36 Hours – Chapter 1

Below is the first chapter of my SWTOR Fan Fiction Novella “36 Hours” as seen on RepublicTrooper.com.

Chapter 1 – 2300 Hours

The Republic is leaving Balmorra. I watch the transport clear Verdin Palace just as we settle to a stop. The walker is an old one and it had limped more than walked us from the training camp. Vanmere is pointing but its Shiod who says it.

“They’re abandoning us!”

It seems that way. For months the Republic has been pulling troops off Balmorra. Verdin Palace and the principality surrounding it seems to be all that’s left of my home planet. The Sith have been here for years, fighting and burning. If I had been eighteen just a few months earlier, I might have had my first deployment in the trenches around Sentir, my home. Instead, we’re here.

“Maybe it’s just a supply run,” I say and step off the deck onto the hard earth. My boots are old and my uniform hangs baggy on my small frame. The uniform of the Balmorran army hangs limply on us all, even portly Vanmere. If not for the draft, he’d have never made a soldier. He fell behind on every march, but it didn’t matter to our drill instructor. “You won’t need marching in the trenches,” he said and made us all do it again anyway.

“Let’s go find Kat,” Lenmerer says as he hefts his big bag. Len is the smallest of us all, little more than a boy in his father’s uniform. His pack is as big as he is, his blaster rifle just as tall. He comes to stand next to Vanmere and me. Shiod lags behind, staring into the sky. Then he shrugs and comes too. The four of us leave the transport behind.

“He’s still alive,” Len says as we walk over uneven ground. It’s been blasted in craters and pock marks. No grass grows here, not even thistlebrush which thrives in the cold. Life is gone from here. I look around and see corpses of brownleaf and gray needle trees blackened and scorched where they fell. Some are no more than stumps, the rest burned to ash. I don’t look at Len, only the trees.

“Of course. He wrote just last week.”

“Five months in this dump,” Shiod says, groaning under the weight of his pack. He reminds me of an old story, of a turtle carrying its house on its back. Will he be able to hide inside that pack when this war seeks him like it sought those trees? I feel the enthusiasm I’d had on the way over burn away.

“Five months is not so long,” I say and we talk no more. A year ago we had been five students on the cusp of manhood. Then the Sith came and many were drafted. Kat had been taken two months later. I’d waved goodbye to him at the transport lift. “Goodbye Kat!” I yelled. “Get one of them for me!”

Now it would be our turn. We would have to get one for ourselves. I am determined to do myself proud here. My parents proud. It’s been so long since I’ve seen them. They were in occupied territory now, far from here. A year is a long time at seventeen.

We reach Verdin Palace and its huge walls. A shield hums before it, blue and translucent like an iridescent bubble. When I reach out to touch it, its solid and hot, like glass left in the sun.

A guard comes to us from a sentry hut. “You the new recruits?” he says. I tell him yes. He indicates for us to give him our identification. We each produce a coded chip. He scans them each and points to one side of the sentry hut. “Go that way, follow it around to the communication trench. You’ll report to Sergeant Fane.”

We follow his directions into another world. Glow lamps illuminate a scarred sight. Just past the sentry hut, we see the defensive trenches. They are deep incisions into the earth, crevices and cracks two meters deep. A soldier in a dirty, mud-caked uniform shows us how to get down into the nearest one. “Just jump,” he says and laughs.

We leap down onto a plasteel box and stumble off into ankle-deep mud and freezing water. Shiod falls and it takes both Len and me to pick him up again. Muddy and soaked, he curses the soldier, who only laughs. We go on, wading as best we can with cold, wet feet and darkening spirits.

Men lay everywhere. They lay on shelves cut into the trench, or small holes they cut into the side. They are all caked in mud. Some don’t look like they are breathing. Vanmere gasps at this. “Dead men,” he all but squeaks. “There are dead men in here.”

“Only sleeping,” Shiod says but gives me a look. Vanmere is not a brave boy, we know that. We will tell him they are sleeping until he believes it. Len checks his medical bag, fumbling around inside. I stop him and shake my head.

We find Sergeant Fane several hundred meters down the line. He wears white armor, though the white is hard to find through all the dirt. He has no helmet and we stumble on him while he smokes a thin tabac stick. We’ve learned to recognize rank colors and stripes by now.

“Is this it?” he says. “How old are you lot? Nevermind, I don’t care. Which one of you is Lenmerer?”

“I am, Sergeant,” Len says.

“I hope you know how to use that medic bag. We need a medic on the line. Last one got his head baked by a flame spitter.”

I shoot a look at Shiod before looking to Len. He’s turned white, a ghost against the dark mud of the trench walls. He tries to say something but can’t seem to get it out. Fane smirks. “Greenhorns. It’s all right, you’ll figure it out quick enough.” He looks at a datapad. “Which of you is Adken?”

“I am, Sergeant,” I say, curious why my name is of note.

“They say you’re a good shot. Ever handled a sniper rifle?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” I say. I’d fired it once at basic, I suppose that counts. It seems to. He nods and taps his pad and says nothing more on it.

“Get on down the line. I’m putting you in Company B. They’ll be heading up to the front soon.”

We move on, not wanting to stand there much longer. Water is soaking through my boots at the seams and the further we walk, the darker the trenches become. Before long we can only step forward, unable to see a meter in front of us. We hold a hand out against a well and another out before us. Once we trip over something stiff and fleshy and we move on quickly.

The darkness is everywhere. I feel it distinctly as we slosh ahead. We say nothing to one another. Above us, there are no stars. Perhaps there are clouds, but perhaps there are not. In this desolate place between lights, I find myself alone even though Shiod is there on my right. I try not to think about home, about how this might have all been a horrible mistake.

We come into the light, sickly and yellow like before. There are men sitting in there, looking sallow and dead despite the breath that mists between unmoving lips. One of them holds a helmet on his knees, sitting perfectly still. He is the only one to look at us and I wonder if we look like children caught where we aren’t supposed to be.

“You it?” he says without emotion. No, I decide then, it is not without emotion. It’s more that the emotion is gone, blown away. The void of humanity, of fear or hope, scares me more than the darkness. He offers us a smile, but it is as dead as his voice.

“Yes,” I say. Shiod normally speaks for us but he is quiet now. I feel his spirit suppress at the sight of these men. They are dead men who have yet to lay in the mud and act the part. How can they be so far gone? What must be ahead of us that soldiers die before their bodies do?

The man with the helmet nods once and then ducks into a dugout we did not see before. It is a black hole in the earth, a cave through which our naked eyes can see nothing. It is an uncomfortable feeling and I look away, ashamed but I don’t know why. In school, our teachers quoted a Balmorran poet who said, ‘O’look ye on the end of time and despair, on the precipice and quail. Come ye faithful and close thy eyes to look upon darkness and emptiness and nothing.’ I feel suddenly that this is very profound, that perhaps all eighteen years of my life were not a waste. But the feeling is fleeting and the man returns, dispelling the magnitude of the sensation.

“Take these,” he says and hands us each a bag with a mask within. “For the gas,” he continues when I look at him with confusion. “And this.” With that he hands us each a slugthrower, a pistol that explodes a small cartridge within and fires a pellet of metal rather than a bolt of light. It is an old weapon, outdated even when my ancestors came to this world.

“What is this for?” Shiod asks and Len slaps him on the arm. “Well? What for? We haveblasters don’t we?”

“It’s for the Sith,” the man says. “Lightsabers.”

I have never seen a lightsaber, those great glowing weapons of power and light, so full ofstrength that as boys we both dream of them, and fear them. On Balmorra where the war has been so close, as close as my mother or sister, those weapons glow red most often and it is terror that seizes us now. I see it in the eyes of my friends. I feel it in the grip Shiod has on my coat sleeve and the quiver in Vanmere’s exhaling breath. Len says nothing, does nothing. I think he doesn’t understand. It is plain. Our bolts will not kill a man with one of those blades. It will be stopped and returned to us. Death by our own hands. I nod and the man seems to take this for a group answer.

“Sit,” he says and does so himself. He stares straight ahead at the mud wall opposite him and holds his helmet on his knees. “It’ll be our turn soon.”

We sit, all four of us on a ledge of mud and broken rock. Vanmere rubs at his chubby cheeks and gets streaks of mud all over them. Len is searching his medical bag but doesn’t find whatever it is he’s looking for. I don’t think he ever will as I don’t think it exists here at the front.

“Where’s Kat?” Shiod asks me in a whisper. I shake my head. How could I know where Kat is? I know I should ask the man with the helmet but my voice sticks in my throat. I suddenly don’t want to ask, don’t want to know in case he is dead. But that is ridiculous. Kat isn’t dead. It is impossible. In school he never lost in sports and never failed a test. He never seemed to try. Kat just did things and came out okay. He would survive this too. It would be a snap for him. He will come up to us soon, grinning and ask us for a tabac stick or bit of gum.

There is a whistle now, shrill and short like a bird’s death rattle. The men around us stand and so we stand as well. We look confusedly at one another but pile in behind the man with the helmet. He turns his head to look at me just before pulling on his helmet. “It’s time,” he says.

