The First Man Who Killed

The First Man Who Killed Michael BerntsenChapter I.

Feeuuush! Bwah! Bwah! Feeuuush! Bwah!

“Heavier flak than norma—”

Feeuuush! Bwah! Bwah! Feeuuush! Bwah!

“Cover the phalanx in the enfilade. Engage k—”

Feeuuush! Bwah! Bwah! Feeuuush! Bwah!

“Does anyone know whe—”

Feeuuush! Bwah! Bwah! Feeuuush! Bwah!

Colonel Tariq watched from the bunker as a barrage of paralyzing blue beams launched from the horizon as if the morning sun were now one of his nation’s enemies. The Zuidens took advantage of the blinding dawn and began their onslaught, charging with their wild horns and immobilizing lasers. Tariq’s unit captured a stronghold five days ago, and now the Zuidens retaliated with a serving of ambush for breakfast.

He timed the speed of the approaching onslaught by singing “The Number Song.” The Zuidens advanced one minute every one quarter measure. By the time Tariq reached the refrain, “Numbers are extremely fun, you decrease and increase by one. That’s how you reach the desired amount. Sing this song to see how high or low you can count,” they had breeched the outer defenses. Most of his soldiers in the trenches managed to freeze the first wave of Zuidens before they in turn became solid blocks. At an even faster tempo, the second wave rushed the artillery bunkers, climbing over the first wave, which was now stiffly rolling down the hill.

Most of Tariq’s cadets bumped into each other or tripped over the first set of frozen casualties while trying to escape the bombardment of streaks. Tariq’s unit was hardened in a matter of seconds except for Private Gladius, one of the more promising soldiers in his platoon He used the statued bodies as temporary buffers until he snuck below a rock.

Tariq bent and placed his hand upon the ground to feel its intense indigestion. It was the percolation of defeat. Zuidish transporter tanks carrying reinforcements soon reached the field, which trembled under their steel treads. The drivers carefully avoided the petrified cadets as if the field were some pedestrian obstacle course. The majority of the bodies laid congested in circular pockets with other bodies sprinkled across the gray terrain as if they were entangled in an uncoordinated, clothed orgy.

“It looks like we’ll be stiff soon,” Marshal Pompeo yawned. She offered her morning handful of protein-carb pills to the stoic Colonel. “I hate it when I have an empty stomach during stuckness, don’t you?”

“No thanks,” Tariq responded in a barely audible fashion. His disgust with the two hundred year war was as palpable as the saliva he rocketed near the Marshal’s boots. He knew her orange eyes judged him a disappointment to their flag. He often proposed to negotiate a truce despite the predictable condescending noise that would ensue from the officers during logistics meetings. Some of his subordinates, however, were beginning to agree with his sentiment. He even knew a few Zuidens who wanted a cease fire as well.

“You could put an end to this, Marshal.”

“Never! Strategoroid should be our planet and our pla—”

The remaining protein-carb pills bounced down Tariq’s pants as they leapt from the Marshal’s petrified hand. Tariq immediately gave the order to retreat and rendezvous at a cantonment located in the southern sector of the Riskogian region. He wasn’t in the mood for fighting, he simply wanted a warm meal and a hot bath, both of which he only read about in books.

Six troopers, Private Gladius among them, managed to escape with the Colonel and arrived at the encampment after a four hour trek. Tariq strategized how he would rescue the Marshal as he choked down his ration of capsules. The plastic flavor soured his tongue. He wished his sense of duty disappeared with his hunger, but obligation twisted his gut, annexing any hope for a nap.

The landscape suddenly rumbled under the weight of heavy and hurried feet. It was a quake of fear. Tariq dashed to the north-side of the camp to see that the hills propelled a storm of bodies toward his exhausted half dozen. His small group comprised of cadets who had never been stunned before and dreaded the experience, which meant that they were either respectfully intelligent or disgracefully cowardly. He ordered each one to grab extra laser packs as they ran to the defensive front.

“Colonel, what are your commands?”

Tariq hesitated. He wasn’t even sure who asked the question. Perhaps he could use the sleep. He had never been caught or stunned. Perhaps the time had come for someone else to rescue prisoners of war. The coming gale could bring a much needed retirement. But then his keen eye sent despair to his brain. They weren’t his enemies, they were his fellow Krenches.

“Are those our comrades?” gasped Private Gladius.

“Indeed they are,” Tariq laughed, “and they look pathetic. Have you ever noticed how ridiculous people look when they run?”

“Actually, sir, I feel more self-conscious when I jog. I usually can find a rhythm when I’m running,” Private Gladius responded.

“Either way, the body isn’t a beautiful thing when it’s in motion,” philosophized Tariq.

The rest of the group waited for someone to interject. Fortunately for them, Gladius added, “Colonel, should we be concerned?”

“We’ll find out soon enough. Make sure your guns are charged and ready. There might be an even larger army pursuing them.”

Tariq and his commandos-in-waiting stood tautly and silently as different scenarios played out in their heads as to why a massive company of their comrades would be approaching. Tariq’s mind, however, focused on Gladius. His body was completely still, which was rare. Gladius wasn’t bumbling like most infantry rookies. He had graceful control over his movements. He folded the flag as if it were a lover’s shirt, something sacred yet mass-marketed. He could never stop staring at Gladius as he performed his daily routines—the making of his bed, the shining of his boots, the washing of clothes, the way he looked as he wrote letters to his grandmother. And his face was that of a fighter. Shallow craters covered his cheeks, and his brow proved that he was no stranger to profound thought. Tariq yearned for Gladius to be his equal, but protocol is always a strain on the psyche and chest. If hell is love, while war is hell, then love is war, which makes unrequited love utter defeat and damnation.

A scout finally reached the ossified group. “Who’s in command?”

“I am. Colonel Tariq of the Twenty-First Disputatious Cavalry Division. What’s the situation?”

