They're Calling Off The War

Submitted into Contest #119 in response to: Write a story inspired by a piece of music (without using any lyrics).... view prompt

1 comment

Science Fiction Friendship

("Mars" by Sleeping At Last)


"Did you hear them say the war's supposed to be over now?" Private Rodriguez whispered.

Gina Sullivan couldn't help but groan into her pillow. "They've always said that, kid," she muttered. "We're still here and about as front-line as they get. If it were actually over, I feel like we'd be the first to know."

"But what if it is?" Apparently the kid couldn't take a hint. Not even an explicit one, like shoving her head under her pillow. "What if they reached an agreement and now we get to go home?"

Gina actually felt kind of sorry for Mike Rodriguez. He was newer, one of the ones that was brought into the war by the draft back on Earth and the inner Earth Alliance colonies. He'd only been with her company for six months, a bunch of rookies added to what remained of the first assault force. He remembered what it was like to be on Earth, to hear about the war in the news streams instead of huddled around a glitching message screen waiting to hear the reports of losses from the day's assault. For her part, Gina couldn't even remember what it was like to sit and watch the reports without the exhaustion clinging to her bones and the sticky feeling of sweat pasting her uniform to any bit of exposed skin.

The clearest memory she had of before—and the one she had cursed so often when pinned down by enemy fire—was signing up for this shit. The Earth Alliance's first great intergalactic war. Everyone had wanted to be part of it, and she couldn't really remember why. Something about a destroyed colony world or converging shipping routes or some irrecoverable ideological difference. Somebody didn't take kindly to humans moving out of their solar system and decided to make that everyone else's problem. At this point, she couldn't remember if she had lost anyone in whatever the first volley had been, or if the propaganda had just been that good. It didn't really matter. They were at war, and she had signed up to be a soldier immediately.

"Lieutenant Sullivan?"

"What?" She spat out the words with a little more venom than she had intended, but she was tired, and they probably had another drop in the morning—because there was always a planetary drop after her worst nights, as though they were timing their battles around how badly Gina wanted to kill something in order to make sure she attacked the proper targets.

Rodriguez shrank under her glare. "I just... What would you do if the war were over?"

"Get some damn sleep." Then she paused. "I don't know. Go back to Earth and lay on some real grass. Eat something that's not re-hydrated or coming from a tube. Leave the plasma pistol in one of those portable safe boxes."

"I'd eat so much biscotti. My mom owns a bakery, and everyone loves her biscotti. I'd buy it out for a day and just eat that for as long as I could stand it." He glanced over at her. "You could have some, too, if you wanted."

"Sure. Whatever." Gina was trying to remember what biscotti was. She wasn't sure it was something she'd had before, but she thought it was those cream-filled dessert taco things. Although they probably weren't called tacos since they were Italian. "Is that it?"

"No. I'd go swimming in the lake near my house. It's one of those places where it looks really clear and shallow, but it's actually like forty meters deep, and it's awesome!" He cocked his head and Gina suddenly remembered a puppy she'd had as a kid that looked sort of like Rodriguez when he did that. "Do you like swimming?"

Gina shrugged. "Never learned properly. I know how to float, and that's about it. I understand the theory, but it's never been an issue." She sighed again, laying her head on the pillow. "We should really go to sleep. Until we get the orders to pull back, the war's still on for us, and I've got a feeling we've got a drop in the morning."

Rodriguez opened his mouth as though he was going to argue, but she fixed him with a look that promised pain. "Okay," he relented, with more of an attitude than was strictly necessary. "But I think we're going home soon."

"Whatever. Just go to sleep."

And in the morning, Gina was the one who was right. They had another drop.


Gina pressed her back against the last standing wall of a ruined hut, gritting her teeth against the pain caused by the nerve-pulse guns the Czikorins used. The officers had used the guns in basic training to get soldiers like her prepared for what they were going to face. They needed to be able to function through the feeling of all of their pain receptors activating at once. Those who couldn't were switched to a different track with a little less direct combat.

She couldn't help the bitter thought that those who had been unable to fight under that degree of pain were the lucky ones here. They got shuffled off to generally safer positions while she became front-line infantry. Especially since the Czikorins had realized that human soldiers had been trained to fight through the pain of the nerve-pulse and had decided to equip their soldiers with flechette guns as well. Physical ammunition was seen as an impolite form of warfare, which was why the Earth Alliance had distanced itself from it. No one was expecting the Czikorins to take it up, but Gina had the sharp metal dart in her shoulder to prove it as well as a number of scars from previous battles.