I am about to ask what he means but there is a loud crack that splits the sky with blue and white. The sound is like the world cracking open. I cover my ears with my hands but drop them again so I can pick up Shiod who has fallen to his knees. There is another crack, this time longer and louder. Again and again and again!

Then it is over. I am huddled against the trench wall with mud and rock bits in my hair and on my shoulders, gripping my rifle like a child grips his mother’s arm. Shame takes me then, to look so cowardly. Shiod lays in a fetal curl at my left side. Len has pressed his face so far against the dirt wall that I cannot make out his features. Vanmere is throwing up and shaking.

“Up,” the man with the helmet says with a hand on my shoulder that is not unkind. His voice is impossibly soft for the situation. “That was just an attack on the Palace shield. It can’t go through, but they like to knock anyway.”

We head to the front. It is slow at first, picking our way through the darkness of a communications trench that is narrow and shallow so we must duck to keep out of sight. Our hands are on the man ahead of us. I have hold of the man in the helmet’s belt, and I feel its metal canisters cool against my skin. The night is also cold and it has begun to rain. My hair is damp by the time we turn away from the communications trench and slide down into a medic center.

Here Len is taken by the arm and pulled away from us. So quick is he gone that for an instant I’m afraid. He had been at my back, his hand gripping the back of my coat. Then the pressure of his presence is gone and when I finally see him, he is being taken into a dugout by a man with a red marking on his uniform. It is only then that I understand. He will not join us in the trenches. Medics have their own place and I am briefly jealous and mournful.

There is no time to say goodbye, to wave or any other such thing. We are moving and now it is Vanmere at my back. His thick fingers have hold of my rifle strap and if he lags behind the straps dig into my throat and nearly suffocate me.

At last we come to it. There is a valley between two high walls where men are changed out like bad fuel chargers. We are going in and there are men coming out. They do not look happy or elated. They simply look worn out and drained, men that have been used too roughly. Most are likely my own age but something has made old men out of them. Something I would soon see.

We step through and my boots sink to the ankle in muddy water. It is cold as it seeps into my boot and I hesitate, but the press of bodies behind me pushes me on. Soon both of my feet are wet and cold. I wonder if they will ever be dry again.

The trench is higher than the others, four meters in some places with a ledge higher up to stand on. I see men on it now, crouching with their rifles. Some are smoking with covered tobac sticks, just a brief flare that you will miss if you blink. There are no other lights and we slosh through along the line.

I step on something that squashes meatily beneath my boot. I recoil and stumble before the man with the helmet can catch me. He kicks at something and curses softly before hauling me to my feet. “Mud frogs,” he says. “Poisonous if you let them bite. Just kick them if you see them.” I nod and we move along again.

“Here,” he says in a whisper and indicates an open spot on the line. We climb up onto the step and Shiod huddles in on my left and Vanmere on my right. Their warmth is welcome as the cold rain picks up. The trench wall is muddy and soft and I dig my fingers into it on impulse. Beneath, the ground is warm and inviting, accepting me if I should climb into it.

“Where is Kat?” Shiod whispers to me, glancing around. “He said he’d find us.”

I shake my head. I don’t know and wouldn’t know where to start looking. The trench line is so dark I can’t see beyond the man to Shiod’s left or the trench wall before me. The rain comes down worse than ever, pouring into my hair and down the back of my neck. I wish for a helmet but the supply had run out before our training was done. I fish into my pack and draw out a dry shirt and wrap it around my head. It helps.

In the dark we wait but I don’t know what for. There is a stillness about us so absolute that I feel ashamed to breath and disturb it. Down the line, someone coughs, another sniffs. There is the sound of a weapon being loaded again and again. Beyond these sounds there is only the silence and the darkness.

Suddenly there is a burst of light overhead. It fills the sky with white, burning an afterimage into my eyes that lasts several long moments. Pain explodes in my eyes, tears briefly obscuring the sights around me. Once cleared, there are dark shapes where the flare went off but I see Shiod very clearly.

He is watching the sky too with a sense of awe. The dirt and mud are very clear to me and I see small insects burrowing and crawling along.

Another burst lights up the sky. Another and then another. I wonder what it means, wonder who fired it and why. The men around us are ducking or digging into the earth in front of them. Shiod and Vanmere look to me. I have no answers for them, our training said nothing of these star shells. And then, quite suddenly, there is a sound.

It begins with a low thump, like the heartbeat of giant creature. It reverbs throughout the area. You feel it in the earth, in your breast. Then there is the smell of burned ozone and the whizzing sound that reminds you of a swarm of buzz bees. Then, worst of all, it hits.

The barrage began.

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