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Basic Training—11th Week

12th Infantry Regiment training depot, outside Bainsmarket.
1st of Octesh, 611 AR.

The entire company passed their accuracy test. To a man, they could get reliable center-of-mass shots on moving targets out to eighty yards, and were hitting stationary targets out to a hundred yards, the extreme range of their bolt-action breech-loaded military rifles. Any two or three of them could collectively focus fire on a target and all but guarantee a kill. Their skill had become a source of real pride. Of course, Merrimack had warned Kirk’s unit that it was very different in the field of battle: the smell of blood, bone-rocking explosions and bullets flying in your direction tended to negatively affect one’s accuracy. This didn’t dampen their self-efficacy, though. They were good, already better than most general infantry, and they knew it.

Joffrey, however, was in a league of his own.

The fiery, ill-tempered Llaelese gentleman had a divine gift. There was no other explanation for it. By the end of their intensive three-week rifle training course, he was lobbing bullets into targets almost as far out as 140 yards; typically the accurate territory of a long gun repeating rifle, not a medium-range infantry weapon. He had higher accuracy than any other member of the company and certainly better than anyone in Fourth Platoon. He wasn’t just the best in Hammer Company, though. He had accuracy scores in the 99th percentile for Trencher Corps. graduates. He was utterly exceptional.

It made perfect sense that he was selected for sniper training. Usually only trenchers who demonstrated high accuracy in combat were permitted to enter the sniper training program, and that was usually a four-week course with only a sixty percent graduation rate. Joffrey Léandre’s exceptionalism warranted a breach of protocol. Lieutenant Reynolds petitioned Captain Willikers to give Joffrey a sniper rifle in lieu of heavy weapons training. Willikers agreed with no debate, to Reynold’s shock. On the first day, the angry young man with five royal names got perfect headshots on moving targets past 150 yards. Even Captain Willikers struggled to hide his surprise.

His biggest hurdle was patience. Sniping necessitated being still for long periods of time, and frequently foregoing shots if there wasn’t certainty of a hit. Joffrey consistently took risky shots early, potentially revealing his position or causing the target to seek cover if he missed.

The problem was, he kept hitting.

It just shouldn’t have been possible. Most of Fourth Platoon was convinced he was guided by the hand of Ascendant Markus, the patron saint of soldiers. His talent didn’t seem human. He seemed able to guide bullets in through sheer resentment of the enemy. Hank Reynolds secretly began to suspect that Joffrey had some kind of untapped arcane ability, but was reluctant to voice this theory because he knew it would mean losing Joffrey entirely. If Joffrey did indeed have the gift of magic, he would likely be recruited for training as a Gun Mage. Nobody in Fourth Platoon was keen on entering Llael without his uncanny accuracy on their side, and Joffrey certainly wasn’t going to leave his Company willingly, especially on the verge of entering his homeland for the first time in years. Nobody dared suggest he apply for additional training, arcane power or not.

Meanwhile, the rest of the mere mortals in Hammer Company were given a rather rushed introduction to support weaponry. Everyone was taught the use of rifle grenades to defeat armor or unleash shrapnel into enemy foxholes. The company was assigned four chain guns, one for each platoon. Everyone got a chance to learn how to operate the heavy eight-barreled rotating machine weapon but only a few were selected to become official operators. Fourth Platoon’s team was Kirk, Bull and Peter. The massive weapon quickly became Kirk’s favorite tool.

One morning after PT, there was a competition: whichever team could break down, transport, and reassemble the chain gun on the firing range the fastest would get an extra dinner ration. The enormous weapons were heavy, clumsy, and took three people to put back together, but the excitement of extra food drove Fourth Platoon to the top.

Once the race ended and all four guns were fully deployed, they were taught basic gunner strategy.

“Don’t get stuck on one target,” Lieutenant Reynolds said over and over again. “Keep that thing moving. Fire at a group or target and move to the next. Don’t shoot in a line, Kirk, this isn’t a goddamn carnival game!”

CHAK-CHAK-CHAK-CHAK-CHAK-CHAK-CHAK!

