Authors: Ben Bova
A faithful friend is the medicine of life.
And they shall beat their swords into
plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks:
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
How the past perishes is how the future becomes.
—Alfred North Whitehead
THEY'VE appointed me the archivist. My task is to write the official history of the International Peacekeeping Force. I'm doing that, but what happened this morning convinced me that I should also put down this
official narrative, these personal recollections, these tales and anecdotes that are the story behind the Peacekeepers.
A true chronicle of something as important as the Peacekeepers doesn't start at one single point. It can't. It's impossible to say, "The history begins
Especially when the account involves so many people, so many events as do the origins of the Peacekeepers. Literally millions of strands of individual lives are woven together under the hand of fate to form an intricate, delicate tapestry. (I like that! "Woven together under the hand of fate." I'll have to work that into the official history somehow.)
Anyway, it's literally impossible to select a definite, specific time and place for the origin of the IPF. Easier to pinpoint the fall of the first drop of rain in a summer storm, or the exact moment when a youth becomes a man.
There were many origins for the Peacekeepers, and how I'm going to select a starting point for the official history is a problem that I'll be tussling with for some time to come.
But I know where to start this unofficial chronicle: with this morning's events.
THEY assembled in mottled green jungle fatigues with full webbing and helmets, grumbling and muttering as the slanting golden rays of the morning sun filtered through the trees. I watched them from the window of the office that the local commandant had loaned me.
They were so young! Twenty-four men and women, hardly out of their teens, each of them bearing replicas of the flags of their nations on the left shoulders of their fatigues. No two flags were alike.
None of the youngsters out there on the parade ground knew it, but the reason for this morning's exercise was me.
We were all going to take a little hike into the mountains for the edification of the official IPF archivist.
It was no earlier than they usually assembled for field training, or so I was told. But this morning they all seemed to know that something special was in the air. No one had told them; but like soldiers of every age, they sensed that today would be different.
The master sergeant, face of granite and eyes of flint, snarled them to attention. Twenty-four men and women snapped to. The sergeant inspected them briefly but thoroughly, his normal ferocious scowl even darker than usual.
Satisfied that his charges met his uncompromising standards, he saluted to the shavetail lieutenant and reported the squad ready for duty.
The shavetail marched stiffly to the geodesic dome ofthe administration building, where I stood by my window watching. For long minutes the squad stood in rigid silence while the sun climbed above the lofty shade trees and began broiling the parade ground. The monkeys chattered and jeered at the cadets from the safety of their leafy perches.
A single knock on the flimsy door of the office. I turned as the shavetail opened it and said crisply, "Sir, Director-General Hazard is ready to inspect the squad."
I nodded and reached for my cap with my prosthetic hand. The shavetail stared at it for a moment, realized what he was doing and turned his eyes away. The hand works fine, and I have even grown accustomed to its feel.
Marvelous how they were able to link its electronic circuits to what's left of the nerves in my arm.
I had met Hazard twice before, and he greeted me kindly, shaking my hand without the slightest indication that it bothered him. But he seemed preoccupied, his mind elsewhere, his eyes clouded with apprehension. I realized that his thoughts were projecting simultaneously forward into the future and back into the past: to the destination of this day's little trek and to the reason for its existence. I felt sorry for Hazard; this would be a difficult day for the man.
Six of us officers, in our dress uniforms of sky-blue with gold piping, assembled in the administration building's lobby and finally took the plunge into the jungle heat outside. We fell into a natural formation: Hazard and the major in charge of this training base in front, two captains behind them, and the shavetail and I bringing up the rear.
Hazard had grown a beard since I'd last seen him: iron-gray and cut almost as severely as the military crop on his pate. I couldn't help musing that he kept the beard short enough so that everyone could see the diamond-cluster insignia of the IPF director-general on his high choker collar.
He inspected the squad casually; none of the fierce glower of the master sergeant. His bearded face looked fatherly, almost benign. Then he took up a position precisely at the front center of the squad and ordered them to parade rest. I was already sweating, and I saw that the faces of the cadets were glistening.
"Officer candidates of the International Peacekeeping Force," Hazard addressed them. His voice was rough, rasping, like someone who has a bad cold or worse. It made me wonder about the condition of his health. "It is my pleasure to announce that you have been selected for a rare privilege. You members of the first graduating class of the IPF Academy will be allowed, this day, to view the crater where the last nuclear bomb exploded."
Every young man and woman of the squad squirmed unhappily. I could feel them struggling to suppress moans of misery. The crater was a sacred place for old men like Director-General Hazard. To the cadets it meant only a long hard climb in sweltering tropical heat and the distinct possibility of a radiation dose.
NEUSTRA SEÑORA DE LA Misericordia
You see, an event of crucial importance to
the world had taken place near the city of
Valledupar about four years earlier, the kind
of event that was supremely influential in
the development of the Peacekeepers, but
will never find its way into the official
history. (Except maybe as a brief footnote.)
I wasn't there to participate, of course. I
was on a ship in the Arabian Sea where I
eventually lost my right hand, courtesy of
the sovereign governments of India and
Pakistan. But I've pieced together the story
fairly well and personally visited each site in
which it took place—except one. If you'll
allow me a little imagination, what
happened must have been very much like
this . . .
