February 15, 20XX
I was on an Uber drive this morning. The driver, a man in his mid-50s, welcomed me with a curt nod. I paid little attention at first, since thoughts about how I could take advantage of this technology pre-occupied my mind. After a few minutes of silence, I snuck a glance at his direction. The hands around the steering wheel shook as if they had been pumped full of electrical energy. I felt awkward then and there. Was this that vaunted empathy that clueless ethicists droned about all the time? I disliked it immediately.
A more pressing thought occurred. Had I inadvertently activated the GASLIGHT device and caused some sort of seizure? No, it couldn’t be. A few years after I removed my mentor, I had returned to her associates. They offered, and I accepted, their expertise in refining this device. We developed a way to implant it into my nervous system and now I could activate it with a mere thought. No, this was no accident.
His hands continued to grip the wheel with steel-strong force. Then, the sobs came out. I wondered if he would pull over. Oh dear, I know what you’re thinking now, Mother. That brat probably ignored the poor man and pretended that his suffering never existed. You would be incorrect. After assessing him for a few seconds, I asked him what was wrong.
He hesitated at first, unsure whether to unload his emotional burdens on a stranger.
His voice wavered a tiny increment above a whisper range. I strained to hear.
“I’m sorry, man. You just… just reminded me of a young man I knew before.”
“It’s quite alright,” I answered, trying to recall if there was some sort of standard response to this situation. “I will listen if you want.” I came out more stiff than I expected.
Through his sniffles, the man told me about his experience in Afghanistan, that forever and forgotten war. He enlisted after high school, hoping to get some basic job skills. Instead, they slapped a gun on him and told him to police the country. Since our leaders had no idea what to do, he had no idea what to do.
They stationed him at a remote mountain outpost. Contrary to my expectations, he loved it there. A beautiful sunrise always welcomed him from the horizon. He took an instant liking to the nearby village people and made quite an effort to learn their language. His comrades left him alone, some mystified, some disgusted.
One young man, around my age at the time, approached him once and asked him about his rifle. Through their mutual interest in ballistics, they became fast friends. I wonder, though, did the military really allow soldiers to fraternize with these civilians? It seemed too risky. I digress. I humored him and did my best impression of a sympathetic voice. The man rambled, though, and my impatience grew.
The soldier and the village man started acting like brothers. He started teaching the Afghan kid how to shoot an M16 rifle This part of the story really strained my credulity. Yousef, in turn, introduced him to his family and took him on tours around the mountain. My driver started bringing him books as gifts, for when the other man spent those long stretches of time with the sheep herd.
Each side looked at the relationship with wary. The villagers thought of the garrison as yet another group of thugs from a long list of occupiers. The soldiers saw hidden jihadis lying within every field and behind every fence. They were two sides at war pretending to not be at war. Oh sure, the driver told me, there were admonitions in counterinsurgency manuals to make friends with the locals, but the garrison commander implemented them half-heartedly for both logistical and cultural reasons.
Their friendship carried an undercurrent of fragility, like a rope bridge fraying at the edges. Even with their limited communications ability, Yousef and my driver attempted to strengthen this bridge. It was a fraught affair, twisted and tortured by forces beyond any of their control.
My driver detailed one incident with Yousef. The young man approached him during one of his evenings off and offered to take him somewhere on the mountain. The soldier hesitated, regulations forbid these sorts of trips for safety concerns. The risk of a Taliban ambush was high. His regard for his young friend won out in the end. He agreed and they set out.
Yousef took him to a hidden mountain trail not on any of their maps. They walked up in the cool evening air up craggy thoughts and through thorny bushes. They seemed to go up this trail for hours. Finally, as the sun slid down below the horizon, they reached a clearing. There, a group of men sat around a campfire, talking and singing loudly. Their Kalashnikovs lay on the ground nearby.
My driver froze, but a soft touch on his arm from Yousef assured him that these men posed no danger. Yousef yelled out a greeting and the men welcomed the pair in, although a few gave my driver strange looks. He recognized most of the men, as he had seen them in patrols around the village. They sat on a log next to a boisterous singer. He could make out a few words here and there, but his language abilities were still not quite up to snuff.
