The machine guns fired in set bursts, joining the irregular sounds of the bolt-action rifles. Each bullet or burst of bullets was an initial crack, followed by an echo that seemed to reach out forever. When a bullet struck dirt that was close enough, it prompted a spray of dirt and dust, touching on those in the trench.
More machine gun fire. Hollered words were cut to pieces by the sound of the guns, rendered incoherent.
In the trench, Mauer sat with his back to the wall of packed earth. Both of his hands clenched the rifle, the fingernails seemingly too clean, the grit at the edges too dark. The ground was dry, but the air was humid, and the grime and sweat were mingling and gathering minute by minute. If he thought too hard about it, he felt like the grime was so concentrated on his face, neck and hands that it was finding a way to spread beneath his collar and into his sleeves.
A day ago he’d been splattered with blood, and with the water rationing, he hadn’t been able to wipe it off. He’d made a mental note of which splatters on his arm were Andrew’s, a signature, remembering the boy who’d bartered so enthusiastically for new books and dime novels to read during his downtime. At some point, in all the chaos and the mess, the streaks had dried into a deep, dark brown, joining the dirt and the mud that formed when dust and sweat mingled. Andrew’s demise had been washed away and overshadowed by everything that had followed.
He only had to look at the others who were sitting by the wall to know how he probably looked. Exhaustion and the burden of emotions wore away at the man, and accumulated dirt and blood masked the face and identity. Here and there, there was a pair of eyes that seemed too blue for the dingy palette of their surroundings.
It wasn’t the people he stared at, as he waited for the dreaded order. That was too much like looking at himself; it forced introspection, and introspection wasn’t good for the heart or the soul.
Instead, oddly enough, he stared at the stitched. Those who weren’t actively digging or fixing existing trenches were kneeling in the middle of the trench. Most barely moved, they didn’t flinch, and they didn’t sweat. The dirt on them was dry. One was caught in an obsessive loop of dismantling a gun, cleaning the pieces, and putting it back together. The handler was holding on to Andrew’s spare gun, ready to hand it to the stitched in case a situation called for it.
The things were oblivious, sad, and not entirely sound. The stitches were ugly, utilitarian, opening up pathways for the wires to sit within, some crossing the face. Two of the things had flesh from multiple people. One of them was put together with a mix of white and black flesh. The others called him ‘Bull’. The second had pieces that might have been from a woman. It was the look of its eye. The lashes were too long, the eye large, the surrounding brow not deep enough.
A woman or a child. An innocent eye, he told himself.
The machine guns continued their fire. The bullets raked over the top of the trench, causing dirt to spit up at the corners on both sides. Just when he relaxed, an explosion went off about thirty feet away.
It was almost what some of the others called a pants-shitter. The sheer impact of some of the shelling, even if it didn’t touch anyone, could ripple past and through the men, the shock of it loosening muscles that were supposed to keep the shit in.
He was lucky he’d managed to retain his dignity and avoid that thus far.
The stitched with the innocent’s eye stared into space. Mauer stared at the eye, stared past and through it.
He couldn’t say why, but it ate away at him, and yet he couldn’t keep his eyes away. He inevitably found his gaze wandering back each time he tried.
The captain, bent low to the ground, moved along the line. He had two containers of water. He offered one to each person.
Mauer wanted more than anything to wash, to feel more human again, but when the captain came, he reached for his own water bottle, giving it a slosh.
The captain said something, but it was badly timed. The cracks of guns going off drowned him out. He tried again, “Drink. Fill yours, just in case.”
Mauer could see the boys to either side of him flinching at those last three words. He didn’t. He took the heavy water bottle from the captain, holding it with both hands, and drank until he felt like he might be sick, then tipped a portion into his own bottle.
The captain had a look on his face when he took the bottle back. A deep concern.
“What?” Mauer asked.
More bullets touched the edges of the trench.
“You here with us?”
There was more meaning to the question than it initially seemed. There were a hundred hidden comments, ideas, and observations tied to that four-word question. Mauer was almost certain he could have said ‘no’, and his captain would have sent him back, away from the front line.
“I’m here,” Mauer said.
The man didn’t argue, but in a very soft voice, as he handed the water bottle to the next man, he said, “You look more like one of them than one of us, right now, Mauer.”
The day was hot, and the heat was worse because some of the guns on the Academy side were venting hot air into the trench, but he still felt a bit of a chill.
