The following is from David R. Bunch's collection, Moderan. In Moderan, world of the future, perpetual war is waged by furious masters from Strongholds equipped with "arsenals of fear", but even a Stronghold master can doubt the catechism of Moderan. This is the world in which these 11 previously uncollected stories are set. David R. Bunch (1920-2000) was a poet and short story writer whose work was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award.
It was a good thought for a Good War. I have to say: Once those wrinkly little bums in the L-Towers all over the world, our state ministers (stale ministers! Ho), did well their thing. Their thing was to govern with imagination at all times, and élan. Ho! Usually their performance was about as imaginative and as full of élan as garbage cans and fertilizer piles were in the Old Days.
But now they said we’d wage a Good War. It was right after our recent Dirty War had smeared the world and they, the state ministers, had derived so much fun and enjoyment from watching and judging that one that they decided to involve us all in a Good War, for even greater fun and enjoyment. For them. So they drew up the rules and laid down the plans. Then they made these official and binding upon us all by publishing Long Sheets in the vapor shield, Official Papers, the colored letters dancing and glowing on high-up black pieces of sky to tell us all how things were. We recorded the rules on each our own little sky dome note spaces in our new-steel Stronghold complexes, for ready reference, and got ready to wage.
I was competitive, as usual, as we all were, for is not that the essence of man? Yes! And especially is it the essence of new-man now, each in his cold-steel complex, the bulk of him new-metal man now, with the flesh-strips few and played-down. —I sent for my War Planning Board, hauled them up from each his own locked storage niche in my Stronghold basement dust (for it had been long since I had needed any advice on how to wage my wars) and we got ready for conference. I activated them all (they were steel men, of course, just weapons men, really with special Occupational Specialties built in), put their think track all on plan, and we were soon hard at it. Around the day we sat there; grimly we mulled. And at the end of it all we had a start. Or at least I hoped so. I wanted to win this war, as I want to win all wars. Losing is not my style, I’ll tell you here and now and repeat it again. Anytime! My iron guts knot and knock at the mention of it, the stars turn blue in my flags; my eagles fall; I get sick! I cry when I think lose! I can’t stand it!
The essence of the plan was really no plan yet. All the tracks of all those high-priced thinkers that I kept, most years not earning their keep, catch-locked on sleep long and long in my basement dust, said, “Send to Olderrun. Contact Olderrun. Get good ideas on good from Olderrun.” Well! So, to learn about good, we’d go back to that little landlocked and sea-starved country where the flesh-people still strove. We’d go back to valentines and Sunday school. We’d contact churchthought ministers. We’d ask little old ladies at their sewing baskets and chortling kids at toys how best to go after good and harness it for our gain. We’d ask a man in prison on death row No. 1 how good he’d be with one more chance, one more. We’d query underpaid (ha) overworked (ho) educators on what they did about those four-letter words, smoking in the basement, telling fibs at recess and other such bad shows and ask if they practised what they preached, were sincere, in essence and so. Ho! We’d ask and we’d ask.
If nothing came of this, I’d melt those planners down, the whole Board full of them. I vowed it. When I seek the dope on good, I don’t want bum steers. No! I want right courses. Ha! That’s us.
A tight little packet came in from Olderrun that week, transmail, special delivery, registered and insured. And hungrily we read. For clues. “Be generous,” it said. “When the good things come, let go the whole heart.” “Don’t stint.” “Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not good to be good.” “Nobody wins by saving up good for a stormy day. Let it all go out.”
“It was right after our recent Dirty War had smeared the world and they, the state ministers, had derived so much fun and enjoyment from watching and judging that one that they decided to involve us all in a Good War, for even greater fun and enjoyment. For them.”
“Good is the most you’ve got.” “Give lots away, get lots back.” “Good is the winner, finally, and the last lone counting arbiter of losses and bad times, the fair avenger.” “Smile! If you can’t smile, grin; that’s a good start!” “If it hurts, put flowers on it all day.” “Big bouquets are best!” “When valentines won’t win, don’t shoot your heart out.” “Be good and smile brave when the total dark comes down and its a cold wind closing around your battered storm doors, because you can brave it, you good Galahad, you.” “If you’ll just spend it right, good will buy the world—everytime!”. . . . . . And this went on for one hundred and twenty-five tightpacked pages! Imagine!
