No Man’s Land
When I was a child, I often stood in a field of poppies behind my house. My mother would pretend to not see me there and call out to me, over and over. Standing there, I felt invisible, with the grass to my knees and the Balmorran sun reflecting off the lakes. In that field of red and green nothing could hurt me. Nothing could take me away. Even my mother was not immune to it.
I stare now at the dull red petals of a poppy plant. Even in the darkness I make out the color when star shells explode. They are the color of blood and cover this wasteland from which there is no return. I lay in the land of the dead where the living should not go. No Man’s Land they call it. We were not men when we crossed into it. We were beasts, driven mad by fear and blood rage. Now humanity returns and we are no longer welcome here.
The gas creeps along the ground toward us like an ocean’s wave, cresting shell holes and billowing over bodies and debris. In the darkness it is a gray mist. In the light of the star shells it is a pale yellow, like the color of dying flesh. It reaches for us with foul smelling tendrils, curling under and around our limbs, seeking purchase on exposed skin. It leaps for our noses and throats, wanting to be let in. Once inside it will destroy us, bloat our faces and bring blood from our lungs to our lips.
It is a silent death. This reaper culls in silence and so we must be silent as well. We hush our own voices in hope that it does not seek us out. The dying are the only ones who break that silence. To hear nothing means life and I hastily pull my gas mask into place with the hope that none of my friends shall call out.
The seals click and I inhale stale air tainted by the sourness of my own breath. The gas flows around me, stinging my flesh where it finds purchase. Already I feel blisters forming where it touches me. First one, then ten, a hundred insect bites burrowing and burning. I try to stand up, to run away and flee this horror but I am held down. A hand is grasping my shoulder straps, keeping me there. I struggle, wanting to scream in my sudden terror.
It is only Kat and when I realize this I stop struggling. My breathing is harder now, having wasted so much of it in my panic. The rebreather recycles my own air but its limited in its use and we can not stay here. Shiod crawls to me on the other side and nodes. We are all here, all alive.
Kat points and we begin to crawl away in that direction. Around us are splintered remains of the trees that once sheltered us. We come at once upon a body. He didn’t get his mask on in time and I stare into the wide, protruding eyes. They implore me to save him, to do something. They ask why he is dead and why I am alive.
We can not linger and begin to run as more shells fall. At first I fear more gas but they are explosive instead. They pour down from the sky in all directions, filling the landscape with blossoming clouds of fire. Instantly I imagine myself in that field of red poppies, invisible. I can not be hurt, can not be touched.
A shell explodes behind me and I am thrown in the air by the concussive force of it. I feel like I’m in the air for hours and when I land, I hit hard onto the slope of a shell hole and slide to the bottom. My mask is damaged, my helmet nearly ripped apart. I feel something wet on my neck and under my arms. I also taste something foul that burns my tongue.
The gas! I spit and am on my feet instantly, clawing my way up out of the hole. My lungs begin to burn but I ignore it, pretending that I am only winded. I tell myself that over and over. I am only winded. I am only winded! The charge took too much from me, that’s all.
“Kat!” I shout but another explosion drowns out my voice. I look up and realize that the shells are not imperial but are coming from my own lines. Why are they firing on us? Has everyone lost their minds? “Kat!”
Perhaps I’m turned around and those shells are imperial after all. Should I turn back? Go the way I came? Where is Kat? Where is Shiod? I am alone and my lungs are burning. I feel dizzy as well and in danger of passing out. I call out again but my tongue feels thick in my mouth. The vomit that comes up afterward is dark and thick. Staring at it, I wonder if I’m dying and if I will ever see Kat, Shiod, Lenmerer or Vanmere again. Will my parents ever hear what happened? Will they even know I’ve died? The stories of mass graves takes hold and I am more afraid of that then of actually dying.
And then Shiod is there, lift one of my arms over his thin, bony shoulders. I lean on him and we limp away. There is Kat, waving to us as another explosion hits a tree to our right. Shards of burning wood fly past us and one buries itself in my leg. I cry out and nearly go down but Shiod manages to keep me up. He’s hurt too, I know this somehow but there’s no time to argue.
The smell of burning wood assaults me. There is also the scent of freshly turned earth, mixed with blood and something else that reminds me of going to the butchery. I vomit again and Shiod holds a cloth to my broken mask.
“Hang in man, I got you!”
We stumble through shells and fire blossoms and proximity mines. The three of us are ghost-like travelers in the dark and Kat is our guide. He probes the ground ahead of him and keeps his sharpened shovel at the ready. Finally the explosions seem to lessen and we move faster. I feel fresh air on my exposed, burning skin and I know I must be dying. Nothing in this place would feel so sweet, so clean, so pure. I am unworthy of it and feel instantly dirty.
I am handed to someone else then, Kat maybe but I can no longer see. The coughing that wracks my body now is so painful I can no longer stand or open my eyes. Above me, someone says “swallowed a bit of gas” and then something pinches my leg. I claw for consciousness, desperate to know what is happening.
When I open my eyes, Len is standing above me. I am laying down and all around me are the walls of the trenches. We’ve made it then, I am alive. Joy erupts in me, safe in the knowledge that I am not bound for an unmarked mass grave. My parents will know what happened to me. Kat will see to it. Kat… Kat…
The fields go on forever. The breeze is clean and brisk and refreshing as it comes off the lake. The rock in my hand is smooth and perfect for skipping and when I toss it, I get three hops before it sinks.
