The man next to Shiod dies. He is hit by a shell that explodes not a meter from us. In an instant we are covered in dirt. It comes over us like an ocean’s wave. My ears and mouth are especially vulnerable and are filled. Kat digs me out and I, gasping and spitting, help Shiod. Vanmere is spared from the whole of it by a stroke of luck.
The dead man lay where he’d previously stood, but only his lower torso and legs remain. The rest is gone, blown away in a blast that leaves the rest of us shaken but otherwise unhurt. I stare until Kat shakes me back to myself.
He says this twice more before I regain my senses. In the desert of No Man’s Land, the giant, walking contraption is coming on steadily, the rotating guns on either side firing. The ground before us rips apart under its barrage and several men cry out as they tear into our ranks. In its belly is the glowing red fire of its furnace. The sight alone unnerves me, looking too much like a view into hell.
Vanmere is shooting like a man in a trance. He pulls the trigger in slow, measured motions. The reserve of bullets in his slide has long run out, but he pulls the lever back anyway. Each pull of his trigger emits an empty, clanging sound.
I grab his arm to stop him but not before a bullet strikes the fortification in front of me. The exploding cement and wood sounds like a terrible beast raging against a door. Let me in it says. Let me in.
Kat takes charge of Vanmere and I once again take up my own weapon. I pull back the slide that loads the bullet into the chamber and aim down my long sight. Without conscious thought I adjust the lenses, flipping two down to magnify it. Through it, I see that the Goliath isn’t even hurrying. It lumbers toward us as if unconcerned, as if it is so sure of our death that he does not rush to it. We are merely waiting to die.
As a star shell goes off, I take aim toward its shoulder where I can just make out a grating and a man’s eye. The gunner operating one of the rotating guns sits just inside. I inhale and hold it.
I squeeze the trigger and the weapon discharges smoothly. It barks fire before my eyes. Pops and cracks echo all down the trench as others fire. Shiod is firing his weapon constantly, screaming obscenities in his fear-driven fervor. I fire only once.
Bullets rip across the ground all around us. More men scream but I don’t risk a look. I have to see, have to know. There’s a spark on the Goliath’s armor near the shoulder and I let my breath go out quickly. Did I strike the metal instead? No, the gun is silent.
Before I can reload however, the Goliath is running and leaps ten yards, landing just before our trench. The remaining rotating gun goes off, tearing into a man who had fallen to the bottom of the trench. There is no scream, no sound at all. He merely falls to pieces before our eyes.
“Bring him down!” That is Kat. I turn, intending to shoot at it, perhaps aim for the pilot. I do not comprehend at that moment how influential our training is to us. They train us so we do not hesitate, do not question, do not think. We are not men, we are weapons to be aimed. In that instant, however, I hesitate. I am not fully trained, nor is Shiod or Vanmere. We turn but a breath goes by before we react.
Two more men die in that breath. The rotating gun swings in a wide arc, bullets spitting like angry, bright wasps. They cut off a man’s head and shatter another’s weapon, shoulder and chest. Rifle fire cracks. Men scream. The smoke obliterates all but the muzzle flashes and the dark shapes of men moving and falling.
Vanmere fires and misses Shiod by a hair. A crossfire springs to life and men die on both sides of the Goliath, killed by our own desperation to survive. A bullet skins my cheek while another punches through the sleeve of my jacket. I feel no pain, only a great suffocation of fear.
The Goliath steps down into the trench and begins to move down the line. Men have abandoned their rifles for spades, swords and knives. The butchery begins in earnest then, the Goliath stopped only occasionally by a hand thrown bomb.
It is madness and I nearly yield to it, wanting to throw down my rifle and run, screaming into death’s warm embrace. I see two, then five, then ten men killed in the span of a few breaths, men I’d talked to just that morning. I want to run to them, to help them, but my feet won’t move. A strong arm is wrapped around my chest, pulling me back.
Kat has saved me from my own madness.
Then one of our officers leaps onto the thing’s back from the top of the trench. Steam instantly envelopes him as his exposed skin contacts the hot exhaust vents on the Goliath’s back. I hear him scream, but I also see him push something inside the vents. It’s a bomb and it travels right down into the Goliath’s heart. Kat pulls me back and I grab Shiod. Vanmere is missing and there is no time to look for him. We must escape the blast, find safety in a dugout, a mound of earth, anything.
The Goliath stops and shudders, twisting violently and the officer is lost in the smoke. Kat pushes us behind a corner of the trench and I hear the explosion. I cover my ears but feel something wet inside them and panic. A brief insanity comes over me and I fear a bullet has caught me in the head. My fingers dig inside, only to come away covered in mud.
And behind Kat I see the first Johnny come to the top of our trench, bayonet gleaming in the explosion’s fiery red light.