36 Hours – Part 13

36Hours_Steampunk_Header

The wind blows cold from the east, carrying with it the scent of freshly turned earth and blood. It unsettles my hair but its caress is soft enough to make me close my eyes. I can not reconcile the things I see with reality and I shut them out. Darkness is much easier to understand than this.

I stand here for an eternity. The whole of the world moves on without me. The war ends, life begins again, the Union and Confederacy collapses. These images are more real to me than the present and I surrender to it.

Exhaustion creeps in at the corners of my mind, reaching out with greedy fingers and tempting whispers. To sleep, to dream, these things will erase this reality. In my dreams Vanmere is alive, Shiod is still laughing and Lenmerer still pines for his latest lost love.

“Tom.”

Kat’s voice touches me, infiltrates my denial and gently sweeps away delusion. I do not fight this force that tugs me back to myself, I can not. Kat is the only thing I have left besides the war and my memories. He is real, as real as the dirt and mud and blood.

I open my eyes and stare with growing despair at the remains of the Medical Station. The tents are gone and only scraps of fabric tell of their passing. They flutter in the wind, swirling up from the mud like ash in a fire. Here and there bits of stone or metal show where cots or medical tables once stood. I see a cup resting in the mud, unbroken and unchanged. I pick it up and wonder if this had been meant for Shiod.

Kat is picking his way through the remains of the tent where Shiod had stayed. He lifts up shattered boxes, turns over scraps of metal or fabric with his boot. He reaches down and wipes a finger across something. It comes up smeared with blood.

I shift my gaze away from him to the walls of the trench. There I see scraps of uniforms and what once had been men. I force myself to look, to examine and search but none of them are recognizable.

“Tom,” Kat says again and comes to me. He shows me the twisted, half-destroyed helmet with a Confederate emblem. I realize this must have belonged to the Johnny Lenmerer cared for. I look away and turn, I can stand no more.

Others come, sifting and searching with looks both grim and numbed. They are lost in the realization that they come here only because they feel they must. There is nothing to find and soon, Kat and I walk away.

We say nothing on our way back to the front. The sun is passing into the west and long shadows turn into twilight. Stars wink into being above us, glistening like a thousand eyes. I ignore them, feeling as though their spying on us is perverse. I hope for cloud cover to erase them.

On the line, men are hard at work filling in the destroyed trench wall. Kat and I fall in with them and I work off my exhaustion and irritation with mindless labor. With spade and hands I throw dirt and broken stone into the hole still wet with the attack’s victims.

I reach down and pull up a pair of spectacles from the mud. They are broken, the wire bent and the glass shattered. For a moment I consider pocketing them, returning them to my old teacher’s classroom where they belong, but instead toss them into No Man’s Land to be buried with him.

The enemy sends star shells into the air but no attack comes. They simply try and scare us, but even I am beyond caring. I am an old man, aged fifty years in less than a day. Had I really been a boy just the other day? Had I truly imagined myself a writer, moving to New York with Lia and making a name for myself there?

For others, this war will pass them by. They will recover from it and go back to lives they led before it. For us, the youths who came here with no past and only hopes of a future, there is nothing to return to. We have come when our parents are the only hold on life we have. Even love is fleeting and new to us. The first shell fired exploded in our hearts. We are the lost, for even if we survive this war, we will be destroyed by it.

An officer calls the whole lot of us together. We stand together, eighty-five haggard and starving men in ill-fitting uniforms. Most of us have not slept since the previous day, some longer.

The officer nods and moves his lips together without speaking for a moment. Then he clears his throat. “Those mortar batteries need to be taken out. I’ve procured a number of explosives to do the job, but I need volunteers. Four will do.”

For a moment, no one says anything. We do not even look at one another. Surely, someone else will volunteer. Someone else will feel the need, the drive to take on such a mission, but no one does.

“Did those batteries hit the medic station, Sir?” I ask.

“Yes,” the officer answers, his eyes questioning me. I answer him by stepping forward. Kat follows suit and I nod to him. We have a silent conversation with our eyes. We are in this together we say, until the end.

After nearly a minute of deliberation we have two more volunteers. One is an old man with only patches of gray hair left above his ears. His hooked nose and jutting chin gives him  a pruned look. The other is a new recruit, emboldened by Kat and I. He must be no older than eighteen. No older than I was.

We are given the explosives, sticks of dynamite with crude detonators of brass gears and thin wire. They are a simple set-and-trigger affair. The timers will be short, so we must be swift once set. Two for each mortar should do the trick and again I wish Shiod is here. He knows so much more about devices and machines. More than that, I simply wish he is here because we always did things together. Now I must go with Kat alone.

Where my old sniper hole had been we prepare to go over the top.  Kat and I show the youth how to smear his face with mud and dirt to mask the shine of his skin. Kat showed me this in the first moments after my first attack and I hope this boy uses it well.

Kat indicates he will go first. He holds up a hand for us to wait until the next star shell goes up. His mouth moves, counting, until the sky goes dark and he goes up and over. I follow, scrambling up and then rolling over the parapet to lay flat on my stomach.

The others wait and once again we lay flat in the darkness behind a mound of upturned earth and wait for the next star shell. For a long time it does not come. Kat looks to me in the darkness and the question is there. Do we bring them up? Do we risk another star shell?

They do not wait for us to call them and scramble over the top just as the next star shell explodes in the sky. First over is Umley, but he is a veteran and halts half-way and holds still. The younger panics and I wave for him to go back, to get down but he is too young, too fresh, he does not know about the snipers, about the hidden dangers that a star shell will unveil.

At the top of the trench he hesitates but he is in a crouch and moves, too frantic. He darts first this way and then that before spotting us and running. It is such a short distance, surely he can make it, surely he will be spared!

