Shiod is alive. I stand, bewildered, overwhelmed and angry at the same time. He is alive and not once did he tell us! He didn’t come and let neither Kat nor I know about it. He let us linger on in a world without him. I went over the top without him, carried out a mission in the dark without him. Would I have done it if I’d known he was alive? For a mad moment, I imagine the Lieutenant keeping this information from me so I would volunteer.
It is sheer madness and like my anger, evaporates beneath the grinning face before me. We say nothing but simply embrace. His strength is nearly back, I can feel it in his arms. There is the smell of earth and sickness about him, but otherwise he seems hale and healthy. It is only when Kat takes his turn, lifting Shiod bodily off the ground in a bear hug so massive that Shiod protests, that I find my voice.
“How?” I ask. It is enough of a question. Kat puts him down gently and steps back, crossing his arms. We both pin Shiod with our eyes, forcing him to pay attention, to answer us.
“Len,” Shiod says, though his voice is quiet. He takes a step closer to us and shakes his head. “Not here, there are-”
Shiod is interrupted by our Lieutenant. He arrives out of a dugout and grins. He hands Kat and I a smoke-stick and we both light them. I have scores of the things but it seems rude to refuse.
“By the tars, I can’t believe it. I simply can’t believe it. Katzin, you never cease to amaze me and you,” he says, looking at me. “A raw recruit? It’s like you came to us from Special Forces. So quick, and during a bombardment no less?”
A raw recruit. The very idea of it strikes me like the concussion of a shell. I am a raw recruit to this lieutenant yet to the boy who lies dead in No Man’s Land, I was an old veteran to be trusted. My thoughts grow grim, remembering him. I hadn’t even turned him over so his face wouldn’t be in the mud. No, I am no raw recruit. Twenty-four hours has been long enough to forge me into something more.
“Shame about the kid,” Kat says, echoing my thoughts.
“Yes, regrettable,” the lieutenant says, shrugging broad shoulders with their bulky white armor. “But the mission was a success. The mortars are gone and the bombardment is done. We should get a few hours reprieve I’d think.”
He puts a black gloved hand on my shoulder. “Adken right? The marksman?”
“Yes,” I say. “Tomi Adken, Sir.”
“And Stevron Katzin,” our superior goes on. “I’ll put you both in for a commendation right away. Superb work.” And then, without any more pomp, he leaves us. Kat snorts and spits into the mud. “I’d prefer fresh bread to a commendation.”
I don’t speak aloud the wish I have. I would give anything for Vanmere to still be alive, for us to be back home where we belonged. Even as I wish it, I know it’s wrong. There is nothing back there for me. I wonder if there ever will be, again.
We turn back to Shiod, who is stuffing a bit of bread into his mouth. I don’t ask about it, Shiod is never full. He eats like a man condemned to death. I can’t blame him. We are all condemned men here, but I shove the thought away. This is no time for solemn thoughts.
He glances up at us, sucking on each of his fingers to be sure there are no crumbs missed. I make note of his missing fingers, though it does not seem to phase Shiod any longer. One must not waste food here, though supplies are still getting through, you never know when you’ll get to eat next.
“You shouldn’t stuff yourself like that,” Kat says. “In case you’re shot in the stomach. It’s worse then, if you eat.”
Shiod waves him off. “We’re more like to be blown to bits. Come off it. C’mon.” He turns and hobbles away and we quickly follow. Shiod has a pronounced limp now, dragging the right leg while the left shoves itself stiffly down and up again. He will never run the track again, I can see that.
A medic passes us and begins to say something, but Shiod makes a rude gesture with his maimed hand. The sight is comical even as it is grotesque, so we laugh. Shiod flashes us a shining smile. His spirits are high, despite it all.
We duck into a dugout that is still whole and Shiod shoves the simple wooden door shut, giving it a good kick with his hurt leg to make sure it’s tight. Kat cautions him not to strain himself.
“I’m so hyped up on a Kolto, I could have a fireblossom go off in my pants and I wouldn’t feel a thing.” Shiod shoots us both a grin and leans against the dugout wall, then thinks better of it and sits down. At once he seems exhausted, his smile shrinking, his face melting into a tired grimace.