Mauer had always known that he was better than most when it came to communicating. He had known some people who were similar, in school, working, getting to know others while training to be a soldier, just months ago. The others had had excuses. An abusive father they’d had to learn to manipulate, heavy pressure from a businessman parent to follow in footsteps.
It wasn’t like that for Mauer. When he thought seriously about the way people interacted, certain ideas were so clear as to be obvious. ‘Us versus them’ was a pervasive one, defining virtually every interaction across cultural, class, religious, and national lines. One of the ones he’d grasped very early on.
But his captain wasn’t crouched here in the trench, telling Mauer that he was like one of the men with guns on the other side of no man’s land. The captain was saying that Mauer was like one of the stitched.
How very odd, that in the midst of this, the captain had phrased things in a way that made ‘them’ the stitched. Not the men that were trying to kill them, not the men with brown skin, not the Mexican forces, but the stitched.
Mauer nodded slowly. Though the captain had already moved on from his neighbor to the next man, the man was looking over one shoulder, still watching and waiting for a response.
The stitched are dead.
Dead, but they still walk.
I’m more like them than like you?
An exploding shell nearby answered his thoughts. He didn’t flinch as quickly or dramatically as some of the others.
Somewhere along the line, when he’d been too heartsick and tired to care, he’d started acting a little, to match the others as they’d cringed and cried out, or swore. Now he wasn’t sure how much of his reaction was real.
His entire body hurt, but nothing had actually touched him yet. No bullet, no explosion. Only dirt.
But where the stitched were so hot that it could be uncomfortable to make sustained contact with their skin, he felt very cold in this hot, humid weather.
The captain glanced back at him one last time, then relocated, moving over to a little notch in the wall where he could confer with the captain of a squad further down the same long trench.
Mauer’s eyes settled on the stitched with the woman’s eye. She blinked slowly.
As her eye opened, the ground started to rumble.
There were shouts of alarm. Mauer was silent as he rose, stepping away from the wall. Sections began to crumble from the edges. Further down, the rumbles made the bottom of one portion of wall give out, crashing into a man’s lower legs. He was pulled out and out of the way before the unsupported top tipped over to join the rest.
The rumble didn’t stop, but increased. A distant sound joined the rumble. It was too deep, momentous and dull to be the crackling of a fire, but it was a crackling nonetheless.
All of it came to a stop, even the sounds of the guns. Mauer’s ears rang, and he felt dazed as he was pushed aside, the stitched who had been in reserve now hurrying to fix the damage to the wall. A slew of bullets fired, and hit the one in the lead, but it didn’t even slow down.
He made eye contact with the stitched he’d been staring at, and took an inadvertent step to follow it.
Someone grabbed him, held him back.
He realized why. Where the wall had collapsed, there was no longer any cover. He might have stepped out and taken a bullet for his trouble. He couldn’t bring himself to care about the near-death experience.
Now that he’d advanced closer, however, he could see out past the hole. They’d dug into a gently sloping hill, so they’d have the benefit of high ground and so that enemy fire would have a harder time reaching them, and now he could look over, out, and down to the distance. The coast. Undrinkable salt water.
Two ships. Titanic boats, ungainly in size, loaded down with weapons. They’d cut deep enough into the beach that it would take a monumental strength to free them.
Strength, perhaps, that was provided by the lashing, boneless limbs at the back of each boat. These ships were partially alive.
The fronts of the boats moved, yawning open like great metal-plated jaws. From each emerged beasts that must have taken the entire hold. Larger than buildings, taller than the hills that the trenches had been cut into. They were blunt-featured, thick-skinned, with eyes far too small for their great frames. They walked on all fours, not dissimilar to hippos or rhinos in general frame, but had lumpier heads, and chests that were both taller and deeper, possessed of a massive capacity.
Far from being Noah’s ark, this. There were only two beasts to each ark; the one that pushed the boat and the one that was birthed.
One beast roared, and it was a nasal, mooing bray that was just as pronounced and vast as the arrival of the boats had been. It made the air shake with the sound, made heartbeats skip with each heavy footfall.
Its fellow beast picked up the cry.
In answer, the machine guns started again. The time between bursts was shorter, and both the cracks and the bullets had different sounds to them.
No longer directed at Mauer’s regiment.
The beasts had moved to a position he couldn’t see through the gap in the trench wall. He chanced a look beyond.
One beast opened its mouth, lowering his head closer to the ground.
