by Lyndon Storey
Emerson moved deeper into the cave. His powerful torch provided good illumination but there were still shadows and pools of darkness at the edges. As his eyes adjusted he slowly took in the scene. Severed body parts were strewn everywhere; detached heads mingled with arms and legs and huge chunks of flesh.
Mixed among the body parts were small boulders and shattered pieces of wood and metal. The floor of the cave was sticky with blood even after the heat of the explosion. The cave had clearly not been used for weapons storage; if it had, it would have exploded and collapsed when it was hit by the bomb.
Emerson carefully balanced his torch between the finger and thumb of one hand while simultaneously getting out his photograph folder and flipping it open. His job was to check the blasted-out caves for known terrorists. But in practice it was usually a search for known terrorists’ heads.
Duncan, Emerson’s usual partner, liked to collect all the heads he could find and stack them in a pile to check them against the photos. When Duncan finished, he would cheerfully kick the pile of heads over, letting out a whoop of joy and chanting “Gooaal.”
Emerson didn’t like Duncan’s approach at all. He preferred trying to crawl into a position where he could check the heads against the pictures without having to move or even touch them. Emerson had studied Art History at College and joined the National Guard only to help pay his tuition. Now here he was identifying terrorists instead of artists. He hated his work.
Emerson advanced slowly. He was nearly halfway down the length of the cave when he heard something. At first he thought it might be some sort of strange, high-pitched engine noise coming from outside. The sound soon resolved itself into something else, however. It was moaning. Someone was still alive and moaning in the cave. Emerson froze.
Checking the caves was meant to be a two-man task, just in case there were dangerous survivors. Duncan’s being sick meant Emerson could have gotten out of the job that day. But Emerson wanted Captain Talas’ respect. He didn’t want anyone to think he was weak or afraid. So he’d said “no problem, I can handle it on my own.” Now here he was listening to the strange groan coming from deeper within the cave. Emerson knew that if he ran he’d never be able to live it down. If he stayed, who knew what horror he might uncover.
He stood still, breathing steadily, trying to control his imagination.
Eventually he unholstered his pistol, and crept forward. Suddenly he realized the torch would make him easier to see. He placed it on the floor, still turned on, and pointing towards the back of the cave. He inched sideways away from the torch’s beam, towards the shadows at the edge of the cave, slowly waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light.
He sensed movement deeper in the cave and turned away from the shadows to look. There was a man lying in full view of the torch light near the back of the cave. Why hadn’t Emerson seen him before?
The man himself presented an incongruous sight. He was tall, about 6 foot 2, and lying on his back. He had blue eyes, blonde hair and seemed to be wearing nothing but a pristine white towel around his waist. He also seemed to be in extraordinary physical condition: Wherever his body was visible outside the white towel the muscles appeared perfectly defined, like an artist’s study of the human form. What was most strange about his appearance though was that he appeared completely uninjured.
“Aaaaah” the man gasped,“don’t shoot me.” He started rubbing his head. “Ohh,” he groaned, “please don’t shoot.” Emerson aimed his pistol at the man’s chest. “Who are you?” The man groaned again, rolled over onto all fours and tried to stand up. He only succeeded in reaching a sitting position on the cave floor. He looked up at Emerson. “I am Ares.”
“Air Reeze? do you speak English?” said Emerson, his gun still aimed at the man.
The man spoke in a firmer voice: “I said, I am Ares, the God of War.”
“The God of War?” Emerson felt dizzy, as confusion added to the fear he had felt when he realized he was not alone. He took a deep breath, reminded himself that he had a gun aimed at a man whose only weapon appeared to be a towel. “You say you are the God of War; a powerful figure, I presume, who could defeat whole armies if he wanted to...”
“That’s right,” Ares replied.
“And yet here you are, on the ground, cowering before me, begging me not to shoot?”
Ares took a few moments to compose himself, then spoke firmly, and with calm dignity: “I embody all the aspects of war. I am strength, might, courage, victory. I am also fear, cowardice, betrayal and terror. I am injury and death. I am the bereaved and the victim. I am war.”
