Those in the military fascinate me. These are men and women who are prepared to follow orders and do everything they're told in order to protect people they've never met, all for the sake of honor and survival of what is right. But what happens when they're given orders they don't agree with? Or worse, discover later were not as honorable as they believed?
These questions inspired the story I contributed to this pax. In Anomalies, I created the world of Kathtor with its two sets of people to address how men in that situation might react. Or specifically, one man. Warden Arie Vedebel. He was raised in an environment where his technologically advanced people had been forced to consider military means after they were invaded by the brutal Kimon. All he wants is to protect people and do the right thing, and yet, when General Dennick Ginn arrives, everything Arie believes is thrown into chaos.
The following excerpt comes after Arie has brought Dennick back to his station. Dennick is showering while Arie works.
He kept his eyes on the screen when he heard the door open, though the general clearing his throat forced him to stop pretending he wasn't completely aware he was no longer alone in the room.
"What do you have in the way of medical supplies?" the general asked.
Arie opened his mouth to tell him where they were located, then thought better of the decision. They might be temporarily on the same side, but he wasn't going to let the general rummage around to his heart's content.
"What exactly do you need?" he said as he rose. It was a relief he didn't have to look at the general. His kit was located in a cupboard at the other end of the room.
"Something to make sure these burns don't get infected. They're more exposed than I thought."
Arie got out the burn spray and a few bandages to cover them when they were cleaned. His heart lodged in the back of his throat when he turned and finally saw the general standing in the steaming doorway of the shower room.
He'd stripped out of his clothes and wore only a towel wrapped around his waist. Though Arie had seen glimpses of the hard body through the destroyed material, it was now on full display. Not a spare inch of fat was anywhere to be seen. Muscles ripped down his stomach, tightening an already trim waist, while those on his arms and legs carved his limbs in near perfection.
What stole Arie's breath was not the definition as much as it was the scars that decorated every part of the man's flesh. They tore along his rugged skin like the one that bisected his eye, some of them silvery shallows where the skin couldn't compensate for missing muscle, others livid welts that refused to be ignored. More would probably be left behind from the burns. Knowing a man was a warrior was one thing. Seeing the proof etched into his skin brought it to life in ways abstract texts could not.
"Have you ever seen battle?" The general's tone was not unkind, though Arie still blushed at being caught staring.
"Only simulations, sir." Arie kicked himself as soon as the appellation came out. He'd been fighting the urge to call the man "sir" since the Kimon uttered his first words. It felt like treason offering him respect, but there was no denying the general deserved it, if only for surviving so many injuries.
"What about the others?"
"There are mild skirmishes with outlying posts. And the LTF is called upon to keep the peace when local officials fail." He shook his head. "I've never seen anyone who must've fought as much as you have."
"Sometimes I think I haven't fought so much as I've managed to not get killed." He nodded toward the supplies in Arie's hands. "I'm going to need your help with that on my back."
He turned on his heel like a man who expected to be followed, which Arie did without realizing until he was halfway there. Gritting his teeth, he finished his path into the smaller room, surprised when he hit cold air rather than the steam he expected.
His head swung back and forth as he looked for any sign of condensation. "How did you do that?"
The general perched on the toilet, his long legs awkward where he had to twist in order to fit. The towel he wore hitched up so high, his groin was barely covered. "Do what?"
Arie ran his finger along the mirror. The tip came back completely dry. "I've been trying for six years to improve on the extraction system in here without any luck. What did you do to keep the mirror from fogging?"
The general looked at him like he was crazy. "Why would it fog?"
"Because the hot water--"
"There you go." His features relaxed as he shifted his attention back to his burns. "I washed with cold. Mystery solved."
But the prospect of showering in cold water versus hot was just as astonishing to consider. "Why would you do that?"
"For you, maybe. You forget. We live in the mountains. Most of our water supplies come from run-off."
"So you warm it up."
"And waste the energy we could be using to heat our homes? That's ridiculous. Now get over here. We'll do my back first so you can return to whatever you were working on."
As Arie came closer, the general swiveled to expose the broad expanse of skin. None of the burns were third degree, but a couple had blistered and split, oozing onto clean tissue. Arie went to work on those first, getting on his knees to be at eye level with them as he wiped them clear before spraying. He focused on the task, not the clean scent of the person in front of him or the other scars that teased him to reach out and touch.
