The Memories of Captain Zosov
A short story
Like many veterans, Captain Zosov had sold his memories when he came back from the war. There had been high demand, for the war had been victorious and thus popular. He had been multiply decorated, the famous hero of the Malacian Gap, the Siege of Araminta, and the storied Battle of Hill 417, and his compensation was accordingly high. The four thousand silver taels had been a princely sum for a twenty-one-year-old newly returned from war, and indeed he had, for a time, lived like a pre-Republic prince of old. But, as he reflected more and more often of late, wars were short, and peace was long.
Being a glory-covered veteran could net you a well-paid job at a major firm, but could not ensure that that the firm was competently managed and would stay in business. Fame could attract fair-weather wives, but they persisted only while fair-weather did, and each of the three divorces had been stormy. Children held their heads up high knowing they had a brave father, but life was not the school yard, and before too long they had problems that required cash rather than pride. In sum, the money had not lasted, but the debts had.
For all that, his life was not dire. His rent-controlled suite in the Veterans Home on North Prospect had a fine view of Goranka Park, where the cherry trees bloomed pleasantly in the spring and the sidewalks, though cracked and worn, were well gritted within a week of the first snowfall of autumn. His clothes were old, but his figure had held – the product of his distaste for strong liquor and his rigorous adherence to the Infantryman’s Basic Calisthenics programs these past forty years. His old medals, shined every time he took them out of their boxes, earned him free passes on the elevated tramway and free potato soup with bacon at the monthly Legion dinners. And, despite the general inflation, his veterans pension kept body and soul together, however much he had to haggle with that snake of a greengrocer over every last onion, cabbage, and ounce of sauerkraut.
Still, sixty years old felt too young to be not just retired but living a retired life. He knew in his heart he should be doing, acting, making. Especially when each morning paper brought him front page news about renewed tensions with Arslania, with sorties and sabotage and other outrages along the Demilitarized Zone. Already the Central Government had called up the reserves, and each day young men wound round the block from the recruiting tents on Goranka Park. Zosov was certainly too old to return to combat – his knees bothered him when winter came on, and he wheezed painfully up the eight flights of stairs to his apartment when the elevator was out. Still, as his drill sergeant had told them, one’s duty to the Motherland ceases only at death and not one moment before.
Less loftily, though, he felt he had stamina enough for one more fair-weather wife. If the Fates were kind, she would wear him out entirely; when the time came for the final plate throwing screaming match and divorce, his heart would fail and he would leave this life a contented man. He still had his looks, after all, but fair-weather wives demanded more than a handsome face. But how to earn the money to bait one?
It was with thoughts like that he nearly spilled his morning coffee while reading the telegram from White Star Press. He had received them at intervals in the past – authors reaching out to him for firsthand accounts of the Battle of Hill 417, or his thoughts on the generalship of Zupotkin, or the cavalry tactics of Mifolion. It was even more charming that they came to him when his memories, recorded soon after his return and (he was assured) of the highest fidelity, were preserved at the Archives of the People’s Armed Forces. There had always been a small honorarium, never very much, but every little bit helped, as General Zupotkin had screamed at a shell-shocked Captain Zosov begging to know why he had to lead his men over Hill 417 when he had just watched three whole platoons mown down by the machine guns.
This telegram, though, was even more intriguing than a writer asking to pick over memories:
ATTENTION CAPTAIN VASILI H. ZOSOV STOP WHITE STAR WISHES YOU TO WRITE MEMOIRS STOP WILLING TO PAY CASH ADVANCE AND ROYALTIES UPON PUBLICATION STOP GHOST WRITER AVAILABLE BUT WOULD PREFER TO OFFER YOU FULL ADVANCE STOP CALL ALEX-4956 FOR FURTHER INFO STOP SIGNED ARKADY WASLOW EDITOR STOP
He swallowed the rest of the coffee in a rush, then walked out his front door and down the hall to the communal telephone. Blessedly it was not in use, so he pulled a bronze piece from his dressing gown pocket, deposited it in the slot, lifted the receiver, and dialed:
“Interested in my memoirs, you say? … Cash advance, you say? … Two weeks to delivery of first five chapters, you say? Contract coming today by courier? Excellent!”
