The Colonel's regiment was marching. It was marching against an enemy no one would remember, in a time no one would remember, in a place that would be beyond recall or desire once its mines were depleted. Yet still the regiment was marching. Not together, because this was guerilla warfare— a term that had long since ceased to bring images of banal natives and exotic jungles to mind and come, instead, to mean there were two kinds of men: careful and dead. They were lucky about as often as struck by lightning.
Thus was the regiment split into tip-toeing battalions creeping toward their destination. This was for the best. Grumbling was what soldiers did best, and splitting them up meant the Colonel didn't have to hear all of them at it at once.
Since when, they wondered, did the Colonel roll over for his superiors? Since when did the laconic, ponderous man agree to missions like this: slaughtering and razing a village of rebels?
They bitched and they moaned and they cussed at the devil that had gotten into their leader. They were miserable. The only comfort they'd had in this gods-be-damned territory was that their regiment had this unique code of honor, like. They'd hung it over their companions for months.
And now it would be wafting to the heavens with the smoke from the funeral pyres. Every step the men took toward the doomed village ahead left them increasingly certain that they, too, would die on its wickered streets.
Which was why their jaws dropped when at last they arrived.
The Colonel was already there, standing in the midst of a ghost town. He rarely curled those dark features of his in a smile, but now he graced them with one positively boyish, brooding gorilla that he was.
"It appears, men," he spoke wryly, enigmatically as he gestured to the abandoned huts, "That God has cleared the village of natives himself. All that is left to us is to burn the place. Be quick about it. I want to get back to camp before dusk. We'll feast to our blessing when we arrive."
A cheer went up.
But the Lt. Colonel and his Captain didn't smile.
Blessings never came free.
The Lt. Colonel sat with his feet atop the Colonel's meticulously arranged desk, and while normally this would have rendered him smug he was not happy. Against the lurid lamplight that flickered over the cabin walls and maps his gaunt face waxed eerie. He looked like a criminal, and not a charismatic one. He was ten years his Captain's senior, and discomfitingly aware of the fact.
The Captain was reporting, that bitterly short and icily composed woman. He wished she wouldn't stand at attention while they were together— he was her mentor, and she'd rarely done so in the past. But she was scared, much as she wouldn't let herself acknowledge it.
"The men are about to riot over the Colonel's punishment," she said. "You need to give them busy work." It was what the Colonel would have done. Run their asses into the ground, make discipline productive.
"You knew," the Lt. Colonel mumbled through the sweets he was never without, ignoring her demands. "You knew the Colonel was evacuating that village. You could have been implicated. You could have been punished, too. And yet I was told nothing."
The Captain frowned. She didn't like the emphasis on 'you.' She was too clever not to perceive its roots.
"It was none of your concern, Lt. Colonel," she replied. "And the Colonel trusted you with a more important duty. I don't see why you would be upset."
"You know damn well," the Lt. Colonel growled as he rose to his feet. When she didn't respond some of that bravado seeped out of him, bowed his shoulders as he gritted his teeth against the woman he feared most. He circled the desk to take her hand, too tightly for her to withdraw it.
"The Colonel has an excuse for his stupidity— he loves these men and he knows them all by heart. You don't; you wouldn't let yourself. So what we both know I'm wondering is why you would risk the only joy I have in this shit-hole of a post?"
It was at times like these his Captain regretted ever kissing him at that battle ages past. It had been a spur of the moment thing, a lapse in her defenses, and he'd gotten too direct, too honest since then. He'd started thinking fool thoughts like he was safe with her. She didn't like it, and she ignored it whenever possible— sometimes even when it shouldn't be. Now, for example. The Captain bit her lip for a moment, hesitated, but that was the only reaction his candor gleaned before she reigned her emotions and broke his grasp.
"You aren't making sense, Lt. Colonel. Perhaps you should sleep."
His face soured with a knife of a smile, a dangerous smile whose sharpest edge was the one facing him. "Duty, hmm? Does it please you, not having to decide anything for yourself, having it all written out in a little book of codes?"
The Captain paused, face stony. It hurt to see him lower himself to those barbs.
"On the contrary,” she said, “I'm in perfect control of myself, Sir." Because that was it, wasn't it? This was a point at which she couldn't afford to let go. She couldn't afford to let herself be swayed by ideals like the Colonel, or by feelings like her mentor— someone had to stay unattached. Her superiors were the heroes and fools. Someone had to be the unshakeable pillar of reason. If she wasn't controlling herself, someone else would be.
And that might mean, someday, that she would fail to protect...