“Want to see if I can get it all the way to the other side?” I ask, turning to her. I frown because she’s not looking at me. Instead, she’s sitting on her knees, looking away towards the mountains.
“Eris?” I ask. “Eris what is it?”
“We could go, you know.” She looks back at me, her face streaked with tears. They’re still flowing, collecting at her jawline and dripping onto her bare legs. I drop the stone I’d just picked up and go to her.
“Into the mountains,” she says, shrugging her shoulders and entwining my fingers with her own. “Before they get here. We could make it. You’re a good shot, we could live off rock cats and snow berries. I know what they look like.”
I chuckle. “What are you talking about?”
“The Empire. It’s coming. My brother, he…”
“He makes up stories all the time.”
“No! Tomi, listen, okay? He’s a fighter pilot, in the advanced fleet. He sent me this message, and he said… he said its coming to Balmorra.”
I shake my head and lean forward, kissing her forehead. Even now, she’s beautiful. Her skin is so pale that even our distant sun will burn it if she’s not careful. I run my finger along the faint blue line of a vein in her thigh the way I also do when I’m fascinated by her. Her fears are almost endearing in their simplicity, but I know better. The Republic is on Balmorra. I haven’t told her yet, but I’m going to join up when school is done. I’ll take her with me after and we’ll travel among the stars and see other planets.
“It’s not coming.” I stand up and find another rock. “Trust me, we’ll be fine.”
“Please! Please just… let’s run away. You and me, okay? Just you and me.”
“I can’t leave Shiod,” I say, tossing another rock into the lack. It skips two times, wide apart, but not far enough to touch the far bank. “He’ll never pass his tests.”
She hugs me from behind. Her tears soak the back of my shirt and it makes me irritated. Why does she always have to blow everything out of proportion? The Empire is so far away. The war is so very far away.
I turn but she’s no longer there. The field is gone too and the breeze has turned hot and fetid, thick with the smell of medpacks and blood. I’m coughing, desperate for air. I’m on my back, bandages over my eyes and I can’t see, I can’t see!
“Eris!” I cry. “Eris where are you!”
“Easy,” someone tells me. It’s a man, not Eris. He’s got my hand though, massaging the palm to wake me up. Kat. It’s Kat, I know his voice. I’m not back at home and I’m not with Eris. She’s gone, it’s all gone now. I’m in the trenches at Verdin.
“I can’t see Kat, why can’t I see?”
“Here,” says Len. I know his voice too. I remember now, I’d been wounded by the shells and the gas. My right leg is itching horribly and I’m suddenly very afraid they’ve removed it.
“Kat! Tell me my leg is still there. They haven’t taken my leg have they?”
“No,” Len answers instead and peels away the darkness. A bandage is lifted away and I stare up at a pale gray sky. I stare into it, uncomprehending until I realize its morning. I’ve lived through the night, survived the attacks and our mad charge across No Man’s Land.
Shiod leans his grinning face into view and holds up a bag with a jagged piece of metal in it. “Look at this! They dug it out my back. I’m going to mail it to my girlfriend as a souvenir.”
“You don’t have a girlfriend you fool,” Kat says, but there is a note of amusement in his voice so the comment doesn’t sting. Shiod goes right on anyway.
“Well not yet of course, not yet. But when I do! I’m mailing it to her right away. I’ll say, ‘Hey sweetheart, look at how brave I am! I carried this and my buddy across the battlefield.’” He winks at me. “Only I can’t mail Tomi, so this will do.”
“You’re barking mad,” Len says and wipes something cool and wet across my face. It smells like bacta. “Hold still,” he says. “You’re as squirmy as Shiod.”
“Hey Len,” Shiod says. “Is it true you had to go into No Man’s Land to get wounded last night?”
“Yes,” Len says and finishes with my face. He turns his attention on my leg and the itching begins to go away. Shiod leans over me until his face is obscured.
“Did you find Vanmere?”
There is silence and it’s a silence that goes on and on while Len works. We wait, not letting him off the hook so easily. Finally, I hear him sigh. “No.”
“Oh,” Shiod says and I hear him get up and walk away. I do not grasp the situation quickly but slowly, a sense of loss takes me. Vanmere is not coming back. I can still see him, wide-eyed and tripping as we go over the top of the trench. I see him lag behind, running on his thick legs. I think I even remember him shouting for me to wait. To wait. Please Tomi, wait for me.
I shut my eyes and wait for the dream to end, if it is a dream at all. I want to go back to the late and remember Eris with her flowing black hair, so long she often sits on it. Her face was not as beautiful as some but for me, she was all I could want.
“You all right?” Kat asks me, his voice a low whisper. “I’ll sneak you a drink when Len stops playing nurse maid.”
“That’ll be good,” I tell him and force a smile. “And I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”
We fall silent and I turn my gaze back to the sky. The clouds are almost gone and so the rain will not return. I find my breathing is easier so Len must have fixed that. I shut my eyes and inhale deeply.
For just a moment I smell clean, lake-side air and think of the mountains.