It is mid-day by the time I’m allowed to sit up. Len doesn’t say it but Kat does. Even this is too soon, but they need every man who can hold a rifle. It’s been a little over half a day since the Republic forces pulled out and a full day left before their reinforcements arrive.
“It’s less than a day,” Kat says as I hobble through the medical station with Shiod. Shiod is proposing a game of pazaak and we’re in search of Len again, full of purpose that we’ll steal him away from the center long enough for a game. Ever since Shiod spilled the news about Vanmere, Len hasn’t been around.
“A day is a long time,” Shiod says and spits, as if the number is grit in his mouth. We’ve already gotten used to eating with dirt in our rations. Refreshers are a long forgotten dream here and it’s felt like an age since I was clean.
“It’s not so long as that,” Kat says and grabs the pazaak cards from Shiod’s hands. “Just long enough for you to lose your whole family fortune.”
“Good luck with that,” Shiod says, shrugging bony shoulders. “Empire took that a year ago.”
“Don’t you get a stipend yet?” I ask him, confused by this news. He’s never shared it before. Shiod has always been the boy with money, the scion son of a merchant family. You wouldn’t know it by looking at him. Kat always joked that he was so tight with credits that his shrewdness alone would shield him from vacuum.
“Some,” he admits and grabs the cards back, shuffling them deftly in his long, thin fingers. They slide together quietly, the plasteel worn with use and slick with grime. There is no table here in the trenches so we’ll have to play without counters. It’s no big deal really, the cards will play with their face value only, unable to shift or switch electronically. We’ve only a few smoke-sticks and rations to gamble with, so it won’t matter if we win or lose. The distraction is all we want.
Shiod stops outside the medical tent where we’ve been told Len is working. “Listen, my brother is running guns to a resistance cell in the southern continent. What little we get from the Republic for it is all I manage. My mom and dad, well they’re counting credits for the Empire now. Don’t tell Len though, all right? I don’t want another lecture about helping the enemy.”
Kat and I look at one another and Shiod steps inside. We exchange information silently, amused and shocked by this small, but unexpected news. Shiod’s brother is younger than we are, sixteen or seventeen. He’s never shown a single hint of talent in anything but now he’s smuggling? Kat spreads his hands before him and shrugs. I agree and nod my head.
“The bleeding Force is this?”
The voice is Shiod’s and his exclamation is nearly loud enough to make me jump. We quickly duck inside and see him standing there, mouth open, eyes squinted and his narrow, rat-like nose wrinkled up like he’d just sniffed a sewer back up. I follow his gaze and find myself transfixed as well.
Laying on a cot, with Len poised to apply a kolto injection, is a girl. She’s young, perhaps a little older than we are. Her face is dirty and bleeding from a number of surface cuts. Blonde hair is pulled tight into a knot, flat against the back of her head and eyes the color of freshly churned earth stare up at him with a mix of hatred and confusion.
What shocks us most is the imperial armor she wears.
“Not so loud!” Len says, turning to wave at Shiod. “It wasn’t easy to get her here.”
“I should guess not,” Kat says, his voice even but there’s a touch of wariness in it. “What are you doing?”
“She’s been hit in the lung. I removed the shrapnel but it’ll need kolto or it’ll collapse and bleed out.” He’s removed her breastplate enough to work, cut away the self-cleaning zero-suit beneath enough to show pale skin and its red wound.
“Do not touch me,” she hisses, but her voice is strained with pain. It sounds wet, like she’s trying to talk while swallowing water. The accent is unmistakable. She tries to raise her hands to stop Len from applying the kolto but they’re tied to the cot.
Shiod manages to catch his wrist instead, stopping it before it touches her. Len struggles against it. “Let go of me, she needs this. She’ll die without it.”
“So what?” Shiod wrenches Len’s arm backward, but the medical injection stays firmly gripped in Len’s hand. He cringes, groaning from the pain of it and Kat steps in, pulling Shiod off of him and shoving Len back from the cot.
“Are you mad, Lenmerer? We’re out gunned ten to one out there and you want to save one?”
Len is on his knees, rubbing his shoulder and glaring at all of us. He looks back at the girl, who has closed her eyes again She’s begun to tremble and I risk a glance outside before securing the flap.
Kat is looking at me and I shake my head. He gestures to Len and helps him up again. “Do it if you’re going to but I think you’ve taken a few too many shots to the head.”
