36 Hours – Chapter 6

The Promises We Keep

The letter to Vanmere’s family goes poorly. I crouch in the mud outside a medical tent with Kat while we wait for word on Shiod. My hands touch the datapad but the words that come are stiff and meaningless. They form no sentences, create no explanations for the woman who made me promise to look after her son out there.

At first I wanted to tell her the truth, that I’d failed to do what she asked. I would write that we’d gotten separated and I hadn’t looked for him. I left him to die in No Man’s Land without a second thought. Me, I killed him as sure as the sniper’s bolt.

Kat reminded me that it wasn’t that simple. He made me remember that insane charge across open ground with explosions all around us. It was dark, so very dark that you could hardly see a meter in front of you. Our only guidance came from the muzzle flashes of our enemy’s guns and the star shells that exploded overhead. We rushed towards death just like a ship would rush to ruin by following a lighthouse.

“Why did we do it?” I asked him, but Kat only shrugged and told me that was how it was. That was how it was, that’s what I should tell her. I should write to her what war really is, that her son rushed to death because that’s all there was to it. There is no glory in taking a Grav shell to the abdomen, no heroics in tripping a proxy mine. It is just what it is. Senseless.

“I can’t do it,” I say and toss Kat the datapad. I smoke another stick, my fifth in an hour. Back home I never touched the things but by now I’m a professional. I could light a smoke-stick in a downpour. This skill is one they should have taught us in school, it has served me better than the history of Balmorra’s fifth ruler.

Kat puts away the datapad and lights up as well. Together we sit and stare up at a blue sky, its fluffy clouds mixed with the puffs of anti-aircraft fire. We watch a dogfight break out between one of our Talons and two Sith Interceptors.

“That’s Renzler up there,” Kat says. “Two sticks he gets them both.”

I take the bet because if I don’t, there will be no game. I have enough smoke-sticks to last me a week, they give them out by the handfuls. By the time I agree, Renzler’s Talon has already blasted one Interceptor to dust. The other drops like a stone but Renzler doesn’t take the bait. Instead he circles wide and climbs.

Inevitably the imperial pilot pulls up, having hoped his pursuer followed. Kat points. “Interceptors are better climbers. I’ve seen it a dozen times. They fall and then swoop up like a fishcatcher bird. Our Talons can’t pull out of a dive like that in atmosphere.”

Renzler has the imperial pilot’s number and guns him down quickly. Then he shoots toward us and comes low, two missiles fly from beneath his wings and strike at the enemy trenches. We cheer him, but we know the effort was pointless. The imperials are too far dug in for his weapons to destroy. Still, we appreciate the sentiment.

“What we need are some bombers, that’ll break up those duracrete bunkers,” Kat says. “We had a few before you got here but the imps went at them pretty hard. The last ones left with the Jedi.”

Renzler returns, wagging his wings at us as he passes overhead. We cheer him again but the whole of the effort was wasted. There will be more imperial fighters, more anti-aircraft. Sooner or later, Renzler will be just a memory.

“Where are the imperial bombers?” I ask. “They could bake us in here.”

Kat shrugs. “Our fighters will get them if they come, but they haven’t been seen in weeks.” That’s the last of it and we lapse into silence again.

Lenmerer comes out of the tent and spits into the mud at our feet. I look up at him, raising my eyebrows in curiosity. Len eyes me, rubs at his jaw and flops down next to me. I don’t ask him. Len will tell me what he’s come to say in his own time.

After almost a minute he sighs and steals a smoke-stick from me but doesn’t light it. Len would never smoke, but he always has to have something to do with his hands. In school he would always be rustling disks or tapping at his datapad.

“Shiod is fine, I have him under a good amount of kolto because he punched me right in the damn jaw,” he says and indicates a slightly red spot on his cheek.

“So he’ll pull through,” Kat says, gazing up at the sky.

“It was just a few fingers, he could do with less. Unfortunately they didn’t blow off the expressive one.” Len grunts and stands up. “I need to get back. I hear there will be another attack later today?”

Kat exhales a long trail of gray smoke and turns his eyes back on Len. “My bet is sundown, but who knows?”

“Can we see him?” I ask, getting up and brushing off my pants. The mud is thick on them and it cakes my hands. I try to wipe them off but there is little of me that isn’t covered in it. I settle for smearing the top of my helmet with the stuff. Len jabs a finger back toward the tent.

“Better make it fast.”

When we see him, Shiod tries to raise himself out of the cot and groans. I can see at once that Len was conservative on his wounds. The last two fingers of his left hand are gone and his right leg has some pressure catches of kolto I didn’t remember him having before.

His face is dirty and when I sit next to his cot, I have to resist the urge to wipe it away. He is so small and thin that he looks like a little boy laying there. It is in this moment, as Kat stands on the other side of the cot, that I feel a sudden and irresistible sense of loss.

These are my friends. Len, Shiod, Vanmere and I grew up together since we were very young. Kat came later but has been just as important, perhaps more important. Through all the trivial problems with Eris, with school, with parents and growing up, these four were there, always.

Now one of us is gone, his body lying broken and abandoned in a lonely shell hole full of mud and rats. Another lays here, wounded and in pain and I can do nothing but tell him that he looks ridiculous. He grins, his overly large teeth making his face look uncomfortably like a corpse mask. The blood is all gone in his face, and in its place a yellow-green pallor.

“Not so bad, look!” Shiod says and holds up his wounded hand, a single finger showing. It’s a crude gesture, derogatory and pathetic, but on Shiod, it’s comical. I laugh despite myself.

