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Basic Training—5th Week

12th Infantry Regiment training depot, outside Bainsmarket.
2nd of Solesh, 611 AR.

“Looks like another coal-fog,” said Alex as he and Kirk sat down on one of the long benches in the chow hall; it was deafeningly noisy with the sound of ravenous young men eating and talking. It seemed no amount of physical suffering or sleep deprivation could blunt their excitement about a hot meal. Through one of the high windows, they could see a pall of dense, sickly-looking clouds rolling in from the North.

“Feels like every day this week there’s been a stinking cloud over the camp,” Kirk muttered back. Alex nodded in agreement.

“Word is they’re doing big maneuvers just outside of Corvis,” Alex said. “Over a hundred warjacks and almost the entire Fifth Division running strategic exercises. That’s why all the smoke.” The dense coal smoke from the machines mixed with the evening fog formed a dirty mist that left their skin sticky and dull.

“Yeah, the entire division except us,” Kirk said. He shuddered—he couldn’t tell if it was from fear or from his building excitement. Probably both. Hearing about Cygnar’s military ramping up its strength made him feel giddy, like watching a train build steam.

“Seems I’ve spent my whole growing up waiting for the Reds to come barreling into us at any moment. Now they get to know what it feels like,” Alex said happily. This was a conversation they had repeated many times. In spite of their pain and fatigue, it gave them fresh energy to look forward, picturing themselves on the front, fighting for King and Country and—most important—each other.

“We practically rolled out the carpet for them when we abandoned Llael! About time we did something about it,” Alex declared over a mouthful of hearty beef stew.

“Damn right,” came a voice from behind. A handsome young man turned to stare at them. His eyes were dark with smoldering anger, but it only seemed to make him more attractive. It would have been amusing, were the subject matter not a brutal war.

“You’re Llaelese, aren’t you?” Kirk asked. The man nodded and continued his antagonizing stare. “Hey, don’t look at us like that, we didn’t abandon your country,” Kirk said defensively.

“Yes,” the dark-haired young man said. “I grew up in Elsinberg. My father was a doctor. My mother and I fled to Cygnar when the Khadoran filth sacked my home and dragged my father away to save their wounded soldiers,” he said coldly. Kirk and Alex looked at each other.

“What’s your name?” asked Alex.

“Joffrey Sebastian Renard Dupont Léandre,” he said proudly, his accent growing thicker with each name until he was hardly intelligible to the two uneducated farmers. Kirk tried to suppress a laugh and ended up coughing on a biscuit. Joffrey furrowed his brow. “What is funny?”

“Lords, were they hoping for five kids and only got one?” Alex laughed. Joffrey made a disgusted noise in his throat.

“You are both stupid children. My family name is connected to high nobility,” Joffrey said in annoyance.

“The Trencher Corps. lets refugees enlist?” Kirk asked, surprised. Joffrey sneered.

“Why would they not? I have just as much reason to fight for Cygnar as you do. It is my home now, has been for years. And it’s about time Cygnar came to our peoples’ aid,” he finished bitterly.

“Eh, this lad fancies himself a hero, Kirk! There a girl you’re sweet on back in Elsinberg? Going to arrive with the First Army, guns blazing and rescue her?” Alex said mockingly. Kirk elbowed him in the ribs. Alex sometimes didn’t know when to stop.

Joffrey suddenly stood up, towering over Alex with quiet fury. A silence rippled through the chow hall. When Joffrey spoke, his voice betrayed only the slightest vibration of restrained anger. He did not speak loudly, but it was so quiet in the room everyone could hear his words.

“The girl I loved was shot by a Winter Guard officer the day we left because she spoke with disrespect,” he said. Alex dropped his gaze sheepishly. Joffrey continued. “Her mother ran into the street crying, and she was shot, too. Then they were both dragged into a gutter so the rifle kompany could pass without stepping over them.”

There was a very uneasy silence.

