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Stories from the Verse
Chapter 109: Slade 125
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I suppose, Slade thought, that since we aren’t escorting a shade prisoner who is a weapons expert we’re no longer as important as we were. They were not taken to General Wilson directly, but up a chain of command that began with a lieutenant in charge of the watch, and went through a captain and a major before they were seated across from the general. The early afternoon had given ground to early evening.
“So,” General Wilson began, “you came here from General Vargas.”
“Yes, but probably not in the sense you mean,” Slade answered.
“We had been on a mission that took us into Shade territory, and when we found our way back to our own lines we connected with one of General Vargas’ patrols, and so went to his camp. We explained some of the mission to him and stayed there for some time, and then resumed our journey scouting Shade territory as we went. We were running low on supplies, and decided we needed to swing back to our own lines.”
“I see. And this mission?”
“The objective is to obtain information about the advanced weapons used by the shades, possibly samples of such weapons, so we can improve our own weapons.” That was close enough to what Vargas knew that if they compared notes at some point it wouldn’t seem like a significant difference.
“Interesting.” The general tapped his fingers thoughtfully on the table. Then he continued, somewhat hesitantly. “You don’t think it would be immoral for us to use the kinds of weapons they use?”
The question was so surprising, Slade quickly decided there was more behind it than he could easily address with a quick answer. He stalled. “I’m sorry, what do you mean?”
The general shifted his position, leaning back in his chair a bit.
“The weapons we use,” he said, “have been handed down from our grandfathers. They are honorable weapons, weapons with which one man faces another, and a man kills or dies in a fair fight. The Shades, though, use weapons of devastation. They don’t just kill a man; they mangle his body sometimes beyond recognition. They don’t face one man with one man, but use guns which can kill dozens in a few minutes. It is a totally dishonorable, indeed disreputable, way to fight. It is what makes us human, what distinguishes us from them, that we do not use such weapons.”
There was something in the way the general spoke that suggested this was personal. Slade thought it likely he had lost someone to a Shade attack, and knew he should tread carefully in this subject. On the other hand, he could hardly imagine that the use of a superior weapon was necessarily dishonorable, nor that Colonel Mlambo was in some way inhuman because he had and used the superior technology. Yet it was a fascinating notion worth exploring, and Slade couldn’t resist.
“General,” he began, then restarted. “Sir, I have great love for the traditional weapons. Put a sword and a dagger in my hands, and there is no one similarly armed I cannot defeat. Indeed, more than once I have defeated several soldiers well-armed with superior weapons, relying primarily on my sword and dagger. But you would not believe the number of years I have been practicing, training, to do that. Most of our young men--well, most of them are not even as old as that (and I am older than I appear), and in this war we don’t have time to train them. Thus we try to give them better weapons. For such a boy, a bow is a better weapon than a sword, because he has a chance to kill the enemy before the enemy can bring a sword against him. A pistol is a better weapon than a bow, and a rifle than a pistol, because they are more likely to kill at a greater distance with less practice.
“We also use artillery.” The grimace on the general’s face suggested that he did not approve of artillery. “We use it because it saves the lives of our boys and costs the lives of theirs--and ultimately, war is about making the other side sacrifice more lives than it can afford while preserving as many of our own as we can. But if I can give a boy a gun that quickly reloads itself, or that shoots twice as far, I think I’ve increased the chance that that boy is going to walk off the battlefield alive and some of his targets aren’t. That sounds to me like a good outcome.”
“But Lord Slade, what about honor? Are we not already dishonoring ourselves, as a people, by using this, this artillery, weapons intended to demolish fortifications and defensive structures, to throw death at faceless enemies, as they have done to us?”
“General, insult my wife, and we’ll have a serious talk about honor, and you will discover just how good I am with a sword--or a gun, if you prefer. But the idea that our entire people can be dishonored--maybe, but if so it is a dishonor that falls on the people, all of us, not on each of us, and the question is not whether each of us fights honorably but whether together we fight well, upholding each other.
“I’m just thinking out loud here, General. It seems to me that it’s perfectly honorable for me to walk into a fight, and to take weapons I think appropriate to the fight. It’s not so honorable for me to send someone else to fight for me, and the less so if I don’t provide him with the best weapons I can give him. Maybe it would be honorable for our entire race to die at the hands of their superior firepower, but somehow I think we would find more honor in surviving.”
“Die? You think we’re going to die?”
“Oh, right, of course. You think if we fight honorably, God or the gods or fate or karma or something will step in, because the people who fight honorably would have to win, and the people who fight dishonorably would have to lose.” Slade shrugged. “I don’t see that that’s necessarily true. The way I heard it, the giants are going to beat the gods in the end, but I’m still on the side of the gods. I agree that we should fight honorably, even if it means that we die in the battle--but I don’t think it’s at all honorable for us to expect others to fight and die in that battle without doing everything we can to keep them alive. That is, I can die honorably, but I get no honor from--is this making any sense at all to you?”
General Wilson was staring into the distance, lost in some memory.
“They cut down his entire unit. One gun, one attack, thirty men dead.”
Slade bit back the impulse to ask who. Shella spoke. “We’re sorry for your loss,” she said.
“What kind of a war is this, where boys die without ever seeing their killers? Where one shade can kill dozens of healthy young boys and escape unscathed?”
“It’s a real war, general--the kind in which people die. War has always been like that. We imagine it to be something else, something built of glory and honor, but the people who walk away from it, the people who survive, create that illusion to tell themselves that it wasn’t just luck that brought them through, that they are alive to tell the tales of victory because they were the best. Some of the best are dead, general, and some of those who live are, what’s the word I want?”
“Mediocre,” Shella volunteered.
“Yes, mediocre, at best. If we’re going to have a war, we need to come to terms with the realities. Good people, people we love, are going to die. Either we accept that, or we find a way to end the war--and from what I’ve seen, this war doesn’t end with one side winning.”
Everyone was silent for a long minute, then Slade rose and said, “Well, General, if one of your people will show us where we can bunk for the night, we’d like to get a bite to eat and a bit of sleep before tomorrow.”
The general waved a hand, and one of the other officers said, “I’ll see to them, sir.”
As they walked away, Slade said to the officer, “He lost someone.”
The officer nodded. “Grandson. He hasn’t gotten past it yet.”
Slade nodded, and they walked in silence.
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with twenty other sequential chapters of this novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #265: Versers in Motion. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter. It may contain spoilers of upcoming chapters.
As to the old stories that have long been here: