FOREVER ALONE DRONE: Robert Reed reimagines the Cold War

18 Dec

Many writers, as they hit their stride, abandon the short story to concentrate on their novels. Not so Robert Reed, whose prolific output embraces everything from multi-book series (he’s currently at work on a trilogy centered on his Marrow/Great Ship universe) to sharply observed short stories.

Exchange is an epic interweaving of family tales, newspaper stories and reminiscences, all beautifully shaped and angled the better to shred our received notions of the Cold War, and leave us looking askance at our world of technological plenty.

Here’s how it begins:

History is written with families.

Everything else – wars and wealth, politics and God – are like the noises you hear outside your bedroom window. Sometimes the noises are urgent, and sometimes they are important, but mostly, thankfully, the racket is somebody else’s trouble. Not yours.

My family history includes a little city that should be known for nothing and nobody. My maternal grandmother grew up there, graduating from high school before finding work with the local telephone company. She was put on the night shift, running a switchboard inside the old exchange building – a concrete-and-steel monstrosity capped with brick and designed to halfway blend into a neighborhood of brick houses. The operators, all young and female, were tucked inside one hot room in front, and the rest of the vault was filled with big switches that hummed and crackled. Every operator considered her job temporary, something to be endured before marriage and babies. Every operator knew better days were coming, and soon. But the poor pay and awful hours weren’t the worst part of their job. The worst was a local man who liked to park on the street outside. The building sported tall windows, and he would sit alone in his car, watching the operators at their stations, watching them speak politely to strangers and smile out of habit, feminine hands inserting important plugs into the essential holes.

The man was masturbating, and the girls knew it.

Their supervisors and the police knew it too. But the pervert was somebody important, and nobody dared stop him.

According to my mother’s account, Grandma was a plucky gal who didn’t suffer anything quietly. One evening she hung a curtain in the window, hiding her station as well as her intoxicating black hair. Furious, the pervert drove off to make a call. Within the hour, a telephone official arrived, ripping down the curtain while explaining to these foolish girls that personal embellishments were never, ever allowed.

Grandma nearly quit over that incident. At least that’s what I heard a thousand times. But without a husband, she needed money. This was late 1950, and the world outside was full of bad noises. The United Nations had been winning in Korea, but the godless Chinese launched their surprise attack, overrunning our lines. Historians don’t like to mention men sitting in cars, happily pulling on their puds. What matters to their stories is that our military was cut to pieces and surrounded. The US government had no choice but unleash its atomic inventory, except those first three warheads proved ineffective against the horde, and that’s why the Chinese ports and Chinese cities had to absorb the next thirty nuclear bombs.

Important names died, and nameless millions too.

And six weeks later, goaded by its wounded ally, the Soviet Union was preparing to invade Western Europe.

Even in awful times, people can push through their lives. They climb out of bed and eat what they can and then work as well as expected, which is usually just so-so. And then they eat again before dropping back under the covers, hunting sex and sleep and sometimes finding both. Tiny important things happen to everybody, and they happen in no particular order, and nobody remembers what occurred just when and why, much less what it means. But everybody in the world knows that one lowly telephone operator named Geraldine Moss is the person who saved our world.

You can read Robert Reed’s Exchange in full in Arc 1.4: Forever alone drone, out now

for iPads and iPhones

for Android devices, Windows and Mac computers

as a collectible print edition

and for Kindle.

And if you would like to write for Arc, check out our new competition.

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