He hung up the phone and rubbed with hands. Waslow had told him that the rumours of a new war had excited the public about all things to do with the last one, and North Star’s books were flying off the shelves. Reprints were being plated and White Star Press was contracting new volumes as quickly as they could. The memoirs of one of the war’s most decorated heroes was a chance not to be missed and, in light of Zosov’s previous good relations with White Star, Waslow wished to snap him up before competitors came calling.
Zosov was so excited he had waited down on the front steps for the young man. True to Waslow’s word, the courier, a sallow-faced youth of twenty on a rusty bicycle, pulled up just before noon. Zosov scanned the contract quickly and signed at once. The courier leapt back onto his bicycle and took off into the spring sunshine. Zosov had noticed the blue pips of a new enlistee on the youth’s collar - a fine bicycle messenger he would make at the front!
Immediately upon returning home, Zosov hauled his old typewriter out of his closet, blew the dust off the keys and mechanism, replaced the ribbon, and rolled up a fresh sheet of paper, all in preparation. Then he showered, shaved, dressed in his least patched suit, donned his medals (the Order of the Martyrs of the Revolution prominent on his left breast) and headed for the elevated tram. He would indulge himself and buy a sandwich near Petrovsk Plaza, out front of the Archives – after all, he had an advance coming soon.
The first thing to do was to revisit his memories. While there he might examine the memories of a few of his fellow veterans and possibly even the great Zupotkin himself (if that mighty mind had condescended to allow his to be recorded).
Memory recording and playback had been a new discovery during the war, a development from captured Arslanian interrogation technology. While the recordings could be quite small, inscribed on ruby quartz cylinders the length of a woman’s hand, the machinery to play them back was massive, from the copper Mental Transducer helmet to the multi-ton Psychic Amplifier and Cerebral Stimulator. There had been a fad for them in the decade after the war, with Remembering Rooms popping up in the major cities of the Republic of Korodova, but now the old machines were mostly relegated to museums. More portable cinematographs, with their sensationalized melodramas, had displaced plain old memory. The young people preferred their entertainments – be they music or drama or news – to be sociable, rather than the solitude of an hour in the Mental Transducer. Zosov had come to agree – the memory of someone’s listening to a great symphony paled in comparison to the real thing, especially with your own fair-weather wife on your arm.
Vivid as the war was in his mind after all this time, with its flashes of horror, of exaltation, of fear, and of comradely devotion, forty years was still forty years. A lot had happened in that time, and if he were to write his memoirs he wanted them to be as accurate as possible. After all, people might be inspired to check on his memories, and how embarrassed he would be then to be contradicted by himself!
The Archives were much as he remembered them when he had made his deposit for posterity, soaring racks of bound volumes and massive card catalogues rising up five stories above Petrovsk Plaza. The Remembering Room was off the main hall, down a short flight of marble stairs. It was unusually busy for a working day, with young people milling about, many of them lined up at the doors of the Remembering Room. Zosov had to wait an hour in line for his turn on the machine. It was a not unpleasant wait – many young people, including some potential fair-weather wife material, did double takes when they saw him. Some came up and shook his hand, telling him how wonderful it was to meet a genuine hero. Some told him they had just experienced his memories and were awed by his heroism. He smiled modestly, congratulating the young men he saw wearing the blue enlistment pips, and gently chided those without: “Look at you, young man, you’re embarrassing your beautiful girl! What must she think, walking about with a man who won’t show his courage!” One of the young ladies even kissed him on the cheek. Zosov discovered he could still blush.
In this way the wait passed quickly, and soon it was his turn. He asked the brown coated attendant to fetch “The Memories of Captain Zosov”, then stretched himself out on the red padded seat, removed his glasses and folded them on his lap, and waited for the attendant to adjust the Mental Transducer around his head. Then he took a deep breath and relaxed as the very past seemed to rise up all around him.
He came back to himself to find he was shouting: “This is an outrage! A bloody outrage!”
The attendant, a middle-aged woman with a hooked nose and a clipboard, looked positively frightened. “Whatever is the matter, sir!”