“The Zuidens have gained control of the capital. They currently occupy five civilian sectors.”

“How did that happen?”

“Not sure. We’re all scouts, not information officers. In fact, we were out scouting, and when we came back to the city, we noticed that it was taken over, so we fled here.”

“I see. Who’s in command?”

“Well, we had a race to see who could reach this camp first. I won, so I’m in charge.”

“What’s your rank?”

“Cadet.”

“Well, I’m a Colonel. I’m taking command of your unit.”

“Do you want to race for it, sir?”

“Once the rest of your unit arrives, we’ll plan our next move.”

Naïve faces poured into the small encampment for the next several minutes. Tariq had excuse himself from the youthful, nervous giddiness. He felt uneasy. He needed solitude. As the humdrum noise of sex jokes and war stories dissipated, his eyes focused on the empty land. Battles had transformed this once lush region into a treeless desert of gray dirt. Laser bolts may only induce an eight hour coma and leave slight bruises on the body, but constant bombardments eventually sterilize the soil. The military denied it, yet he knew a few men who suffered impotence due to immense exposure to the beams. These poor casualties of war received a parade and a pension, a fair tradeoff for losing one’s masculinity. He envied them or any retired soldier as he surveyed the absence before him. The barren land offered nothing but a mute and cold vision.

Then a crack.

The Colonel jumped, twirled, and snapped his weapon upward, pointing in the direction of the disturbance. The source was Private Gladius.

“What are you doing here, Private?”

“Permission to ask a question, Colonel.”

“Granted.”

“Since you enlisted, sir, how many times have we lost the capital?”

“Nineteen.”

Both men needed to consider the threat of repetition. Months of defeat inevitably followed by months of victory gradually followed by more defeat. Before a blink, a general would see the city under her rule, while the next blink would reveal a cage usurping her moment of glory. Of course, no one ever died during an incursion or imprisonment. As their race’s great, ancient ninja-philosopher-poet, Darrel D. Darrel, once said in his tome, The Sport of Warmaking, “The point of war is to win, and the point of death is loss; thusly, war and death are incongruent oppositions to one another.” Despite the technological splendors both the Zuidens and Krenches invented, they never dreamed of developing weapons of war that killed. Each side fought with the same form of weapon, the Propulsional Monochromatic Shooter. It delivered a 459 megawatt laser beam that would stun targets, paralyzing them for eight hours. No side could ever hold onto any territory for too long before a few imaginative gunners forced their captors into a temporary sleep. Eventually, the winning side would have its interment camps overflowing with too many prisoners of war, which gradually sparked the shifting of power once again when a few lucky detainees would disarm distracted guards and begin freezing their way to freedom.

Even though the war had lasted for two centuries, the memory of the cause was kept alive by this cyclical exchange of power and land. The Zuidens and the Krenches lived on one planet but in two nations. The Krenches thrived on lands rich in metals and minerals, which enabled them to build an indoor gymnasium that featured the most sophisticated and long-lasting equipment. The Zuidens, on the contrary, dwelt on land rich in forests, so they could only build wooden workout tools. At first, the Krenches granted the Zuidens temporary memberships, but the Zuidens always forgot to bring their own towels, had no sense of locker-room shower decorum, and never bothered to wipe their sweat off of recently used machinery. After the Great Gym Ban of the year 2,971,464,146, the Zuidens sabotaged the Krench aqueducts, which ran from wells in Zuidish territory directly into the gymnasium. Thus, war began and continued right up to this moment in which Tariq thought of his race’s back-story.

Tariq soon realized that he and Gladius must have walked the equivalent of a mile. He looked at his companion’s profile, wondering why this boy had such dark eyes. They belonged to a man burdened with fatalistic wisdom. Every other part radiated with inexperience. He felt ashamed to fantasize in secret as the unit showered together. Most other soldiers quickly paired up to relieve psychological anxieties or satisfy brute biological urges. Besides Tariq, Gladius was the only bachelor who shared the chlorine dioxide particle showers with a collection of faithful married men and women whose spouses were in other units. No one’s hands ever invaded anyone’s anatomy. Tariq’s eyes, though, were guilty of planning an attack. He yearned to discover whether or not Gladius even sensed his lustful gaze, if it penetrated his perfect physique.

“Now’s your chance, sir,” Gladius grinned.

Tariq’s heart stopped. His lips prepared for conquest.

“You can ask the council to draft a peace treaty.”

Tariq’s blood cooled. His mental capacities returned. “Yes. Yes, I suppose I could.”

“The war bores me just as it does you and so many of our citizens.”

“If there were no war, what would you do?”

“Sleep.”

“I’d farm.”

They hastened the walk back to the camp. Rejuvenated by the brief conversation, Tariq wasted no time in contacting the remaining administrators and heads of state operating in an underground command center. The face of Lochagos Epaminondas, one of the nation’s eldest elders appeared on the screen. His countenance looked like dehydrated green meat, yet his yellow eyes were able to cast a brightness over his cheeks that proved his keen mind had a few more years before it retired from service.

“Your Honor, this is Colonel Tariq calling from Shortline B and O Station requesting permission to talk to the head council member.”

“Good evening, Colonel Tariq, I am currently serving as Chancellor. What is your present situation?”

“I’m in command of a hundred and thirty soldiers, mostly scouts who escaped the assault on the capital.”

“Well done. Proceed to Sector Axishanulli. You can join Phylearch Cormac’s army. She and you worked well together before, I believe.”

“I had a better idea, your honor. I want to propose a cease fire.”

“A cease fire? Did any get hurt in the last battle?”

“No. A lot of us ju—”

“I think you need a week’s leave, Colonel. Your fallacious tongue should not speak such a ridiculous idea. We’re at war. A cease fire means we wouldn’t be at war. And if we’re not at war then that means we’ve lost the war.”

“Your Honor, many of us think this war should end.”

