The Savior – Snippet 19
“No, sir, I don’t.”
“To get the cold hell away from my father’s plantation, that’s why.”
“Where was that?”
“Was? Is. It’s still there. Ingres. In the middle of the province. Best land. They grow wheat and flax. There are whole villages of people who work for my father. People who will always work for my family. Serfdom. That’s the way it’s done in Ingres.”
“I know about the plantations.”
“From scrolls? From passing through on your way to better things? No, you don’t know anything!” Von Hoff slapped a hand down on the table. The pistol jumped and rattled back down.
“Why don’t you tell me, Colonel?”
Von Hoff was silent for a long moment. Then he brought his hand back up, kneaded his forehead, and finally spoke. “They say we have no slavery in the Land. That’s one way we are different from those cursed dust-worshipping Redlanders. They take slaves, but for us civilized people, slavery is counter to the Laws and Edicts of Zentrum” Again, the faint smile crossed von Hoff’s face. “I’ve seen slavery. It’s alive and well in Ingres. And my family have been slave masters for three hundred years.”
“So you joined up to get away from all that?”
“So I wouldn’t have to become a slave master myself.”
“And now –”
“I’m about to make my kin look like children playing at what they do.”
“Unless you put a minié ball through your skull?” said Abel. “And how is this going to help those people in Progar?”
“Nothing can help them.” He smiled, still looking at the gun. “But it doesn’t have to be me who does it.”
The colonel’s conclusion does not follow, Center said in his impersonal voice. He makes utilitarian argument for his inability to effect change, but from that argument it would follow that it is better if he is in charge of the extermination to minimize pain and suffering.
The man’s wrestling with his soul, said Raj quietly. He’s run up against the trouble with that sort of thinking.
Utilitarian philosophy is normally sound. It is that which is often deemed practical, with end justifying means.
It’s that kind of thinking from Zentrum that’s left this world wallowing in Stasis, with children dying from the measles and mumps, and men with ideas kicked to the stones. It isn’t cowardly to want to escape from doing evil.
I was not accusing the colonel of moral weakness. I was merely pointing out the logical contradiction in his argument to justify self-slaughter.
Abel found himself wanting something he’d never desired before. For a moment, he wanted to share Center. To show the colonel what a future would look like with no Zachary von Hoff.
Can I? Is it possible?
No, Center replied. You were conditioned during your proximity to the capsule which brought us to this world. Your mind was tuned on a quantum level, beyond mere rearrangement of neurotransmitters. Raj and I are with you in a very real way. We could not be with the colonel in such a manner unless he were to come within several paces of the capsule.
Show me, then.
It’s a cold he’s never felt before. Beyond the cool of a winter evening in the Land. Breathtaking cold. And there is snow. He’s never seen snow before, has known of its existence only from scrolls. Now he understands it at a bone-deep level.
And it is hard to breathe. Almost as if the air has given out. He is not walking particularly quickly, but every step is a struggle.
He looks behind and sees a line of men following. What was supposed to be a flanking attack has instead turned into a death march to escape the weather and an enemy in pursuit.
Abel looks down at his hands, uncovered, growing blue, and doesn’t recognize them. They are a brown color, many shades darker than his natural hue even with a full tan. He turns over his palms. Lighter skin there. He is a black man.
You are Captain Leonard Fowlett of Third Battalion Wednesday Company. The men following you are the remains of your entire unit.
I haven’t counted them, but there can’t be more than thirty or forty left of a hundred, Fowlett/Abel thought.
Chambers Pass. This is what it had come to, where they had come to. The headwaters of the River when it wasn’t a frozen hell of snow and ice as it was at present.
Fowlett knew it was a fool’s errand going in. The company was not equipped for snow. But it was the natural element of the enemy.
Brilliant. Fucking brilliant.
Colonel Vallancourt, now a general. Promoted from the rockfucking First. Always sure he’s the smartest guy in any room. Always certain he’s right.
Well, this time he wasn’t right. It was only the latest of a series of stupid blunders on this bloody, benighted campaign. Oh, the Corps would win, all right. That was apparent from the start. But to pay this kind of price, when it should have been relatively easy. To lose so many of my men.
To die in this cold hell.
Chambers fucking Pass.
A man comes huffing toward him, plowing through the snow. It is the young lieutenant, the trustworthy one with the platoon taking up the rearguard.
Breathless, he arrives, stands before the captain. Tries to speak, but cannot.
“Easy, man,” says Fowlett. “It takes time to catch your breath in this thin air.”
The young lieutenant nods, takes a moment to get his breath under control.
“They’ve caught up with us, sir,” he gasped. “We couldn’t hold them. They’re using…I don’t know what to call them. Things that slide over this white horror we’re wading through.”
“Skis,” Fowlett said. He’d read about them, somewhere. In some impossible children’s tale of the frozen north. He turned his gaze back down the snowy valley which they had been heading up in their attempt to escape.
There, not far away, perhaps a few hundred paces. Brown and black dots, moving impossibly fast. Men walking — no, men sliding — on the top of the snow.
