I've gotten involved with a variant space-opera setting, "An Army of One", and have previously posted some demifiction, "News Bulletin: The Massacre of Cascabel" and "The Conscience of the War", about an event described in one of its threads. Recent developments in the series inspired me to write another piece that follows those two, describing the changes that took place in the area around the event during the first couple of years thereafter.
Warning: This piece is intense and contains some things that might be upsetting to some. The setting was a site of combat in a recent war, and suffered mass casualties (mostly non-combatants) and extensive damage and destruction over a wide area from an event described in the previous demifiction. This event is referred to, although not graphically, and most of the story takes place at sites dedicated in memory of the event. Please consider your reaction to events and locations of these natures before reading.
The second part of the piece is here.
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, ancestor apes of a species that one day would evolve into humanity looked into a darkening sky and began to wonder what the next day would hold. As they gradually became more adept at using the lessons of what had gone before in the uncertain future that lay ahead, they soon recognized that the need to be aware of those lessons would outlast the memories of any who had been alive at the time, and developed more persistent representations of the events from which the lessons were learned.
This impulse to leave a durable mark in a place of significance is still with us today. One of the most recent examples can be seen on Cascabel, at the place where Brakeworm Base once existed before it, and a large portion of the surrounding area, were obliterated in a blast triggered by an assault by Orionan forces seeking to limit Carinan ability to project their will and influence into the Lacuna. An official ceremony dedicating and opening the Cascabel Assault Memorial took place there yesterday. I was invited to attend and record my impressions of the event.
I arrived in Astragal the day before the ceremony. Astragal is now part of a rough circle of activity surrounding what feels like a gaping wound where the heart of a metropolitan area was ripped out. The city itself looks and feels unsettled -- undamaged and repaired buildings sit next to piles of rubble that have yet to be removed, and signs of new construction are everywhere. Being suddenly burdened with a substantial fraction of what had once been handled by a city several times its size has severely stressed the city, its streets, and its inhabitants.
On the day of the ceremony, I boarded a bus that would take us through the blast zone to the reconstructed Windage Maritime Terminal, from which one of the regional ferries that were outside the range of the blast would transport us to the Memorial site. Leaving our hotel's downtown site, the view out the windows seemed much the same as in any other place -- the taller downtown buildings giving way to small pockets of offices mixed with small shopping complexes and houses, greenery becoming more prevalent -- until pockets of charred wreckage appeared and became more frequent, and all suddenly gave way to a featureless plain where everything above the surface had been instantly disintegrated by the plasma burst the blast had generated. This plain extended all the way to the port.
Even two years after what had been a lively hub of all sorts of activities was almost completely leveled, downtown Windage remains quiet and barren. Where skyscrapers once towered, jumbled slabs of concrete now mark a jagged and treacherous surface, beneath which lie collapse-prone caverns where the complex infrastructure that underlies any modern city was destroyed in the cataclysm. And though the shipping traffic that once kept the harbor busy here has migrated to the less damaged, and more quickly rebuilt, ports outside the radius of destruction, the original port location is too favorably located in the regional geography to be abandoned. Three roadways and half a dozen rail lines now service a growing handful of docks, although passengers and goods moving locally now make up the bulk of the traffic.
Of the over three million people who once called the Pivot Sound region home, nearly a million lost their lives in the blast and destruction of the Massacre of Cascabel. Tens of thousands more were unable to survive until relief efforts from surrounding communities reached the damaged area encircling the radius of destruction. Hundreds of thousands more, finding that their livelihoods had also vanished instantly, left for other locations. Nobody knows for certain right now, but it is likely that less than half the original population remains.
Many of those one to one-and-a-half million people are busy salvaging what can be saved, carting away what is too badly wrecked to repair, and generally being about the business of restoring a badly wounded metropolitan area to whatever state of health it might attain. Only a few joined the caravan of politicians, reporters, and pundits converging on the old port.
Our bus drives slowly onto a rapidly filling ferry and takes its place on the lower vehicle deck beside other buses, trucks of various types, and a scant few personal vehicles. We head for the passenger decks, just like those who rode this ferry every day before the Massacre. Soon the horn sounds, and the boat moves slowly away from the terminal.
Once out on the Sound, the view is superficially the same. The foothills and mountains surrounding the water still loom in the distance, sometimes hiding behind clouds and other times blazing gloriously in sunlight. But the hand of humanity, which once had spread buildings, life, and people along the shoreline and off into the surrounding land, has now created a void where none of these have a significant presence. The gray surface of the empty space, where the lush green of the surrounding countryside once dominated, is unsettling and disorienting.
As our ferry pulls in to the docks at the Monument, we can see a plume of dust in the distance where construction crews are rebuilding the road that once ran along the western edge of Pivot Sound across the broken, glazed ground. The vehicle decks empty quickly -- a convoy of construction equipment and supplies heading down the newly built road toward the road work, while a fleet of buses peels off toward the memorial site.