A red-yellow fog flowed out, the thing’s chest heaving and pumping as if to drive the gas out. It clung low to the ground, spreading. The chest was pockmarked with little spatters of red, where the massed bullets had bit deep enough into skin to leave tracks, gouges, and punctures. Not enough to stop the thing.
The captain walked over, looked out and beyond, following Mauer’s gaze. The man ducked back behind safety. Mauer remained where he was.
“They’ve lost,” the captain said.
Now the enemy soldiers were the other.
Mauer had to step back and out of the way as the stitched started shoveling dirt back up toward the gap in the trench wall. The one with the eye wasn’t there.
“Not that we’ve won,” the captain said, in a conspiratorial tone, not meant for all of the soldiers. “The Crown doesn’t lose wars. When it looks like things are going that way, they force a draw.”
The gas was dissipating. The enemy soldiers were still standing, still seemingly alive, gathering their strength.
“I saw this a few years ago. Something like it,” the captain said. “This may be where things get harder.”
“That gas, it’s plague. Parasites, maybe, or a communicable poison. Win or lose, if those brown-skinned S-O-Bs go back home to their families, they’ll be killing them.”
A shell went off, a beast flinched, moving its head to one side. The damage seemed remarkably minor, all things considered.
“They have nothing to lose,” Mauer said.
“Exactly right, soldier.”
The enemy was regaining its strength. More shells were going off. Even from this distance away, shouts could be heard. One command, echoed by squadrons of other men.
The beasts were so large that almost every shell hit. Every shell hurt, even if the sheer mass of the monsters was so great that it was like taking buckets out of a lake.
One particularly well placed shot hit an injured area. The spray of blood that followed was phenomenal, albeit short-lived, blowing a small injury out into a larger one.
A command came from far down the trench. Like the enemy had done, captains echoed it.
Mauer stared at his captain, waiting.
Thirty feet away, the next squadron’s captain picked up the cry.
“Going over! Target the installations!”
Mauer’s captain drew in a breath, then repeated the warning. “Going over! Target the installations!”
Destroy the artillery to save the beasts.
“Stitched first!” the captain ordered. “Use them for cover. Do not fall behind, or you’ll stick out!”
There was so much fear and uncertainty in the trench, now. Murmurs of catching that plague, of being shot.
Mauer had heard once that, given a typical arrangement of soldiers, even in a life or death situation, one in twenty would not act to hurt another human being.
The thought almost warmed the chill that had settled deep in his chest, fear and anger and frustration bottled deep within. Intrinsic human kindness.
“Make sure your rifles are loaded and ready,” the captain was saying.
The reminder helped, but the men needed help in another department altogether. Mauer knew it.
The captain had woken Mauer up to something gradual that had been occurring over days and weeks. The gradual, quiet slide toward being a man that was already dead.
He couldn’t go back that way.
The only way was forward.
He would be forever grateful that he’d been given that small awakening. Even if his forever only lasted a few minutes more.
More shells went off, all directed at the great plague-beasts. Pants-shitters, as the others called them. Mauer had never liked the vile language.
He preferred words that had more power. He bent his head.
Bowing his head, he spoke. “I pray to you, Lord God, for protection. You do what is right, so come to our rescue. Listen to our prayers, and keep us safe from harm. Be our mighty rock, the place where we can always run to for shelter. Save us, by your command.
He continued, “You have made us suffer greatly, but you bring us back from this deep, muddy pit. You give us new life, you make us truly great, and we will strive to take sorrow away.”
When he looked up, he realized many were watching. The stitched with the innocent’s eye stared, its mouth moving to echo his words.
He couldn’t be sure why that disquieted him so much.
When he looked at the captain, the man wore a serious expression. Expressions without words or tone were harder to understand, but he wasn’t blind.
The man gave him a nod.
“Go!” came the cry, from the far end of the trench. It was immediately picked up, an echo in different voices.
“Go!” Mauer’s captain cried out. “Over the top! Stitched first!”
The stitched went over. Where the rumbling and shells had weakened trench walls, some broke down a little with the weight of the dead bodies.
Mauer watched his stitched go over, urged by the handler, who stayed behind. It wasn’t expected to return, or to need another order.
“Go! Right after them! If you wait, you die!” the captain bellowed.
Mauer went. He watched the stitched he’d felt such a profound, dangerous connection to. He followed it, gun in both of his hands, and was joined by the other soldiers. The dry ground was just steep enough to make running faster, without making him stumble.
Where he’d been so cold before, there was only a wild, mad fear, and an anger directed more toward them than to the enemy.
