The Soldier’s Last Sleep: Part Four

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three

The first three shots resounded in empty air. Private Bradley grit his teeth, cleared his mind, and went back to his basic training.

“Hold the gun firmly, but don’t clench it,” he muttered to himself. “Breathe slowly….Now exhale…” he fired and an enemy soldier’s helmet went flying through the air, exposing a startled face underneath.

Private Bradley had always been one of the better shots in their squad, he had just momentarily forgotten it while living and breathing the machine gun’s exhaust for the last few days. Now he set to work, picking his shots, following through, moving on to the next. It wasn’t a question of hitting the enemy, it was a question of how many he could drop, and whether it would be enough.

There was a sudden rise in the voices of the chargers fifty yards to the right. Of course the chargers were always shouting, seemingly in one unending cry, but there always came a sudden swell such as this when they reached the trench and leaped down to the murder. So the line has suffered its first compromise Bradley thought, then picked off another man.

The pitch in the enemies’ voices raised an octave again forty yards to the left and at another point twenty yards beyond that. Two more breaches in the line.

Private Bradley’s breath exhaled a bit more ragged than usual and his next shot went wide, two feet from its mark. He grit his teeth, furious that he had let the pressure get to him. He made up for it by firing his next round through two men running in file.

An entire chorus of waves broke up and down the trench-line, too many new breaches to count. There would be no routing the charge this time. Each squad had run out of machine gun ammunition, just as Private Bradley’s had. Without those pounding guns there had never been a chance of turning the wave. In the next fifteen seconds it would crash upon Private Bradley and his squad, too.

“NOW, BRADLEY, NOW!” Sergeant roared, pulling the rifle out of Bradley’s hands and putting the handles of the machine gun there instead.

Private Bradley grit his teeth and let loose ball and flame. The trench’s last fully automatic rang through the air like an awakened lion, bursting through men at more than twenty-five death-knells per second!

There was no easy stroke, stroke to how Bradley spun the weapon now. The enemy was so close and so dense that jerking it as quickly as he could from side to side was the only option left. For the briefest of moments the charging men’s eyes widened in shock and horror. And then those eyes went glassy and expressed nothing again forever. The men that stood next in line to catch a bullet came to a full halt, glancing side to side for an escape that wasn’t there. If they turned and ran now, they would only succeed in being shot in the back instead of the front. As they paused to consider that fact the decision was made for them.

Meanwhile Bradley’s compatriots made short work of what forces his gun happened to miss. Bradley thinned the line, and the riflemen finished it. Each following line was more dense than the one before, but each looked more timid and unsure as well.

And then, all at once, a clear hill opened to view before them.

Bradley blinked quickly, disbelieving what he saw. They had done it? They had cleared their section?

Yes, they had. Sergeant’s timing had been impeccable. Glancing downwards Bradley saw seven bullets remained on the belt. Just barely, but they had stopped the breach in their sector.

If only that had been enough.

Though no more enemy forces stood on the hill, the trench still crawled with them. In fact the squad directly to the left of Bradley’s had just finished being entirely overrun by the invaders, who were now lashing out in each direction for fresh kills!

Bradley spun to face the assailants, reaching for the firearm at his side. They leaped at him and he leaped back, firing into the heart of their pack.

“Move over here!” Private Holt shouted from his elbow.

“Pull in close,” Sergeant ordered. “We’re still on the defense!”

It was good advice. The natural inclination was to try to push the enemy, but that sort of over-extending had been exactly the downfall of many of their allies. Better to play it cool and wait to see which side had the numbers. Right now things were too muddled to tell.

Bradley’s squad pulled tight to one another, and stood back-to-back, some of them facing down the right side of the trench, some of them facing down the left. They all shouted and fired furiously into the ranks of the enemy. Half of the time the other side charged at them haltingly, and half of the time they tried to take a stance and fire back.

Such half-measures would not suffice. Bradley and his men were tight-packed and focused. They fired in controlled bursts, calling out their shots, and working as a team to drop one soldier, and then another.

“Stand firm,” Sergeant directed them. “Stand firm and they won’t charge you, no matter how many more of them there are. None of them want to be the first to meet a firm knot!”

But that knot was being untied. Rather than charge, the enemy had finally decided on taking quick shots at the bundle of men. It was dark and shadowy in the trenches, and hard for them to pick out man from mud. Even so, every now and again a lucky shot hit its mark.

A sting burrowed into Bradley’s left thigh. Another grazed over the skin of his right arm. A dull groan sounded against his back, the last complaint that Private Dunny would ever make.

Other shots sang past Bradley’s ears. He instinctively recoiled, and as he did so forgot to keep pulling the trigger. The fire from Bradley’s squad became uncertain, erratic, stifled in the storm raining around them. Then, like predators waiting for their prey to show a weakness, the other side swooped in for the kill.

Bradley caught the first man by the lapel of his jacket, and drilled with his knife until he found oil. He threw that one to the side, and barely raised his arm in time to catch the downward stab of another. His forearm seared in pain, but fortunately Private O’Malley surged forward to take that foe down for him.

No one was there to cover O’Malley, though, and a hot barrel blasted at point-blank range, blasting O’Malley backwards. The man fell right into Bradley, and the two of them fell together. Bradley’s back hit the floor of the trench and O’Malley fell across his legs. Bradley started to thrash to get back up…but then paused.

