A Rock by Any Other Name’, Rick Novy

Illustration © 2008 G. Edwin Taylor

 [ War hero 1; © 2008, G. Edwin Taylor ] "I'm angry." Heads all turned, suddenly interested in what the war hero had to say.

"I'm angry because they lied to me. They asked for sacrifice and we expected nothing in return. After all, this was a war of patriotism. Defending the nation, they told us.

"Out on the rim, the colonies became targets to those who wanted nothing better than to martyr themselves. Easy targets for a people no better than savages." Heads in the crowd nodded in agreement.

"It took us eighteen months of travel to reach the colonies, cooped up in three-deep bunks, exercising with springs and eating plastic and drinking swill. Nothing improved upon arrival. Men, antsy for action after so many months of inactivity, waited for orders that never came.

"We sat idle while news of more sneak attacks on the colonies filtered over the net. No defense of the colonies for our unit. I didn't understand why, and I didn't care. These colonists were our brothers, and I wanted to defend them.

"Our orders came many weeks after we arrived. Our unit would not defend the colonies, our mission turned out to be far more exciting. The entire unit cheered when they heard we would be striking the enemy at home, a pre-emptive strike.

"That meant another six months of travel, which quieted the cheering once that realization set in. Cramped quarters again, more swill, more sweat, more smell. It didn't matter. We intended to do as much damage to the enemy as we could, and that did matter.

"When we arrived, the battle had already been joined. Our troop transport was preceded by the heavy artillery, three battleships and seventeen aegis destroyers. Ours was one of twelve transports prepared to invade.

"We watched the bombardment from the rear on our monitors. Huge explosions visible from orbit, carpet bombing with mountain-crushers, all to soften up the enemy before we set foot on the ground." No sound came from the crowd. Everyone within earshot concentrated on the war story. They didn't get many chances to hear about the fighting from someone who was there.

"From space, the scene took on a surreal feeling, the muted explosions turning vast swaths of continent into a flaming hell, yet only silence reached our ears. Sound doesn't travel through space. When the bombardment ended, we still waited.

"One never knew what passed through the mind of a General. The Commander-in-Chief appointed these Generals to lead this assault. The Commander-in-Chief stands by his people, ready to protect them against the heinous crimes of the enemy. That's why we're here. That's why I volunteered for this service, volunteered for the risk and danger, to protect my family and my people.

"Time lasted forever as we waited for our invasion. When we finally got the word, adrenaline surged, and tension hung in the air. The hull of our transport vibrated as we entered the thin wisps of the upper atmosphere. This gradually amplified until it reached a violent quaking that tapered off as we dove deeper toward the surface.

"The officers turned off the screens once we hit atmosphere. We rattled around inside that transport until everyone sported bruises. We didn't mind, the bumping around heightened a soldier's awareness.

"When the hatch of the transport opened, row after row of soldiers jumped in unison, landing with retros, falling hard, but ready to fight.

"And fight we did. Machine gun fire from the front ranks mowed down the enemy. We made rapid progress, advancing as fast as we could move, slipping on blood-stained surfaces and stepping over enemy bodies.

"The blood-lust in my fellow soldiers surprised me, though I trained with most of them, and fought along side others. I never expected to see this much glee at the stock end of a rifle." A child began to speak in the crowd and several people hushed the little boy.

"The advance halted at dusk. We secured the perimeter and settled in for the night. I shared a fire with three other soldiers. I don't know their names. I didn't forget, I just never learned them. I'd been a soldier long enough to know you just don't ask names until your companions live at least three weeks under fire. Getting attached will get you a section 8.

"When the time came for Taps, I was ready for sleep. Invasions take a lot out of a body, and a soldier needs rest to be effective. Yawning and eager to crawl into bed, it riled me when an officer tapped me on the shoulder.

"I followed the officer to a clearing where seven other men had gathered. We had all been hand-selected for a special mission, the details of which we would learn on a need-to-know basis. This was why I volunteered for this service--Secret missions, clandestine adventure, all in service of my country.

"Captain Mayne led the eight of us toward a stone bridge leading across a major river. The bridge somehow escaped bombardment and scorched earth defense, and on the other side, a tall tower loomed. I knew we were headed toward that tower.

"We took heavy fire when we reached the bridge. I watched three of my comrades fall, leaving only five of us and Captain Mayne. We launched a rocket through a window of the tower and much of the gunfire fell silent.

