Art by David Revoy/ Blender Foundation

Words of War

By Guy T. Martland

The small group of so-called “war poets” was touring. Some of them, like Valin Hussein, had seen some real action in space. His last tour of duty had ended when the stolen Ifrit class enemy ship he was captaining had encountered a mine, splintering its spine. The dying ship and his experiences aboard it had informed his last slim volume and garnered him considerable praise in the process.

When he was recovering in a military hospital orbiting Titan, writing the series of interconnected poems had served to thwart the insidious tedium. Now, months later and almost fully recovered, the fighting seemed to have ceased, although for how long was anyone’s guess. In the lull he had somehow found himself persuaded to tour Earth and recite his graphic representations of war.

The ever-present cannibalistic desire. Is that really based on personal experience?” someone slurred at him over the table. Valin nodded, describing the dwindling stores aboard the Kalima XI with the possibility of rescue distant, the remaining crew wondering how long they would be pushed before…

“As the poem stated, it wasn’t an idea we took lightly. They were dark times for all of us. Especially the injured, like myself. It was assumed we’d be the first to go, being the biggest drain on resources.”

Wide-eyed, enraptured, almost sycophantic, the bustling table continued to question him. Wine flowed freely, smoke blowing gently on the warm breeze that passed through the bar. From where Valin sat he could see across Cala de Deia, the small bay lit by the glow from the boats and small shuttle craft. Waves splashing on the rocks below provided background music to the poets’ voices, and the occasional ripple of applause carried out into the hills beyond.

He’d already done his bit in the recital and was basking in the afterglow, people clapping him on the back as they wandered to the bar. Being one of the first on was something he relished — usually at these kind of events he wasn’t able to enjoy the other acts, being consumed by nerves. He found it ironic that he felt no such terror when he was storming an enemy hideout, but reading poems wasn’t something he’d trained to do in the army.

The buzz of the place quietened as Rachael took to the stage and began to speak:

Your call to prayer
Resonated through subspace
Lighting up beacons
With the Muezzin’s wail.

For a few moments
As battle ceased
Warships appeared through rifts
Lining up with Mecca

And as the prayers ran out
It began again
Explosions littering battlespace
Calling us back to arms.

As he stood up, despite being near the back, Rachael watched him leave. Her heavy brown eyes spoke more to him than her words did, but they didn’t speak disapproval. She knew he’d heard her poems many times before.

Outside, he felt the oppression of the throng lift. The place had been a bit too cramped, a bit too like the remaining life-support cubicles aboard the Kalima XI. He took a deep breath and felt better. His side was aching where plaskin had replaced the burned fetid flesh; it felt tight and too new, sweating oddly under his linen top.

He decided against heading back inside. Instead, he’d retreat to the village above, where he’d heard there was a good bar. The walk would do him good, and besides, they were all due to meet up there later.

“I liked your poems,” said a voice in the night. Valin squinted into the gloom, his eyes happening on a shock of white hair that seemed to glow oddly in the moonlight. As the man approached, his weathered face beamed a welcome.

“Oh, thanks,” replied Valin, continuing his passage up the hill. Lemon trees and cacti lined the path.

“You seemed to capture the truth. More so than your friends anyway,” the man continued. Valin thought his voice seemed to hark back to a distant age, its crisp English tones suggesting a man of bearing. The stranger seemed to be hovering at his side, keen to talk.

“That’s very kind of you. Can I sign anything for you?” Valin asked, halting in his tracks. The cicadas in the surrounding trees chirruped loudly at the night.

“There’s no need. Are you heading up to Deia? I’m heading that way too.”

It seemed the man wouldn’t leave. Valin sighed inwardly to himself: He’d been looking forward to some time alone. He turned back to the path, negotiating a steep turn.

“My name’s Robert. I used to write poems, you know.”

“Oh really?” Valin said, disinterested; the eager poets who had shown him their doggerel, expecting gleaming praise, layered cynicism over his enthusiasm for the written word. He noticed the man had pulled out a black hat, its place on his head framing his face.

“Yes. War poems, too.”

“Oh right, which war?”

“War was return of earth to ugly earth…”

“You can say that again…”

“War was foundering of sublimities, extinction of each happy art and faith…”

“Are you quoting someone?” asked Valin, slowing to allow his companion to catch up.

“Just one of mine.”

“It sounds good. I like it.”

“Well, it is one of my better…”

“What did you say your name was?” asked Valin, stopping again to examine the man more closely. His was an intelligent face.

“Robert. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Hussein.”

“Are you from here?”

