The Chain of Command
Short Story by: Ati
The lamp swung slowly back and forth in time to the rhythm of the tracks sliding past under the old rail car, casting a moody yellow pallor over the bare, rotten boards and men seated inside. The men inside were hardly recognizable as such – no man in the history of history had ever sat so large and bulky. And no man ever seen before had glowed in the dark.
These were casualties of technology, men trampled underfoot by the unstoppable, endlessly accelerating march of progress. Except that these casualties didn’t lie in the ground. They walked and they talked and they killed too, as well as real men. But they were not alive. Not anymore.
A sound echoed outside; the sharp, crisp retort of gunfire. The men didn’t look up, being long accustomed to the symphony that this sound declared. For the next two hours, the men sat quietly, listening to the music of the guns, as shell after shell pounded the tune out of the scorched earth, and round after round of machine gun fire paced out the chorus.
None of them had slept in living memory. Not that their memory went back very far. The drugs did that. Or so it was rumored, quietly whispered in the silent barracks, outside of earshot of the guard, and tattooed on inner forearms, along with names, birthdays, and relatives, so as not to be forgotten, like so much else. The drugs did a lot of things. They made you think things. Terrible things. About the State’s enemies. And they made you angry, viciously angry, and you hurt all the time, but you couldn’t move once they had called lights out. And you couldn’t think most of the time, your head was just empty, and it HURT to think, when you could. It was so much easier not to, to just do what the voices in your head told you to do, not to wonder why there were wires leading out of your scalp, or to wonder how it was that you came to be wherever you were, or to try to ask why you needed to be killing these people.
They all knew they didn’t have long to live. No one actually knew the exact life expectancy of a standard infantry unit, because they were all decommission at the exact same time. One night, it was said, an entire squad simply didn’t wake up. You saw the bodies being sent over to the food processing building, and you saw the brains being shipped on from there to an unmarked black building, from which they never emerged. No-one knew exactly what happened to your brain once you got to that black building. The only thing they knew was that exactly three days after a squad was decommissioned, a new robotic infantry squad turned up, and they were horribly, terribly familiar. This squad had made a pact to fall on their grenades after this mission. It was better that way.
The man in the grey shirt stared down at a high-stakes game of chess laid out before him. He watched as small black figures ran through the narrow alleyways, projected onto misty air before him. He breathed through his nose, thin brown mustache fluttering nervously as he waved his hand, directing a few of them around a corner. He glanced up for a split second, watching the other men in grey shirts hunched over their desks in the dark, vaulted room they all sat in, day after day, commanding man after man to march to his death. They all looked similarly agitated; it must be a massive attack.
Suddenly, a low buzz at his terminal caught his attention, and he turned back, to see that in the split second he had diverted his attention, he had begun to rack up casualties. One of his squads had been struck by a grenade from an overhanging balcony. One of the enemy casualties had thrown it – maybe he’d pulled the pin before dying, and it had just rolled off. Or maybe, he wasn’t dead. He gestured, and the black figures opened fire on the balcony. The casualty didn’t move, and after a few seconds, he let it be and directed the small black units to a small alcove.
Suddenly, he saw it. A flicker of red, a heat signature. Just for a second. Without hesitating, he waved his hand so violently that he disturbed the damp air that served as a projection screen, sending little whirls through it, distorting the buildings and soldiers that stood all around. His troops opened fire around where he had seen the heat signature. For a second, nothing happened. Then, blooms of red heat began to appear, as trails of hot blood leaked from punctured camo suits. The entire cloaked unit were camouflaged, so as not to appear upon the satellite that made this map for him. Only the heat escaped, just a little. The heat image revealed a regiment in chaos, the trails of warm blood spreading randomly, as the wounded ran for shelter, this way and that. They were humans. Not like his army. They stood there and died without question unless he told them to move. For a deluded second, he felt like a general who had won absolute obedience from his men. He felt like he was going to be sick.
Maybe he really was going to be sick. He couldn’t remember when he had last eaten, or drank, or even slept. He felt dizzy. Suddenly, a buzz from the panel returned his attention to matters at hand.
He kept them firing, directing them away from the fading red lines. No point in shooting the wounded.
The old wooden table sat rotting in the corner. The tropical air was slowly eating away at it. If anyone had paid attention to it, they might have found it sad that this table, which had survived over two thousand years of fighting was dying, finally, like this – sitting in the corner of a room, ignored, with a basket of fake fruit propped up on it.
At this particular moment, it was being ignored by two serious, dour-faced men, and one amused young man, hardly seventeen. The two men were talking to him, while he tossed back and forth a few small pieces of fruit, and ignored them. From time to time, they gestured at charts, and spoke words like ‘casualties’, and ‘deaths’ and ‘genocide’.
Eventually, the young man seemed to grow bored of their antics, and sent them away. His war was going just fine. Father had said he could lead one of the attacks, hadn’t he? He was allowed to have his fun. So what if there had been a few setbacks? They could afford it. It wasn’t as though anyone real was dying.
He sat there, growing bored. His war had been a fun game for a while. But now he grew tired of the persistent talk of casualties. Even Father had begun to look troubled when he brought it up. There was a shadow of doubt in his eye that concerned his son. If the game ended before he had won, he would be most upset. Most upset.
He sat down at his desk, and looked broodily at his war. He watched the movements of troops. He looked at the casualty rating of the various commanders he’d hired. He gave the command to send a few of the squads from place to place, even going so far as to briefly commandeer one for his own control, to lead a full on attack. For a moment, he could believe he was there, swooping into battle, leading the charge against the brown-skins. Then the division was obliterated by an ICBM, after having killing nothing more than a few civilians, who accidentally crossed the wrong street.
He sighed. Maybe it was for the best that his war was just a game. He knew, of course, that there was a real war out there. Maybe even a profitable war. But deep down, he didn’t believe it. It was just a game.
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