30th Battalion front line, Llael.
12th of Octesh, 611 AR.
Joffrey Léandre sat numbly at the embankment of what was now their rear trench line, looking across the wasteland 30th Battalion had fought and died for. He hadn’t crossed with them. He was a sniper. He had to sit back and watch the madness unfold. The enemy trenches had mostly been cleared by the time he went over the top. He hadn’t even been close enough to try and take shots at the enemy. No, he’d quite literally sat through the whole attack. ‘Take shots of opportunity’, Lieutenant Reynolds had ordered him.
Even Joffrey’s fine ability couldn’t overcome that range.
Joffrey had seen a lot of terrible things in his young life. His home had been invaded, his sweetheart brutally murdered, he lived as a refugee in a country that seemed bent on forever remind him how foreign he was. And now, for the first time in over five years, he came back to his home country to find the Khadorans were literally tearing it apart farm by farm. That should really have been the worst part about today, but it wasn’t. Not even close.
Seventy eight. That was how many young men he watched die with his own eyes this morning. He’d counted them all as they dropped. Seventy eight human beings vanished, and that was only in his field of view, which had quickly become obscured by smoke and fire and then the charge. It wasn’t until the ghastly haze had lifted that the true toll became visible. Being forced to sit helplessly and watch friend after friend fall like sacks of wheat in a coverless expanse of murder was a torture beyond description. Young men with bright futures, erased from history with no dignity or heroism or glory. Deaths as casual as being squashed like bugs. Seeing the Khadoran destruction of his home was heart wrenching, but this… He never anticipated this.
And now the cries. Oh, the pitiful screaming. He wanted more than anything to stuff his ears full of mud to block to sound, but that felt too disrespectful.
“Hey! Soldier!” a gruff voice addressed him from behind and Joffrey turned in surprise. A bulky trencher he didn’t recognize stood behind him. He had master sergeant bars on his pauldron. “No sleeping. There’s work to do. Get off your ass.”
Joffrey rose slowly, putting his helmet back on. “Sir,” he answered with the muted obedience of a crushed spirit. The beefy trencher spit casually in reply.
“If you’ve got nothing to do, we need help collecting our dead.” It was not a request. Joffrey nodded. “Let’s go,” the master sergeant ordered, pushing him out onto the field. Joffrey took a few squelching steps out into the mud. It was surprisingly deep. When he didn’t hear the other man’s boots accompanying him, he stopped and turned to see the master sergeant walking away.
“Hey!” Joffrey called out. The sergeant turned, looking at him. “Aren’t you going to help?”
“The hell you say?” the sergeant stormed angrily back toward him. “Are you telling me what to do?” he cracked his knuckles threateningly. Joffrey took a step back.
“No, I thought–”
“Then stop thinking,” the master sergeant said scathingly. “I gave you an order. Go find a dead body and drag it back there for collection,” he pointed to the fence of sticks that had once been a treeline. “Do you need me to hold your hand?”
“No sir,” Joffrey said. The sergeant didn’t reply, but turned back around to resume some unknown errand. Joffrey adjusted the straps on his pack and walked out onto the field. It was uneven with fresh craters. He slipped more than once. A body lay ten feet from him, a dark blotch in the mud. He approached it softly, like he would a sleeping dog.
This lad was not sleeping. Either a bullet or a very large piece of shrapnel had completely disemboweled him. The air above him reeked of open guts, already drawing noisy flies. He lay face-up, glassy eyes unmoving, arms and legs cast out. Joffrey stared down at the man’s face. It was vaguely familiar but nobody he knew. This person had lost his life not fifty yards from their trench.
The man stared back with the incriminating, patient gaze of death. Joffrey looked away.
He squatted down, grabbed the man’s outstretched arms and pulled, still avoiding the sight of the corpse. The mud pulled back, grudgingly releasing the body with a wet sucking sound. Ah, Joffrey thought, he isn’t as heavy as I thought he’d be. He took several steps before looking back down at the corpse.
The torso had completely torn away from the legs, drizzling entrails all the way back to the hips that still lay in the mud. Joffrey let go of the body’s arms like they were on fire, dropping them heavily back onto the ground with a soggy smack. His breath came in rapid gasps. The young man’s face showed no signs of discomfort, no change at all. Joffrey stumbled back. His stomach retched, demanding to be emptied, but there was nothing left– not even bile. His ribs ached from the pressure. He closed his eyes and tried to count to ten, dizziness threatening to knock him onto the ground.
“Does anyone here speak Llaelese!?” a female voice called from far away. Joffrey’s eyes snapped open and he turned to locate the sound. A trencher lieutenant from one of the other companies was walking through the blasted trees with what appeared to be a man, woman, and child in tow. Joffrey sprinted away, putting as much distance between himself and the bisected human being he had left behind.
“I do! I do!” he volunteered, rushing toward the lieutenant.
“Name?” she asked.
“Joffrey Sebastian Renard Dupont Léandre,” Joffrey rattled off. The officer’s eyes immediately glazed over.
“Shit, you are Llaelese,” she said in annoyance. “Ok, listen. This man and his family is really upset about something and I have no idea what. Please get him to calm down,” she said, completely exasperated. Joffrey turned to the man. He was obviously a farmer, wearing faded coveralls tainted with mud at the feet. He wore thin, cheap shoes and his wife had a threadbare dress that once might have been blue but was now a distant reminder of periwinkle. Joffrey felt an irrational need to tell her it was still a pretty color, but that seemed inappropriate. Their child, a little girl no more than two years old carried on the woman’s hip, had a dress of similar age and color.
They were all weeping openly.
“What are you doing here?” Joffrey asked. His home language felt familiar and comforting on his tongue, a cadence he hadn’t felt in months. Relief at finding someone who could understand him flooded the other man’s face.
“Please, please,” he began, voice quavering. “You destroyed our home, you must help us rebuild it,” he said.
“What did he say?” the frosty lieutenant demanded. Joffrey held up a hand.
“Give me a moment,” he asked. She sighed impatiently.
“You- you blew up our house,” the farmer continued, pointing west. “We live on the other side of where the Khadorans were, far along that way, a mile down,” he said through tears. “We fled to our neighbor’s house a few nights before you arrived,” he pointed back through the line of splintered trees to the farmland to the Cygnaran rear, still almost totally untouched by the misery around them. “We have been watching the battle. This, this is our farm…” he pointed now at the expanse of mud and rotting death. His wife began sobbing. “This was our farm… corn…”
Joffrey’s heart ached. How much more was he expected to take? He felt he was breaking under the strain.
“How was your house destroyed?” Joffrey asked, avoiding looking at the evil field. “Our attack didn’t go that far west.”
