Seli lay on top of the embankment and looked out over the plain ahead of him in the gray morning. It was cold and he was freezing; spring had not yet progressed into its usual warmth, and the air was chill and damp. The dew lay heavy on the grass and leaves next to him, and he longed for a hot breakfast to warm him, just like at home – but that was a long time away still. A weak sun shone behind the clouds, and he felt like rain was in the air.
The plain ahead of him was covered with tall grass and small trees, and a few small villages lay far off in the distance, just below the mountains on the horizon. The villages had been abandoned since last year; there was no movement at all in them or any light during the night. Some its houses were torn to pieces, empty hulks of buildings with no roofs or with missing walls. Some were completely blown away, nothing remaining but rubble strewn along the edge of the crater where the artillery shell had hit.
He knew that somewhere in the distance was the enemy. Too far away at this point to be much of a threat, but the long-range guns could still be a nuisance. More for harassment than any real danger, for they were not very accurate, but there was always the potential threat of a sniper hiding in some of those buildings, and even at a distance of over a kilometer, there was still the possibility of a long range shot. It might miss – it would probably miss – but still something to consider.
Seli didn't want to be here. He wanted to be at home, waking up in his warm bed to the smell of coffee in the morning, where windows and walls would protect him against the cold wind and the dampness. He sniffled. But he had at least two months left in his rotation before he could go home, and he knew that before then, he would see at least another major battle, right on this plain. He kept hoping he would be able to go home. He kept hoping he wouldn't die.
He slid back down the embankment and moved through the bushes to where the rest of his group was; thirteen of them in total spread out in a few tents.
– No movement on the plain, group commander, he said.
– Good, answered Elam, the commander of the group. Keep watching and report every half hour.
– Do we expect any activity, sir?
Elam shrugged his shoulders.
– Orders came down last night, he said. Keep watch on the whole front to the east. Report any activity, no matter how small. Don't know why, but orders are orders.
– I saw some deer, offered Seli.
– You want me to report in deer activity, Seli? Elam sighed. What the matter with you this morning? Tired? You want to go home? Everyone wants to go home. Get back up there and keep watching.
Elam looked at him until he found it best to move away and head back up to his observation post.
On the way back, his friend Naliam came up to him and walked along for a moment.
– Seli, why do you say things like that? she said with a big smile. You're just causing problems for yourself.
– I don't know. Seli shrugged his shoulders.
Naliam was a good-looking soldier, long dark hair up in a ponytail in typical regimental fashion. She had a big smile, and big bright eyes that Seli always had a hard time looking away from. She had a kind of enthusiasm about her and her job, as if she really enjoyed being out here and seemingly unaffected by the circumstances and the cold. She was tough but smart, and as the group sniper she commanded an impressive list of kills, far more than Seli. Not that anyone was counting, but it made him feel awkward.
– You still don't really believe in this mission, do you?
– How would I know what to believe? he responded. This is something we've always done, we've always fought against them and they've always fought against us. My father was in the corps and his father before him, so it's just something we do, right? But heck if I know why.
– You know why, laughed Naliam. We're defending ourselves. And those back home.
– But against what? he argued. How do we know we're the ones who are right? This war has been going on for as long as anyone can remember. Hundreds of years? Who even knows what we're fighting for?
– I don't know. I don't get involved in politics like that. All I know is that I feel in my heart like we're doing the right thing.
She hesitated perceptibly, looked towards the plain, and continued:
– I don't feel like they are. They want harm. Their motives are wrong.
– You go by feelings? Seli asked, shaking his head. Is that how you rationalize this?
– No, Seli, and you know what I mean, she responded. It's not a feeling. It's something deeper than that. I just know, she said, looking into his eyes.
– I don't, he said.
She smiled, looked at him with her head tilted sideways, and laughed suddenly.
– Don't worry, Seli. You'll figure it out one of these days... And in the meantime, I've got your back.
She patted her sniper rifle reassuringly and walked away.
