I was beginning not to trust Phaedrus.
“Lao,” he said as he turned to me, laughing to himself, “when it comes to things like dying and war, time will never matter. Flaming pitch catapulted from some trebuchet or bullets or a god-damn stream of plasmatic ammonia, it’s just hopelessly enduring weapons of momentum and light, things which cannot be created or destroyed but only change forms.” Soren smirked, darkly, holding the cigarette in front of his grinning, yet grimacing face.
“It’s no matter in how we put off the debt,” smoke filtered through his fingers, fitting his laissez-faire tone of voice, “the payment is fast.” He said it with his eyes floating focused on some unseen distance; he was becoming more frequently disconnected.
“The only thing that changes is why you ever get involved in the first place” said Phaedrus. “It used to be savages fighting over land and trees, we’ve gotten past that.”
“It’s true,” I added, “we’ve learned better. The old wars were between pedantic people who couldn’t see past their next meal. It almost never happens now, and even that is for the sake of our way of life, not some immediate gratification.”
Phaedrus agreed, “He’s right, those same people thought they had to fight for some kind of glory. We at least know that it’s painful and regrettable, they looked forward to it.”
“I wouldn’t say that we are not different from them, but I also wouldn’t say that we’re entirely separate.” Soren added.
Phaedrus nodded saying, “It all really just comes down to what the leaders can make their people believe they’re fighting for. We might be as greedy as ever, but we’ve at least got some control of ourselves. We don’t just hop into battle now, that’s why man made flags and kings in the first place. We used to fight for kinsmen. There was some basis for that, you lose someone close to you, and you want reconciliation. Once groups got too big, people had to come up with something else to connect them.” He sniggered, “That’s what kings and flags are for, they
I bought it. “What else do you need? You personify a group; you give them something in common so that any attack on any member becomes an attack on all of them.”
“You need something you will never be able to separate from them. If a man fights for king and country, what happens when the flags are burning and the kings are dead? Why then would they continue to fight?”
“Survival,” I said. “They will fight to live.”
“Ah! But that’s just it. When I was a young man, I had been recruited into an exploration party, looking mostly for new land to expand our agricultural growth, but also for other resources. We had gotten as far as Torva, that’s about a five week journey on foot from the city, and out there we found two tribes which had separated themselves from our government and, from what we could tell, viewed themselves as having escaped from our society several generations prior to our rediscovering them”
“From the Mystics” injected Phaedrus.
“From all of us” snapped Soren suddenly, surprisingly.
“We watched them for a while, for it seemed they had reverted into a nearly primitive state, no electricity, no medicine, nothing. Each tribe consisted of roughly eight or nine hundred men, plus all their women and children. All of them existed within their villages in near tranquility; I’ve since wondered if this is a product of such a small environment where intimacy may not have been part of its production, but was an inalienable demand for continuance.
“However, there was an animosity between them and a neighboring tribe living about a day’s hike to the north. They had been at war with each other for as long as either group could remember, though neither had any real understanding why.”
“It’s understandable;” chimed Phaedrus, “such people are prone to unprovoked violence. There’s nothing common holding them peaceful so they just returned to being feral.” Soren didn’t respond to Phaedrus’ assessment and continued with his story.
“Anyway, we learned that both tribes lived under the same myth: When man first came into the world, a Tortoise and an Eagle had agreed to a race. According to them, both used to be the fastest creatures alive. The wager between the two was that if the Tortoise won, mankind would be immortal as he was, for he had the power to offer them that. The Eagle, which was the greatest of all animals though mortal, however, wanted them to be mortal since they walked on the ground and he could not allow something he so young and less than himself to be allowed immortality when he was denied it.
“The wager also said that were the Tortoise to lose the race, he would have to give up his speed and immortality so that he would live alongside the humans; while the Eagle would have to grow tired of flight and land at the end of the day, before it was not so. Both agreed.
“The race was run, but the Eagle, who had been too proud to risk losing to the tortoise, cheated and cut across a great plain it was supposed to go around. When it won, the Tortoise consented that man would be mortal and he would be slow, but the eagle was made to grow tired for its transgression.