“You blew it up!” the man insisted. “We saw it! I sat in the attic of my neighbor’s house and watched!”
“Ok, ok,” Joffrey said, putting up his hands. “But it must have been the Khadorans. We wouldn’t just blow up a house.”
“What is he saying, Private?” the lieutenant demanded impatiently.
“He thinks we shelled his house,” Joffrey told her. “Hang on a second.” He looked back at the farmer, trying to speak softly. “Our attack was at the east end of this field, all of our firepower was right here,” Joffrey tried to explain. “If your house was destroyed, the Khadorans must have sapped it,” he said compassionately.
“No! No!” the man said through gritted teeth. “You did! You Cygnarans did!”
“I’m not Cygnaran,” Joffrey bit back. Why was he being defensive?
The farmer made a disgusted sound. “Well you’re wearing their colors, no?” he said caustically. “You damned swans blew up our house after the battle! After the battle! You’d already won, but you turned your damned guns on it and blew it up for no reason!”
“This makes no sense,” Joffrey said to the lieutenant, his face puckered in confusion. “He thinks we shelled his house after the assault?”
“Where is the house?” the lieutenant asked.
“Down the lane about a mile,” Joffrey answered.
“On the Khadoran side?” she asked.
“Yes, well, on the former Khadoran side,” Joffrey corrected.
“Ah,” she said, looking away.
The poor farmer watched the exchange without comprehension, emanating fury and grief. “You must help us,” he pleaded. “You must help us rebuild. We have no home, no… no…” he looked despondently at the wrecked field, “no food… no money. Please.”
“Lieutenant,” Joffrey said quietly, blinking hard. “Did we shell his house?” She avoided his eyes.
“Yes, we did,” she admitted, voice sounding stronger than her countenance. “Once we breached the enemy line we traveled west destroying their hardpoints–”
“It was their HOUSE, not a damn bunker!” Joffrey exclaimed in horror. “We didn’t need to blow it up!”
“Watch yourself, Private,” she warned.
His face turned red with fury. “What were you thinking!?” he shouted.
“I was thinking there was a house eighty yards from a Khadoran trench!” she shouted back. “Probably hiding enemy troops!”
“And were there?” he demanded.
“Yes,” she spat. “Two snipers were found in the rubble.”
“Why didn’t you clear it with–”
“With men!?” the lieutenant scoffed. “What, you haven’t seen enough of our people die today? You wanted them to walk into a trapped house?” she shook her head in disgust. “Yeah, you’re going to find out what that’s like real soon.” She looked up the hill at Albyn. “Tell them they can file a reparations request at the command post,” she said angrily. “I don’t have time for this. We have our own mess to clean up.” She turned to leave.
“They’ll get next to nothing and you know it,” Joffrey replied. She continued walking.
“Please, please help us,” the man began again, alarmed at the dispute but still not understanding. Joffrey turned back to him. He opened his mouth, struggling for something to say. He shut it again. The farmer stared at him in desperation.
“I…” Joffrey began. “I’m sorry,” he said at last. The man’s face crumpled. His wife sobbed. Their daughter wailed.
“No, no no no,” the farmer pleaded as Joffrey turned away. “Please! Please!” Joffrey wanted to tell them to go to the regimental field office and file form 21-RP, but even if he showed the man exactly where to go and what to do, he probably wasn’t even literate enough to fill it out. And Joffrey knew that even if he filled out the form on the man’s behalf, it would only be a false hope. There was no justice in paperwork. Joffrey had been through the bureaucratic machinery of Cygnar as a refugee himself. Most of these ‘reparations requests’ would get denied, or put on a shelf until the end of the war.
Whenever that was.
The most appropriate thing to do would be for the Cygnaran government to simply give these people money as payment for their loss, but Joffrey knew that every gold crown flowing north from Cygnar into Llael right now wasn’t going into rebuilding the infrastructure. It was being spent on ammunition, on warjacks, on soldiers.
He reached into one of the many pouches on his belt, pulling out a small handful of Cygnaran gold crowns. It wasn’t very much. Turning back to the man, he put his hand out with the money.
“Take this,” he said. “It’s very little, but… take it.”
The farmer looked down at the few coins, realizing that was all he would ever get in repayment for losing his property. Weary resignation settled on him and he took the gold, not looking up at Joffrey or thanking him. Joffrey turned back toward his grisly duty on the field, where even the foul odor of corpses felt suddenly preferable to facing this broken man and his family. He trudged away with his hands on his helmet, tears washing little trails in the dirt on his face.
At least the dead felt no pain.
Peter looked up at the massive, eight-foot frame of a Man-O-War suit frozen at its post. This particular fellow had still been at his rotary gun a half a mile down the Khadoran trench when the Cygnarans swept into it. Several units of Shield Company broke across the field this way and were scythed down, but in the few moments of distraction they purchased, a handful of trenchers had gotten behind the big suited warrior and blown out his firebox with grenades. The boiler fractured, cooking its occupant alive and causing the frame to seize up. Its half-melted human contents were already rotting in the growing warmth of the day, the insulated pipes still smoking and ticking from internal heat. What a bad way to go.
Peter swatted idly at flies. He wondered how it would feel to wear that sort of armor– would it feel safer, or more treacherous? He wasn’t sure. Whatever it was like, this fellow had to have been one big son of a bitch to wear the equivalent of a light warjack on his body. Powered armor or not, it took a thick man to occupy so much gear. Peter hardly even filled out his own armor. He shook his head in amazement.
Where was Kirk? Peter had completely lost track of him the moment they jumped into the enemy trench. Kirk had run off like a maniac and Peter was swept forward down the long, straight trench with the rest of the attackers. He’d managed to scramble up one of the ladders to avoid being trampled by his own comrades, belly-crawling over the top just in time to see the main body of the Khadoran force break under pressure. The crewmen at the mortars were desperately dynamiting their weapons to prevent enemy use. Peter– small, overlooked Peter– lay still as a corpse and fired off shot after shot, killing three and scaring the rest of them off. Hadn’t saved the mortars, though.
The Khadorans still holding out in the west trench were swallowed up by superior numbers, trenchers leaping at them from every side. There was some big scrum between the journeyman warcaster and one of the battle wizards way back east. After that, an unnatural fog bank rolled in from the Khadoran side and the battle just sort of ended.
Peter helped the invading Cygnarans toss grenades into dugout after dugout, and then someone spotted a muzzle in the farmhouse near the edge of the fortifications. Five minutes later it was flaming rubble. The trenches ended about two hundred or so yards from where the trees stop and followed a horse-cart north, and that was that: the huge square of farmland was secure. 30th Battalion now had an unobstructed view of the grassy slopes, little farms and calm woodland all the way to Albyn. Any Khadorans trying to come back down that way would get cut down by chain guns.