“Opinions don’t win wars, Colonel, the knowledge we’re superior does.”

“Permission to request a special assignment then.”

“Granted.”

“Can I take my unit and attack with peace?”

“Attack with peace? Is that possible?”

“Yes, and I’m willing to command such an attack. I will breach our occupied capital with a peaceful offensive.”

“Sounds mysterious, but would the mission be dangerous?”

“Extremely.”

“Then I’ll allow it.”

“Thank you, Your Honor. I’ll update you on our progress. Don’t let any other company move in until I have reclaimed the city. Over and out.”

He could feel the fleet of ears behind him vacuuming his words. Turning to face his cadets’ bewildered expressions, he grinned and made sure he stared into each pair of eyes before he spoke. “Troops,” he began, “I may be a foot soldier, but I won’t be a footnote. The history books have glossed over thousands of ordinary men and women, such as ourselves, because all of our actions merely perpetuate history, we never make history. Today is when we decide that the past should never control the future. We will march toward our capital, toward our destiny, without weapons drawn, and we will conquer stagnant tradition with inventive revolution. Peace will lead us to victory.”

Usually, when a commanding officer’s speech ended, the cadets would holler a mad, joyful cry for war. This time no one cheered. Each one sensed the coming of a new thing that they could only call a thing. They didn’t know what peace was. Peace for them was an absent component in the binary opposition to war. They could not articulate a definition for peace as they could not now name the thing they felt, the thing that prompted fantasies of a home life, of walking through a field without seeing a legion of charging beasts. The Colonel did not fear their silent lips nor their subdued gestures. He understood that their souls accepted what their minds could not process.

“And if that fails,” he assured them, “I have a secret trick that involves combining the proton batteries from our guns.”

After Tariq collected the power sources to their pistols, they advanced toward the capital without uttering ditties to help keep them in step, without clenching their weapons in predatory grips. Colonel Tariq simply carried a piece of cloth as big as a flag but as blank as an eye of a stunned soldier. The banner for peace, he reckoned, should not be decorated until both sides joined together to create a new vision for their world. And under that banner should be a backup plan.

 

Chapter II.

Major Tennille walked the outskirts of the foreign capital, surveying the gentle waters that distanced his conquest from an impending counter-invasion. He inspected the troops who patrolled the city limits and the most vulnerable border, the large harbor. Normally, the port would welcome ships carrying food and fuel, but any ship that would appear from the hazy horizon now would bring fury and fear. The Zuidens decided to glue thousands of bright pink “No Trespassing” signs onto buoys and posted the remainder around the docks in hopes to prevent the Krenches from reclaiming their capital.

Suddenly, the siren sounded the approach of a hostile force. Major Tennille was thankful. He recently rose in the ranks from Captain, so he was ready to prove his prowess once again. He signaled a squadron to follow him into a hover-porter tank and sped to the opposite side of the city border where no battle had yet begun. Only distant shadows moved closer through the valley of melted trees and tawny grass.

“Status report, Sergeant Jehu,” Tennille spat.

“Well, sir, a small band of Krenches is coming toward us, but they might be surrendering. They aren’t armed. The damnedest thing is that the man in front is waving a white flag.”

“A white flag, Sergeant?” The Major shoved his binoculars into his eyes. He recognized the man waving the white flag as Colonel Tariq. Some invisible, unknown organ squeezed his heart. His brain became vacant. Colonel Tariq meant danger.  Tariq thus far had recaptured sixty-five forts and freed ninety-two prisons. The Major had studied his tactics for years and had catalogued every one of Tariq’s maneuvers in preparation for a climatic encounter. Although he admired Tariq’s success, he abhorred his constant refusal to accept promotions. He heard that Tariq rose to Colonel in a matter of one year after joining the war then declined every subsequent opportunity to advance in rank. Tennille couldn’t comprehend why such a superb warrior would dishonor his talent. Perhaps his face was to blame.

According to Tennille, every face is a formula containing one variable that reveals a person’s ultimate weakness. Analyze the contours of a face long enough, and one will discover that person’s greatest defect. Tariq’s flaw was that he was too ruminative. A leader has to execute decisions swiftly and accept mistakes. His chin confessed the fatal revulsion of failure. To undermine Tariq’s tactics, all the Major needed to do was to think like him but not be afraid of stuckedness.

The fact that Tariq was dawdling towards the Major’s squadrons instead of deploying his typical stealth rescue operation meant that Tariq had invented some new tactic for victory. Tennille’s cheeks twitched at the possibility that his studies were futile. The Colonel and his unit were not in firing range yet, which gave Tennille time for his panic to subside.

“Major, what are your orders?” Sergeant Jehu kept repeating, not realizing the Major’s consciousness was on leave to an early morning nightmare.

Tennille coughed to cover up his absent mind then rubbed his red badge, the one he won for courage, as if to summon some genie who could return the confidence that the sound of Tariq’s name stole. “Ready your weapons, but hold from firing until we see what he’s up to,” the Major ordered with a hint of ostentation.

Tennille watched from the haphazardly constructed blockade as the rising sun stretched Tariq’s shadow across the plain. His mind jumped to the future. After the battle, his face would be gleaming with delight as he searched for his nemesis. His defeat of the cunning colonel would come from the shortest skirmish during the two hundred year war.  He planned to decorate this pinnacle of military genius with tattoos, imagining “Zuidens Rule!” and “Major Tennille Is Better Than Me” etched into Colonel Tariq’s face. There should be a medal for turning an enemy into a propaganda trophy. Perhaps another title, too, should pay homage to his military expertise. He dreamed of the President pinning the general badge as if it were a diadem for his breast, his uniform sparkling with adornment and ascendency.

As if pre-mediated, Tariq spoke when the shadow of his helmet masked Tennille’s winter garden violet face.. “We come in peace!” echoed in the valley, shoving reality back into Tennille’s head.

