The Old Man and the Warrior
Posted By: Vector40<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 1 August 2002, 7:02 am
“I still don’t like it.”
“Nobody asked you if you liked it. It’s got to be done.”
“Okay, fine. What don’t you like?”
“Just . . . sneaking up and leveling it? Where’s the honor in that?”
“No honor. No risk, either, or at least minimal risk. Try to understand, John, some things just can’t always be done the way we might like. What would you rather us do?”
“You know the answer. Muster the troops, drop in our forces, and meet them face-to-face. Let them see what they stirred up when they took a swing at Man.”
“You know what would happen. We’d be slaughtered.”
“Sure, at first. But we keep sending them in. They have to give way eventually; we’ve got them terribly outnumbered on the ground.”
“So we’d lose a hundred, a thousand, a million men, instead of none; and for what?”
“The end result would be the same. The Covenant bionexus would fall. And we would have done it cleanly, directly, simply—on the ground, hand against claw, life against life.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You’ve got a survival probability about thirty times what the other Marines do, and even more than that against the Regular Army lads. While you’re fulfilling your honor, they’re just dying in the cold, miserable mud, on a world that isn’t theirs, a million light-years away from home.”
“Have you ever played chess, Major?”
“Do you enjoy winning?”
“Now say you were playing, but you removed half of your opponent’s pieces from the board to start with. Would you take pleasure from beating him then?”
“You’re asking me if I enjoy winning by cheating. Of course not.”
“Then how is it any different in this? A solid, true victory would be a fair one. Simply jumping them, like a mugger in the street, would be hollow even if we won.”
“There’s a difference, John. When I play chess, I don’t play for my life. And I definitely don’t play for other people’s lives.”
“So there’s a difference, fine. But the basic trueness behind it is the same. Winning by breaking the rules is barely even winning.”
“There are no rules in war. You should know that by now.”
“There are. Damn it, there are. You can shoot, bite, kick, burn, ambush, mine, strafe, or shell your enemy; but there are some things that you both abide by, no matter how much you hate each other.”
“You’re talking about the theory that humans have an underlying decency to their souls. Son, even if that’s true—these aren’t humans. They’ll just as soon take any offer of ‘decency’ we give and shove it down our throats.”
“We don’t know that.”
“Please, John. Think. Do you know how long it’s taken us to get this far? How many miracles of Intelligence, how many daring raids and edge-of-our-seats gambles? How many lives we’ve given to get into the position we’re in right now? This is a chance given by God. It would be a crime to waste it.”
“And it would be a crime to use it wrongly. So we know the location of the bionexus. And we know that it’s undefended from space. In my mind, that calls for a good, honest, all-out invasion—not an orbital bombardment until the crust of the planet cracks.”
“They’ve done it to us enough times.”
“Does that make it right?”
“Maybe not. But right or wrong, it’s necessary.”
“Son, I’m going to tell you a story. It’s old; real old. It’s been drifting around the Corp for decades, but I know that it originally came from Earth, from some tribe or other in the Eastern continents. Africa, I think. Listen carefully, because it pertains to this conversation very much.”
“Once, long ago [and, son, this was old even when it was first told] there lived a great warrior. No one knew his name; he had been born in a small, unknown village, and quickly abandoned by an unwanting mother. He was taken in by a family from another village and cared for until he was six; then they, too, left him to fend for himself, out on the wide plains.
“He grew tall and strong, and soon he was one of the mightiest warriors in the land. He traveled much, moving from place to place, and his story grew even as his body did. They said he could kill a running lion with his bare fists; they said that he could fell a tree with one blow from a club. Many, many men heard his legend and came to challenge him. All died before his hand.
“Before long, he was the uncontested champion of the land. No man still dared to confront him; people were known to flee the streets at the sight of him, and powerful warriors begged for mercy when he asked them to fight. He took to traveling even more, seeing places he had never seen, and looking still for a man to defeat him. But word of his deeds always moved faster than he did, and wherever he went there was nobody to face him.
“He took to combating local threats; here he would slay a rampaging hippo that was ruining a town, there he would deal with a ruffian that was preying on locals. Sometimes he would find strong-looking men and simply attack them, hoping they would fight back, but they never did, and they would die silently while he danced about in rage.
“One day, though, the warrior was traveling in a land that he had never been in before. Here, things were seldom different; men fled from him in the streets, dogs ceased their barking at the sight of him, and shop owners quietly refused his money. But there was something else, too. Whenever he would speak to the local villagers, they would always acknowledge him as the greatest warrior the world had ever known; but invariably, they also said, ‘Yet there is a man in the mountains to the East that may kill you easily.’
“The first few times he heard this, he killed the people who spoke such, thinking they were merely insolent. But when he heard this tale told again and again, far and wide, he began to think differently. In every village he came to, the same thing was said: he was very great, but there was one who could kill him.
“So the warrior decided to seek out this man and defeat him, to show the people who was the mightiest after all.
“He traveled into the mountains where the townspeople spoke of, and searched for many days before he found a small, nondescript hut in a valley. When he approached it, he was welcomed by a voice inside.
“He entered the house, and he was confused, for the only man inside was a small, very old man with graying hair and shambles for clothes. Though his eyes were bright, his limbs were thin and weak, and he limped as he walked.
“The warrior said: ‘Ho, there! I have come many miles to issue a challenge to a man who lives in these mountains. He is said to be very mighty and powerful, and I wish to demonstrate my superiority. Do you know this man?’
“And the old man said simply, ‘I am this man.’
“And the warrior laughed, saying ‘No, old dotard, you misunderstand me. I search for a great warrior, a terrible fighter, a man who cracks mountains and makes trees tremble at his very sight. Do you know of whom I seek?
“And the old man said simply, ‘I am this man, though I am not a warrior.’
“The warrior was annoyed, and very angry. ‘You simpleton, this cannot be! I search for a young and powerful fighter, not an old and weak hag.’
“The old man replied, ‘I was once a young and powerful fighter. Now I am but an old and weak hag. But it is I whom you seek.’
“And the warrior, growing furious, said ‘I cannot believe it! I have traveled for many miles, across the plains and over the mountains, and searched for days, all for a simple old fool who is no threat?
“ ‘I shall kill you anyway, just for making me go to such lengths!’
“The warrior went forward, and without bothering to take time, wrapped his hands around the old man’s throat and started to squeeze.
“The old man moved a hand forward, and up, and then the warrior staggered back to the floor, clutching at his chest. Blood poured freely from him where the old man had stabbed him, piercing the heart. Deep in him, he could feel his life draining away.
“He looked up at the old man, who was sitting in a chair and rubbing his neck: ‘How can this be?’
“And the old man said, ‘Alone, you are a great and deadly warrior, and I am but an old and weak man.
“ ‘But I have a knife. And with a knife, you are a great and deadly warrior’—here he paused— ‘but I am a great and deadly warrior who perhaps moves a tiny bit slower.’
“And he said, as the warrior’s eyes began to fade, ‘You thought that because you are my superior, I was no threat to you.
“ ‘But even though you may be greater, I am here, and I have hands, and I have arms and legs and a body; and I have a mind and a spirit; and I have a knife.’
“Then the warrior died, and passed forever from the world.”
* * *
“'That wasn’t really an old legend, was it, Major?”
“It was a good story.”
“Thank you, John.”
“I think I’m going to go to my cabin. I don’t know why . . . I seem to get tired so easily, nowadays. You can comm me, if you need me.”
“And . . . you’ll be ready to lead the cleanup teams tomorrow?”
“Of course, Major.”
“Thank you, John.”