"Sleep, and don't forget to take your pills, Lt. Colonel," she murmured, cursing the tenderness that leaked into her voice as she stepped out into the camp. She could hear her mentor swearing as he realized her motives; he always had been too perceptive. He and the Colonel, they thought too much.
It made her wonder how the Colonel was taking this.
The Colonel was doing what he did best— worrying. 'Mummy', his men called him, and cluck and fuss over them he did— much more obviously than he liked to think. Currently on his mind was the fact that while he served his punishments his superiors would be trying to usurp the tight hold he had on his regiment. They'd put his Lt. Colonel through hell.
But that was why the Colonel hadn't involved him in the heroics to begin with. The Lt. Colonel was ruthless, used any means necessary to protect those he cared for, selfish bastard that he was.
They were too much alike.
"Colonel, you might want to take that off," advised a nervous Lieutenant, nodding at his dusty undershirt.
"I wore an old one on purpose," said the dissimulated giant. "Sitting on my ass leading's making my gut soft. Don't want my men to endure the shame of a flabby commanding officer."
"I've been through this before," the Colonel spoke quietly, with a hint of a scowl. The thought of how lax the Lt. Colonel would be about drills had just occurred to him.
"Right this way then, Sir."
It was starting to go by fast, these sessions. He used to have a higher rank, once. But he couldn't seem to go long without dereliction of duty or covering one of his men's asses. He didn't mind. After a while the whip— Ah, hello old friend, he winced— didn't sting as bad, though this time they were going to send him and his lacerated back to penal labor, just to see if that would break him. His superiors were losing patience.
The Colonel didn't feel bitter. This was justice; this was how it should be.
Control was needed for order. Order was paramount. But another, very important part of the law was that it had punishments for crimes— it made allowances for a breach, recognized the freedom of choice and prepared accordingly. This, the fire raging over his back, it was just the price of liberty— one was not entitled to it, never could be. Liberty was synonymous with struggle. The day that no one suffered would be the day that man had fallen, the day that no one could make choices to pay for.
The twelfth lash cracked like lightning over the tattered, bloody fabric of skin and cotton. Old scars opened. Blood pooled beneath the Colonel bowed before the law.
A shiver coursed through the spines of his superiors as he grinned.
The Lt. Colonel slumped in his seat, fiddling idly with the peppermint on his tongue. He was in a kind of daze; his dark eyes bored into the ceiling. No... not into the ceiling. Into the miasma of thought looming overhead.
Damn them. Damn them both, he swore without conviction; he was too weary to muster anything but resentment. He'd already wasted all his energy raging at the Colonel and brooding on his Captain.
That blasted Captain... she didn't deal with anything but business. Discipline his ass— she was hiding. And that was to say nothing of their dear, sweet leader.
The Lt. Colonel unwrapped a bar of chocolate, munched thoughtfully on the treat. He was never without his sweets; it had started as an indulgence to get by on, the cheapest he could find. Anymore, though, he could barely make it through the day without a dose of his candies. Kind of like how he couldn't make it at night without the Captain there to keep the nightmares away, how he hadn't slept since she started closing her door. Kind of like how after a lifetime of surviving he was powerless to do much else. Chained by habit, addicted to worthlessness, fated to live loathsomely... There was no control. Not as deep in the rut as he'd fallen.
Yet there was the Colonel he hated most of all. That fool... he'd acted as though it didn't matter. As though—!
"You should have let me do it, Colonel. Or at least agreed to apologize so you didn't have to work the mines. The men won't listen to me— not while they know you're out killing yourself."
The Colonel paused getting into the armored truck that was to ferry him to his whipping post, stared at the Lt. Colonel with that gods-be-damned emotionless act.
"You're the best man to stay," he answered. "The superiors will be kicking up shit over this. No one's better at evasion than you."
"But I can't hold us together; you know that."
"That's what Captain's for. They'll listen to her, begrudgingly."
The Lt. Colonel tried a different angle. "Colonel, they'll only hate me worse for this. I'm not their martyr like you, and I sure as hell can't be an idol like the Captain."
"Exactly. You're a reminder of the kind of shitty officers they'll get if they don't stay loyal."
"It’s not funny! I know I deserve it, but damn! Not even the Captain respects me."
The Colonel laid a hand on his shoulder. "It's why you're the most important man I have."
"You're the only human officer. If you were halfway honest, the men mightn't hate you as much as you think. A selfish prick like you— if you can do it then they start to think they can too. The fact that you're here proves you've changed. Enough that I can count on you to be the one who lives to fight another day, if anything should happen. Enough that out of everyone else, I don't have to worry about you: I know you can take care of yourself."
The Lt. Colonel floundered.
The Colonel stepped into the truck without a word of farewell.
When he put it like that, the Lt. Colonel didn't have a choice.