The Philosopher’s War
I am a philosopher.
Je suis une philosophe.
I am an American.
Je suis une américaine.
I am a friend.
Je suis une amie.
United States Sigilry Corps, Phrasebook #4 for Overseas Use, 1915
THREE HUNDRED OF US SAT shoulder to shoulder on the rickety wooden bleachers of the stadium in which we would make the transatlantic crossing, sweating under the afternoon sun without a lick of shade. One hour passed, then two. As we waited, the mood went from nervous anticipation to annoyance to dull, stupid endurance.
We were a mixed group of new officers in the United States Sigilry Corps—Logistics hoverers, messagists, smokecarvers, medical philosophers, and sixty-eight freshly minted Rescue and Evacuation fliers, who had just that morning finished our six weeks of advanced flight training. On the infield in front of us sacks and cargo crates were stacked twenty feet high, with a small clearing in the middle in which ten women stood—the Corps transporters who would be jumping us to France in rapid sequence. They at least had parasols. One of them was fanning herself with the cargo manifest.
I shifted on the hard bench.
“They’ve got us arranged backwards,” whispered Essie Stewart, who was sitting next to me. “They should have us in the center and the supplies around the edges. In case the transport bubble comes up short.”
“Well, if we lose something, they’d probably rather keep the cargo than a lot of green recruits,” I joked.
Essie swallowed. We’d heard a lot of talk like that in training from our flight instructors about replacements such as ourselves: disposable; worse than useless; won’t survive ten weeks. We’d tried to chuckle over it, except when our dread that they were right stuck deep in our throats and we weren’t able to force a laugh past it.
And then, without so much as an announcement, the first heavyweight transporter took a knee on the infield, drew a sigil, and jumped the entire stadium from an empty field outside Presque Isle, Maine, to an isolated hilltop in New Brunswick. A few of the passengers cried out in alarm. I tightened my grip on the bench.
The earth beneath us settled into the new locale and the dilapidated stadium creaked and shifted with it—the building must have dated from the Franco-Prussian Intervention. Before I had time to take a breath, the next transporter drew and jumped us to a tiny island off the coast of Newfoundland called Killiniq.
Someone behind us was crying.
“Gosh,” Essie whispered.
She and I had joined up together after a year at Radcliffe College and had gone through flight training in the same group. She’d been a godsend. I tried to imagine what it would have been like as the first man to join Rescue & Evac without Essie’s constant reassurance to the other recruits that yes, I could do the work if they would only let me, and no, I wasn’t some sort of pervert or sex maniac or transvestite or any of the hundred other delightful theories they came up with. Yes, he really was the first man to medal in the long course at the General’s Cup. Yes, he really shot Maxwell Gannet, the crazed anti-philosopher who’d wanted to exterminate American sigilry in
the name of God. Yes, he was really lover to Danielle Hardin, who’d rescued the entire Commonwealth army at Gallipoli, a hero without parallel to the young empirical philosophers we’d trained alongside.
Essie’s word had carried a lot of weight. Her performance in the General’s Cup had made her famous, too. She’d edged out the two fastest fliers in the world in what the Detroit Defender had called “the greatest upset of all time.” Then the other girls had met her and, of course, Essie had been Essie: shy but determined, a prim, rail-thin rich girl who never put on airs. All through our grueling training in the dead of the Texas summer, she’d never flinched at floor scrubbing or powder bag filling or any other hard duty. She’d always volunteered for overnight watch and guard shifts. Always a spare minute to help patch a uniform or take dictation from her less literate squadmates so they could send letters home. They’d loved her. (That she could outfly the entire company in a race of any distance—one hundred yards or one hundred miles—didn’t hurt either.)
I looked at her beside me now. Her lower lip was trembling.
We jumped again, making the long swap from Killiniq across the Labrador Sea to an ice-covered valley in western Greenland. Danielle had once told me that the Corps transporters intentionally mispronounced it as the “killing jump,” because of the strain that the distance put on the sigilrist. Every few years, one of them dropped dead from the effort.
“That’s the hard one,” I said to Essie. “We’re going to be okay.”
She tried to put on a stoic face, but her eyes were full.