The inevitable happens, for fate can only go one way here. A sniper shot takes him in the eye and he slides, first to his knees and then onto his face just a meter from us. Umley joins us as the star shell winks out. Quickly we pull the explosives from the dead boy and move back into cover. We spare only a moment to look at him before Kat motions us on.

We move like silent ghosts, like shadows, like hidden devils between shell holes and rock mounds. I have been here just a short while but already I know cover by sight. I would recognize a suitable eighteen inches of piled earth at any distance. I sense rather than see it, feel it with my eyes, with my urgent heart as a lover might know his partner’s face or scent. I reach out for it with warm, open arms and embrace it. This cover, this life-saving barrier is my mother, welcoming me after each mad dash.

Presently we reach a trough in No Man’s Land, created by a downed airship. Further down we can see the faint outline of its wreckage. We crawl on hands and knees toward it, safe from any sniper’s line of sight even as more star shells go up.

“What are they looking for?” Kat whispers, his voice hard and certain. “Walkers? Tanks?” No, they are looking for us, they must be. There’s been no tanks or walkers in months. The game must be up, we are exposed, given over.

To answer us, a barrage begins. It lands to our rear with such ferocity that we are blown forward several yards. Kat crashes into a bent piece of the airship’s hull and Umley lands on my back. The wind is driven from me and I struggle to find it as the earth roils and vibrates beneath us. The attack is everywhere and so thick I can’t tell one shot from the next. For once I am happy to be in No Man’s Land and out of the trenches. Back there, Hell has opened up again.

The barrage falls further back and we move. Now if we wish to accomplish our task, now while the enemy is focused elsewhere. Kat pulls his spade and I take out my knife. Umley holds something in both hands like a baseball, perhaps a bomb. I show him my knife and hold my finger to my lips. We must be silent, but what’s the use in all this noise?

Kat holds out a hand, holding us and then, without any noticeable difference in the attack behind us, waves us forward. I roll out of the trough and run in a crouch behind Kat. I don’t know if Umley is following but it doesn’t matter, not now. This is the vital time and I think of nothing else but the mortars. They must be destroyed, they killed Shiod and Lenmerer. They killed my friends. They are my enemy.

The savageness takes hold of me as we reach a forward gun post. There are three Johnnies there with sniper rifles. We dive in and I hack off one man’s hand with my knife before driving it up under his chin. The barrage masks his screams or gurgles though I would hardly notice if it hadn’t. Kat is smashing in the helmet and head of another with his spade. Umley breaks the third’s throat open with what he was carrying, a rock. I rifle through the dead man’s pouches and take his ammunition and cans of food.

We are moving again, leaving the three dead men behind with no one the wiser. Just ahead we make out the belching fire of the mortars. Kat brings me close and holds up two fingers. I will take the first two with Umley. I nod and we split up.

The mortars fire every other second. I count them off. One, skip, two, skip, three, skip. On four I move as fast as I can go. I leap over razor wire I spot at the last moment but I hear Umley trip and land hard in the mud. I hesitate and lose my advantage and quickly dive for cover.

Five, skip. Six, skip. I reach out and grab Umley’s arm. I feel wet, hot blood but pull him to me. The old man has caught the wire on the forearms and hands. Quickly I dig out a bandage and wrap it around what wounds I can find. He grabs my hand and then takes out an explosive, nods, and prepares to go again.

Eleven, skip. Twelve. We are up and this time, the razor wire is thin and sparse. Umley spots a soldier emerging from a sniper hole and leaps into him, knees against the Johnny’s chest. I’m running toward the mortars now, heedless of their fire and the exposure their muzzle flashes give off.

There are two operators and I slam into the first, knifing him in the chest twice before he can react. The second stumbles and falls, struggling to pull a pistol. I slash him across the face, pull the gun from his hand and shoot him with it.

Turning, I put the explosives into place before looking to the second emplacement. The second mortar is alerted to us and I am forced to take cover behind the first mortar’s supports. I fire with the dead man’s pistol but their return fire pins me to the spot. There’s no hope of continuing that way and I begin to inch away, to go around the back of the mortar in hopes of surprising them.

Umley surprises them instead. The shooting ends and I look to see him standing over the dead operators with his rock. Exhaustion and panic nearly overwhelm me at the sight him standing over their bodies like some dark thing, a spirit of vengeance or death. Then he plants the explosives and I snap out of it. Quickly I set the charge, as long as I dare.

We rush to the third, where Kat is struggling with one man on the ground. I kick the operator in the face and he cries out before Kat is able to bring his spade down. The last explosives are set quickly and we hurry away as the bombardment continues along our line.

Through the razor wire and wet shell holes we scramble back toward our own trenches. The star shells are going up again and we are forced to hide behind the airship’s wreckage once again before crawling away. Umley is slowing and by the time we reach the remains of our own defenses, Kat and I are dragging him.

“Hold!” comes a voice from ahead of us. “Identify!”

Kat growls but, behind us our own barrage takes place. The mortars go up in a flash and fire, igniting their whole line as the powder stores catch, explode and burn. Cheers erupt down our own line and Kat calls out.

“There’s our bloody identification you fool!”

“Kat?”

I freeze for the voice is familiar. No, no it can’t be. No I am hearing the dead, they rise up and speak to me. We never made it back from our foray, we have died and this voice is calling me beyond death.

“This better not be a joke or I’ll kill you again,” Kat says and hauls us with him, one hand on my arm and the other helping me drag Umley. We drop over the trench wall and lower Umley to the firing step. His eyes have closed but he still breathes.

And standing there, looking like he’s just stolen our schoolmaster’s answer book, is Shiod.

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