He grew bored with inspecting the statue of armor and decided to peek into one of the bombed-out dugouts to see if anything interesting or useful had survived.
Approaching the blackened entrance of one of the little dirt rooms, he leaned around the corner and peered inside. A slit against the far wall offered a narrow view of no-man’s-land through the bulwark. Three mangled Khadorans lay within. The flies had discovered them as well. Peter pinched his nose.
“Gross.” He moved on. Disquiet about the fate of his unit continued to gnaw at him. Turning east, he began hiking back toward where he and Kirk had first breached the enemy line, hoping to find at least some familiar faces from Hammer Company there. Most of the trenchers this direction weren’t anyone he recognized.
Alex’s fiery destruction leapt into his mind. Gods, he’d nearly forgotten! How could he forget a thing like that? Poor Kirk. It was probably his first time losing a friend. The two had practically been brothers. Peter hoped Kirk was alright. And Bull. And Merrimack… For the first time in Peter’s life he had a family. Unfortunately, he’d chosen a family placed on the brink of mortal danger where any one of them could be dead by sunrise. This was the closest he’d ever felt to anyone and now there was a good chance they were all dead. He felt the spectre of Turinsdale Orphanage looming over him, its gray shadow inescapably cast over his life. He’d fled Corvis to escape Turinsdale, and he’d joined the Corps. to escape people like Uncle Kay.
Where could he go to escape losing friends?
Was a warzone the safest his life would ever get? He’d told his recruiter he’d rather die in a trench than go back to where he came from, and even now standing amidst the ruination of war, it was his unyielding truth.
Well, he thought, if this is the life I have to live to be free, then I guess I better get used to it.
Corporal Merrimack sat anxiously at Bull’s side in the overcrowded row of wounded on stretchers. Moans and cries of pain sounded from tortured men and a few women in row after row of wounded. Guilt and shame lay on Merrimack so heavily he couldn’t stand.
“I’m sorry, Bull,” he said for the thousandth time.
“Don’t be sorry,” the giant man rasped. His arm lay on his stomach in a blood-soaked sling. “You got water?” Bull asked. Merrimack fumbled for his canteen, slowly trickling its contents into Bull’s open mouth, stopping when Bull spluttered.
“Sorry,” Merrimack said again.
“Stop it,” Bull chastised him. His face was gray with pain. He tried to sit up, but Merrimack pushed him back down. Bull sighed in exasperation. “Come on, mum, I want to get up,” he said, grinning through the agony. Merrimack tried to smile back.
“You’ve lost a lot of blood,” Merrimack replied.
“Don’t you have something better to do?” Bull asked, words slurring.
“Nope,” Merrimack answered. “I’m staying here until you get medical attention.” Bull’s eyes were red from stress.
“Corporal, where is the rest of our unit?” Bull asked.
“I… I’m not sure,” Merrimack answered shakily.
Bull closed his eyes. “You gotta find them,” he said wearily. “I’m alright. Not going anywhere.” Merrimack looked at Bull’s arm. Merrimack had wrapped it in bandages and used Bull’s own belt to tourniquet the arm at the bicep, concealing the disturbing injury underneath. Bull’s arm was only attached at the elbow by a few tenacious strings of meat and hope.
“Stay awake, Bull,” Merrimack said.
Bull’s eyes reopened slowly. “Is that an order?” he asked.
Merrimack laughed shakily. “Yeah, fuckface, that’s an order,” he said.
Bull let out a long breath of air. “Yes, sir,” he said slowly. “Please, go find the others,” he pleaded. “I’ll be ok.”
“Shit, Bull, this is my f–”
“Not your fault,” Bull whispered. “Not.”
“If I hadn’t… If I hadn’t ordered you to–” Merrimack started again. Bull groaned in frustration and agony.
“I might have gotten blown up by a rocket, or a mortar, or whatever else. Who knows, maybe you saved my life.” Bull closed his eyes again. “I’m just lucky to be here.”
Merrimack patted his cheek lightly.
“Stay awake, dummy,” Merrimack choked. “No sleeping.”
Bull’s eyes reopened slowly. “Don’t think I could sleep if I tried,” he mumbled.
“Atta boy,” Merrimack whispered.
“Please go find the others,” Bull implored again. Merrimack gritted his teeth with indecision. Bull was right, there was nothing he could do to help at this point and he had responsibilities elsewhere. Captain Kasey would be expecting accountability reports soon. The rest of his unit could be lying dead on the field for all he knew. That possibility alone kept him clinging to the wounded warrior at his feet. If Peter and Kirk had died when he left them… he didn’t think he could handle it. He’d never lost men under his command before.
“Alright, Neil. I’ll go find the others,” Merrimack finally acquiesced. “You stay awake, you hear me?” he said one last time.
“Yes sir,” Bull answered. Merrimack stood up slowly and walked away, the guilt doubling with each step.
Gerard was covered in blood that wasn’t his. It crusted his hands and flaked off of his clothes in drying clumps. He could feel it cracking on his face like a thin layer of paint. At the start of the attack he’d watched in fright from his narrow angle peering over their bulwark, seeing their feet at eye-level as Kirk, Bull, Merrimack and Peter vanished into clouds of smoke and fume. He hadn’t seen them since. Then after a dismal few minutes– or was it longer, or shorter? His sense of time had fled– the charge sounded, he’d run madly across with everyone else, somehow didn’t die when a mortar explosion killed five of the guys to his left in a deluge of body parts, weathered the magical frost attacks, and then he was inside a narrow ditch with the enemy fighting for his life. It had immediately turned into a brawl. He only fired his rifle one time before he was forced to stab with his bayonet, over and over and over, slicing open one surprised enemy after another…
He held up his trembling hands in front of his eyes. Red as the Khadoran flag. He tried scrubbing the crimson layer from his face. Some came off only to be replaced by the stain on his hands.
“Rope up!” Lieutenant Reynolds ordered. Gerard blew out a shaky breath before bending back down to pick up the hefty rope at his feet, focusing on the back of the trencher in front of him who mirrored his action. “Pull!” Reynolds barked. He and the three other men on the rope strained and grunted, boots driving deep into the mud as they fought for traction, teeth gritted. Inch by inch, a cyclone’s left arm emerged from inside the trench, fighting its way over the rubble embankment and onto the mud. “Good, halt!” Reynolds shouted. “Take a breather, boys. Good job.” They all dropped the rope, panting hard.
