By Robert Lynch
“I’ve heard people say that war is hell,” the aged Commander told me, “but this is the first war I’ve seen actually take place there.”
The world of Blok was a landscape of molten rock and pyroclastic clouds. I jotted down his comment in case I could use it later in my article; it had the kind of panache that editors thought readers enjoyed. Under the darkness of the volcanic clouds, illuminated by the red of rivers of molten lava, two armies fought. Our glorious soldiers, equipped in the finest battle armour our tax dollars could afford, met the Lians in vicious hand to hand combat. The amount of ash in the air, coupled with the heat, rendered our advanced weapons completely useless. If the battle waged long, no doubt more effective weapons would arrive, but for right now, the only thing our soldiers had to fight with was their fists. That’s not entirely accurate; some of the more intrepid soldiers had armed themselves with rocks.
The Lian army was no better off than ours, their weapons just as effective. If I were to hold up the tradition of the war correspondent, I should paint the enemy as monsters. Vile, evil creatures as physically grotesque as they are morally corrupt. Maybe I’m not experienced or jaded enough, but I’m not going to do that. The Lian warriors stood proud on the battlefield and fought bravely. They had fire in their belly, every bit as much as our soldiers had. I can’t, in good conscience, disrespect a foe that exhibits that much honour. The Lians ran on six legs, but stood on four and used their front legs to fight. Each wore green body armour designed to resist various modern weapons. The fleshy blue skin beneath had white patterns, without further investigation I cannot say whether they were ceremonial decorations or natural skin pigment. What I can say is that they can take a punch. The soft skin lent itself perfectly to this kind of war; our soldiers could bruise the Lians without ever doing any internal damage. While they had a weight advantage on our soldiers, they had an equally hard time pressing that advantage against the naturally strong carapaces of our army.
The battle raged on as the Commander and I watched from our vantage point.
Exhausted warriors, from both sides, fell back to rest as fresh combatants replaced them. As skirmishes go, this one had a low body count so far. Tired soldiers actually sat and rested at the rear of the fighting. It seemed so absurd.
“It seems so pointless, doesn’t it?” I asked the Commander, “We aren’t even fighting over the same thing. The Lians want Uranium for their fission drives and we want Zirconium for our ship hulls. Now, because our respective governments can’t figure out how to share, the army has to act out this farce. Every hit is potentially fatal for those men, it’s easy to be flippant about it but a knock in the wrong place can shut down organs, cause concussion, or even death. Lives could be lost because of political posturing; it makes me sick to think about it.”
“You want some advice from an old soldier?” The Commander asked. I nodded. “Don’t think about it here. Back home on Fricke you can ask all the questions you want, hold a rally or whatever. In battle, you can’t let those thoughts in. Hesitation kills more soldiers in war than the most decisive enemy strategy. Here, you can’t juggle with the morality of what you have to do. Stand your ground and do your best to kill the enemy. The people that come back from war know this all too well, if you are to survive you must focus on surviving and all other considerations must fall away.”
“I guess you’re right.” More exhausted soldiers tagged out.
“I just pray, to our gods and theirs, this war doesn’t last longer than seven weeks.” The Commander’s eyes were hard.
“Why seven weeks?” I asked.
“Our closest depots, and theirs, are about seven weeks travel from Blok. That’s how long it’ll take for blade weapons to get here. As soon as they arrive, I’ll be forced to deploy them. I have no idea if their weapons or ours will get here first, so as I said, I cannot hesitate. When the weapons arrive, one side is going to be annihilated. If the politicians haven’t figured out a cease fire by then things are going to escalate to a full blown war.”
I studied his face; under the calm facade of the Commander was a man just as frightened as I was that all of this was foolish. The difference was, where my duty was to question, his duty would not allow him to. I looked at the man and knew, knew, he would not stop until he was ordered to. If it came time, he would ride into battle against unarmed opponents and slaughter them. And if their weapons arrived first, he would stand against a superior enemy and die. For the Commander, to do otherwise would be treason.
I’d known for a long time, academically, that I didn’t have what it took to be a soldier. On that hill, looking into that old man’s grey eyes, I finally understood why that was. I wasn’t brave enough.