New recruits have come to us. It is both a relieving sight and a somber one for we have suffered heavily and taken many losses, but these new troops are mostly boys and old men. The boys are a just versions of me from less than a day ago. Each one could be a Jophrey Vanmere as well, scared and ignorant of what will come.
I feel instantly for them because they are such a sorry sight. Their uniforms don’t fit and most of the armor is shoddy. Not a single one has a helmet and I only count a score of gasmasks among them.
It is worse with the old men. The boys that come up to the front now are full of fear, but it’s because they hope to live. The old men that come have no hope. They have volunteered so that others did not have to. I’d seen it many times before I volunteered, these fathers and grandfathers shouldering their packs and heading to the front. They shuffle by me and their looks are neither grim nor fearful, but resigned. They sit on muddy shelves and wait.
Not all is grim, Kat points out that with new recruits comes fresh food. In short order it arrives in the form of cold bread and colder soup. Still I wolf it down without thought or ceremony, careful not to spill a drop.
“We should take some to Shiod,” I say. “He’ll be hungry.”
“He’s always hungry,” Kat says and we share a grin. It is then that I am aware of someone standing over me. When I look up I’m surprised to see a boy just a little younger than me. I recognize him instantly and frown.
“Hey Tomi, Stevron,” Worm says and sits down without asking. He fidgets with his weapon, a rifle too big for his skinny little frame. His armored jacket is too big and hangs loosely, like sagging flesh on old bones.
“What are you doing here?” Kat asks, his eyes narrowing. I’ve taken a bit of my bread and broken off a piece to share with him. He eats it without a thank you and his hands shake as he holds it to his mouth.
“Why are you here?” I ask, repeating Kat’s question. “You’re not old enough to volunteer.”
Worm is just sixteen, two grades lower than we are in school. No matter what went on there, he found a way to try and join us. We’ve never been friends yet there he was. I feel suddenly angry that he’s followed me even here, to this hell I share with Kat and Shiod and Len. He’s come to share what shouldn’t be shared, thinking that if we are doing it, it’s worth doing.
“I lied,” is all he says and stuffs another bite of bread into his mouth. Kat and I exchange a look before I tilt my soup container back and drink it down. My stomach gurgles for more but there’s not enough left to spare. I tear off another hunk of bread and give it to Worm.
I recognize other faces as they take their place on the line. I see Ritvin Kirney, my old Basic teacher standing an old blaster rifle and armor too small for his bulky frame. There is Tidelor with his thick framed glasses and impossibly thick beard. Further down I even spot Shorlen, a boy who used to put me up against the wall and take my credits before athletics.
Our past is meaningless. Even Worm bothers me little as I stand and take the rest of my bread to Shiod. They are noise, blades of grass in this great field of reaping I’ve come to know as intimately as a lover. The mud and dirt of the trenches pass as easily through my fingertips as Eris’s hair and I touch the durasteel as softly as I might her cheek. I found solace in her arms as a schoolboy and I find solace in the earth’s embrace now.
Shiod is happy for the bread and we talk a while. Worm joins us but Kat makes himself scarce. Our newest companion chatters on annoyingly until Shiod tells him that he is tired and must rest. I glare at him with humor and leave with Worm in tow.
On our way back to the firing line, Worm asks an impossible number of questions, foremost being where he can go to the bathroom. It is a practice I’ve hardly had the need for and pass him off to a sergeant who looks like he needs something to do. I walk away wondering when I’ve developed such a casualness toward rank. It is the front, I am sure. The front dissolves us all into men and animals and worse.
I find Kat in a dugout smoking with two other boys I don’t recognize. I come in and sit with them. Shortly we play pazaak and I win two fistfuls of smoke-sticks for my trouble. The boy we call Pox due to his pock-marked face, tells me I must be a cheat but congratulates me as he leaves. The other is a short, dour youth who says nothing and simply stares at the wall.
“If the attack comes we’ll knock him senseless,” Kat says, indicating the door. I frown and ask him what he means. “Worm you damned fool. He’s too stupid to be up here. He’ll be killed in a second.”
Neither of us want this of course. No matter how annoying he is, Worm shouldn’t die by shell fire or blaster fire or any other kind of fire. He should grow up and become an annoying man with a wife and annoying children. Otherwise what is the point?
“Do you think Shiod will really go?” I ask, half-hopeful of the answer. I don’t know why this has become an obsessive thought but I can do nothing to dissuade it. Shiod must live. He must get home and tell everyone about us. Vainly, I think he must tell Vanmere’s mother than I didn’t kill him.
“Who’s to say?” Kat shrugs. “They could load him onto the transport that brought the fresh blood up.”
“Those are one-way,” I say and we go silent. The words fill my ears and spill into my heart with unease. I hope they aren’t true, after all.
A gunnery sergeant arrives and asks for me. I stand and go with him to the firing line and my little sniper hole. “Southwest, forty-five degrees,” he says. I look where he indicates and frown. “Mortars,” I say, sighting down my scope.
“Are they trained on our position?”
I look but find no way of knowing for sure. I shrug. “I don’t know sergeant.”
“Pick off any crews that come to man it, I’m alerting the Captain.”
“What’s up?” Kat asks a moment after the sergeant has gone.
“Mortars setting up along the line by the forest,” I say, nodding toward the area we’d been gassed the night before. “He wants me to pick off any crews I find.”
Kat hisses through his teeth and tosses his smoke-stick into the muck. “Damn them. Half a day to go.”
“If the Republic comes,” I say and sight back down my scope. The mortars are going up systematically from below the trenches. I can’t find a single target to sight in on.
