247. For King And Country

Henry brought up his gun too late. His assailant struck him across the brow, and his world spun.

He laid disoriented against the cold concrete, and he felt his pistol being torn from his grip. Outside, the wind was howling, and the rain fell in torrents. The sound was like static, he thought. Like when you turn your radio to a dead frequency, and there’s the sound that scientists called white noise. That’s what the rain sounded like, punctuated by the rolling thunder.

Strong hands gripped the hair at the back of his head, and he was hoisted up. The roots of his hair pulled at his scalp, and his eyes watered. His head was placed on the upper rung on the handrail, so that the metal bar caught the bottom of his jaw, and when his attacker pushed him against it, the bar would crush his windpipe.

His legs kicked uselessly behind him. A foot came down, crushing his right leg at the ankle.

What he saw was inconceivable, at least before he had come stumbling into the silo. They weren’t creating experimental weapons – the design for the diesel engine should have told him that – they were creating a war machine.

And what a war machine it was.

The thing must have been over a hundred meters long, maybe even the length of a sea cruiser. But what he saw had wheels in treads. He counted eighteen on each side, and he wasn’t even sure if that was enough to move the colossal tank. There were more guns than he could count, but he was certain that there was enough firepower in the machine to level a city.

“Good God,” he had said, and then heard the footstep behind him a moment too late.

He tried to twist around to see the person holding him down, but with a push from the hand holding the back of his head, he began choking. He was seeing black spots before the pressure let up, and he was allowed to breathe again.

“Why?” he choked.

“You have a chance to live,” the voice behind him said. “It depends on whether you decide to be useful to us or not. I beg you to listen well. The Empire could use a man like you.”

Henry said nothing. The voice went on.

“The world is changing. Faster than you can think. But war… War never profits, does it? And no one wants to rule over a barren wasteland. If you go back, Henry… Your empire will try to resist. Your people will try to fight. And for what? To delay the inevitable? To leave behind an inhabitable world? You’re a smart man, you know that it’s far better to serve in heaven than to rule in hell.”

“What do you want?” Henry asked.

“Your silence,” the voice said. “Say nothing, and the suffering of your people will be but for a year, at most. You have seen our troops, you have witnessed our power. We can fight for five hundred years… But for what? There need not be death and mourning. There need not be mindless conflict. Think of the soldiers, Henry. Think of their families. Think of yours.”

He held his breath, waiting on the next sentence.

“Go back, and tell them that you had seen nothing. And there’s one more thing.”

“What is it?”

“There’s a woman with you. The oriental lady.”

“What about her?”

“She knows too much. Kill her.”

His eyes grew wide in alarm. He felt something being pressed into his palm. He wrapped his fingers around it and found the familiar shape of his gun.

In one desperate move, he twisted free and fell on his back, and this time he had his gun trained on the figure behind him. It was a man in uniform, with short hair that was whitening at the sides. The officer looked at him with weary eyes.

“You can shoot me,” the officer said. “And your decision will be made. Peace or war. A moment of pain, or a hundred years in hell. The fate of your people rests in your hands, Henry.”

“How do you know my name?” his voice was hoarse.

The officer said nothing, but put his hands up before him, palms facing Henry: they were empty.

“Make your choice,” the officer said.

Henry swallowed hard. “God save me,” he said.

He lowered his gun.

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