Strange IndiaStrange India

Cadence noticed the warfighter on her way to school. He was still there later, sitting in the tiny fenced park, as she walked back home along Sixth Avenue. There was a pigeon watching him, which the police had thought at one time was a good way to disguise a camera. She stopped and sat on the other bench.

“There aren’t any birds,” she said. “You know that, right?”

He was an 800-year-old 30-year-old man and he sat huddled in a large coat with the cheap sheen of post-consumer polyethylene, under which he wore a side-ventilated floral tactical shirt and adaptive camo cargo pants with sagging, empty pockets. She supposed the creases were from being repeatedly flash frozen.

“Why’s the sky grey but it never rains?” he asked.


“Don’t bullshit me, kid.”

“To keep the sunlight out.”

“That’s fantastic. Thanks for taking care of the place while I was gone.”

“Where’d you fight?”


“Where else?”

“Eridani. Lacaille.”

“How old are you?”

“Let’s not do the math.”

“Why’d you come back?”

“The sunsets.”


“Come on, give me a break, kid,” he said, getting unsteadily to his feet. “I’ve had a long century.”

She followed him to a coffee kiosk across the street and read the peeling posters on a movie theatre that had closed during a run of Mild Red Pier before she was even born. He paid the machine with a plastic pendant he wore on a bright green spiral wristband, which she was sure also stopped being a thing before she was born. He cracked the lid and sniffed the coffee, then made a face, but he didn’t look back, and she watched as he wandered down the sidewalk and turned a corner, shuffling towards the river.


“He’s from the Cincinnatus,” her father told her. “They returned a month ago. The numina are very interested in him. Few come back these days, and those that do don’t last long.”


“They kill themselves, sweet.”

She looked him up with her headset and found his service record in the National Archives. He was born in analogue New York and enlisted at a time of 77% unemployment, one of thousands to leave behind family and friends to climb into a hydrogel-filled cold tube and accelerate out into the darkness at a fraction of the speed of light. The relationship between temperature and viscosity, she was told, was a mechanism for inertial suspension in Einsteinian space travel, by which time her mind had already started to wander. She heard something about the survival rates back then being only marginally higher than the odds of finding work on the streets of any American city.


She looked for the warfighter in the park the following day, but found only the pigeon perched on a streetlight, head cocked as it scanned passing faces. She threw her apple at the filthy bot, missed, and heard it smack the asphalt of the basketball court.

He was over on the pier, pitching pea gravel out into the clear, shallow Hudson.

“What does a Proximan look like?”

“They’re not called that.”

“What are they called?”

“It translates as something like step-accretion. We called them steppers.”

“What do they look like?”

“Something that comes out the ass end of another stepper.”

“Why did we fight them?”

“Incompatible world views.”

“That’s not a reason.”

“Out there, it’s not about who gets more land, or access to water, or political representation. It’s about the survival of thinking people, period. We’re the only living things out there with a concept of self. Or we were. It’s just one hive mind after another. What does that tell you about the Universe?”



“What does that tell you about the Universe?” she repeated.

“It tells me I’m sitting out here on the short branch of a very large tree, kid.”

“I have a concept of self.”

“Oh yeah? Did they copy that over from last year’s model?”

“I don’t get a new body every year. I had one as a baby, then this one, and in a few years I’ll be a full adult. Adults get upgraded only every 25 years. It used to be longer, but they make these ones in the maquiladoras.”

“What do you think happens when you’re upgraded?”

“They move my brain from one body to another.”

“Not your brain. Your mind. And they don’t move it, they copy it. And then they put a bullet in the old one.”

“They don’t use bullets.”

“You don’t have a concept of self if everything you think and feel is a mirror image of something else. You have a copy of a concept of self.”

“What’s a mirror?”

“Jesus. Reflective glass. A copy. A duplicate.”

“I’m not a duplicate. There’s only one.”

“Not hanging onto the original doesn’t make a copy any less a copy. People don’t go to the MOMA to see a photograph of Starry Night.”

“What’s a MOMA?” she asked impatiently.

“Go up Sixth to 53rd and hang a right. It’s a peri-peri takeout now.”


Cadence stayed at home the rest of the week studying for her middle-SAT, and when she returned to the pier the warfighter was gone. She watched the narrowband video that showed first landfall on Proxima Centauri b, but the faces were all unfamiliar and the video quality was poor, so she filed it away for later with her unwatched TV shows and the footage from her childhood pets.

She spent the summer on Long Island, and when she returned to school in the fourth quarter she crossed through Washington Square and ambled back down Sixth Avenue. The warfighter was there again in the park. Instead of a pigeon, the numina had deployed a pair of scruffy alleycats, which would provide better stereo.

She sat down on the other bench, but he didn’t recognize her, and after a moment she looked away.

“Why’s the sky grey but it never rains?” asked the two-month-old 800-year-old man.

“Probably smog,” she whispered, and went home.

The story behind the story

Table of Contents

Timothy Quinn reveals the inspiration behind The warfighter.

There’s a solution to the Fermi paradox whereby life is commonplace in the Universe, but the complexity and perishability of intelligent, conscious, technological life makes us unique. Intelligence might represent a state of disequilibrium that the Universe does not long abide.

If humanity struggles and wanes, as it does in The warfighter, it might trade evolution for algorithms, war for autocracy, individuality for replicability. To the returning veterans of tomorrow’s abandoned conflicts, Homo sapiens will seem a very different species from that which was left behind hundreds of years before, and it might be difficult to remember exactly what it was that was worth fighting for.

Cadence’s favourite park is the Golden Swan Garden on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and if you peer over the fence you might find there’s a final matinee screening of Mildred Pierce at the IFC Center.

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