Welcome to the Abyss

Old Benton's tavern was crowded that night. The farmers had brought their families, and old and young alike were laughing and chattering. Although some of the old veterans sat quietly in the darker corners, nursing beers and whiskies, most everyone else was gleeful and feeling foolish, and the flicker of the huge furnace danced on their smiling faces and sunburned cheeks. Tomorrow was the first day of festival, and folks had come from many miles to trade, to dance, to find marriage partners, to watch plays, hear stories, and do everything else that made another year of hard labor worth the effort. The darkened air was full of tobacco smoke and baked apples, the faint odor of horse manure and the sharp scent of sawdust. The commotion was comforting, especially when one considered the great isolation of the village and just how many dark and gloomy miles lay between them and the nearest town.

But the room grew quiet when an ancient woman entered, leaning heavily on a marvelously carved cane. Although her hair was long and gray, and her dress plain and patched in places, there was something about the smoothness of her face and the sparkle of her eyes that defied the years suggested by the rest. Mothers pushed their children forward, who quickly ran to assist the lady, taking her by the arms and leading her to a chair suddenly vacated by the mayor.

The mayor took off his cap and bowed low, making a show of respect that everyone approved. "Sagacity, we did not expect you, but we are overjoyed that you have chosen to celebrate the festival with us. You honor us, and we honor you."

The old women sighed. "I am not 'Sagacity.' I am Ursula. And I did not come here to celebrate. I came here because I am dying." A gasp and cry was heard around the tavern, and the fire itself seemed to quiet its crackling, so intent was everyone on the lady's strong but quiet voice. "I came to tell you the story. The story as it was, without embellishment. The story as it was told to me by my father."

"But Sagacity," said the mayor, "there's no need to tire yourself. We have bards and minstrels here--" Ursula hissed.

"This is no tale as told by minstrels. It is the truth. It may not be as wholesome or as full of heroes, but I came to tell it. It is long and bitter story, and the morning will arrive before its end. But I can only tell it, and let every man and woman here be the judge. But if it lacks in quality, blame me, and not the story. For nothing has ever touched me as deeply, and meant so much to all of us. Will you listen?" A quick murmur was followed by loud and unanimous assent.

"Very well," said the old woman, settling deeply into her chair. She had in the meantime lit her pipe, as intricately carved as her cane, and now its delicate smoke emanated about her like a shroud. "Our tale begins when my father was just a boy, not much older than some of the lads I see her. He had just completed his military training, and was about to see combat for the first time..."

Before my first combat I was self-righteous and strung tighter than a garrote. I had big ideas, notions of honor, of revenge. I was proud to be a human fighting the invaders of our homeworld. And I had nothing but scorn and contempt for the veterans of my squad, those bleary-eyed and dirty fighters who talked only of their misery, of going home and wasting their money on some alien delights. Some even openly talked of peace! They said nothing, did nothing, to earn the respect of someone like me, someone who knew everything about honor and nothing about war. I had nothing but hatred for the aliens that had ransacked our planet, slaughtered our tribes, enslaved the best, and left the dregs to starve and squabble amongst themselves. These weren't warriors. They were sorry excuses for human beings, raw evidence that we had fully deserved what the aliens did to us. If these sorry men and women were all that was left, was anything really worth dying for?

I would learn a few things that day that would change my mind about them, things that would also change me.

I also had love, and concern in my heart. Most of all, I was concerned for my sister, Lavenea, who I could only hope and pray was safe back in the orphanage where I had been forced to leave her. I had promised the keepers there three quarters of my wages as a soldier if they would only keep her fed, attend to her when she was ill, and above all else to comfort her, that poor girl, with so many nightmares, and such frail health. They accepted my money, but deep down, I knew better than to expect they would keep their part of the bargain. Yet to believe otherwise was more than I could bear. It was my love for my sister--Lave, as I called her--that gave me the strength to keep going, to keep moving even when my mind exploded in fear.

I was onboard a small, cramped alien vessel that was serving as a troop carrier. It was crewed and piloted not by humans, but by a pair of Ganzaraki, short and squat creatures with yellow skin and a bitter, fetid stench that was painfully nauseating. Their heads were like mushrooms, and they had a single, unlidded eye on each side of them. They were skillful pilots despite having only a single six-fingered hand; the other arm ended in a ridiculous looking claw, that was some four feet long and served no practical purpose. They could not speak our language, but could understand our speech. Our lieutenant, Henry Stanton, sat near them, engaged in a one-sided conversation, apparently unperturbed by their odor or vileness. Occasionally one would clack its claw, perhaps in response to Stanton.

The rest of us were packed in tightly, our thighs pressing hard against those of our fellow soldiers. Most of them had a vacant look in their eyes, staring at their worn out boots. The roar of the ship's engines was too loud to permit casual conversation, but a few were whispering in their buddies' ears, occasionally grinning or even laughing. The leader of my team, "Shrap" Olson, was seated nearby, engaged in some kind of complicated game with a piece of yarn. I was the only replacement in the squad; most of these men and women had been with the company for several campaigns. A large part of that was due to our sergeant, who was seated in the back of the ship, carefully checking over his equipment. Sergeant Brixton was our guardian angel, a bald-headed and many-scarred veteran of countless campaigns. Brixton was a strict disciplinarian, insisting on every protocol, but he was honest and sincere, and even then I knew I could count on him.

