“I have grown up in the sound of guns like the child of a siege.” –Tom Stoppard, Arcadia
i. arms and the boy
Elsewhere, elsewhen: and Rourke doesn’t know this, because history is irrelevant to him, because he scorns concepts like family as irrelevant, as the falling of leaves by repute somewhere on the surface;
A man places a gun in the hands of a boy and says, “This is your wife,” and the now is unspoken but the silence is weighted by it.
Here and now: “This is your life,” says the instructor, gravely, and Rourke understands, and it is heavy in his young hands and he blinks against the strong smell of gun oil. Unspoken: this is your service, but he knows, and accepts it, like breathing, like gravity.
Like the weight of the rifle-stock braced against his shoulder.
ii. the mathematics of war
From the beginning, it’s always been about numbers.
In simulation after simulation after session at the range after classes, they run through his head; how to account for the distance to the target (just another number), how much the bullet will drop, effects of wind, and spin drift, and—if shooting over a longer distance—the effects of the ground shifting beneath them all.
There are other numbers, of course:
He trades his name for a service number stamped proudly on one side of his dog-tags and scribbles that in the quartermaster’s ledger and when he turns that in for the operation, he can’t help but feel a strange sense of unease hanging over him, creeping in like a light fog.
The only relevant mathematics of war, though, are the broken, bleeding bodies; heads shattered and their contents poured out onto the ground and bullets expended, always bullets expended.
One shot, one kill. He whispers that: a prayer, an invocation, and squeezes the trigger.
iii. a man chooses, a slave obeys
Orders are orders are orders.
They impress compliance into his marrow and stamp it into his bones. He grows up with structure and strictness and duty and regulations; with the sure knowledge and pride in what he is, in the face that he’s good at what he does.
There are deserters, of course: whispered rumours, really, and Rourke pays little attention to them. Everyone seems to know someone else who knows someone else who deserted, but the emphasis soon follows: caught, dead, court-martialled.
The message: no one is invaluable; no one is irreplaceable.
It isn’t that he’s forced to obey, not exactly, but he’s never seen any other choice, any other reason to do otherwise. The water flows and carries him along and he doesn’t fight it, the same way you don’t fight the kick of the rifle, the same way you don’t fight the pull of sleep but welcome it.
(A soldier gets his sleep whenever he can.)
And then a boy huddles on the ground right within his crosshairs, and something in Rourke snaps and he realises later that it is the sound of chains breaking, the sound of a prison gate creaking open.
The sound of scales falling from his eyes.
Even later: he realises the prison was in his own mind.
He’d always had a choice.
iv. uncharted territory
There’s a snatch of song, once, and Rourke overhears it, and hums it to himself afterwards and the words are trapped in his head and they won’t get out.
Figurative language, says his bunkmate. Rourke hasn’t bothered to remember her name. He doesn’t know what to make of it, this talk of ships and hearts and what sort of meaning this kind of vague language can even contain.
It’s everything and nothing.
It’s a marked contrast to the language of war: regimented, precise, and—he later learns this—the precision is deceptive. The reports speak of engagements, of squads, of sniping positions, of enemy combatants and casualties and hostiles, and all of them are words that expand and shift to cover the realities of war and battle like a ragged bandage.
Combatants, hostiles; children, civilians, helpless, terrified.
Words are lines, and put together, they carefully sketch out a map, only it’s of strange new territory Rourke has never thought he’d see, has never thought existed.
v. leap of faith
He sprawls on the greensward; above the trees tower over him like a memory of light, like a disgraceful almost-copy of the training simulations. There is the light though: not harsh but gentle and golden, and he closes one eye and just lies there and breathes in the fresh scent of wood and sap.
Elsewhere: the sound of guns silences the birds; startles them into flight.
His desperation startles him with its own intensity: this, or nothing; survive or die, and he jumps and wonders at his own heartbeat, stuttering away like the staccato bursts of gunfire.
The air rushes past him, and he is falling, free—
Like the hawk swooping mid-flight to catch a mouse, wind singing through its feathers.
And then with a rush of shock and cold that thrums all the way down to his bones, the water hits him, and carries him away.
It washes everything from him, cleans him, casts him free.
He blinks, stirs in its embrace, and for the first time, breathes.