I went to see the Grand General. Even with my high rank and noted accomplishments, it was no easy to task to gain entry to his office, but it was not impossible, which is more than can be said of most bureaucracies, I think.
I sat in the standard-issue padded leather chair in front of his immaculately polished desk and admired the large world map mounted on the wall, flanked by the flag of our Nation and the flag of the Forces. The map was mildly reassuring to me, as I knew there was not one place on it that was not at peace from our work, but it was not quite enough to quell the anxiety that lurked inside me.
The General soon made his appearance, in full regalia, his accomplishments, so much greater than even mine, shining on his chest. He sat down and took a moment to settle himself in his seat. He seemed one with his surroundings.
“Lieutenant, it is not often that one of your rank takes the trouble to petition one of the Grand Generals so directly. What seems to be the matter?” he opened. His tone was efficient, but not brusque.
I took a moment to compose my reply, as he watched me carefully with piercing eyes. “Sir. Grand General, thank you, first of all, for taking the time to meet with a minor officer such as myself. I understand that you have many things to take care of. Further, I want to say that it was your great accomplishments that made me seek you out above all others. You have done a great service to our nation, and—”
The General raised his palm a little off the desk and said, “Lieutenant, I appreciate the preamble, but it is simply unnecessary. I would not have granted this meeting if I were unacquainted with your history.” Here he paused, carefully considering, and then went on, “But I suppose the truth is, and men of our calling must keep an eye on the truth, that in these peaceful days, I am hardly occupied by any audience seekers. Things are running smoothly, as they should be. The machine that men like you and I built is working perfectly, and those below have as few concerns as those above. So, Lieutenant, I am curious as to what could have brought you here. There are no rumblings of trouble on the horizon, so I expect you have something unique to present.”
Truly, the Grand General was an insightful man with a truly penetrating mind to see so clearly into nature of my problem!
I again composed myself after this soaring realization, and spoke, “Sir, then I will cut to the heart of the problem, though I’m afraid it will take a little explanation to convey properly. I hope also that you will understand that I speak from a place of sincerity, and that it is not my intent to place before you something trifling in nature.”
I paused here, and the General gave his approval. “You can trust my honest judgement, Lieutenant. Please proceed.”
“Sir,” I said, and then paused again, before launching into my explanation: “Through the efforts of the last few centuries, the world, just as you see on the map behind you, has been pacified and harmony has been achieved. It has not been an easy process, though it has been a necessary one. Across the globe we have dispatched our Forces to quell unrest, to depose the unworthy, to push back those dangerous voices of discord, to crush the seeds of chaos. These things require force, require bloodshed, dirt, ash, and destruction. And, of course, much pain and loss. But when the goal is harmony, the work required must, of necessity, be focused on the clean-up of messes, and that alone. And look! We have what we set out for at last.” The General nodded. “This work being done, or almost done, I wonder if we might not set our sights on something else. I have been troubled of late, despite the progress we have made. We have turned our eyes to the ugliness of the world for so long now—” And here I had to stop to collect myself. The General waited patiently. “But, Sir, I suppose what I want to say is: has our military made no provisions for beauty?”
The General looked deep into my eyes and then asked, “And by this, I assume you mean beauty besides that of the aesthetic we have cultivated to keep our troops in line. You mean to create something new.”
I responded, “Yes, sir.”
The General sat ramrod-straight in his chair and carefully scrutinized me for a moment that seemed to last for minutes. His blue eyes pierced me to my soul. This was it. This was the critical moment. Would I measure up or be rejected?
The General at last spoke: “And do you truly desire beauty, not out of necessity, but out of your will?”
How could I answer such a question? Did the General believe the heart of man to be so scrutable as to answer that purely? Surely not. We had all taken basic psychological training and knew to account for the uncertainty of the psyche.
At last, I said, “While it is not necessary in material terms or strategy, I think that if I cannot attain beauty in our Forces I will have to retire.” (That is, to be executed as a deserter.) “I can no longer withstand these desires. They must be dealt with.”
The General nodded several times, as if to himself, and then pushed back his seat. He opened a drawer on his desk and carefully lifted out a large folder, perhaps fifteen centimeters thick, filled with a neat stack of paper. He set it on the desk before me.
“You need not worry. The higher-ups have been aware of this problem for a few years now. We foresaw the end of our war-making and began to devote resources to the question of beauty. The documents here outline a plan for its attainment.”
Gingerly I opened the folder and began to leaf through the pages. It was full of technical specifications, diagrams for specialized equipment, schedules for the transport and installation of various materials. In short, it was no different than any other military operation on paper.
The General perhaps witnessed the confusion or disappointment that passed over my face, because he said, “Beauty is always built on what comes before, our research has indicated. These are just the plans; the beauty is only in the results. Furthermore, the preparations have been carried out as of this week, and so there is not long to wait before the execution of the operation.”
At this I let forth an involuntary cry! Was it excitement? Yearning? I could no longer restrain myself. The Forces I had grown up in were even now providing for my needs.
“General,” I said, “I can no longer wait, knowing that this operation is on the cusp of execution. I need to see it as soon as possible. I wish to be involved. Or else, even now, I shall have to retire.”