What if he didn’t? Here in the dark, who could tell a dead man from a man only pretending to be dead? There was a chance that he might be entirely overlooked. Perhaps it was a slim chance, but it was there all the same.

But no. That would leave the backs of his still-standing squadmates unprotected. That would go against his oath, that the enemy would have to cut him down by force. That would invalidate him for Sergeant’s promise of self-purchase. He had to fight his way through the night.

A dark blur passed over Bradley, an enemy making another charge. Bradley turned his gun upwards and fired, cutting the man down entirely unawares. Then, from some long-forgotten coffer, Bradley found the strength to fling back onto his feet in a single, swift motion. He held gun out in one hand and knife in the other. He fired, he cut, pushed, he grit.

The trench was narrow, and the enemy came single file to avoid crowding one another as they danced around the littered corpses. So it was an even match-up, one against one, over and over, and the only question was how long a man could stand down the tide.

A foe grabbed Bradley’s wrist while also swinging wide with a shovel. Bradley leaned back so that it cut fat air and lodged itself in the trench wall. Bradley grabbed the handle with his free hand, just above the blade, and pulled firm. The soldier, still attached to the other end, lurched forward, and lost both of his grips, the one on the shovel and the other on Bradley’s wrist. He fell to the ground at Bradley’s feet. Bradley swung the shovel around and with it dug the man into his grave.

One could not remain a man in such work as this. One had to give himself over to the machine. This was no trench of men, it was a chute on a dis-assembly line. Bradley was the mechanical arm that took the subjects apart one at a time.

Another man lunged forward with a knife. Rather than try to dodge, Bradley gripped the man’s wrist and pulled, ever so slightly shifting the angle of the thrust so that it slid in the crook between his arm and torso. He clinched down and twisted. Something snapped, metal or otherwise.

Bradley-the-machine’s limbs were creaking and sore. No matter. A machine did not complain about such things. A machine just kept at its work as bolts fell off and screw threads stripped and motors spun out of socket. Perhaps he would shatter apart, but he wouldn’t even know it. He would just keep going.

The next soldier made like he was going to lunge at Bradley, but at the last moment pulled back and fired from the hip. It was clever. It caught him off guard. Bradley felt a hole open in his shoulder and he fell onto his back.

What was less clever was that the man paused to see if Bradley was dead, giving him the opportunity to fumble his gun over from the wounded arm to his other. A crack of thunder and the assailant was down.

It was his ability to separate his mind from his body that made Bradley so adept at this work of separating limb from limb. First one had to stifle the life in himself, then he could do it in others. And so a man was always his own first casualty. It was the only way to live.

Two more soldiers advanced down the trench. Bradley was still prone and his vitality was quickly seeping through the wound in his shoulder. This was it. The fight in him was gone.

The first soldier reached him and held out his hand.

Only now did Bradley recognize the uniform of his allies. Bradley tried to offer his good hand, but it still held his gun. He dropped the weapon and let the friend pull him to his feet.

“Good to finally see a friendly face,” the soldier said. “The trench is all secured back this way, how about down past you.”

“I’m not sure,” Bradley said. He started to twist to look that way, but winced at the searing pain that came from his shoulder.

“You’re hurt,” the soldier observed. “Don’t worry, I’ll move down the line and see for myself. You stay here and Private Bailey will see to your wound.”

The man was clearly some sort of officer, though of course it was far too muddy and dark to make out any insignia.

The second man came up and Bradley showed him where he was hit, then leaned back while the man bound him up.

“You’re lucky, the shot passed clean through, I don’t have to dig it out of you.”

“A life of my shoulder always aching and never working right? Hardly seems lucky.”

“At least it’s still a life. That’s more than most of our men can say tonight.”

It suddenly occurred to Bradley to check and see if any of his squad had survived with him. One glance along the trench floor, though, and it was clear that they had not. One-by-one he could pick out each of their bodies interwoven with those of the enemy. They looked so strangely peaceful laying side-by-side with the very men that they had fought to the death against.

Maybe it wasn’t so strange, though. They had killed each other, hadn’t they? And what feud could possibly be left unresolved after such a measure as that? What more could be gained by disputing the matter any further? Here, in mutual death, they were finally all square with one another.

Of course Bradley gave his men a closer check once Private Bailey finished dressing his wounds. The two of them crouched down and felt each man’s lack of a pulse. They truly were all dead. Dunny, Holt, Yates, O’Malley…

“You too, Sergeant?” Bradley sighed. “After that speech you roused us all with? You too?”

By this point it was clear that the battle was over. The scattered din of gunfire up and down the trench had slowed and finally come to a stop. The line had been held, though with extensive casualties. More than fifty percent. Their forces were so diminished that they couldn’t hope to repel another attack. Reinforcements would have to come replace them now.

But then, of course, the enemy needed reinforcements of their own, too. All of their fresh troops were dead, and they would have to send up a new regiment before the onslaught could continue.

Sergeant had been right. Surviving this last charge had been enough. Private Bradley had earned the right to stay alive. Massaging his shoulder he turned to the East. There, searing a line of red across the green hilltop, the dawn was approaching.

Part Five

 

On Monday I discussed how a story is composed of several arcs, which each take their turn in the light, thus creating a natural rise and fall in the plot. I also mentioned how each arc escalates in their own way, combining to make a climatic finish.

In today’s post we saw the culmination of the increasing tension in this story. With each preceding charge, the enemy came closer and closer to breaking the ranks of Bradley and his men. That constant teasing was meant to build up anticipation in the reader, anticipation which was finally satisfied in the rousing action of today’s entry.

