In which Gole Naremsa, private in the 51st Fusiliers, makes a new enemy on his first day on the eternal front.
Gole was drowsing in a pile of sleeping soldiers and only half aware when the troop train shuddered to a stop.
They’d been cooking for a day and a half in the windowless carriage, breathing each other’s air and staring at the sliver of light around the sliding door. Earlier, when the sun was at its peak, they’d been sure they would suffocate. They tried to wrench the door open but it was heavy wood, banded with iron, utterly impervious. At the cost of several broken fingers they only added more pitiful scratches to the inside surface.
The carriage had no benches, which didn’t matter: They were so many they only had room to stand. Later, when their legs gave out, they discovered they could sleep in piles like the dead.
The train gave a final jolt and the door slid open. The carriage flooded with blinding late-day sunlight.
“No more sleeping, ye scrags,” someone shouted.
They tried to unravel themselves but they weren’t fast enough. The bright square of the doorway filled with figures. Gole blinked at them. The newcomers were soldiers, but these were lean and filthy, with torn uniforms. They weren’t new replacements like Gole, they were actual boots, the soldiers who fought the eternal front. They began tossing people bodily out of the train.
“It’s a mess, la, if the Southies barrage the train,” the voice continued. “So make all due haste.”
A pair of hands grasped Gole’s jacket and lifted him out of the sweaty, exhausted soup of men. Gole complicated matters by latching onto his twin brother, who was buried beside him. Grulle immediately clasped back with an iron grip. They were not going to be separated. The debarking lost its brisk rhythm.
“What delay?” the voice snapped.
“They’re sticking together, la,” said Gole’s handler.
“He’s my blood-fed brother,” Gole tried to explain. His tongue was so dry and swelled he barely comprehended his own words.
“Corphy, this one says he’s a bother,” the man relayed over his shoulder.
Laughter from the other boots.
Then the strap on someone’s pack snapped apart, freeing Gole’s leg, and he popped out of the pile. They slung Gole and Grulle through the door and into the waiting arms of —
No one. They hit the ground. Gole’s Tachba reflexes finally activated and he rolled to his feet. Grulle landed upright, making him look clumsy in comparison, as always.
The eternal front at last.
On shaky legs, Gole turned to take it in, screwing his eyes against the light. Not much to see at first. His new world seemed to mostly consist of young replacements who were already covered in dust and trying to get their legs back. Distinctly prosaic, not glorious at all.
In the distance, however, shimmering in the hot air, were some of the big beasts he’d heard about in stories. Gole’s eyes fastened on them and he momentarily forgot everything else.
The machines were over twelve feet tall but they looked like men hunched under a burden. They weren’t alive, but if the stories were true they could seem alive. They went where they were told and did as they were bid. The Haphan Overlords controlled them, called them bots. If the South ever overran the reserve trench, these beasts were the defense of last resort. What Gole didn’t expect were the long square blades that fanned from the upper limbs. Three blades per side, each covered in dirt and longer than a grown man.
“They look more like locomotives, don’t they?” Gole said, pointing. “Not scary at all.”
Grulle started to look — but then lurched forward and collapsed to the ground. He’d been hit from behind.
Gole’s Tachba reflexes took over before Grulle stopped sliding. He pivoted on his heel and flung out a fist. Even without looking, his backhand connected with his brother’s assailant. A childhood of training, the way Grulle had fallen, and the Pollution — Gole knew precisely where the other’s center of mass would be.
The other man was a Tachba too, however, and already dodging. Gole’s backhand was a glancing blow, eliciting only a soft grunt — but now Gole had the man’s height and weight. This one was big and solid. A full adult.
The Pollution shivered in Gole’s mind, an unwholesome spurt of pleasure at the challenge presented by this unexpected enemy. Full grown, the Pollution seemed to whisper. Experienced. Habit-ridden.
The Pollution tried to turn him toward the enemy but that would be exactly what the man expected. Gole fought the compulsion, and instead spun the other direction, momentarily turning his back. Never, never! the Pollution howled. But the unusual move let Gole strike from a surprising direction.
He landed a roundhouse in the middle of the man’s face.
Gole himself was not big and solid, but the punch stopped the man dead. He teetered, giving every impression of astonishment that he’d been clocked by a raw youth. He’d been unprepared for Gole’s follow-up, or really for anything from Gole. He even held an open canteen in one hand, as if he’d taken a drink before he hit Grulle and started everything.
Gole plucked the canteen out of the man’s hand and watched him sit on the ground. He landed hard.
“Stay down,” Gole said. “This is over.”
He took a deep draught and the water unclenched his throat. When he lowered the canteen, he found it wasn’t over.
The man was back on his feet, grinning like a maniac. Gole could guess what his Pollution was telling him, and it wasn’t favorable. Even worse, with a longer look, Gole could also see something he’d missed before: a small, mud-colored patch on the man’s dirty green collar.
Gole had just knocked over a sergeant.
Striking a superior! It wasn’t done. His Pollution turned off like a switch.
“Let’s call it even,” Gole suggested.
He had just enough time to toss the canteen to Grulle before the sergeant’s fist eclipsed his vision. The rest of the fight was more predictable than the beginning. Size and experience made trivial work of everything Gole tried.