Waiting

Drowning. Drowning. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Evans tried to move up to the air. He started to flail against Captain Ricci. He tried to scream at her, but that just let water in. He could feel the heat from the surface. The beautiful heat. He needed to breath. He was going to die. But Captain Ricci held him firm. Every breath drew in more of the putrid water.

After what seemed like an eternity, Captain Ricci dragged him out of the water. Evans coughed up water as silently as he could. Captain Ricci whispered to him, “The hell is wrong with you Sergeant?”

“I can’t swim Ma’am.” Evans crawled a bit further from the water, “Water fucking terrifies me.”

“Didn’t you win your MoE First by saving Duchess Medway from a sinking ship?”

“Yeah, I grabbed onto a big piece of wood with one arm and Major Kestel with the other. I also did a lot of screaming…” Evans shuddered thinking about it, “So, what did the orders say.”

Ricci took a long pause, “How long are you on the line here?”

“Two more weeks,” He paused a moment, trying to remember further and then said, “Last five days are frontline.”

Her face went a bit pale, “Do you want a transfer? I need someone like you, and… I can’t tell you why, but you should accept.”

“You know the answer Ma’am.”

“I had to ask Sergeant… I’m sorry.”

After about twenty minutes, the Vledscans repeated the flamethrower sweep. Evans was calmer this time. From Captain Ricci’s panic and the Vledscans trying their hardest to kill the two, it was evident that something awful was going to happen within the next two weeks.

The two waited in silence until the sun fell. A few more artillery barrages attempted to find the two. But, once the sun fell, the two were able to sneak their way back to Ethslin lines.

Captain Ricci gave him the standard talk about how he couldn’t reveal anything he had learned. And then, like that, they parted ways. Evans returned to Major Kestel’s dugout. She gave him a hug, told him she was worried, and they went back to work.

Whispers

They were silent for about an hour. Listening to orders shouted as the sun came up. Both sides were doing their ‘Stand To.’ A few machine gun bursts were fired off, and a few shells were dropped. But, even with that, it was about as quiet as Evans had ever heard on the front. It was actually a pretty nice day. The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky. Weather was plenty warm.

Captain Ricci eventually broke their silence by whispering, “So what do we do Sergeant?

“Wait Ma’am. Isn’t nothing else we can do.”

The two waited a while more before Evans whispered, “So what was the actual mission Ma’am?”

“Well part of it is true. I was supposed to be getting pictures of the new artillery shells in action. But I was also supposed to try and pick some intelligence off their officers. Luckily, the first man you killed was an officer, and his papers were relatively intact. That’s why I had you flip him over.”

“What do they say?”

“I don’t know. That’s not my job. I checked for the official seal and date and then hid it.”

“Can we read it?”

“No, it’s above even my clearance.”

“Really? It’s probably just a daily update or something.”

“All updates have to go directly to my superiors, who pass it up the chain. It’s read once it gets to the top… How do you know if I can even read it?”

“Because that would have been the easiest way to deny it. You could have just said-”

There was a loud fwoosh noise. Shit. Evans pulled out his pocket periscope, dirtied up one mirror and poked it over the top and scanned the horizon. A jet of flame burst out from the Vledscan Trench and swept over a few shell holes.

He whispered to Ricci, his voice as quiet as possible, “Flamethrower. They’re trying to flush us out, or burn us alive.”

“Fuck. Pattern?”

After three more bursts, he got a pattern, “Ten second burst. Ten second pause. Sweeps about twenty meters with each burst. They’ll reach us in about two minutes if the pattern doesn’t change.”

“Alright. We have to do this fast. Take off your webbing, helmet, and scarf,” Evans followed her orders. Captain Ricci pulled the letter out of her boot, ripped it open, read it a few times and stuffed it back. She dropped her bandolier, haversack, helmet, and scarf, “How close is it now?”

“One Burst, two at most,” Panic started to rise in Evans’s voice. He didn’t want to die. And not of this. He had been lucky to avoid flamethrowers in comb-

Captain Ricci whispered, “Deep Breath” and pulled him underwater.

Counter Barrage

They must have been running the wrong way, because Evans ran way more than fifty meters and hadn’t gotten to the sap. And then the Vledscan artillery opened up on No-Man’s Land. Instinct kicked in. Protect the Officer. Evans pulled Captain Ricci down into a shell hole and tried to cover her body as much as possible. The explosions started to blend together into a constant roar. The only other noise he could hear was the occasional shriek of shrapnel flying overhead.

