No one speaks while we sit back to back in the middle of the bunker, as far away from the walls as we can, not trusting them to remain solid. While the attack lasts, without transmission all we can do is wait. If the bunker is found, there is nowhere else to go. No one will take a step outside and live. A bombardment is a mere drizzle next to what is taking place in what must now be a moonscape above.
There are no explosions to be heard. In the eerie silence, we are instead listening for a far more menacing sound, a mere whisper so quiet that we keep thinking we’re hearing it in the sound of our blood flow, like death whispering in our ears. Then for a moment we think perhaps it's already there, inside our ears and into our heads — but for only a moment, as the next moment we find we are still thinking, still alive.
Now and then we hold our breath as we really do hear the sound in the distance, growing louder, and as it seeks through the ground we wait to find out if this time it will reach deep enough to find us. It sounds like white noise, like the world being reduced to white noise. It’s the sound of rock disintegrating into sand, as if eaten by ants in fast forward. If they can turn mountains into anthills, every moment could be our last before we'd even know, let alone the enemy would. What meaning has war if death is so arbitrary?
“So who are you really, Echo?” I say, to break the silence. In each platoon the forces are codenamed Alpha to Zeta followed by its number in the company, battalion, regiment and so on. Real names are supposed not to be used, as all that happens in the war zone was classified to the outside world, lest it would lead to retaliations outside the war zone.
”Does it really matter anymore? It’s in the past.”
“So you’re not going back?”
“I have nothing to go back to. My home was here. It still is as far as I’m concerned.” We all know what this means. He'll stay here until he dies. There will always be fools like us who want war. It's a war that can't be won, but none of us is here to win. We're here to kill, and that's the one victory we'll ever have.
The Jews never knew that when they moved away from the frontier between East and West in the 20th century, that frontier would only follow them into the 21st century and now forced them to leave once again, as if still cursed to wander as they have throughout history, leading some to believe that "arbaim shanah" meant not forty years but forty lifetimes, 3200 years.
This time, there were no invaders to take their place, lest any nanorobots were left. For decades the survival of Israel had been attributed to the sabotage of their enemies' mass destructive weapons. But when the ultimate mass destructive weapon became the most common utility, this strategy only brought them down upon them. The only way to destroy nanorobots was with other nanorobots, and so it sent mass destructive weapons upon its enemies to destroy theirs. When their enemies thought they would use theirs for mass destruction, they unleashed their own fleets.
With no way to know where all of the nanorobots were or who controlled them, the target instead became the entire population. Once, most of the casualties of war were soldiers. Now, war didn't even have soldiers, and relied entirely on using civilians as hostages, making war and terror the same thing. The war that followed lasted only hours, yet it killed tens of millions' and only ended when one side was practically exterminated. The only reason this happened to be the Jews was because they were far fewer.
After that came a series of nanorobot terrorist attacks all over the world, which could only be traced back to the culprits long afterwards. They called themselves the exterminators, their only purpose to exterminate the other side. There was no way to ban the use of nanorobots as weapons, as any and all nanorobots could be used for anything; and as every nanorobot could also produce more of themselves, there was no way to ban their production either. Even with almost half the world population working in cybersecurity, an equal number of people working as hackers (usually the same people) made it impossible to control where and how nanorobots were used. The only solution seemed to set new rules for war that were to be followed on the pain of open war with all other nations of the world.
The rules were simple: wars had to take place in a controlled environment where no non-combatants were at risk. Because nanorobots could produce any number of themselves, a nanorobot war could only stop once their controller was dead, so the combatants themselves had to be present in the controlled environment. They had to sign up for the risks of war so that no one else would have to take them unwillingly. Outside the war zone, acts of war became forbidden on pain of lifelong exile to the war zone, but inside, there were to be no rules. Essentially, open war became forbidden, and the wars in the zone were never called wars, but contests.
With most of the world's deserts terraformed, the only non-polar land mass in a world of 10 billion people where there could be no collateral damage was the now depopulated Israel, which has been left abandoned as a no one’s land outside international borders. The UN's decision to build the controlled environment there was seen by many as a provocation, but this only made all the more people from both sides sign up to avenge their Holy Land.
“What do you get out of all this, if you know you’re going to die here?”