Energy-dispersing armor and projectile-blocking armor were two different things, and she only had the first kind.

She wasn't sure what had happened to the rest of her company. She had been separated early into the battle, a couple of the flash-bombs disorienting her because her helmet was old and not up to the task of modulating the sudden brightness like the newer helmets. Her unit of rookies had the recent tech, specially made for this sort of battlefield, but she wasn't exactly high on the list for receiving replacements. Twelve years she had been fighting Czikorins, and her equipment was still technically serviceable. Really, the officers were probably saying not to waste the resources on soldiers that were more likely to die with every planet drop.

But in spite of things, she was still alive. Sullivans were stubborn like that. The flechette dart in her shoulder wasn't enough to take her down, and it certainly didn't rate any higher on her pain threshold than the nerve-pulse discharge. On the contrary, the nerve-pulse sometimes still sent shocks through her nervous system long after she'd gotten back to base.

She wasn't going to be able to stay in the ruined town for much longer. Czikorins were psionic, and they knew how to track abnormal thought patterns. Humanity had some of the most alien thought patterns they had ever experienced, apparently, and so just staying in one place for as long as she had was like a beacon to any enemy soldiers in the area.

Pushing off the wall with a grunt, she started making her way toward the field of light she could see on the horizon. That was where the real battle was happening at the moment, and that was where she needed to go before she got picked off for being on her own.

Morbidly, she wondered if her rookies thought she was dead yet. Jokes on them. Gina refused to die to anything less than orbital bombardment, even if she had to drag her half-dead ass onto the troop ship by her fingertips. It had almost come to that once, and that was the last time she had something like furlough. Every minute of it was spent in the med bay, but she walked out under her own power with a gnarled scar twisting around her chest and left leg that would make for a good story if she ever got back to Earth. And managed to say more than "Czikorin with a plasma whip" when asked about it.

She crested the small hill overlooking the battlefield, taking just a moment to verify which side was where before throwing herself back into the thick of things.


The bunk next to Gina's was empty. Rodriguez wasn't dead, not yet, but he was stuck in med bay, and it really wasn't looking good. He'd stepped on a razor wire landmine, and his legs were just gone instantly.

Laying on her bunk and staring at the ceiling, she couldn't stop thinking about the fact that the kid wasn't even legal to drink yet. Oh, they typically waived that sort of thing on the troop ships because if you were old enough to get shot at on Earth's behalf, you were old enough to drink. But legally, he wasn't twenty-one yet, so he wasn't permitted to drink alcohol on Earth or any Earth Alliance colony.

She only had a couple of puckered scars from flechette darts and a persistent twitching from the nerve-pulses she'd taken over the course of the battle. The med-techs had been a little concerned about the twitching, but they were about as new as Rodriguez had been. Med-techs got cycled out periodically because they had a better mental health program in place than the regular infantry soldier. Better, in that it actually existed.

"News screen," someone called out. Sure enough, when she glanced over at the screen that took up half of the front wall, it flickered on.

The same man who had given their news reports for the last twelve years appeared on the screen with the same damn smile he always had. Gina knew if she ever met the man in person, the first thing she was going to do was punch a couple of his perfect teeth out. She much preferred the woman who delivered the casualty reports. She never smiled once.

"The war is over," the man said. "In a historic session of the galactic court, the Earth Alliance and the Czikorin Imperium came to an agreement for a ceasefire, effective immediately. After a twelve-year conflict, the war is finally over."

For a moment, no one in the barracks said anything. No one even moved for fear that this moment was fragile enough to break. They had just been fighting. Most of them had barely been released by the med-techs to go back to their own bunks less than two hours before. And now the smiling bastard said it was over.

Rage, white-hot and liquid, swelled up in Gina's gut. The trembling in her limbs wasn't just because of the nerve-pulses anymore, and she clenched the regulation blanket in white-knuckled fists to stop herself from doing something she might regret. All she could hear was Mike Rodriguez talking about what he was going to do as soon as he got home. He wanted to go swimming. She was pretty sure you needed legs to go swimming, and he didn't have those anymore. He would be lucky if he left med bay at all, and the dickwad on the news screen was smiling.

It took every bit of self-control she had not to chuck her combat knife at the screen. Forget punching him. If Gina ever had the misfortune of meeting the newscaster in person, she was probably going to strangle him.


The war was over. It was chanted every time the news screen was on, which was more constant these days. The war was over, the treaties were signed, and they were heading home.