“He comes in peace?” snorted the Major to his squadron. “What the devil does that mean?”

“It has to be a trap, sir,” Sergeant Jehu postulated. “They can’t be surrendering.”

Major Tennille shook his head while faintly chuckling. “Tariq’s gone mad. Today, we’ll have an easy victory.”

“Do not fire. We are unarmed. We come in peace. I repeat, we come in peace.” Tariq’s words reverberated off the concrete slabs hastily stacked to serve as a defensive blockade.

“Stop right there, Colonel, or we will be forced to fire upon you.” The Major had to subdue the giggles that gurgled in his belly at Tariq’s absurd declarations. “Are you surrendering? If you are surrendering, a garrison will accompany you to the designated prison camp. I’m honored to have the opportunity to accept your surrender. I merely wish that I could’ve met you on the battlefield.”

“We are not surrendering. We are requesting an armistice so we can end this ridiculous war.”

“End the war? We can’t end the war until one side has won. You’re asking us to quit. To quit would be to surrender which means defeat. I was fated to be a Major as you were fated to be my adversary. You shall not surrender.”

“Let me speak with General Tecumseh.”

“He’s a bit busy planning our next victory. I am in command of this unit. I give the orders. Fire at will!”

Colonel Tariq dropped the white flag to reveal a linked sphere glowing blue. He hurled it, aiming directly for Tennille’s stomach. He caught it right after he finished shouting, “Incoming!” An immense wave of turquoise light erupted from the sphere and indurated Tennille and his entire squadron.

“Switch uniforms, and we will walk right into enemy lines without any resistance,” Tariq ordered. “We need to find General Tecumseh.”

This moment was the first ever in Tariq’s career that his own people feared him. They followed his commands, but their eyes squinted in an effort to force an explanation from him as to what breed of weapon he just deployed. He felt their agitation.

“Simple physics,” he said. “I have a friend on the research team who is trying to develop a safe PMS pistol that will stun people for twelve hours while maintaining proper hydration and blood flow. He has already built several larger models than the one I novicely constructed.”

Private Gladius cleared his throat before protesting, “But what you did is against the rules. It’s not fair.”

“I know.”

Gladius and the rest of the cadets moved through the hundred fifty enemy soldiers forced to take an early morning slumber. As if they were untrained fashion farmers, they awkwardly plucked uniforms from the fleshy stalks. Gladius gagged. He had never been surrounded by so many stiff men and women in their underwear. Their unconscious breaths burned his neck and face with a horrid heat as the platoon strolled into enemy lines, leaving behind them rows of transitory mannequins.

The unit walked throughout the occupied territory simultaneously moving their arms and legs as if they choreographed each bend and twist. Without ever being in danger, they were able to enter the Chancellor House, which General Tecumseh had commandeered as his headquarters. Tariq directed the rest of his soldiers to surround the building as he and Gladius entered the crystal temple of Krench democracy.

Two centurion guards stood outside the door to General Tecumseh’s presumed office. Without questioning the presence of two corporals or seeing the laser beams they shot, the guards found themselves conjuring the illusions of sleeping minds, and General Tecumseh found his reading interrupted by the bang of a kicked door. He reached for his blaster but saw that he was already out-gunned.

“What is the meaning of this?” General Tecumseh hollered.

Colonel Tariq removed his helmet. “General Tecumseh, it’s time.”

Tecumseh’s muscles eased their constraint on his bones. The anger that molded his face softened into surprise and joy. “I was checking the prison rosters to see if I needed to rescue you. I should’ve known better.”

“Are the bombs placed and operational?”

“Yes, and I have Madam President’s permission to negotiate a treaty.”

Private Gladius slowly inched his arm to target Tariq. He feared that he had just aided and abetted a traitor. He wanted peace, not betrayal. He never betrayed any one in his life. When his cousin stole their grandparents’ hover car to buy war manuals, he never squealed. When he found out that his mother slept with his father’s twin brother when they were stationed together and claimed it couldn’t count as cheating, he never told anyone. When he met that convict out in the marsh, he never told his sister, Mrs. Joe, nor her husband, Gargery, nor the police.  He should not have been destined to betray unwillingly, unknowingly the entire nation given his impeccable record.

Sensing Gladius’ trepidation and the tiny magnetic pull of the pistol’s match barrel, Tariq smiled, “Private Gladius, meet General Tecumseh. He and I have been planning a way to bring peace to our planet for nearly ten orbit rotations.”

“Sir,” Gladius grumbled, “I will not extend my palm to an enemy, especially him. Explain what is going on, or I’ll freeze the both of you.”

“A few Zuidens and Krenches, all frustrated with the war, started talking one day in prison when I had security duty. We conceived of a plan, Operation Concord, that would depend upon a small group of us little by little placing better versions of the weapon you saw today around the globe. We secretly kept in communication, praying for the day when one of us gained control of a capital so we could execute the most covert of operations.”

“What happens now?”

“Just wait, Private,” Tecumseh said as he let Tariq hail Lochagos Epaminondas on the visual communicator.

“This is Colonel Tariq, contacting Lochagos Epaminondas.”

“Good to see you, Colonel. What do you have to report?”

“Complete success. I have captured General Tecumseh, and he agrees to negotiate a peace accord.”

“Really? That’s a bit disappointing. Well, quality show in any case, Colonel. Let me speak at the General.”

“Good afternoon, Lochagos Epaminondas,” greeted the General.

“So you surrender?” Epaminondas hissed with palpable disappointment.

“No, but we are willing to initiate a cease fire based upon forming a treaty that guarantees a union between our two nations. Pending approval of such a request, Madame President and I shall relinquish reign over your cities and prisoners.”

“The council will never approve your request unless you formally surrender,” Epaminondas scoffed.

“Tariq and I have at our disposal weapons that can stun an entire city for the length of a day. We will use it on all of the provinces unless you agree to a peace treaty.”