“Clear the trench, press through to the installation!” the captain bellowed the word.
Each step Mauer took was a step away from being a dead man, in the most ironic of ways. There was a passion to his movement, and ideas of what he might do if he survived all this danced through his mind.
With a dispassionate expression, he watched the stitched with the innocent’s eye die. A child or a young woman had gone into its making, he knew. He’d felt a connection to the thing, and he wasn’t sure what that connection was, as if there was something he was supposed to put together.
Three men died by his hand, and their faces didn’t even stick in his mind. One rifle shot, two stabs with the bayonet.
Another two were injured, cut across their faces, though those faces were already crawling with things the Academies had created. Parasites and leeches. The orange fog had housed other things. Things that hurt and debilitated. The enemy was slow to put up a fight, feeble, but not lacking in conviction in the slightest. An odd combination.
What Mauer might have been, if he hadn’t been woken up.
He didn’t hold back, couldn’t, out of fear that he might never be able to summon up this mad courage again.
He made his way across the enemy trench, saw nobody capable of standing or holding a weapon. With shaking hands, he pulled himself up and over the other side, to move toward the artillery installation, reloading the moment he had his two feet on solid ground.
The men at the artillery installation had to have known what was evident enough to Mauer and the other members of the squad. It had been a one-sided slaughter.
There was no reason, then, for the artillery squad to hold back. The cannon lowered, aiming front and center.
Mauer raised his rifle, aimed, and shot in the moment. He watched a man die.
The man who manned the artillery cannon, however, survived to pull the trigger, firing toward the front of Mauer’s squad.
Mauer felt his arm go, like a scrap of cloth caught by a strong wind. Blind and nearly deaf, bowels empty, he dropped. It was only when he lay there, yearning for unconsciousness, that he felt the burning across what remained of his skin.
He thought of the stitched, and now wondered if it had been real, or if it had been something meant only for him. A sign.
He screamed, not because of fear or pain or hopelessness, but because he couldn’t bear to let the flame go out, and a scream of rage and defiance was all he had left to give.
Mauer raised the hand the Academy had given him. Rain streamed into and over crevices and cracks. Here and there, muscles twitched, agony lancing through veins, nerves, and around the openings where the fungus -and it was all fungus, despite appearances- broke through the flesh. He likened the experience to having a red-hot needle pulled through his arm every few seconds,
“How’s the pain?” his captain asked.
“It never stops,” Mauer said. He blew the whistle, managing the location of the Academy’s beast.
“Maybe when we’re done, it might feel better,” the captain said.
Mauer knew the man’s name, of course. Edwin Gibson, a friend and confidant, but the man would remain his captain in many ways. It was a way of holding on to the fire, keeping from slipping into that dead place. Remembering that day, almost more vivid and clear than real life could be.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be done,” Mauer admitted.
“You chose the right enemy for an endless war,” the captain said.
“I chose?” Mauer asked.
“Poor wording on my part. I’m more a man of action than a man of words. A fighting man.”
“Mm hmm,” Mauer said. He smiled. “I’ve missed you, Ed. It’s been a lonely year without your company.”
“I could have visited.”
Mauer shook his head. “Not worth the risk that others might come to conclusions or start asking questions.”
“I know. Not that it mattered.”
“Unfortunately not. The Academy is changing. We might have to act sooner than later if we’re going to avoid being left behind.”
“Okay. We’ve waited too much as is.”
When a few seconds passed, he ventured, “I’ve been reminiscent, lately. Do you remember that day?”
“I do.” There was no question as to which day it was.
“Was it a good day, or a bad one, do you think?”
The captain smiled a bit. “Ever with the tough questions.”
Not an answer unto itself, but perhaps the only answer he’d give. Mauer was fine with that.
Neither of them were thinking of the last day they fought. That had effectively been the last day of the war. The Crown had given up on the war weeks earlier, the motivation for which was a question of resources. It had been too costly to keep going with Academy productions spread so thin and no thunderstorms for their stitched soldiers. Not the loss of good men and boys. Resources.
Mauer and his fellow soldiers hadn’t been much different from the stitched in that regard.
No, the day they were thinking about had been the day that Mauer had limped out of the hospital with his new arm, the fire burning fiercer than ever, but with no outlet. Even in fixing him, the Academy had taken their pound of flesh. The arm was one more experiment. They would fix it or replace it as the need arose, he’d been promised.