Gerard was beyond tired but the strain actually felt good. It was an outlet for his shakes, a distraction from his worry about his friends. What if they had all died? When would he know? He resisted the urge to look at his bloody hands again, instead resting them on his hips and gazing at the flogged landscape. He desperately wanted to leave this disturbing place and wash. The blood felt like it was seeping into his soul.
Eight men. He’d killed eight men. Each warrior’s gaze had drawn his eyes like a magnet against his will, somehow forcing him to watch the life drain away. Each face appeared behind his eyelids when he blinked. The old Gerard from just a few days ago would have found that to absolutely golden bragging material, but after having actually done it, he didn’t feel like sharing. He felt no guilt; he just didn’t really want to even speak the words aloud, let alone boast.
He saw Merrimack jogging towards their little work group. Hope blazed up within him. Merrimack had made it! There was a chance the others had survived too, then.
“Corporal!” Gerard called out, waving at Merrimack. The corporal saw him and waved back. He jogged right up to Gerard and stunned him with a bear hug.
“Holy Morrow, you look absolutely savage,” Merrimack said with a whistle. “How many Reds did you slay, Private? A hundred?”
“Eight,” Gerard said tersely.
“Looks like more than that,” Merrimack said, eyebrows raised. Gerard couldn’t tell if he was impressed or disgusted. Maybe both.
“Just eight,” Gerard said.
“Glad you made it, Corporal,” Lieutenant Reynolds interrupted them, stepping forward to shake Merrimack’s hand vigorously. “Very glad, indeed.” Merrimack’s helmet slid over his eyes from the shaking. He nudged it back up and grinned.
“You too, sir.”
“The Captain is asking for accountability,” said Reynolds.
Merrimack nodded. “I’m working on it now. Have you heard from any other unit leaders yet?”
“A few,” Lieutenant Reynolds answered. “We’re still getting the show put back together.”
“I’ll get you numbers as soon as I can,” Merrimack answered. Then, turning back to Gerard, “Markus bless you, it is good to see someone from our unit,” he laughed. Gerard’s hope rapidly died in his chest.
“You haven’t seen anyone else?” Gerard asked tentatively.
Merrimack’s face fell. “Just you and Bull so far.” His eyes slipped away as he said Bull’s name. “But I just started looking. Everyone’s scattered everywhere.”
“Damn,” Gerard said, disappointed. “How’s Bull?”
Merrimack shifted uncomfortably. “He, uh… he’s hit pretty bad,” Merrimack said quietly. “He’s going to lose his arm.”
“Gods, no,” Gerard said, horrified. “Is he stable?”
“Yeah I think so.” Merrimack took off his helmet and scratched his fuzzy head. Gerard could see the burden of guilt on the man’s face. He wanted to ask what happened but thought better of it. “An injury like that though… He’s out of the fight,” Merrimack stated simply.
Gerard looked sad, but he smiled. “Bad luck for us, but he gets to go home alive.”
Merrimack looked at his boots. “Yeah.”
“You didn’t see anyone else get hit though?” Gerard tried to sound hopeful. Merrimack let out a breath.
“No, I didn’t see anyone else get hit. You?”
“I went up with Brady, Isaac, Jonas and Chester, but I lost sight of them the moment we hit the field,” Gerard admitted sheepishly. “The rest of you were already out there.”
Reynolds, still standing there, cleared his throat authoritatively. “I don’t mean to cut your reunion short, but we have work to do and you need to get tabs on your men,” he interjected.
Merrimack nodded. “Right.” Then looking at Gerard, “wash up when you can Private, you’re so red the rest of the 4th is going to mistake you for a Khadoran.”
Gerard grinned. “I expect the luxury baths will be in place soon.”
“Any time now,” Merrimack chuckled, saluting Gerard casually and walking away.
“Alright gents, we need to get this thing off the field. I’ll wrangle a cart and let you be the asses that pull it through the mud,” Reynolds commanded. Gerard watched Merrimack leave for another moment before returning to his menial chore.
For Merrimack’s part, the knot in gut loosened just a little as he left to round up more of his unit, if any other still lived. Gerard, himself, and Bull, for what shape he was in; that was three of ten. First he’d check the other work groups in Hammer Company, then double-check the lines of wounded. Last would be the rows of shoulder-to-shoulder fatalities covered in canvas sheets.
He hoped very, very much he would not have to search through that.
Captain Kasey fought his own mental battle with the aftermath of a fight. He approached this familiar problem the way he’d learned to approach every problem: rationally. War weariness was an expected result of a difficult battle, and the pain of so many dead was inevitable. His way of dealing with it was to focus on the next step. And then the next. Eventually, the trauma passed, new challenges emerged and new solutions were invented. Life moved on. He stayed sane by staying in motion.
Right now the next step was getting Hammer Company reorganized, refocused and prepared for the next push forward. The maw of grief and the spirit-deep post-conflict exhaustion was a new experience to most of these young men, so it was especially important for them that he not allow them to sit in it too long. There was work to do. He trudged along, helping move wounded, ordering units forward, instructing where to shore up the blown-out defenses. First was getting the trench howitzers in his company up and aimed at the smattering of trees running up to Albyn. Then he needed accountability on dead, wounded, and missing. But first he had another problem to deal with: Sergeant Swelt and the Bearded Bastards.
He’d ordered them in no uncertain terms to remain at the rear during the assault. It was a huge ask for such men, but it was the right move. He couldn’t afford risking such a valuable asset against unobstructed sweeping fire. They’d flagrantly disobeyed him. Yes, they probably saved the charge, but he had to maintain the rules. Orders had to be followed. For the time being, the Bearded Bastards were part of Hammer Company, and he was responsible for their discipline.
He tracked the unit down. They were preparing for a patrol, hunkered in their new trench cleaning their weapons. Swelt stood and saluted as Kasey approached. Kasey saluted him back.
“Get up, all of you,” Kasey said tersely. They rose in unison. He stared them down one by one. They did not meet his gaze, eyes locked straight forward.
“Sir, we disobeyed a direct order and will accept any disciplinary action you see fit,” Swelt said robotically. “No excuse on our end, sir.”
“Ohh no, Mr. Swelt,” Kasey said, clicking his tongue. “Don’t think I’m going to go easy on you because you’re acting contrite.” He shook his head. “And the fact that you saved the entire battalion isn’t going to stay my punishment, either.” Kasey shrugged. “Which you did do, by the way. It was a brilliant move.”