“Those aren’t my memories! I demand to speak to your supervisor. Better yet, I demand to speak to the Director of this institution. This is fraud! Fraud and… and… and theft!”
A gray jacketed security guard came in and took hold of his arm but released him on seeing his campaign medals. By this time Zosov had calmed down but kept himself in high dudgeon for effect. He had to demand to see the director only two more times before an elegant man near his own age, dressed in an immaculate black suit with a red cravat, came in to see him.
“Captain Zosov, this is an honor. To what do we owe the pleasure?” the man asked.
“I came here to consult my memories, to remind myself of the war, and what I found here was a fraud! A shabby, low down, good for nothing fraud!”
“Captain, I am Academician Arkady Leutkin and I am the director of this Archive. If you would please accompany to my office for a cup of coffee, I wish to hear your complaint myself and do everything I can to set things to right.”
Zosov allowed himself to be led by the elbow through the marbled halls of the Archive, onto an elegantly styled brass elevator, across a colonnaded antechamber, and through heavy mahogany doors into a simply appointed and unostentatious office, with giant windows overlooking the Dura River. There the Director, dismissing his secretaries with a demand to hold his calls till he was done with “the Great Captain,” begged Zosov to make himself comfortable and explain everything that had transpired.
As a blonde-haired secretary brought coffee in an aluminum urn with copper cups before scurrying out, Zosov laid out the facts of the case: his desire to do something for the coming war effort, his publishing deal, his desire to be sure his memories matched those recorded.
“And they did not?” Director Leutkin said.
“They most certainly did not.”
“But they were of the war?”
“Yes, but not my war.”
“Oh, I see. Dear, dear, dear. So you are saying that there had been a mislabelling, that we have placed the wrong title on someone else’s memories?”
“No! I mean… it is me in those memories, but there are things missing. Things burned into my own memory,” and here he pointed a finger at his left temple, “but the recording just cuts around them, like a record skipping over a scratch. It makes everything seem so… melodramatic.”
Leutkin had his hands on his chin while Zosov spoke, his bespectacled eyes fixed upon him respectfully. His face was kind but concerned. After a pause, he reached towards a brass button on his desk. Zosov heard a chime sound outside. In a moment the door opened and the blonde-haired secretary looked into the room.
“Miss Lurovosa,” Leutkin addressed her, “would you be so kind as to send down to the file room and ask for the file on Captain Vasili Zosov’s memory recording?”
The woman nodded briskly and hurried out, her high-heeled shoes tapping on the marble. Director Leutkin turned back towards Zosov. “I believe I know what has happened, but I must see your file to be certain.”
Zosov refilled his coffee from the urn and sat back, feeling satisfied. At last, he was to have some answers. Perhaps there was some villain he could blame for what had happened. With luck, they would be able to recover his original memories and properly label them.
Within five minutes the secretary returned, bearing a manila folder. Leutkin opened the folder and began paging through the yellowed pages. He nodded to himself, muttering “oh yes, yes” a few times. Then he pointed at one page and said “ah, here it is – just as I thought.”
“What?” Zosov said, putting his coffee cup down and pulling himself closer.
“The label: Edited For Content. Just as I suspected.”
“What do you mean ‘edited’?” Zosov asked.
“Simply that your memories were reviewed and found to be … what’s the phrase they used here … ‘potentially upsetting to morale.’ They don’t say what about though. It was standard practice, anyway.”
“What do you mean – tampering with people’s recordings? That isn’t right. It’s my own memories – I have a right to them, and a right to have them presented the way they happened.”
Here Leutkin smiled a sad smile of understanding. “Ah, but do you not remember the forms we signed when we enlisted, Captain?”
Zosov was too embarrassed to admit that he did not. He had not read them, just signed like every other young man had.
“We agreed,” Leutkin said, “when we signed, that we belonged – body and mind – to the People’s Army of the Republic of Korodova for the duration of hostilities. And so we did.”
“Yes, but I came back home. I was demobbed, out of the Army entirely, when I was asked to contribute my memories to the Archives.”