“The myth continued that the Eagle, who was furious for being caught, decided to kill one of the men from each tribe, since they had made mortal as its vengeance. After it had done so, it went to the leader of each man’s tribe while he slept. It whispered in his ear that the leader’s countryman had been killed by a member of the native tribe, and if the death was not matched by the end of the year, then He would come back and slaughter both tribes for having let the death go un-avenged.
“The following day, both tribes went out and fought. Many men were killed on each side, while others were stolen to become slaves. At the end of the day neither tribe was able decide who had lost more soldiers though each believed it to be its own. So they must meet, in order to return balance, lest the Eagle come back and destroy them all.”
Soren shook his head, but continued, “So from then on, the tribes have met every few months with their warriors and fought until the first man died, so that each would not lose track of how many had been killed. However, since each believes its own tribe to be the one wronged in the beginning, the conflict is never settled and they have to meet again and again in order to ensure that they are safe.
“Needless to say, I soon came to understand that for all that, it was just romanticized revenge.”
“This is different though,” I countered, “those people actually believed in their myth.”
“Exactly,” Phaedrus jumped in, “their entire motive was based around some ridiculous idea that some eagle and turtle deities would come down in fury if the world wasn’t righted. It was fear that the world wouldn’t fix itself, and then this fear became anger.”
“It wasn’t exactly anger, but angst.” Soren answered. “All over the world, people have this idea that some things which happen are fair while others are not; despite all evidence to the contrary, they can’t get rid of it.” It was hard to tell who he was talking to; it was more spoken to the air than either of us.
He continued, “But back to their myth; I agree, they absolutely believed it. I think they believed it in the exact same way we believe in justice. We believe in it so much that most of our thoughts are bent on creating it. I think it’s the myth of justice that’s provoked almost all confrontations, and we won’t get past them until we get past it, and until then, the conflict is almost useless.
“I’m not saying that I’m a pacifist, not exactly, there are things that will not stop on their own simply because they don’t want to. I just think when we look at something, we should try to know what it really is.”
“And what’s that?” I asked.
“A larger version of the same struggle that’s been happening to mankind since it’s very beginning. We have this idea of balance, but we don’t know where it came from. It’s the idea that the world has been thrown off tilt and we’ve been trying to right it ever since. All wars are just the same old war.
“People can see, and want to remedy, that there is an inequality among them, which means two things: first that we have some latent idea of real balance, and real equality; and second that we think we can do something about it ourselves.”
“Well can we?” I said. At which Soren started laughing almost to the point of obnoxiousness.
“If you think I can answer that, you give me more credit than I deserve. But if I had to guess, I would have to say: probably not. I think it’s too far off tilt. We would need some third party to come in, more powerful than any side which was at stake, as an intermediary. It would have to wipe the slate clean, by which I mean not just in simple things like land or money or social injustices because that wouldn’t be enough, not only would the whole past still be there, but you can’t give someone something without taking it from someone else – I hope you don’t think I’ve been talking about politics this whole time - It would have to change the way we think.”
“Oh, of course,” said Phaedrus, “for a second I thought it was going to be complicated.” I laughed, Soren turned to Phaedrus.
“I didn’t say it was likely, but I think that’s the only way. This new party would have to come in with the means to provide for each side what it was lacking and it would have to give these things, freely, of itself, without any demand for return.”
“Wouldn’t that just throw the tilt again?” I asked. Soren nodded.
“What do you think I meant when I said it was have to give these things freely? If it didn’t want them back, there wouldn’t be any imbalance; it will have done only what it had chosen and was set out to do. There would be no animosity because it hadn’t been wronged in the arrangement.”
“But,” said Phaedrus, “I think you’re forgetting, it would conveniently have to make everyone forget about everything that had happened before it arrived.”
“Again, I didn’t say it was possible. It’s just the only way I can see it ever really going away.”
“You know,” said Phaedrus, “you’re starting to sound like one of them.” He pointed to the window toward the valley of Agrona. After this, we sat in silence.