The Ersatz Cadet
Cadet First Class Claudia Crewws arrived in the classroom right on time and took her usual seat. I observed her with contempt from behind the podium as she produced her textbook from her rucksack. Her image had become engrained in my memory over the past few frustrating weeks. She looked unremarkable. Her features weren’t spectacularly gorgeous. She seemed rather plain. She was short, thin, not a cadet one would ordinarily notice for her looks. But I still couldn’t stop thinking of her. I could picture her short, jet-black hair done up in a ponytail and protruding from under her field-gray military cap. I could close my eyes and see her perfectly smooth, white skin just as well as I could see it if she was standing before me. But her eyes were her most outstanding feature. I hated them: dark, deep, and shockingly empty.
She wore the same uniform as the rest of them, but she was different. The tight collar, the knee-high boots, the white blouse, the black gloves, the dark gray tie, the party armband, the cap with its thin, leather chin-strap, crowned with the Silver Eagle of the Armed Forces, and the long gray jacket: they all looked the same. As they should. But Crewws didn’t deserve it. She wasn’t the kind of person who was good enough to be an elite officer.
I steeled myself for the lecture that was to begin precisely at eight AM. And for what I knew was going to be the day I offered my final ultimatum to Cadet First Class Claudia Crewws.
Claudia attended my advanced course on the Demise of Civilized Warfare. The topic for the day, I remember well, was the reversion to mock show trials for defeated enemy leaders following the end of hostilities. There were only eight other students besides her, since it was an advanced course.
“Among primitive peoples of the present day and, by inference, among those of the remote past, an essential feature of the symbolic act of retribution was the formal mocking of the victim...” I paced around the front of the room.
“The preliminary part of the ceremony consists of reminding the captive of his past power and strength, contrasted with his present helplessness, and followed by a description of the torments which he must shortly endure.” The students were all busily taking notes, except for Crewws. She never took notes. I always got the impression that she was simply memorizing everything I said. Like she somehow worked like a cassette-tape recorder. Her head swiveled as her black eyes followed me around the room. The lecture flowed inexorably onward.
“What countries presided over the mock-trials at Nuremburg in 1946?” I asked the class. Without any hesitation whatsoever, Cadet Crewws raised her hand. “Crewws,” I called.
“Sir, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union presided over the court at Nuremburg,” she said smartly. A few other students in the class exchanged knowing glances, evidently displeased by her typical textbook response.
“In what way can we consider the Nuremburg trials as the final seal on the tomb of Civilized Warfare? Crewws?”
“I...sir? The...seal?” She stammered and looked blank.
Cadet Arthur Archer’s hand shot up. “Archer,” I called flatly as I kept my eyes on Crewws. She sat down again, shaking her head.
“Sir, the civilized custom of treating enemy commanders with dignity and respect was finally destroyed. The Allies were gloating over their defeated enemies. At least after European Civil War Number 8a, the leaders of the defeated nations, though humiliated and removed from power, at least were not charged, convicted, and executed by a court with no legal jurisdiction for crimes for which no legal code had been established.” He was passionate. “The other customs of civilized warfare had already been obliterated. This aspect of civilized warfare was simply the last to be removed from the rules of war.”
“Good, Archer.” I turned my attention back to Crewws. “Given all that you’ve just heard your comrade say, what do you think is the most serious war-crime?”
Crewws stood at attention. She began with confidence. “Sir, the most serious war-crime is...sir?” She cocked her head to the side.
“Please Crewws: what is the most serious war-crime?”
“I don’t...know...sir...It wasn’t in the reading. Sir?”
“Archer, do you want to take this one?” Crewws sat down shaking her head even more. Archer stood up.
“Sir, the most serious war-crime is to be on the losing side, sir.”
“Very good, Archer.”
Her class-performance that day was typical of her. It consisted exclusively of reiterating the comments of other classmates or else simply quoting passages from the text verbatim. Not once had she brought an important question of the forefront of class discussion. Never had I observed her to ‘think outside of the box,’ as it were, and develop an interesting thesis on her own. She was uninspired, dull, and matter-of-fact. Her research showed no innovation. Her papers were, as a rule, uninspired and clinical, displaying a dearth of personal exploration or thoughtful reflection upon our topics. Her writing had no character. In short, she was a follower. She was hopelessly deficient in each of the qualities which it was my task to develop in my students. My job was to train leaders.
