Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Last Day on the Line

Nothing moved.  No bird  sang.  The air lay about in stillness with not even a whisper to betray  its presence.  Before him, the open ground, punctuated by fractured  trees and scorched craters, lay stretched out until it dissipated  seamlessly into the heavy mist that shrouded the far woods and hills  from his view.  The darkness of the night had slipped away almost  imperceptibly and, in the half-light that followed the dawn, he strained  his eyes in vain to penetrate the greyness that hung like a curtain  across the world’s end in the distance.  The man next to him raised an  arm and pointed to a faint glow that alone penetrated the fog.  There  was a shuffling and the occasional tumbling of stones down into the  trench as each man adjusted his position to see what spectacle was about  to appear.  Once repositioned, each man caught his breath and swallowed  hard.  The glow grew until a bead of light sat atop and revealed the  hidden horizon, and the bead expanded into a pale, irregular disc that  slid inexorably towards the sky where clouds that stood high above the  veiled earth were highlighted with gilt, and clouds far distant behind  the trench vermillion on grey.  The disc, pock-marked in betrayal of the  intense activity on its surface, assumed its true circle as it rose,  and the troopers relaxed and breathed easily.

Another arm moved,  and the shuffling started again.  Tension returned as each trooper  recognised, beneath the disc, another glowing object, this one  crescent-shaped and descending from the point where the planet’s sun had  demarked the horizon.  In response to what each soldier saw, the trench  was filled with the sound of weaponry being armed and whispered prayers  and curses, and tears mingled with the moistness laid down on every  surface by the mist.  ‘Here they come again!’ he shouted, ‘Look to your  front!  Hold your fire!  Hold the line!’

The air was filled with  an intense and ear-splitting crackling as the artillery pieces behind  the line discharged themselves towards the crescent that crept steadily  downwards and towards them.  As each bolt passed overhead and stretched  towards its target, the reactive armour of the entrenched troops beneath  it glowed and hummed, and great swathes of mist were vaporised in its  path and, on its impact, the crescent flared with the light of a star,  yet continued in unchecked advance.

‘Hold your fire! Hold the line!  Wait for the overlap! Mark your targets!’

The  crescent flattened as it reached level ground and continued forwards  under the bombardment, flashing and buckling and reforming beneath the  onslaught.  This was the biggest one they had seen so far.  The constant  hum of the crescent’s generator began to fill the gaps between the  artillery’s crashing and was augmented with a strained whine at each  impact.  The mist before it was driven aside and the discharge of the  crescent where it touched the ground glowed purple and yellow and added  its own signature to the cacophony.

A rifle discharged harmlessly  against the crescent.  ‘Hold your fire!’ he shouted again above the  noise, ‘Wait for the overlap!’  His armour enabled itself and the visor  darkened and cleared to keep constant the amount of light reaching his  eyes, preventing him from being blinded by the flashes of the artillery  bolts.

Still the crescent came on.  Beneath it, they could at last  make out the enemy warriors that advanced under its protection.  Unseasoned troopers wept openly at the apparition before them.  Their  combat trousers became darkly stained and steamed in the cold air.

The  crescent first touched the line about 300 metres to his right.  As soon  as it did, the warriors began concentrating fire on the exposed trench.   The crescent passed over the trench and its skirts fell in to fill the  space.  The few troopers now overlapped by the crescent returned fire  but were soon overwhelmed, their armour unable to withstand the  intensity of the assault.  The artillery continued to crash its full  force on the crescent; still it came on, its envelopment of the trench  widening as it advanced.  The warriors followed its expansion along the  trench eliminating all resistance from troopers as they came under the  shield.  Away from the van, they dropped into the trench and attacked  its bunkers to destroy all they found.  Troopers concealed underground  retaliated in full force, preparing to break out under the crescent.

‘Hold your ground!  They’re almost there!  Five more seconds!’

The  time elapsed in what seemed an eternity and then the air within the  crescent was filled with the intense, eerie shrieking of warriors that  dropped like flies, pressing their several upper limbs to their several  hearing organs.  The troopers that remained alive under the crescent  took whatever cover they could find in preparation for the blast.   Suddenly, there erupted from the trench five missiles that arched their  way into the air beneath the curve of the crescent.  At the apex of  their flight, they disappeared in five simultaneous magnesium-white  flashes, and a second later, the shockwaves from the massive explosions  struck the ground where, contained and focussed by the crescent, they  reverberated and wrought havoc and destruction.  The scene fell silent.   The crescent collapsed, its generator irreparably damaged.

‘Now!’ he shouted, ‘Get into them!’

Troopers  climbed from the trenches, they flooded from the bunkers and onto the  plain of devastation, and firing as they emerged at the many warriors  whose armour had shielded them from the blast but who were still  disorientated by the ultrasonic pulse that had preceded it.  Gradually,  they would recover, and the troopers would yet be fighting for their  lives, but for now they set about the slaughter of the helpless that lay  strewn around them, evening the odds while they had the chance, their  revulsion at the sight of these creatures spurring them on to get the  job done as quickly as possible.  They showed no mercy, and felt no  remorse, for none of either would be expressed toward them...