Well!! You can see we didn’t have anything here but a lot of old Sunday school chin-ups and Epworth League reminders. I recalled the Board and let them have it straight. The kindest thing I said was, “Look: this is a war we’re getting ready for, not a slogan tryout and qualification round for good-Johnnies. Get cracking! The melting pots stand hungry and, as of this instant, you’re on top of the menu. Come up with a Plan. Or melt!”
Their buttons started to jump. From plan and think they went to think and plan and back again and back again. Then round and round over and across up and down the dazzling buttons flicked on and off, on and off, on my great Planning Board members. The lights danced, the blue fire flashed, there was life in those circuits and my men were using their programs to the top degree. Then, with the gist of a rough plan for a war of good, they went on refine, refine, refine. —They were not dumb; when they were turned on right, they were as smart as any War Planning Board automatics in the whole world. Now, in addition to being naturally smart, they were fighting for their very existences. They didn’t want to liquefy in the hot pots, and who could blame them for that?
In fairness to these, my Board members, and I do try to be fair, all ways and always, I will say that the Grand Plan they came up with, out of the dancing buttons and the flashing blue fire in the circuits, was based on the homely things implicit in those one hundred and twenty-five tight-packed pages from Olderrun. For be it for better or for worse, and I say weeeaaaooohhhaauuggh! there is nowhere in the whole Universe that I know of anywhere that is a better place to go for bright sayings on good than to those flesh bums in Olderrun. Fakes! Hypocrites! Under-achievers in good that they are. And I ought to know: I’m from there a long long time past, God help us all!
But we had Our Plan now for the war current, and that was the main thing. And all the other Strongholds, except one, had each His Plan. Not a good one in the whole lot, I hoped, except mine, but I was glad they all had Plans, if they intended to wage. Yes. I’m competitive. Isn’t man? Isn’t that the essence of man—competitiveness, combativeness, win-at-all-costs-ness, “sorry old boy, I’m greatest, you know”-ness? Well, isn’t it?
So we all had each Our Plan, except for this one little rag-tag fort ’way off over in a corner of a poor district, so I heard tell. He hadn’t, it seemed, won any war, ever, and rumor was out now that his Stronghold was so dilapidated and completely fouled that it might never be anything but a wreck. His gun tubes were all hanging, his wall all were honeycombed, and his warning devices were not up to par either. And now the word was that he’d begged off on this Good War, said he didn’t feel like a go, and just wanted to be a non-participator in any ambitious undertaking that might have the choice win, lose. Well, if that were true (and my face flesh-strips burning and stinging, embarrassed now for the whole family of man, I certainly hoped it was not) I personally thought he should have been voted out of the fraternity of man long ago; not just Moderan, but the whole League. I was all for using the big Zero Corrector on him, that machine in the North that can grind whole armies down to a powder finer than dust in almost no seconds flat. Yes! my disrespect for him almost knew no bounds at all, if you care to know it. Quitter! Non-fighter! War-evader! Danger-dodger! Yellow-stomach! No-person now!
But be that all as it may and let him rot, the non-achiever! —We had a war on! After two weeks of preparation, everybody planning and getting busily ready, each according to his own dear blueprint, the opening shots were due. And well it was for that. Such a war! You wouldn’t believe. Peace baskets, all ribbony, lobbing up in the middle of what was supposed to be a fight. Ho Ho flags on the vapor shield all over and in every color and crest. Everybody laughing with the big resounders on loud. Stronghold masters sending their full photos up in the sky and smiling those photos all over the place all the time, through beam control. Big hollow bombs up and floating, with flowers on them, painted all over, flowers! balloon bombs, really, and little mechanical birds in baskets hanging under them, the birds machined to sing of the Good War’s good. What a war! And over everything the constant showers of flowers. Well, how was one to win such a war? It was all so soft! you know. How was anyone to gain the advantage? How outsoft them? I’d thought we had it all in the bag with our Grand Plan for good. But everyone was being so nice, fighting all the time, in the Good War, but being so nice. Laughing. Smiling. Good-cheering. Slapping of backs in every way. Confusing, huh? What a man has to take in this world! Sometimes. What a man has to do and swallow to stay a winner. And that was my determination, you know it! to stay a winner—at all costs. You’d better believe it was.
And then I had this Little Plan. To go with and top out and accentuate my Good War Grand Plan as drawn up by my gold-plated War Planning Board. —It stopped the show, what I did, I’ll tell you plain. It really stopped the show. —I went to my World Hook-Up Announcement Room, where I, triggering things, can shoot my picture up into the air all over the world and make my image stick in the vapor shield just anywhere I want to, aye, in every foot of the sky.