Kirk sat at the gun in childish delight, watching heavy lead pepper the steel plate silhouettes of men on the field. Every fifth bullet blazed with orange light as its tracer coating flashed off. He imagined he was launching arcane bolts of pure fire at the enemy. The sheer intimidation factor of his new toy gave him a tremendous sense of power: four hundred rounds per minute at full tilt created a creeping trail of exploding dirt wherever he aimed it. Oh boy, I am going to nail so many Reds with this thing!

That same week they were also taught how to work with the company’s grenadier warjack. The hulking machine used a long-range grenade launcher that could pump out bombs shockingly fast, as long as there was a man nearby to keep loading the heavy grenade magazines. Initially everyone felt intimidated by the angry-looking titan. Captain Willikers had used it to frighten and corral them on many occasions. But after watching it turn their old Iron Fang dummies into piles of scrap metal and hay with frightening precision, they all suddenly felt like an old bully had swapped sides and was now fighting for them.

Only the platoon lieutenants had sufficient training to properly marshal the warjack. Without a warcaster to form a psychic bond with the machine’s magical cortex, they had to depend on hand signals and key phrases to guide the warjack through combat. This was not a simple task. There wasn’t time left in basic for any of the enlisted men to learn to control it, so they would have to depend on their COs to keep the monster in check. Absent a mental link, the grenadier could hear and understand basic commands, but it had a will of its own by design. Often the precise means of executing an order was entirely the machine’s decision: its ability to rapidly evaluate a problem and know what to do was part of its inscrutable nature. Still, while it was designed to think for war and could weigh the ever-changing arithmetic of battle intuitively, it only had the basic intelligence of a dog.

A dog that weighed three tons and carried explosive rounds.

Hammer Company took this aspect of their metal ally to heart. So much so that one morning Captain Willikers awoke to find the name DAISY stenciled in white letters across the warjack’s helmet. Since nobody seemed to be able to tell the Captain who had done it, they all got to run an extra ten miles during PT.

The fact that Daisy was the name of Gerard Chester’s beloved childhood dog was, according to him, pure coincidence.

The men in first platoon were rather irritated that he’d given their company warjack such a delicate name. When asked why, he explained, “You guys don’t understand: Daisy was the meanest bitch I’ve ever met in my life. She was practically the size of a small horse. She killed a burrow-mawg that tried to get into our barn one year; just dragged it into the house like a trophy, barely a scratch on her.” After hearing this, they didn’t mind the name so much, and so it stuck, even after Willikers made them scrub the name off the warjack’s helmet with old toothbrushes. They vowed to re-stencil her as soon as they were out from under Fat Willy’s thumb.

Daisy the Grenadier.

Over the past eleven weeks, the boys of Hammer Company had undergone a dramatic transformation, both in body and spirit. Those unable to endure the hardships of training were long gone, leaving behind only the physically and mentally strong. Constant sleep deprivation, barely enough food, brutal exercise and utterly rigorous weapon drills forced them to band together with an attitude of mutual support and a bemused, almost ridiculous optimism to endure. Kirk’s father used to tell him that misery loves company, meaning those who are unhappy wish to be surrounded by (or make) others equally unhappy. While that may have been true, Kirk was amazed to see that intense, prolonged, shared agony created a brotherhood. No matter how bad things got, they found a joke or a shared piece of jerky made the world tolerable. It didn’t take much. They had morphed into a band of irritating optimists. It became a game, a test of wills: the harder their officers tried to break them down, the more they resisted despondency.

This was precisely what Captain Willikers wanted to see. There was no weakness left in this group, smaller though it was compared to its beginning number. They were ready to march for war.

***

Captain Willikers called an officer meeting mid-week. He stood in front of a clean blackboard, waiting patiently and smoking a giant cigar as the lieutenants entered the hall. His empty sleeve hung limply at his left side. The company was in the middle of an exam on flanking tactics, so Corporal Merrimack was not present. The four lieutenants stood before him at attention. He saluted them.

“At ease, boys,” he said, coughing out a cloud of smoke. “Sit down.”

They sat. Willikers let out a long sigh, contemplating the glowing end of his cigar. They waited patiently.

