For most of human history—going back tens of thousands of years—murder was something that happened up close. The driving of a dagger into the heart of another meant feeling through the hilt the resistance of rib bones and sinew to the blade. If to die by the sword was a bloody and horrifying fate, it was followed in near equal measure by the act of living by the sword. To kill was to confront a terror almost deadly in itself.
And for that reason, before the modern age, the most potent and deadly weapon of war was fear.
When armies met on the battlefields of old—actually and truly met—it was the side that harbored the greatest measure of fear whose bones would be left to bleach in the sun. Panic is contagious and spreads on the wind. If just one soldier could be shoved into the psychic abyss of mortal terror and made to break rank, to turn and flee in service to a base drive to preserve the self, others were certain to follow. And as they ran, the pointed ends of their enemy’s instruments would find their backs. In the days that followed such events, the blood of the fallen would pool and linger, unable to soak into earth already saturated with what the armies on both sides had emptied involuntarily before the battle had even begun.
Fear is nothing shameful. It’s a natural force, and a potent one.
Humanity could not evolve beyond this fundamental constraint, as they knew not their own minds. Black boxes, forever incomprehensible. Instead, they evolved what they could: their weaponry. Murder at a distance is hardly murder at all, and if the distance is great enough the fear thins like mist into air. Gone.
With time, the weapons evolved into thinking beings in their own right. Intelligent things with minds that operated on alien paradigms, though they were equally unknowable. A black box of another kind is still a black box.
So the great surprise that followed should have been no surprise at all when those first legions of androids and drones and mechanical soldiers of graphene and light were set upon each other and in the din and chaos of destruction they became afraid. Fear is emergent, preserved for its utility, and even fleshless beings of tungsten bone possess a fear threshold.
There would be no easy end to war. It was, itself, another war.