As soon as I began to hear the first explosions, I felt my knees began to shake. My blood seemed to go still in my veins, and my head swam. I suddenly realized that in a few moments, I would be out among those bombs and explosions, and there were enemies down there who were determined to kill me. Many times during training I had considered the dangers and realized I could be killed, but never before had that fact pressed itself on me with such force. How could I possibly walk, much less fight? My fists clenched the straps of the heavy ammo cases I was supposed to carry into battle. I had the sudden feeling that everything had been a mistake, and I was not supposed to be here!

Abruptly the ship plunged downward, sending my stomach flying up into my ribcage. I desperately fought the urge to vomit, but knew I would not be able to hold it for long. But then the ship thudded carelessly to the ground, and a huge hatch on the side flung open. Sergeant Brixton was already on his feet, yelling loud enough to be heard over the engines and explosions: "Get out! Get your asses out there! Move! Now!"

The soldiers raced out, and I found myself moving with them even though I had feared I would not leave my seat. I hesitated near the hatch, but Brixton grabbed on to my arms and shoved me outside. I crashed to the ground, landing so painfully on the ammo case that I cried out in pain. I lay there for a moment, panicked and shocked. But then I remembered where I was, and those words uttered so often in training came back to me: "Get away from the landing craft. Get away!"

Frantically, with energy that came purely from adrenaline, I leapt to my feet and chased off after my comrades, who were deeply crouched but moving quickly towards the battle. In my peripheral vision I saw big trees and deep hills. Above, the sun was shining bright, and the air was hot and already filled with the smells of disturbed earth and an odor I did not yet realize was burning flesh.

I was again knocked off my feet when the ground suddenly erupted in a powerful concussion. This time, my ammo case had come open, and I worked fervently to replace the mortar shells back in the case. If even one of them exploded, it would certainly kill me and everyone else around me. My arms and hands moved like in a dream, so slowly and carelessly that I felt I would never get the shells back in their case. When I looked up, the other soldiers were far ahead of me; I had fallen behind!

At last, I was back on my feet and running as fast as I could, but then I remember that I had laid down my carbine while I collected the shells--and hadn't picked it back up! With as much haste as I could muster, and hating myself for my foolishness, I raced back to get it. Meanwhile, the explosions and gunfire were getting louder and louder, and soon I began to feel as well as hear the larger blasts.

Finally, I was nearing the front and saw Shrap, the leader of my mortar team, crouched low in a crater and firing his carbine in periodic bursts. I leaped into the crater with him and prepared myself to fire. But again I felt my body moving in dream mode, with slow, clumsy, and exaggerated movements that I simply could not control. The clamor of the battle dimmed in my ears, and the sound of Sharp's carbine sounded like a kid's toy. I couldn't believe that someone with Shrap's experience would go into battle with a toy rifle, but then it dawned on me that I was panicking.

I shut my eyes and tried to regain my composure. But then there was a huge blast just to the right of the crater, and I felt an intense heat on my face. I felt a sudden warmth in my pants and realized I had soiled myself. Angrily, I opened my eyes, but my hands were shaking so badly I couldn't fire my carbine.

I started gibbering, crying my eyes out while my comrades did the job, firing at the enemy with a calm and steady precision, barely paying attention to the battle except when they knew to move, or duck, or run back. They wasted no ammo, no energy, no movement. Compared to them, I was just a baby--a pathetic kid trying to play soldier.

Slowly, the explosions grew less frequent, and I recovered enough to join Shrap and fire off a few rounds. The aliens were blue-skinned, lizard-like creatures we called the Punani, but of course no one could utter what they called themselves. They had four legs and four arms, which made them agile and dexterous. Our bullets killed them easily, but their natural abilities made them more than a match for four of our soldiers. I fired at them, but I knew I wasn't aiming properly and couldn't have hit a building, much less one of the fast-moving Punani.

Eventually, we heard a call for artillery, and Shrap and I went to work setting up the mortar. The third member of our crew, a big-breasted and hideous old female soldier named "Warthog," dropped into the crater and went to work. Once the piece was deployed, it was my job to hand shells to Warthog, who armed and loaded them into the mortar. Shrap's job, of course, was to aim and fire the shells. It was precision work--we didn't want to kill or injure our own soldiers, who were in the field ahead of us. The mortar made a loud whoosh and whistle as the first shell flew up and towards the enemy embankments, where it exploded with a satisfying boom. I could only imagine what that alien scum thought of those blasts! Now that I had steady work that I had been heavily trained for, I found myself relaxing and able to focus; my hands had stopped shaking and I was able to hand Warthog the shells as fast as Shrap needed them.

