27th of Octesh, 611 AR.
“Hey Kirk,” Gerard mumbled through a mouthful of hardtack, “what’s with the face?”
“What face?” Kirk asked. They were leaning against the dirty walls of their forwardmost trench, resting after a patrol. Gerard furrowed his brow and turned the corners of his mouth down.
“That one,” he said. “You look like you ate a lemon.”
“Was thinking about Ludwig,” Kirk said.
“Fuck,” Gerard said. “What about him?”
Before Kirk could explain, one of their greenie replacements came marching down the lane, clearly looking for them. Kirk sighed.
“I’ll tell you later,” he said.
Gerard washed his biscuit down with a swig from his canteen. “Eh, I’ve already lost interest,” he said, then addressing the newcomer, “hey-o, Michael, where are you off to in a rush?”
“I came to get you guys,” Michael said. He was the most indistinct, bland human being Kirk had ever met, and in full trencher gear he was utterly invisible amongst the crowd of other trenchers. That was true of most of the replacements, actually– more and more often he felt he was in a horde of identical strangers, finding fewer familiar faces and unable to remember the names of the rest. Hammer Company was slowly being absorbed by the masses of the First Army. “Lieutenant Reynolds wants 4th Platoon for a briefing at o’ nine-hundred at the Toothpicks.”
“Roger that,” Kirk said, looking up at the sky and nudging Gerard. “That’s in what, an hour?”
Gerard glanced up and squinted. “Mmm, hour twenty, maybe thirty,” he said.
Kirk nodded at Michael. “Pocket watch?” he asked. Michael yanked a small, ornate silver pocket watch out of his satchel.
“Six thirty-six,” Michael said in amazement.
Kirk looked at Gerard and shook his head. “Fuck man, how do you do that?” he asked. Gerard grinned at him and tapped his head with the rock-hard biscuit.
“My big ol’ brain!” he said.
Kirk laughed. “Right. If a Red shot you in the head, the bullet would pass right through and wouldn’t hit a damn thing.”
“Perfect,” Gerard said with a grin. “Then I could whistle every time I run!”
“That reminds me,” Kirk warned, “if you don’t stop whistling on patrol I will crack your skull open and prove there’s nothing in there.”
Kirk and Gerard laughed. Michael laughed with them. Kirk and Gerard stopped suddenly and stared at him.
“Something funny, asshole?” Gerard asked, face hard. Michael’s laugh froze and his face drooped.
“S-sorry,” he muttered. Gerard and Kirk stared at him for a few seconds.
Gerard finally grinned again. “Just giving you shit, fuckface,” he said. “Lighten up.” Michael smiled nervously but said nothing, adjusting his satchel.
“C’mon,” Kirk sighed, pushing himself off the wall. “If we go early then we won’t have to stand on ammo crates to see the lieutenant.” They began the slow hike through the zig-zagging network of trenches toward the rear.
30th Battalion’s fighting position had utterly transformed over two long, dreary weeks. The fledgling defensive ditches first dug in the farmer’s fields had become a maze of expertly-engineered trenchworks. Such infrastructure seemed wholly excessive to Kirk, seeing as the Khadoran artillery fire had all but stopped, but apparently the corps. took their policy of ‘digging in’ extremely seriously. Command had instructed Major Halleck to build a well-planned defensive fortification that was beginning to feel far above and beyond what the circumstances required. Watching Albyn’s picturesque surrounding farms and countryside morph into muddy trenchworks and rows of dirty encampments made Kirk feel extremely sad.
And then he would recall the scream of the siege mortar, and the sadness would vanish. Perhaps the trenches weren’t such a bad idea.
The landscape wasn’t the only thing changing for the 30th Battalion. Hundreds of fresh troops had swelled their ranks and replenished their weakened units. New faces filled Hammer Company without any of their routines ever being disrupted. Patrols, fire missions, digging, resupply, meals, the occasional shave– moments Kirk only ever had with a tight-knit group had suddenly become larger community experiences. He began to grasp the scale of the First Army, how organized they were, how effectively trained so that new men and women could join their lines and fall right into place without any questions being asked. It was impressive. Everything was moving, and yet nothing really moved. A fellow soldier would be wounded or killed and another soldier would replace him or her in a few hours without even an introduction from their lieutenant. They were all interchangeable by design. A churning mass of humanity and the occasional gobber repair crew.
To Kirk it just reminded him that they were also disposable. There was nothing so special about him, or Gerard, or most of the rest of his platoon that their role couldn’t be filled by the next body, and the next.
Many of the replacements were green. Fresh out of boot camp, just like Kirk had been a few weeks prior. He found himself preferring the company of the veterans; they seemed comfortable and at ease in the loud chaos of the front lines. The greenies were too high-strung, too eager, too anxious, too easily startled. They set him on edge.