Seli's father and grandfather had both been in the corps. In fact, it was a long line of military men that had gone before him in the Ranger Corps. The Ranger Corps was not easy to get into, but they kept an unofficial eye towards families with a historical record; and so, when he had turned 16, he had made his first attempt at getting in. He had nearly succeeded, but had instead spent two years in the 20th Airborne Infantry Brigade, which had the advantage of being stationed in his home town of Sirona. On his 18th birthday he had reapplied to the Ranger Corps, succeeded by a narrow margin, and after the initial four months of rigorous training, he'd been stationed out there on the east front, up in the mountains, occasionally rotating back to the support lines and then moving up again to the front. He hadn't seen Sirona since before the new year.
Even though he had done well, he always had doubts nagging at him. He knew what he was supposed to do; and his lineage gave few people any doubt as to how his life was going to turn out. Of course the military training had been rigorous both in terms of physical exercise and capability, as well as political indoctrination; but as some of his classmates had told him, he was a little bit too smart for his own good. "You're not paid to think", was the proverbial joke in the ranks, but he always kept pondering the war. How could a war that had lasted for centuries be right?
In fact, no one quite knew when it had started. Ever since the Second Great War, nations had disappeared and people were left fighting for themselves, uniting as best as they could, trying among themselves to rebuild a semblance of society where none existed; and struggling to keep order among a plethora of small kings and warlords who struggled, in turn, to gain their advantage.
But the questions in his mind had always been there: Why did so many people unite against them, specifically? For centuries, war had been raging back and forth – sometimes harder, sometimes with tentative cease-fires and something that could almost appear peaceful, and then raging back into full conflict – between people groups all across the world as they knew it. But there was always a common trend, people uniting against his country, Fiveblossom. Why was that?
Fide had of course been the capital of the world once, not just Fiveblossom – back then, before the great wars. And every once in a while, some secret artefact was uncovered from the ancient history with remarkable powers, that kept getting them an advantage in the conflicts. And it was only natural to believe, as the teachers at the academy had always maintained, that this was the reason why they were always under attack. Because of the desire for power, so some other nation could conquer the world and plunge the world into an everlasting darkness from which there was no escape. Fiveblossom, and to particularly narrow it down in the academy, the Ranger Corps, was the thin strip of light that narrowly balanced this world so it wouldn't topple over and destroy itself.
Seli wasn't sure he believed that. He did not have a hard time believing himself that there might be a certain desire for power in the leadership in Fide themselves, and that's why they closely guarded any artefacts they found, for their own good.
But Naliam bothered him. There was something about her, despite her tough and impressive appearance, and how obviously she was cut out for the Ranger Corps – some inner conviction, or some inner peace; the way it was all resolved in her mind in a way that he could never bring himself to. No matter how much he could win any political debate against her, he always walked away feeling that somehow he had lost something that couldn't be captured by a rational argument.
It bothered him and he never could figure out why.
By six o'clock that evening, Seli thought he saw something. He couldn't quite figure out what, and when he looked again, there was nothing. It was like something had shifted out on the plain, like it looked differently somehow.
It had warmed up during the day; the sun had come out from behind the clouds and a still rain in the late morning had gone away and given way to the sun beating down on them. The sun felt nice, and had warmed him up sufficently to almost start sweating. He had kept a close watch on the plain to where he could almost tell commander Elam how many individual trees were on it; and every half hour he had gone down to report the same thing – no movement on the plain.
At one o'clock there had been some commotion down in the group; a messenger had arrived and informed them that the strength was building up behind their lines in preparation for "a new development". Naliam had told him when he went down to report once and while having a bite of food to eat, that there were rumors of another artefact moving up towards the front; whispers of a powerful weapon that had never been seen before.
Shortly after four o'clock, additional units started coming in, reinforcing their position, all of them rangers. They took up overwatch positions along the embankment, out toward the flanks. Another group commander had shown up and talked to commander Elam at length; and had stopped by briefly up on the embankment to talk to Seli about the plain in front of them and the conditions out there. Seli had pointed out several positions, some in the villages out there, where snipers were likely to be and where it was likely that any enemy would be moving.
