Once upon a time some soldiers were returning home after a sally. And a strange thing indeed befell them before they reached their own lines. Here's the story.
We were trotting along in single file through the bushes, the sky dark above our heads, with only the moon to light out way. Spirits were riding high but I hushed my men saying, ”It ain’t over ’til it’s over...”
We weren’t home yet, there could be enemy patrols lying in ambush. We were however taking a different route home so hopefully our path was safe. I knew my way through this particular jungle; we had been out playing hide-and-seek here for the last two weeks in order to pass the time in the general stalemate. After some initial success the campaign in question had bogged down in small-unit warfare, such as our squad-size sally this night.
It was October, 1942, on Guadalcanal, where we had landed in August the same year. And now we were returning to our own lines after a successful patrol: we had demolished a bunker and snatched a prisoner.
We approached a clearing. I made the halt sign and watched the glade; moon-lit and grown with elephant grass it seemed OK. I noted some stray noises from the jungle, squeaks and croaks from birds and bats and what have you. Strange as they were they belonged there; it was only when you listened to them a bit too long that you got the creeps.
Then the noises seemed to die down. And as I stood there, watching the glade, I had the strangest visions – visions not of joining the Marines, training at Pendleton, stationing at Hawaii, getting promoted to Sergeant, one day seeing Japanese planes in the sky and being hurled into a war, a war that firstly took us to this island, Guadalcanal, where we made a forced landing and had begun to battle it out with Hirohito’s Hordes. I didn’t think about that at all, oh no, I got wholly different visions in my mind there and then: visions of starships and burning suns, energy beams and soldiers clad in weird suits, and enemies in the form of scorpions and humanoid crocodiles and whatnot...
What was it all? Post-stress hallucinations, with the addition of too much reading of Astounding and Amazing?
I shook my head and cleared my mind. It was time to go, to return to our own lines, our own defensive positions here on the island. I looked back at my eight men, nine with the prisoner. I was thinking about splitting the force in two, having my deputy take one team to the right of the glade and I the other to the left, when a light in the sky caught my eye. It approached, shifted from green to red and then to blue, and then it got so near that I could make out a silhouette, a contour of a ship – or whatever! It looked like a musical instrument, a trumpet or a French horn with the muzzle pointing downwards. I was dumbstruck. Then I heard a sound, a fine chord i D Major, and by that we were all lifted up to the ship.
Yes I know it sounds weird, but it gets weirder...
Soaring up in the sky like that first made me mad – and then I got afraid – and then I calmed down – and by the time we soared in through the muzzle of the horn I was rather collected. I still had the responsibility over my men.
The next thing I knew we were all lying on a smooth steel floor, surrounded by equally smooth walls.
”Guys,” I said to my men, ”I don’t know what the heck this is, but stay calm. Breathe.”
I could hear them collectively draw their breath, even our Japanese prisoner. How about that for understanding over the language barrier.
Stay calm I repeated to myself, and then what? We had been taken aboard a strange ship, a spaceship maybe; oh my I thought, no one would believe me if I got back to tell this... That’s what crossed my mind. And if I didn’t get back I would be charged for desertion from the colours, or just marked up as Missing In Action.
Practical, soldiery thoughts you might think. But I was a soldier, a down-to-earth type of guy, however also an ardent science fiction reader; that’s no contradiction. Or maybe it is. Shame on me.
”But what is this all?” my deputy squad leader, Chavez, said.
”I don’t know,” I said. Just cool it down and take a rest. We seem to be trapped, that’s all I can say.”
Indeed we were trapped: I had the men explore the room in search of a way to escape, but the walls were as smooth as jo-blocks. No joints or apertures or crevices were to be seen. So we had to stick to Plan A: stay calm. And I stayed calm, but underneath I was mad as hell. Who in the name of Bejeesus would want to kidnap some Marines on patrol in the midst of a war?
The ship jolted and I had the sensation of motion. ”Goodbye Earth” I thought, and then I reminded myself of the visions I had had at the glade, of burning suns and strange soldiers and enemies ten feet tall and –
Some more of the odd music was heard and this time it all soothed us to sleep. It was impossible to withstand so I gave in to the drowsiness and fell asleep.
To make a long story short: we were taken away to a distant land, distant in time that is, for the guys with the trumpet-ship came from the future. Yes indeedy: they were men from the future, men like us – but as mankind in the future had gotten into a war with strange creatures, alien species such as humanoid crocodiles (my vision had been prescient) and their allies, they needed our help. Why? Because man in the future didn’t know how to make war, how to do battle...
That’s where we came in, we Marines from the 20th century. We had been taken to the 25th century to teach them how to fight.
Sounds weird? It gets weirder...
However. We were taken to the planet of Migalotha, the central planet of man’s empire in the year of 2457. Two suns, purple hills at the horizon, cylindrical palaces and tortuous high rises; I was glad I had read some of those science fiction-magz, they cured me of the future shock. One of my men actually got mad, Lejeune was his name. Another had been shot when he, against my orders, had tried to assail one of the crew on the trumpet ship. Dunbar was his name.
So we were seven Americans and one Japanese, and he, Hashima by name, soon became our equal. In fact he became a good teacher of bushido, the old Japanese warrior code, which was just what the humans of the 25th century needed. We had all learned their language by then and we all got to work to train these future men; they called their state The Trakian Empire, so they were called Trakians. Recalling everything we could about weapon construction and such things (a man called Winter was our technical wizard, only a smith’s assistant back on earth but he knew a lot I can assure you) we helped the Trakians to arm themselves, after having taught them the simple concept of guns, of killing another being, which in itself was alien to them. But they got over it... They learned quickly.
You could say: they learned quickly because they had to.
