36 Hours – Chapter 3

Over the Top

The man next to Shiod dies. He is hit by a shell that explodes not a meter from us. In an instant we are covered in dirt. It comes over us like an ocean’s wave. My ears and mouth are especially vulnerable and are filled. Kat digs me out and I, gasping and spitting, help Shiod. Vanmere is spared from the whole of it by a stroke of luck.

The dead man lay where he’d previously stood, but only his lower torso and legs remain. The rest is gone, blown away in a blast that leaves the rest of us shaken but otherwise unhurt. I stare until Kat shakes me back to myself.

“Sith!”

He says this twice more before I regain my senses. In the desert of No Man’s Land, the enemy is coming to kill us. Leading them is a man in dark armor and armed with a lightsaber. It is an impossible weapon, shedding light when any sane person would pray for darkness to hide in. The light bathes him in light that turns him the color of blood. The sight alone unnerves me.

Vanmere is shooting like a man in a trance. He pulls the trigger in slow, measured motions. Each blaster bolt slides from the muzzle of his rifle methodically every half second. They are aimed poorly and without purpose. He is aiming at the light.

I grab his arm to stop him but not before the red blade deflects a single bolt back at us. It strikes the fortification in front of me. It sounds like a terrible beast raging against a door. Let me in it says. Let me in.

Kat takes charge of Vanmere and I once again take up the slugthrower. I fired a weapon like it only once in training, but the memory is still fresh in my mind. The weapon has a terrible kick and can sprain a man’s wrist if he is not careful. I grip it with both hands, steadying the weapon like I was told.

“Ready slugthrowers!” says someone who seems to be in charge. I pull back the slide that loads a slug into the chamber and aim. The Sith isn’t even hurrying. He walks toward us, unconcerned. He is so sure of our death that he does not rush to it. We are merely waiting to die.

“Fire!”

I squeeze my hands together, unhinging the safety and freeing the trigger. Blaster bolts are coming from the enemy soldiers now. They are wise to our tactic. Many are rushing to shield the Sith with their bodies or portable energy shields.

The weapon discharges suddenly. The trigger does not have the heavy pull I remembered from training and it snaps back almost of its own accord. It barks fire before my eyes. Pops and cracks echo all down the trench as others fire. Shiod is firing his weapon constantly, screaming obscenities in his fear-driven fervor. I fire only once.

The Sith is struck several times, but none seem to hurt him. Several slugs simply stop before him and tumble to the ground as if they had struck an invisible wall. Other slugs slam into soldiers whose armor is not as thick. They scream and fall.

Then the Sith leaps and he is among us. He lands to the right of the line, cutting down a man with officer colors on his armor. The red blade arches down through the man’s neck and shoulder, cleaving like a hot knife through butter. There is no scream, no sound at all. The soldier merely falls to pieces before our eyes.

“Bring him down!” That is Kat. I turn, intending to shoot at the Sith, to do what Kat asks. I do not comprehend then how important training is to us. They train us so we do not hesitate, do not question, do not think. We are not men, we are weapons to be aimed. In that instant, I hesitate. I am not fully trained, nor is Shiod or Vanmere. We turn but a breath goes by before we react.

Two more men die in that breath. The red blade swings in a wide arc, cutting off a man’s head and cleaving through another’s weapon, shoulder and chest. Blaster fire erupts from both sides, mixed with the pops and cracks of slugthrowers.

Vanmere fires and misses Shiod by a hair. A crossfire springs to life and men die on both sides of our enemy, killed by our own desperation to survive. A slug skins my cheek while a blaster bolt burns through the sleeve of my armored jacket. I feel no pain. I feel only a great suffocation of fear.

The Sith begins to turn toward us. Men have abandoned firearms for vibroswords and combat knives. The butchery begins in earnest then, the lightsaber stopped only occasionally by vibro weapons built for such a purpose.

One man has the blade impale him, but he manages to sink a knife into the Sith’s thigh. A grenade attaches itself to the Sith’s arm, pulsing quickly. Kat pulls me back and I grab Shiod. Vanmere is missing and there is no time to look for him. We must escape the blast, find safety in a dugout, a mound of earth, anything.

The Sith shouts and runs at a group of soldiers too slow to escape him. Kat pushes us behind a corner of the trench and I hear the explosion. I cover my ears but I feel something inside them and panic. A brief insanity comes over me and I fear a slug has caught me in the head. My fingers dig inside, only to come away covered in mud.

Behind Kat I see the first soldier come to the top of our trench. The helmet reminds me of a skull printed upon a bucket that has been turned upside down. He is aiming a rifle at us. I don’t know where my rifle came from, but perhaps in the confusion I picked it up. I fire again and again and again. The man falls face first, landing with a sickening crunch on that skull-like helmet.

Kat smiles at me but the attack is on us. Imperial soldiers crest the trench, firing and throwing grenades. A repeating blaster cuts down several of the imperial attackers right in front of us before they can fire, while others leap into the trench to escape. Kat is on them quickly, working with his knife.

Shiod and I move to help him. Humanity is lost to us then. It is a thing for other times, for when we sit in school and answer questions of history and language. It belongs to a Tomi Adken much younger, a Tomi of yesterday, of five hours ago. Forever ago.

We are driven by something more than fear. It is a sort of madness that pushes us as we set to our bloody work. When I stab my first man in the back and feel the resistance of the armor give way to softer, shivering flesh, I am neither happy nor repulsed. I do it and then I move and shove my knife beneath the arm of another. With each thrust I feel neither satisfied or horrified, but merely driven to go on.

I fall as a soldier lands heavily upon me. We roll in the mud and ankle-deep water. I have the advantage with my simple combat hat. His mask fills with water and his hands grasp at it. I turn over and strike home over and over again until the body spasms and goes still. I do not even comprehend that he is a man like myself.