“Forgive my friend,” Kirk said quickly, “he’s got hay in his head.” Alex gave him a hurt glance, but Kirk ignored it. “How old were you?” he asked.

“I was fifteen.” Joffrey turned his back to them and sat down once more.

The noise of the chow hall slowly, carefully, resumed as the tension drained away. When it felt like everyone had stopped looking at them and returned to their own conversations, Kirk jabbed Alex in the ribs.

“You ass!” Kirk hissed.

“Come on, he’s too sensitive. The man’s got five names, for Morrow’s sake. Who’s ever heard of that?” Alex asked.

***

The met up with the rest of their ten-man unit walking out of the chow hall back to the barracks. The others teased Alex for his confrontation with the angry Llaelese recruit.

“What’s he doing?” Alex suddenly stopped and asked. The others halted with him, looking confused. For a moment they thought he was talking about the standoff at dinner, but then he pointed at the field.

Captain Willikers and the company grenadier warjack were in the center of the expanse of dirt where they did their trench drills; he was surrounded by several large wheelbarrows. The wheelbarrows were stacked high with pig carcasses. The grenadier’s mattock was flying up and down in a rhythmic motion. Faint, wet slaps traveled across the field with each strike.

“Is he… is he chopping pigs?” one of the men asked incredulously.

“No, he’s making the warjack chop pigs,” said Gerard. The inebriated young man Alex and Kirk had met in the bar in Caspia had—to their displeasure—ended up in their unit. Yet in spite of his initial drunken antics upon first meeting, he had sobered up in training and was becoming one of the hardiest of their group. He was grudgingly earning their respect. He and Alex had entered a kind of rivalry of one-upmanship to see who could be the most ‘rougish’. Kirk wasn’t too thrilled about this development. Alex’s mischievous nature needed no encouragement. Still, their competition to be the unit’s unofficial cut up had resulted in some pretty morale-boosting pranks on their unit leader. The best so far had been a smoke grenade rolled into the outhouse while the poor man was seated inside.

Alex’s idea, Gerard’s execution. They were shaping up to be quite a pair. Some part of Kirk felt the tiniest bit of jealousy seeing his best friend find a kindred spirit in another, but it was subsumed by the bond they were all beginning to form admist their shared misery. He was started to like Gerard almost in spite of himself.

“That’s obviously what he meant,” said their unit corporal, Jason Merrimack. Merrimack was the oldest of all of them by a long stretch, almost twenty-six, and the only ranked enlisted man among them. He had jug-handle ears and close-set eyes that made him positively ugly with a shaved head. He’d been a part of the regular infantry as a long gunner before being transferred to the Trencher Corps. His ranked status placed him in an awkward position of authority over them, but his tolerance of Alex and Gerard’s ceaseless ribbing had ingratiated him with the recruits.

“Sweet Morrow,” Kirk muttered. “He’s actually insane.”

“I have a feeling he’s not doing it for his own amusement,” said Peter ominously.

“Ok, what does that mean?” asked Alex, turning to Peter, his voice full of concern. “Is he going to make us eat them?”

“No, I doubt we’re going to eat raw pig guts. We’d all get sick and die and then his fun would be over,” said Kirk.

“I’m not going to war with that man,” said Neil, another recruit in their unit. He was the tallest of them all by at least a head, and had a body shape that might have been called ‘husky’ a month ago, but—like the rest of them—was beginning to replace fat with lean, hard muscle. He had already earned the nickname Bull for his size and rumbling voice. “He’s going to get us killed. He’s unstable,” he continued.

“Belay that,” Corporal Merrimack cautioned, but his voice sounded less authoritative than his words.

“The man has one arm. One arm! How is he going to hold a rifle?” Alex asked incredulously.

“Are we sure he’s leading the company north? Isn’t he just a training captain?” Peter asked.

“I don’t know, but if he is going with us into Llael…” Bull let his voice trail off and cast a sidelong glance at the corporal. Merrimack stared back at him.

“We’ll follow his orders, because we’re soldiers,” the corporal replied calmly.

