March 24th, 1896
Near Mashhad, People’s Republic of Persia
“We sent men out to fight in this?”
Lysandros looked without favour at the staff tribune; the broad stripes on his collar proclaimed high rank, but his question was idiocy.
“Of course we did,” he said calmly. “Didn’t you know?”
The ground in question had the characteristic look of land that had been fought over with heavy artillery: Mud, churned and rechurned by tens of thousands of shells until not even the craters could be discerned, so fine was the consistency of the powder that remained. The fine grains absorbed water – and blood – like a sponge, clinging to any liquid that fell on it to form a glutinous mass on which it was unsafe to stand for very long. Lysandros could already feel it sucking at his boots, trying to drag him down. The smell attested to the presence of many men who had not been able to move fast enough. Here and there a limb broke the surface; there were strange currents and eddies in the mud, and sometimes things long buried would rise to the surface again. Indeed, there were rumours about Persian “special units”… but there always were; soldiers were a superstitious lot. Lysandros shook his head, dismissing the thought. He had come here for a reason, and medieval claptrap wasn’t it.
The tribune looked shocked, and wasn’t likely to be useful for some time; Lysandros turned instead to his aide, who bore the same red staff stripe as his superior, but over the crested-helmet rank tabs of a centurion. “How many attacks were launched over this ground?” he asked.
The centurion returned his gaze coolly, showing no signs of being intimidated by an Arch-Strategos who was also the most influential Senator in New Byzantium. “It depends, Strategos,” he said. “If you refer to formal attacks of entire army corps, preceded by a week’s barrage, then the tally would be three of ours, two of theirs. If you refer to local actions of a Legion, to straighten this or that bit of the line, then I should say several dozen. And, of course, any action at all consisted of many hundreds of movements of every size from contubernia to cohort; I do not think any accurate count could be made now.”
“Thank you, Centurion. I appreciate your precision.” Lysandros turned again to look at the trench line. Without soldiers constantly repairing the walls, the soggy mud was filling it in. In a year only a trained eye would be able to see the line for which tens of thousands had died. By then the grass might even be growing again.
“You knew?” The tribune had recovered from his shock.
“Of course I did, Tribune.” Lysandros raised an eyebrow. “If I had not known the conditions in which I asked men to fight, I should have been derelict in my duty.”
“Then why?” The tribune gestured wildly at the barren mud. “What possible purpose… you must have known we couldn’t break through!”
“Well, no,” Lysandros said mildly. “All men are initiates in the mystery of death; the Persians no less than we. There was always a possibility that their hearts would break and their armies shatter under the flail of the guns.”
The tribune frowned. “And you flung the Legions at the mountains for that slim chance?”
“Not at all. Oh, if the Persians had broken, then so much the better. But if they didn’t, it was no great matter. True, Persia must be destroyed, eventually; but after all, between our border and Persia is mountainous Punjab. To destroy Persia is necessary but not urgent; I do not expect it will happen in my lifetime.”
“Then… what enemy do you see, sir?”
Lysandros looked at the aide with respect; that was the sort of quick thinking he wanted on his own staff. He would have to get over the horror Lysandros could see in his eyes. There was no room for sentimentality in steering the Republic; if a hundred thousand deaths were necessary, then you took the actions that produced them, and didn’t waste time agonising over it. But he had brains, and that was valuable. Ruthlessness could be learned. After all Lysandros himself had once balked at a single death, when he was a little younger than this officer.
The tribune, on the other hand, would have to be removed from his position; even with the broad hint of his aide’s intuitive leap, he wasn’t getting it. “All this… as preparation for some other enemy? What war could possibly justify all these deaths?”
“Surely it’s obvious, ” Lysandros said. “Whose arrogance brings the anger of the Powers down upon Asia? Whose ambitions have for centuries entangled us in India and IndoChina, distracting us from the great task of return to Europe? Who, above all, has allowed filthy communist rebels into the halls of power, and preaches state ownership of the means of production?”
“China…” the tribune breathed. “You would fight China.”
“No,” Lysandros snarled. “I would fight the Dragon, the swinish idea that killed my sister.” He felt purpose filling him, the purpose that gave meaning to his life now, that had guided his climb from a minor officer of the Legions to the most powerful Senator in Rome. “Communism,” he hissed. “The envy of grasping little toads for their betters, made into a system of government! The opposite of all that is good in Rome. The righteous State makes every man a soldier: A noble calling, a life larger than a man’s petty concerns. What does the Communist state do? It makes every man a nasty little rentier, assiduously drawing his dividends from other men’s labour! It appeals to the very worst in humanity: Greed, envy, the instinct to pull down anyone who does well. And the Chinese allowed this poison into their halls of power! It is intolerable; it shall not stand. Death to China.”
He became aware that both officers were looking at him warily, and that he had perhaps glared a little more wildly than he really intended to, or spoken a little more truth than was really necessary. He deliberately calmed himself down. “But China’s a large place, it’s true; and while we have some friends in the People’s Army, still, that’s not to be relied on. So it’s necessary to study the true conditions of modern warfare. Here, for example, I wanted to learn the precise power of a well-prepared defensive in good terrain. And so I did: No amount of blood, it seems, will shift an army that can be reinforced as fast as new attackers are brought in. Well then, that’s useful to know, and will serve us well when The Day comes.”
“You sacrificed a hundred thousand men just to learn about modern warfare?”
“More like three hundred thousand, counting the cripples. On the other hand, don’t forget that we now have a really excellent experienced cadre for the vast expansion of the Legions.”
“You’re mad.” The tribune spoke with conviction.
“Am I? Perhaps so. You were young when the Revolution raged; too young to join the colours. Perhaps the slaughter drove me mad. But if I’m mad, there’s method to my madness; and there are many in high places who think like me.” He grinned, deliberately leaving his eyes still, knowing the effect was hideous. “Try to cross me, if you dare. I’ve personally ordered the crossing of a thousand traitors. What’s one more? Speak a word against me, and you’ll command the officer cadets at Penchisky for the next forty years.”
The tribune tried to stare him down; but Lysandros had looked men in the eye before condemning them to death. An officer who had stayed behind the lines for most of the war was no challenge.
“All right,” Lysandros said at length. “I’ve learned what I came to learn. Let’s go. There’s work to be done before China dies.”