Freedom in war by Matěj H.

The planet looked tranquil from such a distance. All that space in between made it seem so far away, even though Anni knew it could take just a few seconds to land on the surface. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what they will do in a few hours. And they’re not coming for tea.

He enjoyed this part. Almost as much as he hated it. He loved the tranquility of it all. The calm before the storm. He just wished there was no storm. He hated everything else. Mostly the fact, that it was the same thing all over again.

First, there was the bombardment. They wouldn’t waste units on ground fighting. The technology was too advanced. Good soldiers, obedient ones were too hard to bring up just to waste them on storming a gate. Especially this far from home. They knew the critical targets long before they reach their solar system, with the network of informants they had.

Second was the landing. That was the easy part. Most of the higher-space defenses were disabled or badly damaged, so there was almost nothing to fear. If there was any danger, it was almost imperceptible. In most cases, non-existent as well. The sound of anti-gravity jets hitting the hard soil filled him with anxiety. And anger. The calmer his brother was, the more unrest he could feel in his lungs. And his brother, Lae, was always calm. Whether he was taking a life, or dragging a comrade to safety, there was always this aura of stillness around him. Like life didn’t even matter, like he was just a fish flowing from A to B, oblivous to the currents and the monters trying to eat it along the way. Father always loved him more. It was obvious, even though he never showed it. The natural indifference of Lae to most of what was happening was just a blatant example of the single-minded desire to reach his destination – the approval of his father. There was no journey for him. In his mind he was already there. The way there was a thing of the past. Only it was still future for everyone else.

Third was the conquest. In most cases, there was no real opposition to the landing. Resources were needed elsewhere, and there were too few to be wasted on feeble efforts to defend the undefendable. The conquest was different. A cornered animal always fights. And it always fights better than the most dedicated soldier there ever was. Because they are always fighting for something. Anni didn’t feel like he was fighting for anything. Lae was fighting for his father’s approval. Anni was fighting, because he didn’t know any better. It was the only life he knew.

The conquest was the only part where they had real losses. And they weren’t few. Lae almost got caught in the crossfire, flowing through the battlefield in his usual way, with grace and true abandonment. But they’d hold each other’s backs. Always.

“Always, Father.” it was Lae. In the distance. He heard the voice tremble, but it was hard to distinguish, whether it was Lae’s voice, or his own mind, that was trembling.
“How long will it take?” Father asked, emotionlessly.
“He’ll be on his feet, before we reach Solagen, sir,” the voice smelled like fear. But it was firm. Sure of itself.
“That’s what I wanted to hear. Make sure of it.”
“Yes, sir.” the door clapped shut.

He felt a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m here, brother.”
He couldn’t reply. His lips were paralyzed. Sown shut. The darkness he saw turned more solid as he faded away into the whirlwind of nothingness again.

The following time was mostly a blur. All black. And timeless.

“…this is all taking too long! I need him back to training now!”
“…few days at most, Sir…he’s not capable of…”
“…rest, brother, I’ll take care of Father…”

Opening his eyes was full of tension and fear. The light was painful. Much less painful than his body, but much more immediate. He didn’t need his eyes to know that he woke up in their bunk. Probably an order by Father, whose lack of patience must’ve been palpable by every soul on the ship by now. Anni realized he must’ve been out for days.

“How far is Solagen?” he asked, not sure of his lips yet, mispronouncing the last word. He knew Lae was there, before he opened his eyes. He knew his brother’s smell.
“A day, at most.”
“He’s furious isn’t he?” it was more of a statement than a question.
“Is he, ever?” Lae asked, lifting his eyebrow.
Father was never really furious. Indifferent? Mostly. Condescending? More often. Full of contempt? Always.
“Well, he’s not jumping for joy, is he?”
Lae grinned in approval, “not by a long shot.”
His grin vanished quickly, as soon as he grabbed his brother’s hand. “Anni, do you remember what happened at Taen a few days ago?”
Anni shook his head slowly, immediately regretting the reflex as strong needles of pain dispersed along his spine.
“I got into a bad situation. My unit was flanked and pushed into the open. I almost got captured.” Lae kneeled by Anni’s bed.
“So I guess that’s how I got into a worse situation,” a smile crossed Anni’s face.
“You saved my life. And the whole conquest. If I had been captured, we’d have to pull back, you know that.”
“I did nothing you wouldn’t have done, brother.”
Lae kept looking down, squeezing Anni’s hand.
“So he’s disappointed in you, isn’t he?”
“I don’t know.”
The door creaked open.
“Breakfast!” the smell of baked bread filled the room. They call it Cheed. Cheese-bread. Long pieces of bread, filled with cheese so fully, that when baked, cheese engulfs the bread almost completely.

They ate, and they talked. Ate some more and talked endlessly. About what happened, and about what was coming. Anni couldn’t make his peace with how much Lae was longing for praise. He wanted to be valued, especially by the general. Father.

He loathed Father. For not giving them a choice. For not giving them a better life than this. For making this out of them. Machines. Slaves.

It didn’t take long until they were summoned. The walk to the general’s chambers was long, especially when Anni was still experiencing acute pain. They barely spoke. The tension was rock-hard and it weighed on their hearts. One held hostage by fear, the other one engulfed in flame. The walked, side by side, connected in their suffering. Only one of them reached that chamber.

“Solagen is a few hours away. First stage will commence tonight. Be ready for landing tomorrow morning.”
“That’s it? That’s all you’ll say?” the heat in Anni’s chest burned heavily. His eyes burned in flame.
“He died a warrior, just like a warrior should.”
Hot tears filled Anni’s eyes: “You killed him….,” he said, tone escaping his voice.
“Your war killed him. You heartless monster!” the flames burst out.
“His pride killed him!” Father bellowed. The echo repeated, obediently. Once, twice. More silent each time.
“You will board. You failed at Taen. You will not fail again.”
Father seemed genuinely surprised at the barrel pointed directly at his chest. There was no hesitation in Anni’s position. The flame was too strong, “no, Father, I won’t.”

The wheels of the war machine will continue to turn. This ship was without a general, but there are other ships, other generals. Anni knew he will be executed. But he will die a free man.