Evans wanted to run. Almost every fiber of his being was telling him to get up and run as fast as he could to the lines. But luckily, in the back of his mind, he knew that it would mean death.

Captain Ricci didn’t have that knowledge. Fear overcame her. Death falling from the sky and the claustrophobia from Evans attempting to cover her was too much. She rolled and elbowed Evans to get him off her. She dragged herself to her feet and started to run. She had to get–

Something tugged at her foot and she fell face first into the mud.

It was no longer a question of covering Captain Ricci. Evans was just trying to keep her in cover. He was gripping her ankle tightly with both hands and trying to get deeper into the shell hole.

He slipped lower and lower until he was half submerged in the water that flooded the shellhole. For some reason all Evans could think of was the time he tried to grow mold in a bucket in his room. It was probably the dumbest idea he had ever had. His dad yelled at him for the better part of an hour. His sister still jokes about it in her letters. Evans started to laugh. If Dad could see him now. Waist deep in water that’s been standing for God know’s how long, wearing clothes that he’s been in for over a week.

With a thud, a shell landed next to Evans. A dud. Evans laughed harder. Maybe he was immortal. Captain Ricci had stopped struggling and calmed down. He pulled her down so she could help him toss the shell out of the hole. Carefully. Anna would be very angry if he died.

The barrage kept going for a while. Longer than usual. By the time it had lessened enough for the two of them to leave the shell hole without it being certain death, a new day was dawning. Which meant the two would have to stay in this hole until night came. No talking louder than a whisper, no food, no clean water, and no sleep.

Sliding over, Captain Ricci whispered into his ear, “Thanks for… Not letting me die.”

Whispering back, Evans said, “Hey, we ain’t back yet. We’ll probably die before get back.”

“But at least my death won’t be embarrassing Sergeant.”

Photography

As Evans got closer to the hellish red glow, he heard screaming. He saw a sudden movement from the trench. Without thinking, Evans brought the Auto Gun to his shoulder and fired a short burst. It was easy to see the man tumble. His body was covered with… Fire, sticking to him. And he collapsed smoldering. Holy Fucking Hell.

Captain Ricci dashed forward and took a long exposure of the body. She signaled him over and gestured for him to roll the body over. Evans nodded, grabbed a piece of lumber and rolled the body over. He quickly looked away as Captain Ricci took another picture. She waved Evans forward.

Evans slid into the trench. The combination of being out of open ground, and a lightening in the barrage led to Evans being able to hear things beside the endless roar. Another burning man started to stumble towards him. He could barely make out the words the man was speaking. It wasn’t Vledscan. “Killlll Meee”

He unbuckled his holster and drew the pistol. Placing it carefully against the man’s forehead, he saw a pained smile and a nod. Evans pulled the trigger. The man crumpled to the ground. Captain Ricci slid in behind him. She took a picture down the trench line, turned around, and whispered in his ear, “Dugout forward. Try and clear it without grenades.

“Ma’am.” Evans dashed forward to the dugout stairs. Captain Ricci followed halfway down the stairs, then took a position covering the entrance.

Evans turned the corner at the bottom and…

Fuck

Everything was fire. He started to sweat from the intense heat. Evans saw two charred bodies, embraced in their last moments. Evans looked around the room. Nothing could have survived that. Evans ran up the stairs, gave the Captain a thumbs up and vomited. He took up the guard position while Captain Ricci took her pictures. No one came. Why would anyone come.

Captain Ricci ran back up and whispered, “Lucky. Shell must have tunneled through the ground and burst right in their dugout. We can make our way back to the sap now.”

“Lucky?” Evans made his way up. He looked left and right. Still clear. The artillery had stopped. Likely moments before the Vledscan soldiers came rushing to retake the trench. Captain Ricci waved him over the top.

Rolling over, Evans flattened himself and watched for movement. Captain Ricci rolled over next to him. She whispered, “Let’s run like Hell.”

The two got up and sprinted to the sap.

