~ a short story
~ art by Marcel Duchamp
Each general of each army approached the appointed peak directly in between the two fronts. They had prepared for this talk all morning — there was to be a negotiation.
At the apex of the chosen hill is a table. There are two chairs on opposite sides of it. They arrive at this appointed spot together.
The first man to approach wears white. He sits at the table.
“This has been a long time coming. Too long,” he says with bravado, adjusting himself in his seat at the table. “I wonder who’s fault that is?”
The second man, wearing black, waits for the other to sit. On the other end he stands before the table as he speaks, more reserved, more focused.
“We shall see how productive this will be. Whatever it is.”
The one wearing white removes his hat and smiles to the other across the table. He leans back in his chair, discerning his opponent. It wasn’t difficult to see, the man wearing black was doing much the same, albeit internally. His posture was impeccable, his face remained emotionless, unblinking.
Each man, despite their differences and despite this being their first true face-to-face meeting, can see something quite familiar across the table. There is a sincere passionate fire for ‘the craft’ shared within their gaze. Some of the important aspects of this meeting, and its original telos, are lost as they begin their discussion.
The man wearing white speaks first, and the man in black responds in kind.
W: “Well, I’m not sure we are on equal footing to stand here. We are still reeling from your stunt you pulled back in Usmil, replacing the beams of the east bridge with rotten timbers. We lost a score in transit.”
B: “And yet, could you stand here and tell me your own saboteurs weren’t involved in infecting Kuscana River with mulberries, making several regiments sterile? Such acts violate the treatises so carefully laid out at the beginning of this conflict. Those men still march, but their morale is understandably shot.”
W: “Ha-ha I have no idea what you are talking about. In truth, my sabos went mad in their autonomy long ago. This thing had lasted too long for their taste, so they deserted or went rogue, down to a man. I guess, all those days venturing across the Deserts of Rastro cooked their shit so bad that they couldn’t make it to the appointed locales of discovery. We never returned contact with those groups after they were launched. Or, maybe they feigned madness and kept their balance, communicating via raven all along the way. How could you know?”
B: “Did they really go mad? Such an easy explanation, and artless. Maybe they were helped along by our own agents, misdirecting the trail they were compelled to follow, leading them into barren and harsh places they would have otherwise not had to go. In their backtracking onto the correct path, again and again and again — they simply lost their nerve. Lured along the roof and then seeing the ladder taken, what would you expect their response to be? Can you blame them? After all, it was their own commander which left them out to dry, sending them on impossible mission after impossible mission without any contact or oversight.”
W: “Such missions are necessary to win wars. We both know this. All of this begins with information gathering. And such procedures are necessarily complex. Perhaps in devoting your resources towards thwarting those information gathering bodies, you belayed your own progress in fortifying your defenses, opening your armies up to fruitful and opportunistic strikes while your own scouts were out chasing geese. The sabos may not have been completely successful in their primary objectives, but perhaps their secondary objective involved something like decking the trees with false blossoms. Maybe the true mission of my sabos was simply to defer your gaze, and make your eyes strain to see them…”
B: “Hrmm and yet you still have not considered something so salient to your own supreme command. Things that were easy at the beginning, before battles were fought and losses taken, have now become difficult, haven’t they? It was all quite different back when your expertise and ability to wield strategy assumed victory in an unquestioned ballad across the blood-soaked enemy fields. Your men, even your special operatives, believed in you —down to a man. We know this to be true. And we know this has changed in response to my own maneuvering. Your command is now being questioned, on multiple fronts, by multiple individuals, isn’t it? Understandably so. Mayhap the roles of guest and host have shifted within your very own homestead…”
~ The man in white balks at the man in black’s knowing smile following his latest words. Are my growing suspicions of a coup on the horizon well-founded? Had he somehow planted ideas of betrayal and future glory into some of my lieutenants? Was such deception possible in this kind of war? Moreover, why would he gift me such information so freely? He’s just doing it to get into my head… how did I just allow him in my head?