“Nice,” is the only thing I think to say.

“You’ll probably be sent up,” Kat says. “First transport out if you’re lucky.”

Shiod’s grin fades away and a shadow falls across his face. He looks suddenly like an old man with yellowing eyes and deep lines. His scowl unnerves me.

“I don’t want to be sent up. I want to go back with you guys.”

“Don’t talk stupid,” I say. “You can’t hold a rifle with that hand.”

“Can so,” Shiod says. “Ask Len, I punched him just to show him I could. Well that and for…” he looks around and lowers his voice. “For the girl.”

Kat leans over Shiod and prods him in the chest with one of his big fingers. “Listen. Up there is nothing but hell. You get the chance to get out, you take it. You’re lucky, I know a couple hundred boys who’d have loved to get a wound like yours.”

“I’m not them,” Shiod says and struggles to sit up again. Kat holds him down with little effort. Still, Shiod struggles. “A prosthetic and I’m fine. Hells, I can hold a rifle with two fingers. I can hold a pistol, throw a grenade…”

“Listen moron,” I start to say but there’s something very wrong in Shiod’s expression. I can’t place it but it unnerves me. He struggles again and his wounded hand clamps onto my arm and shakes it.

“Let me up! I have to get back there, we have to go get him! Don’t just sit there, let me up! Let. Me. Up!”

Kat looks at me and I frown, not sure what he wants me to do. His eyes are looking into mine, holding me there like he did back on the firing step with Vanmere. I understand then, and look back at Shiod. His eyes are still wide, still mad with the fever I’d seen take him on the step despite the kolto.

I take his uninjured hand and grasp it tightly in both of mine. “Hey,” I say in a voice we used to use as kids. It’s a hushed, conspiratorial tone. Some used that tone to keep information away from others, to trade secrets or gossip. We did too, but of a different sort. We used it to talk about unspeakable things. Shiod would speak of his parents and the fighting, the beatings at home and I would speak of Eris. I use it now to speak of Vanmere.

I tell him what I couldn’t say in my datapad. I tell him that Vanmere is dead, that Jophrey Vanmere was killed by shrapnel in No Man’s Land. How there was nothing we could have done, how the gas was everywhere and the darkness was so very complete. I tell him that he was our friend and we must remember him. I tell him that one of us must make it home to tell his mother, to tell everyone what happened to us.

When I finish, I realize that I believe, truly believe, that I am not coming home. Another attack is coming and this time it will get me. A soldier can not outlive a thousand chances. I will not be as stupid this time, but when we go over the top the bolts will not find someone else. They will find me.

“Promise me you’ll go back and tell them,” I say. Tears streak Shiod’s cheeks and his teeth are chattering. I’m shouting it now. “Promise! Say it for all that we mean to you, damn it!”

“I promise!” Shiod shrieks and then I’m embracing him and Kat is there as well. This unspeakable thing that we have lived through will have no other ears to whisper them to. Shiod will be its sole carrier, our eulogy when the end comes.

After, when we leave Shiod behind and make our way back toward the line, I resist the urge to think of home. Kat is looking at me and I know he sees the resignation in it. Still, he says nothing and we walk on through the communications trench. We pass by men and women on medical pallets, blood pooling and dripping. Some of them are already dead, others still clinging to a half-life of delirium and hope.

Our guns open up, creating a cacophony of sound so loud it shakes the ground we walk on and the walls that pen us in. Kat and I have to stop in a dugout to keep from falling over.

“What’s going on?” Kat asks a sergeant, the only man in the dugout. He’s older, a lined and bearded face half hidden behind his helmet and mask. He shrugs his shoulders.

“Does it matter?”

“No,” Kat says and we wait it out with this old man. Boom. Boom. Boom. The cannons are so loud I hear them in my head even after the shots fire. They go off every second, all down the line in unison. I have never heard such a roar.

I remember the fear I’d had when I first arrived and that first shell struck the shielding of Verdin Palace. It seems like such a small thing now, that single shocking moment when compared to this barrage. In a small way, I feel sorry for the imperials in their trenches. The barrage I had lived through the night before was as bad or worse, but I don’t think I’d wish it even on my enemy.

Finally, it ends and Kat and I leave the dugout. The barrage had gone on for only a few minutes and when Kat questions a communications man, we learn that Renzler spotted a squadron of walkers during his raid.

“Do you think that got them?” I ask.

“We’ll find out,” Kat says and snatches a loaf of bread from a passing supply drone. We split it with a spread of jam he’s saved from the raid on the imperial trench. We are back on the firing line now and waiting.

“Do you remember the way Joph wrote those poems?” Kat asks, his mouth full of bread. He has a grin that lifts only one side of his face. We speak of him now with his first name. I wonder if this is perhaps the first time. In death, I think of Jophrey, not Vanmere. I sniff and nod.

“Yeah, they would never rhyme right because half the words were made up.”

“You used to correct the words for him.”

“Only when he wasn’t looking,” I say and bite into the crusty bread. It’s still warm inside and the cold jam seems almost a sin.

“He never could see when he was doing something wrong.” Kat says this while looking toward the top of the trench. My gaze follows his and I see him, crawling in the mud.

“No,” I agree and wipe tears from the corner of my eyes with the palm of my hand. His words echo in my head. Mama. Mama. Mama. Oh, Joph, why did we ever come here?

I motion to Kat.

“Give me the datapad,” I say. “There’s still time.”

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