by Dan Suptic
(Winner, 3rd Place, 2015)
During an assault on a fortress, two soldiers discuss wartime ethics regarding the use of their siege weapon.
“Commence attack! Launch wall breakers!”
This command, called out in military singsong, spread through the assembled army. The assorted soldiers had spent the previous months training for this day; swinging swords at wooden posts, practicing drills and formations, and marching and running while clad in cumbersome armor. With the first half of that command, today, their preparation is done.
The nationality and names of the enemy weren't important. Well, that's not completely true. The nationality and the names of the enemy were obviously quite important to the enemy themselves, but military training requires a certain dehumanization of one's foes. You don't want the rank and file thinking too much about the other side, wondering about their names and backgrounds, their motivations and ideals. You want to keep things nice and simple.
The current objective of the officers and commanders were as simple as you can get.
They have a big fortress.
We're going to break it.
The means of breaking were relayed in the second half of the command. In response to the shout, those attending to the army's large catapults sprang into action. The mechanics of the siege weapons were very modern, boasting levers and gears and fancy internal mechanisms. But, it still required manual labor to help get the ammunition into the bucket, and someone at the controls to choose what to aim at, and when to fire.
Upon hearing the command, Senior Siege Engineer Kaz jumped up from his seat on the edge of his assigned catapult. He was an old man by military standards, his helmet hiding the few gray hairs that had recently appeared on his head. Due to his long years of service, he was strong and able bodied, quick on his feet when he needed to be. He was a good soldier, but even though he was an ideal candidate for promotion, Kaz stayed near the bottom ranks. He preferred work that felt like work. Even amongst the engineers, he took on the loader's job instead of the less strenuous job of artilleryman.
That job went to Siege Engineer Derrek, and as Kaz loaded the catapult, Derrek spun wheels, turned winches, and consulted charts and sights, setting up the power and precision needed for the weapon to deliver its payload against a spot on the fortress wall. Derrek was young, probably at least ten years younger than Kaz. He still had the look of a recruit, lacking either the scars or the demeanor of a more seasoned soldier. Derrek balanced on the edge between 'Boy' and 'Man', still full of fresh ideas and dreams and passions, but also with the understanding that without a paycheck, it was difficult to pursue said ideas, dreams, and passions. He went into the military with the expectation that it was good, honest work. Compared to the work of politicians and nobles who reign over armies, it was.
Kaz shouted out, “Loaded!”
Derrek responded, “Firing!”
And with that, Derrek pulled a lever, sending the catapult's payload screaming into the air.
The ammunition was a Slime, a member of the smallish, teardrop-shaped race of gooey creatures that can be found all around heaven's grave. As it careened through the air, it screamed a gurgling cry. Being so high off of the ground was a spectacular event, as Slimes in general (and Purple Slimes, like itself in particular) tend to spend most their days with their feet on the ground, so to speak.
As the Slime reached the peak of its flight, it concentrated, drawing upon its stores of magical energy, increasing itself greatly in size. The Slime, now a two ton projectile, crashed into the fortress wall, violently ripping a giant hole in the defensive structure.
“Yes!” Kaz exclaimed, grinning as he surveyed the damage done. “That's a really good hit; nice work!”
Derrek nodded, his brow furrowed as he worked on resetting the catapult for another shot.
“Somethin' the matter?” Kaz asked.
“I don't know, just… honestly, do you think what we're doing is wrong?” Derrek asked.
Kaz shrugged and said, “Well, it ain't our job to guess what's right and wrong. I mean, sure, we're hurting people, but there's no civilians in the fortress, just soldiers. They agreed to fight just as we did, and actually, I know a bit about the politics of the whole situation. Apparently, they're planning on rekindling the old war, make a big show of force, see who's willing to–”
“No, no no no, not that,” Derrek said, cutting Kaz off. “I mean our current actions, specifically. Shooting living creatures at buildings. Is that wrong?”
Kaz looked bemused at the question, saying, “What, the Slimes? Can't really see that we're doin' anything wrong by them, no.”
“Seriously? You don't see what could be wrong about launching living, thinking creatures a couple hundred feet into the air, speeding towards solid stone and crashing into it head on?”
“No, look – Slimes don't have the same biologistical pieces that humans do, ok?” Kaz punctuated his point by pushing his boot into the side of one of the Slimes wandering around the ammunition pen. The Slime responded with a wet 'mlep' sound as Kaz's boot made an indentation into the side of its plump body.
“So,” Kaz continued, “obviously we can't use us, since we'd smash our lungs and hearts and bones and stomachs and balls all to bits when we hit the wall. But the Slimes don't got all that, so instead of splattering, they just smush.”
