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The Bombardier

by Vajra Chandrasekera

4685 words

The first thing they do when he starts working at the Office on Persons Yet To Be Missing is to give him the code name Nuu and to tell him to forget who he was before. They hand him a name tag with that single elongated syllable on it, ණූ, which Nuu thinks looks like a hornet on skates, or perhaps a hand holding a pen over paper. The Office is open plan: everybody he can see is wearing tags with single-character code names like his. So after he sits down at his assigned desk and boots up his computer — a squat, discolored wreck, warm to the touch, whose hard disk grinds like teeth so loud his desk vibrates under it — he pins the tag to his shirt pocket at a slightly awkward angle and introduces himself to the girl at the next computer.

She says her name is Ǣ, and her name tag says ඈ. She doesn’t look at his name tag when she acknowledges his name, so even though she says Hi Nuu in a perfectly even tone, she never takes her eyes off her screen so he knows, he just knows that she’s saying නූ instead of ණූ, that this is what she is imagining in her mind’s eye, to the extent that she is imagining him at all — she must imagine him to acknowledge him, surely, as something more than a blur at the corner of her eye, the warmth of another sweating human in the overloaded air-conditioning — that she is imagining him with this far more common letter of the well-trodden alphabet rather than his exotic sporting hornet from the ass-end of the alphabet that nobody ever goes to; that she’s imagining this other letter that sounds exactly the same as the one assigned to him but looks different: that she’s thinking of something simpler and less interesting than his actual letter, which is a ghost letter of no phonemic consequence, the vestigial memory of an ancient distinction in pronunciation that people long since gave up on. His name is the letter that begins the word debt and the letter he knows her to be using is the one that begins the word modernity. The gap between his newly-molted self and her perception immediately begins to chafe at him. He finds himself turning toward her, tilting so that his chest is visible, willing her to look in his direction and see the name tag and somehow indefinably adjust her perception of him so that she calls him Nuu and not Nuu — a difference that he is certain that he would perceive, not from a difference of pronunciation since after all they sound identical, but from the subtle changes in the movements of her face, in much the same way that an ancestor might have sensed the invisible movement of a tiger in the undergrowth through a generalized situational awareness, a growing unease, something not quite right about the way leaves shiver in the wind over there, something just a little hair-raising about the jungle’s musk. But Ǣ’s neck is stiff and she does not turn. In their brief time together, she will never actually look at him.

• • •

Nuu didn’t have to interview for this job: he is the beneficiary of a minor nepotism only. His father, who is now long dead, used to be the Chairman of the Office on Persons Yet To Be Missing for many years. After Nuu failed his Advanced Levels last year and, giving up hope of entering the university, started to look for a job, his father, who was then not long dead, suggested an internship at the O-PYTBM until Nuu figured out what he was doing with his life.

“You speak English and know how to use a computer,” his father’s ghost said, identifying these as the sine qua non and perhaps also the ne plus ultra of qualification for temporary employment. So Nuu dialed his father’s old office number, which he knew by heart from childhood, and held up the receiver for his father’s ghost to speak to the new Chairman, his successor. He held that conversation at arm’s length, head turned aside, because he didn’t want to know if his father’s ghost would try to make him seem a meritorious candidate with undeserved praise — this seemed unlikely — or invoke pity for his uselessness and call upon the camaraderie of deep state bureaucracy in wartime, perhaps even the special bond between chairmen that transcends death, and either way, listening in on that would only be humiliating.

Even with his father’s machinations, the job still took a few months to become available. During that time Nuu worked at a series of other temporary jobs, each more ephemeral than the last. In his spare time he did his best to become a social media influencer but failed, which also made it a relief to give up his old identity when the offer from the Office finally came.

The delay between the chairmen’s agreement and the eventual offer was mysterious to Nuu at first, but now he thinks the Office was waiting for the previous Nuu to become missing so that they could recycle the name tag. Surely, he reasons, there can only be as many people in the O-PYTBM as the alphabet can support with the single-letter name tags that everybody around him seems to have. Including all the elu and misra characters in the alphabet, each of which can be modified with a range of diacritics, that means a total staff strength of a little over a thousand, which sounds about right because this is a four-story building full of people with name tags. The building is even fuller, of course, of the thousands of civilians without name tags here to file complaints, open cases, and make freedom of information requests.