“So here’s the deal,” he said at last, blowing out another puff of smoke. “I was supposed to have the Company start mission briefing a week ago. We were supposed to be performing mission maneuvers this week. I put it off, because if I have to choose, I’d rather they be hitting all their shots, even if it means not being able to point out the hamlet of ‘Anglet-des-sur-Mer’ on a map of Llael,” he said dismissively. Out came another wisp of smoke. “Buuut, the truth is, they need to know both. At least, that’s what I’ve been ordered. I trust you have all been studying operation details in the meantime?” He asked, eyeing them intensely.

“Yes, sir,” they replied as one.

“Good,” he said. “I’ve ordered the training staff to focus entirely on mission parameters in lecture for the next three days. Maps, maps, maps. I want them to memorize maps of Llael, maps of our battle formations, maps of intel on enemy positions, maps of the wrinkles in their mothers’ assholes.” The men chuckled at this.

“Lectures will all extend an extra two hours, which means we’re going to have to cut back on specialization training. No more time with the grenadier. If they haven’t figured out how to play with a warjack, well, they’ll have to learn on the job when they get to Llael. We are not cutting back on PT, however. In fact, I want an extra PT session at night after lectures,” he said firmly. He dropped the cigar onto the wood floor and stamped it out. “They’re not graduated yet, and this is still a trencher training depot, not a damned schoolhouse. Any questions?” he asked. It was more a dismissal than a request, but Lieutenant Webster asked anyway.

“Sir, I’m concerned about the Company’s preparedness for orienteering,” he said carefully. “Our line is going to be spread pretty far in Llael, and they’re going to be doing hard marches through the night. I was not overly impressed by their navigational test yesterday,” he said. “I can’t be confident they won’t be getting lost in the Llaelese countryside.”

“That wasn’t a question, soldier,” Willikers said impatiently.

“Sir, I request permission to spend an additional two days this week drilling them on navigation,” Webster said.

“Also not a question,” Willikers said, annoyed. He sighed. “But you’re right. Permission granted. Take them back out into the woods. Tell them that the last unit to return gets latrine duty. That should provide some learning incentive,” he grumbled.

“Yes, Captain,” Webster replied.

“In one week they’re out of here. In five days, when they’ve demonstrated working knowledge of our upcoming theater of war, which they will do,” he said dangerously, staring them down, “we’re going to perform a live-fire exercise; have them dig a basic field trench for the whole platoon after their orienteering lesson tomorrow. That will satisfy my need for additional PT for tomorrow evening. The training staff and I will prep the field for an experience that will brace them for real battlefield conditions, as close as I can make them,” he said, a disturbing twinkle in his eye. “I want them to know what mortars sound like. Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” they said.

“Dismissed.” As the officers stood to leave, Willikers motioned to Hank Reynolds. “Lieutenant Reynolds, remain here. I need to speak to you.” Hank paused, the other lieutenants hurrying out to avoid whatever discomforting conversation was likely to ensue.

“Yes Captain?” Reynolds asked, smoothing his regulation white shirt nervously, as though wrinkles might tip his Captain over the edge.

“Talk to me about Mr. Léandre,” he said calmly. Hank blinked.

“What do you need to know, sir?” Hank asked. Captain Willikers stared him down, patiently tapping his fingers on his thigh.

“I think you know what I need to know, Lieutenant,” Willikers said cryptically, eyes hooded. Reynolds paused for several beats.

“You’d like to know if Joffrey Léandre is fit for arcanist training,” he said robotically. Oh, shit, I’m about to lose my best gun, he thought, his heart sinking.

“Mmmh,” Willikers rumbled noncommittally. Hank sighed, resigning himself.

“Captain, Joffrey Léandre may have the Gift, and if so, is probably eligible to become a gun mage. A blazing good one, too. I’ve never seen a man hit marks as often as he does,” he finished. Captain Willikers chuckled.

“Yes, yes. But are you sure? Can you be certain he has magical proclivities?” Willikers asked, peering at the Lieutenant. Hank frowned.