They went to bed feeling uneasy, and were startled to be woken not at four in the morning, but at the luxurious hour of seven thirty. They felt well-rested; a strange sensation that seemed entirely alien after five weeks of exhaustion. Lieutenant Reynolds woke them in their barracks and they jumped to attention.

“Dress up and meet in the chow hall in ten minutes,” was all he said before dismissing them with a salute. The fifty-three men of fourth Platoon—several had dropped—stared at each other with a mixture of wonder and delight. Ten minutes to get to chow hall? No racing out to parade ground for an impossible inspection? No obstacle course before eating hardtack? They were too stunned to even feel suspicious, all except Kirk and the others in Corporal Merrimack’s unit. The wet slaps of the grenadier mutilating pig carcasses still echoed in their minds.

They remained suspicious even as their platoon and the other platoons met in the gigantic chow hall, filtering in slowly with dazed looks on their faces, eyes still bleary from more sleep than they were currently used to. There was no food at the chow line yet, but a handful of chefs waited there expectantly besides Captain Willikers who was gazing serenely—almost paternally—at the recruits in the hall. Lieutenant Reynolds walked past them.

“Have a seat and shut up, gentlemen,” he said as he walked by each table. They did as ordered. When most of the commotion in the hall had finally died down, leaving an expectant silence, Captain Willikers cleared his throat.

“You men,” he began, “aren’t trenchers.” He paused. Oh good, thought Kirk. More put-downs. But before Kirk could get too salty Willikers finished his thought: “You are not trenchers yet. You soon will be. Some of your fellow recruits have left, and there is no shame in their passing. This is hard. Absolutely hard. It will be the hardest thing you will ever have done in your young lives, or I’m not doing my job.”

You could hear a pin drop in the room. The sudden change of their captain’s mood and tone was even more jarring than the extra sleep.

“And if you think what you’ve been through already is difficult, then by Morrow, the next two months are going to tear you to absolute pieces, because we are not even close to being done.” Somehow the room got even more quiet. There was a vacuum of sound. Willikers let his words sink in for several heartbeats before going on.

“You will face things in this war that will shake you to your bones. I do mean that literally. There is no training that can properly simulate the misery, the panic, the abject suffering of battlefield conditions. All I can do is do my best to brace you for the hurricane, so when the ocean beats against you, you will not break.” A quaver had entered his voice. Every face was stunned. Was their crazy captain actually getting emotional?

“But you will endure, and be prepared for the storm that comes after that. And after that. Until you are not just recruits,” his volume was rising now, “and not even just Trenchers, but will endure to become the very stones in the wall that our enemies shall break upon!” He slammed the serving table. “To turn you into the STORM ITSELF! Your enemies will fear you when you meet in battle, and by the gods will you give them REASON to!”

Kirk was torn between holding his silence and leaping into a yell. He could feel the tension in the room like a soap bubble at breaking point. The faces of his troop mates were as astonished and confused as he felt. Captain Willikers paused to collect himself.

“And so, that being the end goal,” he said more quietly, motioning to the chefs behind him who vanished into the kitchen, “I’ve elected to permit one—make no mistake, ONE—brief respite from your long punishment. Tomorrow, I will resume battering you like the sacks of trash that you are. But for this moment, you may relax and enjoy.” He stepped away, and behind him the chefs brought out the greatest feast most of them had seen.

Dessert rolls, whole seasoned chickens, apples, pears, meat and fruit pies, biscuits dripping with butter and honey… Kirk couldn’t believe his eyes. He kept his fingers into his palms to make sure he wasn’t still asleep.

“This isn’t real,” said Alex beside him, mouth agape like a child looking at a toy store.

“Oh, sweet Ascendant Markus this is as real as the blisters on my feet,” Corporal Merrimack said with reverie.

“I’ve never seen so much food, have you, Bull?” Peter said in a flat voice that betrayed his shock. Beside him, Neil’s giant head swiveled down at his younger squad mate, and he grinned a smile so warm, excited, and genuine that it was instantly contagious.