Funny, he thought. I wonder if that’s how Ludwig felt about us.
“You’re doing the face again,” Gerard said.
“I was thinking about your mother this time,” Kirk joked, and then winced dramatically. “Oh, sorry. I keep forgetting she’s dead.”
Michael had the good sense not to laugh that time.
“Fuck you,” Gerard said, a little hurt. “I don’t get why you guys think that’s funny.”
“Because you’re sensitive about it,” Kirk said. “And because you’re a pain in the ass all the time, and because I’m bored and hurting your feelings is funny.”
Gerard slugged Kirk hard in the shoulder just below his pauldron. Kirk grimaced and rubbed his arm.
“Morrow, that’s the same spot you hit me yesterday!” he complained. Gerard cocked his arm back again and Kirk jumped away.
“That’s right, you bastard,” Gerard said victoriously. “Don’t forget it. Talk about my mum again and I’ll knock you the fuck out!” Kirk laughed at him. Gerard smiled. Michael just looked uneasy.
They reached their exit from the trench and climbed up a well-made ladder over the top, twenty yards away from the woods that had been demolished by Khadoran mortar fire weeks ago. The Toothpicks. A few other members of their platoon were milling about, also wanting to get the briefing over with and arriving early. They all nodded to each other, prepared to embrace the next phase of boredom as they waited for the rest of the platoon to arrive.
Sixty grunts were standing in a half-circle as Lieutenant Reynolds jogged up to them, right on time. Those that were sitting stood. Everyone turned to face their CO. Reynold’s handsome, chiseled face was being slowly polluted by a terrible-looking moustache that he was trying to grow.
“Where’s the Captain?” Kirk asked as the Lieutenant approached.
“He’s busy,” Reynolds said without explanation, voice sharp.
“Gods, Lieutenant,” someone called from the group. “You gotta shave that thing, it’s making me sick.”
“Fuck off,” Reynolds said casually, and then more loudly: “listen up, fleabags!” Idle chatter died down. “Tonight’s the tonight!” there were a few whistles and claps from the original members of 4th Platoon and a few of the newly-arrived veterans. The greenies all blanched.
“About goddamn time,” Ludwig drawled from the back. “I haven’t killed anyone in a week.”
“Maybe if you could shoot straight,” Merrimack fired back at him. A few people chuckled.
“I’ll shoot straight through your ass,” Ludwig replied calmly. Laughter.
“Shut your pie holes and pay attention for once in your miserable lives!” Reynolds barked. He wasn’t in a tolerant mood today. The group went silent immediately. “You’ve been looking at the maps for three days, so you’d better all know where you’re supposed to go. There won’t be any hand-holding once this starts. Most of you haven’t experienced urban combat yet, so let me remind you: watch your corners! Watch your doors! Watch where you step! Assume the enemy is in every room, assume everything is boobtrapped, and plan accordingly!”
“What about civilians?” Joffrey called out.
Reynolds sighed. “Orders are to minimize casualties,” he answered, “by taking the town as quickly as possible. The shorter the battle, the fewer of them will die. But your primary job is to remove the enemy from that town. No heroics, no escort missions. That’s an order. The residents are going to have to sort themselves out. Are we all clear on that?”
“Yes, sir!” the platoon shouted.
“Bombardment starts at nineteen-hundred sharp,” Reynolds said.
“How the fuck are we supposed to minimize civilian casualties in an artillery barrage!?” someone shouted.
“Are you on a trench cannon tonight, Private Steel!?” Reynolds shouted back.
“Then focus on your own job!” Reynolds barked.
“It’s a legitimate question, Lieutenant,” Merrimack said.
“Of course it’s a legitimate question, Corporal,” Reynolds said, irritated. “And I don’t have an answer for it because there is no fucking answer. Innocent people are going to die. That what you guys need to hear?”
There was a sharp silence.
“Do I need to spell this out for you?” Reynolds demanded. “Maybe I’m not
being clear enough. Our priority is killing the enemy and taking that town. Is there anything confusing about that order?”
“No, sir!” the platoon answered.
“You are all going to see unarmed civilians be used as bait and body shields,” Reynolds explained, voice cold. “If you have to shoot through an old lady to kill a Red, you do it. It’s us or them tonight.”
“Fuck me…” someone mumbled.
“War is hell,” Reynolds said.
“WAR IS HELL!” the 4th Platoon snarled as one.
Kirk’s stomach formed into a knot that wouldn’t let go.
The 30th Battalion received the order to advance several hours later. There was no fanfare. The entire swarm of over a thousand troops wordlessly moved across trampled fields in the gloomy darkness, yet another stormcloud shielding them from starlight or moonlight. 4th Platoon advanced through the woodlands just like they had on that terrifying, exhausting night two weeks ago. Kirk and his unit had no chain gun to hump this time– no packs, either. Their only kit tonight was the weight of their armor, a single canteen, and the standard-issue instruments of war: four grenades, all explosive– no smoke this time. Three rifle grenades. A bannfield rifle. A bayonet. As much ammo as they could carry. No shovel. They wouldn’t be doing any digging tonight.