But now it was past six o'clock, the sun had started to set and most of the plain was now in a grayish dusk, and he thought that he had seen movement; but no matter how hard he looked, he could not spot anything. But was really bothered him was a smell; it was like a different smell in the air. He didn't know what it meant.
He had reported it to Elam, and he had looked at him, seemingly judging whether his report was anything to worry about or whether he was just full of it. Or whether Seli had just seen another couple of deer.
By nine o'clock that evening, he had been relieved, and another guy from his group took up the watch. Seli made his way back, thankful to move around again and get some food going. Everyone was talking quietly about the rumors of the artefact, but no one knew anything, except Yuri, a ranger from Pani Emel, who mentioned that his people back home told him HQ was field testing something, some kind of pulsar weapon. He said it could change the course of the war, and someone else had told him to shut up because things like that didn't exist, and don't you dare get their hopes up needlessly.
Seli had left the group and gone back to his tent. But the night was warm for once, the stars were out, and he decided to sleep outside.
He awoke suddenly and with a start, in the middle of the night. He had distinctly and clearly heard someone calling his name: "Seli, Seli!"
For some reason, as soon as he awoke, his heart had been filled with fear; an unexplainable fear that he did not understand. He slowly glanced around him in the darkness and grabbed his carbine next to him. All he knew was that a strange terror had grabbed him the moment his name was called out and he had awoken instantly; and he felt a strong warning in his heart to stay down and not move.
In the darkness it was difficult to make anything out around him. The starlight helped, but there was no moon. He tried not to breathe loudly, while beads of sweat appeared on his brow. And he thought he smelled something again – a strange smell of stale sweat, metal and dirt.
And suddenly he heard noises; quiet shuffling of feet, steps in the night.
With his carbine closely tucked in to him, he quietly rolled over on his stomach and over again, two or three times, pausing breathlessly between each roll to see if he had made any noise. Since nothing seemed to happen, he kept rolling until he rolled down into a little depression on his left, that would provide at least a minimum of cover; quietly turned around, and raised his carbine to a firing position. In the soft starlight, through the sights, he saw several shadows moving across the ground, heading toward his group. They had strange helmets on, moved slowly and cautiously – and all of a sudden one of them raised a stick up; no, a rifle, and aimed...
He didn't even think. Seli squeezed the trigger and let a burst of rounds fire against the shadow. The noise of the rounds hurt his ears through the quietness of the night, and the muzzle flashed in the darkness; but the shadow shouted loudly and fell. Shouts came immediately from several others, and suddenly shots erupted all around him. Seli kept shooting at the shadows – one down, two down, three down...
How quickly the quiet night erupted into an ear-splitting noise. It only took a few seconds before the quiet stillness of the night had been turned into a frenzy of shouting, people jumping up, a deafening noise of rifle shots and carbine fire. People screaming from wounds, and shouting in confusion.
It was hard to tell friend from foe. He saw two people locked in a struggle with each other but he couldn't tell who was friend or foe. When he turned his attention to the embankment, he saw in a second more shadows appearing, running over the top and coming down towards them. They were shouting as they ran down, muzzle flashes in the night; bullets were flying past Seli and hitting the ground around him, showering him with dirt and getting in his face. But there was concentrated fire coming now against the shadows, from other places, and they fell down screaming and twisting, still shooting straight up into the sky.
Seli's weapon clicked against nothing. In a well-rehearsed motion, he quickly drew a new magazine from the belt on his side and put it into the carbine, and lifted the sights back up to him to aim for new shadows. As he did so, he heard a series of distant heavy thuds, and before long the whole area was illuminated by bright beacons in the sky that slowly arced their way towards the horizon.
He quickly gazed around him from where he lay, trying to orient himself and get a grasp on the situation. He could see several bodies close to him, and some in his group with them; but the rest of his unit were entrenched in a similar position as his, muzzles still flashing against the darkness. Eerie shadows crept along the ground beside him as the bright illumination rounds in the sky slowly fell towards the ground. He could see the enemy soldiers plainly now, strange uniforms with strange helmets and weapons aiming at them; he moved quickly and fired more bursts at them – they fell to the ground, cut down in the fire from several weapons at once.