“Well, sir, I’m not an arcanist myself, so I have no way of assessing with certainty–”

“So,” Willikers interrupted, “there’s a chance that sending him off for assessment would just be wasting everybody’s time,” he said. “I’m not known to be a time-waster, Hank,” he said coolly. He waited several beats.

“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Reynolds said, unsure what else to say. Willikers cleared his throat, then waited several more beats.

“I, uh, I know a man whose wife cheats on him,” The Captain said finally.

There was a significant pause.

Lieutenant Reynolds began blinking rapidly, trying to process this sudden non-sequitur.

“Ah, sir?” he muttered. Captain Willikers began pacing.

“He loves her very much, but she just can’t keep her legs closed,” the Captain said, grinning. “That’s how he fell in love with her, actually. She had a boyfriend, she liked my friend better, and he thought it was because he was hot shit. He proposed after only a month and a half, and, well, thirty years later he’s in the middle of nowhere yelling at a gang of little boys while she’s enjoying the company of men,” he said, chuckling to himself.

“Erh…” Lieutenant Reynolds grasped for an appropriate response. He found none.

“You see, he knew going in that she was a cheater. But he convinced himself she would only cheat on other people, not him. He was special, and therefore she would be faithful. You see?”

“Sir,” Reynolds said, staring straight forward. He felt he was standing on the thinnest ice imaginable. It was obvious who the Captain was talking about.

“Mr. Léandre is a hot-headed, overconfident prick who somehow manages time after time to get away with the most absurd shots I’ve ever seen. This says two very important things about him, Hank,” the Captain said, holding up two fingers and ticking them off. “One, he’s going to murder Reds left and right.” Down went the index finger. “And two, he thinks he’s special.” Down went the middle finger. “He knows he’s special. But not special like you and I see him; he thinks special means maybe he doesn’t always have to follow the rules. Maybe he’ll always get away with it, if things go well even when he doesn’t obey orders.”

“I concur with your assessment,” said Lieutenant Reynolds, still reeling from the Captain’s story. “He’s taken a strong hand to reign him in so far, I don’t anticipate that changing. But he’s bonded with the men in his platoon just like the others. He’s Llaelese at heart, yes, but he’ll die for Cygnar,” he said firmly.

“Hmm,” the Captain replied, unconvinced. “He isn’t going to war for Cygnar, he’s going to war for his country, to liberate his country. He hates Khadorans more than you or I ever will, and that’s good, that can be harnessed,” he said. “But don’t for a moment kid yourself about where his true loyalty is. This invasion is going to be dangerous for him in more ways than one.” The Captain paused. “He’s the best shot I’ve ever seen. I have no doubt of his skill or his willingness to fight our enemies. But I suspect he may better serve our nation in other capacities, whether he likes it or not. If I’m wrong, you’d better be damn sure,” the Captain said, piercing Lieutenant Reynolds with his gaze. “So I ask you again: do you feel he has sufficient magical potential to warrant assessment and additional training?”

“Sir, recruit Joffrey Léandre would be ejected from the Corps. before he would be willing to part with his platoon. I don’t have any way of knowing the source of his… ‘unusual’ ability, but I believe his talent is going to end up saving the lives of my men, Captain,” he stated firmly. “And on those grounds, I am willing to state that I do not believe he has demonstrated magical aptitude.”

The Captain nodded slowly.

“Alright, Lieutenant. I’ll trust your decision. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking you can turn a hussy into a housewife. You can’t change people, not really. Sometimes you can’t even stop them,” he said.

“I will keep that in mind, sir,” Hank Reynolds said.

“You’re dismissed, Lieutenant,” the Captain said. As Hank was halfway to the door, Captain Willikers called out again. “Lieutenant!”

“Yes, sir!” Reynolds spun around at attention.

“If you ever repeat what I said about my marriage, I’ll cut your damn balls off,” the Captain growled.

“Understood, Captain!” Reynolds shouted, then hurried out.