“Yeah,” said Bull. “My family puts on a huge feast every Winterfest on Giving Day. It’s a lot like this,” he said with tears in his eyes, round face beaming.

“Wait, does anyone see any pork?” Gerard said suddenly. The disturbing memory of the night before had been totally driven out of their minds by the unexpected speech and incredible feast. They all looked at each other as plates were set in front of them. While the other units tucked in like they would never eat again, Merrimack’s unit picked at their dream-like food suspiciously.

“No,” Kirk said finally. “I mean I don’t know exactly what’s in those meat pies, but it smells like beef, not pork. Not a piece of bacon or a sausage anywhere.” He looked at the others with cautious optimism. “I think we’re safe.”

“Oh gods, I can’t wait anymore,” Alex said finally before tucking into a roll glazed with icing. He moaned as he took a bite and closed his eyes in pleasure. He muttered something but nobody could understand him through the mouthful of food. Watching Alex enjoy the food, all suspicion was forgotten and the whole unit dove into their food with a vigor none of them thought they had.

It was a good thirty minutes of focused eating before the other shoe finally dropped.

“HAMMER COMPANY!” a voice bellowed across the hall. Everyone froze. Captain Willikers was standing on one of the serving tables. It struggled to stay flat under his weight. “ATTENTION!” Every ass was out of a seat in half a second, some still with food in their hands or mouths. “REPORT TO YOUR LIEUTENANTS ON THE FIELD! GO!

The hustle to get away from Willikers was impressive. The entire company was sprinting onto their ‘digging field’ with surprising alacrity, given their full bellies. They found their respective platoon lieutenants standing at ease, waiting for the men to form up. The company obeyed with practiced efficiency. Most of them were panting harder than usual and looked a bit green. It took Kirk a moment to pick up the foul smell in the air.

“Oh god, no,” muttered Merrimack to his right. Their unit was in the second line, and Kirk couldn’t see over the man in front of him what was on the field.

“What is it?” Kirk hissed. There was a foul smell in the air.

“Hobbs! Shuttup!” Lieutenant Reynolds yelled in front.

“Yes sir!” Kirk shouted back reflexively. They waited a few minutes before Kirk could hear Captain Willikers’ limping steps walking with surprising speed to the front of the company.

“YOU,” he bellowed, “DUMB, SHITS.” He stood, gazing at them all with disgust. “Do you all think you will get to have a giant family dinner while you’re AT WAR!? Do you think the Khadorans are going to call a cease-fire for Summerfaire Festival so you can stuff your fat little cheeks!? ANSWER ME!!”

“NO, SIR!” Hammer Company shouted.

“GODDAMN RIGHT!” Willikers shouted back. The man in front of Kirk suddenly bent double and started retching, giving Kirk a clear view of the field.

“Oh my god,” slipped out of his mouth in a whisper, almost unbidden. Their familiar churned-earth digging field had been transformed into a vision from the pit of urcaen.

Straight rows of shallow trenches had been dug across the entirety of the field and criss-crossed above them were lines and lines of razor wire on metal posts. In each shallow furrow in the earth was a vile soup mixed of blood and dirt, entrails, gore and buzzing flies. He could see half a mutilated pig’s head poking up from the mud. The food in his stomach instantly turned sour and he felt his bile rise. The recruit in front Kirk managed to right himself and the vision of hell was obscured. The putrid smell of death hung heavy in the air. Someone in Second Platoon was vomiting, too.

On Kirk’s left, at the end of their line, Peter was vibrating like an unbalanced teapot. Kirk was overcome by a wave of empathy.

“No,” Peter whimpered so softly Kirk could hardly hear, yet somehow Captain Willikers heard him.

“Ooooh YES, Mr. Jakes,” Willikers said, walking towards the boy. “You will crawl from one end of this trench to the other until you have nothing left to puke!” Kirk watched helplessly as Willikers taunted Peter. “And if that’s toooo hard for you, walk back to your barracks, pack your things, and GET OUT!”

