28. Biting through (II)
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
He left the body where he found it, decaying in a shell crater. This was his second week in no man’s land; the second week fending for himself, far away from his unit. Overhead, at night, he watched the ships moving in orbit, preparing, perhaps, for another bombardment. At night, he found a crater and built himself a nest, careful to ensure that he avoided the bodies scattered about the place; more often than not it was a part of a body and not a whole. The animals that lived out in the wasteland took their cut from the graveyard. He had watched a rat scuttle over the lip of a crater holding a whole finger. Once he was dug into his hole he felt safe enough.
There were enemy patrols out here in no man’s land, but they were not very subtle. He heard them from a mile away and concealed himself beneath the rubble. One night, he woke in the early hours to find a patrol camped by the hole he had dug. They sat, rubbing their hands in the cold, and talked about women and home. He had been so afraid that his breath became tight in his body. Afterwards, he thought that he would have been safer if he had remained asleep. The body does not tolerate relaxation, though. The body wants you up and alert; ready for action, even if you are completely outnumbered.
His own men were nowhere to be found. It was a strategic decision. He became detached from his unit during a rare sortie into no man’s land; perhaps this was why it had all gone wrong. He had fallen behind when his foot sunk into a concealed hole, mud oozing about it. By the time his leg was out, his unit had continued their patrol.
In this war, no man’s land extended for mile upon mile. In total, there were at least twenty miles between the two sides. This was an artefact of modern war, of the devices that had been designed for a swift victory but had led to a definite stalemate. His rations had, so far, lasted well: highly compressed food tablets that provided meal after meal. He had purification tablets as well, and his filter removed the strange debris of war from his water. He had become accustomed to this war, a war he waged alone. He had no desire to return to his own lines; his own lines were fragmented by missiles and nerve gas attack. Out here, in the middle of nowhere, there were only the remains of previous advances. He knew, though, that there would be a grand attack. There had to be. It had been too many months since the last effort. This would be a dangerous time for him, the advanced scouts would roll forwards and flail the earth before them; even in a shell hole, there was little chance he would escape.
Those thoughts could wait. For now, he was alone on the mud flat. Here and there an island of grass appeared, some with flowers even. Above him, a ship blossomed into a crimson cloud. The violence in the heavens continued: the violence encompassed, he knew, the entire planet. He stumbled on an old boot and fell forward, cutting himself on a barbed wire tangle. He looked at the red blossom, a match for the sky above.
It was five days later that a patrol found him, stretched out and convulsing in a shell hole. They picked him up, wiped the white foam from his mouth. They placed him on a stretcher and took him along, up and down mud hills, to their small outpost. He was treated there for a week, until the grand attack began. When his side overran the outpost, he was celebrated and taken up to the waiting ships. He spent weeks convalescing, sitting in a wheelchair by the large glass windows, watching the mud expand across the planet: a great neutral zone.