“Thank you s–”
“Shuttup, I’m not done,” Kasey snapped. Swelt closed his mouth. “You are some of the finest trenchers in existence. That does not, in any universe, give you permission to disobey my ORDERS!” a good measure of spittle frothed out of his mouth. None of the bearded men flinched. He knew he couldn’t even come close to intimidating them, but he wanted to make sure they understood the trouble they were in. “If you were one of my Hammer Company units, I’d make you dig graves as punishment, followed by spending the rest of the night on watch, followed by a formal write-up into your file, and frankly I might even bust you guys right out into rear-guard duty, permanently.”
These men weren’t afraid of much, but Kasey could tell the threat of being guards the rest of their careers was a very unpleasant prospect.
“Unfortunately I can’t go quite that far, but Ascendant Markus knows I am fucking tempted.” Kasey rocked back and forth on his heels. “Nevertheless, you will be on grave duty until further notice, you will all get write-ups into your permanent record, and so help me, if you ever pull a stunt like that I will bust you all down to private and have you patrolling walls at Fort Falk, and if Colonel Swinburn doesn’t like it, he can suck my dick.”
“Sir,” Swelt muttered stoically.
“As of this moment, I can’t really be wasting you on manual labor,” Kasey sighed, “so your punishment needs to wait. But you’re not getting out of it,” he warned. “I need a clear path up to Albyn as soon as possible. We’re going to whack those trees until I’m sure nothing is moving in there, then you gentlemen are going to sneak up and get a closer look at what we’re dealing with. Wait for my orders this time, you hear me?” he finished.
“Yes sir,” Swelt repeated. “Loud and clear, sir.”
Kasey walked away without another word. He climbed back up on top of the bulwark, pausing to survey the work being done. A team was getting the remains of one of the cyclones out of the trench. Similar actions were being taken on the field. Many of the bodies had been removed. He took a rough guess at their losses: three hundred, maybe more. Practically an entire platoon lost between the three companies. Gods, that was brutal. The fact that it could have been double that just added to the anxiety crawling at his neck.
No… that was something else. He turned to look up at Albyn again, feeling… what? Vulnerable? Exposed. That was it. Ever since the battle had stopped, he caught himself constantly looking up the gentle hill toward their objective. At first he thought it was just disquiet about the next phase of the assault, but it began to dawn on him that something didn’t feel right. He couldn’t put his finger on it. That sense of vulnerability, of being out in the open, kept getting stronger. What was it? They were technically fairly exposed at the end of the field but Albyn was probably still almost a mile away, and there were no signs of artillery inside the town. A few plumes of heavy smoke were drifting up from within, indicating the presence of warjacks. No surprise there. What then? 30th Battalion had taken a brutish whipping pushing forward, but even with their steep losses the enemy remained at a severe numerical disadvantage. In all likelihood the civilian population of Albyn had been evacuated, so they could shell the town all night to soften up the enemy–
Ah, there. He’d made an assumption. Maybe there were civilians left in the town. If that were true, the Cygnaran ranged advantage would be hamstrung as they couldn’t risk too much collateral. Civilian casualties always seemed to plague any war, but deliberately firing on women and children trapped in a small town was not an action that would warrant him a great deal of respect from higher command, to put it mildly. He could lose his rank for something like that. That meant they’d have to do everything possible to verify the town was enemy-only. He made a mental note to tell the Bastards to look out for evidence of civilian presence when they got close enough.
Something was still bothering him. That feeling of exposure lingered. The Khadorans just couldn’t reach out this far, otherwise they almost certainly already would have by now. So why did he get the dreaded feeling that he was in someone’s crosshairs? He instinctively crouched down, reducing his outline. He scanned the treeline ahead where the Khadorans had fled. Perhaps there were snipers in the woods? Maybe. But a fusillade would clear up that problem soon enough. He turned to look back at the blasted field, racking his brain for what was bothering him so much.
“Come on, think,” he muttered. Years of training and multiple deployments had taught him to trust these feelings. He knew the price of ignoring his intuition. But what was it?
The murder holes. Something wasn’t right about the murder holes.
Shallow depressions, dug by the Khadorans months ago to lure crossing enemies into dangerous lanes of fire or to cause them to stumble. But they weren’t in logical places, they seemed almost random. He could see them all across the field; wide, shallow pits like massive craters…
Craters. They weren’t murder holes, they were craters.
He looked back up at Albyn, then back at the field.
“Uh oh,” he breathed.
Kirk wasn’t sure how much time had passed before he came back to himself. His knees ached from kneeling at the remains of the anonymous soldier whose sole surviving appendage still clutched the gun. His face felt swollen. He’d been crying. Odd, he thought remotely. When did I start crying? He’d been lost in the unplumbable depths of his pain. It seemed that a long time must have passed since he first came to this spot. Hours, even. But it couldn’t have been. So how long?
He looked up at last, noticing the new changes to the landscape. The warjack wrecks were being cleared. How quickly the world moved on. He wished he could join them, yet he was tethered to this spot. It seemed wrong to leave the hand and the rifle; he was fearful it would be overlooked, kicked aside, buried in the mud. So he decided to carry it somewhere else. Clutching it into his chest he stumbled up, legs prickling angrily from lack of circulation. He turned and trudged back to the rows of dead growing in the trampled fields behind the trees.
Well, ‘trees’ was perhaps a generous description; the woodland had been turned into toothpicks, fresh splinters of a thousand sizes coating the ground in a layer of woody mulch and barren trunks. This stretch of woods was officially dead, existing just long enough to witness the procession of men and women dragging or carrying yet more KIA back for their final departure away from this hellhole.
He passed through the skeletal forest and into the ever-shifting landscape of the Battalion CP. Two grids of bodies had been set up on the southernmost edge of the tent cluster: one for wounded, one for corpses. He could tell them apart even before they came into sight. Crying, piercing screams of pain and moans emanated from one and not the other. They were separated by a line of newly-erected medical tents. Medics from the back line had set up just a few hours prior and were now walking amongst the casualties tourniquetting wounds, stopping bleeding with alchemical powders, checking severity of injuries to determine who needed evacuation or who could walk it off. Several officers were walking through the rows of prone soldiers to see who was part of what unit. Kirk dragged his feet numbly along, lost in the gloom.
A three-star private with Hammer Company’s emblem on her shoulder passed by and stopped him.
“Whoa, whoa, where they hell are you taking that?” she asked.
A woman. This observation seemed the only thing that penetrated his numbness. All of the Hammer Company he had walked to Bainsmarket with had been men; for some reason that had not seemed unusual to him in a mixed-sex army, nor had he been particularly surprised to find women amidst 30th Battalion when they arrived here. But seeing this fellow soldier in his own Company made him realize how many women had just endured what he had faced, and in spite of all the “alright, ladies!” and “wake up, princess!” and “hike up your petticoats, girls!” he’d heard since joining the army, he found a new respect for their tenacity. This was no dainty darling of Caspia. She looked hard as nails, dark hair in a short boyish cut and a deep gash on the bridge of her nose only marginally covered by a bandage.