Crewws never displayed a capacity for thought; all she could ever do was to memorize. In class, she never once succeeded in drawing accurate conclusions about abstract topics. I knew she didn’t deserve to be in a leadership academy for future officers. I couldn’t fathom how she gained admittance in the first place.
I decided the situation called for my personal investigation before I shared my reservations with any of my colleagues. I didn’t want to go through official channels and risk a fiasco if Crewws turned out to really belong at the academy after all. So I kept my lips tightly buttoned and I certainly kept a sharp eye on Cadet First Class Claudia Crewws.
I made a few discreet inquiries. Getting information about Cadet Crewws proved no obstacle for a Colonel like myself; I was accustomed to getting what I wanted. My search for information was systematic and methodical: I’m sure that I missed nothing. I determined it to be the best course of action to start with a detailed examination of Claudia’s present circumstances and lifestyle. The first peculiarity showed up almost at once and was to be followed by many more.
I began by acquainting myself with her daily routine and her life here at the academy. The records state that she was a third-year cadet, as her rank of ‘First Class’ denoted, but it wasn’t surprising that I’d never seen her before the current period of instruction. The academy had thousands of students. But what was strange was that she wasn’t lodged in the regular cadet barracks. As a third-year student, staying in the barracks was mandatory. There was no precedent for it, but somehow, she had instead secured private quarters at the distant outskirts of the academy. Since cadets weren’t allowed to have automobiles, it was safe to infer that her only means of transportation was her own two feet. And yet, she lived eight miles from the main complex, with its labs, libraries, auditorium, mess hall, and classrooms. The only building that was anywhere near her residence was the remote Research and Development section of the Engineering & Technology Department. The rest of the surrounding area was filled with forests, obstacle courses, firing-ranges, and the like. But this wasn’t all that didn’t tally about her life at the academy. She also never ate at the mess hall with every single other cadet. Instead, she received a special medical certificate allowing her to take her meals privately.
I found this interesting: could the reason for her special treatment be of a medical nature? Each cadet at the academy has to have a complete medical evaluation before final admittance. So I next placed a call to the Office of Medical Records, and was told that her examination had been waived. Waived! Just like that! Shocking!
Probing further, I discovered the same story with the Office of Military Skills Training. Her records stated that she had fulfilled her requirements in Melee Combat, Swimming, Hand-to-Hand Combat, and other basic physical disciplines. Even so, none of the drill instructors, all of them highly skilled and experienced, couldn’t remember her name. This was impossible!
I extended my investigation to Claudia’s life before she came to academy in the hopes that I would uncover plausible reasons for all of the aforementioned peculiarities. Immediately prior to arrival at the academy, Claudia Crewws should have been employed for a period of eight months in a compulsory labor battalion. Every eighteen-year-old citizen had to serve. To my astonishment, no records existed that documented her completion of the service. In fact, no documents existed that even hinted that she had performed the service at all. No reviews from her superiors, no details about where she had been posted. Nothing came up. And yet, she had the labor certification that was necessary for admittance into the academy. I smelled a rat.
And I found the same story everywhere I looked. She also had the required certification in Basic Field Training in Physical Science. But no records were to be found. She had also never been admitted into a hospital. She apparently had no parents. Nor was she a biologically engineered child of the Ministry for the Post-War Repopulation of Occupied Territories. She had also evidently never attended a school. She was never a member of any of the government approved Female Youth Leagues.
I could only conclude, from the many and varied fragments of information that I had uncovered, or rather the dearth thereof, that Claudia Crewws had had no formal interaction whatsoever with the apparatus of the State before being selected for enlistment in the academy. Of course, in the society we have created, this is a sheer impossibility. So her records had been wiped, for some secret reason. On top of that, she had somehow received preferential treatment at the academy and had seemingly maneuvered herself in such a way as to exempt herself from all physical training and investigation into her medical status.
That’s when I realized that this peculiarity was not something I needed to know, and therefore was something that, in fact, I shouldn’t know. We all knew that we had to keep our eyes front and just do our jobs. I sensed I was onto something that could get me in trouble. Or shot in the head. I dropped the entire matter immediately.