***

They were in the final stretch, now. The pace of lectures had become feverish as maps, planned maneuvers and general mission strategy was rammed down their throat day and night, day after day. Kirk, like most of them, had very little knowledge of the larger world outside his own. He had studied maps of the Iron Kingdoms in grade school, but it was all abstract, far away, virtually meaningless. As far as he had been concerned the biggest part of the world was Caspia, and probably the only part that mattered. Llael had once been just a little neighbor, a small, relatively insignificant and badly-prepared nation who had been subsumed by the industrial might of Khador. But after countless hours of studying, the size of the country had grown exponentially in his mind.

Almost as soon as Khador invaded, Llael had been split into three distinct pieces: the Khadoran occupation in the West, which was the bulk of the held territory and the source of most of Llael’s strategic assets, not the least of which was a significant alchemical manufacturing industry in the volcanic city of Rynyr. Then there were the holdings of the Protectorate of Menoth’s ‘Great Crusade’ in the North-East. The nation of religious zealots had leapt at the opportunity to seize land once Llael’s government collapsed. They had sent a shockingly determined force all the way around deserts and mountains to invade and met very little resistance when they entered Llael.

Then there was Free Llael, the last of the country to hold against invasion, and only then on technicalities; both Khador and the Protectorate had exhausted enormous resources in their occupation efforts and their invasions more or less ground to a halt. This wasn’t helped by a large Cryxian build up and attack right as the occupiers were settling in. It had taken an uneasy and short-lived alliance for everyone to rebuff the evil necromancer kingdom.

The long and short of it was this: Llael had been brutalized over the last four years, and it wasn’t about to get better. The borders between the three territories was in constant and hot dispute, even as Llael, Khador and the Protectorate tried to keep resources flowing and economies alive.

Lord General Stryker was in the midst of an attack on the northern occupied city of Riversmet this very instant. The counter-invasion had essentially already begun. The First Army had been crossing the Black River into Khadoran Llael for eight days straight now. The goal was simple: take the Khadoran-held capital of Merywyn. It was in striking distance of both the Cygnaran and Free Llaelese borders.

It had also been made into a fortress.

Before a siege could be undertaken, Lord General Stryker’s Storm Division would have to consolidate territory up North and, if all went well, inevitably cut Occupied Llael off from the larger Khadoran nation. Simultaneously, the First Division would surround Merywyn in the South, sweeping through the countryside and clearing every last town, village and farm of Khadoran forces. Once the capital was cut off from help, and the First Army could ensure no enemy was at their back, Storm Division and First Army would unite to break into Merywyn.

That was the plan, anyway. Putting a total of over thirty thousand men and machines across the border at once was a logistical nightmare, and probably the biggest military operation Cygnar had ever undertaken on one front.

Hammer Company’s role in all of this was, compared to the larger plan, quite simple. They would be one link in the front line that would sweep forward like a slow tidal wave into Llael. They were to take and hold Khadoran positions they encountered and give no ground. Cygnaran warcaster and warjack support would be provided up and down the front as needed.

This was all well and good, but there was a bit of a hitch: Khador knew they were coming, and had been preparing for this for years. Rather than simply dig into their own fortified line and brace for trench warfare, they had instead opted to rotate large battle groups of men and equipment through a variety of defensive positions at seemingly random intervals. It was nearly impossible for the Cygnaran Reconnaissance Service to keep current tabs on where a Khadoran force was or would be on any given day, which would in turn require the Cygnaran Army to press forward slowly and carefully. It would mean wasting time sending large forces into ghost towns.

This defensive strategy was risky for the Khadorans because they ran the chance of encountering Cygnaran forces while on the move, which made them vulnerable. It also meant ceding a shocking amount of ground, which was distinctly against Khadoran battle doctrine. But they had been performing this giant game of ‘Coin In The Cup’ for over two months, and by now the CRS had virtually no accountability on enemy assets. Any town, fort, or trench line they encountered could be bristling with a thousand men or be totally abandoned. They wouldn’t know until hours ahead of time. Worse still, platoons that encountered no resistance couldn’t simply rush ahead and risk causing a bulge in their line, making them vulnerable to a flanking attack that would cut them off, which is exactly what the Khadorans were hoping for. If they could destabilize the Cygnaran line, any ground ceded would be immediately taken back by flanking maneuvers. The temptation for Cygnaran patrols to forge ahead into seemingly abandoned territory would be strong. This was the bad news.