Under the full complement of weighty trencher kit and armor, women like her had simply passed by his attention as being other teenage boys. He looked at her more closely; maybe she was a teenager. He’d only noticed the female officers because they spoke, but how many female privates and corporals had merged in among them at the Drek Lake mustering point? What a curious thought.
“Hey, I asked you a question!” Her voice was stern. Kirk was having trouble focusing on her face. She snapped her fingers under his nose. He didn’t react. Understanding dawned in her eyes. “You’re shellshocked, boy,” she said more gently.
He blinked stupidly. “What?”
She ignored his question, instead looking at the grisly memento he carried. She pointed to it. “A friend?”
He looked down. “I.. don’t know,” he answered.
He looked back up at her earnestly. “I… Alex. He died.” He waited for her to respond.
“I think you should see a medic,” was her answer.
“I’m not hurt,” he tried to explain.
She grunted. “Not in the body, maybe.”
“Did you lose anybody?” he asked.
Her guard went back up. “We all lose somebody eventually.” She crossed her arms. “This isn’t my first party. But I’m guessing it is yours.” He didn’t know what to say. He felt his grip on reality sliding. She tapped him on the helmet. “Hey. Come back to caen. Name, rank, order of battle. Quickly.”
“Private Kirk Hobbs, third unit, 4th platoon, Hammer Company,” he spouted automatically.
“Shit in my milk and call it chocolate, you’re one of the greenies.” She blew a raspberry. “Let’s get you some help.”
“I was the first out there,” he said angrily. “I sat out in the mud and laid down covering fire so you could get across. Don’t call me green. Don’t.”
“Damn, alright. I guess you get to be bullet winded, if anyone is.” She took him by the elbow, leading him forward. “Come on. The medics will know how to deal with you.” He glanced at the shattered rifle and severed hand. “Let’s, uh, let’s go put that down with the rest of the KIAs,” she said gently. They walked away from the lines of wounded and over to the lines of dead. There was a small pit dug for the ‘parts’– the mess of unidentifiable limbs, torsos shredded beyond recognition, hunks of meat that more closely resembled a rack of ribs than a human being. Flies already buzzed madly over their new spread. Kirk looked down at the revolting mess.
“No,” he said. “Not there.” He pushed her aside, walking straight past the offal pit. She tried to grab him by the elbow again but he spun around, shrugging her off. “No!” he shouted. “I’m going to bury him.”
“You said you don’t even know if he’s–”
“What do you care!?” he snarled at her. They faced off for a moment, Kirk breathing heavily, the other private holding her hands out.
“My CO ordered me to help bring wounded off the field,” she said very calmly. “You’re not injured, Private Hobbs, but you need to rest.”
Kirk closed his eyes slowly. “Just… let me bury him. And then I’ll do whatever you want.” He dropped his head. “Please.”
She frowned. “Alright. Fine. Let’s put him in a nice spot on the hill, ok?” she offered. He looked back up at her, then turned slowly to hike up the gentle tussock leading to one of the farms. A lifetime ago he, Peter, Gerard and Alex stood here watching reinforcements arrive. It felt right to put this hand here. He knew it might not even be Alex. But it was someone. The owner of this hand died an explosively violent death fighting on foreign soil protecting these little farms. Whoever it was, he deserved a good home for his only corporeal remnants. Kirk slowly pulled his trowel from its loop on his pack, unfolded it, and cut into the trampled grass. Within a few minutes he had a hole about two feet deep in the spongy soil.
Very carefully, he placed the rifle and hand into the rectangular hole, covered it up with dirt, packed it tight, unsheathed his bayonet and stuck it in the ground at the foot of the little grave.
“You’re going to need that,” his escort warned. He stood up, taking off his helmet and pulling down his tight leather cowl to wipe his sweaty forehead.
“I can get another one.” He turned to look at her. “What’s your name?”
“Private Third-Class Moira Spencer. Hammer Company.”
“Alright, Private Spencer. I’m done.” He walked towards her. “Let’s go.” She walked beside him as he passed. They returned to the ‘infirmary’ (if it could even be called that) in silence. Before she flagged down a medic, she grabbed him abruptly by the lapel.
“Hey, look at me,” she demanded. He obeyed. “Your friend– Alex?” she asked. He nodded in answer. “He’s the lucky one, Private. He doesn’t have to go any further.” Kirk felt the grief resume its choking deathgrip on his throat and remained silent, fearing his voice would betray him. He looked away again.
Moira sighed, clearly struggling to find the right thing to say.
“You’re still here,” she tried again. “You have to fight for the two of you now.” She watched his eyes, hoping to break through. Grief’s vice did not relent. She looked away in frustration. “Ah, shit.” She blew another raspberry.
“You’ve lost people,” he said at last, words cracking. She snorted, but did not look at him.
“Gods, you are really new to this.” She shook her head. “We’ve all lost people. More than once. I’ve only been doing this a year, and, well…” she trailed off, her face working to either hold something at bay or keep something in. “How many reds did you kill up there?”
“What?” he asked. She balled her fists onto her hips.
“I asked,” she leaned forward, “how many shit-sack hillbilly dick-sucking fuzzy-capped snow-fucking vodka-pissing Khadorans did you kill?”
“Uh, I-I… ten? I think. I don’t know for sure,” he muttered.
“Ok,” she said. “And how many Khadoran lives do you think Alex’s life was worth?”
Grief’s vice sprung open, fled into his guts and rapidly mutated into fiery boiling volcanic rage. Its heat thawed the frost in his heart, spreading through his veins like alcohol. The colorless veil hanging over his eyes lifted and a new ferocious energy engulfed him. His nostrils flared.
“A hundred. A thousand,” he bit through clenched teeth.
Moira smiled at him, nodding her head. “Mm.” She tapped his chestplate with her finger. “Only nine hundred more to go. Sounds like you got your work cut out for you, soldier.” He looked her in the eye. The darkness of sorrow did not leave, but its shadow had fled in the explosive light of hot, murderous anger. He knew in that moment that so long as that fire remained bright, he could push on. He had a job to do now, a secret mission passed to him,, a torch carried across a thousand troops of soldiers through a hundred generations:
“I think I’m alright, Private Spencer,” he said. His voice had strength again. Lamentation had hollowed out a space within him– for a moment he’d teetered on its edge, fearing collapse. Instead a new power now dwelt there. He had his way forward.