Six hours earlier, in morning assembly, the whole company had been in a celebratory mood: our last day of training. Graduation ceremonies would be held in the afternoon and then we would have three days’ leave before our overseas deployment. My mother, a retired corpswoman, had planned to attend the formal commissioning ceremony; Danielle had arranged to come too and then stay on in San Antonio so she and I could spend my last stateside days together.
I’d stood in line with the other trainees, laughing and jibing, as our flight
instructors handed out the single plain brown bar of rank that we would sew on the collar of our uniform in preparation for the afternoon’s exercises. No longer Provisional Sigilwomen, but rather proper Sigilwomen Third Class, or Sig-3 as we called the rank.
Our chief flight instructor had skipped over Essie, much to the poor young lady’s distress, only to return to her at the end: for her outstanding performance, she’d been promoted to Sigilwoman Second Class. We’d applauded and Essie had done her damnedest not to bawl. Not, I suspected, out of joy. The promotion meant she would outrank many of the more seasoned women in France, and R&E fliers were notorious for balking at orders if their socks had been in the service longer than their Sig-2.
Then came the bad news for the rest of us: pre-overseas leave, canceled. Graduation ceremonies, canceled. Immediate deployment. Ten minutes to pack. Dress in field skysuits with harness and tackle stowed at the ready.
Once the shock had worn off, we’d rushed to pack our things, the women in their barracks and me in my tent removed from the main building by fifty yards. It had taken me little enough time. I’d stuffed my duffel with two spare olive-green skysuits—the padded, high-necked coveralls we wore while flying—which I’d had to procure from a civilian vendor, as the Corps quartermasters were not in the practice of issuing suits to six-foot-tall men. One army dress uniform in place of the Corps’ traditional jacket, blouse, and full skirts. And to complete the time-honored full-dress outfit, a parasol and saber, which had been presented by my mentors at Radcliffe—not that I seemed likely to be deployed to any formal balls.
We’d ridden the civilian transporter line to Maine, then hiked a half mile up the road to the Corps stadium to cross the Atlantic with our own women.
Now, we jumped to the eastern shore of Greenland, then a rocky field in Iceland and a beach in the Faroe Islands.
Essie put her head so close to mine that our foreheads were almost touching.
“What?” I asked.
“We’re going to be there in two minutes,” she whispered. “They could put me out there in command. In the field. Today.”
“Not on the first day.”
“If we catch a mass casualty—”
“Then you’ll run it by the book and it’ll be great.”
“Robert, I can’t.” Essie had her chin to her chest and her eyes closed so she wouldn’t cry. “I can’t do this. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t!”
We jumped to Inverness, Scotland, where a light rain was falling.
“You’re not allowed to say that, ma’am,” I whispered.
. . . to Manchester under gray skies . . .
“I’m allowed to say it today! I’m allowed to say it to you.”
. . . to London . . .
“One time,” I said.
“I can’t do it,” she said in a voice like a mouse’s squeak.
My own chest echoed the sentiment every time I tried to take a full breath—I can’t, I’m not ready, they’ll hate me, they’ll send me home. So, make a joke. Bear up under it. Don’t let anyone see it, never admit it out loud.
Then the temperature rose fifteen degrees, the sky was clear, and it was early evening. We’d arrived in Le Havre.
A Corps colonel wearing a smokecarver’s gray work apron over her uniform entered the stadium. She lifted a speaking trumpet to her lips, shouted, “Welcome to France!” and exhorted us to exit in an orderly fashion and find the representatives from our units, who were waiting outside.
I hefted my duffel and we made our way down the stairs and across the infield to one of the exits. Outside, the officers picking up their replacements seemed not to have been briefed on the “orderly” part of the operation. Dozens of them milled about, shouting out the numbers of their units or the names of the greenhorns they were trying to find. It would be a wonder if this sorted itself out by doomsday.
As we plowed through the confusion, Essie reached out and took my hand. Her fingers were thin and cool.
“Robert . . .” Her voice caught.
Essie didn’t like strangers, hated crowds, and couldn’t abide racket. She also didn’t approve of hand holding. She gave me a desperate look, but no words came out.
I knew. Even for a callow young man, it was impossible to miss a crush as big as the one Essie had developed on me back at Radcliffe. But fraternization with a fellow officer would get me thrown out of the Corps so fast that I wouldn’t even have time to hear the threads snap when they ripped the insignia off my jacket. And I was saving my heart for Danielle, with whom things were . . . tricky. Especially now that she and I wouldn’t be spending three days’ leave together.