“You’re going to let him?” Shiod shouts and Kat grabs him by the arm and drags him back towards me. “Shut up,” he says. “She might know something we can use and…” He looks at me, sees that I am thinking the same thing. We’ve seen enough death today. I’m thinking of Vanmere and hoping that some imperial medic might be doing this same thing for him.
Len kneels at her cot and gently inserts the kolto. I see her wince, eyes pressed shut tightly and then she relaxes. Her lips part and she exhales slowly. It still sounds wet, but steady.
Shiod wrestles free of Kat but does nothing to interfere, just crosses his arms and glares at us. Then he turns and leaves too quickly for us to stop him.
Len looks up, alarmed but Kat holds out a hand. “He won’t go making a scene. He’s just upset because you always scold him about his parents turning traitor.” Len sighs, and slumps against the tent’s support post. He looks ten years older, not a boy of eighteen but a man, lined and beaten.
“Was it very bad last night?” Kat asks, sitting on a folding chair nearby. “After the raid?”
Len doesn’t even open his eyes. “One-hundred and twenty-seven dead, fourteen were brought off the field but died on the table or in the mud outside. Thirty-eight lost limbs. One lost half his face. He wouldn’t stop talking. Half of his jaw was gone but he kept… he kept…”
He covers his face and begins to weep. Kat and I look at one another but we know there is nothing to say. We lived through last night, and are hardly worse for wear. I took wounds, yes, but kolto and time will short work of them and my limp will fade over the years. So we go to him and sit, one on either side. Our shoulders support him and we crouch together on the dirt floor like we used to on our camping trips.
We’d find a quiet place and just rest there, shoulder to shoulder and never say a word. The three of us all lost so much in the early parts of the war. Len lost his older brother early in the fighting, then his father later on. His sister was taken during an evacuation of her university and the reports we’ve heard of her turned my stomach.
Kat lost his uncle, two cousins and a mother to the fighting. I lost the least, though the two of them talk to me as if I’ve lost everything. Eris’s death was quick. Her house was hit with an orbital strike when they thought our town housed munitions. She didn’t suffer, but when I look up, I know this girl is.
She is looking at Len, her eyes still narrowed with suspicion but there is less hatred in her expression. She says nothing and so we commune with our enemy in silence, the four of us sharing this moment of peace together.
Finally, she closes her eyes and drifts to sleep. Kat and I rise to go and leave Len where he is. We never ask him to play pazaak. I feel like he’s lost enough already.
Later, we are back on the front line. I sit on the firing step with my back to the reinforced support of a dug out. I’ve smoked the third stick of my life and enjoy the feeling of calm it settles on me. My lungs are burning but after the gas, I hardly notice it.
Kat whittles a small figure out of some wood he’s found using his combat knife. The lines are crude but shaped with such delicate care that I imagine he’s thinking of his sister. She wanted to be a pazaak champion, even though she wasn’t old enough to know what pazaak was. When Kat and I used to play hologames of any sort in his room, she would come in and announce she was going to be champion of them as well.
“Do you think they’ll come?” I ask, surprising even myself with the sudden topic. “The Republic, I mean?”
Kat’s shoulders rise and fall without stopping his work. He goes on for a few moments and says, “Suppose we’ll see.” I lean my head back against the dugout support and feel the sun caressing my face. The touch is gentle, almost like hers. I lower it, not wanting to think of Eris anymore than I have to.
“Brandy,” Shiod says, tromping up to us so loudly I expect shell fire to begin landing on his position. He hands me a mug of it and sits down, handing one to Kat. This is Shiod’s apology and we forgive him by drinking down the foul-tasting liquid. I doubt it’s real brandy, but its warming.
“Word is the imps are going to push again,” he says without looking at either of us. He pulls out a cracker and eats it noisily, the crumbs falling onto his chin and catching in the thin growth that’s begun. I’ve never known a boy to grow a faster beard than Shiod. He wipes the crumbs off and licks his fingers.
“Makes sense,” Kat says, finally putting down the little carving. “I doubt they’re ignorant of the Republic’s plan to return. The treaty talks are going on right now, so I understand.”
Shiod snorts and spits into the mud between his boots, then scratches at his chin. “Waste of time. I say they just bust on in here with some heavy cruisers and waste the imp’s trenches. Then we’ll walk out of here and grab some real shut-eye.”
Kat grunts and opens his mouth to say something when there’s a shout down the line. I grab my rifle, a sniper’s model now. The last marksman on our line was killed in the raid and so I’ve inherited it. Spoils of war are never to be wasted.