DEATH smells worst in the tropics.
Cole Alexander wrinkled his nose at the stench of decaying bodies. They lay everywhere: men, women, infants.
Bloating in the fetid sun, sprawled in the gutted remains of their miserable hovels, swarms of flies black around their bullet wounds, beetles already digging into the rotting flesh.
The merciless sun hung high in the pale sky, steaming moisture from the tropical forest that surrounded the dead village. Alexander felt his own body juices baking out of him, the damp heat soaking him like a chunk of meat thrown into a boiling pot.
Our Lady of Mercy, Alexander thought, hot bile burning in his throat. What a name for the town.
"You see how they slaughter my people." Sebastiano Miguel de Castanada made it a statement, not a question.
Misericordia had been a tiny nothing of a village stuck in the jungle at the base of the mountains, an hour's hard drive up the rutted, twisting road from the city of Valledupar. Now it was a burned-out ruin, the shacks that had once been houses blackened and smashed, the inhabitants machine-gunned down to babies in their mothers' arms.
"Why did they do it?" Alexander asked.
Castanada pointed to where his soldiers had spread a few armloads of trinkets on an aluminum camp table. Other soldiers were still searching the village, stepping over grotesque corpses with staring eyes and silently screaming mouths to hunt for the village's hidden treasures. The soldiers wore crisp khaki uniforms. They all carried automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. But they seemed unconcerned. The dead bodies did not bother them. Neither, thought Alexander, did they seem worried about being attacked.
Castanada led Alexander to the table. It was covered almost completely with slim glass knives, miniature quartz statues, decorated ceramic vases and other dusty artifacts.
"The villagers lived on grave robbing," he said. "The men went up into the mountains, where the old Inca graves must be. When the drug dealers made their headquarters up there, they did not want these villagers bothering them. So three days ago they came down from the mountains and wiped out the village."
Alexander studied Castanada's face. He showed no sign of anger, no hint of fear or remorse or grief. Castanada was a handsome man in his early forties, broad brow, strong jaw, smooth tanned skin. His jet-black hair was brushed straight back; his eyes were the color of his native soil when the peons first turn it over for tilling after the winter rains.
But he was turning to fat, his slight body becoming round and heavy, his skin getting that waxy look that comes from overindulgence. He wore an off-white silk suit, light for the summer heat, conservatively cut, precisely tailored, extremely expensive. As befits the man who is not only minister of defense but the eldest son of el presidents Despite the heat. Cole Alexander wore a rumpled suede jacket over his open-necked olive-green sport shirt, stained with dark pools of perspiration. A broad-brimmed cowboy hat was perched at a slight angle on his head. He was much taller than Castanada, and may have been slightly older than the defense minister or slightly younger. It was diflScult to tell from his face. His hair was curly and thick, yet all white. His face looked youthfully handsome, but it was set in a sardonic, nearly cruel jester's smile. A sneer, almost. His cold gray eyes seemed to look out at the world with a mixture of amusement and contempt at the antics of his fellow human beings.
"You've got a serious problem, all right," Alexander said. "But I don't think I can help you with it."
"I quite understand, Señor Alexander," said Castanada, sounding oily and at the same time slightly irritating. "I have already told my father that I would not be surprised if you refused to help us."
"Your father is beset by many problems," Alexander replied, choosing his words carefully. His voice matched his facial expression: not quite harsh yet certainly not gentle, a reedy norteamericano tenor with a hint of sharp steel in it.
"I am doing my best to help him, but . . ." Castanada spread his arms in the gesture of a man resigned to struggling against inhuman odds.
Alexander looked around at what was left of the village as the soldiers continued to search it. The drug dealers had done a thorough job. Not even a dog was left to whimper.
The table where they stood was upwind, at least. The smell wasn't so bad here.
"They have created an army of their own, up in those mountains," Castanada said, his voice trembling slightly.
"An empire within our borders!"
"Let me try to explain," said Alexander, "why this kind of problem is not in my usual line of operations."
"It is too dangerous for mercenaries, I understand."
Alexander smiled a crooked smile. "You must enjoy fishing in these mountain streams."
Castanada smiled blandly back at him.
"My people work sort of like the Peacekeepers," Alexander said. "We're basically a defensive operation. We protect, we do not attack."
"Please do not fence with words, Señor Alexander. Your . . ." Castanada groped for a word. "... Your organization is a mercenary force. You fight for pay."
"We fight for pay," Alexander agreed. "But only for those who are under attack. Only for those who can't defend themselves."
"But we are under attack! Look around you! The drug dealers have assassinated members of the government! We are at war! A life-and-death struggle!"
"But surely your Army . . ."
"Riddled with corruption." Castanada lowered his voice. "I am ashamed to admit it, but it's true."
"Then you should call in the Peacekeepers."
"We have tried, señor. They are sympathetic but unwilling to help us. They will only intervene if there is an overt attack across an international border. They exist to prevent wars, not to act as police."
Alexander nodded slowly.
"We have nowhere else to turn. I fear for my father's life. For the lives of my wife and children."
"I understand. But it's still not the kind of operation that my people can undertake."