“Form ranks!” he called out. His weary men moved to obey.
Even after all this, the stupid losses in an insane charge on the walls of Orash. The repulse. The counterattack. After all this, Wednesday men had fight left in them. But it was so cold.
The flight. The cold.
A night of hell. Men dying standing in their own tracks. Dying of cold.
Yet the ones who remained pulled together into a ragged line, their sergeants’ shrill voices goading them once more into battle formation, two deep.
Across the valley floor from him, the black and brown dots grew larger. No longer dots, but forms with arms and legs. Men. Gliding over the snow like magical beasts.
“Tell them to hold fire!” he called to his first sergeant. “Wait until those cursed rockfuckers are in range.”
We can’t waste the little ammunition we still have.
The enemy drew closer. Closer.
They stopped well out of range.
What the cold hell…
Someone was forming them into a line. They raised their rifles.
They’re out of range. Don’t they know the chance of hitting us is one in a thousand?
But the rifles weren’t aimed at Wednesday Company. They were aimed at the sides of the valley, the steep slopes packed with snow.
The enemy fired. It was ragged fire, no discipline there. And they were shooting into snow.
For a moment, he laughed. Blood and Bones, was this some sort of joke?
He couldn’t understand why they did it, but he didn’t need to. The enemy would have to reload. His entire unit was armed and ready. He would charge. Even bounding through snow, they would come into range.
He would rout those rockfuckers after all!
That was when he heard the rumble. It sounded like distant thunder, but Fowlett didn’t recognize it. He’d only seen his first rain six days ago. This — was outside his knowledge.
The rumble grew louder. Where was it coming from? What was it?
He looked wildly around.
The walls of the little valley — were they shifting? Was the snow itself on the move?
Then the rumble became a roar, and he understood.
The enemy would not have to shoot them. No, the snow would take care of that.
He watched the avalanche approach. Some of the men turned to run. But the other side of the valley was avalanching as well. There was nowhere to run.
He tried to brace himself. Tried to be ready. But the snow hit him like the punch of a giant. So cold. Flung, churned. Nothing but white, white, white in his vision. Pulled in opposite directions.
He felt his right leg break at the thigh.
Pulled, yanked, turned.
Finally he came to rest. His eyes were still open. Darkness. Wet when he blinked. He couldn’t get his hands free to wipe them, couldn’t move at all. He struggled, but it was no use. Was he upside down? Right side up? How deeply was he buried? There was no way to tell.
He knew he was freezing to death, because the cold didn’t seem to bother him anymore.
But then Fowlett realized he wasn’t going to die from the cold after all.
No, it would be suffocation.
There was no air here, except what he brought with him in his lungs. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move and he couldn’t breathe.
Cold hell. He’d sworn by it a thousand times, not realizing it was real.
And now he was there.
Cold hell was Chambers Pass.
* * *
“No, you can’t help them, and you can’t help yourself out of obeying these orders. But it’s the Goldies who’ll suffer if you leave us, Colonel. Third Brigade in particular.”
“You can’t know that,” answered von Hoff with a shrug. “I’m just a man. Men are interchangeable. By the will of Zentrum, that’s how the system is designed.”
“Colonel, don’t ask me how it is I come by this, but I know for a fact that they will give the Third Brigade command to Colonel Vallancourt.”
Von Hoff looked away from the pistol, turned to Abel and laughed, as if Abel had made an absurd joke. “No, I don’t think so.”
Abel met the colonel’s gaze, slowly shook his head. “It’s true. It will be Vallancourt. I know this. It’s practically a done deal.”
“Absurd. How do you know it?”
“I can’t tell you, but it’s from a source I completely trust.”
For a very long time, von Hoff held Abel’s gaze. “Who are you?” he said. “No one your age at the time could have won the Battle of the Canal. What do you see? What are you?”
“A man, like you,” Abel answered. “But sometimes I know things. The way I knew how to use the breechloaders Golitsin made. This is another one of those times.”
Von Hoff looked into Abel’s eyes a little longer. Then he dropped his gaze and reached for the pistol. He carefully removed the firing cap and lowered the cocked hammer. Then he pushed the gun abruptly away. It skittered across the table, but did not fall off.
“I can’t,” he whispered. “I can’t visit a plague like Vallancourt on the men. I just can’t.” He looked back to Abel. “And you’re sure?”
“Almost certainly matters are going to align in such a way that he’ll get the command if you’re gone.”
The crooked smile slowly returned to the colonel’s face.
“Back when Vallancourt and I were both in the Academy, I looked at that First Family dolt and said to myself, ‘Someday, Zachary, your life is going to depend on him, on something he does or does not do. What will you do then? Will you accept that fate can be that cruel?’ I even thought about killing him at one point.”
“Is that true, sir?”
“I always figured he would be the death of me, through one or another of his incredible fuck-ups. It would be justified self-defense.”
Von Hoff took up the pistol, pushed back from the table, and slid the dragon back into his waistband.
“Damn Vallancourt to cold hell,” he said — but with resignation, not anger, and with the same crooked smile on his face. “Now he’s gone and saved my life.”