Over the noise, Seli suddenly heard commander Elam shouting.
– TO THE EMBANKMENT! NOW!! MOVE IT!
No enemy soldiers immediately visible, they jumped up, and ran as fast as they could towards the embankment. Two more enemies appeared over it, but were cut down immediately; their screams pierced the night even through the noise of the firing. Seli fought his way back up the slope, his feet straining against the sand and gravel, and finally threw himself down on the ground just below the top, aimed his carbine, and peeked over the edge.
The sight on the other side froze him still.
Every bush, every tree, every feature that he so meticulously had tracked the day before, seemed to have turned into an enemy soldier. There were thousands of them, running towards them. It was as if the plain in front of him had turned into a sea of enemies, all rushing toward their position.
He held his breath for a moment, unsure of what to do; he could hear some scattered, hesitant firing starting. A very pervasive thought at the back of his mind gently reassured him that he had only a few magazines of ammunition – ten? twelve? – and with thirty-six rounds each, they were going to run out really, really fast.
Sporadic fire from their group, hesitant and uncoortinated, told him the same thing that everyone in his group knew by now, as the enemy started firing upon them and volleys of bullets flew around them, hit the ground, hit their weapons; as a stray one ricocheted away from his helmet as he dove back down:
They were all going to die.
Bright lights flashed over him all of a sudden. Something passed over his head, something huge, something that flew in the night with a deafening roar and lit up the plain in front of him, even as the last lights from the artillery faded into the distance. He looked up, not quite knowing what to think, to figure out what was above him and if it was friend or foe, and what the heck he could do about it.
But he only had a brief second to try to grasp what the flying machine above him was, before it suddenly seemed to halt in mid-air, with impossibly bright lights still playing over the entire plain; and then a heavy, pounding, throbbing sound started up that hurt his eardrums – a pulsating noise that seemed too low to register, but that shook his whole body. The force of it was impossible; with every throb Seli felt himself get picked up and be nearly lifted off the ground from where he lay, and then thrown against it again, several times per second.
And the plain in front of him turned upside down.
The very ground seemed to hang thirty meters above where it was before. It was as if someone had smote the very ground itself and pounded it into oblivion. The tearing of the plain erupted in a roar he could not have described. He closed his eyes and winced in sheer terror, curling up just below the top of the embankment and waiting for it to go away. He could taste blood in his mouth.
When it eventually came to a stop, and everything became quiet, he cautiously peered over the embankment, but he saw nothing. Nothing at all.
When dawn finally came around, about an hour and a half later, they got up from their positions that they still held and looked out in front of them. The plain was no longer a plain, it was a contorted mass of gravel with bits and pieces of trees strewn throughout it, as if a tornado had swept through a china shop. There were no signs of any villages. Nor of any soldiers – except for the ones on their side of the embankment who had been killed in the firefight.
As the morning progressed, they began to figure out what had happened in the night.
They found the soldier who had taken over Seli's watch position, his body lay contorted against the embankment with his throat slit. He never made a noise – they never figured out if he had fallen asleep, drifted off in a moment, or if the enemy soldiers had just come upon him quietly and stealthily in the night.
There were twelve bodies of enemy soldiers laying on the ground next to their camp. Two others in Seli's unit were found next to them, one with a knife through his chest. Neither Naliam nor the commander were wounded, but several others had bruises and minor wounds, and one of them had been rushed away by the medics – they said he might not live past the evening.
The one question that Seli couldn't possibly answer was who of them that had woken him up. He remembered so clearly and vividly being woken up by someone calling his name – and who could have done that without alerting the enemy soldiers. But no one answered, or had heard anything of it. As far as they knew, their watch had been killed and if it wasn't for Seli, they would all have been dead.
Naliam offered her view on it a little later, as they sat down to have an improvised meal in the afternoon, trying to come to grips with what happened, both to them and the enemy.