Looking back across the water, where the hills that once were hidden by a grand skyline now provide the only frame for the nearly empty plain, a gleaming thin spire towers in the distance behind a low building. Our bus pulls up beside the building, and we all walk around to the other side, where a servicemember, buttons on their dress uniform shining nearly as brightly as the spire, ushers us over to an area laid out as a plaza and begins to speak.
"Thank you for taking the time and effort to come to the Cascabel Assault Memorial today to witness the dedication ceremony. The building behind you has been built on the area that once contained the offices for the Intake, Personnel, and Records departments. The parking lot where your buses are is located in the same place the parking area servicing this entrance to Brakeworm Base was established.
"At the time of the Massacre, Brakeworm Base covered about five square miles -- space enough for its five starship landings and necessary support structures, the eighty thousand people who were based here or awaiting redeployment, and nearly thirty thousand civilian contractors who came to the base every workday in support of its military mission. Landing Four, a couple of miles from here, was supported by a naval service center which was hit by the destructive blast that triggered the Massacre.
"The Base, and everything out to a radius of about thirty miles, was instantly transformed into a giant ball of plasma. Electrical discharges released their devastating power even further out. The destruction caused by the blast left a gravely wounded city at the center of a stunned metropolitan area.
"In the end, the most important legacy of the Massacre of Cascabel may well be its providing a human scale by which the incredible power we harness for interstellar flight could be measured. The terrible price that was paid by a million noncombatants revealed the human cost of galactic conflict.
"In order that future generations might be able to share this experience, the area within the boundaries of Brakeworm Base has been granted perpetual protection from development. And, because what took place here had nothing of glory or honor, there are no monuments celebrating those traits. There are only lines on the ground, showing where the many streets and buildings of the Base once were located, and a line through the air, showing where the laser from an Orionan orbital bombardment platform struck Building 4-89 and propelled it into subspace.
"The official dedication ceremony will take place at the base of the Spire in about two hours. You are free to wander along the roads of the base area until then, or you may wait near here and board a shuttle to the dedication site. If you decide to wander, please be aware that there is no shade or water anywhere between here and the dedication site. Hats and bottled water are available for purchase at the Visitor Center."
I wandered for a while around the plaza, among the outlines of what were identified as administrative buildings and ground transport maintenance shops that further in gave way to barracks and medical facilities. Few others joined me. Soon feeling lonely, I returned to the Visitor Center and shuttled out to the site of the dedication ceremony.
Temporary bleachers with seating for several thousand, but barely half occupied, faced a dais and podium. Behind that rose the Spire, a foot-thick cylinder of metal rising nearly a hundred feet into the sky, slanting noticeably toward the north. A plaque at the base of the Spire explained that its height and angle represented the space inside Building 4-89 traversed by the laser beam. Behind the Spire, the emptiness that has replaced downtown Windage could be seen in the distance.
The ceremony itself was too much like many others of its kind throughout history. Attended mainly by people whose public image was supposedly augmented by their appearance, and those whose job it was to ensure that appearance was in fact publicized, platitude-laden speeches were given. Those for whom the location or the Massacre had personal significance listened impatiently and in vain for any indication that a speaker understood or shared their pain. Nobody was inclined to linger.
While queueing for the shuttle ride back to the bus lot, I noticed someone whose attire marked them for a local citizen, and asked them how they felt about the event.
"I came because I grew up around here. My folks worked at the base, and my mom had served for six years before my younger sister was born and she decided she didn't want to worry about being deployed any more. I wanted to go back to the places they'd worked, and say goodbye to them at the places they died. It doesn't seem to have helped much -- there isn't any more left of the buildings than there was of them."
Perhaps this site will find its audience at some point in the future, but not now and not here. The wounds of the Massacre of Cascabel are still too fresh to be scraped raw the way this bare and stark site does. And no heroic victory took place here; no gallant and defiant stand against tremendous, and eventually insurmountable, odds; no battle decided by the courage and valor of the combatants. It was over too quickly: a brief flash, and then nothingness. There is nothing to commemorate here but pain.
Legends from a more superstitious time speak of people who, having died, return to walk the earth and strike fear and horror into those still living. The Monument and the Spire remind me of nothing so much as one of the common methods of dealing with such legendary beings: by driving a stake through their bodies into the earth, to ensure that they will not rise again. I cannot help but wonder whether we will ever advance enough to have a better means of dealing with the emotions awakened and strengthened by the Massacre.
The local I had talked with earlier and I boarded the same ferry back to Windage, and we talked some more. I shared my feelings with them. They replied, "Thank you for that. Sounds like you understand", and then continued, "I know another place to go, where you might get a better sense of how things were, and how they are now. Wanna come along?"
I wanted very badly to replace the unpleasant taste left in my mouth by my visit and the accompanying overly staged event. "Can I get a drink or three there?"
"Sure. I could use some of that myself. Let's go find a northbound bus. I'll let you know where to get off."