With titanic effort, Peter managed to stop his trembling, swallowed hard, stood rigid as a board and said nothing. Willikers smiled.

“Heh, heh. We’ll see how long that holds.” He walked back to the front. “Alright! Lieutenant Reynolds, please explain today’s exercise for the slow kids in the class. Remember to use small words.”

Reynolds took a step forward, his face rigid. He did not make eye contact with his men. He, too, was having trouble keeping his breakfast down.

“HAMMER COMPANY!” he shouted, giving even Willikers a run for his money on volume. “You will crawl through the northernmost trench, emerge on the other end, and crawl back down the adjacent trench! When you have returned to this side, you will re-enter the next trench, and proceed until you have reached the southern end of the field! Is that clear!?”

A rather weak “yes, sir” was the response.

“I ASKED YOU A QUESTION!” Reynolds screamed in a passable imitation of Willikers. Kirk had never seen him like this. He looked angry. Why was this happening? Were they being punished for some unknown failure?

“YES, SIR!” The company answered.

“When you are finished, you will be hosed down with clean water,” he said, pointing to their right. At the other end of the field, a large steam pump and tank had been set up with a hose emerging from the small lake on the other side of the stretch of pines. “The water is being treated with alchemical agents to cleanse you. Listen to me very carefully! DO NOT! OPEN! YOUR MOUTH! If you open your mouth while you’re in that trench, you will get pigs’ blood in your mouth. If you get pigs’ blood in your mouth, you will probably get sick. If you get sick, we have alchemical remedies for you, but I promise they are not pleasant. So keep your mouth shut.

More than one person was gagging now.

The entire company was ordered into a long line at the northernmost trench, sectioned by platoon. First Platoon was, of course, first to begin. Fourth Platoon was last. As they slowly shuffled forwards to their horrifying ordeal, the closer they got to the field of rotting meat, the more men in line began vomiting to either side. It was a combination of disgust and adrenaline-pumping terror. At least three men left the line immediately, walked to their lieutenants, and gave up.

***

Making sure his men were set in line and double-checking that nobody was about to flee in panic, Lieutenant Hank Reynolds marched over to Captain Willikers, who had summoned the grenadier warjack to stand beside him and was watching the process with a critical eye. Willikers turned to look at Reynolds coming.

“Lieutenant,” the Captain said cooly over the sound of men upending their stomachs.

“Captain,” Reynolds replied, saluting. Willikers saluted casually and returned his gaze to the field of torment.

“What can I do for you, Reynolds,” Willikers asked.

“Sir, is this strictly necessary?” Reynolds asked, restraining the frustration in his words. Willikers raised his eyebrows and glanced at the young Lieutenant.

“Are you questioning my orders, son?” Willikers said, a hint of danger in his voice. The warjack sensed a change in his operator’s tone and swiveled his head to pierce Reynolds with a threatening red gaze. Reynolds sighed.

“No, sir. I just want to make sure I understand the intent,” Reynolds replied. “I understand the Bloody Trench is part of basic training, but this…” he gestured at the hundreds of yards of gore-filled furrows, “this is far beyond anything even the officers went through.” Willikers scrutinized him.

Hank Reynolds was a handsome young man, with chiseled features and thick brown eyebrows and milk-white teeth. He looked as young as he was–only twenty-four–but there was a depth to his bright blue eyes, an intelligence and a confidence that managed to both encourage and intimidate the men around him. He looked like the exact thing he was: the shining product of a good family, of wealth, of prosperity, of education. In short, a poster boy for the Strategic Academy.

Reynolds could see Willikers debating whether to rebuke him or explain his thinking. Willikers took a deep breath, let it out slowly, then turned back to the field. A distant look overcame him, not unlike the one he’d had when he gave his rousing little speech in the chow hall.

“Hank, how much combat experience have you had?” Willikers asked.