W: “You think yourself in control of this war. And yet, here we are unquestionably stalemated. Now the question becomes — do we negotiate this peace, or do we redouble our efforts in conventional and unconventional warfare, statecraft, reconnaissance, and… attempted assassination. There are an infinite number of ploys to deploy. Each of us holsters them now, but at any moment we could openly repair such walkways, while sneaking through any one of the infinite passages into Chencang.”
~ The man in black walks back his progressions while the man in white takes his turn to smile unnervingly. Chencang is secure. Everything relies on this proposition. And he knows how integral it is to our cause. His sabos cannot make it near, not without thinning or sacrificing enough of their force to make it no longer worthy of the effort. I designed the fortress myself after all. There is a way in. And I am confident he cannot yet know it. But what if he does? What’s his next move? And what’s mine, knowing he knows?
B: “This conflict won’t remain equal for much longer. There’s too much net pressure being applied, on all sides, at every moment. Something, or someone, is going to break. And I have learned a significant amount from your latest moves, both in their purpose and their inefficiency. While you exert yourself in the valley, my men sit on the mountain, watching the tigers below fight to their last breath. I now know where to apply the pressure, and in what relative degree. I can assure you I won’t be the first to break.”
W: “Yes, my own advisors make similar assurances. They are not without their guarantees that victory can be secured in a single decision. Some of my advisors sourced from your own region. Just as some of yours are defectors from my lands. They know when and where to strike because they’ve been on the other side. But of course, we would not be so foolish as to always believe their words. After all, given their heritage — one cannot assume their loyalty. One can never be certain they are not hiding knives behind those smiles. All words come with a grain of salt, my good friend.”
B: “You fail to realize that victory already lies within our collective grasp. We each can see it, we simply are not yet ready to make the necessary sacrifices. The most crucial choices require the strongest wills. And we will soon see who is the stronger in this way. We shall see who is more willing to sacrifice the plums AND the peaches.”
W: “But you only see the grand objective — you fail to play the small games. Sometimes the small stuff wins the war. And I think only one of us has the resolve, and the attention to detail, required to sweat the small stuff. Who are you, so high in your tower, to micromanage, to imbue our men with a sense of duty to clear every at task at hand, no matter how insignificant it might seem. Sometimes that duty is to take the opportunity to pilfer the goat while on the swift march to the grand skirmish in the valley. Look ahead and look alive! My boots have been the ground.”
~ The man in black pauses for the moment, needing to reassess his own objective here at the “negotiating” table. What are we trying to do? His own purpose, as supreme commander of the black forces, was two-fold: 1) to gather information on the white army’s current positions and strategy, and 2) to impart misdirection and sow the seeds of doubt into the opposing commander of the white army, regarding his own army’s positions and strategy. Undoubtedly, the man in white held similar designs for this meeting. Of course, each of them knew, in their discussions of past, present, and future maneuvering they had deftly mixed truth, half-truth, and deception altogether, in an effort to most effectively throw the other off-balance. It remained to be seen if it was working.
The man in black continued the conversation unabated,
B: “What about your own vicious beating of the grass around the hills of Bustor? In your hopes to rile up the minuscule force there, presumably for easy pickings, you brought about your own regiment’s devastating destruction. You worked to present yourself with a minor victory — for morale or for the buildup of a war-winning strategy, as you posit — and instead you were met with the head of a snake large enough to devour more men than you could afford to lose.”
W: “What of your abandonment of your siege engines at the steppes of Stosia? Thinking them spent, depreciated to the point of no valuable end — you left them hidden in low lying sand. It was my own scout who spotted them, my sergeant who perceived their remaining value, and my engineers which were capable enough to repurpose them for further use — and against your own forces. Your trash later served to topple four of your towers at the Siege of Athos.”