“Yes, but your memories were created during the war. Therefore, they are the property of the Army. Besides, you can’t object to a bit of editing – after all, every film we see has been edited here and there to make it tighter, more concise. The technicians obscured parts of the recording by scratching on the cylinder. It’s all very precise – seems natural to the person viewing it.”
“But they skipped over the best parts!”
“And what parts were those?”
“When we found the whiskey cache in the abandoned village and to celebrate used our flame lances to torch the place. At least, we thought it was abandoned. The charred corpses we found in the morning meant it wasn’t quite. I mean, they might have been dwarves rather than children. Zupotkin told us he thought that likely.”
Leutkin did not pale or look aghast. He merely nodded. Perhaps, Zosov thought, he had not done anything like that, but he knew what war was and could look at it square in the face without flinching. He did stop smiling, though.
“Anyway, the whole thing is missing. The same with my friend Koroshev screaming for his mother while grabbing the stump of his leg, and the cracked open head of the little girl we ran over with the tank, or the villages and fields we torched when we were falling back during the Arslanian counterattack of ‘23. My flame lance lit up a whole street, cooked a dozen of the Arslanian bastards at once – they burnt up like matchsticks. I can see it now. Or the Arslanian nuns we ravaged when we …”
He stopped himself then.
“Anyway,” he said after a moment, “It’s not like those things didn’t happen. I certainly can’t forget them.” He’d never spoken of these things before, especially the last, to Wife One, Two, or Three. Certainly, never to his four children. He wasn’t ashamed; that wasn’t the right word for it, whatever it was he felt. War was just a different world. But if people wanted to know, wanted to consult a veteran’s memories, surely they should be able to do so.
Leutkin had not started talking again, so Zosov continued.
“But people should know! The war didn’t just happen to me like that damned lying recording does. I did those things, not just my platoon and I, but lots of us. Here we are about to have another go at the Arslanians and the people want to know. Why don’t you let them?”
“It wasn’t my choice,” Leutkin said. “it was the Academicians before my time. I was in the thick of it, just like you. Intelligence, you understand, not infantry, but we walked through the battlefields, we interrogated and questioned the wounded. We were not gentle. But I understand why those in charge of this institution at the time thought that those things weren’t appropriate to bring back.”
“Well, it’s a bloody outrage still. Here you are telling me that this ‘archive’ overrode my memories, creating a fake picture of what I went through. Well, I’m going to tell them how it really was, put in all the bits they thought people back here were too soft to hear.”
“You can write what you like,” Leutkin said, “no one is going to stop you. You went through it, after all. We all did. But people would not believe it.”
“Because you will be seen to contradict yourself. People will read your book and come here and check and there will be a scandal. Why, they’ll ask, did you make up those lies about yourself and your fellow soldiers? Why did you contradict what forty years of teaching and films and books have been saying? They’ll think you’ve gone mad, or that you’re an Arslanian sympathizer.”
The last point stopped Zosov cold. Now he didn’t feel as outraged anymore. He mumbled something to Leutkin, thanking him for his time, about how he would have to think about it, and walked out. Leutkin saw him to the door and welcomed him to come back to the Archives any time for his research.
As he had promised himself, Zosov bought a pastrami and rye sandwich from a vendor on Petrovsk Plaza. He sat on one of the stone benches that ringed the great flagstones, feeling the cool sandwich through the wax paper, and watched the people come and go. The sun shone brightly, and while it was not yet warm, thousands of people were about, strolling in the light. Many of the young men, he saw, already wore the pips in their collars. They would all find out what they would find out soon enough. Who was he to tell them what was and was not? Even the memory recording – even with the gaps it had been so bright, so lifelike, so much more vivid than the pictures he carried in his head. Those were more like holes in a film strip, or a scratch on a record – a permanent mark, but nothing sensible, just light and noise - nothing that told a story or could inspire a man. Could he have fought like did, stormed up the hills that he did, risked his life like did, if he’d gone in knowing what it was like?
Zosov finished his sandwich, put the waxed paper into a trash receptacle, and started walking for home, back to the blank paper waiting in the typewriter. He would write what a young man going to war needed to hear.