When a story has pent up enough conflict and turmoil, then it is a simple matter to let it loose in a stream of cathartic release. But another essential element of pacing in a story is the sigh of relief after the action subsides. Though the hard-run race may be won in a moment of intense effort, the experience is not over until one is able to fully regain their breath.

This next Monday I will examine this idea of giving a story time to release its tension after the climax of its action. Then, next Thursday, we will see this in play with the next entry of The Soldier’s Last Sleep.

The Soldier’s Last Sleep: Part Two

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Part One

It was a dense and gray thing, utterly impenetrable twenty yards in. The morning light was a cool gray, diffused through the fog until it became ambient volume. The illumination didn’t appear to have a single source, seemingly emanating from every direction at once, so that there weren’t any shadows to be seen in any direction. It made the setting dream-like, ethereal and tranquil if not for the knowledge of what was coming. It was a single, mutual death-shroud, draped across them all.

“Fog? How can we have fog way up on this hill?” Private Holt asked incredulously.

“You’re from Minnesota, Holt,” Hastings drawled. “Not all fogs are mists sprung out of a lake, you know, some of them are clouds dropped down from above.”

“They wouldn’t charge in the fog, would they?” Private Dunny asked.

But they would. It was still early when the shelling stopped, and then it didn’t take long to hear the churning of boots. But of course no matter how hard you peered into the gray no forms could be made out. Even the sounds were muted and diffused through the mist, seeming to come at them as a formless wall, impossible to make out distance or direction.

Private Bradley pulled his rifle close to his cheek–Hastings was still in command of the mounted machine gun–and had a brief fantasy that there was no army coming. They existed behind a curtain, and that curtain might as well be an entire world. Yes the enemy marched, but only in his dreams.

“Ready! Fire!” another Sergeant some forty feet away called, and then all the other squad leaders echoed the call, their voices running on each other like the lapping of a brook. All at once the crack of gunfire rang out, and streams of bullets fired into the mist.

Though they fired blindly, sharp cries of pain rose up to mingle with the steady rhythm of marching. Of course Bradley never knew if he had been the one to hit his foe, or whether the man next to him had. So each successive shot was just as much a roll of the dice as before.

Fiery tracers scorched further into the great marshmallow than the other ammunition did. Sometimes they would make it eighty yards before their ember was snuffed in the soup. And then, all at once, one of those tracers from Bradley’s own rifle made contact with an enemy helmet, eliciting a bright shower of sparks against the void of white. Just like that the trance was broken and the threat was real. It had been seen!

Bradley fired again and again. At the end of each clip, as he rammed in the next, he would glance to the side where Hastings manned the big gun. Was Hastings sweeping the gun at the right height, Bradley wondered? Was he taking down enough of their foes?

It seemed that more bullets than usual were raining around Hastings, and the thought occurred to Bradley that the machine gun’s muzzle was probably the only one bright enough for the enemy to see. He was about to say something to that effect when one of those bullets cut Hastings down without so much as a whimper.

“Oh–” Sergeant began, but before he could even process what had happened Bradley dashed over to take the gun. He didn’t even pause to check whether Hastings was already dead or not. He knew.

The familiar rumble of the gun’s handles reopened the blisters that had been forming on his hands since last night. He grit his teeth, pressing his helmet tighter on his head, so that there only existed the narrowest slit between it and the top of the trench for his eyes to rove behind. Ricocheted bullets clattered against his skull like a haymaker, and flecks of rock and mud kicked into his face.

The enemy was shouting now, and Bradley kept expecting to see them burst onto the scene, a thousand men right in front of them all at once. His hand was shaking, and his grip on the trigger slipped. He clutched back on to it, and pressed his elbow against the earth wall for steadying support.

Through his narrow line of sight he could see the first evidences of the approaching enemy. It was grayish patches against the wall of murky white, oversized forms, not yet recognizable as human. But as the soldiers that cast those shadows drew nearer, the forms grew smaller and more like a man’s, so that when at last they did burst out of the mist it seemed as though the shadows had given birth to flesh and blood.

Which blood flowed in stark ribbons of crimson against the pillow of white. Bradley kept his gun on its steady swivel. His arms ached, his fingers bled, and he ground his teeth together to keep his aim straight. He held the line, not out of loyalty, but out of purebred terror. Vaguely he sensed the enemy flowing into the trench just twenty feet to the left. No matter, he couldn’t worry about it. They would have to deal with it there, just as how his squad had to deal with the soldiers leaping in front of them.

Another foe burst out of the mist after another. Three of them all at once. Bradley cut them all down, but in the meantime another five had sprung out.

He took four of them and Sergeant took one.

Another seven appeared.

All seven were cut down by their joint effort, but now there were nine, and they were already half of the way from the fog’s end to the trench.

Then Bradley knew that there would that there would be fighting in the trench for his squad, too, and the only question was how long he held to his machine gun before turning to his knife.

Could he let go of his gun at all? For if he paused to cut down a man beside him, the benefit of it would be undone–and then some–by the greater number of foes that would make it to their line a second later. He would have to hold to his station, and hold to it until he was cut down. It would be up to his comrades to–

Click!

The belt ran out again, and there was no more Private Hastings to replace it!