“Say, pass me a smoke-stick will you? Thanks,” he says as I hand him one. He lights it and we all sit together, the dugout slowly filling with hot, dense smoke. We don’t speak, but let him tell us what we want to know in his own time. There is no rush. If an attack comes, we will know and if a bombardment comes, we are already in a good place to wait it out.
After several moments he does speak. His voice is low and solemn and through the gloom, he looks so much older, sicker, wounded. “It was the girl,” he says, waving his smoke-stick toward the door. “That’s why we weren’t in the tent.”
“The girl,” Kat says. “The imperial?”
“Yes,” Shiod says and spits. “That one.”
Kat frowns and leans back, crossing his arms. I see his brows knit together in thought and I look between them. “I don’t understand,” I say. “What about her?”
“It’s mad,” Shiod says. “Bloody, garking mad. Len… Gods, you know how Len is, thinking every girl he helps is his destined, well, whatever. You know?”
I do know. Lenmerer has been chasing dreams since the moment I first knew him. His mind is always full of fancy stories, romantic meetings among the stars full of danger and intrigue. He always told me that he’d meet the love of his life in the most clandestine way. Suddenly, my heart seizes and my breath catches.
“He didn’t, he…” I see Shiod raise his eyes and then shut them, shaking his head. I know. Oh for the love of the Gods of Balmorra, I know. Len followed his heart and it betrayed him again. Shiod’s next words are so expected I could have recited them with him.
“He helped her escape.”
We sit in silence for so long that the dugout becomes intolerably hot and hard to breath. The smoke is thick and Kat opens the door to let some of it out. We move to the floor, sitting or laying in a tight circle to escape it.
“During the attack?” Kat asks, finally. His voice is a whisper, his eyes on the mud at his feet. Shiod nods from where he lays on the dirt floor, staring up at the swirling smoke. “During the attack,” he says.
“How?” I ask. I have to hear it, have to find out just how stupid he had been. Perhaps we’ll find a way to cover for him, to hide it so no one will know. To do what he did is treason and in this environment, here in the front lines… Oh, Len. Why? What did you think would happen?
“When the bombardment began to hit behind the lines, we were instructed to get up, to start moving. Len gave me a good dose of Kolto so I could stand up and we tried to help others. It was pretty confused, chaotic, you know? In the middle of it I found him staring at her. She’s tied to her cot and just staring back. She had this look on her face, I can’t explain it. It was… sad. I guess? Sad is the only thing I can think of.”
“Imminent death is like that,” Kat says, nodding and scratching at his neck. “Makes you upset.”
“No, it wasn’t like that. You know I hate to say it, because we all know Len, but I think she loved him. It was just this look that said, ‘Don’t do what you’re thinking.’ You know? Gods,” Shiod shook his head and took another draw on his smoke-stick. “It could have been a holovid.”
Kat swears and I wince, knowing that is the kind of situation that would do Lenmerer in. “So what did you do, you damned fool?” Kat asks, glaring at Shiod who only shrugs. “I told him not to do it. To grab her and move her with the others, but what could I do? I could barely move much less fight the idiot.”
“So what did happen?” I ask, though I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. Shiod struggles, sits up and stabs his smoke-stick into the ground. “He pulled his pistol and aimed it at me.”
“What?” I nearly shout it, disbelieving. Doing something stupid in the name of love was something Lenmerer would surely do but threaten a friend? That seemed beyond him. Even Kat looked incredulous. “I don’t believe it.”
Shiod grunted. “Believe it. He aims it at me and says, ‘Help me. When the attack comes, she can get back with them.’ I asked him who he was talking to but he only waves the gun at me. ‘You,’ he says, ‘This is so you can say I coerced you.’”
“The damned, bloody, idiotic, noble fool,” Kat spits and throws away his smoke-stick as well, then lights a seconds. No one interrupts. Kat isn’t quite done and both Shiod and I know it. He stands up, paces and then runs a hand over his dirty, mud-splattered face.
“He could have just unlocked her bindings and walked away, no one would have thought twice. He could have marched her toward the rear, she’d have been safe. We don’t kill prisoners. Gods damn him!”
Shiod pulls another piece of breads from a pocket and chews on it. “He could have, but she wouldn’t have gone. They spoke, I didn’t hear it, but they said something to one another. Then we’re moving along the communications trenches. We hid in a dugout until the bombardment got thickest.”
