I get story ideas from just about everywhere– my fiction reading, movies, history, news. However, only some of these ideas are fully formed. Many are just images, characters, scenes and snatches of dialogue. There is, in that confused and untidy place known as my mind, a space in which these bits and pieces float, unattached to a narrative. Sometimes these fragments bump into each other and combine in new ways, but others just drift around. Some of them have been there for decades.
Here’s a scene that’s been stuck in my head for a while. It’s more-or-less in the same universe as my novelette Diggers, and represents a different take on an incident from that story. I’m not sure if this is a story fragment, an incomplete short story, or the opening for a longer tale. It’s just a scene that has come back to me over and over again, and writing it out and giving it some form seemed to be a good idea.
Warning: this piece contains graphic military violence and bloodshed.
Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
“They’re coming,” the lieutenant said. Rain beaded on the lenses of his binoculars as he studied the enemy attack. I wondered how he could see anything.
I had the gun’s targeting scope. Through the misting rain I could see the Elha Death Brigades pushing forward through the scrub and shell-holes between the lines. They were coming in battalion, maybe regimental, strength. Fire teams of black-clad infantry moved from cover to cover ahead of the main units.
There’s too many.
“Load shrapnel,” the lieutenant said. “Set the fuse to a half-second.”
The loader slammed a round into the gun’s breach. “Wait for the order, you stupid bastard,” Sergeant Hode said.
That was addressed to me. Being the only half-blood in the battery usually left no question who Sergeant Hode was talking to. Half-breed, bastard, green-eye— no one else fit the description. By now I was used to it.
It bothered me far more how those pale faces out there, which I could just pick out in the scope, reminded me of my mother.
The big artillery, the ones firing from ten miles back, started talking. Shells whistled overhead. Out there in the killing ground they began to land, bursting with flame and smoke, throwing up fountains of earth.
Too long. The shells were bursting half a mile away, almost at the enemy trench-line. They were nowhere near the battalions already in the open.
“Damn it,” the lieutenant said. He took the binoculars down from his eyes, revealing the worried look on his face. Without the glasses, I was struck by how young he looked. Younger than me….
“Another cock-up,” Sergeant Hode said, bitter, and wholly un-surprised.
The machine-guns in the main line below us opened up. I saw Elha go down, dozens of them, but there were still too many.
The lieutenant lifted his binoculars again. “Range– eight hundred yards– standby– fire!”
I pulled the trigger. The gun barked and bucked with the recoil. I heard the breech open and the empty casing tumble out with a metallic clang, but I was watching the enemy. Half a breath, and the shell burst over the lead enemy battalion, fifty feet up. The brush and muddy ground around the Elha were lashed by thousands of steel flechettes, as if a giant had thrown down double-handfuls of gravel. The shrapnel ripped into the lead Elha. Some went down as if flattened by an unseen hand; other were shredded in mid-step, disintegrated in clouds of blood and torn flesh. I saw others, less lucky, lying in the mud, screaming screams I could not hear.
“Reload shrapnel!” the lieutenant yelled. “Quarter-second!”
The loader slammed another round in. The breech-block clanged shut.
The gun bucked; I pulled the trigger before the word was fully out of the lieutenant’s mouth. I watched as the shell exploded above the Elha, right over the main body. More enemy fell or disappeared.
More shrapnel shells burst over the enemy– the other guns in the battery talking. I wondered if they had been silent all this time. I couldn’t remember if any of them had fired before.
Still watching through the view-finder, I saw the Elha out there waver. It was a strange sight, almost a physical wave of hesitation that passed through the enemy groups– and then they were falling back, scrambling through the brush, some running, some limping, some crawling.
There came the sound of cheering from the main line below us. “Hold your fire!” the lieutenant said, even though the loader hadn’t loaded another shell.
“I can’t believe we pushed them back,” Sergeant Hode said.
“We didn’t,” the lieutenant said. He was looking through his binoculars again. “They’re going to ground in that stretch of defilade midway. Something’s afoot.” He lowered the glasses. “Sergeant Hode, load HE– we’ll try to drop a few rounds into them and keep them off-balance.”
“Sir!” Hode said. “You maggots heard him– load HE.”
The loader obeyed. I put my eye back to the gun’s target scope. I saw the Elha disappearing into the cover of the dead ground. The range-card said the defilade was nine hundred yards away; I set my sights to that range, and a gnat’s hair. We would adjust as needed….
The shriek came right up to us from the main line. I cranked the scope up. The shape emerged from the mist of rain, still behind the enemy’s trench line, but already huge. It came on with lumbering steps, slow but eating yards with each stride.
The lieutenant said, “Tior and Dena!” Someone– Sergeant Hode or the loader– made an inarticulate noise. “Target the golem!”
I increased elevation and zeroed in on the construct. It was becoming clearer and clearer with each step. I targeted the thing’s blank face. “Ready!”
I pulled the trigger. The gun cracked. I actually saw the shell cut through the mist, leaving a trail of cleared air.
The shell detonated square on the golem’s face. I would been proud of that shot on any firing range on a clear day; on a day of rain and mist, with my heart pounding so hard my hands rested unsteady on the gun’s controls, it was nearly a miracle.
The shell exploded, and the golem did not miss a step. As far as I could tell its skin was wholly unmarred by the detonation.
“An iron golem,” the lieutenant said, his dismay open.
Other shells exploded on the golem, the other guns of the battery firing, but all of them together did not make a scratch on it. It lumbered on, clearing the enemy line and advancing into the no-man’s land.
“Sergeant Hode,” the lieutenant said, “get back to the ammo train. Tell them we need etheric shells, now!”
“Sir!” Sergeant Hode scrambled up out of the gun-pit, dashed for the rear.
