BY ANN STOLINSKY
Copyright is held by the author.
“War is Hell.” — General William Tecumseh Sherman
GENERAL SHERMAN was talking about the Civil War — about the massacre of civilians and military personnel, the fighting of brother against brother, and the tough decisions made by those in command, deciding who lives and who dies. Sherman understood war, understood the rationale behind it, and hated it. I admire that man.
Yes, war is hell. War between nations of warm-blooded human beings on Earth is hell. To paraphrase General Sherman, war between planets is Hell-er.
I am, I was, a high school history professor. War is not my specialty, although I am well versed in it. I taught United States history to students who didn’t give a damn about the subject.
I told them over and over again, “Turn off your cellphones.” They never listened even though they all knew they weren’t supposed to have cellphones on in class. “Stop texting. If you continue, I’ll confiscate your cellphones.” One kid piped up, “That’s unconstitutional,” after I made that threat. That’s probably the only part of history the kid remembered.
Those kids’ interests were money, or sports, or the opposite gender. They sat through my classes, pretended to listen, and then crammed decades of information into their heads just before an exam. I miss those days.
Yesterday the sky fell. Thanks, Chicken Little, for the warning. The sky opened up to shower upon Earth hundreds, thousands, of soldiers from another planet. I hope one day our military or scientists will find out which planet they came from. For now, the unknown is still the unknown, and our goal is to defeat them, not make friends with them.
It was lunchtime at West Point. The new cadets and the faculty, there for summer classes, were outside, picnicking and enjoying the sunshine.
“Hey, watch it!” I smiled at the cadets playing football as I swerved to avoid an errant throw. One cadet trotted over to pick up my fallen lunch bag. Feinting a pass, he handed it to me, then walked to join the other cadets who were engaged in the football game. I saw a few cadets studying, and a few sunbathing, their caps strategically placed over their eyes. Sighing, I longed to join the cadet sleeping, curled up under a tree. Laughter echoed from one end of the campus to the other. All was well with the world. I sat down on a bench and opened my brown bag, eager for lunch.
Then the blue, cloudless sky darkened, not something expected in the middle of a warm summer afternoon in New York. Scores of circular spacecraft resembling the stereotypical depictions of UFOs appeared. Lines of spacecraft filled the summer sky, arranged like steppingstones in a blue-water pond, blotting out the sun. Remember the spacecraft in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Think those, only hosts of them, and silent. No lights flashing, no harmonics, only dark, silent ships hovering above us.
The lack of noise was deafening. Removing our sunglasses, we looked up as one. The cadet sitting next to me on the white bench opened his mouth wide, his neck taut in a silent scream. Mine was louder. Everywhere I looked people’s faces were lifted to the sky, eyes wide, mouths agape. I broke my upward gaze, looked around and saw terrified expressions as each of us questioned what was happening, questioned our own eyesight, questioned our sanity.
It was raining aliens. A deluge of grey- and black-helmeted humanoid beings descended from the spacecraft. They carried guns of alien design. I could hear a few cadets marveling at the design of the guns. Those who had been weaned on guns and warfare had no fear; their first thoughts were an interest in the shape and size of the alien artillery.
The aliens had no parachutes, no tethers to the spacecraft hovering silently in the darkened sky. They just . . . dropped. Their freefall was quick, stopping a few yards above the earth. They descended the final few yards slowly, landing on the balls of their feet.
The only sound was the screams, our screams, as we tried to escape the invaders. As they landed, they pointed guns at us. They didn’t speak, but we got the message.
I looked at the cadet next to me and found him staring over my shoulder. An alien, dressed in grey-black armour that matched the colour of the spacecraft, held a black gun about 18 inches long a few feet from the cadet’s ear. His stare indicated to me he saw the same scenario beyond me. He stammered, “L.l.l.ook s.s.s.lowly around you.” My head swung around to verify what I suspected. Standing up, we joined the line of other West Point prisoners. “Where are we going? What’s going to happen?” This refrain was uttered over and over as we were herded into the nearest building.
Have you ever heard hundreds of people scream in fear simultaneously? I mean the terrifying banshee scream of scores of people believing that each breath will turn out to be their last. Massed inside an enclosure, large or small, the sounds echo and hurt your ears, hurt your senses, and you begin to believe as they do, that your last breath was the one you just exhaled.