“You know I haven’t got any, sir,” Reynolds said, his voice buzzing with annoyance. Willikers nodded slowly. The warjack turned its head back to the field, murderously calm in the way only a machine can be.

“No. No, you don’t,” he said thoughtfully, almost sad. “I meant every word I said in that hall, Mr. Reynolds,” he said.

“Sir?” Hank said, confused.

“These men…” Willikers stopped himself. “Huh. Listen to that. We call them ‘men’ so we can feel better about feeding their short lives to the grinder.” Willikers shook his head. “These boys have absolutely no idea what they’re getting into. Neither do you, frankly.” He glanced at Hank critically. “My job is to somehow take a handful of farmboys and college dropouts and train them to survive the horror of war. And I have to do it in twelve weeks. Twelve weeks!” Willikers shook his head. “Ascendant Markus, what an order.” He put his fist on his hip.

“Sir,” Hank said hesitantly, “if this is about Hammer Company—I mean the first Hammer Company—”

“It’s always about them,” Willikers said sharply. The warjack turned again. The Captain waved at it in dismissive annoyance and it turned its gaze to the field once more. “Two months from now these boys are going to be crawling through the guts and brains of their platoon mates. In three months half of them are going to be dead or missing limbs. You know this,” he said, and for the first time since Hank Reynolds had been assigned to Captain Willikers, he heard pity in the man’s voice. “By almost any measure, this invasion is going to be costly. If they can’t handle this, then they have no chance of surviving what the Khadorans are going to throw at them. I can’t prepare them for that,” he said, turning back to the field. “But I can get them hard enough to where they can at least survive it. And if they can survive it, then they’ll be trenchers. Real trenchers, Mr. Reynolds.”

“Yes, sir,” Hank said, sadness creeping into his heart.

“You’re going to have to order these boys to their deaths, Hank,” Willikers said. “That’s your test. If you can’t handle making them crawl through a little bit of bacon, then you aren’t fit to lead them into a war. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” Hank said. The Captain’s explanation had cut deeper than any shouted rebuke.

“No, you don’t,” Willikers said softly. “But you will.” Hank Reynolds said nothing. “Get back to your men and push them through. Tell them at every opportunity that they can quit if they want to. Just remind them their homes and families and warm beds and clean sheets await them if they want to leave. Tomorrow I give them actual weapons. I don’t want any weaklings left. Is that clear?” Willikers asked.

“Crystal, sir,” Reynolds replied.

“Good. Dismissed, Lieutenant.” Hank Reynolds saluted his superior and returned to his men.

***

Kirk stood shivering violently as he was blasted with lake water from the steam pump. He shook from exhaustion, disgust, and the leftover adrenaline of panic. He had just traveled down hundreds of yards of rotting gore on his belly, unable to escape through the barbed wire above him, emerged standing, and then had to go back in at least seven times. Maybe more? He’d lost track very quickly, forgetting everything except the overwhelming urge to escape, the fatigue slowing him down and the horror as he was forced to dive once more into the bloody filth.

Somehow he’d kept his mouth closed the whole time, opening only to vomit. His ribs ached from his body’s constant retching. Even now he wouldn’t open his mouth. He was afraid his jaw had sealed shut.

And all the while, Lieutenant Hank Reynolds had been there to remind him of his mother’s love, a hot meal and his soft bed waiting for him on his family’s farm. He felt broken, not just physically, but mentally. There was nothing left in him to care about pain. He had entered a dream state, an almost pleasant distance from his own body, like his mind had fallen asleep while his limbs were on auto-pilot, trembling in the warm air.

At some point about half-way through the horrible ditch of blood, he had entered a mental tunnel that mirrored his physical one, seeing only the next few yards in front of him, knowing only the next belly-crawl, focusing on nothing else, seeing nothing else. Each foot forward was its own journey, propelled forward not by the promise of getting out but by the goal of finishing the next yard.

And somehow, he’d done it.

His clothes had been removed—odd, he didn’t recall undressing—and his naked body was subjected to the harsh blasts of treated water. He didn’t really feel it though.

