Beyond the Trenches We Lie
A. T. Greenblatt
This morning, the Globs are waiting for us, just like always. Despite what the official propaganda shows, we, this little band of ragged soldiers, don't even bother to line up anymore. We just cram down our nutritional packets as fast as we can and climb out of our holes. Captain Beamon scowls at our lack of discipline, but he doesn't push the point. Not when there's a battle to be won.
Beyond the trenches, the meadow is flourishing from the war. The grass is dark and lush, though it's been trampled by soldiers. You can hear the brook running about a hundred paces away, fat and happy, while the tall elm trees on its banks overlook the whole situation from a distance. Win or lose, they will still grow for a long time to come.
Every morning, I yank myself out of a trench, pull myself up with my cane, and make my way across the field. We never start the fight running, despite what the vids show. No need. The Globs will wait for us.
Hell, they are waiting for us. On the other side of the brook, they've gathered on the banks, their clear gelatinous bodies undulating. Their neon eyes watching, boring into me from across the meadow, seeing nothing. Seeing everything.
Every time, I shudder. And every time, hate myself for it. I hold the clod of dirt I pulled from the trench wall to my nose, inhale, and remember.
My lies are endless. Everyone on the front line needs a mantra. Everyone needs a prayer. Mine helps me remember it's the Globs that should be afraid of me.
Still, in spite of it all, I enjoy my morning walk. In the first weeks of fighting, the mud repulsed me (you avoid squishy, smelly, wet things on the station -usually at all costs). But now I walk through the field barefoot, savoring the wet thwacking sound my soles make with each step, though I'm careful not to snag my feet -or cane - in the soft uneven ground. Unlike Reggie, I never relished my boots.
When we reach the banks, we halt, taking a moment to eye our enemy. Sizing each other up, as it were. And then, slowly, we begin the assault.
I pick my way carefully down the bank and ease my feet into the water -my time on Earth has taught me to mistrust slippery pebbles. A comrade, Mae, offers me an arm and together we cross the brook.
The Globs meet us on the bank, slick and shiny like river stones in the morning sun. It's impossible to tell for sure, but I can swear there are more of them today.
Why are you here?
The question is wordless - they don't have mouths. Instead, the words rumble deep within your stomach vibrating, humming until every cell in your body understands what they are asking and you would do anything - anything - to stop that damn question from rolling around inside you. Even if it means telling them the truth.
The trick -the thing that all those "traditional" soldiers and diplomats couldn't manage - is not to lose yourself in the question. Keep your feet on the ground. Squeeze the clod of dirt in your hand. Remember who you are.
Mae turns and looks at me. "I don't miss Reggie," she says, "I'm not sorry he's gone."
The humming of the six closest Globs bleeds into high-pitched whistles. Their dying screams
Mae's a good solider. I study the remaining healthy Globs surrounding us and see my face reflecting in their shiny skins.
"Me neither," I say. And a dozen more start to die, their glassy, dissolving bodies turning our reflections into monstrosities.
Despite what the military tells you, there aren't any strategies or battle plans here. No higher logic or particular order. It's just me and my fellow "soldiers" holding the line with a pocketful of lies. It’s true; all the traditional methods of warfare have failed and the traditional fighters have died months ago. But I'm not your typical soldier. Me and my brother were master liars long before this war.
“It's like we're pretty much invincible," Reggie told me once, as he wriggled his feet into his new boots, trying to work out the pinching stiffness.
But we’re not. The Globs ate my brother two weeks ago.
Mae gives me a small nod before moving on alone and I make my way to my usual spot, the elm with the perfect size nook for a soldier in its roots. Because in this war, your lies are your own.
There is a Glob by my tree. My spot.
Why are you here?
"It's true, I don't miss my brother." I tell it. And the Glob melts, not as fast as before, but it yields me my spot all the same.
Don’t ask me why the same lie doesn't work as well a second time. It's a problem for most soldiers. But not for me. My lies are endless.
Tucking myself between the roots and propping up my cane beside me, I flex my stiff leg, and wait for my enemies to come. They always do.
Why are you here? Every Glob asks the same question, their demanding insistence rattling around inside, until you start to doubt your answer. Why. Are. You. Here.
It's easiest when you have a story -a mesh to weave all your lies on. Today I tell the Globs all about my family. It's big, with a mom and a dad and lots and lots of sisters. No brothers, of course. No twins.
All around my tree, my enemies fall. In this war, there is no blood or bodies on the battlefield. No weapons or scorched earth. Just puddles, puddles, puddles. And the occasional pair of shoes.