He  led his platoon from the front, as always, and his men, as always,  followed him without hesitation.  He reached his first victim in twenty  strides.  He forced the muzzle of his weapon into the narrow gap beneath  the warrior’s helmet. He angled it up towards the inside of the helmet,  and then squeezed the trigger.  The warrior’s head was instantly  liquidised and splattered against the inside of the visor.  He leapt  clear and on to the next fallen warrior.  He was conscious that all his  men were moving in concert with him, and that there were ten less  warriors to deal with.  Soon there were twenty less, and then thirty.   On his right flank, his heard his sergeant call out, ‘They’re  recovering,’ and, sure enough, he saw the body of his next target  beginning to stir.  He lunged forward, desperate to make the kill before  the warrior was able to retaliate.  A tendril began to loop around his  weapon, and another around his leg, and then both quivered free as the  warrior’s brains exploded.  Forty down.  The next batch was moving,  struggling to get upright and face the troopers.

His men formed  groups of four, two standing shoulder to shoulder, and two kneeling in  front of them: he took up station behind one of the groups, the sergeant  behind the other.  Troopers all over the battlefield were adopting the  same tactic to give them maximum penetration of the warriors’ armour.   The warriors began to advance.  Four rifles discharged against the  nearest warrior, knocking it back to the ground.  The team of four  advanced and repositioned themselves beyond their fallen foe.  The team  leader stepped in to finish the warrior off.  The kill rate was down;  the advance was slowed.  Soon, there were too many warriors to deal  with.  The enemy could be felled, but the vast numbers pressing forward  prevented the deathblow: at least they were out of the fight.  The  troopers hoped they did not have to wait much longer.  They fell back  towards the trench, breaking and running when they were unable to  prevent the advance.  The warriors poured on after them.  They had taken  the bait.

The resistance offered by the troopers had had the  effect of bunching the warriors into a narrow band across the  battlefront.  When the troopers ran, the band moved as one after them,  only more slowly because of the congestion.  The air was filled once  more with the crackle of cannon-fire.  Without their protective crescent  shield, the warriors were vulnerable to the bombardment, and the  cannons cut swathes through the advancing band.  Still they came on.

The  troopers were running for their lives.  Some of the warriors, more than  enough to handle, would get through the bombardment.  Where was the air  strike?  On they ran, stumbling over the uneven terrain.  Some fell  under the blast of warrior disruptor-fire.  Stopping to help a fallen  comrade meant certain death:  no one stopped.

Unheard, black dots  appeared over the horizon on the left flank.  The three waves of  ground-attack jets banked in turn onto their bombing run.  Seconds  later, they flashed overhead, laying down nu-palm over the advancing  band of warriors.  From the trenches, the troopers saw the jets dip and  then climb on releasing their payloads, the billowing flames sweep along  the battlefront, heard the fractionated crump of the detonations, the  roar of the inferno, felt the shock wave that radiated from the  conflagration, and, finally, were deafened by the scream of the jets now  long out of sight.  The flames subsided as shattered warriors’ body  parts rained down.  Those who had been near the edge of the fire lay  burning and writhing on the ground.  Others screamed and moaned in the  agonies of dismemberment.  Once again, the cannons opened up on those  warriors fortunate enough to have escaped the bombing and who were now  in full flight back to their own lines.  Once again, the troopers left  their trenches to move among the fallen enemy, turning the brains of the  living to soup; the rank stench of burnt nu-palm and roasted warrior  hung like a pall over the corpses.  The jets returned to give chase to  the fleeing warriors and hovered over them, picking them off one by one.   Slowly, the sound of death moved off into the distance.  The troopers’  work was done.

Back in the trench, he called his platoon  together; there had been no casualties this time.  The rookie  replacements among them laughed from nervous relief at their survival,  and revelled in the end of their fears that they would be unable to  function in battle.  The veterans sat silently about; the next battle  would come soon enough, and they may be unable to laugh afterwards...

The  captain came along the line, talking to his lieutenants, collecting  casualty statistics.  ‘Ten-shun,’ called out the sergeant, and the  platoon, as a man, stood and came stiffly to attention.

‘As you were,’ said the captain to the men, then, to the lieutenant, ‘Your men did well, today.  Any losses?’

‘None,  sir,’ he replied, ‘and, yes, they did do well.’  He turned and smiled  at the others as they stood around waiting to hear any news the captain  might have.  Some smiled back; others retained their expressionless  masks of weariness.

Sensing their interest, the captain also  turned to face them.  ‘Good news!’ he announced to the group, ‘Our  Company is being taken off the line for a well-deserved rest.’  He  turned back to the lieutenant, ‘Have your men gather their gear and  assemble in the transportation zone at 1330 zulu.  Your relief should be  here an hour beforehand.  Carry on.’  He returned the lieutenant’s  salute and passed on along the line to the next platoon.

Now, everyone was smiling.

‘A hot bath and soft, clean sheets,’ said one.

‘Decent food that we don’t have to cook ourselves,’ said another.

‘The soft, warm skin of a clean woman,’ continued the first.

‘Red, red wine to wash it all down with...’

The  lieutenant smiled.  He had heard the same routine from these two  countless times before.  How many times had he seen battle with these  men, he wondered?  He could not remember.  Certainly, the three of them  were the only surviving members of the original second platoon, but how  many battles was that?  He would hate to go into battle without them;  they were his lucky mascots.  ‘Look sharp, guys,’ he said to the group.   ‘Let’s be ready to get out of here before they change their minds...’

No  one missed the transport.  No one missed the trenches.  The war had  reached a stalemate, with neither side able to make any headway, and so  an uneasy cease-fire was established.  No one thought of the war; until  the next time…

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