For now, we are trying to find a way to survive and to defeat the alien invaders. None of us can forget the horrific sights and sounds in the 18 hours that followed the first wave. Yes, I said first wave. Anyone left outside a guarded building, those misguided individuals who thought they could be safe staying in the streets or thought they could outrun the attackers, soon found they were mistaken. The first wave consisted of thousands of armoured alien soldiers. We stayed inside and watched TV intently, keeping the sound as low as possible so as not to disturb our keepers.
Guns drawn, they stared at us, watched our every move. We decided to acquiesce, to go along with their silent instructions, to discover their intentions and weaknesses prior to fighting back.
Robert Jordan’s words came back to me: “Never make a plan without knowing as much as you can of the enemy.” I’m a history professor, but in my spare time, I love to read sci-fi and fantasy. I don’t love living it.
We revised our decision to acquiesce when the second wave hit. The first wave was non-violent. Not so the second. The underside of the spacecraft in the darkened sky opened again and another torrent of grey-suited, steel-encased, armoured aliens, seven feet tall and wiry, landed on their feet. The aliens had a similar physique to humans: a head, a short neck, two arms and two legs and a torso. They could have been our biological cousins but for their height. The odd-looking guns they carried began shooting randomly.
I was visiting the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY when the first wave hit. My father, General Edward Stone, was to receive the highest honor bestowed by West Point. His portrait was to be unveiled, and then hung in the hallway just past the entrance to the institution. Knowing my feelings about war he invited me anyway, and I agreed to attend. After all, we may have differing philosophies, but he is still my dad. Mom died a few years ago and I have no siblings. He and I were all we had.
I didn’t know where Dad was taken when the first wave hit. I was outside having lunch and he was inside chatting with friends when the invaders landed. I became one of the captives inside the library.
West Point is my home since birth. My father and his father and his father and so on attended the US Military Academy. My ancestors were soldiers; expectations were high that I would follow in their footsteps. I rebelled, becoming instead a high school history teacher, not teaching war, but teaching young minds about the history of this country, about the rebellions that led to the establishment of the United States and its struggles to maintain its freedom. Continuing struggles, it seems, expanding beyond the boundaries of Earth into the reaches of space.
I shouldn’t say my ancestors were soldiers. My father would be upset with me. My ancestors were Generals — experts at military strategy. My ancestors fought in every U.S. war since the Revolutionary War. My mother had been president of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. My ancestors weren’t just soldiers, they were SOLDIERS. Hoorah. My father’s style of parenting was to have me salute when he walked into a room. His disapproval of
my chosen field stung, but not as much as the thought of dying in battle. Yes, Dad, I am a coward. A coward suddenly faced with a war my ancestors could not have fought nor predicted.
I remember the day I brought home a report card with a “B” in American History. I was in 11th grade. I worked hard for that “B.” Dad’s forehead and face never seemed as red as they did when he read the report card.
“No child of mine will ever get a ‘B’ in American History! Is that understood?!”
“Yes Sir, never again, Sir.” I saluted my father, as he had taught me. When he turned his back, I saluted him again, this time with only one finger.
But I didn’t get another “B.” After that day I forced myself to enjoy history. Eventually it worked. His reaction chose for me the path I had walked, and hopefully when this is over, will again. I was not going to be yelled at that way. I guess a small part of me also didn’t want to disappoint my father, but that small part remained deeply buried.
We were treated well in the beginning hours of that first day. Aliens took up stations at the doors and in the hallways, not allowing anyone in or out. Apparently, they did their homework about humans. They allowed us to use the bathrooms. We attacked the books in the massive library, looking for a strategy of war that would help us. We had no idea how to fight whatever they were. Several of us pored over Civil War and WWI and WWII tomes while others read biographies of famous military leaders. Did you know Patton predicted the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor more than ten years before it occurred? We could have used some of his prescience to predict this attack.
Faith in our mission of gathering information was shattered with the second wave. I figured my family’s long lineage of soldiers would end with me. I didn’t expect to live to have children, to continue the Stone’s proud tradition.
The second wave came out of the sky firing. We ran to the windows and doors, drawn more by flashing lights than sound.
We saw the fire from their guns before we saw the invaders. The sky, a surprisingly beautiful shade of blue, was lit not by the sun but by alien gunfire. Blue lights were everywhere. The intruders landed, squatting and on the balls of their feet, poised for action. Slowly their heads moved side to side searching for stragglers. I saw my first war-related death.
