Darkness. We are swallowed by it, enveloped and embraced by it. In the flashes of light we are seen as if through still images. We look at one another with white faces and thin lips pressed tight.
There is no sound in the darkness and with the light we are made deaf by explosions. Are we in one of the Hells preached to us by our Spiritual Leaders? No, it is too cold. Are we dead? No, we yet move and take breath. But in these flashes of light, there is a complete absence of life. No movement, no warmth and no sound but the crashing of ordnance. The barrage is the only life we know.
It has gone on now for an hour. I am convinced that there was no life before it and any moment, there will be no life after. The wet and mud and cold are the whole of my existence. I extend no further than the falling of the next shell.
Suddenly I am blinded, an explosion has gone off just behind us. Vanmere is gone, ripped from my hands. I cry out but I hear nothing. Do I have a voice? Will I ever speak again? Shiod rises to his feet and points but I see only spots of black and white, now fading to amber and gold and silver.
He’s been blown out of the trench. Once my vision clears I spot him laying atop a mound of earth. We call out to him, dig our feet into the mud and try to raise ourselves up to grab him. There is no sign of life at first for Vanmere does not move. Then, very slowly, his arm swings over and he crawls to the ledge. We pull him down to us and I find myself holding him like I might a frightened child.
The bombardment continues on, heedless of us. When will it end? It must end, it must! There is no reason for this continue, to smash against us without reason or direction. Verdin’s shields are too strong, the bombardment cannot penetrate it, so why do they insist? It goes on and on.
Further down the line a shell lands directly in the trench. The explosion is muffled but where it hits there is nothing but a crater of destroyed duracrete, mud and scraps of flesh. I reach into the earth before me and press closer. I will myself into it, beg and pray for the earth itself to accept me. It is my mother, my lover, my world. If I can only be closer to her I will live for one more moment.
A hand grips my shoulder and shakes me. I shrug it off. No, no! I must be close to the wall. The wall and the earth. The earth, the earth… she will save me! In a mad moment I confuse it for my mother, a woman who is the only one allowed to say I may die. She has more hold on me than anything else in this world. The shells and concussion bombs must go through her.
Someone slaps me and shakes me hard. I look into the face of a young man with angular features and bright blue eyes. They hold me, pin me to the spot like a strong memory. I know those eyes, know them as well I as could know anything. They are the eyes of Stevron Katzin. I feel suddenly myself again, the spell of terror is broken. Kat has come. Kat has finally come!
“Inside!” he shouts, grabbing hold of Vanmere and shoving us both down the line. We are going toward the area where the shell had landed in the trench. I pause, horrified by the sight of the carnage but Kat pushes us on.
We cross over it. Vanmere vomits but what is that in comparison to what lay beneath our feet? The sight of such grotesqueries impresses itself upon us as we step onto the other side and begin to run. Kat yells to turn and we fall as another shell bursts the trench wall just ahead of us. A man stumbles toward us and with each light of the explosions I see his injuries in acute focus. Half the man’s jaw is gone and his chest looks as though a giant creature has taken a massive bite from it. I see his lung inflate and I run.
We find ourselves in a dugout, a reinforced hole in the trench walls. Inside, the noise of the bombardment is lessened but still loud enough to ring our ears. I collapse on the worn plastoid floor and cough up dirt and mud which I don’t remember swallowing.
There are other men here, men that seem to know better than to stand on the firing line during a bombardment. Kat explains it to us. They put the new recruits there so the dugouts are not as crowded. When I grow furious at this, Kat calms me down and says that it is simple survival. When he heard that new recruits from our old station had arrived, he’d gone to look for us in a barrage. That was Kat, a big man with startling blue eyes and a loyalty without bounds.
“Here,” Kat says and passes us each a plastoid helmet. We don’t ask where he got them from for Kat always finds what is needed. “Rotten how they don’t outfit the new recruits these days. Your head is bleeding Tomi.”
I reach a hand up to touch my forehead and then go further back. It comes back sticky and wet from rain and blood. It is a graze and nothing more, likely where a rock had hit me. Kat dries it with a bandage and applies a light amount of bacta. The pain subsides immediately.
“Len with you?” he asks. Shiod grunts and points. “With the medics. They made him a medic.”
“Poor bastard,” says Kat as he sits down with us. We are all sitting on a bench, shoulders touching. It’s so close in here that it is claustrophobic. The heat is intense as well, but that is welcome after the cold outside. The room shakes again and again as the bombardment falls on the trench outside.
We say nothing for a time. I look to Vanmere and discover that he has gone very pale. Kat is looking at him too; his eyes suspicious. “Van? You holding up?”
“Fine,” Vanmere says. “I’m fine. Fine as ever.”
He is not fine, we can see it in his eyes. He looks like a caged animal with his wide eyes that look here and there too quickly. His hands clench and unclench constantly while he grinds his teeth. Now he begins to shake. Kat rises then but is almost too late. Vanmere is up and running for the door.
“Help me!” Kat says as he grabs hold of Vanmere’s arm. Shiod and I rush to help and together we wrestle him to the ground. He fights us with kicks and teeth, seemingly gone mad. “Let me out!” he screams. “I want to go out! I’ll find it, I’ll find it!”