Bandages were more time-consuming. The edges contained an adhesive that bonded with skin, but once they made contact, it was impossible to remove them without alcohol to loosen the sealant. Arie had to ensure they were positioned over flesh that wasn't injured before covering each burn, which took long seconds rather than the dash and run he imagined the general expected.
Through it all, the general never flinched. Once, he made a sound in the back of his throat that might've been a grunt, but that was it.
"Don't they hurt?" Arie asked, unable to resist any longer.
"Of course. Sleeping won't be fun tonight."
No, it really wouldn't. "I could give you an analgesic if you want."
"I would've thought you'd want me to suffer as much as possible."
Arie gently pressed down the edge on the last bandage and sat back on his heels. "Even if I wanted to, what would be the point? If you're in pain, you're more likely to act rashly. It's in my best interest to keep you comfortable."
When the general held out his hand, it took Arie a moment to realize he was waiting for the spray and bandages. He passed them over and stood to retreat to the doorway.
"Why did you save me?"
The question stopped Arie from leaving. "Because you would've died if I didn't."
Though the general was intent on spraying the various burns on his legs, Arie would've sworn his full attention was on him. "Except you're alone here. Logic should've dictated anybody near the fire was a Therlerian enemy. You've said yourself that you're under orders to kill any intruders. What was your thinking when you pulled me out?"
His thoughts raced, but trying to grasp one that would satisfy the question was like trying to catch wind. "I wasn't."
"You acted on instinct."
The general nodded once, but didn't speak again. After several seconds of silence, Arie left him in the shower room.
But the confusion that plagued him refused to go away. He stood in the center of the room and stared at the control panels, not seeing the various lights but instead the smoke-filled cavern. The possibility of leaving the general to die had never entered his consciousness until well after he'd finished with the charges and realized he'd saved a Kimon soldier.
Arie marched back into the shower room.
"What does it matter if I acted on instinct?" he asked.
If he was startled by Arie's sudden reappearance, the general didn't show it. He finished applying a bandage and reached for another one. "It doesn't," he said.
"So why ask?"
"I'm trying to figure you out."
"Because we're allies now. You made that choice when you lied to your superiors. I'd like to know the kind of man I've put my trust in." His gaze flickered up. "Isn't psychological analysis a part of your training?"
The entire notion was absurd. "No."
"Not even for people who wish to rise through the ranks?"
"Why would it be?"
"Because everyone is different, even in an army. It's one thing to demand obedience, but you have to understand how a person works if you want to get the best out of him. Any commanding officer of worth knows that."
His reasoning made sense, but it was foreign to everything Arie had ever been taught. He was a cog in a bigger machine, even posted as he was all the way out here at Midnight Creek. It worked only when all the pieces fulfilled their duties.
Which he hadn't when he'd allowed the general to live and covered up the truth with his superiors.
No wonder the general didn't understand him. Arie didn't recognize this part of himself, either.
"Don't worry about it." Done with his legs, the general stood and faced the mirror, turning his torso in various directions to examine burns he might not otherwise be able to see clearly. "You're the first Therlerian I've ever had the chance to speak to directly, so I'm curious more than anything else. Chalk it up to that, and let it go."
Arie wanted to--desperately--but his stubborn side didn't want to concede to the general's allowances. He edged back to give the general more room, though he wasn't ready to walk away just yet. "How many men do you command?"
"These days, none. I've been a part of Central for too many years." He poked the edges of the burn on his sternum, the seared mark of the metal clasp still visible. "Before I was sent to the peaks, I was responsible for the lives of thirty-five thousand, though mine wasn't the largest regime."
Arie's eyes widened at the number. That was half of the LTF resources, and the general claimed the Kimon armies were at least twice that size, if not much, much more. He'd been taught the Kimon numbers were drastically lower than that, and this was the size of a single army? "Why would you stop the invasions with such might on your side?" He could understand trying to head off an inevitable loss, but they were practically guaranteed a victory.
"You don't start a war just because you think you can win it."
Anomalies by Vivien Dean is now available at Amber Allure.
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