I pull the bolt back on my rifle, drinking in the lingering smell of gunpowder as the empty cartridge is ejected from the firing chamber. Another round slips into the barrel as I lock the bolt in place, and I align my sights back on target. That last shot was a bit high and to the left—not great. But I’m getting old. And it’s been almost twenty-five years since I’ve had to use these skills to earn my pay. Besides, there aren’t many people left on Earth that can do even half that well anymore.
“Jeez, what are you aiming for, Liz?”
“Keep talking, bud,” I reply with half a grin, my tone smooth and unaffected. “You’re up next after this last shot.”
Ned—one of my squad mates from back in the day—lifts his binoculars up to his eyes and squints, sending wrinkles rippling all the way up his bald head. “I should hope so. One of us has to get rounds on target today before we’re through.”
I laugh and shake my head. He’s one to talk. His spread always has the precision of a shotgun blast. I’m surprised he can even hold the damn gun anymore, what with his hand tremors. Ned’s fun to have around, though. Always makes situations seem lighter than they are. A skill that came in handy when we were deployed to the Dasht-e Kavir together in the late thirties. Found ways to make the whole Royal Welsh laugh even when Scuds were raining down on us like Armageddon.
I have my finger on the trigger and am about to squeeze off my last shot when I hear Morgan—another mate of Ned’s and mine—clamoring up to the range, shouting something to us. “Hey, we’ve got fighting back home. Jules just called. She’s been evacuated.”
I drop my rifle and whip myself around. “What? You mean back in Swansea?”
“Yeah, and just down the road in Port Talbot, too.”
“Who? The Alliance?”
“No, not this time. Looks like the Catalonians.” He takes a seat on the bench beside me and hunches over to catch his breath.
“The Catalonians?” Ned scoffs, his face alight with scorn. “What in the hell do they want with us?”
Morgan shrugs and folds his arms on his protruding belly. “Look, I’m just telling you what Jules told me.”
I eject the last round still left in the rifle’s chamber and rush to secure the weapon back in the homestyle carrying case I’ve made out of old sweaters and blankets. When it’s all wrapped up it actually looks rather unassuming, like nothing more than a pile of rags and odds and ends, rather than the illegal weapon that it is. Our weekly get togethers aren’t exactly lawful, strictly speaking, but we know half the constables on the police force in South Wales, not to mention the Superintendent was one of our company commanders at one point.
“I don’t get it. When did Catalonia declare war on Wales?” I say as we make our way back to my rusty old VW beater.
“They didn’t. It’s an unappropriated security action. Something about trade deals,” Morgan grumbles.
Ned flops down into the back seat with a heaving sigh and begins unbuttoning his jacket. “Haven’t they already had their three for the year?”
“Well, they used up two in that scuffle with Spain last month, but I think that’s it,” Morgan answers, his eyes raised in calculation.
“What about that deal with Malta, back in February?”
“No, they declared war last minute,” I pipe in. “The Global Council rescinded that one.”
The ride back to town is a somber one, void of the banter we usually toss back and forth before we inevitably end up at the Cross Keys to slosh ourselves silly. There’s nothing new about fights popping up in Britain, but I don’t think Wales has seen any direct battles in over a decade. It’s never a happy occasion, that much is certain.
We’re stopped just short of city limits by a couple of squad cars blocking the road. It’s Alice and Rob. Some of our friends on the force. Young bucks. They never knew life back when the world was a more lethal place in which to live. Good kids though. Alice comes shooting with us every now and then, one of the few people still willing to listen to our wild stories.
“Ey Liz! Good to see you!” Alice calls out as I bring the VW to a halt.
I roll down the window and lean my head out. Her chipper attitude is almost comical, juxtaposed against the sharp pops and rolling booms of weapon fire in the distance. “What’d ya do to the place, Alice? We were gone for what, three hours?”
“I thought you’d started that party,” she jokes, pointing back at a pillar of black smoke rising no more than a few kilometers away. “Went to your home to make sure you were okay, but you were already gone.”
“Yeah, the boys and I were out, you know…fishing.”
Morgan, Ned, and I exit the vehicle and stare at the fiery plumes popping up all around Swansea. It’s surreal. I never thought I’d see anything like it in my day. There’s a lot of things I never thought I’d see in my day. But I suppose it was bound to happen eventually. Wars are quite popular nowadays.
“Everyone get out alright?” Ned asks.
“Oh yeah,” Rob replies. “The sirens went off about an hour before they showed up. The shuttle system worked like a charm.”
“That’s good, that’s good,” Ned mumbles, as if we were simply discussing a change in weather. If it weren't for the bleak sounds of bombs and bullets, it would in fact be quite a lovely day, actually. Shining sun, not a cloud in the sky—a rare treat for this area.
My thoughts are suddenly broken by a heavy, metronomical thud, thud, thud. And then, just over the hills, come ten of the Royal Welsh's finest mechanized infantry. Towering machines almost the height of a two-story building. I look at the one closest to me. It has a slender automatic weapon on its left side and a missile launcher on the right. Muted lights indicate the presence of optical sensors. And on its shoulder armor, a bold green and white flag with a red dragon in the center, though it's been stylized with a long plume of flame curling in vicious patterns out of its open maw.
Sentry jets flash overhead as the mechs pass us by with indifference. And a few minutes later they're joined by several swarms of demolition drones, flying low and chaotically, though in calculated harmony. But among it all, not a human in sight.
"Would you look at that," Alice says in awe, bumping Rob in the shoulder as the procession continues on towards Swansea.
"Yeah, looks like they activated the whole yard for this one."
Alice moves over to her squad car and takes a seat on the hood. "Yeah, should be over soon," she says to us. "Hang tight for just another minute and we'll let you continue on home."
I pick up a marbled piece of what was once my kitchen counter, but it crumbles to dust in my hand and blows away in the afternoon wind. Ash. All of it. My entire home. This entire quarter of the city. Sprinkled with thousands of chain gun casings and the occasional six inch-gun charge canister. The battle lasted twenty minutes. We “won”. If you can still measure war with wins and losses, nowadays.
Already people are starting to filter back into the city, sift through the wreckage of their homes, get on the phone with their insurance teams. Children run around the streets, playing with the charred remains of military hardware. Laughter in the distance.
It makes me sick. The levity of everyone’s attitude, the callousness of the attack, the sloppiness of it all with no regards to minimizing collateral damage. I mean, sure. Everything can be replaced. No one died or even got hurt. But the profession of arms is an acquired skill, an art, something that demands biological interface. It's not something that can be taken over by machines, just like that. It requires finesse, surgical precision.
I don't know. Maybe I finally have indeed gotten "old", with all my antiquated ideals. Warriors, like me, have become obsolete. A relic. War has become civilized, as they say. Just a battle of engineering ingenuity, of economic strength, of moxie.
But in my opinion, war is supposed to hurt. It’s supposed to make you angry, heartbroken. Otherwise, destruction becomes commonplace. Like here, in Swansea. Just another day. Conflict reigns over compromise. War becomes a game. People, property, our land, our rights—they all become trophies, the pieces on a board rather than the reason to fight, the reason to love.
But I guess I'm just an old romantic that way.