Kirk’s unit was Peter, Gerard, Merrimack, Michael, two veterans and four greenie replacements that had joined them that afternoon. They were one man extra tonight, and not the only unit with an additional body. As they stumbled through the inky darkness beneath the whispering trees, unable to feel the gentle wind beneath their layers of clothing and armor and cowls, Kirk began to tremble. Painfully-fresh memories of the assault across no-man’s-land stabbed his mind. Alex died in his thoughts over and over and over. Greater than the fear of pain, greater than the fear of watching civilians die or having to kill them himself, greater than the fear of the hundreds of dark rooms that awaited them, greater even than the fear of his own death, one terror loomed over them all: watching another friend die.
Please, Morrow, don’t let me see it. If you have to take them tonight, don’t let me see it again. Please.
His plea became an incantation that matched the unsteady pattern of his marching feet, slipping and stumbling over root and rock. Thunder rumbled far away. Not artillery. Kirk could really tell the difference now. Just thunder.
Nobody spoke. Everyone was too busy mastering their fear and there was nothing to say anyway. Out of the corner of his eye, through the messy tree trunks, Kirk saw a ragged shadow moving over the fields to his left: hundreds of men walking slowly toward Albyn. The town was dark and silent before them.
The stumps of the treeline grew closer and the trees thinned enough to permit a little more light. Everyone stopped. There was no movement along the Khadoran wire. The Reds had fixed the holes 4th Platoon had made on their first trip up here. Kirk and his unit crouched low. A faint whisper and the clack of bayonets being fixed traveled to him from down the line. He and his unit were already attaching their blades before they even heard the order. Thunder growled in the distance again.
Tink tink tink. A soft, light rain began to ring against their armor.
“Remember gents,” Merrimack whispered so quietly Kirk almost couldn’t hear him, “artillery might set off more gas mines. Be ready.” Nobody moved.
Minutes ticked by. Kirk’s leg began to cramp. He wanted to know what time it was, but he didn’t have a pocket watch and didn’t want to ask Michael.
“What is taking–” Gerard began, and was interrupted by a blast of artillery from the field. Lights flickered in the distance from the cannon fire in a near-perfect semicircle around the western side of Albyn, followed a couple seconds later by staccato blasts across the walls and rooftops of the outer ring of low buildings. Darkness was momentarily pierced in a series of rhythmless snapshots of flying stones, splintering wood, dirt, and smoke; hundreds of moments of motionless time, strung together with no pattern.
Screams. Human screams. Women. Children. Too many. Kirk closed his eyes and plugged his ears.
Another wave of fire. He refused to watch this time. Another. Another. Another.
Kirk focused on his breathing.
More artillery. On and on it went. Fewer screams this time. Another fusillade.
And then it stopped. Kirk unplugged his ears and grabbed his rifle off the ground in one rapid movement. Some of the little houses were on fire, glowing in a haze of smoke. Sickly yellow clouds drifted lazily towards him.
The fence was in shambles. Kirk gripped his rifle in preparation.
Ten seconds passed. Then twenty. Moans of pain rose over the crackle of fire. A child was screaming manically.
The Khadorans had put the women and children on the outside buildings, where most of the low-angle trench cannons would strike. Nobody seemed surprised. Kirk clenched his jaw. Fuck them. Fuck them for doing this. He wasn’t sure who he was angry at.
Next, the chain guns. Bursts of high-caliber rounds zipped through the air into the dark town, aimless and sweeping, guided only by a blazing hot tracer every third round.
Thirty more seconds of chattering fire snapped at the darkness, plucking at Kirk’s frayed nerves with every shot. Finally it halted. The silence rang in Kirk’s ears.
“MOOOOVE!” Captain Kasey’s voice echoed off the tree trunks. Kirk and his unit started at the noise, but remained still: they were not in the first wave. Armored bodies leapt up and ran through the field of stumps, immediately gasping and coughing as they ran into the cloud of choking gas. Kirk strained to see in the darkness as his fellow soldiers morphed into silhouettes, leaping and dodging their way through the mess of ruined razor wire cloaked in a thickening layer of dust and smoke.
Rifle fire. Shouts. The crash of glass and the burst of a grenade tossed into a broken window. Shouts in Khadoran. Screams in Cygnaran. Boom, boom. More chaingun fire. Warjacks on the western side had engaged. The din of war slowly escalated to drown out the howls of the innocent as the fighting began all around.
“MOOOOVE!” Captain Kasey screamed again. Kirk and his unit leapt forward into hell.