After a moment Ares continued. “Here in this cave, less than an hour ago, there was the strength and power of your weapons, the fear and terror of the defeated, and now there is death. Here is war and here I am.”
Emerson’s pistol arm wavered for a moment, but he soon regained control and steadied his aim at Ares.
“Why am I seeing you, why are you here?”
“Did you think you could come to war and not meet me?”
“I did not come here to meet you. I was ordered here. I hate war. I didn’t even vote for the President. My role is to identify and record the bodies we’ve killed. You can see I’m a record-keeper here, not a warrior, and at home I’m a student of art history... So no, I do not want to meet you, I don’t want you in my life at all.”
“You can’t come to war and refuse to meet me,” replied Ares calmly. “I am war.” They stared at each other for a moment, then Ares continued. “Recording the dead is one of the great features of war. Its good to know how many have been killed. Look about you: we are sharing death right now.” Ares laughed as he waved at the body parts strewn across the cave floor.
Emerson was disgusted by Ares’ casual delight at the broken bodies. “I don’t want anything to do with you!” he shouted angrily. He closed his eyes tightly for a moment. When he opened them, Ares was still there.
Ares now seemed relaxed and at ease. He ignored Emerson’s outburst and continued talking confidently. “With the work you do you’re actually one of my most valued servants.” Ares grinned at Emerson again. “I’m feeling so much better now, it’s time to get up and...”
“Stay where you are,” Emerson growled. “I am not your servant. I don’t have anything in common with you. You’re... you’re a...” Emerson became confused as he tried to find the words to describe Ares and he swayed on his feet for a moment.
Confusion, anger and fear had combined to drain his energy. He wanted to lie down and think but he didn’t trust Ares. He thought about sitting down opposite Ares while keeping his gun trained on him. Seeming to read Emerson’s mind, Ares leaned forward and swept a severed arm out of the way.
“Have a seat and think about it for a moment.”
Emerson decided to sit and try to clear his head. Keeping his gun carefully trained on Ares he sat facing him. “Perhaps I do have to meet you,” he said to Ares, “but I am here due to circumstances, not because I want to meet you.”
“You may say that,” Ares replied, “but you’ve made it pretty easy for me to meet you. You and so many other mortals. You put yourselves in a position to meet me and then claim that circumstances beyond your control forced you to meet me. But I think these ‘circumstances’ happen so often, century after century, war after war, that you really do love war. You really do love me.”
“I do not love you,” Emerson said firmly, “you are not loved by anybody I know.”
“You all say nobody loves me, but then you all go to war. And the excuses you make!! Well, the other side, the enemy, they’re so uncooperative, so unwilling to conform to civilized norms, to international standards. And there’s the old classic: we need to attack them before they attack us. You know what all that really means? It means you love me!”
Ares smiled and started to get up again.
“Stay where you are,” growled Emerson. “I am not your servant. I don’t love you. And all that stuff you said about civilized norms and ‘get them before they get us’, that’s what politicians say, that’s not what the ordinary people, the ones who fight wars say. We all hate you.” Emerson took a deep breath. He could feel the anger rising in him, giving him energy and removing confusion.
“Oh,” smiled Ares, “I know what you say. It’s a chance to get a trade, the army paid my college fees, I might get a cheap housing loan.”
Emerson felt more agitated as Ares spoke.
“Yes I’ve heard it all,” Ares continued. “And what it really means is you love me, you love me!! You just don’t like to admit it.”
“Shut up; that’s not how it is at all” Emerson shouted. He leapt to his feet while keeping his gun pointed at Ares face. “Now answer this: If you embody all the aspects of war you can be killed, can’t you?”
“Of course I can be killed. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve been killed,” Ares said with a grimace. “Rocks, clubs, spears, swords, bullets, bombs, you name it, I’ve been killed by it. Sometimes that’s how wars end. I get killed so badly that by the time I pull myself together they’ve signed a peace treaty and the war’s all over.”
“If you are the God of War you deserve it. You deserve to be killed again and again so you can’t rise up and start another war. And you can feel fear and terror as well can’t you?”