A few minutes later we heard a shout, "All in!" With expertise, Shrap and Warthog dismantled the mortar and packed it into its case as I secured the ammo. When we were done, we rushed out of the crater and joined the rifleman and other soldiers as they mopped up the rest of the resistance. The Punani soldiers would not rout; we had to kill each one of them.

The battle was soon over. As the excitement died down, I began to grow quite conscious of the shit in my britches and the cowardice I had displayed on the battlefield. I couldn't look Shrap or Warthog in the eye. But then I felt a strong hand on my shoulder and turned to see Sergeant Brixton. I prepared myself for a serious berating.

But the sergeant's words were kind. He pointed to a large tree and said, "Soldier, go over there and throw away your underwear. And yes, I did the same thing you did, and so did many of the rest of us, whether they own up to it or not."

What struck me later was that Brixton had called me a "soldier." Up to that time, no one in the company had called me anything but "greenie" or even "maggot." I was still embarrassed, but somehow the sergeant's words took the edge off my shame.

Afterwards we entered the aliens' camp and began searching the buildings. We weren't worried about resistance--the Punani's species was biologically divided between "civilians" and "soldiers," and we had killed all the latter on the field. We dragged materials and equipment--anything we could use or sell on the black market, to the center of the base, where it would be picked up by our troop or supply carriers. Most of it was heavy-duty farming machinery, but there were also bags of fertilizers and tanks of exotic chemicals. I had no idea what most of it was for, but apparently it was valuable to someone. I was just happy to have crushed one little pocket of the invasion.

Meanwhile, others had rounded up the Punani civilians. Like most of the alien species, the Punani's language and culture was completely foreign to us, as distinct from our way of life as those of grubs and gods. I couldn't help but stare at these aliens, these bizarre and incoherent creatures that showed no emotions I could read. Surely they were frightened, scared, or perhaps angry? But they only stood about, so completely still that one had to look closely to see evidence of life--a small flapping motion of the skin around their necks. Their skin was deep blue and leathery, and they had a big dark eye on their heads that resembled an insect's. They wore no clothes or insignia, and I could have no more told them apart than ants. Then I noticed another group of soldiers dragging our dead into a pile. There were three of them, and all were horribly disfigured and mutilated, one with his legs blown completely off. I had a sudden and intense hatred for the Punani, and wanted to see each one of them slaughtered on the spot.

Henry Stanton, our tall, blond-headed lieutenant, was discussing the matter with Sergeant Brixton. "If the contract doesn't specify, we may as well leave them be. What say you?" The captain's bold and almost musical voice seemed to alert the rest of the outfit, who stopped their conversations to hear the exchange.

Brixton shook his head. "Better to finish them off, sir. Discourage any more of them from trying to settle here." Many other soldiers voiced their agreement, some whooping and others clapping.

Stanton wasn't moved. "It could make things worse for us. No, these are harmless. We leave them be." He didn't wait for the sergeant's response, but turned away to help guide the Ganzaraki 's ships to the stacks of alien goods the others had accumulated. A few of the soldiers muttered or grumbled, but of course no one voiced open dissent.

I wanted to like our lieutenant. He was a strong and handsome officer, the sort that many of us wanted desperately to be. But decisions like this just kept getting in the way. He was brave in combat, always in front, always as steady under fire as if he were sipping cognac in the finest tavern back in Lincoln. But showing mercy to aliens who had just killed three of our comrades? It was all I could do not to loathe him.

As we climbed aboard the ships and headed back to our base, I thought about what I'd seen that day--what I'd done, or failed to do. I realized that I had underestimated almost every aspect of combat, and overestimated my ability to deal with it. But I still had a conviction that I owed it to myself to be here, to fight for more than the petty rewards doled out by our alien benefactors. I still clung to the idea that a human was more than just a failure, a pathetic member of a fallen and near-extinct species of inferior beings.

It was well after dark when we finally returned to base. I went outside and lay on the grass, looking up the starry sky. Many of those "stars" hadn't been there when my father was my age--fifteen years old. I even imagined I could even see the twinkle of the drones--those thousands of mysterious spheres that had appeared so long ago, harbingers of our doom. Most of us thought little about those times, or about the drones. But they had always been a part of my life because they were the source of my sister's nightmares. All those desperate days and nights on the streets, the two of us had clung together, half-starved and nowhere to turn. And every night, Lave had woken them up, screaming about the drones and the destruction they brought. It was then that I had to gag her, to do anything to keep her quiet--for if anyone heard--if anyone thought--but, no, the nightmares had lessened as she had grown older, and I had warned her and pressed her so many times of the danger and the importance of secrecy. If she loved me, I had told her, then she could never say a word to anyone about her nightmares or the drones. Those damn drones!

All it would take was one of those episodes--in the orphanage--and if an administrator heard, if some nurse suspected the worst...Of course it wasn't true. It was just silly to think. Only a moron would think she had the madness, that she had the genes of a controller! I had to tell myself that, because my sanity was fragile enough as it was. Every plan, every vision I had of the future involved Lave, healthy and serene. The two of us--flourishing in a new and better life without aliens and without drones. No other vision was possible but death.