He is aiming a rifle at us. I don’t know where my rifle came from, but perhaps in the confusion I’d picked it up. I fire once, almost blindly. A hole appears in the man’s chest and he falls face first, landing with a sickening crunch in the mud below. I stare at him, his hands splayed before me as if prostrate, his backside high in the air, his neck bent in an impossible angle and the blood that runs like a river into the muddy water.
Kat touches my arm but the attack is on us. More Johnnies crest the trench, firing and throwing hand bombs. The crack of rifle fire cuts down several of them right in front of us before they can fire, while others leap into the trench to escape. Kat is on them quickly, working with his knife.
Shiod and I move to help him. Humanity is lost to us then. It is a thing for other times, for when we sit in school and answer questions of history and language. It belongs to a much younger version of myself, a me of yesterday, of five hours ago. Forever ago.
We are driven by something more than fear. It is a sort of madness that pushes us as we set to our bloody work. In my hands is the knife meant for a bayonet, the typical kind useless on my sniper’s rig. When I stab my first man in the back and feel the resistance of the flesh give way to softer, shivering muscle and bone, I am neither happy nor repulsed. I do it and then I move and shove my knife beneath the arm of another. With each thrust I feel neither satisfied nor horrified, but merely driven to go on.
I fall as a soldier lands heavily upon me. We roll in the mud and ankle-deep water. I have the advantage of being smaller and slip out from under him while he splutters and gasps for air. I turn over and strike home over and over again until the body spasms and goes still. I do not even comprehend that he is a man like myself.
Why do we forget in these times of senseless slaughter that our knives are killing, taking a man with memories and loves and experience quickly from the world? It is a matter of simple, senseless facts. We kill because a man is there and he might kill me. I pick up my rifle, snap back the bolt and shove it forward into place, then pull the trigger to explode the throat of a man in gray wool because his own rifle is slower to act. He dies because I do not. There is no training for this kind of killing. It is not a skill, it is a fugue. The images are not stored for my memory and I will forget. I must forget.
We are free of them then and Shiod grins at me. His pale face is covered in blood and dirt and his helmet is gone, his mud-colored hair matted with filthy water. Kat has Vanmere by the arm, and so he has survived after all.
The enemy comes ever onward and our line is forced back along the trench. We run, pulling the safeties from bombs and tossing them behind us. It will slow their progress. Kat pulls down razor wire behind us and should anyone run through it, the wire will snag and cut and tangle.
The escape takes us to a communication trench and we duck as shells explode overhead. A piece of exploded metal catches Shiod in the back, throwing flesh and blood into my eyes. He screams but does not fall. Rifle fire behind us makes me forget about his wound entirely.
Kat turns and throws, his bomb exploding in the midst of four gray-clad soldiers. For a moment I’m blinded, but the shouts of his victims turn into anguished cries. When my vision clears, there are three mere lumps of flesh floating in the muddy water. The fourth man caught the grenade in the chest and has been blown to bits.
“Here!” Kat shouts and we dig in with others along a secondary trench. The counter attack begins in earnest now, our line firing into the attacking force. Confederate soldiers fall in droves, clogging choke points with their dead. It is along these choke points that we stop them. Our Gatling cannons pour into them while bombs reap a deadly harvest of blood and screaming, wailing horror.
I lose track of time. The rifle’s vibrations make my hands and arms numb. My vision blurs from all the flashing lights and I think of nothing but firing into that valley of death.
After a time more shouting comes down the line. Kat taps me on the shoulder and waves to follow. I do the same for Shiod and Vanmere. Shiod has applied a bandage to his back and assures me he’s fine. Vanmere says nothing, but comes, pale with eyes half-closed.
We retake the front line trench with ease. The enemy is retreating, fighting only to return across No Man’s Land. An officer is waving his hands forward. He is shouting words that do not inspire nor fill me with regret. They are simply words. Words, words, words.
“Over the top boys! Over the top now!”
We pick up the cry like a chorus, a senseless song of murderous, righteous fury. My vision narrows, seeing only the mud of the trench, the steps, and then the field beyond. We go over, crossing into No Man’s Land and running, screaming.
Shells rush to meet us. They explode overhead and rain down molten metal on us. One moment I am running along with an older man with graying hair, his long mustaches flowing, and in the next moment he has no face. He falls without a word.
Shiod leaps a crater with a single jump. Kat is not carrying a rifle but a digging shovel. Vanmere lags behind and is lost in the advance.
We cross razor wire cut to shreds countless shells. Trip mines lay like spiny mounds across the dark landscape. Nearby, a man trips one and the explosion cuts off his feet. He runs on the bloody stumps for a few yards before collapsing in a shell hole. I take all this in without feeling. They are images I may well deal with later, but for now they mean nothing to me.
Gatling cannon fire opens up before us. Two men to my left fall. One to my right cries out, grabs my coat but I push him away and keep running. We must get to their trench, must kill them or they will keep coming and the night will never end. In my senseless thoughts, ending the night is all there is to me. One night is the whole of my life and my future.
We reach an Gatling nest and Kat caves in a man’s helmet with his shovel. I instantly see the use in the weapon. It is heavy and blunt and crushes tin and steel with a single swing. Against the wool and flesh it is even more effective. The sharpened edges get a man beneath the chin or cleave through shoulders. Shiod and I bring our knives against any who escape Kat’s deadly eye.
The enemy trench is shallower than our own and we leap into it, throwing bombs and using the stocks of our weapons. It is close, bloody work. Kat kills two men emerging from a dugout. We duck into it and he has us take all the food we can. We leave the dugout with our booty and armed bombs dropped behind us.
The enemy retreats into their deeper trenches and we follow as far as we dare. There is only a handful of us when the enemy turns and digs in. Here we also turn and begin to make our way back. We are not here to capture the position for we are too few. I understand this at once. We came only to take what they took from us. We are weapons aimed and nothing more.
On the way out we take as much ammunition, pouches of food and bombs as we can find. We collapse any dugouts we find and shoot any corpses that twitch. When we climb out of the narrow trench, we are even more heavily burdened than we’d been going in.
We escape into a copse of trees, thin and ghostlike in the darkness. Mist and smoke mingle like wraiths in the light of illumination shells as they explode overhead. Kat turns around and around and curses.
“What’s up Kat?” I ask.
“I’ve lost my way. Need a moment.”
Shiod and I exchange a look. Kat is never lost and he never forgets a thing. He is simply making sure. To go the wrong way now would take us back into that blaster fire. We need to get back to our line. There is life. The other way is only death.
Kat grunts and waves us onward. We follow, no longer running but jogging. Our exhaustion is setting in but we dare not stop here. How far is our line? A hundred yards? Two hundred? Half a mile? I have no idea how far I ran, the whole of it is lost to me.
“Get down!” Kat shouts and drops to the ground. We follow suit just as the ground begins to explode around us. Trees are ripped free and throw into the air. Splinters fly just over our heads, wooden shrapnel as deadly as any shell or mine.
The bombardment reduces the small section of trees to stumps and broken trunks. I risk a quick look around and see something that chills me to my core. The barrage that comes now is launched not from the Johnnies but our own lines. The way back is through.