“I live nearby. Up there on the hill. Have done for years.”

“I can think of nothing I’d rather do than live here for years, writing poetry. But I will, in due course, return to the battlefield,” Valin said.

“I stood in your shoes once. But no longer. It may be a cliché, but war is a young man’s game.”

“That it is, indeed.”

“Well, I turn off here,” Robert pointed left up the hill.

“It was nice to meet you, Robert.”

“Likewise. Keep, writing Mr. Hussein.”

And with that, the man disappeared into the darkness, his white hair visible for a few moments before it became lost behind a thicket of gorse and rosemary.

Valin shook his head, trying to make sense of the encounter as he plunged up the slope to the village. Above, he noticed one of the orbiting Unified Churches of Christ passing through the heavens, its illuminated cruciform shape dimming the stars beyond. By the time it had disappeared behind the mountaintops, he had reached the village and was winding his way through small cobbled streets to the bar he’d been told about.

Sa Fonda was busy but had yet to receive most of the visitors from the reading below. He recognized a poet he knew, reading quietly to himself in the corner, and thought he’d interrupt. After a brief and overcomplicated negotiation with the barman in pidgin Spanish regarding the procurement of a beer, he wandered over. Some ancient reggae blared from a speaker concealed somewhere in the vines that were strung over the patio.

“Valin!” the man exclaimed, leaping up and shaking him warmly by the hand.

“Nice to see you, Purtice. You escaping the madhouse for a bit then.”

“Yeah, just been sitting here, reading.”

“What’s that?” Valin said, nodding at the book. It was an old hardback edition, bound in leather.

“Poems. Have a look,” Purtice replied, handing the book over. “They were written a poet who lived locally; war poems, actually.”

Valin placed his beer on the table, sat down, and flicked to the title page. The writer was a man called Robert Graves. He turned to a poem entitled Recalling War, a stanza leaping out at him:

War was the return of Earth to ugly Earth.

The book shook in Valin’s hands and he almost dropped it. Instead he placed it delicately back on the table, taking a sip of the cool beer as eerie thoughts slotted into place.

Robert Graves had lived in Deia — how could he have not realized? Had the whirlwind of shore leave, travelling around on this impromptu reading tour, softened his edge so much? It had surely been the reason they’d stopped here. Was Robert Graves this man, the poet he’d just met on the path? It had to be, but then again — how could that be possible? Robert Graves had died centuries ago – so then it had to be some kind of impostor. He wanted to run back down the hill, find him, but knew he’d be long gone.

He looked up at Purtice, his face pale.

“What’s the matter Valin?” his friend asked him. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”

~~~~~

An annoying beep thrilled through his dehydrated cerebral cortex, forcing him into consciousness through the fog of hangover. He was back aboard his shuttle, which was a relief — although he couldn’t remember getting there. He blinked away spectral remnants of dreams that flickered at the edges of his consciousness. But one ghost wouldn’t disappear – the lined, well-worn face of Robert Graves.

After shouting at it a few times, it dawned that this holo unit wasn’t going to respond to voice commands. He flung a pillow at the receiver, which did nothing to quell its incessant bleating. Eventually, he forced himself to stand up, knocking over a glass of water in the process. He located the remote and tapped it.

Rachael’s face appeared on the screen, scattering light over the bedroom.

“I didn’t wake you did I? You look terrible.”

“Well, you know, a man has to enjoy his shore leave sometimes. What do you want at this ungodly hour?”

“Did you have fun last night?” Rachael replied.

“From what I can remember, yes. Where were you?”

“Busy. I’m working on a project at the moment.”

“Right. Good for you. Well, I’m off back to sleep then.”

“How did you enjoy meeting Robert last night?”

Valin sat bolt upright in bed. “How do you know? Did that barman tell you?”

“I wasn’t there last night. But apparently you were freeversing some stuff about a ghost.”

“Yeah, this strange thing happened.”

“I know.”

“What do you know?”

“Robert is one of my A.I. constructs.”

“Ah, so it was a wind up! Great. I might have guessed — thanks for freaking me out.” Valin hit another pad on the side of the bed, flicking up the filters on the diamond composite window of the shuttle. He winced slightly.

“Sorry. But it is a serious project. We need the war poets. We need them alive, now more than ever.”

Valin shook his head, used to this kind of overbearing enthusiasm from his friend. “But he isn’t alive, he’s just a construct.”

“Assembled from what we know of his personality. You can learn a lot about someone from their poetic output.”

“Hmm,” replied Valin, thinking about the never-to-be published semi-erotic verse he’d written about Rachael. He looked up into her magnified deep brown eyes.

“And where better to set him free, than where he died? When they appear, they aren’t too unfamiliar with their surroundings.”

“Apart from the fact that they are dead. I imagine that is a bit of a shock to a being when it wakes.”

“Ha ha. Bit like you now!” Rachael said. “Listen, can you do something for me?”

“Why?”

“I can’t make the next leg. I left you something on your porch. Instructions are embedded in your holo.”

“All very mysterious. What do you want me to do?”

“I want you to grow me a war poet,” she replied, an impish grin spreading across her face.