Well, for a time, at least. But after a period of several weeks my investigative nature again pushed me forward as my suspicions again waxed great. And my conscience nagged me. I would be remiss in my duties to the regime if I allowed one unqualified soul to gain a privileged position as a citizen and an officer. And with each additional fact, I became all the more strongly compelled to continue onward. Curiosity also motivated me. I had the feeling that I was tugging on the corner of some kind of mask, peeling it away, exposing the face beneath to the light of day for the first time. I had to find out what the face looked like: who it was. I decided upon a trial by fire. I resolved to put her to the test. If she failed, she was out.
“At ease. Cadet Archer, what is your opinion of your fellow: Cadet Crewws? How do you judge her? Permission to speak freely.” I looked at him with interest from across the desk in my private office. Surely her classmates must have thought her as odd as I did. I myself had never observed her to have any friends. And I knew I could rely on the ‘inside’ opinions of a student like Cadet Archer. His father and I had been comrades during the last war, and I’d known Arthur Archer since he was born. Hell, I’d known him longer than his father had, since when Arthur was born I was back home on leave while his father was in a military hospital recovering from an enemy gas attack. And no matter what it may look like, I didn’t help him gain admittance to the academy one bit. He got in because he was the best. As a child, he had always been taught to be dutiful and conscientious. Now a fine young man, he was growing up to be diligent, strong, and indefatigable. I also considered him my most especially observant student.
“At first I thought that she must be very lonely, sir.”
I waited for a moment, expecting him to continue. “What do mean, lonely?” Incredible! I didn’t expect Arthur to speak of Claudia with any sympathy.
“I got the impression that she knew far more than myself or my fellow cadets. I’m still sure that she does. But the way that she never talked to any of us, never ate with us, or trained with us...she was always on the outside, looking in. She didn’t fit in with the rest of us cadets. She never seemed like she was one of us. She was always reclusive, impersonal...She was never... our comrade.” Arthur took a breath and organized his thoughts. Then he continued.
“At first, I figured that she was just having a hard time getting adjusted at the academy. Eventually she would find friendship and stop trying to show off in front of the instructors. But I don’t think that’s what it is anymore, sir. Now, I’m pretty much convinced that she hates all of us. She’s not lonely. She’s just...she’s weird. She doesn’t get along with us. I mean, she knows everything. She’s too good to bother with any of the rest of us. And there’s something else, sir...”
I waited with interest. He seemed hesitant, almost reluctant to speak at all anymore. I raised an eyebrow.
“Sir, I’m convinced that her brain works just like...” he fumbled for the right word. “...just like a calculator, sir.”
“Go on, Arthur.” He was feeling more comfortable.
“Sometimes...in class...I just get the impression that she’s...she’s COMPUTING, instead of thinking. I mean: names, dates, places, definitions, page numbers...” he trailed off. “What I mean is, well, FACTS, she knows. When it comes to stuff like that, no problem: she has it memorized. It’s filed away in that data-bank she calls a brain. I’ll admit it! In that regard she’s the sharpest tool in the kit!” I watched Archer with cool interest. He was building himself up to something. He hesitated. I watched him expectantly. He looked straight back, dead serious. Anon he realized that I wasn’t quite satisfied.
“But that’s just it sir. She may be the sharpest tool in the kit, but she’s still just a TOOL!” Now he was almost shouting. His face started turning red, his muscles were achingly tense. He was losing his customarily careful composure. I didn’t realize that students hated her for being the way she was!
“Explain what you mean, Arthur,” I said patiently, trying to sooth him. But he was now too excited to be calmed.
“You’re seen her in class, sir! Everybody knows that she’s just ‘Little Miss Perfect’! She never says anything wrong. She’s always the first student ready with an answer. She always has her books with her. Sir, she’s a bratty little ‘Know-It-All’ who thinks she’s too good to lower herself to the level of the rest us worthless cadets! She has no feeling, no instinct, no initiative, sir; she doesn’t belong here.” His shouted words echoed in the air. Now, all was silent. I looked at him calmly.
“Thank-you, Cadet Archer. That will be all.”
I could tell Arthur was surprised at the abrupt termination of the meeting, but he’s a good soldier. He recovered his composure, straightened his hat, clicked his heels, saluted, and left the room, all at once.
Cadet Archer’s impassioned response only confirmed the tentative views that I had previously held about Cadet Crewws’ relation to her peers. Being thus validated by an eye-witness in my opinion that Crewws’ was not leadership material, I felt that I could at last offer her the ultimatum free of doubt.