When he was thoroughly washed, he was given a towel and ordered to go back to barracks to put on a fresh pair of fatigues and shirt, then report to the classroom block for an informal lecture until lunch. Lunch was to be served at the normal time, just an hour away.

Kirk didn’t think he could ever eat again.

The lecture was being held by one of the training officers, a woman named Lieutenant Kerry. He didn’t know her first name. Kirk had always found her rather pretty, maybe only because she was one of the few women anywhere on the training grounds. For some reason no women or female recruits had been assigned to their company, an unusual result for a mixed-sex army. She was going over diagrams of the standard-issue trencher military rifle again, a disassembled bannfield model 304 on her desk, pointing things out with a long pointer and explaining the cleaning and assembly process. It was probably the third or fourth time Kirk had sat through one of these lectures, and even though he had yet to touch a single weapon, was starting to feel familiar with it.

She seemed so calm and normal. Hard, but calm. He wondered if she knew they’d just had to go through the Bloody Trench? That’s what everyone was calling it. There was no other good name for it. Had nobody told her? How could she seem so distant? He tried to imagine her eyes turning soft and gentle with pity. He couldn’t picture it. He wasn’t sure he knew what ‘soft’ meant anymore. His cot was hard, his gear was hard, his life was hard. Softness had no place in this new world.

Slowly the rest of the company filtered into the lecture, most of the men looking zombified with stress. Lieutenant Kerry continued her lecture serenely with no acknowledgment of their hardship. An hour passed hardly noticed, and then they were filing back to their chow hall for a lunch most of them wouldn’t even eat. The stench of pig guts was lodged in their nostrils as they picked at their food. More physical conditioning followed—Kirk wasn’t sure how he managed it, but he got through—then classes.

They learned about the types of defensive and offensive magic that Khadoran arcanists liked to use; clouds of obscuring mist, sprays of skin-shattering rime, bolts of impossibly cold ice that could penetrate light armor and freeze organs on contact. All things they had little defense against. Their best bet was to rely on support or, if possible, eliminate the target with more conventional weapons.

Returning to his bunk after their final class, before Kirk could lay his head on his pillow Lieutenant Reynolds entered Fourth Platoon’s dormitory to make an announcement. They jumped out of their beds and saluted. He casually saluted them back.

“At ease, ladies,” he said wearily. “As you probably already know, we had high attrition today—eighteen men quit the company, and three of them were in our platoon. I’m sure you can piece together why. Brett Lawrie, Carrington Jones and Remi Lafayette will not be joining us in Llael. So, I’m here to congratulate you all for sticking it out. I know it was hard.” He paused to look around the bunks. Their platoon was now down to forty-nine men. They are started the first day of training with seventy. “Rest assured, our numbers will be reinforced when we meet up with the Fifth Division.” He paused a moment.

“I also have some good news. Starting tomorrow, Hammer Company begins weapons training.” This perked them up. For over five weeks, they had yet to touch an actual weapon. Excitement rekindled in their eyes. Kirk felt a wave of relief wash over him. Finally!

“Make no mistake, this will not be any easier than the first half of your training. But Captain Willikers has decided your physical and mental conditioning has earned you the chance to put rounds into the enemy. From here on out, we are going to focus hard on weapon discipline, care, and accuracy.” He paused, then saluted them again and walked out.

“Finally!” Alex burst out as soon as Lieutenant Reynolds had left, echoing Kirk’s thoughts. “I was starting to think they were going to make us throw sticks and stones at the Khadorans.”

All the other men had excited smiles and were chatting nervously.

As Kirk’s head hit his thin pillow, a realization dawned on him: he had done it. He had passed through the Bloody Trench. Nobody had made him do it, not really. He could have walked out of line and resigned like Brett and all the others. But he had seen it through. And in spite of the rancid stink somehow still infesting his sinuses, in spite of the exhaustion that had crept into his very core and taken residence there, in spite of all the hardship…

He felt stronger than he’d ever felt.

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