the drones moved effortlessly out of the way, as if they knew exactly when and where their arms would shoot upward.) Her own hands remained motionless in her lap. There were high school programs to finish. Professional training courses to take. Children to be reunited with, families to be tracked down. But be careful with the stipend the government is giving you; invest it wisely. Don’t be like some former combatants, who threw it all away on pool halls, drinking, and gambling. Clothes shopping, ugh. They may even hear rumours of some former combatants, ones who’d sneakily tried spending their stipend on personal matters, such as extortion fees, or rent backlog. Children’s school tuition. This is not what the stipend is meant for; the stipend is intended for career progression only. Keep in mind that your drone will be watching. Anything out of order, and your drone will have to respond accordingly.

Sitting in the hard plastic chairs, none of them moved. Hovering over their heads, the drones didn’t move either.

Next up was a government representative, handing out brochures intended for female comrades. She had to ask the Sniper to read most of it aloud for her—he was the only one she trusted to do so, without making her feel like an idiot. FEEL LIKE A WOMAN AGAIN, the brochure says, via the Sniper’s calm steady voice. DEMOBILIZE. She stared at the lipstick kisses and pink hearts, marching up and down the brochure’s edge. SMILE, the brochure/Sniper said. BECOME THE MOTHER YOU’VE ALWAYS DREAMED OF BEING.

The government representative kept listing further career options, specifically for women combatants. House cleaning, he said, ticking off a finger. Tailoring, cooking. Two fingers, three. Selling makeup, beauty salons. Four fingers, a full hand of possibilities. We are here, the government representative said, to support you on your path back toward womanhood. Toward becoming a good entrepreneur. We understand, the government representative said emphatically, how hard it has been to have been so unfeminine for so many years. It’s a loss. But a loss, he repeated, that can be regained.

Her, in a beauty parlour. Her, an entrepreneur. These images in her head: no matter how hard she tried, they just sputtered out and died. All that was left—all that she could see—was green. Green and more green.

Worst of all was the session in which they, the comrades, were invited to speak. At that point she’d sunk so low in her chair, her bottom hung fully off the ledge. Dutifully, the drone followed her—because of course it followed her; that’s what it was there for. That’s apparently what it was going to do, for the rest of her life. The Sniper was weeping again, pointing at the wrinkled flap of skin that was once his ear. It’s going to be hard leaving the jungle, the Sniper said. It’s not easy to change, God knows. But I’m ready for it, a new start—I am. He cried even harder, and the Youngest Recruit leaned forward to rub his shoulder (her drone, of course, followed close behind). Slumping even lower in her chair, she just scowled.

Many people, many words. But to her, they were all the same.

What are you going to do? Who are you going to be? What next? What now?

She left that very night. The drone had tried to follow, of course, as she crept out of the tent. They’d all been given individual tents, presumably as part of the government’s program to incentivize them to stay—like that would convince her! Like that would be enough! 

Are you going to the bathroom? the drone asked, hovering close to her face, inches from her nose. It took all her strength not to bat it frantically away, like a horrible bug. Because, the drone continued, oblivious to her discomfort, you don’t need to go into the jungle to do that, not anymore. Things here are much better, more civilized—do you know what “civilized” means? Look, I can take you to the compost toilets—they’re all-natural, designed by the Swiss, it really is something—

I’m fine with the jungle, she whispered. Thanks! She’d tried to mimic the drone’s tone: the brightest, merriest voice she could muster. But the drone wouldn’t stop talking the whole time as she slinked back toward the jungle, trying to make as little noise as possible (an utterly pointless endeavour, thanks to the drone’s prattling). I’m so excited, the drone kept saying. You and me. It’s really going to be something. This is going to be it this time—I have a feeling. You know, when they first took me out of my box, I really didn’t expect I was going to be granted such a special mission. Such a wonderfully unique purpose, so key to the country’s journey toward modernity. I thought I’d just be another ordinary personal bodyguard, or part of a surveillance team in the capital. Or Heaven forbid, a deliveryman! The drone laughed, a terrible sound to hear. A brand-new sound, from a machine that she’d previously only heard via explosions and screams. 

I know you, she thought, gritting her teeth as she turned her body sideways, so that she could make her way carefully through the trees. Everyone else is pretending like it’s not a big deal, like everything’s fine. But I know exactly who you are.

I’m so grateful, the drone continued, as she made her way down to the river’s edge, using all of her concentration not to stumble on the steep bank. It’s really going to be terrific, getting to know you further. I’ve got all your information on file, of course, but in my experience daily interaction truly enhances an individual’s profile in a way that data alone never can—you all right there?

She was hunching down, pretending to be unbuckling her trousers. Oh yes, she whispered, still in that fake-cheery voice, her hand sneaking around on the ground. Touching here, feeling there. Could this rock work, or maybe that one? Tell me more, she said, shuffling sideways like a crab toward a rock that looked more than serviceable. Am I the first combatant you’ve ever worked with? In terms of surveillance?