Mad with terror Private Bradley kicked open the box of ammunition and seized a fresh line. He felt the forms of four enemy soldiers spilling into the trench. His comrades fought them while his back was turned. He raced the belt up to the top of the gun, opened the top, threw the bullets across, closed the top, pulled back the ball, and…

There was no one before him. In those critical moments without his aid, the enemy had still made their retreat. His knees buckled before he knew anything, and his arms threw into the muddy wall for support. His face pressed into the moist earth, cooling his feverish brow as his air exhaled in great gusts, as if it hurried to escape him for want of a safer host.

“Up! Up!” the Sergeant cried. “Shoot them as the run! Don’t let them think about turning around now!”

It was the only notion that could have roused Bradley back onto his feet. Fresh fear pumped through his veins, and gave him strength to stand and shoot another five minutes until they were truly sure that no more specters would emerge from the cloud.

“Why–why haven’t they started shelling again?” Private Dunny asked after another quarter hour had elapsed.

Strangely enough, the sound of shells had become a relief to them, as it had proven the final confirmation that no more waves of enemies would approach them for a few more hours.

“You men better stay hot on your feet now!” Sergeant ordered.

In his head, Private Bradley knew that this was probably just a mind-game from the other side. Save their shells, but send no men. They knew the prolonged terror that would evoke, constantly staring at the fog, straining one’s ears for an approach, and unable to rest the nerves because of it.

But what else could Bradley and his men do? The entire value of such a tactic was to leave the trench-defenders exhausted, so that they would be easier overrun when the assault finally did come. And so the assault would come, sooner or later, and a constant watch had to be maintained for it.

Or maybe the artillery had broken apart. Or maybe they really were trying to mount another charge right now, before the fog had wholly lifted.

What else could Bradley and his men do other than wait and watch?

And so they stood there, peering out into the whiteness, each minute feeling like an hour, and going past one-by-one until actual hours had elapsed. Then the deep exhaustion began to set in. This was no run-of-the-mill fatigue, either, they could feel the weariness deep in their bones. Every muscle was at least doubly-expended, every nerve had been fired to the point of burning out. There was nothing left to give.

Still they didn’t dare lower their heads, but they stared forward with blank and vacant expressions, unseeing though with eyes wide open. No words escaped their lips, neither idle chit-chat nor irritated grumbling. They did not live in this moment, they merely occupied a physical space for a time.

They did not even stir when a courier came down the line, passing a message along to each Sergeant. Though words were spoken audibly enough for them to hear, they did not process them.

“I’m sorry,” Sergeant said to his men. “It seems we won’t be getting relieved today. More fighting off to the East and they had to take our reinforcements down that way.”

“Mm,” Private Bradley said. Really a part within him felt very sad about that, but he just didn’t have the strength to do anything about it.

There was only one sound that could pull them out of their reverie, and at last they heard it: the stomping of boots in the distance.

“How are they able to keep sending men at us?” Private Dunny asked. “It can’t be the same ones over and over, they couldn’t possibly get anyone to do that fool charge more than once!”

“Oh no?” Private Holt replied dryly. “Yet how many fool charges have they been able to get you to repel?”

Now there was no more discussion to be had. Once more the trenches came alive in a row of fire, a thousand burning bullets streaking into the mist, lost from sight, to puncture bodies and kick up mud in another world. Another world that was invading on their own, and growing closer every moment to breaking upon them.

Private Bradley’s hands protested as soon as they touched the rough iron of the machine gun’s handles, his blisters burst in bloody fountains immediately, knowing it was vain to try and hold out against the constant chafing of the machine rattling back and forth a million times per second. But there was nothing for it. Private Bradley couldn’t leave the line, so his hands couldn’t leave the gun. Both of them just had to see the ordeal through.

And the worst part was knowing that as much terror as he felt now, this was only the beginning, and that even if they made it through this charge as well, that success wouldn’t be achieved for another eternity. He would have to swallow an entire epoch of trauma, much too large for any man to stomach, just as he had each time before. Each time he had known he didn’t have it in him to see this through, and perhaps this time he would be right.

Even so, that inconvenient instinct to cling to life still persisted, and somehow made him shoulder the burden of his own survival. If he was going to fall, it wasn’t going to be for a lack of trying to stand. They may cut him down, but that is what they would have to do: cut him down. No one would walk by him easily.

Suddenly the cloud burst apart in a thousand warriors all at once. New troops, fresh troops, ones that had sprinted all the last fifteen minutes to catch the trench-men unawares!

“Oh no!” Private Dunny screamed beside Bradley.

And then, there came the most horrible miracle that Private Bradley had ever witnessed, a blinding yellow light blossomed at the feet of those men and heaved them into pieces. A terrible shockwave rent the air, and spat mud and dirt like shrapnel into Private Bradley’s squad. They were all flung backwards in an instant, nearly buried in the avalanche of filth.

And then another shell pounded into the turf. And then another.

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

 

I mentioned last week how I wanted the audience to feel the depth of Private Bradley’s struggles, and how I was attempting to accomplish that by presenting a detailed description of all that occurred to him. We’re now several thousand words into his experience, and still going strong. I personally feel that all this material is interesting in its own right, and so I don’t mind that it’s taking its time.

This ability to stretch plot points into full and interesting narrative requires an unusual skill that I am still trying to develop: that of making lists interesting. When you get right down to it, everything that takes place in stories can be reduced into a series of lists. The overall outline is a list of plot points, the dialogue is a list of information to be exchanged, and even character arcs are a sequential list of changes that happen over time.