“Die now then, die!” Emerson cried as he pointed the pistol between Ares’ eyes.
“Please listen!” Ares started to beg, his confidence turning almost instantly to fear. There are other things I can do too. For instance I can bring success in warfare. Work with me and you could become anything. Not just a general, but the conqueror of this country, of Asia, or even the whole world. You’ll be hard to beat working with me. Aren’t you sick of being bossed around by all the idiots around you. And think of all the other benefits of conquest: the money, the women, boys if you prefer...”
Just for one moment Emerson felt his childhood fantasies of power and greatness filling his head. He blocked them out. He hated Ares even more for bringing out the worst in him. “Are you trying to tempt me now? Buy your disgusting life with promises of conquest? ”
“It’s not just winning.” Ares smiled seductively as he spoke. “It’s the absolute thrill of killing people. It’s the ultimate feeling of power to know you can do anything to them...”
“Stop it!” screamed Emerson. “Die now, you monster.” Emerson fired. He fired again and again.
“How do you like it, God of War? Who loves you now?”
The only reply he could hear was the sound of Ares’ words turning into shrieks of pain.
He fired at Ares’ face, at Ares’ chest and at Ares’ groin. He fired over and over again, using every bullet he had, all the while screaming insults. The firing was at such close range that the bullets seemed to pass right through Ares and ricochet around the cave. The ricochets broke little chips of rock off the cave walls which bounced around the cave too, building an increasing crescendo of noise.
The explosion of fury was overwhelming, Emerson, emotionally drained, collapsed on the floor.
Two hundred meters away the rest of Emerson’s platoon was celebrating. The news of an unexpected ceasefire agreement had just come through. The men were cheering and discussing whether it meant the end of the war. Suddenly Corporal Manzikert heard the reverberating sounds of gunfire. “Shut up!” he yelled. In the silence they all heard it.
“What the hell?” said someone.
“It’s coming from Cave 42,” yelled Manzikert.
“Emerson’s in there,” shouted someone else.
Captain Talas took command. “Come on, sounds like Emerson’s in a firefight!”
It took them a few minutes to reach the cave mouth. By the time they got there the noise stopped as suddenly as it had broken out. The cave was silent. Tiny tufts of gunsmoke floated out into the sun.
Talas sent Manzikert in first. Manzikert soon called out that all was clear but Emerson was badly hurt. They all rushed in. Their combined torches illuminated the scene.
Emerson was lying on his back, alone in the middle of the cave, his smoking gun still in his hand. There was no sign of who he had been shooting at, only body parts left over from the earlier blast.
Emerson had been hit several times by ricocheting bullets and rock fragments. He was bleeding profusely. The medical orderly leaned over him and tried to stop the bleeding but there were too many wounds. The medic looked up at the others and shook his head.
Emerson opened his eyes and started to murmur. Captain Talas leaned in close to reassure and listen. “Don’t worry, son, we’ll take care of you,” he muttered.
Emerson’s mouth moved but Talas couldn’t hear anything. He leaned closer. “I did it,” Emerson said in a deathly whisper. “I did it.”
“It’s okay,” Talas replied softly, trying to reassure him.
Emerson’s voice slowly faded. “I killed him... I killed the God of War. The war... is over.” His lips stopped moving as he stared at Talas.
“Yes, yes,” Talas whispered soothingly, and he wondered how Emerson knew of the ceasefire.
Emerson’s eyes closed. His breathing stopped.
Talas gently straightened out Emerson’s arms and placed his hands by his sides.
Manzikert came towards them and squatted beside Talas. “He didn’t make it,” muttered Manzikert.
“Yeah, who would have thought it would be Emerson. He’s probably the last victim of the war.”
Manzikert didn’t say anything, responding merely with a long sigh.
“Go and get something proper to carry him away in, we’ll stay with him for now,” Talas said to the others. Talas and Manzikert both sat quietly besides Emerson’s body.
“Do you really think this ceasefire will last, sir?” Manzikert asked.
Before Talas could respond they heard a long, low groan coming from deep within the cave.
Copyright © 2012 by Lyndon Storey