Essie tightened her grip on my hand. She was headed to First Division along with most of the rest of our company. I was the sole flier assigned to Fifth Division. Outside of a major evacuation, we were unlikely to see each other. Maybe it was kinder that way.
“You yell ‘First Division’ loud as you can and let them find you,” I said to her. “Give ’em hell, ma’am.”
I swept a loose strand of hair out of Essie’s eyes and tucked it behind her ear. She let go of me and clapped her hand to her face, as if I’d burned her skin where I’d touched her.
I turned to find my own wing. Behind me, I heard Essie bellow, “R&E! First Division reinforcements, on me!”
• • •
I did very little in the way of shouting, relying on Fifth Division to recognize the single male present. As I circled the crush, I spotted a lanky beanpole of a woman at the edge of the crowd. She’d made a sign out of a piece of cardboard tied to a stick: DIV 5 R&E. I made my way toward her.
She had a portable message board strapped to her forearm and was doubled over it, bobbing her head up and down like a crane. She looked about twenty-five years old. On her collar, she wore three brown bars edged with gold; on the left sleeve of her skysuit, a thin white stripe ran from shoulder to wrist. That made her a squadron commander with at least a thousand souls evacuated, plus the Corps’ highest decoration for valor. A formidable woman.
I cleared my throat and came to attention in front of her. “Sigilwoman Third Class Robert A. Canderelli, reporting,” I announced.
The name still sounded awkward in my mouth. After my brush with infamy a few weeks earlier, the Corps had requested that I enlist under an alias, to protect me against unwelcome attention. (Not idly, as it turned out. A gang of Trenchers had been caught trying to sneak on base at Fort McConnell during my second week of training, with me as their target.) I’d taken my father’s surname.
The tall, skinny woman finished writing her message and looked up at me like I was the lowest worm in existence. My insides turned to slush.
“Hell,” she drawled.
She pulled a harness out of her pack and began putting it on. It was only when she gave me an irritated look that I understood I was to ready myself for flight, too.
“A lot of girls going to be disappointed,” the Sig-1 said.
“I’m sorry, ma’am?” I said.
“They took odds on whether it was Roberta or Robert A. Wagered their spots in the flight rotation. They said Gen. Blandings isn’t crazy enough to take a man. I told them don’t bet on it.”
My Sig-1 had probably made that up, but had I been a woman in one of the R&E wings, a Roberta with a typo might have seemed likelier than a male philosopher.
“Are you a gambling man, Robert A?” the Sig-1 asked me.
It struck me as a question with a correct answer, though I couldn’t decide which.
“Not often,” I said.
“A Christian?” she asked, sounding suspicious.
She heaved a twenty-pound powder bag to me and attached a second to her own rigging.
“Gonna have to pick one,” she said. “Serve long enough with Fifth Division and you’re bound to believe in either Jesus Christ or the laws of probability.”
I nodded, hoping I hadn’t just given myself a reputation for indecisiveness.
“You belong to second squadron,” she said. “So, I own you until such time as the Lieutenant decides you fit better with the layabouts in first squad or the incompetents in third. My name’s Millen and there’s no ‘ma’am’ or ‘sir’ or curtsying, unless we have a visiting dignitary.”
“Understood,” I said.
Sig-1 Millen put on her leather crash helmet and adjusted her goggles over her long, angular face.
“You’re no fun at all!” she complained. “Were you born without a sense of humor or did they beat it out of you in training?”
“More the latter.”
“Well, locate it. In the field, it’s laugh or go mad.”
“I’m not even supposed to be here today!” I blurted out. “We were supposed to have three days’ leave and then come over on the Olympia.”
The rumor, from the very first day in Texas, had been that our unit was one of the lucky ones that would ship to France aboard a luxury liner pressed into service as a troop transport. She was a beautiful Eupheus ship that put up four banks of kite sails and set a perpetually westward course at forty knots, blown by the hurricane-force winds summoned up by her philosophical officer. Our training instructors had spent the final weeks providing ever more lavish descriptions of the Olympia’s opulence: a swimming pool, wood-paneled staterooms, a seventeen-piece orchestra, a gourmet chef.
Millen slapped her thigh. “Now that’s funny. The Olympia! Does she still have a shuffleboard court and Persian carpets in the bathrooms?”