“Run!” We all screamed at the well-dressed man. He couldn’t hear us through the window. His eyes darted right and left, and his head whipped around fast. Then he turned in a 360-degree circle, searching for cover, for some way to get away from the sight coming toward him. Within milliseconds of finding no succor, his feet were frozen in place, knees and arms shaking, until his whole body was quivering. The blue light struck his neck horizontally and severed his head from his body. We who were safe in the library cried, one huge collective tear, for those who cowered
in terror and in helplessness, and for those whose lives were cut short by our unwelcome, mute visitors.
His head, eyes wide open, mouth still grimacing in pain, fell to the sidewalk, splat, rolling in its own blood, rolling down the path. Even in death he appeared fearful, as if he had to get away from the foreigners washing the calm campus with blood.
The scene unfolded before us, appearing in slow-motion. We watched; we couldn’t move from the window. The alien’s gun had no recoil. After murdering a victim, they swiveled on the balls of their feet to take another shot. They didn’t aim, they just lifted the gun and let loose a horrifically beautiful line of blue-flamed death. The scene was gruesome, yet … The blue flames brought visions of Star Wars laser light guns to my mind.
I needed a minute alone after my first view of war-related death. My father and the generations before him were used to the sight. I wonder how they ever got used to it. I know I won’t.
Sometimes my father and I would have philosophical discussions.
“Dad, it’s wrong to take a life, no matter whose life, no matter why. It’s just plain wrong.” He countered my argument with another blood-red face and an upraised hand. “You are a disgrace to the Stone family honor.” Yep, that was one of the good old days, one of my favorite memories.
I left the windows and took a walk in the hallway where the portraits of famous West Point graduates reside. From Revolutionary War generals George Washington and Henry Knox to later generals Blackjack Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, George S. Patton and Dwight D. Eisenhower, these esteemed military leaders reside on the walls and in the heart and soul of this academy. My father was to have joined their ranks. The eyes of the departed stare down at me. My father’s voice echoes in my head, telling me how disappointed he is that I’m only a history professor.
The Long Gray Line of West Point cadets must have walked these halls, studying their military books for exams, so different from the history books I used in my classroom. The hallways smelled of fear and of the knowledge that this institution was teaching the art of war to young minds. Why can’t these young minds figure out how to repel invaders when their entire lives have been immersed in warfare?
How foolish are Earth’s citizens to believe in our solitude. We fight wars over religion, ideals and money. Do any of these things mean anything now? If the human race survives this onslaught, I hope we all learn something. For now, we need to be united in our determination to quash these invaders, to send them back to wherever they came from.
The armoured humanoid rain subsided. I ventured back to the windows, dreading the knowledge but needing to see if my father’s body was among the casualties. As I watched, a solitary figure
stepped out from between the buildings, walking tall and proud. I recognized my father’s stride, recognized his taut neck and his fiercely determined scowl. He had donned his hat, his full-dress uniform with his brightly coloured shining medals starkly in contrast to the invaders’ grey-black uniforms.
I ran to the door, trying to get out to my father. He carried two machine guns, one in each hand. His stars and epaulettes were invisible under the rope of extra ammunition he carried over his shoulders. I was never so angry with him and never so proud.
“Dad! Dad, turn around. Don’t do it, Dad!”
He didn’t hear me. The guard wouldn’t allow me to exit the fortified building. I watched helplessly as my father slowly moved toward the aliens, carefully stepping over the grisly fallen, the casualties of Earth’s first interplanetary war. He held his weapons down as I saw his lips move, perhaps trying to talk with them, to persuade them to leave. I pounded on the door, frantically trying to get his attention. My bloody knuckles stained the once pristine white door. More than anything, I wanted to be there with him, to stand proud with my father.
Three aliens turned toward him; their guns held high. Dad stood a few inches from them when one gun fired, blue light flashing outward from the weapon.
“No, Dad, no no no nooooo!”
The gun in my father’s left hand deflected the blast from the alien’s weapon. The shot missed Dad. The blue light blast went wide, dissipating as it continued on its way, not finding a human target. West Point’s grey and black granite façade was unscathed.