“Cadet Crewws,” I barked in my carefully practiced and clipped ‘officer’ voice. She was accustomed be being addressed thusly, and was unperturbed as always.
She closed the door quietly behind her, spun smartly on her heel, saluted, and reported herself ready. “Yes sir, Colonel, sir,” came Crewws’ proper military response. She scrupulously kept her eyes front. He face was complacent. She had no idea that I was about to throw the book at her.
I stood up and began to walk toward her around my desk with my arms tucked arrogantly behind my back. “Think carefully, Cadet: what hallowed words do you tread on every day?” I was actually very pleased with my clever play on words. In the central assembly-hall of the academy, where roll was called every morning at 7 AM, there was the great crest of the Ministry of Self-Defense. The motto, inscribed in inlayed marble, read: Admirable in Thought, Ardent in Belief.
As expected, Claudia was at a complete loss. Her expression was utterly vacant. Her pitch-black eyes were unfocussed, as per normal. Her posture remained rigid. She made no response even to acknowledge my question.
“Uh-huh. I thought so.” I began to lecture her. “You need to learn how to think and how to believe. It’s good enough, Claudia, even desirable, that the majority of officers be mindless executors of orders. For this, nothing further is required than a basic understanding of revised military history, a rudimentary grasp of military psychology, and a smattering of technical and engineering knowledge.” Claudia remained motionless. I continued, my face inches from hers. “But the majority of officers are not educated here at this academy. This place which you make a mockery of every day is where the elite are trained.”
I saw her blank look. She heard me, but she wasn’t really listening. I decided to try a new tack. I turned away from the cadet and gazed out of the window behind the desk. I could see scores of the future leaders of the nation practicing on the drill field.
“What makes a knife a good knife, Claudia?” I said patronizingly.
“What is the function of a knife, cadet?” I barked.
“To cut, sir.”
“So what makes a knife a good knife?”
“A good knife...sir?” Claudia cocked her head to the side. The chinstrap was the only thing which prevented the military cap from falling right off of her head.
“A good knife must be sharp, the better for it to cut,” I explained. Enthusiastically, Claudia reiterated what I had just said, as though she were committing it to her memory.
“Sir, yes sir. The function of a knife is to cut: a good knife is sharp, the better for it to cut, sir.”
“So if a good knife is a knife that can best fulfill the function of cutting, what makes a good officer, Claudia?”
“A good officer...the function of an officer is to...sir?” She cocked her head to the side again.
“To lead, Claudia! To lead! And this is exactly what I’m getting at!” I lowered my tone. “You will never become a good officer if you can’t learn how to think, how to believe, how to inspire, how to lead.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I’m not...good enough.” She stopped. She was waiting for me to give her an order or to say something else. I studied her again, in her field-gray uniform. Her shoulders were thrown back, her chest thrust out, her chin held high. If she was even breathing at all as she stood at rigid attention, I couldn’t tell.
“Moderation has, for me Claudia, always been a source of pride. So I’m going to treat you very reasonably and fairly. I’ve looked into your background and official histories. It all looks a little peculiar, but never mind that, Claudia, because none of that is my concern. What IS my concern, however, is that no one graduates from this institution as an officer who will not be a good officer. Whether you remain here at this academy will be decided by me, conditional upon your performance in your final presentation for my Civilized Warfare class. I intend to have you released from this academy if you do not sufficiently convince me that you are capable of independent thought and reflection. Don’t you think that’s fair?”
“Sir, very fair, sir. I won’t disappoint you, sir. The function of an officer is to think, believe, inspire, and lead. A good officer thinks, believes, inspires, and leads.” She spoke entirely without zeal, as was her wont.
“You say the words, cadet, but do you grasp their meaning?”
“Sir, yes, sir.”
“Well.” She still didn’t get it. “We’ll find that out for sure during your final presentation. Dismissed, Crewws.”
The cadet saluted, turned on her heel, and made her exit.
The following day, I was paid a visit by Technical Marshal Captain Lawrence Lindemann. I recognized him from various board meetings and official functions as the dean of the Department of Engineering & Technology. I remembered him as a hothead. After we saluted each other in gentlemanly fashion, the Captain spoke.
“I’m here to talk to you about a student of yours: Cadet First Class Claudia Crewws.”