“No such weapon can exist.”

Tecumseh motioned to Gladius to tell Epaminondas what he witnessed. “It’s true, your honor. I’ve seen the Colonel freeze at least seven scores of soldiers this very day with such a weapon.”

“I don’t believe you. Prove it.”

One day later . . .

Lochagos Epaminondas looked around the war room. He was confused. Acid boiled in his stomach, making his chest fold into itself. He saw the grinning faces of Tariq and Tecumseh on his communicator screen. Epaminondas shook his fist. “I shall not be bullied by two grev—”

One day later . . .

Lochagos Epaminondas’ head felt heavy. He was disoriented. Thick acid boiled in his stomach. His skin felt parched. His pants were soaked. He saw the tired faces of Tariq and Tecumseh on his communicator. Epaminondas’ arm quivered. “You won’t do that again. Too many people’s lives are at stake. You’ll give up when y—”

One day later . . .

Lochagos Epaminondas woke and began to vomit air. The cold clump of feces trapped in his pants pressing upon his back. Even his beard had a pungent, sour odor. His mouth was dry, his tongue cumbersome, his lips brittle and chapped. “Okay, we’re all dehydrated and starving,” he could barely mumble, “please, please, stop using those weapons. We should discuss all this in our hidden, underground base. I have an official treaty table in my temporary quarters.”

“I’m a bit leery about walking into your command center,” Tecumseh squawked. “Why don’t you meet us outside? We’ll bring our official treaty table, and you can bring an official treaty signing pad and pen set.”

“Obviously, we need to bring both treaty tables and pad and pen sets to a neutral zone,” Tariq snapped.

“How about Moon Henry?” Tecumseh suggested.

“Well, I like Moon Harry,” sighed Epaminondas, “but if you prefer Moon Henry . . .”

“Moon Henry it is. We will convene in two hundred watch cycles.”

Epaminondas turned to Tariq and heaved, “Tariq, you’ll be in charge of transferring the official treaty table to Moon Harry. That is your top priority.”

“Yes, your honor.”

“But don’t let the pad and pen set touch the ground or we can’t use it.”

“Of course, your honor. Over and out.”

Colonel Tariq and General Tecumseh turned to each other as the picture of Lochagos Epaminondas faded into a tiny white point in a sea of pitch. They tried to smile. The ordeal of waiting made them grumpy and pessimistic. Tariq hoped no one became ill during their stunt. The gamble sickened him with guilt as Tecumseh drifted to a desk drawer to pull out one single page that could change their warring paradigm. He handed it to Colonel Tariq for one final review.

Tariq half grinned. “There’ll be no victory until the last of the bureaucratic ink is spilt on this page.”

 

Chapter III.

Tariq wanted to feel in his palms the pink and orange swirl that was light years away from Moon Henry. He dreamed of riding the yellow streaks to the radiating spot of green in the center of the wild streams of color. The Zuidens and the Krenches could have spent the last two hundred years exploring this iridescent nebula rather than releasing obnoxious grunts of violence into their planet’s atmosphere. Both nations had the technology for space travel, but like trained birds they remained in their cell of a solar system, chirping unproductive, savage songs. Tariq wondered why he simply didn’t abandon his world for the vast expanse of stars and rocks. Once the last official signed the treaty, he wanted Gladius to travel with him across the black frontier speckled with unimaginable worlds and hues and wisdom.

Draping the white flag designed as the emblem of peace over the treaty table, Tariq pinned it down with ion nails. This empty canvas absorbed the faraway sunrays and glimmered as a beacon for hope and change. He poured his future onto that fabric. It reflected scenes of long forgotten festivals, when farmers celebrated the transition of seasons, when normal folks would honor the day someone was born. Since three generations before his own, the only parties anyone ever attended were victory bashes. People had reduced weddings into a five minute ritual if the couple even wanted to be married. Most people considered it cheating on the State. War had no shifting of seasons either, and the government developed nutrient pills, hence farmers became soldiers, harvests became archaic, and meals become lost rituals.

“The Zuidens are late,” coughed Lochagos Epaminondas, which returned Tariq’s view to the matter at hand.

“They’ll be here,” Tariq reassured, frightened of the possibility of a double-cross or shuttle accidents. He stood from his chair on top of a small platform that he and a few other soldiers had erected as a temporary stage and began pacing. Moon Henry seemed like one giant dust ball. If there were winds in space, he wagered that the moon would simply disappear from the solar system. Pacing was exhausting under the weight of his space suit and helmet, so he sat on a rock that disintegrated under him, smacking his lower half to the ground. The politicians behind him laughed, which sounded like ferocious animal hackles through the helmet’s ear piece. Cleaning himself off, Tariq wandered to a nearby crater and sat at its edge. The steel net surrounding the moon made him feel like a convict waiting for a pardon. His race placed it fifty feet above the lunar surface and completely around it in order to prevent bodies from floating away when they fought on it. The laser beams could not puncture the spacesuit’s urethane-coated nylon and spandex but would always short-circuit a space-suit’s gravity controls. He stared at Strategoroid’s emotionless face through the net’s gaps. It spoke without any awareness of the dramas performed on its surface and stared back with vibrant whites and blues and faded browns.

Finally, Tariq spotted Zuidish shuttles entering the net’s gate. He walked under the shadows of the massive gray beasts, following them to the armistice sight. Once the Zuidens landed, they carried their treaty table and linked it with the Krench table on the wobbling stage. All the Zuidish and the Krench politicians and high ranking officers surrounded the tables. Thousands of soldiers stood around their leaders in anticipation of this momentous occasion.