The swollen brook besides me runs joyfully on.
By the time noon has come and gone, I'm drenched in the remains of my enemies and the only thing I want in life is a hot shower and a walk. About fifty paces away, Mae is surrounded by Globs. Her lies don't come as quickly, she has grown pale and rivulets of sweat trickle down her neck. She's going to slip.
I dig my cane into the ground and haul myself up, my leg protesting the change, refusing to bend.
"How's your sister, Mae?" I call as I move, cursing my slowness.
"Fine," she replies, licking her dry lips, "She always tells the best stories."
Only two Globs fall and ten more move in to take their place. They can sense her weakness.
Why are you here? Why are you here?
By the time I reach her, their question is so loud and insistent, that I want to stick my fingers in my ears and scream. This is why no one's ever managed to come close to a Glob without dying. But we are the military's elite fighters. Our lies define us.
Mae is biting her lips, trying not to give them a shred of truth to eat. There is no color left in her face.
So, I dig my heels into the mud and take a deep breath.
"I have this sister who loved nutritional packets. Like, would wrestle me for them. It was a good thing that she was a slower runner than I was because otherwise I would've had to start giving her a few bruises of her own. Was a skinny little runt too. Like living proof that those things weren't as cracked up as they're made out to be. But she's a weird one. She's interested in Earth and seriously, who cares about Earth anymore?"
I pause. All around us, the Globs are whistling their death songs. Mae stands there silent, shaking, drenched, the relief honest on her face.
"See, this isn't so bad, now is it?" I give Mae a mad grin.
Another Glob dies.
I think the leaves of the elm trees have souls. I've been watching them for a while now; they rejoice in the sunlight and dance in the wind and thrive in the rain. They die.
The trees alone make this fight worthwhile. Even a space station brat like me can understand why everyone's taking up arms to protect Earth.
This evening, after the battle and before the Globs begin to reappear, I walk to the elms by the brook. I stand under the golden leaves that were once green and in the pile of fallen ones, browning at the edges. There's a beauty here that I can't quite understand and also a sadness, which I know all too well. When the transformation had first begun, Reggie had stood here with me.
"Nim, what's happening?" he whispered pointing at the yellowing leaves.
"They're dying, I think."
"Why? Do you think it's the war?"
"Maybe." But that didn't make sense. Whatever Globs became when they died, it makes things grow. The meadow was sickly and dry when we first arrived on the battlefield - the grass and the weeds and the wild flowers. Now, everything thrives. Only the leaves wilt.
I've done some research since then, learned about the seasons (yes, this information is in the station archives-if you know where to look) and how things on the surface sleep when the cold comes. I wish I'd known earlier, of course. Reggie would've been relieved. But I've been here for four months and this Earth - it's new to me.
Hell, when we were kids, me and Reggie use to paint pictures with our water on the older parts of the station, where the galvanized steel had worn away from time and traffic. We had to be patient with those portraits and come back every day to "touch up" our work. But eventually the rust would begin to bud, filling out the drawings we had so painstakingly made. The adults would scoff, but they never told us to stop. Besides ourselves, it was the closest thing we had to anything that could grow.
Well, except for our lies, of course. Those got bigger too. Even back then we knew that lies should be endless because your truths are as finite as you are.
We lied because we were the rare set of twins in a station full of single child families. We lied when my leg went gimp and I couldn't outrun the bullies. We lied to cover for Reggie's pranks. We lied to deceive and to entertain. We lied because we could.
We must have been memorable, because when they figured it out, the army came for us - the cripple and the hell raiser, the most unlikely of soldiers.
I turn my face up to the autumn tree and pick a leaf out of my hair. This is the type of tree I used to make up stories about as a kid. Except in my stories, the leaves were blue.
I hope we were memorable. Because when Reggie slipped and began to tell Globs almost-truths, they devoured him, piece by piece.
Memories are all I have left of him now.
Tonight, I eat my nutritional packet, as always, from within the tightly packed walls of my trench. The Globs are back, I can hear them humming in that same tuneless voice and I know if I look up over the rim, their neon eyes will be there to greet me.
I wonder where they've come from, the Globs. I figure they're like cells, reproducing by splitting in half and making perfect clones of themselves. I can't imagine them courting or having sex - not with those deadpan eyes and repetitive questions.
And to think that me and Reggie laughed at the Globs the first time we saw them.
