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War of Another World

a short story

by Adam Roberts

'So -- are you pro-war?' Splendor-of-Thought asked me. 'Or anti- war?'

I turned to him, my prostheses whirring. 'I hardly need return the question,' I said to him. 'Your opinions on the conflict are well known.'

'We are the most highly evolved creatures in the solar system,' said Splendor-of-Thought, eagerly. 'We have advanced to unprecedented levels in all the key scientific areas. Our machines render us strong and mobile. Our rocketry means we can span the vastness between worlds. Surely a people so advanced do not need to wage a war of imperial conquest.'

'So!' I retorted. 'Many would disagree with your description of this campaign -- imperialism? Who says this is a war of imperialism? The people of the Blue World labour under conditions of the most appalling primitiveness. We are liberating them from that tyranny, bringing the benefits of our far-superior technology and civilisation. They will benefit as much as we.'

'You admit that we will benefit enormously from this war,' pressed Splendor-of-Thought, as if it were a brilliant debating point. 'You admit that self interest is largely at work in this deployment?'

'Is it a criminal thing to benefit?' I replied. 'Come, Splendor-of-Thought; live up to your name! Do we worship the principles of pure mentition, the disinterested glory of Thought-as-God that shapes the cosmos? Or are we to surrender ourselves to the thoughtless glandular surges of emotion that marked our ancestors?'

'Our glands may have atrophied,' he said, 'but they have not disappeared. And of course sometimes stray hormones filter through to our brains in our food. I would not be ashamed of arguing an emotional case, if I were doing so. But on the contrary, my case is argued from the position of mentition! Mentition tells us that we should allow the creatures of the blue world to evolve at their own pace, until they are ready to join us in the solar system as equals! Not enslave them! That thought is abhorrent.'

'Of course,' I said, shuffling a little to the left to allow one of my service-devices to access the launch tube, 'it goes without saying that the idea of enslaving another people is anathema to any right-thinking Martian. But that's not what the war is about.'

'I might have thought you would say so,' snorted Splendor-of-Thought. 'You have been brainwashed by the pronouncements of the ruling council.'

'Not at all. The soldiers over there are some of the most civilised, the most thoughtful citizens of our civilisation. They're prepared to risk their lives to defend the Martian way of life -- and to bring its benefits to surly backward savages.' I gestured with a metallic tentacle, and continued confidently: 'Once the army has suppressed the local resistance, and established walkers and service towers across the key countries, then the natives themselves will come to realise how much better off they are. I predict that in a matter of months the people of the Blue World will be thanking us for what we have done for them. Thanking us!'

The work on the Launch Tube service coolant vent-carburant was complete. We geared up and strode across the plain, leaving the launch tube to the ministrations of the service devices.

Of course, Splendor-of-Thought's objections to the war were not eccentric, or his alone. Many otherwise good-thinking Martians shared his concerns, so much so that the ruling council had posted a continual guard along the length of the great launching tube. A saboteur might hope to interfere in some way with the tube, and so prevent our troops from so much as launching across the void to the newly civilised world. Patrols were ubiquitous to prevent precisely this. The two of us were stopped by one such patrol; my feelers passed the authorisation cylinder from my walker to the Guard Captain's, and we were permitted to move on.

The sun sent magenta shadows fluttering away from our metal legs as we strode towards the dome. The dust was red with the dried remains of the Great Weed -- not through drought (the weed had been permitted to die away of natural causes so as not to overgrow the Launch Tube). The red sun settled onto the red horizon. It was a desolately beautiful sight.

Splendor-of-Thought's voice came through on my speaker again. 'I only wish you wouldn't talk of civilising them.'

'How else would you describe it?' I countered. 'Taking away the chains of their ignorance and backwardness -- leading them into the age of thought, of technology, of space flight.'

'It's as if you haven't been watching the news ... ' he said.

'What do you mean?' I snapped,

'You've surely seen the reports of atrocities,' he said petulantly.

I did not enjoy hearing my colleague speaking in this way. 'If I didn't know that the vetting process for employing technicians on the Great Launch Tube were as thorough as they are,' I said, 'I might start to suspect you of harbouring antiwar ambitions to sabotage Operation Free Blueworld.'

'Atrocity,' Splendor-of-Thought continued, 'is the word that describes what is going on over there. How can you disagree? You must have seen the pictures -- those poor Blueworld natives tortured -- killed.'

'There is bound to be unfortunate collateral damage in any military operation,' I pointed out. 'Regrettable, but a price worth paying -- the sooner the military can bring the fighting to an end the better for everybody, Blueworld natives included.'

'Which means ... '

'Which means our patriotic duty is to support our troops. It only prolongs the war to criticise, as you are doing. That way nobody benefits. A swift Martian victory is imperative for everybody's sake.'

'You're certain,' Splendor-of-Thought said with a new tone of slyness in his voice, 'that victory is assured?'

'Of course.' This was almost an idiotic question. 'We are many thousands of years in advance of the Blueworld natives in technological terms. We have mastered the machinery of war, the tactics, all possible obstacles. Our war-tripods are virtually unassailable. We have anticipated every eventuality; the greater gravity of the Blueworld, the thickness of the atmosphere, the alien germs and organisms.'

'Our advanced troops have certainly been treated with the most up-to-date genetic enhancement to preserve them from infection by Blueworld viruses or bacteria,' said Splendor-of-Thought.

'Bacteria to which the natives themselves are susceptible!' I pointed out. 'They cannot even protect themselves from simple infections, as we can. They lack our intellect, our technology, and our will to win. Victory is inevitable.'

We were almost at the dome.

'The genetic enhancement laboratories that treated our troops,' said Splendor-of-Thought, his voice more sly still, like a child with a secret, 'produces many things apart from regimens to protect troops against alien bugs.'

I didn't like his tone. 'What do you mean?'

'I am merely saying,' he said. 'It would be possible -- let's say -- for the sake of argument -- that a disgruntled antiwar technician could develop a superbug that would overcome even the immunity of our shock troops.'

I stopped. 'Go on.'

Splendor-of-Thought brought his walker to a halt beside me. 'Well, it's possible that this lab-worker could pass a vial of this superbug to a worker on the Launch Tube -- perhaps a likeminded Martian, somebody also opposed to the war.'


'And, given the official access granted such a worker, it's possible that the Rocket Shells could be contaminated with this superbug before being accelerated along the tube.'

My brain pulsed heavily with the implications of what Splendor-of-Thought was saying. 'But then ... '

'Then the troops would carry the infection with them ... an infection designed to lay them low, and leave the Blueworld natives untouched. After a few days the troops would begin to sicken, and eventually die. In that case,' said Splendor-of-Thought, 'Martian victory would not be as certain as you are suggesting.'

'That would be an act of such barbarous treachery ... ' I began to say, quivering with rage. ' ... a terrible, appalling act ... '

'It's just a hypothetical,' said Splendor-of-Thought. 'I'm only floating the notion. But it gives one pause for thought, doesn't it? What if the war is not won? Eh? What then for our supposedly civilised Mars?'

And he activated his walker and strode quickly away. I stood and watched him disappear across the purple and red wastes, his shadows fluttering after him along the dirt like torn ribbons in the wind.

© Adam Roberts 2004.
This story is published here for the first time.

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