B: “Resourcefulness is something we both have had to wield with gusto thus far in the conflict. You should commend your engineers, and perhaps send them home to their families. Their reprieve is long past due. I think our men would all agree it’s time for this to be over. Yet you seem staunch in your efforts to prolong this, perhaps even into a thing of attrition. I wonder how your men would react to this insider knowledge. Negotiating was never one of your proclivities, or your strongest suite. I know of your ruthless history, and your ascension to supreme command is well-earned in most respects. You love war. It’s verifiable, and ending this thing via a peace treaty is something you would never do. And yet, here we are —negotiating. I’ve drawn the tiger down from the mountain to sit before me. This wouldn’t be happening without my own insistence. You are keeping up appearances, and with my own knowledge of your regard to this kind of thing, so am I. Regardless of the outcome, it will go a long way in currying favor with my own men. For you, I am not sure it will be the same. Your men will soon know, based on the actions and inactions you take following this negotiation, what your true intentions are — and they have nothing to do with peace.
~ The man in white paused, looking pensively at his opponent. He wished to switch the track of this train of thought.
W: “‘To catch something, first set it free’ — this is the track we each are along. We sit here, deigning to speak freely of things which we would never actually speak of. And thus, we negotiate our own attempted sabotaging of one another’s well-constructed sense of the state of play in the conflict. We cannot decide where the deceptions end and the truth begins, and it makes all the claims more believable as a result. It is because we are masters. We are independent thinkers, relying on evidence and history and results and our readings of the previous masters’ playbooks. There’s nothing either of us can do now except for continue down this path, hoping to garner some level of advantage over the other. You think my efforts here for peace to be insincere, and my men would be displeased at such a disposition. Sure. Please continue with your words and chosen plan, you are free to do so. We shall see who captures who in a compromising falsehood in the end.”
B: “‘Toss out a brick to attract jade’ — we each feel as though we can actually achieve such a feat. In offering something up, we hope to receive something in return. We are going in circles now, risking valuable intel for the sake of entering one another’s state of mind, as well as the reality of the state of play. We understand at this point in the conflict, we are no longer playing the battlefield directly — we are playing one another. The field is an indirect lodestar for our latest conflicts. Victory lies within the mind’s jaded temple — our own and its relation to the other’s.”
Each man says in unison —
“‘To capture the bandits, capture their Leader.’”
Each of them smiles, adjusting themselves in their seat, looking away, thinking on their words.
~ The man in white picks things up. The man in black eagerly anticipates his gambits with his own.
W: “While we sit here rambling, I have two squadrons collapsing on Lei-Zon, and two more approaching two different settlements you won’t be able to guess the identity of before it’s much too late.”
B: “Your forces reach too far. We have identified all three and even now I have strikes prepared, at the ready and waiting for a moment of oversight.”
W: “And yet, you forget within the walls of Sardon, and Xresk, and Miltoc — there is unrest you’ve been unable to quell or identify the original source of. I have four undetectable charlatan social engineers moving upon the strands of leadership in each of them, stoking civil unrest turning to civil war.”
B: “I’ve cut off your rotational maneuvering in and around the Siege of Tythos. Your primary teams won’t sleep a wink, while those within Tythos sleep with their wives each night.”
W: “The typhoon which has accosted Lieowm has afforded my guilds a veritable cornucopia to choose from concerning supplies, and coin, and intel. There is a feast in such devastation!”
B: “Such actions violate the Treaty of Ximzi!”
W: “Fool! We are so far beyond Ximzi! Ha!”
B: “In the west, you will fortify for prolonged encounters. We have been preparing as such.”
W: “In the east, you are going to disperse as in a guerilla discourse. We are ready.”
B: “In Agrya, my thieves plucked the Grand Missives from the Vault of Ardor… about one hour ago.”
W: “In Baruc, my inquisitors have captured your leading rogue… I forget his name, if the dog has one anymore… about a half hour ago.”