At all hours of the working day, civilians stream past his workstation, singly and in packs and in queues, attempting to follow a process not intentionally designed to be labyrinthine, confusing, and frustrating, as far as Nuu can tell, but one that coincidentally arrives at that situation through factors other than intention, as an emergent property of distributed causes such as the great unwillingness on the part of any name tag wearer to expend more energy than is required to live. Nuu feels that unwillingness settle on his shoulders on his very first day. It weighs him down. Apart from trying to position himself at a slight angle so that Ǣ could see his name tag (if only she would turn and look in his direction even once) he only moves when absolutely required.

When civilians attempt to speak to him, he directs them randomly to other staff members. Since all staff code names are derived from the alphabet, he knows everybody’s names without knowing who they are or their function. Ah, he says to some, please see ඤ with your paperwork; to others he suggests that they should speak to ඎ or බෞ. He is only careful to pick names that he doesn’t see in his immediate vicinity. He worries at first that someone will find him out and complain, perhaps these hypothetical colleagues at whom he is redirecting traffic since they must surely resent the intrusion, but as the day wears on and nothing happens, he comes to believe that perhaps the entire O-PYTBM is doing what he’s doing and therefore that his behavior is legitimized through universality. Or else, and just as likely, he argues to himself, that he is contributing a necessary and innovative degree of chaos to the process, imparting it with some randomized kinetic energy so as to agitate the Brownian motion of particular civilians through the chambers of the bureaucracy, and that the system must to some degree need him to do what he’s doing, perhaps even rely on him to prevent itself from becoming stale and moribund.

“I am a breath of fresh air in this place,” he says to Ǣ, who laughs and asks him how his interview with the Chairman went.

Nuu hesitates. “It was fine,” he says. It’s too complicated to explain why he didn’t have one, he thinks. Or too embarrassing, at least.

Ǣ talks about her own interview a little. She transferred in from another government office at a similar grade but the Chairman insisted on an interview on principle. She says that the one-on-one with the Chairman is a harrowing experience. Everybody in the office has one of those stories, she says. It’s a rite of passage. Nuu suspects she thinks that he’s dealing with the trauma of his own interview by downplaying its horror, and is trying to get him to open up. This impression pleases him: he resolves to maintain it. I could be the strong and silent type, he thinks.

“Did the Chairman ask you about the law?” Ǣ asks. “He’s very into it, I thought. Letter and spirit.”

“No,” Nuu says, and then, realizing that he’s made an error, perhaps fallen into a trap, he amends awkwardly: “Yes, a little.”

“You haven’t had your interview yet, have you,” Ǣ says.

Nuu doesn’t answer this. He’s still trying to figure out how to respond when Ǣ continues.

“You should bone up on the legal instruments that enable what we do here,” she says. “I’ll give you a list. The Chairman will want to talk to you eventually, and trust me, it’ll come up.”

• • •

In the mornings, trying to enter the Office, Nuu has to work his way through a crowd of thousands of protesting university students that throng the streets around it. The protestors are around his age: he would have disappeared into the crowd if his officewear didn’t mark him out as an insider. Once or twice he thinks he sees someone he went to school with, but he doesn’t seek them out and nobody seems to recognize him. That’s good, Nuu thinks, because it would have forced him to remember the name that they knew him by, and this is no moment to have to remember to be somebody else. The crowd eyes him sullenly and refuses to make way for him, forcing him to push through. His shoulders and elbows are bruised, and he is probably leaving behind a trail of sore arms and ribs in turn. He is, in their eyes, the enemy: they’re protesting to demand that the public sector make room for them after graduation, with jobs like the one he has. He would explain how it’s not a real job, that it’s only temporary, but it’s not something you can explain to an angry crowd whose accusations are not in words but in their hot eyes and their stiff shoulders. Besides, somewhere halfway through the crowd Nuu feels a scalding resentment welling up from his lower belly, a sudden rearticulation of his vague sense of shame into spite. All these people around him — mostly young men like himself — aren’t they the ones who passed their exams, unlike him? Aren’t they the ones who went to university where he couldn’t make the cut? Aren’t they the ones who left him behind? Now he’s the one on the inside, at least for a little while. This thought makes him feel like he’s unfurling and opening up, like some kind of great bird, taking up space in the food chain. It seems to him that his neck is tilting forward in a predatory lean; that the bones of his feet are stretching out and turning his shambling gait into a long, deliberate tiptoe stalk; that great black wings are unfolding at his back and casting a fearsome shadow before him. He finds himself grinning, and seeing the teeth glinting in his open beak, the crowd finally backs away a little and allows him to pass. He only shrinks back down when he reaches the employees-only door, and slips inside to a chorus of hissing.