“Of course. Crewws. Please have a seat. What’s it all about, Captain?” I sat behind my desk and poured us both a glass of schnapps.
“Well, Claudia is also a student of mine. She excels in her studies.” He leaned back in his chair with a smug smile. “Don’t you agree, sir?” he said pointedly. He sipped his drink.
“I don’t know what kind of citizen you train your cadets to be over in the Department of Engineering & Technology, but over here in the Department of Military History, Theory, & Psychology, we train thinkers and believers-” Captain Lindemann smacked his half-full glass of schnapps back on my desk startlingly.
“Spare me the platitudes, sir,” replied Captain Lindemann without even letting me finish. “Save them for the Propaganda Ministry press releases. I’m not interested in your romanticism.” He leaned forward menacingly. “I’m not interested idealism. I’m here to achieve a practical purpose: don’t mess with cadet Crewws.” So much for being gentlemanly officers!
“I see. You’re a technocrat that thinks that what we teach around here is extraordinary, amazing, difficult, and divine, but useless!” I jumped up from behind my desk and stalked over to the window. Unrelentingly, the Captain spoke again.
“Look, I said she’s under my protection. I have to warn you: don’t do anything to jeopardize her graduation.”
I paused to consider his threat. This was an opportunity for me to play Antigone. I decided that I wouldn’t back down. “You can’t very well hold ME responsible for the failings of YOUR student!” He jumped up from his seat, almost knocking it over in the process.
“She’s MORE than just my STUDENT!” he raged.
We spent an uncomfortable moment waiting for his furious words to settle to the ground in the motionless room. I considered his meaning. His face was bright red. That was not something he had meant to say.
“Well.” He cleared his throat.
Could they be lovers? No: he was old enough to be her father. Could they be related? He was a high-ranking officer...it would explain a great deal of the mystery surrounding here treatment at the academy.
After watching the worm sweat for a few moments, I spoke up in a carefully measured and polite voice. “Captain. Please. We’re both educators. We have the same goal, no matter how we express it. I’m giving your protégé a chance to prove her worth.” I did my best to sound resolute. “You’ll get no further concessions from me.”
He grabbed his glass and downed the rest of his schnapps.
“Very well, sir. If you prefer to be obstinate,” he said with false sincerity, “then I wish you all the luck in the world with Claudia.” He shook his head slowly as I waited with clenched fists and unfathomable patience for him to remove his smelling carcass from my office. “You really have no idea, do you? My God!” I had no idea what he was talking about. The windbag was trying to confuse me by making extravagant threats. “Well, you history professors really need to get your noses out of dusty books and take a look at the world every once in a while. It really wouldn’t hurt, you know.” He gritted his jaws tight and looked me right in the eyes. “The world is progressing,” said the Captain through his teeth. “People like you have to either embrace the change or face extinction.”
And with that kind word, the Captain left, slamming the door behind him.
My eyes shifted alternately between the door and the clock on the wall. I waited impatiently for Crewws to arrive and do her presentation. I was nervous about how this issue was getting me in trouble with Captain Lindemann and the Engineering & Technology Department, but remained determined to stick to my original plan: if Cadet Crewws couldn’t cut it in this presentation, I would still see to it that she was expelled from the academy. Finally, at precisely the agreed upon time, Cadet Crewws opened the door and stepped inside.
“Cadet Crewws reporting, sir!”
“Right on time, as usual, cadet. You may begin as soon as you’re ready.”
“I’m prepared to start immediately. My topic of discussion is the British and American terror-bombing directed at the German civilian population during European Civil War Number 8b.” And so it went. Cadet Crewws spoke for twenty minutes upon the subject without interruption. She spoke in her characteristically monotonous voice and did nothing more than rehash the opinions of other historians. She just stood there, only occasionally embellishing her speech with hand gestures. Decidedly most uninspiring. At length, she completed her presentation and stood at attention waiting for my evaluation. I paused for a moment.
“I think you’ve stated rather concisely the opinions the eminent, late F.J.P. Veale, Cadet Crewws, but what do you think?” It was going exactly as I had foreseen. She still wasn’t using her own head.
“What do...I think? Sir?” She cocked her head to the side.
“Well, you must have your own view on the subject.”
“I think...my own view...” she trailed off. A pause. Her face was expressionless. Suddenly Crewws sprung back to life with zeal that I’d never seen in her before. “I think F.J.P. Veale is correct,” she said brightly. She looked at me expectantly as though she had said something profound. She waited for a response.