Oh, no, the drone said, sounding more excited than ever. You’ll be my third. Unfortunately, post-conflict supervision doesn’t always work out—

She brought the rock down hard, her hand darting fast, like the tarantula pouncing on prey from its hole. Why hadn’t the drone moved out of the way? If it could predict the raising of an arm, why couldn’t it predict this? Perhaps it’d been something truly surprising, genuinely new. Perhaps even the man with his tablet couldn’t have predicted it. This thought was immensely satisfying, as was the smashing sound of the rock against the drone’s body. An exact bull’s-eye. She’d always had terrific aim—even the Sniper said so.

*

And so, here she is. Back in the jungle, as though she’d never left at all. Yes, her comrades are gone, but there are other companions still with her—old, familiar friends, ever-present companions. Beans and broth. Bats and boiled river water.

There are new companions too. Showing up in her head daily, despite all her efforts to turn them away.

What are you going to do? Who are you going to be? What next? What now?

Perhaps the man with the tablet had been right to seem so unsurprised by her.

Perhaps there was nothing surprising about her at all.

Well. It wasn’t a new life, this life on the move, but at least it was a life she knew. A life in which her place and role were guaranteed, assured. A life of panting up mountains and cleaning rifles. Mosquitos, mosquito nets. Smell of smoke. Sit-ups and push-ups, the last of the cornmeal. Logs to sit on, a hammock to sleep in (thank God she’d hidden all her supplies, rather than bringing them with her to the military camp like her other comrades). One evening, she impulsively uses leaves to try to make a card deck, to play the game she’d mistakenly called solitary for years. The others had found it hilarious, had never corrected her. In fact, that’s what they all ended up calling it. Is that what they’re calling it still, wherever they are?

Perhaps this will be her legacy—what she’ll leave behind. Perhaps her comrade’s children, both existing and future, will also call it solitary. That might be all they ever end up knowing—of her and the struggle both. Much to her surprise, she finds this thought comforting, rather than depressing: her comrades’ children, knowing nothing about the jungle, their years of isolation. Nothing about blisters and welts and tick bites. Tin plates, cups of sour coffee. Drills, exercises. Whose turn is it to get the firewood? Whose turn is it to be the guard? Who was bringing in the sacks of potatoes, collected from the peasants; How many were we getting this time? Nothing about the University Student, killed on his very first day (the shocked expression on his face, cradling his guts in his hands). Nothing about the abandoned wounded. Nothing about the unburied dead.

The man with the tablet hadn’t asked about any of that. It didn’t get recorded—would any of it be saved? These strange, pointless details? The Sniper’s chess set, or the Machine Gunner’s oatmeal-sugar masks. The way the Cook would rub lime over his forehead to keep the flies away. Or the Commander’s ability to peel an orange in one long, unbroken strip. None of these details had been asked for; they didn’t seem to fit with whatever story the man’s questions had been trying to tell. None of it was suitable data for any of their profiles. She supposes these details will have to exist here quietly, in her head. Once she’s gone, they’ll be gone too. And all that’ll be left of her are other people’s children, playing a card game on the floor of their homes—perhaps some of them would be cement floors, rather than the mud one she’d grown up with.

Solitary, her comrades’ children might say. What a strange name for a card game. Who on earth could have come up with it? What sort of person might they have been?

Me, she thinks, with a slow sigh of satisfaction. Me and no one else.

That’s what she’s thinking when the drone descends into the camp and shoots her in the face. It records the death as instantaneous, with no detectable traces of lingering consciousness. In its submitted report, the drone makes sure to emphasize that tracking the combatant was difficult, due to her sly and sneaky ways (detecting a single combatant in the jungle will always be harder than an entire camp of them), but ultimately, not insurmountable. Nothing for drones is ever insurmountable. Also (the drone is careful to emphasize) considering such damage the drone had previously experienced to its mainframe system—thanks to her disturbingly unprecedented attack with the rock—its success in eventually detecting her and thus fulfilling its programmed duty was all the more admirable. Maybe it’s a bit unbecoming—too human, even—for the drone to praise itself in such a way in its report. But still: Was wanting a bit of recognition so wrong? 

What a shame it had to end like this, yet again. And what a shame her “comrades” (such an amusingly archaic term!), like her, had shown themselves to be similarly ill suited to post-conflict life. Not as radically as she had, of course, but still. Not spending their stipends correctly. Making small talk with a union member at the grocery store. Even (worst of all) joining a pro-environmental organization! Of course, none of this had been explicitly stated as unacceptable terms of their post-conflict existence, but surely any sensible being could figure that out for themselves—how could it not be obvious?

Humans, the drone muses as it finalizes the last few data points of its report. The details varied, but ultimately they were never unique, always the same. Truly, they could never surprise you. 

After submission, the drone is immediately alerted that its fourth post-conflict combatant surveillance is scheduled to begin promptly this evening. Its presence is expected ASAP, so it starts making its way back to the army camp as quickly possible. As it soars high over the jungle, the trees below growing smaller and more distant, the drone ponders its future. Perhaps this new combatant’s post-conflict story will have a more agreeable conclusion for all parties involved. A new ending, one it hasn’t seen before. But probably not.