• • •

The problem with the O-PYTBM, Nuu diagnoses on his third day, the source of its great inefficiency, is that the files are neither completely nor accurately digitized, nor is the paperwork comprehensively indexed or consistently archived. The records — whose keeping is in fact both the means and the end of the Office, both its method and its madness — are unloved. The Office is negligent in their care. He struggles to resist the urge to begin cleaning it all up. He imagines a powerful vortex of reformation that begins at his hands, though he does not resist the urge to daydream about it … he imagines himself organized and internally directed, hero of the spreadsheets, savior of the misfiled, knower of the proper place of all things. But in not acting on this, the responsibility falls like scales from his eyes. The lethargy that the Office has gifted him acts as an apotropaic filter on potential acts of wanton agency, he realizes, and feels grateful for the heaviness that lies on his shoulders. What would be the point of reform, if any petty improvements would be instantly buried under the extruded work product of his thousand unimproved colleagues? They all hold each other back from falling over the edge.

Anyway, the real problem, he thinks, the problem that probably even overrides the other problem, is that the Office cannot cope with the volume of data. There are far too many people who are yet to become missing: they utterly dwarf the small population of the already lost, those who were disappeared, those who were abducted, those who were arrested and vanished into secret prisons or unmarked mass graves, those who surrendered and were shot under a flag of truce, those whose bodies were burned in mass pyres to destroy the evidence, those who were taken from their homes or from the street and became lost, or sometimes even found, in parts. Those who are yet to be missing, meanwhile, are not any of those things. Those who are yet to be missing are alive, not lost, and whole except for their hearts, which beat too fast and shed muscle mass so quickly that the chamber walls become thin, making it hard to sleep through the tachycardia, the beat fast and pattering like the tramping footsteps of a mob in the night rushing from door to door, getting ever closer to yours. Those who are yet to be missing number in the millions, and that’s the problem with the process. That, and the necessity for civilians to file all their requests in the future tense, the delicate navigation of the subjunctive that so few of them have mastered — If I and/or those that I love were to become missing, a civilian would have to say as preamble to most requests, and so few of them could even articulate this grammatical construction correctly. That’s also a problem, and maybe that’s the actual for-real real problem, he thinks, if one considers that failure at the point of the public’s interface with the process is more fundamental than flaws internal to the process itself. How can something that starts so badly end well?

• • •

Ǣ says she used to work at the Office for National Unification and Redivision, where things were even worse than this. She says she asked for a transfer and it took nearly two years before they moved her here. Nuu doesn’t want to mention his father or the nepotism, so he plays up the temporariness of his position. “It’s just an internship,” he says. He tells her not to get used to seeing him around, and then immediately regrets it. He talks about the various temporary jobs he’s had before. He tries to make them sound funny. He doesn’t mention the social media influencer thing, though. Ǣ doesn’t have a smartphone and has apparently never heard of Instagram: a feral human in the state of nature, beautiful and monstrous. He is filled with a protective, conservatory instinct. Instead he talks about working in corporate offices, which she seems to find exotic and vaguely scandalous.

“I’ve never worked in The Private Sector,” Ǣ says. She says it like that, with capital letters.

That afternoon, the staff of the third floor, including Nuu and Ǣ, are summoned for a morale-boosting workshop with a productivity consultant. The consultant is a large man in a long-sleeved shirt and tie, attire deeply unsuited to this office with its failing air-conditioning. The consultant is flushed, sweating, and breathing hard, as if on the cusp of fainting from heatstroke. He gathers the staff into an open area and forms them into a circle. Inside the circle stands the gasping consultant and his whiteboard. He starts drawing logic puzzles on it. The staff’s solutions to the logic puzzles are meant to represent something about creative thinking which will be generically useful to their productivity in some fashion. There is a box, the consultant says, and it is important to be outside it. Civilians mill around outside the circle of employees, trying to peer inside. Nobody has explained to the civilians that the workflow of the office has been interrupted for this workshop, so the outside of the circle of employees is a roiling susurration of queries and requests for assistance, and sly attempts to file paperwork by thrusting it into hands and pockets.

