One Man's Army
His world was coming apart at the seams,
and Hootowl didn't know how to stop it.
With peace breaking out between
the Orion-Cygnus Arm and the Carina–Sagittarius Arm,
the surveillance bases in no-man's-land
were being decommissioned and evacuated.
That really ... wasn't going so well, for some people.
Folks who thrived in the quiet, predictable environment
and the meticulous work of decoding secret messages
didn't always readjust well to planetary life.
There had been some suicides,
among a rash of other disasters.
So people had started kicking up a fuss,
and the army -- both armies, really --
got testy about that.
Hootowl was, perhaps,
the best signal spotter on the beat.
Like the bird of prey for which he was named,
he had the ability to ghost through cipherspace,
hear and see everything all around him ...
and that meant that he knew
or knew about everyone.
The surveillance bases
were supposed to be dark and silent,
hidden from communication and scanners.
Most of the time they were, but sometimes,
when people had something to talk about,
they talked anyhow.
They were spies, after all;
they knew how to find each other
if they really needed to.
They had, perhaps,
more in common with each other
than with the other soldiers in the army,
the normal men and women
who mostly got sent here for disciplinary reasons
instead of some especially brilliant skill at espionage.
So Hootowl slyly patched together
a little chat session with a few other
people who might feel the same way,
some from the Orion army like himself
and others from the Carinan army.
"I won't obey the recall order,"
Hootowl said. "I like it here.
I'm not leaving just because
some brass-starred bossman
doesn't want me anymore."
"If you get left behind,
you'll have a hard time surviving,"
Operetta pointed out from the Carinan side.
"All our supplies come from the Arms,
and besides, won't you get lonely?"
"I don't care if everyone else jets
and I'm the only person left here,"
"If I have to be an army all by myself,
then that's what I'll do."
"You won't be the only person left,"
Weavercreep said. "I'm not going back.
Everyone in the Arm thinks I'm a creep."
"Well if you're staying, Weavercreep,
then I'm staying too," Operetta sent.
Hootowl got the impression that
the two of them were more than just friends,
although how they had managed that
from opposite sides was beyond him.
Others joined in,
a few and then several,
rather more than Hootowl expected.
So it went, and it went quickly.
Some people deserted their stations
while others refused to leave on order.
Both armies pushed back,
because that was what armies did.
Everything was chaos.
Hootowl listened to it all,
fidgeting and fretting.
He didn't like all this disorder,
and not even the ticking of his timepieces
could soothe his frayed nerves.
The whole movement was just wrong,
like a clock without its hands
properly anchored in the center.
Hootowl felt bad about it,
but he fixed machines, not people.
He found signals, not solutions.
Then all of a sudden,
like a cuckoo popping out of a clock,
an idea popped out of Hootowl's head.
Why couldn't he at least try
to put these scattered pieces together?
Surely nobody else was doing it!
He had to do it fast,
before he could really think about it
or panic and talk himself out of trying.
So he made a recording very quickly
and broadcast it on an open bandwidth
(which was against everyone's regulations,
but both armies were about to hate him anyhow)
announcing the secession from the galactic arms
and the formation of a new, separate society.
He set the recording on loop
so that it would bounce from here to there
continually, to make sure everyone caught it.
Then he shut down the equipment.
Hootowl stared at the dark screen
and shook, very quietly and very thoroughly,
as he wondered what he had just done.
He wasn't any kind of leader.
He was just a man --
not even a soldier anymore! --
and he had no idea
what he'd gotten himself into.
What did he know about leading people?
He could barely manage
to keep his own schedule straight;
that was why he loved timepieces so much.
It was so easy to lose himself
in the deep sweet zone of hyperfocus,
whether he was stalking stealth signals
or playing with the innards of a watch.
Being a leader was for normal people,
for officers equally good at giving and taking orders,
for men who didn't forget about the outside world
sometimes for days at a time.
It was for people who liked people,
who could talk to each other easily.
Then again, Hootowl thought,
what did normal people know
about leading people who weren't?
Certainly they had done a wretched job so far
in their attempts at demobilization.
Maybe he wasn't
so hopelessly unqualified after all.