After the shaking of hands and plenty of photo ops, Lochagos Epaminondas was the first to speak, “Today marks an historic moment in the history of our great planet, Strategoroid, and our moon colonies of Henry and Harry. After two hundred long years, our two warring sides have finally put aside our irreconcilable differences and com—”

No one heard the laser blast due to the vacuum of space, but more importantly, no one saw its origin. For a few moments everyone froze and fixed their confused gaze on the nonmoving yet rising Lochagos Epaminondas. Then the speakers in everyone’s helmets blasted an incomprehensible tumult. “Didyouseethatwhatwasthatitwasoneofthemithadtobeone

ofthemofcourseitwasoneofthemattackattackfirefirefirefire!”

Colonel Tariq sank underneath one of the desks as all the attendees of the peace treaty signing began shooting their pistols and, subsequently, becoming inanimate then float upward into the net. The constant yelling muffled his cries to stop. Noticing the bodies piling above his head, he descended into the square, wooden cave. He needed to think.

Slowly raising his head above the desk, he looked for help from General Tecumseh, but found him frozen with the peace pen in hand. He lost sight of Gladius, too. He wanted to grab him and run off to one of the shuttles so they could drift away from the pageantry of bewilderment and aggression into the infinite void of totality.

A shiny silver leg kicked Tariq under the table. He swiftly rolled out and saw Major Tennille standing over him with a blaster pointed to his crotch. Tennille’s voice overpowered the discombobulated clamor. “You’ll finally be my prisoner.”

“Why?” cried Tariq.

“Have a nice rest, Colonel.”

Tennille’s finger wasn’t fast enough. The blast hit the stage after Tariq rolled in a semi-circle. The laser beam caused the stage to shake and crack. Tennille lost his balance and fell onto the dusty turf. Tariq launched his body to tackle the disoriented Major. They rolled across the terrain, up and down craters, knocking unstunned soldiers to the ground like dutiful bowling pins. After releasing a victorious punch and elbow push combination, Tariq jumped upright and removed his pistol from the holster as Tennille’s body twirled then bounced against the surface. He pressed the trigger. It was jammed. Tennille laughed as Tariq thrust his unthreatening weapon in his direction. With subconscious eagerness, Tariq flew upon him and pushed his fist wrapped gun directly into the visor of Tennille’s helmet. He punctured the glass and smashed Tennille’s feeble cheek. Even with the thick gloves, he could feel Tennille’s jaw shatter.

The brief, terrifying sound hushed and paused everyone who was still mobile. They had never heard such a vain roar. It was a coarse, high-pitched, piercing scream. All the organs in each listener heard it, felt it. It was the sound of a creature involuntarily meeting its god. And it only resonated for a second before the deadening airlessness of space silenced the instinctive gasp.

A medic rushed toward the source of the peculiar yelp with her kit of assorted band-aids. She pushed Tariq away from Tennille and reached into his broken helmet, cautious not to rupture her own space suit. She placed bandages over the cut areas, the only medical procedure any war doctor was trained to do besides mending the occasional sprain or broken bone.

“What’s his condition, doc?” Tariq asked in a state of shock that crippled every cell in his body.

She removed her hand and stood. “Dead. Oh . . . and beginning to float away.”

Tariq tried to grab hold of Tennille’s rising body, but he ineptly pushed the corpse even higher and further out. The rest of the Zuidens and Krenches assembled around Tariq and the doctor. Her apprehensive eyes were locked onto the Colonel, while everyone else’s eyes witnessed their species’ first murder victim nestle among the frozen in the cradle of the lunar net.

 

Chapter IV.

The insects seemed to treat the prison as a temple, reverent in their silent scurrying. This noiselessness was the sound of death, of Major Tennille. Before the universe, there existed this lack. The reason for the cosmos was to rebel against this inaudible horror. Colonel Tariq breathed heavily to keep the muted air at bay, but his lungs could not sustain such a demand for too long, so he tapped his feet against the cold concrete, drumming to nursery rhymes he heard as a child. The nostalgic tunes offered a mild cure before the longing, the missing, the need for people deafened his awareness.

He calculated how many taps of his feet it would take for a guard to return. Sometimes, eight hundred and thirty-six. Oftentimes, one thousand, three hundred and forty-one. The size of his cell was twenty-eight steps by fifty-six. The bed was seven steps long, yet one step too short for his body. The toilet was nine steps to his bed.

The guards dropped off the daily pill rations with hesitation whenever they came. Each one glared at his aura as he sat on the bed, never speaking or acknowledging any of them. The guards saw a fictitious monster instead of an accidental one. He returned their scowls with deeper disdain. They had no right to draft him as a demon. They had no right to cast him away into a prison built to hold a quarter of a million people.

Down the six hundred yard corridor, Marshal Pompeo, General Tecumseh, Lochagos Epaminondas, and Jotham Kale, the Zuidish President, sat with their arms folded around a small table and exchanged groans. They had been deliberating for two days without reaching any sort of solution as to what to do with the homicidal Colonel.

“Marshal Pompeo, please reread our disciplinary options,” Jotham Kale said, rubbing her aching eyes.

“One, we execute him. Two, we imprison him for life. Three, we strip him of his rank. Four, we set him free on the condition that he attend spiritual development classes. Five, we pretend like nothing happened,” the Marshal regurgitated for the fifteenth time.

“I thought we just agreed that the fourth would be ineffective,” Lochagos Epaminondas added.

“That’s right.” The Marshal crossed out the fourth option with heavier ink. “Excuse me.”

General Tecumseh looked at his watch then looked at the two clocks in the room, one telling Zuidish time and the other telling Krench time. Krench clock ran twenty times slower. His leg muscles were throbbing with pain after lightly bouncing in his chair for hours, thinking how futile a race between clocks would be. In the last thirty years, he never sat still for so long, even in prison. There, he was at least free to exercise in the courtyards or circle his cell for amusement. Here, he was glued to the seat, unable to stretch out satisfactorily due to the size of the warden’s office. Under the conditions of planetary incarceration, the committee had three more days to reach a unanimous verdict.