He preferred the pain. Better that than to give them more data and help their work. The pain drove him forward, reminded him to keep moving, to focus his talents and focus his mind to figure out all the possibilities.
Even with that, he hadn’t anticipated the children.
He would know better in the future.
God doesn’t back their side, Mauer thought. When he’d met up with his squadron for what was meant to be one last visit before they went separate ways, those were the words he’d uttered. A call to arms and an excuse for his own prayer’s failure, back before they’d gone over and charged across the empty space.
He’d said a lot more, after that. They had listened. They had talked, all of them, well into the late hours.
They had planned.
Those plans were supposed to have come together tonight and tomorrow. He could rally the people to stand against the Academy and see it for what it truly was, and let them fail. Failure could breed other sentiments, if he was careful.
The Academy’s experiment reacted, jumping back, just barely avoiding crashing into one of the soldiers at the vanguard.
A man, far too large, thick skinned, misshapen and fat, lurked on a nearby building.
Gorger. Mauer and his men had done his research. Moles inside the academy had provided the critical details.
Mauer felt the heat within him burning quiet and clean. Less a raging flame, and more a white hot steel. He raised his hand to lift the whistle up to his lips and held them tight.
Tell the Academy anything, but don’t tell them about the whistle, he’d told the boy.
He’d given other instructions to others within the Academy. Some he hadn’t yet had a chance to make use of.
Whistle in place, he grabbed his rifle and tossed it straight up, caught it so his hand was low and in place, and put his thumb through the ring he’d had installed to work the bolt. He shifted his grip again, raising his Academy-given arm to steady the end of the rifle.
Gorger moved off to one side. Too fast for something of his bulk.
But Mauer had anticipated the movement. Gorger had once been human. He thought and operated like a human. He followed the same rules.
The rifle moved in line with Gorger’s movement. Mauer fired.
He watched Gorger drop.
That white hot fire and the pain that kept him up nights had forced him to focus. When he couldn’t sleep at night, he walked to the outskirts of the city and practiced shooting. Always with his rifle.
Gorger wasn’t so different from those great plague-beasts he’d seen on the last day of the war. Thick skin, but they made the eyes small for a reason. For Gorger, the real eyes were hidden, masked off to the sides.
Gorger staggered, one hand to his cheekbone. A bottle of liquid fire splashed against his chest, and the contents sloshed out, flowing off his skin like water off a duck’s back. He wasn’t even singed.
Mauer blew. The number of short, sharp whistles indicated direction. The spiny beast lunged, sweeping past Gorger. Anything else might have been sliced, but Gorger wasn’t touched.
“Aim for the eye! Right cheek!” the captain shouted.
Gorger charged. Mauer redirected the beast, putting it in the monster’s way. It was lower to the ground, better braced, while Gorger was incredibly strong. Gorger could deal with the beast, but he couldn’t shield his other eye in the process. He tried another tactic, turning sideways, running with his shoulder forward, driving the monster out of his way and continuing forward.
The squad parted, one soldier a step too slow in getting out of the way. Jean Dupuy, Mauer knew, who’d hurt his leg in the same explosion that had taken Mauer’s arm and flesh. Dupuy died, or he was hurt badly enough that only the Academy could put him back together.
Mauer whistled, two sharp sounds.
Gorger turned, reorienting, looking to see where things were, using his one remaining eye.
The spiny beast attacked him, raking his face and chest. From his reaction, the beast had come close. He nearly stepped on Dupuy as he wrestled with the beast.
The captain’s turn to whistle, now.
It was an odd reflection, in a way, of that day in the war. Except Mauer and his men were on the other side, now.
Gorger saw the small, dark objects land in a scattered pile around him. The beast that Mauer had been given sensed the objects while they were still in the air, and it was fast to retreat.
No less than a dozen grenades went off in quick succession.
This wouldn’t be it. It wasn’t enough to kill Gorger. It was enough to stall it, get them a block or two away. They’d have another chance to blind, other weaknesses to capitalize on. There would be more obstacles tonight, before they got to safety.
But Mauer wasn’t concerned.
The battles he fought, be they against Gorger, children, or the Academy itself, weren’t battles he was supposed to win.
But he’d seen his death, a dead man walking with an innocent’s eye. He’d outlived it, surpassed it. If anything was missing, now that it was gone, he’d replaced it with a steadily burning rage of the quietest, most patient sort.
There was little obstacle he couldn’t surpass, when he had conquered death. He knew it, his comrades knew it. Others would soon know it.
He had faith in that.