Nuu has been to nearly identical workshops twice before in corporate jobs — they were performed by different consultants, but it seems they’re all reading the same books, because the puzzles are familiar. Or at least, he remembers the answers to the puzzles without understanding or remembering the logic of how those answers were arrived at. He starts whispering the correct answers to Ǣ, who becomes the only person in the circle to answer the consultant’s puzzles at all. The sweating consultant seems confused by this, as if he wasn’t actually expecting audience engagement and is unsure what to do with getting responses at all, much less a string of rapid-fire answers all correctly and neatly as far out of the box as desired.

“You wanted to know what The Private Sector was like,” Nuu whispers to Ǣ.

“I hear we’re going to be made a public-private partnership next year,” Ǣ whispers back. She’s kept her eyes on the consultant the entire time. “If that happens I’m putting in for a transfer to the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms. I hear it’s not as bad there.”

“I don’t think I’ll be here long enough to have to deal with that,” Nuu says, and then clamps his mouth shut. He doesn’t want to keep reminding her, or himself, of his employment’s mortality. But it seems he can’t stop thinking about it. His time here is short, and it makes him feel reckless — like he could run out into the middle of the circle and pull the consultant’s tie into a noose. He wonders if Ǣ is flirting. Later he’ll find a brief moment to regret this last interaction even more: the bloodlessness, the banality, the regrettability, the regrets.

Someone is nudging him in the side. At first he imagines that it’s civilians attempting to attract his attention, so he ignores it, but the nudging is insistent, and when he looks he sees a short woman wearing a name tag. She’s saying something he doesn’t hear but her tag says ඤ and he remembers that this Ña is one of the people he randomly chose to send civilians to in the previous few days. Oh no, she actually came looking for me, he thinks. But then she repeats herself and this time he hears her.

“You’re Nuu, aren’t you? — The new one? — The Chairman wants to speak to you immediately.”

• • •

The Chairman’s office is on the top floor of the building. It takes up most of that floor, though the office itself is not particularly luxurious. There are many file cabinets. The air-conditioning works much better, though, and there are windows letting in natural light.

The Chairman himself is large and intimidating behind a large and intimidating table untidily piled with awards and paperwork, an ex-military man who insists on his former rank when introducing himself — Nuu doesn’t catch the rank or name and then it’s awkward to ask, and the Chairman doesn’t wear a name tag — even though it is currently superseded by his chairmanship. Nuu keeps thinking the man said bombardier which is clearly and absolutely wrong since it sounds weirdly archaic and is probably not even a real rank in the contemporary military, and anyway it sounds not fancy enough for the Chairman, who surely would not cling to a rank that wasn’t far more senior and distinguished. But Nuu is thinking of artillery, which is all he can think about for a long moment after the Chairman’s self-introduction, about shells coming down among civilians cramped into safe zones, upon refugees trapped in encampments, onto hospitals full of the already-dying, the explosions drowning out whatever the bombardier — the Chairman — is saying.

To stop thinking about these things Nuu thinks of bombardier beetles with their cannon-bodies and hot toxic chemicals fired in ferocious pulses from the tips of their abdomens. The moment he thinks this thought he knows it’s too late to unthink it because his traitor eyes can now only see the Chairman, the bombardier, as a giant beetle. A beetle-browed beetle, brown and black. The enormous table has no modesty panel: he can see, and more than see, he can dimly sense with a kind of animal panic, the seated Chairman’s legs in a wide stance like spread elytra; the crotch whose slumping thrust is like a loaded gun beneath the table, like a beetle’s abdomen with firing glands curved down and forward, pointed in his direction. There is only one seat in front of the table, directly in the line of fire. Nuu sits in it, very slowly, and tries to focus on the view above the table rather than below. The Chairman is still talking, antennae slowly waving, though it seems Nuu’s now missed quite a speech. He tunes in just as he realizes this speech is not actually about the Office or Nuu’s employment, or at least not yet. The Chairman is reminiscing about the former Chairman, Nuu’s father.

“That was when we were in university together,” the Chairman continues. “Of course that was when there was only one university in this country and we took education seriously, and the duties and obligations that it placed upon us, not like those yakos outside.” He pauses here to compose a glare at Nuu, one sufficiently layered that Nuu is given to understand that he too is being assessed as yako-adjacent at best, despite his temporary exemption from this category. The Chairman’s affect is one of deeply hostile avuncularity. “I know you understand this despite your father’s relationship with this Office: you have no place here. Do you understand this?”

Nuu nods, and then since the Chairman seems to require a verbal acknowledgement, repeats that he understands this.

