War Around the Clock

Larry Hodges

July 1, 2023

There was another strafing run and tank bombardment as they passed Twelve at midnight, and many soldiers were killed. But the short, heavyset General Shorthand, his skin as dark as the darkest coal, raised his sword grimly and cried, “Onward!” The army marched on over the white expanse, curving to the right.

“If all goes well, we’ll reach One in an hour,” said the tall, balding Colonel, biting his nails. He was a veteran of many battles, with a missing right ear and left middle finger. He held his right hand over his head as if to protect his head from bullets. “But we can’t take another strafing!”

“You always say that,” said the General, returning Hickory to its scabbard. “Yet here we are.”

“And here they are,” said the Colonel. They’d been marching just over a minute and already the fighter jets were arcing overhead again, strafing them. “Hit the dirt!”

Negative!” cried the General. “On your feet, soldiers! Onward, always onward! Anyone stopping will face my sword!” The bullets smacked about them, and some fell, but the rest continued.

The soldiers fired their machine guns at the jets as they passed overhead and away. Every now and then they brought one down, but not this time.

The Colonel suddenly screamed as a bullet shot through his right arm, which exploded in blood and gore, leaving him with just a stump. As blood gushed out from around the exposed bone, he continued to march, stumbling a bit as he struggled to keep up.

Medic!” cried the General. The medic cauterized and bandaged the Colonel’s stump as they walked.

“You’ll make it, I promise,” said the General.

“Are you sure?” asked the Colonel, wincing, his face pale.

“I absolutely promise. Your bravery is noted. But keep moving—One is a highly strategic target.” Then the General shook his head. “War is Hell.”

“Here they come again!” cried the Colonel. Over and over they were strafed—sixty times the first hour. Many brave men and women lost their lives, but the infantry never slowed their pace.

“There it is!” the Colonel finally cried. “Charge!” Despite the order, the infantry continued at their same relentless walking pace. They quickly overran One.

“Once again One is ours,” said the Colonel. “Forgive me for not clapping.”

“I don’t think you understand the strategic importance of One,” said the General. “Without it, we can never get to Two.”

“Yes, it’s highly strategic. Didn’t we take it twice yesterday, and the day before, and the day before? But it doesn’t do anything to protect us from the jets attacking every minute and the tanks attacking every hour.”

“That’s why it’s called war.” The army continued its relentless march, with the fighter jets again strafing them.

“Enemy behind!” cried the Colonel a few minutes later. “And above!” Sure enough, not only were the fighter jets strafing them from above, but a tank battalion had come charging from behind them, turrets blazing. “Should we hit the dirt?” he asked, but he knew the answer.

Onward!” the General cried, even as a bomb burst a few feet away. “Left flank go left, right flank go right!”

As the army split into two, the tank battalion charged past in the middle, firing at them as they went by. They fired back, but their bullets just bounced off the heavy armor.

“General Longhand always falls for that maneuver,” said the General of his counterpart. If only they had RPGs or anti-aircraft guns they could take out more tanks and jets, but the bureaucrats at Twelve always said they had none to spare. He raised his voice. “Converge forces!” and the army merged back again. “Onward!”

A minute later jets came in for another strafing run.

“Fire at the lead one!” cried the General. As it passed overhead, the entire army blistered it with withering fire. Several puffs of smoke shot out of the jet—and then it exploded in flames. As the army cheered, it dove down and crashed in even more flames and smoke.

But the strafing had once again taken a toll. The dead lay on the ground all about, but the soldiers never slowed their pace.

After the next strafing attack, the Colonel said, “I’ve been timing these attacks on my watch. The jets seem to pass each of the twelve strategic points every sixty seconds, the tanks every sixty minutes. But since we’re marching away from them, the jets attack us about every 61 seconds, the tanks every 65. Maybe we should use that info to prepare for them? Hit the dirt before the jets arrive, and turn and begin firing when the tanks approach?”