The General heaved a sigh and inspected me once again. “Are you certain?” he asked.
“Yes. Unshakably,” I responded at once.
“Then there is no reason to delay,” he said.
The General reached into the interior pocket of his coat and produced a gleaming silver dagger. My breath caught in my throat. Any soldier in the Force would recognize such a terrible implement: an execution dagger, used to slit the throats of those with no honor, traitors, deserters.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” the General said. “It was specially produced for this operation. The height of elegance.” I was confused. Did the General not know what he held? But before I could ask, he inserted the knife into a crack in the wall behind him and twisted.
The wall with the map split neatly in two, right down the line of zero degrees longitude. Behind it was a wide set of concrete stairs ascending into darkness.
“Come,” the General said.
We began to climb the stairs. Up and up and up. It seemed it would never end, until far in the distance I saw a light shining into the stairway. The General’s steps were even and rhythmic and I matched mine to his as we climbed. I tried to still my thoughts through the repetitive action but could not. I would have to wait impatiently.
At last, we arrived at the summit, bathed in light of the late-afternoon sun. As I stepped out onto the concrete platform the wind nearly whipped my breath away. It was very cold. Indeed, we were hundreds upon hundreds of meters up in the air, looking out over the region. Below us was the gray grid of the city that was Force Headquarters. Surrounding that, fields yellow and green with grain provisions. Small dark green patches of forest for logging and paper production were scattered here and there. And directly before us, to the east, were the mountains, towering high above even this platform, terribly high, indomitable, where we mined our ores and trained our garrisons.
At this height it all seemed still and static, though I knew on the ground it was filled with the precisely scheduled action of transporting goods and troops.
The General turned to me. “Are you ready? I will give you orders as we go. Do not disobey or the moments of beauty will be marred.”
“Yes sir!” I responded eagerly.
The General opened the lid of a small control panel box that had a single button. He reached into the box and produced another dagger. The sight chilled me, but the momentum of the moment rushed my questions away. He gave me the dagger to hold.
“Operation Rose, proceeding in three, two, one.” The General counted down evenly and then pressed the small black button. The control panel closed and sunk into the platform floor, flushly.
The General turned to me wearing a symmetrical grin. “It will take a few minutes to reach this side of the world,” he explained. “Keep an eye on the horizon.”
We stood in the freezing wind for perhaps five or ten more minutes when the General suddenly cried out, “There!” He pointed to the north. On the distant horizon a pink glow was overtaking the blue of the dome of the sky. I could not make out what was causing it.
Several more minutes passed as we watched the glow spread farther and farther across the sky. Soon it was overhead, as if a strange twilight had descended upon us.
And then I saw it, advancing across the distant fields, a wall of reddish flame, bursting forth from the earth in great jets, flickering white and pink with smokeless cleansing fire that came steadily across the plain towards us. Moments later, the rumble and crack of a thousand explosions reached our ears. I looked to the east and saw the mountains bursting, crumbling away before our very eyes.
“This is it!” the General shouted to me over the detonations. “This is the End! The cleaning, the erasing, the culmination, the simplicity, the ephemerality, our harmony preserved and proclaimed forever! The entire globe is Ended! Just as planned. Beautiful!”
Indeed, I could not tear my eyes from the dance of flames as I was immersed in the rumble of explosions. Tears formed I my eyes, though I could not say why, as I watched it all pass away. Was this beauty? It was difficult to tell.
The General pulled me close and spoke. “This platform is high enough that it will withstand the flame, unfortunately, but beauty requires beholders. Nevertheless, it will not do for us to see the marred, charred aftermath. The effect will be ruined. So, we must finish the operation on our own.”
The General raised his dagger as the flames reached the borders of the city and then in a swift, almost practiced motion, stabbed himself in the heart. Blood spurted from the wound onto the white concrete platform, forming circular pools. The General doubled over in pain. He fell to the ground, curled with the spasms wracking his body. His eyes, however, remained wide open, watching the fire reflected in the blood. “Yes! Yes!” he gasped. “This is all according to plan! The beauty! Achieved!”
He drew a rattling breath. “Lieutenant. Lieutenant, you must do the same. Complete the operation.”
I hesitated, staring at the dagger gleaming pink in my hand. A crude thing, though well-made, crass and dishonorable. Why did I hold such a thing? But I had come this far in the Force. Even to this very point. The culmination. I took a deep breath and plunged the knife into my chest. A pain, such as I had never felt before, grew there. Instantly I was doubled over, curled like the General on the ground, our blood and fiery light mingling. I screamed. It hurt. It hurt!
“Lieutenant! Lieutenant!” screamed the General. “Keep your eyes open! Keep them open wide! It is critical to the operation! Do you see it? Do you see it? The beauty! There! Look! Open your eyes!”
But the pain of it, oh, the pain of it—my eyes were scrunched up, closed tightly. I forced them open as blood continued to leak from my chest, but I could not be certain of what I saw. I could make no sense of it.
All I felt was pain. My body hurt and all I felt was pain. Where was the beauty? Was there beauty? All I felt was pain.