“It still has to hurt though. Even without all the guts and bones, hitting a wall that hard has to hurt.”
Kaz nodded and said, “Yeah, but it's not as bad for them. It's like a punch to the gut, or a slap to the face. Stings a bit, they're sore for a bit, but they get over it.”
“But we're still hurting them,” Derrek said. “We're still taking a course of action that, even if, especially if successful, hurts intelligent creatures.”
Kaz laughed at that.
“We are soldiers, right? Taking courses of action that hurt intelligent creatures is kinda part of the job.”
“Well… ok, yes, but I don't think we should be hurting anyone who's actively on our side!”
The conversation was interrupted by another call from the battle criers.
“Fire off the fire starters!”
Kaz and Derrek went to work, Kaz loading another Slime into the catapult's bucket – this one with a striking, almost glowing red color. Derrek made sure the aiming was still good, aligned to the hole that the previous Slime had made.
Kaz shouted out, “Loaded!”
Derrek responded, “Firing!”
Another whoomp-clack of the catapult sent the Red Slime into the air. Derrek's aiming was spot on, and the Slime sailed through the hole in the wall. The idea was, once inside, the Slime would use its magically enhanced speed to dash through the halls of the fortress, leaving little trails of fire wherever it went. Wooden bows, caches of arrows, and banners and furniture could all be easily lit ablaze, distracting the defenders.
Derrek turned back to Kaz as a thudding boom could be heard from within the fortress, evidence that one of the fiery Slimes had found a stock of gun-meal.
“And we're not only hurting them physically, but mentally too!” Derrek continued. “Most Slimes' bodies aren't equipped to get them airborne, so assuming they could be mentally equipped for this is ridiculous. It has to be traumatic to be shot through the air by machines.”
Kaz raised an eyebrow and said, “So… it's scary. You're saying that we're making them do something scary.”
“More like something terrifying. Harrowing. Petrifying. We're taking landbound creatures and shooting them into an environment they're not prepared for.”
“So yeah, like I said – scary,” Kaz said. “We make our Slime soldiers do scary things. You know, you're right, Derrek – we are monsters! Asking them to do scary stuff! I mean, I myself have never had to do anything scary during my time serving in the military. No, stuff like facing down men wanting to kill you, dodging arrows and fireballs, taking a life for the very first time, the first time I was severely wounded and realized my own life was so easy to lose… nothing scary at all for us human soldiers!”
Derrek sighed and said, “Ok, obviously we have to face fear and trepidation ourselves too, but our fears are more normal than the fear of being flung–”
“Normal?!” Kaz interjected. “It's normal to wake up and think, 'Hope my breakfast is good today, since I might die later'? It's normal to face swords and spears, and still make yourself fight on? It's normal to think about how one tiny mistake from a commander could lead to the death of you and all your friends? Boy, I'd love to know what you did before joining the army, if you consider all this normal!”
“Normal for soldiers, obviously. Swords and spears and death are all normal fears for a soldier. Being flung a thousand feet into the wall of a fortress isn't.”
Kaz replied, “Think of this though; Slimes don't just have different body parts, but they got different minds too. Maybe the flight ain't so scary for them as it would be for us. Since they don't have to worry about falling as much as we do, maybe they don't have that same evolutionatized fear of heights that we do.”
Derrek made a motion to speak, but Kaz went on.
“Besides, we expect different tasks and duties out of different species all the time. You wouldn't make a horse hold a sword, and you wouldn't make a man run across the battlefield with someone riding on his back.”
Kaz chuckled at the mental imagery while another command was relayed by the battle criers.
“Dispatch mayhem makers!”
Kaz helped load a Black Slime for this attack while Derrek adjusted the aim of the catapult, Kaz then shouting out, “Loaded!”, Derrek responding, “Firing!”
The Slime soared through the air, splitting apart into a countless number of smaller slimelettes before raining down on the fortress. Each one of the fist-shaped miniature Slimes would find ankles to bite, doors to slam shut, and latches on armor and belts to unlatch, causing massive annoyance and general confusion.
Derrek poked around the controls of the Catapult idly as he talked.
“Harmful or not, being shot from a catapult isn't very dignified.”
Kaz laughed hard and boisterously, the honest, deep laugh of someone finding something truly hilarious.
“Derrek, you're a strange one. You came to the army expecting safety and dignity? That's a good joke, that really is. You'll get scars from your time on the battlefield. Maybe honor. But dignity? You recall us digging out latrines earlier this week? Piss holes, you know, for the men to piss in? Highly dignified of course. And medical checkups! Standing bare as birth in front of everyone while the quartermaster prodded all your bits? Such dignity!”