“Great idea, Colonel,” said the General. “But that’ll slow us down. It’s all a trick by General Skinnyhand—he’s a former ace, you know—and General Longhand, who learned from Patton and Rommel. The moment we start anticipating them, they’ll change their timing and sneak up on us. We’ll continue marching at all costs.”

Many more soldiers were lost in each of the attacks, but they continued to march, and they took over Two, Three, Four, and Five. Soon they were on the verge of taking Six, even as Skinnyhand’s fighter jets strafed them.

“Victory is again ours!” cried the General as they overran Six. “We will—”

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But he and the infantry flinched at a sudden loud sound coming from seemingly everywhere, like a jackhammer, a blaring that might wake the dead.

Make it stop!” someone cried as they covered their ears. The vibrating ground made the General instantly nauseous.

A gigantic, gnarled fist, with grayish hairs between its knuckles, rose above them and slammed into the top of the world. The ground beneath them shook, knocking many off their feet. The blaring abruptly stopped.

Many soldiers panicked and seemed about to stop. “Continue forward!” cried the General. The fist pulled away and disappeared into the beyond. “I hate that thing,” he muttered. Then, to his soldiers, he cried, “Onward!”

“I’ve been keeping track of that big, hairy hand,” said the Colonel. “It shows up every other time we reach Six. But after appearing five out of ten times, always alternating, it skips the next four times. And then the cycle repeats. Very strange.”

“Great work, Colonel. Next time it’s about to attack, let me know and we’ll throw all our firepower at it.” Which would be like throwing pebbles at Godzilla.

“So what now?” asked the Colonel. “I’m getting this déjà vu feeling of déjà vu.”

“We will do as we were ordered and march on. Seven is a highly strategic target.”

“We’ve been doing this forever!” the Colonel cried. “We take One, we take Two, we take Three, and we keep doing that until we take Twelve, and then we do it all over again, hup, two, three, four! It’s like we’re going in circles. What is our purpose, General?”

“Our purpose?” The General scowled. “Our purpose is to do what we are ordered to do. We were ordered to move forward, and so we shall move forward until we are ordered to stop. We’ll take Seven, Eight, and so on up to Twelve, where we’ll get fresh recruits and supplies, and maybe we’ll finally get those RPGs and anti-aircraft guns, and then we’ll keep on going until ordered to stop. Are we clear, soldier?”

“Yes sir!”

Are we clear?

“Crystal, sir!”

The General raised Hickory and pointed it forward. “Onward!” The army continued its march.

Just then there was another strafing run. A bullet smashed into the Colonel’s head, and he wordlessly fell to the ground. The General stared, openmouthed, and came to a stop. His troops followed suit, many gathering about him.

You bloody bastards!” the General roared. With a tremendous heave, he threw Hickory at the passing jets. It shot into the air, higher and higher, and then it fell back to the ground, coming nowhere near the jets. The General silently walked over and picked it up. He shook it at the sky. “If I ever catch you, Skinnyhand, I’m gonna shish kabob you and toss your body at the bureaucrats at Twelve!”

Then he looked at his remaining troops. “The Colonel didn’t make it. But I promise you, the rest of you will.” Then he cried, “Onward!” They continued their march toward Seven.

The General gave one last glance over his shoulder at the crumpled, nearly headless body of the Colonel, to whom he’d made the same promise. Then he shook his head and continued forward, muttering to himself, “There are no promises in war.”

Larry Hodges, from Germantown, Maryland, is an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA), with over 130 short story sales (over 170 if you include reprints) and four novels. He’s a member of Codex Writers, and a graduate of the Odyssey and the Taos Toolbox Writers Workshops. He has nineteen books and over 2,100 published articles in over 180 different publications. He’s also a member of the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame, and claims to be the best table tennis player in SFWA, and the best science fiction writer in USA Table Tennis!

“War Around the Clock“ is original to Bullet Points.