“If we were under Zuidish time, we’d have made a decision, swallowed some pills, and planned our next attack,” President Kale spat, startling the General.

“That’s why our clock runs slower. We take our time to think,” Lochagos scoffed.

“Tariq didn’t take the time to think when he killed one of our citizens,” Kale retorted loudly.

“Think about this!” barked Marshal Pompeo as she unleashed her PMS and froze President Kale. Without hesitation, General Tecumseh unsheathed his weapon and froze the Marshal and Lochagos.

He looked at the moving clocks then at the motionless bodies. He shrugged, pointed his gun at himself, pulled the trigger, and enjoyed an eight hour nap.

President Kale was the first to awaken. She rubbed her eyes as the rest slowly became unstuck. “We can’t let that happen again. Agreed? We lost too much time.”

“Truce,” Lochagos Epaminondas whispered. “Marshal, reread our options.”

“One, we execute him. Two, we imprison him for life. Three, we strip him of his rank. Four we—oh we rejected that one. Four, we pretend like nothing happened,” the Marshal regurgitated.

“We can’t kill him,” Lochagos Epaminondas urged. “That’s inconceivable. Two deaths would be too much for one war.”

“And as I’ve said before, if we leave him in prison for life, the loneliness will kill him,” pleaded Tecumseh.

Silence intruded into their debate once again. The constant buzz of the clocks reminded them of their ineffective indecisiveness.

“We could put him on trial,” the Marshal piped up. “Why do we four have to make the final ruling? Why can’t we place him in civil court?”

“But which nation should try him?” asked the General.

“We could find a courthouse close to the border.  We broadcast the trial to both nations, and we let the people vote to determine the outcome. Lochagos Epaminondas and President Kale will act as moderating judges.”

Jotham Kale rubbed her lips ever so delicately. She languidly let out each word, “Who could we find as lawyers?”

The Marshal already was prepared to answer. “Obviously, they should be military personnel. I have experience with law as well as General Tecumseh. Hopefully, Tariq will plead guilty so we won’t even have to say much during the trial.”

“Would that work?” mouthed the General, musing over the possible consequences of such a radical action for his friend.

Lochagos Epaminondas and Jotham Kale silently glanced at each other as if their facial expressions could persuade, more than their words, that the Marshal’s idea would not only absolve them from any guilt but aid in maintaining the peace Tariq’s lethal blow unintentionally caused.

“Let’s do it,” they said in unison.

Back down the enclosed street of black bars and gray walls, Colonel Tariq pondered his inability to fantasize. His mind refused to escape his environment. The reluctance to pine for Gladius or forget his lethal blunder condemned him to his claustrophobic cell.

Days had to have passed. There were no windows to reveal the difference between night and day. Time was told in footsteps, the infrequent coming and going of guards, the bringing and taking of pill cups, the turning off and on of the overhead lights. His face also told time. His neck stopped itching but loathed the new balmy thickness of hair. The prison’s heat melted his synapses. Every waking minute, perspiration soaked his clothes and skin. The perpetual dampness made him ill.

A different cadence emanated from the floor one day. Marshal Pompeo entered his cell.

“I need water,” Tariq cracked.

“Colonel, I need to discuss your trial. I’m defending your case.”

“You? Why you? You . . . I guess neither of us have a real choice in this matter.”

“This trial will be like none other ever seen on this planet. The entire population will be voting on your sentence. President Jotham Kale and Chancellor Lochagos Epaminondas—”

“I thought he was only acting Chancellor.”

“Since he led the escape from the capital and was the highest official at the time to attend the cancelled peace signing, we found it only fitting to give him the title. In any case, they will act as judges. Tomorrow you will shave, get a hair cut, and wash your uniform. And start thinking about your defense. I doubt people will want to hear the words of a killer, yet the judges will try their best to preserve proper etiquette in the courtroom. Even though I read the reports, you need to tell me why you killed Major Tennille.”

“My gun jammed.”

“That’s no excuse. Those are the dangers of war. Stun or be stunned.”

“He was the assassin who froze Lochagos Epaminondas.”

“Are you sure?”

“I can’t prove it.”

“Are you remorseful?”

“Is this the countenance of an innocent man?”

“Don’t bother about your appearance. Do you regret it?

“I think Major Tennille is lucky.”

“If that is the approach you’re taking on the stand, you will soon be as lucky as him.”

“Tell Private Gladius to visit me.”

“I will see you tomorrow.”

The sound of metal on metal. The sound of tungsten filaments fading. The feel of darkness. The sound of tungsten filaments hissing. The feel of artificial light. The sound of metal on metal. The sound of footsteps. The feel of a razor. The feel of a barber’s hands. The feel of a look into the mirror.

“Are you ready, Colonel?” interrogated the Marshal with a coldness that struck his ear.

Tariq adjusted his newly pressed uniform. Unlike the prison’s heat, the recently washed and dried uniform enveloped him in a warmth that invigorated his nerves. The duplicate in the framed glass was of a warrior ready to peregrinate into a threatening terrain without any weapon or team. He turned and followed the Marshal into the courtroom.

The doors opened to an explosion of chants, disgust, and anger. Tariq’s ears twitched, adjusting to the overwhelming riot. Marshal Pompeo led him to the defendant’s stand which reeked of new paint. Being on the border, the town of Rechtvaardigheid and its courthouse were vacant for years and, therefore, thoroughly unkempt. Once President Jotham Kale and Chancellor Lochagos Epaminondas declared that the trial was to be held there, flocks of citizens repopulated the rundown hotels and began to rebuild. The remodeling of the courthouse delayed the trial, brewing a vengeful sense of justice in the populous’ stomachs. Most citizens on both sides did not receive news of the Major’s death until many weeks had passed. Now, almost every citizen of the world knew of the tragic event and impatiently hungered for the legal process.