Derrek rolled his eyes at Kaz's comments as Kaz continued.
“Now, I ain't complaining about work that needs to be done, but if I had the fortitude to survive it, I'd happily trade our undignified work for theirs, if just for the change of it.”
Derrek sat silently, listening and thinking as Kaz went on.
“So, we don't expect more danger from them than we expect from ourselves. We don't make them face fears worse than we face. We're not even damaging their dignity any more than ours. It's just how it works, Derrek. Man's better suited for waving swords and aiming bows. Slimes are better suited for being chucked at walls from catapults. It's not right or wrong, it's just how it is. So can you just drop this? Can you just accept that we're not doing anything wrong here?”
Derrek thought about all this, nodding slightly to himself as he regarded all of Kaz's points. He had to admit that those points were valid. It wasn't like the Slimes were being forced into service – they'd all signed on as willingly as he and Kaz had. Thinking about the danger, he never recalled a Slime getting seriously hurt from the flight from siege weapon to wall. At most, they'd be dizzy for a little while, sporting a few bruises, or those crossed bandage strips that mildly wounded Slimes were fond of using.
Derrek took in a slow breath, shook his head and said, “No. Sorry, but no – I can't let this go. It feels wrong. I know we're not causing undue harm or stress to them, but it still feels wrong. I can't say the phrase, 'We use Slimes as ammunition' without feeling intensely guilty about it. I'm going to talk with the sergeants, maybe some of the other officers about this, get this issue some attention. Maybe even find a translator for the Slimes, get their voices heard too. We can't just assume what we're doing is ok. I don't want to fire living creatures into castles and forts without even knowing what they think of the whole thing.”
Kaz let out a low whistle, looking a bit abashed from Derrek's words.
“Alright, alright, I can't convince you this is ok. But… you are still going to participate in this current assault, right? The one we're in right now? Or do I need to find another artilleryman, or…?”
Derrek huffed and said, “Nah, I'll still launch them for now. I can wait for the battle to end before bringing this all up to the higher-ups. Like you said; it's our job. I don't want to get myself dishonorably discha–”
Derrek was interrupted by a more panicked shout from the nearby battle crier.
Derrek and Kaz snapped their heads towards the fortress to see what was coming their way. A massive boulder rushed from the sky towards them, hurled from somewhere behind the walls of their enemy's stronghold. It was too late to do anything – the boulder was moving too fast, and it was already too close to get out of the way. Kaz swore loudly and Derrek attempted to leap away as the missile hit.
The sound of the impact was deafening as the catapult was obliterated. Derrek was thrown from the wreck as the boulder buried itself in the ground behind him. He landed hard on the ground as the remains of the catapult rained down, his left leg in sudden, searing pain, as it twisted underneath him. Broken, but still attached. Lucky, if one didn't mind the cost of a mutilated leg for having the rest of the body intact.
“Kaz?!” Derrek shouted, heart racing, looking around desperately for his companion. He saw the shapes of Slimes retreating, scattering from the broken catapult and the large boulder laying next to it. And over there… Kaz. Laying face down, his body completely still.
“Kaz!” Derrek called out. His voice was lost in the chaotic noise of the battlefield, infantry and other artillery teams panicking, trying to reorganize after the counterattack. Derrek fought through his pain and his mounting dread, crawling ungracefully towards Kaz as he called out his name again and again.
Derrek was almost to him when his advance was halted by a solid, severe weight clasping his good leg. Looking back, Derrek's dread turned to deep horror.
A large, stone fist was gripping his leg. Attached to that was an equally impressive stone arm, connected to the boulder that had smashed Derrek's catapult. A boulder that was now unfolding, a boulder that was now standing up, stretching, pulling Derrek off the ground as it reached its full height. Derrek screamed out of anger and terror, twisting hard and wildly, uselessly trying to dislodge himself from the creature's grasp.
He could hear the battle criers' response, one word shouted and repeated.
Not good. Their generals had not prepared for exotic, monstrous opponents.
The elemental regarded Derrek with its misshapen face, the empty eye sockets holding a dark red glow as its mouth cracked and bent into a large grin. It looked around at the running soldiers, the shouting officers, the broken catapults, and the battle criers screaming about its presence.
It pulled its stone arm back, taking Derrek with it, as it brought its other stony hand to its face, mimicking the human battle criers as the elemental bellowed out a single word in a strong, gravelly voice.
And with that, Derrek was furiously thrown, soaring a couple hundred feet into the air, speeding towards the solid stone wall of the fortress.