At the Last
We lay low in the shell holes for there are no proper trenches any longer. The continuous bombardments reduced their depth in some areas to less than a meter. It is enough to lay down and close one’s eyes and wait for the next shell to claim him.
Kat and I never stay in one place too long. We move from hole to hole, crawling beneath wire and leaping over pools of gas and blood. The gas came regularly for a time but it is only dangerous in the low places now and we have removed our masks.
The sun is well up and we are clearly seen by the enemy. Snipers shoot at any hints of uniform or helmet and often their bolts find flesh and bone. A sergeant lost his hand when tossed out his smoke stick.
I assume our lack of wounds means we are fast or lucky or both. Kat knows where to go and we are both keen to finding cover now. Presently we rest in the broken bits of an old dugout. Duracrete and mud is piled high on all sides though the trench it once occupied is nothing more than broken mounds of dirt.
We do not smoke and barely talk. When we do it is in hushed whispers and low, guttural sounds. The enemy is listening, watching, waiting. We wait too but I do not know what for.
There are rumors of peace among the pockets of soldiers we come across. Those with comms still functional pick up talk about a Treaty being proposed on Alderaan. Kat chalks it up to nonsense and rumor until we hear that Coruscant is fallen.
Strangely that takes the wind from us, even now as Kat and I sit huddled against a bank of earth that is both our salvation and our prison. Coruscant. Coruscant the capitol of the Republic is fallen. The words sound foreign and awkward in my mind and on my tongue. I can not get the words out, to mouth even a single syllable to Kat. No, no it is not true, it is madness. Without the Capitol, there is no Republic and no relief.
Yet still the bombardment rolls on and on ceaselessly. There is an attack during a lull but even then the shells rain down, killing imperials as well. They are mad and we are mad. The whole world has gone to splinters of sense and reality. A shell, an explosion, a scream and a hole. These are the only things. They are almost holy.
I have lost track of time but the sun is risen over the mountains. Soon, soon our time will end and the Republic will come. It will come, it must. Without it we are all dead men waiting to lay down and rattle out our final breath.
I don’t think about Shiod but he comes to me in these moments of silence. I see him sitting across from me, a skinny boy in big boots and a jacket too large for him. He holds a rifle that looks so comical I would laugh if it were any other circumstance. Something is missing from him. It is his smile, his warmth, his life. The image fades and I am alone with Kat again.
Is it madness? Have I broken finally, now at the last? Will I see ghosts the rest of my life? Will I leave here and walk with Shiod’s memory wherever I go? I catch myself and am surprised. I am thinking of after, of surviving the war. I shake my head and spit.
“Time to move,” Kat says and there is no hesitation. We are up and running as the bombardment begins to come our way. Rock and dirt and bodies are thrown into the air ahead of us, to our right and behind us. We turn to our left and Kat drops to the ground. I am right behind him and narrowly avoid a shell fragment that rips through the air over my head. Had I not dropped the ground it would have decapitated me.
I crawl down into a shallow dugout where Kat is kneeling with others. They have a commlink but can’t seem to get any signal. Kat curses.
“The whole damned line is down,” he says but the rest is drowned out. The barrage thickens, intensifies to the point where I can no longer hear individual shells. They rain down continually, one after another. The world shakes, unceasingly, uncontrollably. It groans with explosions, screams in pain and agony as it is split open, torn wide, bled of its rock and soil.
Kat drags me out of the dugout and into the open trench. It is safer here. The dugout could collapse under the concussion alone. I hold my head low, my cheek sinking into mud. The dirty water gets into my mouth and nose and I sputter but don’t rise. Eventually I find a way to reconcile it, to breath with the left side of my mouth and shut the water out. I am lucky and there is no gas.
It goes on and on until I feel I’ll go mad. Hours, days, years pass under that onslaught. I lose track of time, lose track of where I am and what I should do. Yet I don’t lose sight of Kat. I reach out and grab hold of his pant leg. I anchor myself here with him, an island in this unending storm.
Kat, I can always count on and without him life here holds little meaning. I do not think of Balmorra, or home, or Erris or the Republic. I think of Kat and the next shell hole he must lead us to. I think of that and nothing more.
And then, quite suddenly, it all falls silent. The shells cease falling. The guns no longer roar and men do not scream but moan and cough. Is it finished? Have they given up?
A shell rips through the air and flies straight overhead. With an enormous, deep thump it strikes the shield of Verdin Palace. For a moment the shield holds, pushing back against the destruction forced upon it. And then it crumbles, collapsing under the sheer power of the attack. The building within is struck and stone flies in every direction.
“Gods,” Kat says. We say nothing more. I crawl up to him as another shell punches through the shield and collapses a tall tower. It falls like a cascading waterfall of rock and debris onto the roof of the building below.
Kat is up and drags me after him. We find the dugout, which is still intact and check the commlink. Frantic chatter greets us, and we know the line is back.
“The shield is failing,” Kat says into it. “Can anyone hear this?”
“Katzin, is that you?” A man materializes on the commlink. It is the lieutenant from earlier and he is missing his left arm. Another man is seeing to the stump as he motions into the space before him. “Nevermind, I see it is. You did the mortar op, correct?”
“Yes,” Kat says, narrowing his eyes.
The lieutenant doesn’t seem to notice the lack of title. “Good, Generator Four is damaged and needs its power rerouted. It’s a simple job, I’ll upload it to this commlink. I need you to go do that or the shield will collapse completely.”