To think, one more week and I will be leaving my cozy trench behind.
From a few holes over, Captain Beamon climbs over and joins me in mine.
"Congratulations on your promotion, soldier," he says dropping down next to me, "Can't say I'm envious, but those station kids need to know what they're getting into."
I nod my thanks, but we both know I'll make a terrible instructor. It was a promotion of compassion.
"I'm sure I'll be an excellent role model," I say, without sarcasm, of course.
The Captain gives me sidelong look. "You know you still have leaves in your hair, right?"
"Yes," I lie, rushing to find them and pull them out. In my hands, in the trench, they look like misplaced recruits.
Funny, it was Reggie who always wanted to live on the surface and I figured if all we had to do were tell a few lies, I would help him. I didn’t hate the crowded station, but without him, I didn't have a reason to stay.
The Captain braces his tall boots against the wall and lovingly rubs away the dirt. "What are you fighting so hard for, Nim?" he asks, like it's the type of question you ask offhand.
"For Earth, of course," I say. Reggie - who never owned a pair in his life - had been so excited about those damn shoes too.
The Captain nods, though I know he doesn’t believe me. He's smarter than that; he's been here for months now, since the beginning of the war. Rumor says, he's the one that figured out how to kill the enemy first.
"Goddamn Globs," he says, looking up over the edge of the trench, "Won't stay dead."
And like an idiot, I look too.
There must be hundreds of them out there. The military's calling this the alien invasion that mankind has feared since, well, forever. But us, the few living soldiers who have been fighting this war day in and out for weeks can see that they are turning this yellow, arid Earth green again.
"Why are we fighting them?" I ask quietly, keeping my eyes trained on the enemy.
"What are you going soft on me, now? They want to destroy this place!"
In the distance, the Globs' whistles grow so loud it's almost unbearable and we both dig our hands into the trench walls. I grind my teeth and wonder why the Globs are wasting their time with this place.
But I guess some questions you're better off not knowing the answers to. Sometimes a quick fib is even easier than giving in and dying.
When the Globs have finally melted and we can speak again, the Captain leaves in silence, both of us too tired for anymore lies.
This morning the Globs haven't made it to the banks of the brook yet, but there are hundreds waiting for us. Probably more.
Today, their question is why.
They echo it over and over. The question with no right answer, the question with millions of truths. Maybe the Globs aren't as stupid as they look.
It rained in the middle of the night and the world smells clean and damp and earthy. The field beyond the brook is soaked and covered in leaves, but the grass is so green and vibrant, it seems almost a crime to bend its blades. I do anyway, of course, because fighting is harder when you have to worry about your feet (and your cane) getting tangled.
Today I tell the Globs about all the sports awards I've won over the years.
Hell, where do they come from? What do they want? Why are we, this little band of misfits, the only ones who can fight them? Stupid questions I know, but I wonder about them anyway as I plant my feet in the ground and lie.
I see Mae about fifty paces away and give her a small smile. I know she can see the sweat on my forehead and my fist clenched around my cane. She knows I can see her paling face. It starts to rain again as I move over to aid her, fibbing my way through the crowds of Globs. My lies are endless. She's the one that needs the promotion, not me.
Why? Why? Why?
And there, out of the corner of my eye, I see them. There. Between the Globs. His boots, about twenty paces away with the bright laces and scuffed toes, lying in the mud as if he dropped them carelessly there moments ago.
An instant too late, I realize my mistake. But the Globs are quick when they want to be; they see the almost-truth for what it is. The one closest to me lunges forward and I topple back into the mud.
The Glob takes a long, greedy piece out of my leg.
Funny, it doesn't hurt as badly as I always thought it would. But I scream all the same.
Their neon eyes are hungry, so hungry, their questions are more demanding, frantically insistent now. And once you start telling the truth, it's hard to stop.
I scramble back, pulling up a chunk of earth and throw it at the nearest Glob, but it doesn’t even make a dent. I see Mae moving, rushing toward me, killing Globs as fast as she can. But she still is too far away. So the next handful of dirt I hold on to. And I remember my lies.
"I always wanted to be an only child. Couldn't stand that I had to share everything with Reggie. I'd rather have been like all the other kids, single and alone. I was tired of always getting into trouble, I liked the rules and stuff. Hell, I didn't want to follow Reggie down to this place. Because…because I hated my brother."
I'm shouting, almost shrieking. And the Globs -all of them within a thirty pace radius -begin to melt. For entire minutes, the battlefield is filled with the sound of their screaming whistles. I try to crawl away, but my bad leg has finally forsaken me. This is one wound it does not tolerate.