“What’s this?” Kat asks, and two men down from us make a motion towards No Man’s Land. “Attack?” he asks, and then turns to peek over the top.
I turn too and slip my rifle into the sniper’s hole at the top of the trench. It’s a small slot just wide enough to fit my rifle’s barrel and scope into it. I can fire into No Man’s Land and to the enemy trench without fear of being exposed from this position.
At first I don’t see anything. The blasted area between the lines is barren except for blasted mines, slip-wire and corpses that the medics couldn’t get to before daylight. Once the area brightened, snipers pick off medics before they can even get to a wounded man. Every dead medic is a shot to our morale.
“Cruel,” Kat says almost too quietly for me to hear. I’m about to turn away and ask him when I see it too. A figure is moving in No Man’s Land, crawling on one hand and his knees. The other hand is clutching his stomach, which has his guts spilling from it. It’s not until the poor wretch cries out that feel my whole body go cold.
“Momma!” Vanmere wails over and over. My hands are shaking on the rifle but I can’t look away. I zoom in on him, focus on his face. His eyes are gone. Where they were is just black, scorched pitch. A mine must have caught him just above his belt. What spills between his fingers brings my recent drink to the back of my throat and I heave it onto the trench wall in front of me.
I hear it so clearly now. The wail is pitiful, like a wounded animal’s death cries. It comes again and again and I swear it’s aimed at me. It’s telling me to come get him, that I’m leaving him there to die, blaming me for all of this. Tomi you’ve killed me! Tomi you’ve done this to me!
I clamp my hands over my ears but it does nothing to shut out the sound. He’s dead, there’s nothing I can do. He’s dead. He’ll be dead very soon. He’ll die very soon. He’s dead. He’s dead.
“I’m going to get him,” Shiod says and my eyes snap open. No! A sniper will get him! It’s a trap. They want us to go out there, to find where we are. I reach for Shiod but Kat is faster, hauling him down onto the firing step and clutching him, holding him while Shiod screams to be let go.
“Finish it,” Kat says to me. At first I don’t understand, can’t comprehend what he could mean but then he raises his chin towards my rifle. Any blood left in my face is gone, I feel it escape. My fingers go stiff and cold around the rifle. I feel its metal chill and nearly drop it, sickened by the feel of it.
“Don’t, Tomi! Don’t! He’s our friend, we have to help him!” Shiod is mad, wriggling out of Kat’s grasp and scrambling for the top of the trench. It takes three men to keep him inside, but even still an imperial sniper bolt blows off two of his fingers. He falls backward into the bottom of the trench, screaming in pain and shouting for Vanmere.
I stare, transfixed by the scene until Kat slaps me. “Do it, Tomi. Do you understand? You’re the best shot in the unit. If I try, I might hurt him worse. Give him a peaceful death, we owe him that much.”
We owe him that much. I know these words are true. The chaos around me feels so unreal to me that these simple things are enough to get me moving. I return my rifle to the sniper’s hole and sight in on Vanmere.
“Stop it!” I shout. I can’t do it. My knees are made of water, my fingers have no bones in them. The sight of him makes it all too horrific.
“It’s a mercy,” Kat says, holding my face in both of his large hands. His eyes are so clear they hold mine. Kat who has been here for me since we arrived. Kat who saved me from the gas, from the raid, from myself. I trust Kat. I must do this because Kat knows I should.
“Okay,” I say.
Vanmere is on his knees, trying to stuff pieces of himself back inside. His whole body is shaking and he must be crying though tears are impossible. I sight in on him, aiming for the bolt to strike his temple. At this angle I know it will be swift. It must be swift.
He turns toward me, the ruins of his eyes seem to stare at me, find me in my hiding spot. His mouth opens, building the words to condemn me when the front of his head explodes. He falls slowly forward into a shell hole and is at once gone from my sight.
I lower my rifle and go to my knees, shaking to the point where drop the weapon. I failed him. Vanmere was my friend and I left him to die out there in No Man’s Land and when I found him, I did nothing. I couldn’t even give him peace.
Kat’s hand is on my shoulder. He offers me a smoke-stick and I take it, lighting it without thought. For a long time we say nothing. Then Kat gets up.
“Someone over there,” he says and walks away. His words mean nothing to me until I put a meaning to them. I think of the girl Len saved. I think of how she might have died, gasping for air as she chokes on her own blood. He saved her, gave her mercy. Someone over there did what I couldn’t.
They gave mercy to Vanmere.