“Give it another HE,” the lieutenant said.
We did. The shell hit square in the thing’s midriff, and it had as much effect as my first shot. The machine-guns in the main line opened up on the golem. A complete act of futility– I could see bullet strikes all over the golem’s body, but it was obvious there were no penetrations. The construct was close enough now for me to see its details– its rivets, the size of my head, the seams of its body. The huge feet, coming down on the soaked earth, sank a yard deep with each step, but that didn’t slow it down.
It reached the midway defilade. Golems were sometimes known not to discriminate too carefully between friendlies and hostiles, but this one stepped right over the low ground and kept coming. The Elha emerged from cover and followed it, shouting.
Sergeant Hode slid down into the gun-pit. In his arms he carried a cardboard cylinder. “One shell?” the lieutenant said, as if he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“It’s all they had, sir,” Hode said. “And it’s not even a proper HE or AP shell– it’s a translator.”
The lieutenant grimaced. “It’ll have to….”
A shriek from the sky– an unholy crack that I felt rather than heard– the gun-shield in front of me rang as if hit by a hammer.
Suddenly the lieutenant had no head. His body stood for a moment, with blood fountaining out his neck; then it collapsed in the mud.
Sergeant Hode screamed; not at the sight of the lieutenant’s corpse, but because his own face was gone. He dropped the shell into the muck underfoot and clasped his hands to the ruin. Blood streamed from between his fingers.
The loader, unhurt, stared in horror at both of them. Crabbing backwards, he clawed out of the gun-pit and ran.
“Come back!” I shouted, but as I turned hot fire seared my left arm. My sleeve was torn and blood ran down my arm. A piece of shrapnel had pierced the gun-shield and hit me. The hole in the metal seemed to wink at me.
I managed to lever myself out of the gunner’s seat. I stumbled over to where Hode lay dying and picked the shell container up out of the mud. My left arm still worked, but every movement shot agony through it. Somehow I got the top of the container off, slid the shell out into my hands.
HE shells were painted black; armor-piercing, red. This shell was a brilliant orange. A blue timing ring encircled the base of the projectile.
I clawed the arming wench from its mount-point on the gun’s train. I glanced up as I did; the golem was closer than ever, still four hundred yards away, but looming higher and higher with each step.
I attached the arming wrench to the timing ring. The moment I did a sharp keee! that was not a sound ran through my head. It hurt but was over in a moment.
Out in no-man’s land the golem stopped. It seemed to hesitate, even as machine-gun bullets continued to spark all over it. Then, with a metallic creak and groan, it turned and resumed its advance. The difference was, now it was headed straight toward me.
On my first attempt with the wrench I missed the timing mark; I had to turn the ring in a full circle and try again. “Come on, come on.” I wasn’t sure if I was talking to myself or the shell.
I hit the mark on the second try. I dropped the wrench in the mud. Normally it took two hands to manually open the gun’s breach; I managed it with one, with the shell cradled in the other arm. The pain was blinding; I screamed as the breech-block locked open. I screamed again as I shoved the shell in to the breech one-handed.
The ground vibrated– the golem’s footsteps. Rain water shivered in the pit’s low spots.
I refused myself permission to faint. I clambered back into the gunner’s seat. I didn’t need the targeting scope to aim the gun. The golem was still coming for me, drawn by the energy in the translator shell. Two hundred yards, less…but I would have to let it get closer.
All at once there were men all around the gun-pit, soldiers, running for the rear. The main-line had broken. Some of the men carried their weapons, but others simply ran in blind panic, throwing away their gear, slipping in the mud, colliding with one another. “Hey, gunner,” one of them yelled at me as he ran past the pit, “run for it, if you don’t want to be a stain in the mud!”
I ignored him. I wasn’t sure I could have run if I wanted to. I cranked the gun up to maximum elevation, which allowed me to target the golem’s midsection. It loomed over me, so close. “Come on,” I said again, my breath short with pain and terror– but this time I was, of a surety, talking to the golem. Closer. I had only one chance to get this right.
The thing was fifty yards in front of me, a tower of animate metal. One more step, two– bullets spanged off the gun-shield– the Elha were close behind the golem.
But not as close as me.
I fired. I’d set the shell for muzzle-action; there was no perceptible gap between the crack of the gun and the eruption of blue fire around the golem. The thing froze in mid-step as the fire crawled all over it. The energy discharge was bright, and grew brighter. I heard cries of dismay from the Elha. The fire became a sphere of light, expanding outward. I held up a hand to shield my eyes as it swept over me.
There was a concussion I felt in my gut, but which was utterly soundless. The gun tilted sideways and I tumbled out of the seat– down into tall, dry grass. I landed on my arm. I screamed.
I turned on my back, sick with pain. The golem still stood in front of the toppled gun, but something was wrong. The thing teetered, its metal groaning.
With a crash of rending iron, the golem shivered and fell apart. Head, torso, arms, legs, all came unhinged and crashed to the ground in a cacophonous rain of metal. I had heard that individual parts of broken golems would still move, still try to carry out their last imperative. These sections, though, lay inert, mere pieces of iron. The etheric core of the golem was gone.
Panting, weeping with pain, I looked around. Before it had been mid-day, although gloomy and rain-filled. Now it was dry; the sky was clear, and it was night. A warm breeze stirred the leaves of trees that stood where our main-line should have been.
In the distance lights glowed– towers and spires of light. They looked like nothing I had ever seen.
Beyond the trees a single, huge moon rose. It’s mottled surface was strange to me.
It worked. I hoped the brigade would rally. But I would never know for sure. I lay back in the tall grass and contemplated the alien stars overhead.