“They’ll come,” Kat says.
For almost an hour I watch the weapons come into being. The only enemies I see through my scope are construction droids that are impervious to my shots. I avoid even attempting a shot at their servos in case another sniper is watching for me. I’ve heard of sniper duels in books and holovids. One simply needs to make the first mistake to die.
I finally concede that there is nothing I can do and sit back with Kat. Worm joins us soon enough but says nothing. We are grateful for his silence.
Somewhere down the line an explosion is heard. Worm jumps up and grabs his rifle, hurrying to the firing step. Kat waves him down, for we do not move. Explosions are commonplace to us now, as familiar as a school bell.
“What was it?” Worm asks, scratching at his neck. Kat glances down the line and shakes his head. Medics pass us soon after, pushing a grav-sled covered with a bloody sheet. Despite Kat’s look I stop to look. Pox stares up at me with half a face and a neck that still spurts blood.
Numbly, I put the sheet back in place as Worm vomits up his meager meal. I shake my head and sit back down at my sniper hole, but don’t look out. The whole thing seems so pointless. We are simply waiting now.
“That was our own battery,” Kat says at last. “The barrels are too worn, they’re landing in our trenches now.”
A part of me knew that’s what he would say. For Worm it’s almost too much. He begins to shake and pray so loudly that it irritates me.
“Shut up,” I say. “They’ll hear us.”
I look down my scope again and see movement this time. A squad of dark armored troopers are moving into place. I quickly tell Kat and he pulls a signaling device from his belt and blows it.
I level my sights on a trooper that ducks behind the mortar across from me. He is doing something to the back of it, programming perhaps. I exhale slowly and draw in a small breath, then hold it. My body goes still, steady as stone and duracrete. My finger tightens on the trigger.
During the attack I killed with my bare hands, but I was out of my mind then. I was not Tomi Adken, eighteen years old with mind for lines and geometry. In those moments I’d been a soldier, frenzied and bloodied. Now I am calm and collected and when the bolt strikes the imperial trooper in the forehead, I know I am a murderer.
I go far away. In my mind I am on Eris’s back porch with her head in my lap. I’m stroking her hair, listening to her voice, kissing her lips. I’m feeling the softness of her against me and the love I miss so much.
In reality, I move quickly, shifting my sight from mortar to mortar. My breathing is in time with my shots. Exhale. Short inhale and hold. Fire. Shift. Exhale. On and on. In moments I’ve killed five troopers before they can erect a cover screen.
“Incoming!” Kat yells and I pull my rifle from its sniper hole and shove myself against the trench wall. Kat pushes Worm against me and I hold him there, though the boy struggles and cries out. “What is happening? What is happening?”
The shells fall. First they fall before us, their echo heard only milliseconds before the blast shakes the ground. Dirt and mud and broken stone rain down on us. I undo Worm’s jacket and pull it over his head to protect it from the falling debris.
Razer wire and pieces of proxy mine fall like hail into our trench. The bombardment thickens, striking the parapet in front of our trenches. There is a direct hit and I hear men scream. The earth erupts. It shifts and shakes us, roaring in our ears. Darkness engulfs us as earth and human remains rise up like a great wave and crash down on us.
I dig myself out and find Worm and Kat doing the same. Worm is screaming for help, that he is wounded but I see nothing. Further down the line I see my old Basic teacher wandering toward us. The trench between our positions has been blown apart and only half a meter remains. One of his arms is missing at the elbow. He steps into the open area and turns, simply staring across the void and toward the enemy lines.
I make no move to help him, to shout a warning. Is this not a mercy? Do I do him a favor by letting his ignorance and shell shock bring him a peaceful end? Worm is crying out and I reach my arms around him, hold him to me. When the inevitable happens, and a second shell finds the man known as Ritvin Kirney, he turns and weeps against my chest.
The barrage lifts behind us and I am next to Kat with my rifle. I leave Worm where he curls up at my feet. The attack has come and we begin with the grenades.
We throw into the midsts of the poor devils who run at us so stupidly. They are all defenseless against the explosions that tear at their flesh, can do nothing to save themselves from the torrent of blaster fire. That is all the sympathy I have however, for their numbers soon push into the opening their barrage has given them.
It does not quite come to hand-to-hand combat. We throw grenades and fire like mad men into the hole where Ritvin Kirney had died. Imperial troops pour through it like rats fleeing from water. We fire and fire and fire. We retreat and throw bombs, hook up with other units that are more numerous and more organized.
In time the attack is thrown back. Our batteries opening up on them as they flee across No Man’s Land. This time we do not chase them but lay exhausted against what remains of our trench walls. Soon, perhaps only twenty minutes after it began, I am standing next to my sniper hole again.
Worm lay in the mud, his knees drawn up to his chest and his arms wrapped around them. At first I think he’s gone into shock but when I shake him, I know. Kat lifts him like the child he is and we give him to the medics as they come by.
“How did it happen?” they ask us.
“Gut shot, must have happened in the attack,” says Kat. He is shaking his head. We share a look and I nod, agreeing. We failed to keep him alive. He was only sixteen years old, what did he know of shell fire and trench raids?
“We should tell Len,” I say to Kat and we stop the medics again. “If its all the same, we have a favor to ask. We have a friend at the medic station who will like to know.”
The two medics exchange a look and then regard me with an expression I do not like. “What is it?” I ask, but something forms in my stomach and clutches at my heart. No. No not this. No, surely not this.
“Sorry guy,” the one medic says. “The station was hit in the bombardment. There’s nothing left.”