So I wait until the Globs are nothing more than harmless puddles.
"How did you do that?" Mae asks as she pulls me up and puts an arm around me.
I shrug, and try not to look at my bloody leg. "My lies are endless," I tell her.
And then, mercifully, everything becomes silent and black.
This is my last evening on Earth. Like hell I'm going to spend it in the medics' tent. Not when I have the elms and the meadow. What, you think a lame leg is going to stop me? Never has before. It'll take more than a crutch to keep me from sneaking out.
The elms welcome me by showering drops of water as their branches sway in the wind. That smell - which I now know is the distinct smell of wet leaves - is extraordinary, a summary of life and death in a single sensation. And I know that in all my life I will never experience anything as beautiful as these fallen leaves.
My leg is comfortably numb and I want to sit between the roots one last time, though I doubt I'll be able to get up again if I try. So I stand under the elms for a long time.
"Does it hurt?"
I turn to find Mae standing behind me, her hands jammed into her pockets.
I look down at my senseless limb. "Stings like hell." I say.
"I..I wanted to thank you for saving my life the other day. If you hadn't been there…"
I nod. "My pleasure," I say. Before I realize that this is, in fact, the truth.
The words sound funny - out of place - like not recognizing a familiar voice. Mae must have realized it too because her eyes widen in surprise.
" Well, now that I've lost my edge," I say, "You'll have to raise a bit of hell yourself out here." I smile. I can see why the truth's hard to stop. I've missed the sound of it.
Mae nods. "I've been wanting to ask you for a while," she says softly, "What was it like, having a brother?"
I frown, my hand clenching my crutch, my smiling slipping away. It's not that I don't appreciate her effort, but in a society made up of one-child families, no understands the loss of a sibling.
"Like having a partner in crime," I say.
But that is an almost-truth. Rather, it was like having a bit of yourself kept safe within another person. And because I lied and didn't lie enough, I've lost that piece.
You see, I'm the one who loved Earth, who studied it late at night. I'm the one who convinced Reggie to agree to the recruitment. I dragged him down here; Reggie knew how to handle the bullies and tell a quick story, but it was me who had the endless lies.
It's my fault Reggie is dead.
"You're not going to do anything reckless, are you?" Mae asks, twisting her hands in front of her.
I shrug. Suddenly, all my lies taste bitter.
So instead, I link my free arm around hers and together, we stare up past the trees into the night sky, our eyes focused on what we can't reach. If Mae notices my tears, she never mentions it.
This morning is my last morning on Earth. Alone, I cross the brook for one final time. The crutch digs into my armpit and the world is still cold and dim in the early dawn light.
Their eyes are watching me, waiting as always. They are patient as I limp across the stream and I take my time. They greet me with their questions.
Who are you?
But today I have no lies. No stories. No fight. Today I have just come to reclaim my brother's boots, the ones he had so loved. The boots with "NIM" scrawled on the inside. The ones I gave him when his own got destroyed by Globs. It's was my fault, you see, I had slipped up and he had to fight them off using his shoes as shields. Our boots are the only solid piece left of him.
So I shuffle forward through the crowd of Globs that don't attack me or even blink. They just ask.
Who are you?
The boots are exactly where I left them yesterday. Before I fainted and Mae dragged me always. Stupid, I should have held onto them tighter. I should have taken better care of Reggie.
I pick them up, clutch them to my chest and turn, cringing slightly as my bad foot sinks into the wet ground.
There is a wall of Globs blocking my retreat, their question drowning out everything but the feeling of dirt between my toes and the boots against my chest.
Who are you?
I look at the boots and at my scraggy signature. Hell, even this is a lie. Nim was just a nickname Reggie gave me. Short for Nimble. Our joke, you see.
Who. Are. You?
I look at the Globs and at my reflection in their shiny bodies, barely visible in at dawn, and I no longer recognize what I see.
"Who are you?" I ask. My reflection asks.
The Globs hesitate and the humming stops. And for a moment, there's nothing but silence. Silence. The question to which there are too many truths and too many lies.
Then, the Globs begin to hum again, inching closer, and the war resumes.
A lie springs to my lips and it tastes foul. I don't want to say it though I don't want to die. So, I squeeze the boots closer and shut my eyes. But I can still see them, in the distance, the tall, defiant elm trees, who win or lose, will grow and look forever on.
This story originally appeared in Escape Pod.