In the initial stages of developing a story you have to review those lists, fill in the ones that have holes, and make sure that each item logically follows the one prior. And then, after you’ve gotten everything into a nice and tidy list format, you then need to relate them to the reader in a way that hopefully doesn’t sound like they’re just being read a list!

On Monday we’ll discuss a bit more of how lists work in the structure of a story. We will also consider what makes the difference between a “good” list and a “bad” one. I’ll see you then.

The Soldier’s Last Sleep: Part One

action aim armed army

Private Bradley was tired even before he got to the trenches. He had spent the two days previous running up and down the medical tents, assisting wherever possible. He had no medical training whatsoever, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t deliver messages, fetch fresh bandages, remove bedpans, push beds into new wings, restrain comrades during impromptu surgeries, and carry bodies to the grave-site.

The entire camp was overrun by the tides of wounded being brought back from the front. Either you sat in the trenches getting shelled, or you took care of those that had been shelled, while waiting for your turn to go take their place. Having two days to see the effects of where they would soon be deployed was a great cruelty to Private Bradley and his squad.

Eventually the orders came, as they knew they must, and Private Bradley left the medical tent, wondering in what manner he might return to it. He grabbed his gear, stepped into the back of a truck, and jostled shoulder-to-shoulder with his squad over muddy potholes as the sound of artillery bursting grew louder and louder up ahead. Then the truck stopped and they were told that they would have to walk the rest of the way, as the road now became too steep for vehicles.

So they crawled up the muddy incline, slipping on their bellies, and sloshing back to their knees, over and over, until by the time they reached the top of the hill they were already in full earth-camouflage. The squad were led to the fifteen-foot stretch of the trench for which they would be responsible, about a quarter mile East, and firmly in the middle of the hilltop.

“Here, you hold this,” their Sergeant said, pulling Bradley’s hands onto a machine gun that was propped on top of the earth-wall and pointed in the general direction of the enemy lines.

“I haven’t handled anything like this since basic training, sir,” Bradley said.

“Luckily for us, the enemy is not aware of that fact. So if it’s alright with you, we’ll continue as ordered, Bradley?”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“Just be sure to keep it clean, loaded, and pointing down that line. You’ll know what to do when it comes to it.”

“Are we going to be seeing a lot of action, sir?” Private Dunny asked.

“You saw the men brought back from the line just as well as I did,” the Sergeant returned. “It isn’t going to be any picnic, men, that’s for sure. I’m told we shouldn’t expect any heavy artillery or armor, the mud is too thick for either side to field much more than infantry. But there will be plenty of that, and apparently they rush our line a few times every day. Our orders are simple, do not let them through.”

It was a simple affair, but also a grueling one. The light artillery kept up a constant barrage, but it was less of a threat than a nuisance. It was too small to actually reach their line, and so it burst peacefully over the middle of the plateau. Its main effect was to produce enough noise that no one could get any sleep. When it finally stopped, that was the worst of all, because then you knew the enemy infantry was marching forward.

Thus the silence hit like a deafening roar, and instantly every man seized his gun and waited with bated breath, watching the plateau for dirty mounds that moved. On occasion a tumbleweed would blow past and a nervous infantryman would open fire, which would set off a half dozen of his neighbors until the Sergeants shouted at them to get a grip.

Sometimes there was no approach, the enemy had just stopped shelling to mess with their heads. Or maybe something had gone wrong with the artillery and they had to replace a part before carrying on.

Most times, though, the enemy came. Like a swarm of overgrown ants, rushing over one another, pounding for the edge of the hill. Then all the guns came alive, and bodies started dropping here and there.

Private Bradley pulled the trigger and his machine gun vibrated hard against his hands. It was difficult to aim, and he tore up more clumps of grass and soil than he did of flesh and bone.

Still, every now and then he managed to drop one of the charging horde. Then another, and another. Yet on the enemy would press. Three hundred yards, two hundred, one hundred. They started to drop more quickly, and now came the great test. Would enough of them fall to break the charge?

They were near enough now that you could hear their own commanders screaming the men forward with foreign threats. Those commanders knew that they did not have to chase their men all the way to the line, only near enough that turning and running was as sure a doom as pushing forward to the trench. Where was that point of no return? Thirty yards? Fifteen?

Private Bradley’s Sergeant knew this game, too, and he hopped up and down, shouting at his men to hold to their terrible contest.

Seventy-five yards and you could start to see holes in the enemy’s line.

Sixty-five and their barbaric shouts were starting to tremble.

Fifty-five and a few of them were starting to pull back, but the main mass had not yet noticed.

Forty-five and they flinched in unison, covering their vitals with their arms, turning, and sprinting away as fast as possible.

Private Bradley’s squad had earned the right to live another few hours. They gripped the top of the trench for support, their knees shaking beneath them as cold sweat broke across their brows. They watched to be sure that the enemy really was gone, then collapsed to the ground one at a time.

For as prickly as their Sergeant could be, he allowed them these moment to unclench. He himself clambered out of the rut, crouched down, and kept watch for another wave. He had to crouch, because his own legs were shaking just as much as the rest of them.

The relief was not allowed for long, though. As soon as Sergeant was sure that the enemy was not returning he ordered his men out of the ditch. “Move those bodies! Can’t have them blocking our sight-lines for the next time they charge.”