B: “The Exslaadian army feigned defeat, hiding men within the golden shells of a ballistae. They are returning at your heels hard and fast.”
W: “The Viceroy of Biscuitis negotiated an alliance with your old rival — the Tarturib Coalition — just a few weeks ago. Their sizable forces descend upon you now.”
B: “Janchurian Sand-Devils have begun to make our weaponry, especially designed with your own defenses in mind. They have not forgotten, they will never forget.”
W: “The wily courtesan which caused your 33rd battalion to rip themselves apart was an agent of my own.”
B: “The forts alongside the Wayselon River, the ones you dare not approach, they are dummies.”
W: “Much of the intel you receive from every 3rd spy you send to my northern regimens is falsely gathered from kayfabe meetings and docs.”
B: “Two of your companies charging into apparently diminished settlements are walking into traps, from orders you are too late to belay.”
W: “The Ryluvian Retreaters are real and they are undefeated.”
B: “My OG Chain Strat is unbroken. The jaws of defeat snap at your heels even now. There is too much momentum behind it for your own strat to kill it in any meaningful way.”
At this point, each man simultaneously seizes their rapid-fire verbalization of the many months and years of built up stratagems and maneuvers and contingent procedures, past, present, and future. After getting it all out, their attention returns to the very local scene before them. There is an intense stare down, a moment of taut tension turning to violent design, and then finally, mercifully, an explosion of serious motion.
Each sensing unplanned-for dangers before them at the table, animal instincts necessarily kick in. They scan each other’s personal defenses, discerning their opponent’s speed and strength all the while weighing their own. They each understand with some level of bloody articulation, the current position of their own strength relative to that of the other man across the table. More than ever before, more than the time before this meeting, they now understood one another. For the first time within this long conflict, they understood what it would take to finally defeat their respective opponent.
There was absolute truth to the sentiment of the stalemate being wagered over at this negotiation. Each army, white and black, was hard-pressed to gain ground at this point in the conflict. They had battled for so long, flipping victories and trading stakes of resources, that it had long ago reached parity. Their schemes had become increasingly complex and imaginative by necessity. But with each duping of the commander, borne with increasing risk, came the backlash as the counterpart unleashed his own devilishly-devised countermeasure. The back and forth had created a situation of escalation without logical end. In truth, each supreme commander’s chain of stratagems was unbroken — each new maneuver tacked onto the core chain of activity between the two forces. A byproduct of this kind of warfare was fortunately less lives lost; it had become about the use of spies & saboteurs, army positioning, guerilla tactics, and the shadowy movements of special operatives across the board, and even subtle shifts in the current state of the weather.
These wargames were much more akin to chess. The rising level of intrigue and stakes, and the anticipation of the eventual pitched battle — the one that would decide the whole thing — was looming dangerously near. And so, each commander, through a syndicate of intelligence agents, advisors, and international representatives, had decided together, to call forth a negotiation. A simple affair — just the two men. No weapons, no maps, no others at their side to influence their decision-making or peacemaking within the meeting. All they would have would be their gaze and their words and their minds.
However, each man, now at the end of their respective ropes and at the conclusion of this negotiation, realized something else was available to them here. Their bodies, their fists.
As before, as independent operators structuring strategy and subterfuge, each commander devises a brand new, equally powerful tactic for themselves, improvising it in the moment.
“Look over there!”
The man doesn’t turn, instead staring straight ahead and loosing a punch, just as the other delivers his own. Each meets the other’s jaw across the table. It doesn’t end there. They continue with ferocity. The table is soon flipped and a simple brawl ensues. Neither can fight, but they know how to punch. So they do so, to each other, repeatedly.
Each grand army, standing at attention at the end of the hills and the edge of the forest, respectively, remain just inside of sight range to witness the minutia of the meeting. At the sight of the bare-knuckled brawl between their admirable leaders of war — they let loose a roar of ascendant nationalism and charge into the fray of the final battle of this great war. ~