What he’ll find we never know, for Kat strikes him hard. It is how one’s senses are driven back into our brains. When Vanmere raves again, Kat pushes him back against the ground so hard he groans and coughs. Now a few of the other men in the dugout are on their feet. “Shut him up before he drives us all mad!”
Eventually he does. With Kat’s hidings and Shiod and I talking to him, Vanmere comes back to himself. He sits against the wall and begins to sob quietly. There are no more incidents from him.
We have become numb to falling of the shells. Outside of the dugout we watch flashes of ordnance like one might watch a lightning storm. The explosions that rock the room are taken in stride. Once a direct hit cracks the duracrete walls and there is some panic, but the support holds and we sit through it.
Kat suggests a game of Sabacc. We try a few hands but we are too intent on listening to each shell’s cry outside and are distracted. The fear of them is gone but simple survival remains. If one of the large concussion bombs lands close enough we will have to make a dive for it or be buried alive. When told this, Vanmere turns green but does not try to run again.
Shiod tells a few jokes but humor is lost on us. We sit and wait for the bombardment to stop. We have no concept of time in the little room. It could have been five minutes or five hours, we would not be able to tell you. One simply sits and waits. Some pray. I notice this once in a while, but there are not many. I wonder if this war has blown the faith right out of people.
“They must have unlimited power cells,” one of the men growls after a long period of silence. “This is the longest yet.”
“They know the Republic has pulled out,” Kat says in his calm, cool voice. He has the voice of a leader. If he had given me the order to charge the enemy lines I would have done it without thought. Such is the power of trust.
“But why Kat?” I ask. “Why now?”
“They are brokering a peace treaty with the Empire,” he says. I never question how he knows this. He simply does and that’s all there is to it. The other men take him at his word too.
“Some peace,” Shiod says as a bomb explodes far too close overhead. Dirt falls on his head and he sneezes.
“If the Empire takes Verdin before they come to an agreement, it’s one more planet they have under their control to bargain with.” Kat shrugs, never taking his eyes off the door.
“So why pull out? Why give them the opportunity?” I ask this with a sudden fervor that makes my blood hot. I suddenly want to stand up and shout and curse, but the sensation passes. As another shell sends us all to the ground, I stop wondering about it at all.
“We just need to wait thirty-six hours or so,” Kat says as we stumble to our feet again. “Or that’s what the bloody Jedi said anyway.”
Kat goes stiff and frowns. He is so focused that I grow alarmed. “What is it?” I ask, grabbing for my rifle. He holds out a hand for quiet and we all grow deathly silent. After a moment, he speaks. “The bombardment is falling behind us, against the shield instead. Everyone out!”
I don’t understand but go out. Vanmere is close behind me but does not seem to need any special assistance. Shiod is out first, looking relieved. “The rain’s stopped,” he says as we join him. Indeed it has, but the night is still cold and the sight of the battered trench makes me nervous.
There are men already here, hundreds of them all on the firing step with their rifles held at the ready. Kat urges us up onto the ledge and makes sure our helmets are on. We are like children that need his fatherly guidance in this. We are too new to it and if he relaxes his vigil we may soon be lost.
“An attack is coming,” he says and risks a glance over the parapet. “Get ready.”
I lean against the trench wall and rest my rifle against the top. With a growing sense of fear I sight down my telescopic lens, switching it over to nightvision. In the narrow viewscreen I see a gray and blasted landscape full of holes and shapeless masses. Here and there I see the corpse of a tree, its limbs bent and broken. There I see a mound of flesh that might have been a skeet. Everywhere there are bodies and proximity mines that are yet unexploded.
My vision goes dark as a blast of dirt erupts in front of me. Then blaster fire begins, spattering the ground in front of me with many tiny explosions. I reflexively pull my trigger, sending my own blasts back at them, though I still see no one.
Other weapons are firing now. Down the line I hear a concussive blast go off and in the distance there is a small explosion. From reinforced parapets I see grav rounds tear up distant plots of earth.
Shadows move in the distance and I look over to see Kat beginning with the grenades. He lobs them over one after another silently with a look of determination on his face. I turn back to my rifle and gaze into the explosions and haze of smoke.
The shadows form into armor-clad soldiers. They come unhurriedly in their cold, gray plastoid and faceless helmets. A few fall as blaster rounds find their marks, pitching over without protest or sound.
I aim, lining up a shot at one soldier that carries a gun so large it could have come off a starship. He breaks into a run as explosions burst to life all around him. I wonder briefly how he feels, if he is aware of the madness that this all has become, but I stop myself. I know that if I think on the man behind that mask any longer I will be lost. I pull the trigger.
The shot takes him in throat and I am happy that my skill with a rifle has not left me due to fear or stress. The soldier does not fall like the other had but rather stumbles and drops his weapon. I see him shake and shudder, then claw at his neck and try to pull away his helmet. He goes to his knees, convulsing. I stare in horror at what I’d done.
And then a red blade takes the man’s head off.
“Sith!” Kat cries and sets off an alarm on his belt. All down the line men pull slugthrower pistols and place them on the firing ledge, ready to use them when the range is better. I pull mine with a shaking hand. Vanmere does not, but rather fires slowly down range. I try and stop him, to tell him he needs to use something different but he is deaf to me. I grip the slugthrower and hold it in both hands and wait.
In the darkness the red blade comes ever onward.