And so they lumbered about in the mud, one man grabbing shoulders and another grabbing feet, and hauling them one-by-one to a ditch at the end of the hill. It was long, slow work, and all the longer and slower when they were more effective in their shooting. They did not clear out all of the bodies of course, there was no time for that, but any that had fallen within the nearest hundred yards.

One nightmare concluded, only to repeat again before a quarter-day had passed. And as it turned out, the first assault had been one of the less successful ones employed by the enemy. Most times a crest or two of their wave would break into the trenches, where a vicious struggle would leave many of the men dead on both sides. How many charges could there be, Private Bradley wondered, before it was his squad’s turn to be overrun by the invaders? And what if it was not their squad that let the enemy in, but the one right beside them?

Bradley wished he hadn’t been assigned the machine gun. With its greater firepower, he felt that so much of the burden fell upon his own shoulders. Though at the same time, Bradley would rather depend on himself than upon any other. Sergeant never offered to let another man take a turn, and Bradley did not ask him too. He just silently added the crippling pressure of it to his bag of traumas.

Eventually night came.

“They wouldn’t charge in the night, would they?” Private Dunny asked.

But they would. About an hour after midnight the next wave came, and this was a new terror in its own right. One could hear the enemy thundering towards them through the mud, yet not see them to shoot properly. Only one shot in a hundred was any good now. So flares were fired into the air, and the black emptiness was suddenly illuminated as bright as day. It was a scene so strange and fantastic, that it seemed lifted straight from the pages of some ancient fairy tale.

The pink-purple tail of the flare arcing against the ink-black sky, the burning zenith like a star of glory overhead, and beneath it all thousands of shifting, black bodies, tumbling over one another, driving to spill their blood in the trench.

And then blackness again and shooting where the bodies had been, and then another flare was shot up and the dark tide was closer. Again and closer. Again and closer. And then they were so near that Bradley could see them even without the flare. Bathed in the cold moonlight they appeared less like black demons, and more like pale ghosts, and only a dozen paces from where he and his squad stood now!

Bradley forgot how chafed his hands were and gripped the machine gun all the more tightly, wildly swinging it left and right in a wide arc, cutting the men through at the chest as he had been taught in basic training. He was getting quite good at it now.

Click!

His belt ran empty and he cursed at Private Hastings to put another in while he drew out his pistol and fired at the nearest phantom of them all. Two of the enemy spilled into their ranks, but closer to Bradley’s comrades, who dealt with them as Hastings snapped shut the top of the machine gun.

“Ready!”

Bradley grabbed the gun and began harvesting souls once more. His heart heaved within him and intoxicating blood pounded through his veins. He slipped into a death-trance, waving the gun in an unfaltering rhythm as a constant shout echoed through his dry throat.

The next thing he knew his men were crowded around him, prying his hands off the weapon.

“Save the ammo!” Sergeant was shouting. “They’re already gone!”

Hastings was given command of the machine gun and Bradley was told to get some rest.

But there would be no rest. How could he lay down with the promise of another charge in only a few hours more, and with the bursting of shells resuming in the air, and with the memories of ghostly warriors running down every time he closed his eyes? No, Bradley sat in a stupor, but he did not sleep. Though his bones were creaking and his knees were shaking he could not relax the racks in his mind.

When his brain had cooled enough to think, he at least comforted himself with the knowledge that at least things could not get any worse. He was quite wrong, though, for he had not accounted for the fog that rolled in the very next day.

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

 

I explained in my last post that I wanted to write a story about being totally and deeply exhausted. The idea for this story began a little while ago, with a moment of imagination. I was coming to bed at the end of a very busy day, and I felt absolutely dog-tired. Not long before, my wife and I had been watching episodes of M*A*S*H, and in that show there are a few times where the doctors stumble into their barracks after more than 24 hours of surgery. They collapse on their beds, sometimes dead to the world before they can even take off their boots.

Well I felt tired now, too, and I fancied myself as a soldier, returning back to camp after spending more than 48 hours holding the line under the most grueling of situations. Such an extreme tiredness I thought that must be, such a complete level of fatigue. Just by imagining myself in those shoes I felt all the more tired, and it did not take me long to fall asleep.

Now I know that that is silly, but such is the nature of imagination. It takes one’s situation, no matter how mundane, and then magnifies it to the most epic proportions it can conceive of.

The fact is, all of us want to believe we are the hero in a most wonderful story. And so our first crush is not just some puppy love, it is the greatest love story ever told, right up there with the likes of Romeo and Juliet! Being turned down for a job is not merely an unfortunate setback, it is an outrageous discrimination, so severe that it is criminal!

Some may call it romanticizing life…and some may call it having an overwrought ego, but there it is all the same.

My own little going-to-bed fantasy returned the next time I went to bed exhausted. I imagined myself in the boots of a soldier returning from the trenches, but instead of exploring my sense of self-indulgence, I found myself curious now to know who this man actually was. What had happened on the trench that he had just come from? What was his experience as he slept? Did he get his fill of sleep or was he interrupted? What exactly did he awaken to?

This story is my way of answering those questions, and thus far I am certainly taking my time with the very first one. On Thursday I will be continuing with his adventures in the trenches, and probably won’t even let him get to his cot until a week after that! To really sell the fatigue that he is experiencing, I wanted to take my time in the grueling work of war.

To accomplish this, I simply came up with a handful of different experiences that he would have in the trenches, but then weighed each of those moments down with a gravity of words. I’d like to take a closer look at this concept: how we give space to the moments in our stories, and do so without becoming wordy and redundant. Come back on Monday as we consider this feat, and until then have a wonderful weekend.