“Why did he need your help?” I ask, frowning.
“Took us both to help her through some of the messier parts of that trench. She was pretty banged up. No attack came, as you two saw first hand. So we got her to that hole in the line and she scrambled through it.”
“Right up to the line,” Kat says, shaking his head. “Did anyone see you?”
Shiod shrugs. “Right then? I didn’t think so. I was surprised you two didn’t see her but then again, you all went ahead and had a party without me.”
“Where is he now?” Kat asks, ignoring the chiding remark and fixing Shiod with a stare. He slumps under the gaze and doesn’t look at either of us.
“Right before you guys got back they took him. I don’t know who they were, lieutenants or something. They were going to take me too but Len told them he’d made me do it. He kept screaming that and they took him… I never said a thing. Not a word… I didn’t… I didn’t even…”
At this, he breaks off and puts his forehead on his knees. “Gods. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t help.”
Kat takes a long draw on his smoke-stick, exhales the smoke and throws it away. “Nothing you could have done.” He walks over to Shiod and puts a hand on his shoulder, then lifts him to his feet. I stand then too as Kat opens the door.
“Let’s go see what’s what,” Kat says and we head out into the night.
We learn that Lenmerer is being held in the Captain’s quarters under guard. We stand by the gate in front of two guards that look at us warily, but step together to block our passage. “State your business with the Captain,” the one says.
“We want to see a medic named Lenmerer,” Kat says, adopting a tone that suggests boredom and irritation. “We heard he’s being kept here.”
“Who are you?” the other guard asks.
“Friends,” Shiod answers, then narrows his eyes. “The only ones he’s got more than likely.”
There’s a few more moments of confusion while they speak with someone on their comms and then we’re allowed in. The Captain sits behind a desk and eyes us as we enter. Len is nowhere to be seen.
“You’re his friends,” the man says, his voice sounding tired and exasperated. “Came in with him yesterday, right?”
“Not all of us,” Kat says, then indicates Shiod and me. “Those two did. I’ve been on the line for months, Sir.”
“I know you. Katzin right?” He rubs his fingers down his mustache and taps a datapad on his desk. “You and Adken blew up the mortars a bit ago. Bravo on that. You have commendations coming to you.”
Kat looks irritated but presses on. “We’d rather see Lenmerer, Sir.”
The Captain, whose name is Bingsby I recall, leans back in his chair and shakes his head. “Wish I could, Katzin, wish I could. Rules are rules though.”
“Rules for what?” I ask, feeling sudden fear rise in my throat. “What’s happened?”
Bingsby sighs and leans forward, then fixes me with a stare that is both cold and final. “I’ve heard the statements. He helped a prisoner escape and I have no choice in the matter. The rules of conflict are clear.”
“Just like that?” Kat says. He’s angry now and has taken a step toward the Captain. This turns out to be a mistake. Two troopers step in and shove him back. They level their blaster rifles at us and we all hold up our hands. The reaction seems… extreme to me and I shoot Shiod a glance. He is giving me the same one.
Kat isn’t finished. “He is due a trial, a court martial. Sir.”
“Not in a time of war such as this,” the Captain says and stands up. He points a finger at Kat. “The council is all but dissolved. Balmorra hangs by a thread. Our weapon factories are all being used against us and I am the only thing keeping us together. So no, Militiaman Stevron Katzin, he is not due a trial. He has committed treason and I will not stand for it. Now get out of here before I decide the three of you are complicit in his plans!”
We are moved toward the door by the armed men. Shiod cries out Lenmerer’s name before he’s shoved roughly against the door. Kat smacks the release plate and it opens. “I’m sorry!” Shiod shouts toward the only other door in the room. “Len, I’m sorry!”
And then, without anything further, we are out of the office and heading back toward the firing line. I look back only once at the prefab building. I feel a sinking in my stomach, a tightness in my chest. This war gave me back Shiod but it’s taken Len. I know this now, one life traded for another. I could not have both.
The night opens up with star shells as another bombardment begins. In the flashes and explosions that follow, my mind is blanked and only one thing feels certain.
I will never see Rangal Lenmerer again.