She nodded at him. “Yeah, I think you are.” She slapped his shoulder plate. “See you out there.” With that she walked off. He stood there for several minutes processing his transformation, staring at the grass. Alex is dead, he said to himself, testing his response. The pain ballooned once more. Life as he had known it for seventeen years had changed in one day. Yet he lived. He was a warrior, just like Alex; if Alex were here at this moment, Kirk knew what he’d say. “Do your job, Kirk. Do our job.”
He could manage the pain.
“Kirk!” a familiar voice declared. Kirk looked up. It was Corporal Merrimack.
“Holy Markus Ascendant,” Kirk exclaimed, running towards Merrimack and hugging him so fast their chestplates clapped together. Merrimack laughed, slapping Kirk on the helmet.
Laughing still existed in this world, Kirk mused. All is not lost. He was not Alex’s only surviving friend.
“Wait, did Bull–” Kirk began in alarm.
“He’s alive,” Merrimack interrupted.
Kirk blew a sigh of relief. “Oh thank Morrow.”
Merrimack shook his head sadly. “He got hit pretty bad though, Kirk. He’s going home.” Kirk let this sink in. Bull, going home?
“Where was he hit?”
Merrimack pointed to his own elbow. “Damn near cut the arm off.” Kirk winced. “He’ll live though,” Merrimack said.
“That’s more than some of us,” Kirk answered. “At least he gets to go home.”
Merrimack bit his lip. “I don’t think he’s too pleased about that.”
“He should be,” Kirk insisted. “I wish–” he cut himself off with a shaky breath.
Merrimack’s stomach filled with dread. “Who? Peter?”
Kirk shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. He was right behind me right up until the end of the fight, he’s got to be ok. We just need to find him.”
Merrimack looked relieved. “Alright. You see anyone else from our unit?” Merrimack asked. Kirk froze. The anguish still lacerated his heart. He swallowed hard.
Merrimack blanched. “Hit?” he asked. Kirk nodded. “Dead?” he asked. Kirk nodded again. Merrimack covered his mouth in shock, turning in place. “Markus, why,” he muttered. He wasn’t sure how to proceed. “Morrow, I’m sorry Kirk,” was all he could think to say.
“Is he still– out there?” Merrimack pointed at the field. Kirk shook his head, blinking hard.
“Then how do you–”
“I watched it,” Kirk interrupted. Merrimack’s features sagged in distress.
“Kirk, I’m sorry, friend. Alex was a good–”
“I know,” Kirk cut him off.
Merrimack looked down and nodded. “Of course.” He looked back up. “Well, Gerard is ok. That makes four of us. Five, if Peter is alright.” Kirk nodded in response. Gerard had made it. That was good. “You see anyone else?” Merrimack asked. “I still haven’t found Isaac, Chester and the others. I was about to, uh…” He gestured at the pile of dead. “Check,” he finished.
“Sorry Corporal, I haven’t noticed them. I was a little foggy after the battle.”
“Sure,” Merrimack acknowledged. “I think we all were. You have anywhere to be right now?”
“No sir,” Kirk answered.
“Alright. Can you help me look for them?” Merrimack asked. Kirk took a deep breath and nodded, steeling himself against more death.
They searched the corpses together, trying to recognize the faces of those who still had them.
They found Chester Poole. His lower half had been completely torn off. The sight of a comrade in such a state made them both gag. A few moments later they discovered someone they were pretty sure was Brady Wellington, although the face was so shredded it was difficult to tell. They peeled back his blood-soaked, fitted leather cowl in search of his dog-tags but found none. They carefully searched the body for any identifying possessions.
“Ah.” Merrimack smiled sadly, holding up a little neatly-folded pencil drawing of a pretty girl. “Wellington’s girlfriend. He showed this to me once.” He tucked it safely back into the leather pocket he’d found it in and then placed his hand on Brady Wellington’s bullet-ridden breastplate. “Rest easy, soldier.”
The sound of approaching horses gave them an excuse to stand and tear their eyes off of Brady’s ruined face.
A long train of horse carts laden with resupply was inbound. Stacks and stacks of ammo crates, food crates, fresh weapons, ‘jack parts, artillery ammunition and ordnance. There were three whole carts of wooden planks; unassembled coffins.
“I hope there’s candy in those ration crates somewhere,” Kirk said wistfully.
Merrimack grunted. “Forget candy, we need reinforcements.” Merrimack gestured at the dead surrounding them. “ I’m pretty sure this qualifies as ‘catastrophic losses.’” He glanced at the charnel pile of body parts with no determinable owners.
The resupply column ground to a halt as it entered the CP. Teams disembarked to begin distributing the much-needed goods and guard them against any pilfering. Major Halleck trotted out to greet the lieutenant commander supply officer in charge of the column: tall and spindly with swept-back hair and crisp, clean fatigues in the traditional Cygnaran blue. Rested, sharp, and the only weapon on his person was a finely-crafted handcannon that probably cost a soldier’s month of pay. What an incredible contrast compared to the dirty armored warriors he was tasked with supporting. Halleck had dealt with supply officers before; ‘no’ was their favorite answer. The supply corps. seemed to lure these types like mosquitoes to pigs in a swamp. Halleck braced himself for a confrontation. He was getting what he needed from this man if he had to wrestle him to the ground for it.
The officer– Byron Effrain, according to his name-patch– dismounted the horse he rode and gave a smart salute. Halleck saluted him back. Byron fastidiously removed the white riding gloves on his hands. Gloves, Halleck thought. Morrow help me. Byron reached out for Halleck’s hand. The Major gripped and shook it firmly, taking secret pleasure in the man’s pained wince.
Halleck grinned wolfishly. “Welcome to urcaen, Lieutenant Commander. Don’t stay too long or you might see actual combat.”
“Yes I’m sure you’d all think that quite amusing,” Byron replied in a thick Ordic accent. “Although you’d find I’m less useful as a warrior and more helpful getting you the resources you need, Major.”
“I suspect we need far more than you’re going to provide,” Halleck answered.
Byron snorted. “Our supply coordination out here is absolute shit,” he said. “The buildup at Drek Lake has caused all sorts of problems. We’re having difficulty apply replacement troops where they’re needed fast enough. Losses are–”
“Come with me,” Halleck ordered. Byron blinked, but followed the Major. He walked the supply officer to their lines of dead, gesturing at the silent corpses. “I don’t need you to educate me on the severity of our losses,” Halleck said.
“Yes, of course Major. I meant no disrespect,” Byron said, looking in awe at the bodies now numbering well into the hundreds. He sighed. “We’re doing our best, sir. Just like you all.”
Halleck folded his arms. “Well I don’t see an extra platoon in your supply column, so I think you can do better.”
