48. The army (II)
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
The helmet lay in the sand. A small crack ran from the brim to the unit insignia, and, when the traveller picked the helmet up, the crack expanded until the helmet was split in two. Beneath the helmet there was a skull, polished to whiteness in the desert storms. How long had it been there? The traveller had heard tales of wars, long ago—centuries past. He did not know the names of the belligerents. The rampant lion on the helmet was crossed with a porpoise. Its small spout of water contrasted with the desert. The skull was missing a single tooth, perhaps a legacy of combat, otherwise it was intact. The traveller turned it over in his hands.
His water had run low in the midday heat. The traveller checked his levels carefully; he would face a difficult journey back. His safety would depend on conserving the water and acting with caution. There was a certain way to move in the desert—he learned it from the nomadic tribes roundabout— that preserved even the smallest drops of sweat. It took considerable discipline to master the art, and, even when acquired, it caused the adept’s legs to burn. The traveller would use this technique to return to camp. The nomads who had offered him a camp might be able to tell him something of the helmet. They were a dissolute and corrupted lot: the bastard remnants of what was once a great race.
That evening, settled before the fire, the traveller watched the twin moons contest for dominance in the sky. The nomads were indifferent to the helmet. They had seen such artefacts before. The skull could, perhaps, be the bones of an ancient grandfather, but the nomads only cared for what been sung into existence; if the name was not recalled in their great poems then it could not have a real historical existence. The traveller lay back on his cloak. His limbs still ached from his cautious return to camp; his flask contained a little water, and he drained it. The fire sputtered and the talk grew low. He was asleep. He was on the battlefield, watching two clumps of men in action. They were taller and fairer than the nomads, and their weapons more advanced. The traveller saw his soldier fall; he saw the crack, caused by a stray bullet, advance like a spiderweb across the helmet. Blood ran from the soldier’s lips.
He awoke beneath a very blue sky, quite clear. The nomads were still asleep. All the energy had gone out of this race; they just wanted to wait for the end now. The planet was dying. The water receded each year, and even the oldest wells ran low. The nomads did no think about the future. They were a mystical people, and they only adhered to the present. Somewhere, below the desert, the traveller knew there were fantastic cities and the remains of war machines. It was too late to dig and too late to find. He packed the remains of the helmet into his knapsack; it would make an interesting monograph for the Basilica, the academicians there always prized these objects. As for the skull, the biologists would want to probe and classify it. They would not understand much, just gain another node for their family tree. What mattered, the traveller thought, was the relation between the things; only a spy could know such things, and only a spy in time.
He left the camp the next evening, his camel protesting under the weight of his kit. The feral little children, annoying brats, followed at his heels, sometimes jeering. The traveller paid little notice, all he saw in his mind was the skull. He felt he had made a friend in it. As he rode in the night, over sand dunes and through dried riverbeds, he fancied he could hear a song, an army song, on the desert air. When he stopped the camel to listen, there was silence.