Warning: the following story contains scenes of violence and death, as well as musings on the emotional impact of killing. It is not an easy read. While I think such stories need to be told, they are not for everyone. Reader discretion is advised.
They had no names.
Or at least, none that we were aware of. As was so often the case, they existed only as images taken from the sky. White humanoid blobs in a sea of grey, their body heat shining bright against the cool earth, no names or identities that we cared to know. They were, simply, targets.
There were some things we could guess, later on. The conscripts, the farmers and the workers who had no choice but to fight for a cause they didn't believe in, had mostly escaped by that point. Their masters were growing desperate, too desperate to notice if a couple of nobodies sneaked away in the night. Their reach no longer spanned nations; their wrath was limited to a few small villages on the banks of a mighty river. Those who remained were the fanatics, the true believers who wanted to fight and die for their god.
We were happy to oblige them.
These three men, they were no cowards. We could admit that. We could admire them for their bravery, even as we despised them for their cruelty. We saw the bodies, mangled and shredded nearly beyond recognition by fiendish traps designed to wound rather than kill. A dead man, after all, is a waste. When he dies, he only takes himself from the battlefield. A wounded man, on the other hand, takes several more away from the front. He diverts time and resources, and his screams and cries rend the hearts of his comrades, sinking veins of fear and doubt into the bedrock of their resolve.
Maybe these three never personally planted any bombs. Maybe they never personally beheaded women and children, never took part in the brutal torture and murder of their captured foes. Their war might have been a clean war, an honorable war.
We didn't care.
If they didn't personally participate in the atrocities, they couldn't have protested too much. It couldn't have been something that weighed too heavily on their hearts. After all, they were still there, still fighting. Regardless of what they might or might not have felt, what they might or might not have done, they still took up arms against our comrades, and that was all the reason we needed.
I say comrades, but that, dear reader, is a poor substitute for the reality of the situation. We didn't share a religion, customs, or culture. For the most part, we didn't even speak the same language. We were strange and alien to them, foreigners from a far distant land that they'd only seen in movies and on TV. And yet, they were our brothers and sisters, united by a common cause: a foe so terrible that the whole world cried out against the atrocities they committed.
We might not have understood more than a few words of each other's language, but we shared meals, cigarettes, and companionship. We traded for trinkets and such, creature comforts and novelties that were of no real value, but nonetheless brought some measure of value to us. We gave them arms, equipment, and training. They, in turn, gave their lives on the frontlines. This was their war, after all, their land, their people. And when they marched towards the sound of guns, we were their guardian angels, raining down death and destruction upon our mutual enemy.
In the end, it didn't matter how these three men ended up in that field. All that mattered was they had their guns pointed at our brothers. That was all the reason we needed, all the reason I needed.
As is always the case, when it's time to get serious, there's no time for worry or doubt. There's nothing but the mission, a ritual that must always be performed flawlessly, first time and every time. Words, meaningless to the casual observer, fly across the room at breakneck speed. Numbers are checked and rechecked, coordinates and ranges verified, a dance as delicate and precise as a timepiece built by a master.
The pressure was on, but we performed to perfection. Nothing else was acceptable when lives were on the line. One transposed digit or fumbled designator could mean the difference, not between life and death, because there would be death regardless. But rather, our performance decided who was going to die: our brothers or the enemy.
On that day, the equation balanced in our favor. These three men had moments left to live, and they had no idea.
In a sense, they were merely collateral damage. The real target was some ways away, a building being used as a bunker. We knew there were fighters there; the fire from that building had effectively halted the advance along that route all morning. It had to go, and we had the privilege of wiping it off the map. It vanished in a cloud of smoke and debris, leaving only a crater that glowed with searing intensity on the infrared behind.
The three men were some ways away from the building, in a hastily improvised fighting position on the other side of a field. They were outside the immediate radius of shrapnel, or perhaps the furrows offered some protection. Whatever the case, they didn't die bleeding.
You see, an explosion doesn't just kill with fire or shards of metal. Stand close enough to a large enough blast and the pressure wave will kill you all the same. Lungs collapse into useless lumps. Brains are rattled around in their skulls like jelly in a teacup. Sometimes, there's no sign of damage at all. The pressure just switches you off like a light switch.
The first man never moved from his hole. He didn't so much as twitch. The second dropped to his knees, shook his head like a horse trying to shoo away flies, collapsed, and was still. The third man managed to stand and run. He made it perhaps five or six steps before he too met his maker.
On the surface, there was nothing that made these men special. They weren't the first, not by a long shot, nor were they the last. As for how many we killed, no one knows for sure. Dozens, certainly. Perhaps hundreds. Probably not thousands. We weren't that economical, after all.
The only reason I remember them at all is because the next day, they were still there. The battle was over. We were victorious, but there was a chance that the enemy was still hiding nearby, waiting to strike behind the lines, so we watched. And they were still there, still dead. No one had bothered to collect their bodies.
On thermal, a corpse is hard to see until it starts to decompose. The process generates heat. Not as much as a living body, but enough that it can easily be seen against the background of a cool ground. Light gray against dark. For days they remained, until their bodies cooled once more to match the soil.
I don't know why that bothered me. I had no problem killing them, and if I had to do it again, I would. The instant they took up arms against my brothers and sisters on the ground, they forfeited their right to live. But it does. I'll likely carry that image of their slightly bloated bodies to my grave.
I wrote this story roughly three years ago, in the wake of one of the worst days of my life. It's amazing how much modern war looks like the future when you take a step back and look at it through a stranger's eyes.
Since the earliest days of humankind, as we huddled around fires in caves, humans have sought to understand the world through the lens of speculative fiction. Our earliest recorded used the fantastical to explain the weft and weave of the world. The ancients imagined gods, spirits, whole worlds just out of sight. It was through these tales of myth and legend that they hoped to shine a light into the endless abyss of the unknown.
Today, speculative fiction is no less an important part of our cultural narrative. Science fiction allows us to imagine the shape of the future, while making poignant observations about the present. Fantasy allows us to imagine worlds where whim and whimsy still reign supreme, worlds where the brave deeds of heroes still matter. And on a smaller level, they allow writers to shape their experiences, their beliefs, their hopes and fears, into a context that the reader can understand from the comfort of their daily lives.
It's in the spirit of the latter that I hope to find my place.
The following is a collection of short stories I've written, some new, some old. Most are science fiction, though some might venture into fantasy. All have personal meaning. In the tradition of the ancients, I use speculative fantasy as a lens to understand the world I live in, as well as to contextualize and process the things I've experienced.
Some of these stories will be difficult to read. I don't claim to be a good writer at the best of times, and trying to convey my thoughts and emotions through fiction is never easy. Many of them are my way of trying to find meaning in senseless tragedy. Nonetheless, if you choose to explore my worlds with me, I hope that you'll find some meaning in them, too.