Network Down: Part Two

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“Dani, are there any nearby buildings open right now?!”

Checking…The Barrows Banking and Loan seems to have left its doors open.

Really? Maybe the rumors about that place were true then. He’d had his own reasons to suspect so after all. Still he’d never make it there with that truck coming after him.

“Dani, can you establish which network that truck is connected to?” Kevyn wheezed out as he felt a stitch growing in his side.

It’s a public service. Voracia Systems.

“Dani, buy a hack from the black market. Get me control of that truck!”

Sir, even performing that query is a misdemeanor and actually implementing it is–

“Do it!” he screamed as he felt the rumble of the truck’s nearing mass. It wasn’t slowing down to let one of the passengers out to grab him, it was going to run him over! Not even daring to look, Kevyn tried to judge its distance from him until the last possible moment.

“Not yet… not yet…” he muttered to himself through clenched teeth. “Now!” He threw himself to the side just as the truck tore through the space he had just been standing in. It wasn’t able to swerve to follow his lunge in time, and so he fell to the pavement untouched. There came another squeal as the truck spun back around to face him.

Sir, I have access to the truck’s internal functions.

“Alright, on my word I want you to accelerate it down the street, lock the doors, and…”

Kevyn stopped speaking as the truck’s wheels whined from the strain of being turned too quickly. In his anxiousness to run Kevyn over the driver had overestimated his vehicle’s capabilities, and now the entire thing lifted onto its two side wheels, teetered there for a moment, and then thudded down on its side.

Sir?

Kevyn snapped himself out of his disbelief, turned away from the truck, and began sprinting the other direction.

“Never mind, Dani,” he panted. “I guess it’s just a misdemeanor…for now.”

He could hear the looters clambering out of their sideways vehicle, and a quick glance over his shoulder showed that they were still intent on running him down. At this point their persistence seemed to be fueled more by rage than anything else.

“Dani, direct me to the Barrows Banking and Loan.”

Certainly. Just take your next right and it’s two blocks down on the left.

“Alright, and keep track of those guys chasing us. I want to know if–”

Kevyn was interrupted as all of the ad-boards crackled back to life. He didn’t slow in his pace, but listened intently, hoping to hear that the security network had been restored already. From the very first words was disappointed.

“This is CLNN, the Chicago Local News Network” blared down the deserted streets. “Hello Chicago, my name is Cindy Trulick. As the city continues to be blackened by a security network failure, we are now receiving additional word that Governor Haley has just been assassinated in his office. We started seeing reports on social media three minutes ago, and the details are consistent enough to conclude that heavily armed assailants broke into the City Office Building, subdued local security, and then shot and killed the Governor. We cannot yet verify that this attack was the intention behind the citywide security network failure, nor which organization might be behind this atrocity. It has been posited on many social media forums though that the mob has had reason to–”

Kevyn stopped listening. To all the rest of the city this news might be significant. To him, in this moment, he couldn’t care less. His legs were beginning to get wobbly, entirely unaccustomed to such vigorous exercise, and with every glance over his shoulder he could see that his pursuants were growing ever nearer. He made those glances after every twenty paces, and then looked forward to the looming figure of the Barrows Banking and Loan, trying to gauge whether he was going to make it there or not.

Kevyn glanced backwards once more, just in time to see that one of the looters had fallen behind his fellows and moved into a shooting stance with the gun raised to his cheek. The man was aiming with what appeared to be a practiced confidence. Kevyn tried to lunge sideways, but too late. The high staccato of the gun being fired echoed down the street and Kevyn felt a sudden, searing pain in his arm. He instinctively clapped his other hand over the spot, about halfway up from his elbow, and found his fingers moistened by blood.

He felt shock at the realization of having been shot, yet Kevyn managed to stumble back into his run and the aiming looter followed suit. The man would wait until he was a little closer before trying again.

“Just keep going,” Kevyn muttered to himself. He was now nearing the doors to the Barrows Banking and Loan. He would make it inside, he would find help, he would survive this…no matter the cost.

The building had a distinct and old-fashioned style to it. The architecture was Roman in design, complete with supporting external pillars, white marble, and an unnecessarily long flight of stairs to its entrance. Kevyn instinctively tried to swing his arms as he dashed up the steps, but his wounded arm gave protesting spikes of pain at the slightest of movements, compelling him to hold it stiffly at his side.

He mounted the last of the steps and moved into the shadow cast by its overhanging roof. For a moment he was blinded by the sudden transition from light to dark, but he continued groping forward until the heavy oak doors swam into his view.

Kevyn crossed the threshold into the massive lobby within, his quick steps echoing loudly off the marble floor as the upper-class people lounging around on the plush seats gave him dirty looks. Even in his haste Kevyn couldn’t help but realize how bizarre it was that these people were gathered so calmly behind un-shuttered doors while the rest of the city was gripped in complete terror. It seemed to add further credence to the all of those rumors. Rumors that this business was nothing more than a front.

The receptionist at the desk frowned deeply at Kevyn as he came wheezing up to her station. He was sure he looked a mess, covered in sweat, panting heavily, and bleeding down the arm. Before the woman could call for security he took a deep breath and blurted out his request.

“I want to apply for a position with the Inner City Mob.”