Barrage

The listening sap was about fifty meters from the Vledscan line. Evans looked at Captain Ricci. He could just see her under the flickering light of a star shell. Her face had been darkened with mud. She was gripping her pistol tightly in her right hand. Her left hand was in the haversack that held her camera. She was wearing a bit of a motley uniform. A regular helmet, with her Captain’s insignia. She had an Enlisted jacket with her Officer’s insignia hastily sewed on. A scarf and goggles around her neck She had a bandolier over her jacket, mostly with extra magazines, but in the bottom it had a loop that held a smaller folding camera that she had taught Evans to use. She wore high cavalry boots with leggings tucked in. And, oddly enough, she still wore the officer’s skirt. Evans whispered to her, “Ma’am, I’ve been wondering all the way down here, Why the skirt? You’re out of uniform everywhere else.”

“It started off as a way to mock the uniform, but at this point, it’s become expected of me. Plus, it’s like a good luck charm,” She shrugged, “And it probably confuses the hell out of the enemy.”

Evans shrugged. The two sat for a few minutes listening to distant gunfire. Captain Ricci glanced at her watch and took out her camera.

The thunder rolled.

He could hear the shriek of shells overhead followed by sudden bursts. Looking up, he saw… well… What he imagined Hellfire was. A burst of burning white acicular flames. Other shells burst on the ground spreading burning white smoke. He looked at Captain Ricci. She was poking her head over the crater with her larger camera. She slid the camera back into the haversack and whispered “Protection on.”

Reaching to his neck, he slid his goggles over his eyes. He wrapped the scarf around his face, covering any exposed skin. Then he pulled his gloves on and clipped them onto his jacket sleeves.

“On.”

“Weapons ready.”

Auto Gun was ready with one in the chamber. He tapped the Pistol in the holster. Yep. He checked the quick release latch on his haversack filled with… grenades. Good. Shovel was well in place too. Fuck this was really happening.

“Ready.”

The barrier barrage started up. It was forming a corridor of constant artillery fire around the section of trench ahead of the pair. About 100 meters to their right, about 100 meters to their left, and a 150 meters ahead. Not much margin of error.

If only he were allowed to smoke.

“NOW!” Captain Ricci shouted over the roar of shellfire.

Evans took in a deep breath and dashed forward. It had been a while since he paid a visit to Hell.

Armory

“So this is the armory,” Captain Ricci said as she opened the steel door, “Take whatever you want Sergeant.”

Evans looked around the room. To his right was a rack of Standard Ethslin Rifles, the most commonly issued firearm of the Ethslin Army. Next to that were a few Blaire Auto Guns, a kind of machine gun that was light and fired pistol rounds. It was across from the Automatic Ethslin Rifle, about the heaviest gun a single person could operate and still be able to run with. It fired rifle rounds as fast as a machine gun, but still could be carried on the attack. There were also a few Frost Guns, the standard issue pump action shotgun of the Ethslin Army. There were also a few Bennet Pistols in a cabinet.

There were a few that Evans couldn’t identify. He looked at Captain Ricci, “What’s the other rifle?”

“New, just introduced last month. It’s… Semi Automatic. That means every time you pull the trigger, it shoots one bullet, then automatically cycles the next, but you still have to pull the trigger again to shoot again. Like with a Bennet.”

“And what are those SER’s with the weird bolt?”

“A failure of sorts. It’s a bolt redesign that fires Semi Automatic. But it fires pistol rounds. So while it is more accurate than an Auto Gun, it’s larger and heavier. And while it fires faster than an SER, it isn’t as accurate and is prone to jamming. Plus it’s damn expensive.”

“And the–”

“Yeah that was a terrible idea. We’ve been testing it the last few weeks and it is a hard no. It’s a cut down Blaire Medium Machine Gun, with air cooling and a harness to go over your shoulder and an attachment for a box containing the ammo belts. So it would constantly overheat, and only about the strongest people could fire it at a target. They could stumble forward slowly, but only on flat, hard ground. Reloading on the move is basically impossible without help. And Joshua forbid you take fire while carrying this fucking thing. The only reason we’re still testing it is because some fucking General’s kid is a wannabe inventor and we can’t just dismiss it outright. My orders were to basically keep this “in trials” until he gets distracted by someone else. They were tested in Newacre, but the guy kept hanging around the testing facility.”

“And the big metal boxes?”

“Grenades. We’ve got a few types. First is the regular five second fuse shrapnel. Second is impact. It goes off once it hits the ground, but it can be a bit finicky. Third is Incendiary Grenades, which are a no. Could be confusing in the pictures. Fourth are Concussion. They don’t chuck shrapnel, three second fuse. They have to land close to someone to work though.”