~~~~~

It wasn’t far from Athens – a quick hop across Evia and part of the Aegean Sea. He’d been on the mainland for another reading and was now fulfilling his promise to Rachael. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and he piloted his small shuttle manually.

He pulled up the craft on a road near the plot, scrabbling down the dusty scree slope to the olive grove below. Nestled amongst the trees was a grave, penned in by four white pillars of marble and black ironwork. He wiped his brow in the heat as he stood beside it, admiring the view. The valley stretched down to the sea, framed by austere orange rocks that made up the place.

On the grave were the words: Rupert Brooke 1887-1915. Beside which, a stanza of a poem. Valin read the words out loud:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.

He delved in his pocket, found the cube Rachael had given him. It was a cloudy white square of quartz-like material. It glinted in the sun’s rays, firing unnatural beams of light across the basin. Finding a suitable spot near the head of the grave, he thrust it into the soil, until it was covered by the ochre earth.

For a few minutes nothing happened. Valin stood in the midday sun, waiting, re-reading the poem, wondering about his fate, where he would finally lie. Then the soil surface broke, a green shoot wheedling out, coursing upwards. Its tip was bulbous, the stem that followed studded with thorns. And then the bud opened, revealing the flower’s true nature: a white English rose.

That was all it took: a mosquito bite. To survive being shot at, being blown up in the trenches, to have your life taken away by something that you could squash between your fingers. He took a glug of water from his canteen, hearing some of Rachael’s words in his mind, her infectious excitement about the other reincarnated poets. He blinked, capturing the picture in his AV, sending it instantly via his holo, to wherever Rachael was — probably the other side of Saturn by now.

As he flew away, he circled the grave. The flower had disappeared. Instead an attractive youth was now leaning on the railings, smoking a cigarette. He loosened his cravat, ran his hands through his foppish hair and waved at Valin.

~~~~~

The battle roared around the landing craft, the craft buffeted here and there by nearby blasts. Behind Valin sat rows of his specialist platoon, quiet as they absorbed the updated mission details he’d just patched over to them. Europa’s partly terraformed icy surface lay below, and he banked the craft plunging it downwards toward the battlefront.

The once proud city stood in tatters, plumes of smoke palling upwards in the thin atmosphere. The fight for the metropolis had now become a guerrilla effort, Christian and Muslims once again fighting against each other for supremacy. How had it come to this? Despite his surname, his father’s background, Valin was fighting for the Christian side. But did it really matter which side he was on? War was all the same. He felt the fruits of a poem forming on the branches of his thoughts. It was always at moments like this, when death was imminent that his best work appeared.

There was a keen metallic screech as the craft landed, the back door then hissing open, its edge clanging onto ice and rock. Valin and his troops marched out onto the surface of Jupiter’s moon, blasted by the wind. In his pocket, he felt the comforting presence of a small cube, given to him by the girl with the brown eyes who appeared in his thoughts day and night: a cube which was synced with the patterns of electricity that flowed across his cerebral cortex, in turn synced with a beacon in orbit.

The acrid smell of smoke caused his eyes to water. He blinked as the platoon followed his command, moved toward the crumbling city, toward the embassy where men and women were awaiting extraction. He checked his jacket once again, the cube in his pocket, still there: always recording, recording…

Guy T Martland is an emerging British-based SF writer and at 6 feet 8 inches tall is probably one of the tallest writers out there. He has published short stories in various magazines over the years, including Noesis, Xenos, Jupiter SF and Albedo One.  Alumnus of the Milford SF course, he is currently working on his third SF novel. In between writing, he finds some time to work as a hospital pathologist and occasionally plays a 19th century German violin (but not at the same time).  You can read more information about his writing here: www.guytmartland.co.uk

Stanzas from ‘Recalling War’ by Robert Graves are reproduced in accordance with The Robert Graves Copyright Trust regulations. Stanzas also from ‘The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke, whose work is now out of copyright.

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