A few moments later, Yousef handed him a mug with some sort of liquid in it. It smelled slightly sweet. The men around the strange soldier urged him to drink, beards and sharp tongues encouraging and laughing. Yousef gave him a knowing smile. He took a sip. The liquid tasted bittersweet, some strong drink with a touch of sugar, They egged him on. He took a chug. After a while, he felt lightheaded, yet also extremely relaxed. He would later find out the drink was laced with opium. They cheered, and the celebration began in earnest.
I won’t bore you with the details as the driver bored me. Eventually, there was some sort of singing contest. Each man took turns belting out bawdy songs to the enjoyment of the others. There was even a balalaika. When it became my driver’s turn, he could only think of something his younger sister liked a lot. After he finished, the group paused, unsure how to respond. Then Yousef stood up and cheered. “Taylor Swift!” he yelled. The party continued. I admit I found this part of the anecdote amusing.
When they came back, my driver bribed the base guard with a cigarette to keep quiet. Alas, in the morning, he received a severe dressing down from his officer. After that, his fellow soldiers started to avoid him. He convinced himself to not care.
One evening not long after, the village chief ran to the garrison and begged to speak to the commander. A few of the village children had gone missing and they needed help with the search. Mindful of the PR opportunity, the commander sent out a squad, which included my driver, to help find the children. After conferring awkwardly with the chief for a few minutes, they headed towards a place in the mountain where the children usually played. Along the way, the squad leader muttered that this situation was perfect for an enemy ambush.
A few hours into the search, the squad leader sent out a scout ahead. The scout came back in haste and told them that a group of men with guns approached them. The leader cursed and immediately ordered the men to take ambush positions. My driver remembered lying in wait and the tension building as he braced his gun on a nearby tree root.
The light of a lantern or flashlight approached and they prepared to face the enemy. The point man yelled out a warning. The light stopped. He yelled out again for identification. Silence answered. My driver heard whispers and muttering from the other side. He smelled the acrid stench of a gun recently fired. Instinct screamed at him to defend himself. He opened up on the light.
An eternity passed as the night air filled with tracers. The roar of gunfire threatened to deafen him. A muzzle flashed, and he saw the horrified face of Yousef staring at him. The light disappeared and a body fell. And just as soon as it began, the firefight ended. The squad leader screamed out a cease-fire order. The smoke cleared and the squad carefully approached the enemy position.
Among the still forms and writhing bodies, my driver recognized their foes. It was the men from the village, the other search party. They had not known. He stopped and stood mouth agape before Yousef. They never did find the children.
At this moment, my driver stopped talking and began whimpering. Remarkably, he was still able to drive smoothly. A sad tale, I thought, some supernatural deity out there must have really hated him. However, his crying started to annoy me. I drummed my fingers on the car door and made my decision.
I activated the gaslight device and delved into his memories. They matched his story and were as true as memories could be. I tasted the opium drink. I relaxed my shoulders as the sun set over the unnamed Afghanistan mountains. I smelled the body order of the rough village men. My eyes lighted up as I saw Yousef approach me. I began adjusting these memories.
Yousef became a Taliban spy, manipulating the clueless American into a position of weakness. The party became an ambush, one that my driver barely escaped, nevermind that it seemed implausible. I replaced camaraderie with contempt. These ungrateful villagers aided the enemy without hesitation. The search for children became a search and destroy mission. Rather than reacting with guilt over Yousef’s bullet-ridden body, he reacted with satisfaction. These were not all the changes I came up with on my own. His tortured psyche had slowly developed these justifications. I merely brought them to fruition.
As I continued these adjustments, the man stopped his whimpering and his face hardened. The grip on the steering wheel relaxed. With a final flourish, I replaced the image of the base commander glowering at him with an image of the man beaming at his courage under fire. My driver was not a PTSD-ridden mess, but a true soldier. No more nightmares.
We arrived at my destination. He said goodbye with a curt nod. I thanked him for his service. He gave me a strange look. I smiled and walked away.
Don’t bother me with platitudes about the ethics of truth, Mother. I saved that man’s life. He would have ended up with a shotgun in his mouth sooner or later. The truth doesn’t set us free; it binds us. You should realize this by now.
Your loving son,