He laughs, a disquieting sound in the bunker. We’d kept so silent that it felt as if we were trying not to be heard. “That’s a funny way to put it. What do you ‘get out of' life? ”
I’m not sure what to make of this, and right now I don’t want to reminded about my own nearing death and I am wondering as much as anyone sane why I signed up for this. I don’t dare to speak anymore, so when I just stare at him he does.
“I’ll tell you what I saw from Mount Scopus, just outside Jerusalem. At first I saw what looked like thunderclouds. At that time probably even the government knew no better. Then the clouds came down in curtains of rain, and when they had swept over the city, the city was gone, and in its place were just dunes. Had I as much as blinked at that moment, it would’ve disappeared as if by a stage trick, and I would’ve had no idea what had happened or where I was. But I saw it. I saw everything and everyone I loved being swept away in the wind as dust. It happened so quickly that I literally could not believe it had happened. I didn’t run. I didn’t move at all. I was utterly paralyzed, and that was the only thing that saved me from the swarm when it swept over me moments later.”
“Then I saw how my family…” he pauses for a long time, as if looking for the right words, but his face betrays no emotion. “One moment they were alive, the next they were dust. For a moment I tried to find some remains that were left of them, but they were indistinguishable from the rest of the dust blown away in the wind. We all know that we are made from dust and to dust will return, but everyone else has always been spared from seeing that transition. That’s why we bury our dead in coffins, so that we don't have to see what they turn into.”
“When I saw how it happened to them, I had an epiphany. As layer after layer of their bodies were stripped away in moments, I became suddenly aware of what humans are, what makes up the core of their being. Nothing. Nothing at all.”
“So you’ve come here to avenge your family.”
“I never even liked war. I used to say I’m a pacifist. Another of so many titles with which I tried to make my human life seem meaningful. I have come here simply to die. I simply could not do it by myself. I need someone else to kill me. But I can’t just let myself get killed either, so I will take others with me. I cannot help it, but no matter. Their lives are no more meaningful than mine.”
“Why are you here?” I ask Gamma.
“This is where all their exterminators end up”, he says. “I won’t mind killing them.”
“They’re not all exterminators. And our side has them too.”
“Whose side are you on?” he says defensively, his eyes flashing. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was one of the exterminators that was deported here himself.
I’m trying to think of an answer as to why I’m here, but no one asks. Apparently I’m the only one who responds to stress by becoming talkative. Now I’ve stopped talking, we realize suddenly that it’s perfectly silent. I wait for a while to let my ears adjust to the silence again, but I hear nothing.
“Do you hear anything?”
“No. They must’ve run out of energy”, I say. “Or they think we’ve escaped.”
“If we had enough energy left ourselves,” Theta says, “we would’ve escaped.”
We check the transmission.
“Our reserves are back online,” I say. “It could be a trap, but it would be a very risky one.”
“Either way,” Gamma says, “we have no choice but to move out, or they’ll recharge again."
We call backup down from the reserves. There are no hostile nanorobots nearby, so we let our nanorobots dig us out, and recharge our nanorobots from the reserves.
In the first months, both camps quickly took turns occupying the north and south. Currently, the north is occupied by the West, outside the war zone known only as camp Alpha, and the south is occupied by the East, camp Beta.
During what became known as the Federalization, each superpower joined an arms race for alliances until there were only two superpowers left in the world, what became known as the hyperpowers, usually referred to simply as the East and West, the former covering Asia and North-Africa and the latter the rest. This led to polarization between the ideologies of East and West into materialist and idealist cultures, and the whole world was interlocked in a wrestle like yin and yang.
“Our history shows that there is but one thing that makes our country holy,” Gamma says, as we re-emerge. “War. Even to our Gods, all of them.”
Then an explosion in the middle of our group drives us apart, and my body is sent flying through the air like a rag doll, and as the nanorobots climb my torso, I see my belly fall apart like burning paper. What’s left of me falls into the sand, and all I can think is "let it be over quickly". We’ve heard stories that sometimes the enemy doesn’t kill us right away, instead using the nanorobots to keep us alive but inflict the highest possible agony on our brain that it is capable of, like hellfire. But with such power as we have, we no longer need angels nor demons to bring it forth. Having become indistinguishable from the proud Gods in our scriptures, we no longer need them, but we fight on for our own omnipotence. Our civilizations are our Gods now, and if there were any God, all it would have to do is watch as we take care of our own Apocalypse.