I'd been pondering writing a far-future Lovecraft fic, with a starfaring civilization capable of at least being able to stand up to the Elder Gods now and again. Then my mind wandered while bored at work and I ended up asking myself what force personified the exact opposite of the hopelessness and despair that are the hallmark of the Old Ones, and when the answer that popped to mind was 'Bolos!' that was that.
Trellis Memorial Academy, Planet Dassault, New Quebec system.
September 3rd, 3254, Earth Standard Date
“What is the greatest weapon we, humanity, possess in this war?”
Speakers concealed throughout the oak-paneled lecture hall boomed the question over the pervasive din of conversation from the seated ranks of blue-uniformed cadets. The low babble ceased almost instantly, heads craning this way and that until all of them centered on the lone standing figure advancing down the center aisle towards the vacant podium at the center of the room. The gray-haired man limped around the podium in silence, clad in a uniform identical to the seated cadets with the exception that it was devoid of insignia or ornamentation. Only the silvered bar of a nametag broke up the dark blue fabric, but closer inspection by the students in the front few rows revealed it to be polished to a mirror sheen and void of any actual letters.
“Before you answer,” the voice called out again; in the absence of the thunderous volume its owner had used to cut through the chatter of eighty-six military cadets it sounded almost soft, easily capable of conveying a required meaning without resorting to shouting, “You should be aware that anyone who names a piece of military hardware as an answer will be expelled immediately and transferred to the infantry. There are always openings there for hardware-minded individuals.” A tight, humorless smile twisted the man's lips as he settled back to wait for a response. Many of the assembled cadets were by now fixing him with wary looks; most of the rest were frowning in concentration.
At a raised hand, the as-yet-nameless figure pointed and gestured for the cadet in question to rise. Looking at least a touch nervous, the slim, black-haired boy rose to his feet and glanced left and right before answering. The room's sound system carried his words through the speakers and to all corners of the hall, drawing a few startled twitches here and there.
“Uh, organization, sir?”
“Negative, Cadet. You can organize your personal datastore. You can organize a box of pencils. Being organized helps, but our enemies aren't some sort of mythical embodiment of Chaos, now are they?” A wry smirk traced the instructor's lips as he added, “An extra mark to you, though, for having the courage to speak up first.”
Before the first student had even seated himself again another hand shot up, this one belonging to a heavily-muscled figure with a sandy brown crew-cut. At a gesture, he shot to his feet and belted out an answer with parade-ground volume and diction.
“Sir, courage is our greatest weapon, sir!”
The confident look on the trainee's face faltered at the sudden, wolfish grin that flashed into being on the face opposite the podium. A finger stabbed towards the red glowing exit sign at the back of the room even as a reply chased it down.
“Courage? Not only is that a painfully cliché answer, but blind courage has killed more people in this war than I care to think about. There are times, depressingly frequently, when you and your commands will be forced to disengage and retreat. I could cite statistics, name battles, list casualties of people who would have agreed with your answer, cadet. Furthermore, you jump to conclusions based on what you think your commanding officer wants to hear. That is not acceptable from someone in your position. Welcome to the infantry, there will be someone waiting for you outside.”
The dazed ex-cadet stood blinking in surprise at the man who until moments ago had been his instructor, slack-jawed in shock. His mouth opened to protest, only to snap shut again as hard eyes bored into his own. At the sound of snapping fingers, he twitched, then shuffled off down the row of seated cadets towards the center aisle. Some looked at him with pity, some with ill-concealed mirth, but most of them did their best to pretend not to notice the departure at all.
“Next?” The hand dropped to rest on the podium again the instant the door clicked shut once more, the instructor's eyes scanning back and forth over the lecture hall. As the silence stretched out in the wake of the sudden expulsion, he nodded to himself and spoke out again, “If no one produces a satisfactory answer by the time I dismiss this session, the eighty-five of you will make a wonderful short company.”
Answers were more forthcoming thereafter, shot down one at a time with care or harshness reflecting more what the man at the head of the class thought of the process behind the answer than the reply itself.
“Not bad, but not good enough. They've been around long enough to have seen most of the tricks you could ever come up with.”
“Superior numbers, sir.”
“Welcome to the infantry, miss. Let's let you see that strategy up close.”
“Oh, we need plenty of that, but widgets won't do it on their own.”
“Is it anger?”
“There's plenty of that too, by now, but it's even more useless than blind courage. Go scream at them from ground level, son. Infantry.”
Answers, both well-conceived and wild-ass guesses, continued for quite some time, the harsher responses winnowing the lecture hall down to sixty-seven remaining cadets. Responses came slower and slower as the session dragged out, then began to speed up again as the end of the course's time-slot approached; the instructor's ultimatum hung in the air over the hall and left many of t he cadets visibly sweating.
“Sir, resolve and determination, sir.”
That brought a pause to the rapid-fire answers and responses, the steel-haired figure bestowing a smile on the redheaded female cadet who provided it.
“That is very close, you're just one degree of separation away. Extra marks for you.”
The room fell silent for a minute or two after that as cadets mulled over that hint, running down wild concepts, pouncing on them and wrestling them into submission. Finally one figure shot to his feet without waiting to be called, opened his mouth, then stopped with a sheepish look and raised a hand. At the acknowledging gesture, a single word dropped into the expectant silence of the hall.
“Congratulations, Cadet Company Commander Greene. Hope.” The instructor waved the stunned-looking cadet back to his seat, then gripped the podium with both hands and leaned forward.
“Without hope, despair flourishes, and our enemy is despair and hopelessness personified. Hope kept us going in the wake of the first incursion at Trellis. It would have been all too easy to fold in the face of such a horror, to just give up, to seek to buy its favor, to splinter in futile defense of each world alone. Hope, in those early days, is all that held us together. Hope is not enough, of course, but without hope, nothing else ever can be.”
One hand loosened from the podium and pointed towards the redhead who'd provided so close an answer earlier, “And on what do we anchor that hope?”
The response took its in coming, but when it did, it brought another grin to the instructor's face, “The Dinochrome Brigade, sir.”
“Congratulations, Cadet Company Lieutenant Commander Vandersdottir. Yes, we build our hope on the hulls of the Brigade, on the only force we have learned that we can absolutely trust to not necessarily succeed, but to absolutely never, ever falter. For in this war if we waver, we'll be left wishing that the Bolos had failed us long, long ago, rather than carrying us this far.”
A quick glance down at the podium was followed by a brief nod and a wide wave towards the exits, “Dismissed, we're at a good stopping place and almost out of time in any case. Vandersdottir and Greene, insignia and company assignments will be waiting in your quarters.”
As the students began to file out, one stopped, turned back towards the figure still waiting behind the podium, and called out, “Sir, who are you?” All movement stopped, many of the other cadets turning to watch and see what fate would befall the questioner. The sound of a finger tapping on the wood of the podium echoed slightly in the utterly silent room as the moment drew out.
“The first person to figure that out has earned a transfer to Intelligence. Make sure that's what you want beforehand, it's not reversible. Get it wrong, and you're infantry. Dismissed.”
: Time warps around the poster. The thread topic winks out of existence and reappears in 1d10 posts.
Out of Context Theatre, this week starring BKTiel.
-'Have you considered a career as a Roman emperor?'
Fiction!: The Final War (Bolo/Lovecraft) (Ch 7 9/15/11)
, Living (D&D, Complete)
Last edited by White Haven on 2011-09-15 03:40pm, edited 8 times in total.