Dad’s guns began blazing, red-hot bullets streaming toward the aliens. Dad hit them at close range. He did not get the result he was hoping for: the aliens didn’t move. They didn’t appear to be injured. Dad kept firing, reloading the guns when the bullets ran out. I screamed. Others ran to my side, increasing the terror I felt. We all pounded on the door. Our fists beat out a rhythm, ba-bum, ba-bum, ba-bum. I watched as the ammunition ran out and my dad still stood tall.
Dropping his depleted guns, his head moved a bit, turning toward the library. He saw me! His mouth moved, lips mouthing the words, “I love you. I’m proud of you.” His hand rose to his cap, and he saluted me.
Blue flame shot out again from the alien gun.
“No!” My cries echoed throughout the library.
Dad’s hand will forever be on his forehead in salute. Blue flame severed his arm and his head from his body. The pieces of what was once a brave and whole man crumpled and fell to the ground. Inside the library, I fell as he did, tears flowing. Anger welled up in me, and I attacked the alien guard.
My fists rose as I yelled. “You sonofabitch. You and your kind killed my father!” My hands grabbed at the alien armour; my body burned in anger. My fists reached the alien chest and
pounded on . . . the wall. What?! I stumbled, almost losing my balance as my momentum kept me going forward. Even deep in anger and sadness, I knew this wasn’t right. My fists went right through the alien and reached the wall. I turned to look at the other library residents. Mouths open, they stared at my hands. To them, it looked like my arms were embedded in the alien’s armour. I let my arms drop to my sides. I screamed hysterically, “It’s a hologram! These sonsofbitches are holograms!” Tears of sorrow and joy mixed together.
“Is it possible?”
“Could a hologram fire a gun?”
“Could a holographic gun kill a person?” Everyone began talking at once.
“Anyone a physics major?”
My face contorted as I laughed and cried. I ran down the hallway, but I fell, my balance still off-kilter, my eyes filled with tears. The other residents of the library picked me up and carried me to a chair. Sliding off the chair, I stayed on the floor, in the fetal position, for who knows how long. When I finally raised my head, eyes red-rimmed from tears, I caught their glances. Everyone walked around me, eyes darting my way nonchalantly, afraid to come too close. I heard their discussions.
“If the aliens are holograms that explains why there were no tethers or parachutes when they landed.”
“If the aliens are holograms are the spacecraft real?”
“If the spacecraft are real, will our cannons destroy them?”
I walked back to the hallway containing the portraits. Taking the ceremonial black sheet in my left hand, I lowered it from my father’s portrait. My right hand snapped onto my forehead to salute the man I knew so well yet not at all. No one was near, no pomp and circumstance, no speeches extolling his strength and integrity and wisdom; he received none of the accolades I knew that he deserved. I stared at his portrait, marveling at the similarity to my face. I never noticed before how much we looked alike.
I inhaled deeply. Finally calm, I strode up and down the hallway studying each picture. I went back to my father’s portrait and sat on the cold wooden floor in front of it. I told him everything I’d always wanted to tell him, that even though I chose a different career path, I admired his choices. I told him how much I loved him and how proud I was that his last actions were to try to protect innocent people. I told him we think we have gained some insight, hopefully leading to a way to defeat the invaders. I told him again that I loved him. I wish I had said it to him more in life.
I stood and went back to the others. The aliens still hadn’t moved from their stations guarding us. The vast room, minutes ago a prison, is now filled with hope. If you know your enemies, you can figure out how to defeat them. That’s one thing my father used to say. If we get out of this alive, I’ll ask for that to be on a plaque under his portrait.
Right now, I’m energized. For the first time in my life, I’m proud of my father. For the first time in my life, I’m proud of me, and feel he would be too. For the first time in my life, I actually feel like my father’s daughter.
Ann’s most phenomenal publishing credit is a story published in March 2020 in Klarissa Dreams Redux, a charity anthology which has been selected to go to the moon in a time capsule with an organization called Writers on the Moon. Ann placed third in The Write Stuff conference’s short fiction category in 2023. Her stories and poems have appeared or have been accepted for publication in Night to Dawn magazine, Jersey Pines Ink, Bananthology, Poetica 2, Clarendon House anthologies, Gallery of Curiosities, and Tales from the Canyons of the Dead, among others. Ann is a member of the Writers Coffeehouse in Willow Grove PA, and two writing critique groups. Ann Stolinsky also is a partner in Gemini Wordsmiths LLC, a full-service copyediting and content creating company.