The good news was, Cygnar outnumbered their enemy in the field almost two to one, thanks to Storm Division forcing Khador to deploy military resources in the North. The First Army should, theoretically, have numerical supremacy over almost any force they encountered.

Theoretically.

That jumble of facts, lines, positions, and town names swirled in Kirk’s head as they were awoken at five in the morning for one last drill in the field. In two days, they were to have their graduation ceremony and be on a train that very night.

“FOURTH PLATOON! GET OFF YOUR ASSES!” Screamed Reynolds as he burst in the door. “GEAR UP AND GET ON THE FIELD DOUBLE-TIME!”

Once again, they scrambled their gear. Once again, they hustled out to the field. They arrived to a pretty passable simulation of a warzone.

The trench they had dug a few days before lay before them. The field, having been churned again and again with trenches, explosives, and feet for the last ten weeks had turned into an enormous mud pit after a recent rain. The trench they excavated a few days ago now had several inches of standing water overflowing its hastily-dug drainage sumps. Out past the berm that made their parapet, a mess of tangled barbed wire littered the field with a handful of careful breaches that would form a path. At the far end of the field were a pair of bright blue flags, right where the muddy pit ended and the forest began.

Kirk could more or less guess what the job here would be. Get in the trench, and when they heard the whistle, go over the top, following their unit leaders through the path into the tangled mess of barbed wire, probably be forced to belly-crawl in the filth at some point, and make it to the flags in as short a time as possible.

On their left flank, all four of the company chain guns had been set up, along with Daisy, who was being run by Lieutenant Black. Just past them, almost inside the woods, five squat little mortar cannons were in place with two training staff operators each.

“I think they’ve finally set up to murder us,” said Gerard. “Looks like we won’t be making it into Llael.” This got a few nervous chuckles.

They had performed exercises under simulated enemy fire before, but this looked quite different. Captain Willikers met them on the field.

“Alright, ladies! You sacks of crap are now SLIGHTLY LESS terrible than the day you showed up here, thanks to me! But you aren’t trenchers until I SAY you’re trenchers!” he screamed.

“Yes, sir!” they bellowed back together.

“This field,” he said, pointing his one arm at the ‘battlefield’ behind them, “is littered with mines. The mines are on timers. In about five minutes, they’ll start going off. Unfortunately, military command would not appreciate me dropping actual shells on your heads, so these will have to make do,” he shouted. He now pointed to the line of weapons aimed across the field to the left. “On that side, we have deployed five captured Khadoran mortars. They will be firing live rounds, which will be bursting high enough in the air to avoid injury. They will produce real shrapnel, so keep your damn HELMETS ON!” Willikers hollered these last words as he saw Bull pull his helmet off to scratch his bald head. He snapped it back on at the Captain’s rebuke and returned to attention. Willikers began pacing.

“Our chain gun crews will be firing over head as well. Midway through the field, they have been instructed to fire low, so you will have to crawl under the wire posts in that section. Your unit leaders have been instructed on how to lead you. Do not deviate from their path! I repeat, this field is MINED. As much as I HATE every single one of you, I don’t want to have to send letters to your families prematurely! That’s what the Reds are for!” he yelled. “Am I clear!?”

Sir, yes sir!” Hammer Company replied.

“Gods damn,” Joffrey whispered behind Kirk. “This is way over the top. Someone is going to get killed,” he breathed.

“DO YOU HAVE A QUESTION MR. LEANDRE!?” Willikers raced to Joffrey’s spot in formation and screamed, spit flying into the young man’s face.

“No, sir!” he yelled back.

“WONDERFUL! Remove your pants, recruit!” Willikers hollered. There was a heartbeat pause before Joffrey acknowledged.

“Yes, Captain!” Joffrey shouted back. Willikers waited while Joffrey stripped off his boots, dropped his drawers, and stood there like an idiot.

“Put your boots back on!” Willikers ordered. Joffrey obeyed. “The next person to talk out of order will participate in this exercise without pants along with Mr. Big Mouth here!” Willikers announced.