Tariq tried to avoid the blinding movements of an overcrowded, compact courtroom by focusing on a single spot. He looked up. The ceiling was completely white. It projected images of a grim future. He was alone. The entire population of Strategoroid left their homeworld for another planet, one without the haunting memory of a murder.

Lochagos Epaminondas and Jotham Kale banged their mallets repeatedly until everyone became quiet except one woman. The widow of Major Tennille devastated an entire planet with her echoing sobs, and her wailings stabbed Tariq, draining him of all feelings. After realizing her weeps provided the only noise in the room, she gracefully wiped her tears with her veil, blew her nose on Major Tennille’s favorite handkerchief, and left the courtroom with her children almost skipping behind her. The door closed, damning Tariq’s chances for a fair trial.

Jotham Kale began, “Today, the day of Koude the first in the year two billion nine hundred and seventy one million four hundred and sixty four thousand one hundred and forty eight, Zuidish and Krench nations join together to try Colonel Vrede Tariq for the murder of Major Toeknee Tennille on the night of Maaaaaaamaaaaaamaaaaaa the twelfth of that same year. Colonel Tariq, you are charged with assault with intent to kill. How do you plead?”

“Guilty, your honors.”

An eruption of astonishment quaked the room. Kale and Epaminondas pounded their mallets for several minutes. In the process, they scraped the paint and left deep impressions into the refurbished table.

Epaminondas then proclaimed, “Colonel Tariq, the people have four sentences on which to vote. The first, you shall be executed for your most heinous crime. The second, you shall be incarcerated for life with never a chance for parole. The third, you shall be emancipated from imprisonment but stripped of your rank. And, lastly, the fourth and the final, we shall pretend like nothing has happened. The court will ask of you to defend your most atrocious action not only to please the court but to placate the outraged citizenry. You will be timed, and we will be looking for the use of rhetorical terms, logical fallacies, and expository theories. Proceed.”

Tariq cleared his throat. His red pupils attempted to meet every pair of eyes in that room. “I am not sorry for what I have done, only for what has happened.”

A maelstrom of ruckus interrupted him. The judges’ mallets were quicker this time to silence it.

“No one deserves to die in war,” Tariq continued. “Major Tennille was no exception. He did not deserve to die, but he did deserve a punch in the face. I sincerely wish that I had meditated before my swift action in order to prevent an unfair destiny, yet I accomplished my mission of bringing peace to our world. We should consider Major Tennille a hero. His sacrifice has brought our two nations together. When I was taken from my cell to this courtroom, I noticed that this town has never sparkled with such splendor as it does today, and that is because people worked together to rebuild the foundations of a lost civilization. Punish me as you will, but promise me that you will not punish yourselves with another two hundred years of war.”

With those last words, a small amount of guilt pricked every individual in that room. Even President Kale and Chancellor Epaminondas momentarily forgot to fulfill their duty to conclude the proceedings. A collective vision of a war without end suffocated their imaginations.

After awhile, Epaminondas announced, “If that is all the defendant has to say, we shall convene in three days after all votes have been counted. Remember, citizens, mail-in ballots will not be accepted after the day of Koude the fourth. If you are voting via compulink, enter one for death, two for imprisonment, three for freedom, and four for denial.”

 

Chapter V.

No one voted for execution. No one voted for freedom either. Tariq’s only wish was that he could taste that peace he so yearned for during all those years. To see citizens convert fortresses into schools and prisons into apartments would make him completely content. Being half fulfilled, however, would have to do. Just hearing from his cell that the Zuidens and the Krenches were not fighting anymore made his confinement bearable. At first, Gladius preoccupied his visions, hoping he fulfilled his wish of sleeping for a month or more. Eventually, those memories of the ex-private disappeared.

To his surprise, Tariq was not alone as much as he had predicted. President Kale and Chancellor Epaminondas approved General Tecumseh’s request to transfer Tariq into a small, county jail where reporters, psychologists, and curious veterans interviewed him from time to time. No one truly wanted to understand what drove a man to kill, but they wanted it explained nonetheless. Everyone’s main concern was that someone would emulate his lethal action, thus, the press made it clear that Tariq was repentant and rehabilitated, but most importantly, a bizarre exception. Some days he was bored in repeating the story, other times the fascination glossing visitors’ eyes inspired him to exaggerate that fateful day on a moon as cold as his prison walls. It was rare, but he was grateful when a few veterans would forget his mistake and wanted to hear about the unorthodox stunts he pulled while rescuing his comrades and capturing territories or the three days when he kept an entire hemisphere frozen.

At night, what no audience ever heard were the faint whispers of hell that would permeate Tariq’s cage. He could barely see the fingers scratching his neck under the cell’s ebony shroud. Yet certain reoccurring visions pinched his stinging eyes. When he was thirteen, he lived with his grandmother because his father, mother, aunts, and uncles were spread throughout the nation fighting the war. She fostered ten other kids who were somehow related to him, but he never felt obligated to care about blood ties. He was devoted to the older boy next door. He and Tariq would sneak across town to an abandoned school, where most of the children ventured for the same reason, holding certain rooms on reserve. Their room was 238. Each time they went out there, Tariq never knew which part of the boy’s body to kiss first. He wanted to consume the boy’s life and breathe back into him a new sense of identity, a new sense of obligation. They could have lived in that room without ever remembering their patriotic duty. The military never needed a draft board. Boys and girls gleefully marched into the enlistment office at the stroke of midnight on their eighteenth birthday. They could have passed their days pretending to be frozen casualties, while spending their nights quietly moving the darkness away.

Of course, the boy left. He left him every night right before dreams interloped his consciousness. He left him from this night onward in a bed seven inches too short for his body and in a room drenched with apathetic gray, enclosed by bars that mocked his impossible reaches into the past.

 

END

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Michael J. Berntsen teaches Composition, Creative Writing, and Literature at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.