Then came the hardest part: to set up functional army units, units of foot soldiers, and that’s where I made my major contribution. After having made myself Colonel I sketched a complete army system for them and then, with the aid of my ablest men as instructors - Chavez, Martell, Jones - we slowly saw the ranks grow. You might wonder how Corporals and Privates such as these could be instructors of companies and battalions, but I can only say: if your life depends on it and you can lead a squad or a team, then you can lead a company. And our enemy, the humanoid crocodile Riliacs, did make war on us, they wanted us all dead, I can assure you that...
Moving on. A somewhat odd fellow in my squad, Anderson, a bespectacled guy with wider reading habits than I, proved to be a good staff officer. By way of the Trakian library of old military handbooks, he educated himself into a tactical and operational genius. And the logistical part, the supply and maintenance question, was masterminded by Olsen, a hands-on practical man who always happened to have spare chocolate bars in his pockets. On Earth as well as here on Migalotha...!
Now then, if I haven’t stated it clear yet: the humans of the 25th century hadn’t seen war, never since they had made their Exodus into space from Earth by the early 21st century. That’s where we came in. And with our war-mindedness and ideas on organization and weapon construction, aided by the high-tech of the 25th century (resulting e. g. in energy weapons), we succeeded in setting up a battle group of sorts. We even had them build a class of warships, sleek vessels with none of that musical instrument-look about them...
So we made a raid on the enemy and it was a dismal failure. Part of it was my fault (the unit was too small, only three companies), part of it was due to the inexperience of the non-coms and officers we had trained. But the next mission went better: we attacked the Riliacs home planet in force, with four battalion-sized combat groups; again it was only a raid but we stood our ground as long as we remained planetside. We directed orbital bombs to crush a city into smoking rubble, with some laser rocket ships to finish it off, and we defended our landing zone against onslaughts of infantry.
We were earthly soldiers, taken to the future to fight a war for mankind. We were all in time made Generals and some of us leaders of divisions, with which we harrassed the enemy here and there. But it was no picnic; for example Hashima, the Japanese, got surrounded with his staff on Taloola and drained in a hailstorm of electron beams from assaulting Riliacs. The force-fields of our suits weren’t enough to protect us if they were saturated with energy beams from every direction.
Martell, for his part, was out on a commando mission to Arcturus IV when his patrol ship got intercepted by a Rilian task force. Missing In Action.
And then there was Chavez, who planted the Trakian banner on top of the ruins of the fortress Xamaforia. Having done that he sat down, shut off his force-field – and was killed by a stray beam from a hidden Riliac soldier.
That left me (Shipparelli by name), Jones, Olsen, Anderson and Winter. As intimated the last three weren’t front-line generals, they were logistical, technical and operational experts respectively. However we all became rather close, became a veteran foreign legion of five among mankind of the 25th century.
It was a day in the year of grace 2468. We had been in this future war for over ten years; the battles still raged, but for the moment we had taken some time off to meet at my summer house in the Migalothian countryside. There were palm trees a hundred meters tall, a lake of turquoise-blue water and purple-and-red flowers with maddening smell.
”So what do you think happened in the old war?” Jones said and drank from his goblet of sapphire wine.
”The – what was it called now – American war we were in?” Winter said, absentmindedly eyeing a giant butterfly landing on a flower-cup nearby.
”Yes,” I said, ”We were Americans, fighting against the Japanese... how strange these words sound nowadays.”
Olsen for his part said nothing, tucking into a plate of fried squid.
”We were soldiers,” Anderson said, ”soldiers then, soldiers now. What’s the difference? You’ve gotta live for the moment.”
”True, true,” Jones said and finished his wine, looking out over the lake. ”We have to end this war, the one we’re in. What do you make of it?”
Well, what did we make of it? It was a bit complicated. The Riliacs had allies, giant scorpions (another of my visions there at ’Canal being true), but those were mostly annoying, un-intellegent species as they were. They served the Riliacs as a sort of shock-weapon, but when the first shock had worn off they were easy to kill. Other than that it was a war of attrition, a test to see which side would give in. There were more call-ups, more units launched, more assaults being made, more warships being constructed... More of everything.
Then Jones died in a space-raid on his new home-planet, Klomara III. Space-bombing, rocks thrown from orbit; pretty damaging if the force-field protecting the city in question is knocked out. And then Anderson died from food-poisoning, strange as it may seem. And Winter commited suicide, being homesick for his American homeland, for his 20th century Earth – even though he could barely remember words like ”America”, ”American”, or ”Earth”.
Olsen, the logistican, had to retire due to obesity. He died peacefully soon after.
And that left me, Shipparelli, the sole survivor of the original ten. But I didn’t have any choice but to go on fighting and making the Trakian empire of the 25th century my home.
So what can I add? I mainly sat behind a desk the rest of the war, organizing the victory. Oh yes, we did win the war eventually. I also had to make peace with the Riliacs; that was mainly a victory to win over yourself, to begin to see your former enemy as an ally I mean. But it had to be done – because in the meantime, simultaneous to our winning the Riliac war, a new enemy loomed up over the event horizon: the Energetics we called them, beings of pure energy, jumping out of white holes in the sky. But we beat them by applying the second law of thermodynamics to them: energy can’t be destroyed, only transformed – so with the help of the Riliacs we sent them screaming back through the giant black hole in the midst of the galaxy.
As I’m writing this I am 195 years old, the ageing process having been slowed by the Trakian medical science. And I am married to a Trakian woman, only 103 years of age. Ours is a great match, no doubt, but to tell you the truth I am fed up with living, I’ve had my share of the material life so now I only look forward to The Greater Life, The Big Hereafter. Oh yes, I’m a Believer: ”There are no atheists in the trenches”, that’s true for both old and future wars...
Boots on the Ground