“Yes, sir!” Hammer Company replied.

“This exercise has been expensive, time-consuming, dangerous, and I have worked VERY HARD on it, so I would like you all to THANK ME for giving you this opportunity to be shot at!” Willikers demanded.

“Thank you, sir!” the men replied.

“I can’t hear you, you ungrateful pieces of shit!”

THANK YOU, SIR!” they screamed as loud as they could.

“DO YOU LOVE ME!?” Willikers asked.

“YES, SIR!”

“LIARS! YOU HATE ME, AND I HATE YOU TOO!” Willikers declared. “Fourth Platoon, get your skinny asses into my trench! GO!”

All fifty-three men in Fourth Platoon splashed into the filthy trench, immediately soaked up to their thighs in the stinking mud. It was cold and sticky. Kirk shuddered involuntarily. Joffrey gritted his teeth but did not open his mouth to complain. Poor Peter was in it up to his crotch. The sides of the trench were slick, which would force them to use the crude wooden ladders scattered at intervals in order to go over the top. There was a series of unexpected and distant thumps. The air out over the field began howling like a banshee.

Reeeeeeee — BOOM! Mortar shells were now exploding in air above them in bright flashes. The sounds of the shells sailing through the air were ghostly and terrifying. The bigger bombs were punctuated by Daisy’s grenades popping off to their right as they arced overhead and hit the mud.

“Listen to me!” Reynolds shouted over the growing din. He was in the middle of the trench line where all his men could hear him. “You stay behind your unit leaders, and you follow every step they take! Space six feet behind each other, don’t crowd! Shrapnel loves a crowd! Don’t stray from your unit leaders’ path, they know where they’re going! If you stray, you die! That’s not an exaggeration!” As if to punctuate his words, five more screaming shells burst in the air above them, followed by a tremendous WHUMP.

“Here we go!” Reynolds screamed, his voice shrill with adrenaline. The mines had started going off. “Make sure your rifle breeches are sealed, and your wax plugs are in your barrel! Don’t get mud in your weapon!”

WHUMP. WHUMP. The explosive force traveled straight through the earth, up Kirk’s boots and into his chest like a punch.

The whistle sounded.

Their five unit leaders immediately began to scramble up the wooden ladders. The men followed, making sure to not climb up each others’ asses. Kirk, trembling from fear and excitement and cold mud, shimmied up the ladder as fast as he could. Just as he crested the berm, the chain gunners opened up in short, random bursts that simulated rifle fire. Scarier still, they weren’t using tracer rounds, so nobody could see quite how far above their heads the bullets were aimed. They could hear them zipping by, though, so they were close.

Kirk was hustling behind Gerard as the entered the field, Merrimack was three men in front weaving through a dizzying mess of barbed wire. WHUMP! A geyser of mud shot into the air not fifteen feet from where Kirk stood, rocking his organs. Two more such geysers blasted up further down the field. If nobody had told him what was going on he would have been convinced they were actually being shelled. Bullets snapped and buzzed just over his helmet. He tucked his head in, snaking through the maze of wire, reminding himself over and over not to get too close to Gerard. He risked a glance over his shoulder to see who was following.

It was Joffrey, bare white thighs streaked in mud, his white underwear so immensely coated in dirt he looked like a victim of diarrhea, his mouth a tight line, head hunched into his shoulders, eyes huge white circles of panic. He was the absolute picture of misery, and the silliness of it combined with the adrenaline burned the image into Kirk’s mind forever. He would have burst out laughing if he wasn’t so scared.

Off in the distance, from another world, a whistle blew once more, and Kirk realized 3rd Platoon was going over the top behind them.

“Down, down!” Merrimack suddenly ordered. “Crawl!” Kirk dropped to his belly into the filth at the same time as Gerard. A series of perfectly-timed mines went off at that exact moment, rattling his guts and showering them all in a torrent of mud. Mortars screamed overhead.