– When I was young, my parents told me of something they called "the wisdom". They didn't really explain what it was, but it was something they had grown up with, and something that they wanted to pass on to me, I guess. They told me that it was kind of a leading force in life, a small, still inner voice that kept guiding them through life and witnessing within them about right and wrong.
– I still remember, she continued, on my thirteenth birthday, how I had gone to bed after my mother had had one of those talks with me about wisdom, and I was lying there in the darkness and just kind of asked out loud in my room, if there really was anything like what my mother had talked about. Just a question out in the air.
Naliam was quiet for a moment, hesitating and seemingly searching for words.
– I didn't hear anything, nor did I see anything, but all of a sudden I felt this… warmth, somehow, just enter the room. I don't know how to explain it. It was like a peaceful warmth just came in and filled everything, like a warm blanket. And as I gave in to it and accepted it, it filled me – and I knew in that moment that my life was changing and that I would never be the same. All my questions faded away and I just knew.
– I look back on that moment, she continued, because ever since then, I've always known what to do. I mean, yes, I still have questions and concerns and worries about what's going to happen and so on, but somehow it's always been with me in my heart. Even in this moment I can feel it leading me… telling me which way to go in life, when I'm doing things wrong, or reassuring me when I feel afraid.
She looked at Seli; her dark, bright eyes looking deep into him, and there seemed to be a strange light inside.
– I know, I know in my heart, that that was what spoke to you in the night, Seli. If you hadn't woken up, we would all have been killed. And I know it wasn't just luck, it was something else, that woke you up and saved our lives. It chose you, Seli – for whatever reason I don't know. And I know it was the same wisdom that my parents talked about and that I have.
Seli pondered it for a moment.
– I don't know, Naliam, he answered at last. I really don't know what to think about it. I could clearly hear something calling my name, but… everyone was asleep. Why would this "wisdom" come to me? Why not you, since you apparently already know it? And what does it want with me, if it really exists? It seems very strange to me and I don't know that I can just accept it.
– Maybe the real reason you're doubting is that you don't want to accept it, said Naliam back.
Seli had to admit that was very likely to be true.
– I mean, what if this thing tells me something I don't want to do? I feel like I would be giving up control of my life, for some strange force that no one knows anything about.
– You are, said Naliam. You are giving up part of your life. But, Seli, she continued, you've never known what to do with yourself anyway; you've always been questioning things and never knowing which way to go. Maybe it's time you stop trying to figure it out. If it wasn't for this that spoke to you last night, what would all of your figuring out have accomplished? The wisdom saved your life.
Seli found himself sitting on top of the embankment a few hours later. He looked out over the plain, that now showed signs of settling down somehow, as if somehow the air had gone out of it, and rivers once again were slowly carving their meandering way through it.
This was the place where the enemy had launched their major assault against their them – and by extension, their country. They had slowly spread through the plain in front of him, so slowly that he hadn't even picked it out. He never saw it coming, to his great embarrassment. He shook his head in wonder.
His first few rounds had set it all off; it had awoken their unit, who had responded immediately; it had caught the enemy itself by surprise as they were trying to surprise them; it had alerted the support units behind them, and the artillery a kilometer away.
And he had seen an artefact with his own eyes. A relic of the golden age, a miracle of engineering and possessing technological marvels that had been lost for a thousand years. He still remembered the throbbing, pulsating noise that had flung him against the embankment – what the enemy on the other side had felt, he didn't want to know. His arms and torso were developing some nice bruise marks from it.
Just one day ago, he would have been in emotional distress about this, trying to figure out whether his part in the whole thing was right or wrong, whether he was fighting on the right side or not, struggling to cope with the loss of thousands of human lives on the plain in front of him.
But now, as he sat there in the evening sun slowly going down, looking into the hazy red sunlight on the horizon, he found that he knew in his heart that it was right. Somehow they had stopped a terrible and regretful invasion, and the lives were lost, but he knew that his part in it was right. He didn't understand – he had no intellectual arguments to prove anything – but just like Naliam, he knew that it was right.
Something – some wisdom – had chosen him. What for? And why him?
He didn't know how, but somehow, in his heart, he knew that he would have the rest of his life to figure it out.