“Don’t you see that to be a good decision-maker, you need to have your own beliefs to base choices on? You can’t be a good officer if you are not first a good thinker.”
“I will make an excellent officer,” said Cadet Crewws with sublime confidence. “I think F.J.P. Veale is correct. I agree with my superiors. I think they are correct. I think their orders are correct. I obey their instructions. I will make an excellent officer.”
“I’m sorry Claudia, but I am not convinced of that. In fact, after watching your presentation, I hold quite a contrary opinion. You’re never going to be on officer, Claudia. You have failed. You are out of the academy.”
“Failed, sir? Impossible: I don’t fail. Out, sir? Out?” she reassured me. “But I will make an excellent officer.” She smiled broadly.
“Listen to me, Crewws-”
She cut me off. “I will make an excellent officer,” she insisted. “The function of an officer is to think, believe, inspire, and lead. The function of an officer is to follow instructions. I can perform all of these functions,” she said sternly.
“No: listen to me. You’re gone! You’re no good, Crewws!”
“I will function as a perfect officer. I will be the perfect officer.” She was no longer standing at attention. Now she was slowly advancing toward me. “A good officer also achieves objectives and obeys orders at all costs.”
“No! A good officer must have morals and has obligation to refuse immoral orders. Have you learned nothing in three years? The reason for the demise of civilized warfare was the disappearance of the trait of morality in the officer corps. Blind obedience to all orders was the root cause of the end of chivalry and civilized conduct.”
“I must not allow you to interfere with my objectives.” She continued to approach me menacingly with her empty eyes. “I cannot allow you to jeopardize my graduation. I will be the perfect officer. You cannot stop me.”
“What graduation, Crewws? You’re a washout! Get out of my office!”
“I obey orders. I obey. I obey,” she chanted. “I have instructions not to let anything interfere with my progress.” Now she was practically right on top of me!
“What do you think you’re doing, Claudia?” I asked nervously.
“I can’t let you interfere...” Without warning, she grabbed my throat with both hands! What the-!?
“Aaaccckkk...Claud-ia...what are-you...aaaaaaaaa...doing...?” I tried desperately to fend her off, but she clutched my throat in an iron grip. All I managed to do was to claw her hat off of her head.
“I’m...sorry. You cannot be permitted to remain an obstacle to the completion of my objectives.” She stared at me coldly as her fists crushed my throat.
“Claudia...” I could scarcely whisper. “A good officer...obeys superiors...”
“Yes,” she affirmed.
“But I’m...your...superior...” My breath was failing.
She cocked her head as if consider what I had said. Her grip loosened perceptibly.
“Release me...Claudia!” I begged.
She started shaking her head. “A good officer...obeys. Obeys orders...obeys superiors...obeys...obeys...”
“I’m...your superior, you crazy...BITCH...get...off of me!” She still held my throat tightly enough to restrict airflow uncomfortably. I could get a little air, though. “You’re just...a cadet! I’m a...a fucking colonel! Get your...hands off me!”
“My superior. Must obey superior. But... Negative. Negative. Orders are to overcome any obstacle at any cost. Orders. Must obey orders.” She tightened her grip again.
“I...ORDER you...let me...go!” Tears were rolling from my eyes. I realized that I had fallen to my knees. Claudia’s vice grip alone prevented me from completely collapsing to the ground. She stood high over me, looking down without compassion. I couldn’t swallow.
But my words again had an effect. Her grip loosened a little bit again. Claudia shook her head. “Orders...Conflict. What must I do, sir? What must I... What are my instructions?”
I spoke between gasps for air. “You’re – insane! What would – a good – officer – do – cadet?”
“A good officer thinks, believes, inspires, and leads. A good officer... Conflict. A good officer...obeys orders. Obeys superiors. Thinks, believes, inspires, leads.”
“So THINK – for God’s sake!”
“Think?” She cocked her head. Then I heard a sound that baffled me utterly. It sounded like a ZAP of electricity. It came from Claudia. I looked up at her.
“Obey.” ZAP. Her head jerked to the side.
“Believe, inspire, lead.” ZAP. ZAP. ZAP. Her hands released my entirely. Sputtering for air, I leaned heavily on my desk and coughed uncontrollably. I closed my eyes tightly and struggled to maintain consciousness. I heard Claudia talking to herself.