“I want to be very clear about this,” the Chairman says, “With no possible room for misunderstanding since we live in an age defined by the entitlement of the young, especially with regard to the role of the government in providing them with jobs. You do not currently have a government job. You are not a permanent employee. You will not age gracefully. You will not receive a pension. Nor is your current temporary employment going to lead to any of those things. You are grist for the precariat and soon will return to it. Is that clear?”

Nuu agrees that this is clear.

The Chairman seems to mellow a little. “Tell me about your father,” he says. “How did he die?”

“A stroke,” says Nuu.

“Lightning,” the Chairman says, his jaw tightening in anger, which Nuu sees as a furious twitch of the forelegs and a tension in the antennae.

“No, I mean…”

“Nature abhors a Chairman,” the Chairman says. “Your father knew this well. He understood our struggle. It pains me that you do not.”

Very, very slowly, the Chairman’s translucent underwings slip out from his elytra and become cruciform and erect, catching all the sunlight from the windows. They are huge rainbow membranes in the light and Nuu squints so as to not look at them.

“‘No person shall propagate war,’” the Chairman says. “That’s from Act 56 of 2007, one of this Office’s foundational legislative instruments, which you should know by heart. Tell me, son. Have you ever propagated war? Have you propagated propaganda? Have you any sense of the proper shape of things? Did you speak to any of those protestors outside on your way in?”

Nuu shakes his head, hesitates, then shakes his head again, knowing all too well this makes him look guilty for no reason.

“I don’t mean those protestors,” the Chairman says. “Not the students demanding jobs. I mean the civilians protesting about their lost loved ones. Small group to the east of the door. Obviously they are not even protesting the correct office, since we don’t deal with the missing.”

“I didn’t even see them,” Nuu says. He is confused by the Chairman’s use of cardinal directions instead of relative ones. Which way is east? The sun is in his eyes, filtered through the delicate membranes of the Chairman’s wings, so he’s facing west, but he has no idea of the angle between him and the door into the building four floors below. This encounter with the Chairman — which at first he had assumed was a belated interview — has at some point become an interrogation, he thinks, though he can’t fathom to what end. He wonders if the Chairman is perhaps just fucking with him. All that unhealthy reminiscence about his father, the avuncularity gone sour. Is this still what Ǣ was warning him about, or has it sunk to a deeper level, something more dangerous? He risks a glance under the table, where at this angle he can only see the clawed tips of Chairman’s hindmost legs, which are still splayed wide apart. The firing glands below the table are an awful presence. They seem to emanate a great heat, distorting the air in the room. The Chairman’s face seems to swim in the heat, mandibles slowly working. Nuu doesn’t dare move his chair or cross his legs. His belly feels very vulnerable, its muscles knotted tight.

“It’s true that they are hard to see, the friends and family of the disappeared,” the Chairman says, ponderously. “Very true. I’d blame the crowd, but really it’s their own fault for being so few in number and so lost to this world that they are almost themselves missing.”

“Oh,” Nuu says, misreading what he thinks is a cue. “Then we should have records—” But this is a mistake. The Chairman’s antennae go stiff.

Records,” the Chairman says. “We don’t simply have records. Records are emergent. Records are immanent. Records arise from demand, from need, like maggots from meat. Tell me, do you think you just propagated war? I feel like you did, a little.”

“No,” Nuu says. He tries to say this firmly, as if conviction alone could keep him unconvicted. He can’t see the tip of the bombardier’s abdomen below the table, but he knows it is precisely aimed at his lower belly, which is already aching from the tension. He wonders how hot the chemical spray will be. Clouds of scalding steam and jets of boiling, toxic liquid in pulses like hard jabs, burning through his clothes, his skin, his muscles, his organs, his unhardened bones, his sweet marrow, his uncooked ideologies, his inchoate, indeterminate, unbegun life.

“Are you sure?” the Chairman asks. The bombardier leans forward: front legs on the table, middle legs braced to the sides, body bent almost in half with both ends pointing in Nuu’s direction over and under the table. “Are you sure you haven’t propagated war a little? Come on, you can tell me. Everybody propagates war a little. It’s perfectly normal to propagate war. Are you telling me you’ve never ever?”

Vajra Chandrasekera lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and on Twitter as @_vajra. His stories have appeared recently in Clarkesworld, Nightmare, and Fireside, among others. He blogs at vajra.me.

Issue 32

November 2020

3LBE 32

Front & Back cover art by Rew X