Why do we forget in these times of senseless slaughter that our knives are killing, taking a man with memories and loves and experience quickly from the world? It is a matter of simple, senseless facts. We kill because a man is there and he might kill me. I pick up my rifle and pull the trigger so my blaster bolt explodes the throat of another because his rifle is slower. He dies because I do not. There is no training for this kind of killing. It is not a skill, it is a fugue. The images are not stored for my memory and I will forget. I must forget.

We are free of them then and Shiod grins at me. His pale face is covered in blood and dirt and his helmet is gone, his mud-colored hair matted with filthy water. Kat has Vanmere by the arm, and so he has survived after all.

The enemy comes ever onward and our line is forced back along the trench. We run, pulling the safeties from grenades and tossing them behind us. It will slow their progress. Kat pulls down razor wire like a gate and fires his rifle into it, energizing the trap. Should anyone run through it, the wire will snag and cut and tangle.

The escape takes us to a communication trench and we duck as shells explode overhead. A piece of exploded metal catches Shiod in the back, throwing flesh and blood into my eyes. He screams but does not fall. Blaster fire behind us makes me forget about his wound entirely.

Kat turns and throws, his grenade exploding in the midst of four imperial soldiers. For a moment I’m blinded, but the shouts of his victims turn into anguished cries. When my vision clears, there are three corpses. The fourth man caught the grenade in the chest and has been blown to bits.

“Here!” Kat shouts and we dig in with others along a secondary trench. The counter attack begins in earnest now, our line firing in rapid succession into the attacking force. Imperial soldiers fall in droves, clogging choke points with their dead. It is along these choke points that we stop them. Grav cannons pour into them while grenades reap a deadly harvest of blood and metal.

I lose track of time. The rifle’s vibrations make my hands and arms numb. My vision blurs from all the flashing lights and I think of nothing but firing into that valley of death.

After a time more shouting comes down the line. Kat taps me on the shoulder and waves to follow. I do the same for Shiod and Vanmere. Shiod has applied a bacta bandage to his back and assures me he’s fine. Vanmere says nothing, but comes, pale with eyes half-closed.

We retake the front line trench with ease. The enemy is retreating, fighting only to return across No Man’s Land. An officer is waving his hands forward. He is shouting words that do not inspire nor fill me with regret. They are simply words. Words, words, words.

“Over the top boys! Over the top now!”

We pick up the cry like a chorus, a senseless song of murderous, righteous fury. My vision narrows, seeing only the mud of the trench, the steps, and then the field beyond. We go over, crossing into No Man’s Land and running, screaming.

Shells rush to meet us. They explode overhead and rain down molten metal on us. One moment I am running along with an older man with graying hair, his long mustaches flowing, and the next he has no face. He falls without a word.

Shiod leaps a crater with a single jump. Kat is not carrying a rifle but a digging shovel. Vanmere lags behind and is lost in the advance.

We cross razor wire cut to shreds countless shells. Proximity mines lay like spined mounds across the dark landscape. Nearby, a man trips one and the explosion cuts off his feet. He runs on the bloody stumps for a few meters before collapsing in a shell hole. I take all this in without feeling. They are images I may well deal with later, but for now they mean nothing to me.

Blaster fire opens up before us. Two men to my left fall. One to my right cries out, grabs my coat but I push him away and keep running. We must get to their trench, must kill them or they will keep coming and the night will never end. In my senseless thoughts, ending the night is all there is to me. One night is the whole of my life and my future.

We reach an autocannon nest and Kat caves in a man’s helmet with his shovel. I instantly see the use in the weapon. It is heavy and blunt and crushes armor with a single swing. Against the unarmored mortar crews it is even more effective. The sharpened edges get a man beneath the chin or cleave through shoulders. Shiod and I fire into the ammunition boxes to explode them.

The enemy trench is shallower than our own and we leap into it, throwing grenades and using the stocks of our weapons. It is close, bloody work. Kat kills two men emerging from a dugout. We duck into it and he has us take all the food we can. We leave the dugout with grenades dropped behind us.

The enemy retreats into their deeper trenches and we follow as far as we dare. There are only a handful of us when the enemy turns and digs in. Here we also turn and begin to make our way back. We are not here to capture the position for we are too few. I understand this at once. We came only to take what they took from us. We are weapons aimed and nothing more.

On the way out we take as many clips of ammunition, pouches of food and grenades as we can find. We collapse any dugouts we find and shoot any corpses that twitch. When we climb out of the narrow trench, we are even more heavily burdened than we’d been going in.

We escape into a copse of trees, thin and ghostlike in the darkness. Mist and smoke mingle like wraiths in the light of illumination shells as they explode overhead. Kat turns around and around and curses.

“What’s up Kat?” I ask.

“I’ve lost my way. Need a moment.”

Shiod and I exchange a look. Kat is never lost and he never forgets a thing. He is simply making sure. To go the wrong way now would take us back into that blaster fire. We need to get back to our line. There is life. The other way is only death.

Kat grunts and waves us onward. We follow, no longer running but jogging. Our exhaustion is setting in but we dare not stop here. How far is our line? A hundred meters? Two hundred? Half a kilometer? I have no idea how far I ran, the whole of it is lost to me.

“Get down!” Kat shouts and drops to the ground. We follow suit just as the ground begins to explode around us. Trees are ripped free and throw into the air. Splinters fly just over our heads, wooden shrapnel as deadly as any shell or mine.

The bombardment is quick but reduces the small section of trees to stumps and broken trunks. I risk a quick look around and see something that chills me to my core. I know why the attack has stopped. It has delivered death not with explosions but with something more sinister. It rises and mixes with the mist and smoke, twisting and blowing toward us with measured finality.

Gas.

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