there are no roads here

It’s a careless land, a dusty, unkempt place that hasn’t noticed men. The ground is flat, but textured by a monotony of scrub and low trees whose dark green waxy leaves all hang drooping from the same height. The earth is red-orange and hot under the sun. Defence mounds rise like pimples out of the stubble, some still with old rusted guns on their turret rings, some stripped and crumbling, all empty. They look like they have been there forever and have looked that way since the day they were made. Here and there huge dome-shaped hills made of rough dark stone stud the flats in patterns that make sense only to them. They have been there forever but they are not worth anything. There are no clouds in the sky, and the land has a feeling that there will not be any clouds for a long time.

The land doesn’t care about the men, but the men care about the land and they are afraid of it. Every hillock fort they pass draws the worried stare of round eyes and rifle scopes. They all carry the same guns and wear the same clothes and their black hair is all cut in the same fashion. The rough, open-topped six-wheeled vehicles they ride are all the same shape and size, and bounce in the same way one after another over the humps and potholes of a road that can only be called a road because the rest of the land around it is even less helpful. They regard the dry place uncertainly behind their dark glasses, and fidget when they realise the camouflage of their uniforms does not match it. There are two hundred of them.

Captain Espera is a bad soldier and he knows it. He could not afford prestige, and the academy whose brass badge he wears nestling among rank insignia and meaningless decorations is not a good one. In his satchel, with his maps and ammunition, he keeps books by old war heroes. When he tells his men to do something by the numbers you can see his lips counting silently. He is afraid of Lieutenant Jafa.

Lieutenant Jafa is a bad soldier too, but he is too aware of the captain’s flaws to care about his own. He knows that it is the young, bright men who go far. He is young, and as bright as he is pleasant. He could afford prestige, and the better quality silver badge he wears gives him another reason to sneer at the captain. He collects curses like men collect butterflies, and uses them on Staff Sergeant Tam at every opportunity.

Staff Sergeant Tam is a good soldier, a pragmatic, unimaginative man who brings the men above him solutions whether or not they ask for them. He is convinced that he will die in uniform. He has seen far too much and there is little left in the world that can frighten him. He knows his place and is not unhappy, though the men quietly despise him.

The enlisted men are mostly aware that they are tiny parts of something too large to really understand them, and that their dirty jokes and love stories and funny habits and quiet, secret ways mean nothing to anyone, and that their lives are worth as little as the careless land on which they will fall.

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