“Alright then. I’ll just go with the Auto Gun, a Bennet, and regular old Shrapnel bombs. Don’t want to accidentally blow myself up with any fancy new Bombs.”

“You know they’re called grenades. At least officially.”

“Yes Ma’am. I’ll use your fancy name Captain.”

“It’s not my name, it’s just proper language Sergeant,” She paused, then said, “Do you know how to operate a camera Sergeant?”

Evans shook his head, “No Ma’am. We don’t have much of that fancy stuff out in Halton”

“Very Well then. I’ll have to make sure not to die then.”

Artillery

“Is there a Sergeant James Evans here?”

Evans yawned. He took his feet off the desk and stood up, “Yes Corporal. What you need?”

“You’ve been specially requested for a mission.”

“What’s it about? Do you have the paperwork?” Evans was kind of confused.

“This is top secret and I can’t tell you more than that.”

“We’ll have to wait for Major Kestel to come back. Or at least someone else who can talk to the Major.”

The Corporal sighed, pulled out a notepad, scrawled a quick note, and dropped it on Major Kestel’s desk, “Alright. I left a note. Now can you come with me. This is Time Sensitive.”

“OK Corporal,” Evans stood up, put on his helmet, and reached for his rifle.

“You won’t need that. We will supply you with something better.”

“Alright then Corporal. If you say so.”

Evans followed the Corporal out of the dugout. He saw Major Kestel coming in. He saluted, “Major!”

“Evans. Where are you off to?” Major Kestel returned the salute.

The Corporal answered for him, “Sergeant Evans has been requested for a special mission. He will be returned as soon as possible.”

“I did not receive any request forms. I need more warning if I am to give up an important member of my staff.”

“Your Grace, you do not have the clearance for this. I can’t give you any information about why Sergeant Evans is needed and why you haven’t been given warning. I can only say that this is a request in name only. If my Captain wants something, she will get it. I have… “ the Corporal reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a sheet of paper and handed it to Major Kestel, “Is this enough for you?”

Major Kestel handed back the paper in somewhat of a shock, “James.” She hugged Evans, “Stay Safe.” She looked back at the Corporal, “Fine. Take him then Corporal.”

“Very Well Ma’am,” The Corporal then led Evans up the trench line until they reached a dugout by one of the artillery batteries. They started to go down. This dugout was deeper than any Evans had ever seen. When they reached the bottom, there was a large steel door. The Corporal knocked three times. A slat on the door opened. The Corporal said, “Swordfish.”

The steel door swung open. Evans entered the dugout. The dugout was heavily reinforced. Communication lines criss crossed the room. He could hear the clacking of dozens of typewriters. In the center of the room, a Captain stood receiving a report. She wore the skirt of a staff officer, a rare sight for someone this far forward. She turned around to face Evans and the Corporal. The face was familiar.

The Corporal saluted, “I’ve brought Sergeant Evans Ma’am.

Evans saluted, “Captain Ricci.”

Captain Ricci returned the salute, “Good to see you Evans. I’m going to guess that you’re wondering why you’re here.”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“Well follow me,” Captain Ricci led him to a side office. She sat down behind her desk. Evans sat across from her. She reached into a drawer, pulled out a file, and handed it to Evans.

He started to look through it. It was filled with information about him. From promotion dates to citations to small news articles mentioning him.

“I’ve been following your career since we last met. Impressive. Now. I need you to do something for me,” Captain Ricci pulled another file out of her desk and handed it to Evans. Leafing through it, he saw pictures burning buildings, artillery shells, and strange diagrams with words Evans didn’t understand.

“It’s a new kind of Artillery Shell. It burns… well everything. We’ve tested it on various buildings and mock trenches, but… Well… Not people. For obvious reasons. That’s going to change tomorrow evening. We’re going to bombard a front about three kilometers North of here. Afterwards, I need to dash in there and take pictures of the damage. I need a guard, which is why you’re here.

“Why me Ma’am? You seem to have plenty of staff.”

“Well, my staff is great, but most of them haven’t fired a rifle since training. I have by far the most front line experience of anyone on my staff. So I’m outsourcing to you. Because I trust you, and you have experience. We aren’t bringing a full team with me because this needs to be fast.”