They commando-crawled under a network of barbed wire strung along posts as bullets whizzed by just above them. There was a loud snap and Kirk glanced up to see a bullet had severed one of wires. Gods, they’re coming close, he thought. He was totally, completed covered in mud now. His entire body was one shade of putrid brown. All he could see were Gerard’s boots working through the slop in front of him. Gerard suddenly rose as he exited the low-hung wire and was dashing off behind Bull. Kirk squirmed out under the last line and followed them as fast as he could.

And then, without warning, they were done: across the flags, standing on wet pine needles, evergreens towering above them, panting like dogs. They turned to watch the rest of their platoon and then the other platoons snake their way through the safe space in the simulated war zone, loud thumps and geysers of mud going off in random places. First Platoon had it the easiest, for by the time they entered the field most of the mines were spent, the chain gunners were conserving ammo and two of the mortars were out of shells. Compared to everyone else their crossing was virtually peaceful.

As the last man in First Platoon crossed the line, the entire company let out a huge cheer, rifles in the air. Every one of them to the last man was utterly filthy, cold, shaking with nerves, and smiling like idiots.

***

Dinner in the chow hall that night was deafeningly loud. The men were laughing, shouting, bragging about how brave they were, or exaggerating how close the mines had come to killing them, or– in a kind of reverse-bravado– talking about how scared shitless they’d been. Spirits were higher than ever. They were less than forty-eight hours from graduation, they’d just experience the most exciting moment in their training, they had a head full of maps and they were ready to storm Llael.

Kirk was telling the story of Joffrey’s race across the field with no pants to anyone who would listen. A unit from Secnd Platoon along with Bull, Peter, Alex, Gerard and even Merrimack were enjoying a second retelling of Joffrey’s condition earlier that day.

“Oh man, you should have seen him,” Kirk said, trying not to laugh through his words. “His underwear looked like diaper a blowout, I’m not sure it was all mud. And his face!” Kirk scrunched his neck, bugged out his eyes and compressed his lips in a pretty passable imitation of Joffrey’s face. They all burst out laughing.

“Thamar’s tits, I’d give a week’s rations to see him like that,” Alex said wistfully. “He’s such a stuffed-up prick.”

“Yeah, you make fun of him now, but when push comes to shove and there’s a widowmaker hiding in the woods taking potshots at your face, he’s the one who’s going to save your ass,” Merrimack said. “I’ve seen his sniper training. The man could hit a flying goose’s dick a mile in the sky.” He shook his head, his jughandle ears wagging back and forth.

“I never much liked the fella,” said Gerard, “but damn, if he’s that good a shot, I’ll be hanging out in his foxhole at night, forget you guys,” he chuckled.

“Now, now,” said Alex, clicking his tongue. “I know he’s a very handsome man, but the Corps. has rules against that sort of thing,” he said, winking.

“Ah, shove off, I didn’t mean–” Gerard began.

“Oh we know what you meant,” Peter said teasingly.

“Ah come on, I meant I want him watching my backside–”

“Uh-huh, and I’m sure you’ll be watching his,” Bull interrupted.

“For Morrow’s sake, go to hell the lot of you!” Gerard said, flustered. “You idiots couldn’t hit a tree at five paces if my life depended on it!”

“Well if your life depends on it, I will definitely miss,” Alex said with a grin.

Kirk looked around the table at these men. Peter’s small boyish, freckled face; Gerard’s perpetually mischevious eyes and bushy red eyebrows (which were currently furrowed in annoyance); Bull’s giant turret-shaped head and perpetual, faint smile; Merrimack’s crooked nose and telescopic ears. And of course, Alex. These were his friends. Less than three months ago they were almost all total strangers. After their live fire drill today, the reality of combat suddenly seemed much less remote and exciting, and far more deadly and frightening, but the knowledge that he was going into it with the guys around him filled him with a kind of warmth and safety. They were about to enter the unknown, but they would do it together, and they would keep each other safe. They were trained fighters. They would bleed every Khadoran they met until there wasn’t enough blood in them to be called a ‘Red’. Even men like Joffrey, who they universally seemed to dislike, was a welcome asset to their company; a crucial cog in their well-oiled machine.

“Goddamn,” Kirk said to himself, looking around the chow hall. “We’re the best of the best.”

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