There was a flash like lightning. It lit the sky as daylight in pre-dawn. The momentary brightness gave way to a mushroom cloud of misery. As if meant to since it’s formation, the world changed in a blink. The nearest of its victims were vaporized. They were the fortunate ones. For what came next was a truth that mankind could never own up to; we are cowards, fools, children.
I was stationed near the far-edge of the blasts’ radius, just outside the critical radiation zone. I learned the truth of our nature first hand, saw its repercussions with my own, shielded eyes. Leader of my squad, and like them, clad in air-tight kevlar that stunk like week-old sweat even before our dirty flesh inhabited it. Had the enemy smelled our advance after the flash, the vaporization, the change of the world, they’d have surrendered for posterity’s sake– likely only as a bargaining chip to make as all shower, shave, have some R and R.
But war doesn’t allow for time-outs. That was something that had been drilled into the head of every recruit long before they’d ever joined the fight. Two decades of ground fighting saw the propaganda mill run like wild fire. Every standing wall left was blanketed with the colorful, subtle manipulations of a psychological war of a nation against its own. In a way, no one blamed them. It was the only route left to attempt to keep the peace. There was no longer order, only camps for the refugees, sick and dying. Meanwhile, cities that had stood the test of eons became the central zones of conflict. They were gone. Eradicated. All in a flash.
Our men on the front-lines hadn’t stood a chance, but neither did the enemy. That was the point. The particular phrases used? I remember them as if they’re etched into the blood on my hands: “Expendable assets,” “Acceptable Casualties,” “Cold Calculus.” For a layman they were confusing, but for a soldier they all meant the same thing; the men and women out there in the thick of it were to be sacrificed. The armchair generals had seen to that. They had watched from on-high, strategizing, and in a single thought, sealed the fates of those both friend and foe– sealed the truth of humanity’s cowardice.
Safely hidden away with the other officers, they made a “calculated decision.” Bullshit. They killed millions, raped the earth’s face to save themselves. That was all. My unit was sent in for “damage assessment and clean-up.” Euphemisms for confirming what we already knew, and murdering the poor bastards that hadn’t already been burnt to charred husks. Friend or foe, it didn’t matter, they were to be “neutralized.” I guess for some it would have been the final kindness we could grant.
When we made our advance through the furthest ruins, the buildings were largely intact. Or at least, as intact as decades-long bombing-runs, bullet-holes, and shrapnel could keep them. There were no windows, but you could sense where the refugees and soldiers had been. The former used scrap material to barricade windows and holed-walls. The latter left bodies, sandbags, spent ammunition and magazines in their wake.
The furthest outskirts of the blast were like wading through a physical history of the last twenty years. Bodies both decayed and fresh mingled with the skeletons of the long dead. The flies and other insects peppered the air as if a great plague had been unleashed. The buildings’ colors and brick were faded, pocked and divoted with destruction across their faces. Everywhere there were signs of scavengers– over turned bodies, out-turned pockets, emptied infantry packs. In this land, nothing was a sacred but survival. And now, because of us, even that had been hallowed.
When the clicks of the Geiger signaled the first reaches of the radiation, the sky was still dark. The land was silent. I doubt that even had anything survived in that place it would have been so bold as to make noise. My unit was silent but for the weary progress of our feet through ash and ruins. We had nothing to say, but our collective breaths of awe and disgust bled through our helmet comms. It was enough to tell that we were all present, accounted for, and mirrored one another’s sentiments.
It was almost dawn when we came upon a survivor. Though I hesitate to call her that. She was clearly dying; blind, dehydrated, irradiated, and burned all over. She heard us before we saw her, began to scream and wail for help. We found her under the rubble of a tin shack, its hot roof collapsed atop her. She begged for mercy, amnesty. At that we saw the tattered remains of her uniform. What hadn’t burnt into her skin was clear enough to denote that she was the enemy. Even so, we had our orders and none of us had the gall to tell her the truth.
I pulled the trigger myself. One round to the forehead. Her pain was over in a second. Mine had just begun. All of ours had. We had no idea what we’d find moving forward, but the scene of the woman became the exception.
What few people we did find were all dead. Most were civilians– refugees that had stubbornly refused to leave the war-zone they’d once called home. All middle-aged and more hardened than not. Their corpses were emaciated, soot-blackened, probably had been for longer than they’d known. It was saddening, but disappointing most of all. The groups here no longer knew why they were fighting. The militaries of both sides had long run out of volunteers, turned to draftees to do their dirty work. I doubt a single soul in that blast had any stake in the fight.
The Geiger was red-hot when we hit the first wave of vaporized buildings. They were mostly ash. Fires blazed across the horizons in every direction, had already begun to spread to the buildings behind us. The heat inside our suits increased ten-fold, threatened to bog us down with exhaustion and smother the life from our cowardly bodies.
There were no survivors this far in, only corpses. Each was more decrepit than the last. Charred skin turned to gooey mush nearer the blast’s epicenter. The bones of the dead obliterated inside from the force of the shock-wave. What few, mangled husks could be accurately identified as humans were little more than containers of meat for their cooked organs and powdered skeletons. The terrain had changed too. There were no longer even hints of buildings, just upturned and cracked earth. It formed hills and dirt dunes, all brown and black, composed of scorched elements that could no longer be identified as specific. Be they human, building, foliage, there was no way to tell.
It took nearly a full week to sweep the entire blast zone. We were fortunate enough in our suits’ designs that we could sleep comfortably in them, were allowed a fresh supply of oxygen from re-breathers in the helmets. I’ll never forget the last day though.
We’d just begun the last leg home when we came upon the corpse of a charred-black woman. She couldn’t have been more than fifteen. More than likely she was one of the escort girls one side or the other brought to base for the pleasures of the men and women there. In her arms was the tattered remains of a swaddled infant. My unit stared at the scene, the greenest of us audibly sniffling over the comm.
We knew then what the rest of the world learned in that one, solitary act of inhumanity. We were cowards. Monsters. Everything our species had grown to become, all of its greatest endeavors, its most humbling mistakes, meant nothing. We were children who’d burned ourselves with fire. With little more thought than cold calculus, and the sacrifice of acceptable casualties, we’d given into darkness with a single, atomic flash.