And I blared out to all of them, I really let them have it, my great inspiration, with my best smile vibrant before them on every foot of their Views. —(Sometimes, rare rare instance! the man, the thought and the instant all intersect at one grand gilded point in man and thought and instant to bring a Happening. Then surely, in spite of everything, something great and good journeys out from man to all the limits, even unto the limitlessness of all of all.) This was, I believed (and still believe), potentially such an occasion and as such should make great and worthwhile our war, and, just incidentally, make me the winner of that war.
So imagine how it was, my picture all over the skies of all the Moderan world, my voice coming from those smiling smiling pictures, through my World Hook-Up Announcement Room, and I saying this magnificent offer to all peoples everywhere: “Hear, everybody! and hear right! —I’ll agree, and really believe it, that each and every man in all the universe is as good and deserving a man as I am, and I’ll hold to it for ten full minutes, timed off on the etern-tells of the World. —Or any ten-minute timing you want.” Well, there it was! That should get that old human ego on the run—cause of the majority of human interrelationary problems—really sandblast it and send it home on its shield. And, just incidentally, win for me the Good War. —It did seem an ultimate thing, this statement, this strategem, and as I let them have it, I knew it must surely end the show. It did. Everyone was stunned by the enormity of it when they turned each their thought buttons to it and went on max-think. And there I stood for the full ten minutes, ten big ones in the full urgency of time, ticked off on my etern-tell and etern-tells all over the world, my picture up and out for them all and I really believing, as I had said I would, and according to Stronghold honor (which everyone knows is sacred and holds dear) honor-bonded to that belief that every man in all the world for that ten minutes was as good and deserving a man in every way as I was.
Now, that’s a humbling thing, I’ll tell you here and now, and I wouldn’t go through it again I just wouldn’t. I felt, for those ten minutes, about as important and manly as a mangy bug crossing a decorated elephants’ parade. In the Old Days. A very small, lean, short, unimpressive, sickly bug, at that. But when it was over, I knew I had won the war, and that was enough for me. Any way to win? yes! any way to win. —The war was over. The ribboned baskets came down; the balloon bombs all went home. What more was there to do? How could anyone top it, what I had done, in under-competitiveness, open-hands friendliness and complete world camaraderie, unless he said, “than I every man is better”? And that would just ring of such a contrived piety and such a hollow falsity as to bring the laugh machines out everywhere. No, for a human statement, I had stepped to the very outer limits of credibility and had paused there for ten full Earth-stopping minutes. While the world gasped. Past that? Nowhere to go. All the competing Stronghold masters seemed to know that, and they quit. Yes! It was all over now but the counting of points and ultimately the awarding of the plaques. To me!
But hey now! and here now! You know what? All anger aside, all disappointment aside, all justice on its side with spears in it, bleeding and done, defiled, killed, found out, left homeless and forlorn—all justice down and wet and cold and blue, you know what? I didn’t win! I didn’t win!! You know what? All justice aside, all done done . . . You know what? I didn’t win the war. I lost!! the war!!
I appealed the decision. I railed at the injustice. I lined my War Planning Board members up and kicked them at night. I cried to the walls at noon. I threatened to organize the Strongholds and tear the L-Towers down all over the world some louring day. I was so angered I spat steel. Flecks from my iron windpipe came up and formed a froth necklace on my outraged new-metal lips, so great was my ire.
All that hard effort for good in the Good War and that supreme humbling for ten minutes at the end, and still no winner’s circle. No! They gave it— Oh, how can I bear it to tell it? The pain burns long and deep, to tell of another’s in . . .They gave it to that little, that meager, that nothing, that no-achiever, that quitter, that withdrawer, that dormant non-doer, that resigner, that low unspeakable one, that one who wouldn’t . . . Since he wouldn’t . . . they said . . .he was . . .
Oh! Oh! —My brain still reels . . . to remember . . . I set my fort on the status of continuous blast, programmed it to destroy the world fifty-five straight times without stopping, took to my bed and slept through fifteen world gun-downs with automatic shoot-outs of maxdestruction to annihilation. Before I could get even a little bit resigned to my loss of the war.
From Moderan. Used with permission of New York Review Books. Copyright © 2018 by David R. Bunch.