"Once we had the chance, it didn't take long to storm the tower. The locked gate slowed us by mere seconds, and another rocket opened the door for us.

"Inside, we fought in close quarters. Captain Mayne ordered us up, and up we fought. The stairs spiraled around the inside of the outer wall of the tower, making good cover both for us and the enemy throughout the climb.

"At one point, a group of enemy defenders charged down the stairs, but we mowed them down and hardly lost a step. Resistance thinned, and we burst into the room at the top of the tower with nary a shot fired.

"I expected we would burst into the Imperial palace and storm the Imperial throne. The main thing I can say about our target on this raid is that it was unexpected. The chamber at the top of the tower, I discovered as we raided the place, held only documents.

"Captain Mayne ordered us to stand watch as he rifled through drawer after drawer of filed hard-storage disks. With a sigh of relief, he grabbed three disks and turned around without even closing the file drawer.

"As Captain Mayne walked past me to get to the front of the unit, I glanced at the disks in his hand. Only the chicken-scratching of the enemy's language appeared on the disks. Curiosity got the better of me, and I asked the soldier next to me what he thought the disks contained. I said it loud enough Captain Mayne could hear. He pranced in such a giddy state, I guessed right. He wanted to talk about it to somebody."

Still rapt by the battle story, the crowd leaned closer, hoping to learn of some valiant act or dirty little secret. Oh, the dirty secrets to reveal.

"Do you know what those disks contained? They contained the locations of all the enemy's palladium asteroid mines. Palladium--the one element that allowed reasonable commercial space travel. Earth had always been short of palladium in quantities. Earth imported palladium from all over the known universe to make up for the shortfall at home.

"Now, here we were, getting ready to take palladium by force. I held my tongue. A soldier doesn't get into it with his commander in a hot zone. One's own life might depend upon that commander to get out again.

"That providence turned out to be true here. We took fire as soon as we got back to the bridge. Heavy fire. Captain Mayne called for backup. We dove off the side of the bridge and rolled down the hill toward the river. The enemy ceased fire for the moment. My flank man crept up the hill and poked his head up to see what he could see. His headless body slid back down the hill after a burst of staccato.

"Pinned. Captain Mayne called for artillery support. The most important thing, he said, was to get the disks back to the transport. If we accomplished that, the invasion would be an unqualified success.

"Not long after, we heard the incoming artillery exploding around us. We thought it might be safe to proceed once the shelling stopped, but that was before a shell hit the bridge. It hit the bridge just above our unit, the section we hid beneath.

"Stones rained down from above. Captain Mayne had been farthest under the bridge. Nobody could survive the chunk that fell where he sat. I managed to roll clear of the biggest pieces, but I took a serious beating from smaller stones. Mob rule once executed people with stones no larger than a man's fist. Small stones are lethal in sufficient quantity.

"They didn't kill me, though. In my case, the stones merely crushed my legs. The enemy captured me and the other surviving soldier, and I spent three years neglected in an enemy prison. My crushed legs went gangrenous and the enemy butchers amputated without anesthetic.

"It took a raid by some brave soldiers to bust me out. The soldier caught with me died a year after the mission, beaten by the prison guards for coughing at the wrong time.

"Our Commander-in-Chief never got his palladium. The three disks Captain Mayne pulled from the tower died with him under the bridge. I never inquired about the success of the mission, but we are still importing palladium from around the galaxy, and we have yet to take any enemy asteroids by force.

 [ War hero 2; © 2008, G. Edwin Taylor ] "We also still let the attacks on the colonies continue. This was never a war about protecting our fellow citizens in danger from these attacks. This war, this invasion was about palladium, though nobody has ever admitted it. Now, we're entering our fourth year of this madness. We've lost six colonies in the past three weeks, and still we pay for palladium from the enemy.

"I supported this government; cast my votes in their favor. Their platform seemed like sound policy. This leader's appointees to the High Court slanted the bench away from the ambulance-chasers, and that was the reason I supported this administration.

"But this! This is madness. I gave my legs for palladium. I ride in a wheelchair because of high-level back-scratching and personal vengeance on the part of our Commander-in-chief. You recall the enemy once attempted to assassinate his father. Personal vengeance and palladium, that's why we're in this war, folks. It was never about the attacks on our colonies. This is a personal vendetta, and our soldiers are paying the price.

"That's why I'm angry."

© 2008 Rick Novy

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