Hotter Than Ever Before
A Short Story by Jim McCollum
Written using the suggestion "Telescope"
Originally featured on 09-11-2007
As part of our series "Alternative Universals"

Our bullets and bombs shattered all the glass statues that stood in the central square of Koraha. Shards of the crystal like debris were embedded in all the buildings for miles around from the “glass rain” that had fallen on the town after the blasts. We found it in our skin too; slivers that caught the light, hot sparks in our hands and knees.

We could see the whole town from the balcony of the Floating Palace, so named for its intricate base of glass pillars that gave it its particular illusion. At night, the town seemed to reflect the sky like a lake, the glass shrapnel catching the moon and stars as if they were heavenly partners.

We had been assigned body detail, to comb the streets with a humvee filled with thick black plastic body bags, collecting the dead. It’s boring repetitive work, and our only mission as of now. Let me just say that this platoon did not score highly on our combat readiness tests. I’m probably the biggest screw-up of the bunch, though I rarely get caught in the act of messing things up. In the streets of the town, insurgent corpses lay amongst the glass. Some bodies had been recovered by relatives, and most of the dead that remained in the streets were men who had no family to come for them. We were their fate. They were to be bagged and then incinerated in the iron body-burner that sighed as its metal sides heated and expanded, letting long, thick trails of black smoke belch from its open top.

On our fifth day, I manned the machine gun on the top of our humvee while my comrades tossed the bagged bodies bucket-brigade-style into the back of the vehicle. Gradually, over the past few days, the town had come back to life, and, now, lone citizens would scurry quickly across the public spaces, and children could be seen, hiding in the shadows.

McInnis took a break from moving debris and leaned against the truck, smoking.

“Dennis, you ain’t going to get to use that thing,” he gestured towards the gun I gripped so tightly, “not even once. You ain’t going to fire a single bullet.”

I looked down at the handles. My hands gripped them, white knuckled.

I swiveled the gun and squeezed the triggers, creating a thunderous noise, and cutting a swathe through a concrete wall. My comrades ducked down in the ready position.

I laughed.

“Jesus Christ!” Said Victor, the squad leader, “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?”

We didn’t have anyone to shoot; we just had bodies to clean up.

I spent the next day hefting the bodies into the furnace, a miserable job in the desert heat. I labored with the other men working off their demerits, a couple of privates who had been shooting buzzards. We were all guilty of wasting army supplies, and we were all bored. I cursed Victor, the son of some government official, an effeminate spoon-fed prad looking to earn a shiny pin on his uniform.

In the Floating Palace that night, in the deep sleep of exhaustion, I awoke to the sound of loud talking. My comrades were packing their gear and rushing to the observatory.

The observatory held a centuries old array of giant lenses, suspended by ropes from wood runners. They swiveled and turned, and correctly configured, one could peer into the eyepiece in the center of the room and see for extraordinary distances. The telescope was the crowning achievement of the glass masters of Koraha, who had sculpted each layer of glass with a precision that eluded our craftsmen. Of course, our technology had born the rifles, shells, and grenades we all carried; we were masters of iron and steel.

Victor and Ambrira, our Korahan translator, were urgently discussing something, gesturing towards the telescope’s eyepiece.

Insurgents had been discovered!

We each looked through the tilted glass. There was no mistaking it. We could clearly see a camp in the dark, a flag visibly bearing the insignia of the toppled regime. Surely the camp of insurgents would move to cut supply lines to the main force that had moved further north.

“Men! Men, calm down,” Victor said, “we have a mission that has been assigned to us. Cleaning up the bodies is crucial to the war effort.”

My comrades seemed uneasy. We lingered around the telescope, not moving.

“Now, we must return to sleep, there is another day’s hard work tomorrow,” said Victor, “that is an order.”

“Now,” I began, the men in the room looked towards me, “this is a funny thing ain’t it? We’re shoveling bodies into the burner all day, being ’vital to the war effort.' But when we get a chance to fight, we get told to stay put. I’ve got a gun just like you all do, and I intend to put an end to those poor bastards out in the desert. I ain’t going to watch through this glass eye while they ambush the rest of our comrades to the north.”

“Silence yourself,” said Victor.

“This may not be something that someone like you can understand,” I said to Victor directly, “but I didn’t learn how to fight from a college. I come nothing, and the army is my family. I ain’t going to watch any one of my brothers die.”

The men who had been watching this exchange now began to talk at once. Some agreed with me, and some sided with Victor. I noticed that all my supporters had spent some days shoveling corpses into the body burner. We needed a fight.

We took our equipment and the translator, Ambrira, with us into the desert. We traveled for sometime, through the morning into the burning afternoon sun.

“It is not much farther,” Ambrira told me.

“You think we would have seen tracks or a road,” said one of the buzzard-killing privates I had met working in the burner.

“Quiet, you,” I snarled, “we'll get there soon enough, and there'll be enough blood for us all.”

Just as the sun crested in the sky, at it’s most intense position, we saw what appeared to be reflections in the distance.

“There are your enemies,” Ambrira said.

A cry went up from my comrades.

“I think I should like to say here,” said Ambrira, “I abhor violence.” He removed a large water jug from the back of the truck. “Kill them without mercy, just as you killed my son.”

“Do what you like,” I said, “Now who wants a taste of blood?”

I could see fierceness in the eyes of the men. The youngest, the buzzard-killing private, licked his lips.

As we approached the glinting, we discovered a series of long rows of glass statues. There were statues of men, women, and children playing games, proposing marriage, laughing, smiling, and all manner of pleasantness. Sand had blown up to many of the statues' waists, sand that had long ago destroy what had at one point stood here.

The men looked at me, and they began to shout.

I looked back for Ambrira, who had disappeared from the dune where we had left him, or perhaps I was mistaken of the way we had come. Just as an arrangement of the lenses of the Korahan telescope could show one distances of thousands of miles, so too could it provide the illusion of distance. A man standing just on the outskirts of Koraha could be made to appear miles away in the desert.

We had only two jugs of water left on the back of the truck. A shoving match had broken out among the men, and a man drew his gun. I watched him shoot the buzzard-killing private. I felt the sun on my face hotter than I had ever felt it before.

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