Her eyebrows raised clear into her hairline and her nostrils flared. “What did you just say?!” she exclaimed with a bitter hostility.

Undeterred Kevyn continued. “I have considerable services to offer as a top-of-the-line accountant. If you pull up my profile you’ll see that I have extensive experience with a number of distinguished firms, currently at Johnson & Webber.”

She still looked enraged at his insinuations and was about to spit out a retort when the front doors slammed open again. Kevyn took a hasty glance over his shoulder and saw the looters awkwardly file into the place. They quickly spotted him up at the counter and then divided into two group, each slowly strolling up a different side of the room towards him.

“Friends of yours?” the woman said, now with a slight tinge of amusement in her voice.

“No, and I would need…protection from them.”

“Sir, I’m not sure who told you that this place was being run by the mob,” she said curtly, “but they were making a fool of you.”

“No one told me,” he said shortly. “People talk, yes, but I figured it out myself. Last year a man named Barney James transferred 110 million dollars from one of our agencies to this one. I handled the case.”

Out of the corners of his eyes he could see the looters nearly halfway to him. He continued speaking in a hushed but rapid tone.

“And when I did so the FBI came to me and instructed me to install a trace on those funds. It’s an entirely new currency tracking technology, one that not only contaminates the funds it is installed on, but the entire ledger that they sit with. Now I’ve been hearing all this year on the news about how they’re finding all of your side businesses and shutting them down…I’m confident it’s because you’re funding them with that contaminated money. But I know how to help you find which of your funds are tainted and clean them. Just ask your ‘managers,’ they must know something is up–”

A heavy hand fell on Kevyn’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry about our friend here,” the looter said gruffly while digging his fingers into Kevyn’s shoulder. It was the arm that had been shot and Kevyn winced at the fresh waves of pain that came over him. “We’ll just be taking him and going.”

Kevyn looked his silent plea to the receptionist, but he only saw cold indifference in her face. She merely nodded and two more sets of hands grabbed Kevyn, pulling him away from the desk.

“But wait–I–” Kevyn wriggled around but couldn’t free himself from their grasps. They were dragging him back across the lobby, towards the exit, into the streets. All of the patrons seated on the plush seats still seemed strangely disinterested in his plight. Most of them refused to even make eye contact with him, their faces buried in their various digital devices.

Kevyn spun his head back around to look at the receptionist over his shoulder. “Please, just give me a chance to–” his eyes grew wide. He had just been dragged past a group of four patrons, all of which were now silently rising to their feet behind the looters, reaching into their coats, pulling out black-metal guns.

Kevyn cried out and flung himself to the floor so suddenly that he managed to break the grips on him. One of the looters cursed, and it was the last sound he ever made. The high-pitched whistle of silenced weapons rushed over Kevyn’s head, followed by the thuds of the looters’ bodies on the clean marble.

Kevyn’s hands were up around his head, trembling, waiting for one of those bullets to find him. Waiting, waiting, but the shot never came. Slowly he looked up and saw the receptionist marching down the floor towards him, waving the assassins to the side and motioning them towards the entrance doors. They moved away and began locking the place down. She reached him and stooped down to look him in the eyes.

“My…managers wish to speak with you. Please follow me.”

He awkwardly clambered to his feet, his face still washed in dumb disbelief. He started to instinctively turn, to look at the fallen forms of the men at his feet. He caught a glimpse of one of their boots before he stopped and turned back. He didn’t need to see. Just knowing was harrowing enough.

“You understand what this means, don’t you?” the receptionist squinted at him.

He nodded. Just like that, he had sold his soul. His home, his job, his loved ones… his entire life up until this morning. They were all gone. But–he was alive. That was all that mattered wasn’t it?

The receptionist turned and walked back the other way and Kevyn followed after her. She led him to an elevator. It’s glass doors slid apart and they stepped inside. They stood there in almost complete silence, the only noise was the occasional drip of blood from his arm echoing off the floor.

“We’ll need a clean-up crew, and he’ll need a doctor to look after his arm” she said into an unseen microphone. “…yes, of course I shut down the entry.”

There was a screen in one of the upper corners of the elevator and it suddenly came to life with another public alert. Kevyn knew what the text was going to say before it even showed up.

“The Chicago Central Police Department has just regained control of its security networks. All monitoring and robotic police units are fully functioning again. Even so, citizens are still encouraged to remain indoors until the streets have been cleared of debris.”

It didn’t matter, Kevyn thought. It was too late. Fifteen minutes and his entire life had been lost, replaced by something else. That new life was looking pretty bleak perhaps…but at least he had something.

 

On Monday I said it was my intention to write a story where the main character loses what he has to gain something new. In this case it was his entire way of life. Kevyn has made a choice that he will never be able to walk back from. Even if he tries to undo it, there will be permanent ramifications that follow him wherever he goes.

But, of course, that was his choice. The only reason why he would make a choice to lose the life he knew for something so much worse, was that it was preferential to losing his life entirely. Many times you see this in stories. Tragedy strikes, takes all that the heroes had defined themselves by, and forces them to face the new. Usually that change isn’t what they wanted, but it ends up bringing them to their ultimate calling. This is Luke in Star Wars, Edmond in the Count of Monte Cristo, and Hansel and Gretel. Who knows, maybe there is a way through to a happy ending even for Kevyn.

We’ll just have to use our imaginations there, though, because this marks the end of Network Down, and also the entire story. Come back next week when we’ll be off to something new. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!