“I’m not a technician,” Kat says but the lieutenant is already uploading the information. “It’s there Katzin, good luck. The generator is west of your current position, assuming this data is correct.”
“I know where it is,” Kat says but the transmission is already cut. He looks to me and I shoulder my rifle again. We look at the others but they avoid our eyes. It matters little, for we move faster alone.
There are no grenades to be had and so we pack our belts with energy clips and salted reek. I nibble on a strip of the tough meat as we collect these things, sometimes pulling them off the men who in this dugout with us. They do not protest and some do not even look up. The shellshock has gotten to them.
“This should be Shiod’s job,” Kat mutters as we leave the dugout. I do not trust myself to speak in response. That wound is still too fresh, the ghost of my friend still lingering in every dark corner. I grunt and Kat understands. If Kat grieves, I do not see it. He is a year older and perhaps a year wiser and tougher. Perhaps it is even simpler still. He is too long at the front.
We hurry along what remains of our communications trench, bent low at the waist to avoid sniper bolts. They make zipping noises through the air above our heads and smack into mounds of dirt and bags of rock. Dust blows thick across our passage, white and choking.
At the end of this trench line we wade through brown water that comes up to our knees. Blood frogs swim around us and Kat tosses one away with his spade. A sniper bolt takes it out in mid air. The sight is so ridiculous I nearly laugh despite myself. Instead, I silently compliment the sniper’s skill and speed.
Down the line we go, passing young men and old men and every possible age in between. No one stops us and no one offers to help us. There is no ‘hey comrade, good to see you’re still ticking.’ They avoid our eyes. Kat sets his jaw and balls a hand into a fist. His mood confirms my suspicions that this is a suicide mission. Command knows the numbers of snipers over there, how many shells they will soon be lobbing at the shield.
What are two men to them? Numbers, that is all we are. We are numbers on a datapad they will use in the years to come. They will post them for sympathy, build large memorials with our names and say to others, ‘Look at how we remember, look at what we did for them.’ Men and women and boys and girls will come and touch those names and feel like they’ve participated, honored us. It is enough to make me sick.
“You all right?” Kat asks, for he’s seen my expression. I nod and urge him on. We approach the end of the line where some of the trenches are deep enough to walk. Here men and boys are treated for their wounds. I do not stop to look at the waterproof bags that lay in heaps against the wall.
Kat draws out a pair of macrobinoculars and scans the area beyond. “Enough craters to take shelter in, no shell lands in the same place twice.” He hands the device to me and I look, confirming what he’s said. Beyond is the generator, squat and box-like and surrounded by blackened and broken duracrete and exploded earth.
Here Kat pauses and frowns. My eyes widen, I feel it coming and we duck down. A barrage opens up everywhere at once. The shells land in every direction, tearing up earth, exploding dugouts, and destroying screaming men. The field ahead of us takes hit after hit, digging out new shell holes for us. They gamble on a stray splinter killing anyone rushing for the shield generator.
Kat takes hold of my arm and holds up three fingers, then two, then one and we go over the top. The air is immediately hot but clear of moisture. The explosions have robbed the place of humidity and filled it with superheated ozone. We leap into the nearest shell hole as four land near the end of the trench.
There is no time to look and again and again we go over the edge, running for the next shell hole and leaping, sliding on chests and knees into them. In the fourth, there is a single, perfectly intact chair sitting squaring in the middle of the crater. The absurdity of it gives me pause but only long enough to realize there is still a pair of bloody legs at the foot of it.
It is only minutes later that we are staring at the generator from only a few meters away. The shells begin to strike the shield directly, bringing down more mortar from the palace. Kat does not hesitate and we rush for the device.
A shell is fired. I hear the report of its gun and detect the buzzing, terrifying whiz of its approach. It comes ever onward, seeking us. I feel its hot breath preceding its arrival and wonder what it will be like to die in a million pieces. Will it be quick or will I feel that moment in its entirety?
There is no escape from it and I run because there is no other thing to do. If I stop it will kill me, or a sniper will. Their bolts are following along behind me with every step, puffing clouds of dust in my wake. I run to my end, and I only hope that it will be swift and I will not suffer long.
The shell hits between us. I watch the silver streak of the light durasteel casing flash before my eyes. Kat and I dive for the ground out of instinct but at this range the concussion will destroy us. I open my eyes and the shell is there, embedded in the mud, whole and steaming.
We waste no time to celebrate our providence. Sniper fire increases and we rush to the generator. We take cover behind the duracrete slabs and open the maintenance panels. Kat clicks on the holo with its instructions.
It takes us little time to replace and reroute the power. I know that Shiod could have done it faster, ensured that nothing would disturb the re-work but Kat and I do all we can. It will be enough.
The shield hums again and we hear the shells land and explode against it, but now it holds, now the palace inside is protected. We have done it and we slump down, exhausted and spent. The mad rush back to the trench is still ahead of us, but for just a moment, we do nothing.
A moment passes, perhaps only a heartbeat, but it seems like an eternity. We do not speak or waste it. The sensation of a hard job complete drains me of tension, wipes away my fears. The unexploded shell still lays there in the field, a reminder that we are alive.
“Let’s go,” Kat says and begins to rise. In doing so he does not see the collapsed bit of duracrete that now exposes him. I notice this in the instant before the words of warning will escape.
The impossible happens and Kat falls.