“Tell me what you need and I’ll get it here,” Byron said earnestly, pulling a pencil and notepad from his breast pocket. “Maybe not as fast as you like, but we’re breaking the jam.”
“We’re wishlisting now?” Halleck asked dubiously.
Byron shrugged. “Start with the outrageous, and work your way down until I can start making commitments,” he said.
“Mm. Alright. Let’s start with a real warcaster and one of those Stormwalls.”
“Warcaster support is stretched thinner than a whore’s panties,” Byron answered. “You’re not getting that, I’m sorry. And the colossals are for the siege of Merywyn. What are your current armor assets?”
So the unwilling duel began: Halleck asking for what he truly needed, Byron telling him what he would actually get. The Major had to admit that Byron seemed genuinely dedicated to supporting his battalion. He knew the man had dozens of other fighting positions to consider. What had already arrived was a tremendous help but Halleck needed replacements now more than anything else. He didn’t need the final casualty numbers to know they were now dangerously thin on troops, and he still had to guide the rest of these trenchers into Albyn.
At the end of it all there would be no more warjack or warcaster support. The best on offer was a gobber repair team to rebuild what could be salvaged; the little green goblinoid beings were profoundly mechanikally adept but not miracle workers. At best, the cyclone that had collapsed in the trench could be rebuilt from surviving parts harvested on the other cyclone that had been cut down by the destroyer. Two broken machines would become one whole ‘jack. Actual troop reinforcements were still at least a day out, maybe two. Halleck was at least grateful that his men now had sufficient food, water and ammunition for several more days and at least one more large attack. The resupply included over a thousand rifle grenades which would prove invaluable for clearing houses.
“Major! Major!” Captain Kasey was sprinting towards him from the front. He looked panicked. Halleck’s entire body tensed. Kasey came to a halt, breathing hard. He didn’t even acknowledge the supply officer. “Sir, we’ve got a problem.”
“Spit it out, Captain.”
“The Reds have some big artillery up there, sir. Big.” Kasey’s eyes were wide in stress.
“You spotted it?” Halleck asked in alarm.
“Well, no sir,” Kasey backtracked, “but those murder holes on the field weren’t dug, they were blasted. They’re craters with a perfect radial pattern originating from the north. We need to pull back.”
Halleck squinted in surprise. “Pull back? After what we just went through?”
“I think it’s a trap, sir,” Kasey insisted. Halleck turned to Byron.
“You stay right here,” he ordered. Byron nodded in surprise. Halleck turned back to Kasey. “Show me what you’re talking about.” Kasey guided him back out across no-man’s-land at a rapid walk.
“Something’s been bothering me ever since we broke through,” Kasey was breathless. “I didn’t realize what it was until just now. Those murder holes are craters, Major, I’m certain of it.”
“This makes no sense,” Halleck said. “You’re telling me there’s heavy artillery up there, you haven’t seen it, and that they opened fire on their own position before we even arrived?” He looked at Kasey in growing concern. “Are you alright, Captain?”
“Goddamnit, yes I’m alright,” Kasey spat. He pointed urgently at the spread of giant craters across the field. “This is artillery, I’d bet my career on it. Ranging fire most likely; they dialed in their gun before they even built their trench. And that’s another thing,” he continued, “this damn trench they built, it’s straight as a plumb-line. Don’t you see a problem with that?”
“Yeah, it’s terrible,” Halleck answered in confusion. “But we can add corner breaks to prevent–”
“A big shell gets lucky and lands in that trench,” Kasey interrupted, “and the pressure wave alone will kill anything standing within three hundred feet.” He waited for Halleck to comprehend. Halleck just stared back at him.
“Yes, Captain, I’m aware of trench construction theory,” he said slowly. “We are the Trencher Corps.”
Kasey sighed in exasperation. “Sir. When was the last time you ever heard of Khadorans relinquishing a positionally advantaged location en masse?”
Halleck thought for a moment. “Never. But Albyn is a more defensible option for them.”
“They just gave us a foothold,” Kasey argued. “If they had fortified another kompany at this position, even just a few hundred more men, we wouldn’t have broken through. Sir this is exactly what I would do in their situation if we had insufficient numbers to defend an objective: I’d set a trap.”
“What’s the trap, Captain?” Halleck was incredulous. “Sacrifice almost half their number in defense of a fighting position that they intended to give up? Are you seriously trying to tell me they have an asset capable of indirect fire at this scale and CRS never spotted it?”
“Hammer Company was attacked by a Khadoran warjack on the Black River and CRS never spotted that either,” Kasey retorted. “Do you trust them with the entire battalion’s survival right now?”
Halleck sucked his teeth and shook his head. “Jericho, this is a stretch. Why haven’t they opened fire yet? If you’re right then we’re sitting ducks.”
Kasey bit his lip, gazing thoughtfully at the supply column. His eyes suddenly went wide. “Reinforcements,” he said under his breath.
“They’re waiting for us to reinforce to inflict maximum effect on target!” Kasey exclaimed. “Sir we need to back off of this position now.”
“You are out of line, Captain!” Halleck bellowed. He’d had enough. “You want us to withdraw after what we just put these men through!? How well do you think that would go over?” Halleck put out his hands, waiting for the Captain to drop the answer into his palms. Captain Kasey rubbed his face in disbelief at the Major’s stubbornness.
“What if I’m right?” Kasey asked.
Halleck looked away, shaking his head “Captain. Even if you are correct, I cannot withdraw. My orders are clear. No retreat under any circumstances. We push forward or we stay put, but we do not give ground to the enemy. I’m not going to violate my orders, and even if I were willing to do that, I wouldn’t do it on your hunch.”
“Even if that means getting blown to urcaen?”
“Yes, Captain, even if it means coming under bombardment.” Halleck chopped off each word for emphasis.
Captain Jericho Kasey let loose a long string of very choice swears. “At least let me pull Hammer Company off the line and spread out in the trees for a counter-strike if they start opening up on us,” he pleaded.
Halleck scoffed. “You’re going to attack that town with a depleted company? Are you losing your mind?”
“If they open fire maybe we can exert enough pressure to distract their fire team and stop the damage,” Kasey offered.
Halleck just looked at him. “Fine,” he said at last, voice resigned. “Clear the trees with howitzers, have the commandos scout the town and then move Hammer Company forward. You stay in cover until I order otherwise, clear? No heroics.” This wasn’t what the Captain was hoping for, but he nodded his head in quiet acceptance. “Gods, I hope you are wrong, Jericho,” Halleck lamented. “I hope to Morrow you are wrong, and I will give you a ration of shit every day if you are.”
“I recommend staying at the rear, sir,” Kasey replied bitterly before walking away to execute his orders.