“My orders...” ZAP.
“My superiors...” ZAP.
“I must not fail...” ZAP.
When I looked up, thin wisps of gray smoke were streaking upwards from her mouth. She was shaking her head violently. And then it clicked. Her lack of records. No medical history. Private quarters near the Engineering & Technology Department. Captain Lindemann’s visit. His warning about the future. She was a robot.
Suddenly, Claudia Crewws regained her composure.
“I will be a good officer. I will not be deterred again. The function of an officer is not to think. It is to...obey. You are an obstacle. Obstacles exist to be overcome. Kill. Crush. Destroy. Burn.”
She stepped towards me again, but this time I was ready for her. As soon as she got close enough, I snatched the bottle of schnapps off of my desk, and in one fluid motion, smashed it on top of her head.
The nearly full bottle exploded as it impacted her metal head. Shards of glass of various sizes flew around the room like shrapnel. The schnapps sprayed everywhere. Claudia stopped, momentarily stunned. Her outstretched hands were inches from my throat. Her lustrous, black hair was soaked with schnapps. It ran down her cheeks and face. It ran into her eyes and into her mouth, from which smoke was still escaping. We both paused, seemingly waiting for something to happen. Claudia cocked her head. When nothing happened immediately, she resumed her advance. She must have felt safe, since nothing had happened right away. Having apparently failed, I honestly thought I was about to die. Her fingers reached my throat. They were cold.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, my ears were gratified by a tremendous explosion of blinding-white sparks inside of Claudia’s chest. It was so bright that it illuminated her white blouse from the inside. The explosion of electricity was accompanied by a deafening BANG! Immediately, Claudia removed her hands from my neck and put them on her own chest. She looked down at her malfunctioning self. Black smoke billowed from her mouth now.
“What have you...obey...the United States, Great Britain...” She looked up at me with dispassionate eyes. The smoke had left black soot on her cheeks. “Civilized...the final seal...a good knife...” Something else suddenly burst in her chest. She staggered towards me, still determined to see me dead. I shoved her backwards and she fell down to her knees. “Obey. Obey. Obey.” She still reached upwards for my throat. “Obey. Obey. Obey.” Each time she said the word, the pitch of her voice lowered grotesquely. With my boot, I pushed her onto her back. Her systems were damaged so severely that she couldn’t offer even feeble resistance to me any longer. She landed on her back and stared up at the ceiling. Her arms were still extended in front of her. “Obey. Obey.” Her volume was lowering as her systems wound down slowly. Finally, whatever gizmos inside that animated her gave up the uphill battle to keep her functioning. She died with a deep, quiet “O...”. She didn’t even manage to complete her last word. She smoldered silently, her booted legs splayed out on the floor of my office.
Rubbing my throat, I picked up the telephone on my desk. My secretary was on the other end of the line. “Sir?”
“Would you please contact Captain Lindemann over in the Engineering & Technology Department, please?” I asked politely. “Ask him to stop by my office whenever it’s convenient for him. Tell him one of his students had a little too much to drink.”
I sat behind my desk in darkness, enjoying a quiet cigar. It would be the last time I sat here; I was about to be shipped out to join a minesweeping company in the Argentine Protectorate. My personal effects didn’t have to be packed up; they would simply be confiscated by the State. Not like I’d have a lot of time to read books while I was busy clearing minefields, anyway. At my age, I knew I wouldn’t last long where I was going.
I puffed quietly. Claudia Crewws was the embodiment of everything I devoted my life to combating. Mindless obedience: thoughtless, callous, and primitive. She could never do anything more than obey orders. Mankind was so much better than that. How could such a rational animal like man willingly submit to giving up the one thing which separated him from the savage beast?
Always a student of history, I was too smart to delude myself into believing that my little victory had gained anything. Nothing could prevent the change that was coming. Captain Lindemann was right, of course. Mankind was becoming obsolete in a world of his own making. Where civilized conduct doesn’t exist between men, civilization ceases to exist. We were advancing to barbarism again. In that sense, through Claudia Crewws, I got a preview of the end of civilization. There was nothing I could do to stop it.
Through the window behind me, I could see the empty drill field. I put out the smoking stub of the cigar under the sole of my boot. The warm orange glow faded and died. All was blackness. It reminded me of Claudia’s eyes.