It didn't feel like it was over. It felt like they were traveling to the next planet drop. Gina wasn't the only one obsessively checking over her gear. She could see in the haunted eyes of other members of her company that they were expecting to hear it was all some trick, and they were going right back to the fighting before they had time to fully recover. Just like last time.

And yet the news screen was on more, and it showed troop ships like theirs arriving back on one of the outer colonies of the Earth Alliance. There was a parade back on Earth, celebration in the streets over the end of the war and the anticipation of soldiers coming home. Gina supposed that showing the celebrations was supposed to make them feel excited or happy about returning to their respective homes, but she couldn't even muster up enough positive emotion to be happy about the war ending. Since the initial burning rage over the grinning idiot, she had become numb.

Mike Rodriguez was alive, but he wasn't talking to anyone. Not even the med-techs. Sometimes she sat next to him in med bay so he would know that he wasn't forgotten. She knew she had wished for someone to sit with her when she was trapped in one of their beds, but it was hard sitting in the silence that Rodriguez usually filled up. She still sat with him as long as they would let her stay, sometimes mentioning a few things about herself and her family when the silence became too much. It wasn't like she had anything else to do, and he had really been the only person willing to talk with her. It occurred to her around the sixth day she sat next to him that perhaps she was the only one who listened to him, too.

Even though no one had told them when they were supposed to reach Earth, Gina knew the night before they arrived. She couldn't sleep. She had never been able to sleep well before a drop.


"What?" Gina asked, staring at the man in the perfectly pressed uniform of the Earth Home Guard.

"Your plasma gun, your combat armor, and your side piece are all property of the Earth Alliance Force," the man repeated with the tone of supreme boredom. He waved lazily at the bin he had shoved at her. "Put them in this. You've been decommissioned, so you need to return them here."

She wanted to be angry or indignant, to point out that she had been fighting longer than he'd been able to perform basic mathematics, but all she could feel was a sense of loss dragging at her bones as she removed the belt with her plasma gun and combat knife, laying it in the bin. She took off her combat armor, leaving the grey fatigues beneath it, and she couldn't shake the feeling that she was horribly exposed.

He waved her along down the line towards the arrivals bay where several dozen reunions were occurring as she watched. Her brother wouldn't be among them, she was sure, and she had received a notice a few years back when her dad died.

"Lieutenant Sullivan." The voice was quiet in the cacophony of screaming, crying, and shouting around them, but she still heard it.

Gina turned to see Mike Rodriguez rolling toward her in the chair they had probably provided for him with the promise of something better to come. "Private Rodriguez."

For a moment, they stared at one another. Finally, Rodriguez sighed. "My mom wants to meet you. You said that you weren't expecting anyone to be here for you, and she insisted you come with us."

Gina frowned. "Is she sure?"

The laugh she got in response was dry and barely humorous. "You're welcome to try and convince her otherwise, but I think you'll find that she'll drag you home with us anyway." He glanced past her at the carts of army packs. "And could you help me find my pack? I tried looking before, but it's a bit hard like this, and they won't let family past to help."

She nodded almost before he was finished asking, moving through the carts, and checking the tags on each of the packs. She found her own first and slung it over her shoulder. She knew that Rodriguez's pack couldn't be far from hers. She had been the one to collect his things for him, after all. And since all of the packs on that cart had come from the same barracks, she found it tucked between a couple of bags near the bottom.

"I'm not going to be able to swim," Rodriguez whispered. "Especially not with the prosthetics the med-techs were talking about, but I'm serious about the biscotti. Don't need legs to eat it. There's a few pieces in it for you if you want them."

"Okay," Gina whispered. There was still something empty yawning inside her, threatening to swallow her whole at a moment's notice. "That's the one filled with cream?"

"No, cannoli are the ones filled with cream. But I'm sure mom has a few of those, too. Biscotti is the flat wafer one. Usually with chocolate." He grinned, but there was an emptiness in the expression that looked a bit like hers felt. "If she lets you go before you've had one of everything she makes, it'll be a miracle."

The food was the only reason she gave in. Not the ache to stay near someone who understood, not the lingering responsibility for the most injured member of her unit, not the fact that reality seemed to be crumbling away at the edges and throwing herself into the absurdity seemed like the only way to survive. Just the food.

And maybe one day she'd believe that lie for herself. Maybe one day she'd let herself believe that the war was truly over.

November 09, 2021 20:16

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

1 comment

Madi K
20:28 Nov 18, 2021

This story gave me chills. Well done!


Show 0 replies
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.