“Umm . . . something like that.”
“Robert A, the Olympia sank ten years before you joined up. Shit, they’re making Sig-3s just as stupid as they used to. The Olympia. Oh, you’ll do fine.”
Possibly our training company hadn’t been the first one to believe the story. Millen helped me secure my overseas bag to the back of my harness.
“I am sorry about your leave,” she added. “First Division set a couple
wings down in a minefield last week. Chewed up enough women that they cried for their reinforcements early and got near your whole training company. You ready?”
I clipped my powder bag to my right hip. I pushed the thumb lever on the mechanical regulator to open it and set the flow rate. The mixture of sand and fine-ground cornmeal, which provided the catalyst for philosophical flight, began to trickle out. I gripped the tip of the reg between my thumb and forefinger like a pencil.
On Millen’s signal, I drew a glyph to launch and popped into the air. I redrew to adjust course, adding speed and altitude, then drew again every eight seconds to prevent my sigil from fading, following Millen southeast.
Being airborne was a relief. Even thousands of miles from home, the regulator had the same solid feel in my hand; the powder produced the same subtle hiss as it flowed out of the waxed canvas bag. The sigil’s thrust lifted through the center of my body and the sense of buoyancy was as intoxicating as ever.
We flew for an hour. Beneath us, fields slipped by, a chaotic patchwork of yellow and gold instead of the orderly rows of farms I’d known in Montana. Even the grass looked foreign: it was the wrong shade of green, bending and swaying to a different rhythm than it had back home. Gradually, the ground became more scarred, the roads muddier, the earth marred with shell craters, the farmhouses and villages in ruins. This had been disputed territory as recently as a few months before. We didn’t see any soldiers or artillery, though. They were farther east.
I glanced over at Millen, ten feet off my shoulder with her speed matched to mine. She had her eyes closed. She wasn’t sleeping—not the way she was holding her course and redrawing sigils—but something akin to sleep. Even my mother, who was the most experienced flier I knew, didn’t dare do that.
The sun was nearly touching the horizon by the time we reached Fifth Division’s encampment outside the village of Commercy, twenty miles behind the front lines. Millen waved with her off hand to catch my attention.
She pointed to the ground, where a large landing field had been drawn with white paint on a flat stretch of grass. I put two fingers to my temple to indicate that I understood.
As we came over the landing field, Millen pirouetted to kill her forward momentum, then pulled her knees to her chest and reverse-drew to descend smartly. She halted a few inches above the ground and straightened her legs to set down. A classic tuck-and-groove approach, though too conservative for my taste.
I flared into a forward half somersault, so that I was flying upside down and backward, braked hard, and pushed toward the ground. At an altitude of fifty feet, I flipped back upright and drew for maximum upward thrust to stop my dive. I came to a halt just above the ground and settled my feet.
“Oh, holy Jesus in a wheelbarrow!” Millen howled. “He’s a hotshot! Did you grow up in the circus?”
“No, ma’am,” I said. “That’s a standard flare and—”
“That’s a circus landing for when the Germans take a shot at you! There’s no one to impress out here and I can’t replace you if you break a leg.”
I’d spent months at Radcliffe working on that maneuver—the fastest and most precise landing approach possible—and then six weeks doing it at Fort McConnell, where no one had ever considered it showy or dangerous.
Millen led me down a row of eighteen canvas tents to the last one in line.
“This one’s yours, so drop your gear,” she said. “It’s supposed to be two sigilwomen in each, but it’ll rain lemon drops in hell before Fifth Division gets a full complement. You’ll share with the foul-weather gear.”
Half the tent was crammed with piles of rubberized capes and boxes of wool sweaters. The other half had a cot and a hat rack. It stank of mothballs and looked like the spiders had been busy in the corners.
“We’ll find your squadmates,” Sig-1 Millen said. “Unless you want one right now.”
“One what?” I asked.
“One. An evacuation, a quick one. I’ll take you forward and you can grab one.”
I had flown passengers on hundreds of occasions, but the thought of taking one now made my heart stutter. I’d waited my whole life to fly a real evacuation. If the war ended tomorrow, I could at least say I’d had my one.
“Yeah,” I said, not wanting to sound overeager.
“Of course he does!” Millen hooted. “The squadron hotshot’s going to get his first evac before he even goes on duty. I love it!”