Which side am I on?
God only knows what men see in spit and ice planets like this one.
I crawl along the surface keeping my feet flat so as not to slip.
I am alone, days out from any settlement, my air supply suffice only because I learned to breathe carefully.
Three earth days ago, pirates raided one of the fringe settlements and made off with the Governor’s daughter.
No one has yet asked for a ransom.
No demand has come via transmission.
She may well be dead or worse.
Still, I travel in search of her, feeling pangs of regret for taking on the chore.
This is the fault of the Empire, that greedy mechanism that travels from planet to planet, taking what it wants in resources, paying the least in wages or property rights to the natives.
The natives don’t know how to fight fair.
They have weapons so primitive that we of the Empire’s military laugh, stopping only when we find even primitive weapons can kill.
Our shields fail. Our vehicles explode. And the rebels, pirates, terrorist or whatever we call them fade back in the landscape like ghosts.
My commander pleaded with me to hurt for her, even when he knows I hate him as much as I do the pirates.
I am often confused at which I hate more: the terrorists or the empire to which I own allegiance.
But I am no rebel.
I have long ago ceased believing in causes, too wise after years of delusion to believe any rebel cause can win in the end.
Long ago, an old Native American once looked upon the white race and despaired, saying we come like waves too a beach, too many to beat back.
We still flow, but onto planets instead of beaches, seeking to exploit then civilize the natives before we move on.
We always kill more than our side loses, and yet, it feels as if something inside our side dies with each new invasion, as if this thin shell we call civilization gets thinner each time so that it becomes more and more difficult to tell the difference between which of us is civilized and which of us is savage.
I have become much more primitive over the last few years, which is why I suppose my commander picked me to pursue the girl.
I wasn’t always primitive.
When I first came to the rim worlds I world the Empire’s gold and crimson proudly, slaughtering those I was told needed to be slaughtered, stealing those things the Empire told me to steal.
I still slaughter. But I do it for myself.
I still steal; I get what I need to survive.
When, of course, I can be bothered to do either.
I cross the frozen tundra following the slim trail the rebel’s leave.
Bits of their lives are strewn about in the arrogant belief that men of the Empire could never follow them across such a place – men of the Empire love technology too much to ever risk real environments.
Most hide in safe zones, monitors serving as eyes and ears on the world. As much live stock as the live stock we protect.
Maybe that is why I agreed to follow the rebels.
Not so much to rescue a girl who may already be dead, but to keep the walls from enclosing me to make me feel dead, too.
Maybe I want to save her just to prove how different our kind is from theirs, that someone like me would bother to seek out the helpless of our species when their kind would not.
I am caught between two extremes: the robotic Empire with its machines of mass murder, and the more simple savagery to which I feel strong kinship.
Each day I wake with the need to choose between the two.
Out here, I need make no choice. I must survive. I walk and breathe carefully, watching for the shards of ice that threaten to rip through my space suit. Each step feels as if I am walking on breaking bones.
Perhaps I am.
Some shards of ice have turned read.
I know somehow these are stained with the girl’s blood, from a wound or a beating or a rape, as she is dragged along.
Perhaps she even dared escape.
I grip my spear and move more quickly, seeing the blood trail grow thicker with every step, thicker and fresher so that some of the blood has not yet had time to freeze.
Dark shapes appear against the pale horizon.
I move more quickly, my step slipping on the slick surface despite my care.
The still arrogant rebels do not see him. They are not on guard against a man on foot. They do not listen to the sound of breaking ice, but rather for the rumble of machines.
I am very near before they notice me. But it is too late for them.
I am a storm sweeping at them, my spread striking, once, twice, thrice until their carcasses fall and begin to freeze, food for the night stalkers that will shift them out later.
The girl whimpers within a small air mask over her mouth. Her extremities exposed, native style, abused, black marks showing the places where she’d been beaten.
The rebels have abused her in other ways, too. So that she cannot look me in the eyes.
She thinks I am one of them, though I assure her I am not, and that I am taking her home.
I kick the body of one of the dead, expending the rage her abuse inspired.
There is no in-between, I think, no way to balance civilization against savagery.
There is only the slippery slop we struggle against to keep from sliding back, crawling our way out of savagery towards that inaccessible haven we pretend we have already achieved.
I kick one of the other bodies, then turn the girl back in the direction from which we have just come, back towards the empire, back towards the machine, back towards that slim hope we call civilized society.