When Death Walks the Field of Battle (from Everything’s Annoying)
“Private Powley, you are a goddamned disgrace to your uniform.”
The private tried to hold his sergeant’s gaze, fully aware that if he looked away he’d be in for even more stick. Nonetheless, he looked down at his filthy boots. He was a grocer, not a soldier.
“Look at me when I’m fucking talking to you, Private,” bellowed Sergeant Stone, a man as hard, and cold, as his name suggested. “This is not a fucking holiday camp, and you are certainly not here to sell fucking carrots. The enemy is not going to ask you for a pound of bastard plums and a little chinwag about the bleeding weather, are they? They want a pound of your useless flesh, if anything. You are here for a single purpose. To kill those bastard zombies at the other side of this godforsaken hellhole. If you do not find the killer instinct to satisfy that purpose soon, I may as well kill you myself and find someone better suited to that uniform. Is that clear?”
“When I verbalise a question, Private, I expect a reply in kind, not an impersonation of a nodding fucking dog. Now I said is that clear?”
“Halle-fucking-lujah, it speaks,” Stone growled through clenched teeth. “I expect to see you locked, loaded and ready for action. Not taking a nap, and not sticking your nose in that pissing Bible of yours. There are no answers in there, son. I’m your God now.”
With that, Stone turned on his heel and stormed off. At least as much as a man can storm anywhere in three inches of mud.
The rain fell in a light drizzle, and Carl Powley sank to the floor at roughly the same pace as the water falling from the sky. His backside sank into the mud, but he was already soaked, already filthy. They all were.
“Don’t pay no attention, mate,” said the man next to him. “He’s like that with all us new recruits.”
“Conscription and recruitment are a bit different to my mind,” Powley said.
“Well, we both screwed up there, didn’t we? If we’d enlisted, we’d have helmets, body armour, night vision, the works. Us conscripts get jack shit, eh? Anyway, you’re here now, and while you’re here you’re his. You can either let him make you a soldier and have a better chance of staying alive, or carry on as you are and in all likelihood be dead by the end of the month. Your call.”
Powley sighed. The man, a fellow private named Pierce, was right, but that didn’t make it any easier. He could put on a uniform and carry a rifle, but that didn’t make him a soldier. To do that he’d need to kill, something he worried he’d never be able to do.
“Do you know why he calls ‘em zombies?”
Pierce grinned. “Ironic innit?”
“That those who are still alive are known as zombies. It isn’t just the enemy he views that way, it’s all of us. We’re the living dead, mate. Once you end up here, you’re dead, or at least it’s simply a matter of time until you are. Look at us. This isn’t life. We’re filthy, dressed in little better than rags, desensitised to violence and primed to kill. Unthinking, uncaring, unfeeling zombies. Pretty apt in my eyes.”
“I don’t think I’m quite at that stage yet,” Powley said, before allowing himself half a smile. “When I was a kid, zombies were dead folks brought back to life by witch doctors and voodoo black magic. Never thought I’d end up one.”
“Me neither,” said Pierce, lighting a cigarette. Smoking was far more common now; who needed to worry about cancer when the average life expectancy in the trenches was six months. “I used to love them movies, though the ones where the zombies were a bit quicker were better. Y’know, them where they were regular people infected with some sort of virus, making ‘em into blood and brain craving crazies. Never found the shambling ones very scary when you could get away from ‘em walking at a brisk pace.”
Powley took the cigarette when it was offered. He’d never been a smoker, but the habit had soon taken hold. It was something to do as much as anything.
“What’s with the Bible anyway?” Pierce asked. “You religious?”
“Not really. The way I see it, we made God, not the other way ‘round. It was a gift when I left home, that’s all.”
“Suppose you might as well read it then. It ain’t like the entertainment is up to much ‘round ‘ere.”
Powley didn’t reply. One hand held his cigarette, the other rested on his pocket where the battered Bible sat against his thigh. He caught Pierce looking at the rifle propped against the trench wall next to him. He knew what he was thinking, that Stone would go berserk if he came back and Powley wasn’t holding his weapon, ready for action at any moment.
Pierce gave the slightest shake of his head. “Just watch that bastard, yeah? Anyway, we’re back on duty in two hours. Best get some kip mate. If he catches you dozing off again he’ll really lay into you. The bugger’s watched Full Metal Jacket too many times. Thinks he’s a bloody US Marine.”
* * *
Six hours later they were halfway through their shift. It was raining harder, and the afternoon was packing its bags to make way for evening. An orange sun hung limp in the sky, its light struggling to shine through the haze that filled the heavens since the world had been turned to dust. Powley shifted to his right, stepping away from an encroaching puddle and the reflection he no longer recognised as his own. He’d lost weight, his face gaunt and lined. He’d always kept himself clean and tidy, but his uniform was now a soiled grey, the only splash of colour being the flag of their fallen nation on his breast pocket, directly beneath his badge of rank in a beaten army. A hunk of mud fell from the trench wall into the puddle, and the reflection was gone. Powley was glad; he didn’t like the look of the man that had been looking back at him.
His attention turned to the wasted no-man’s land in front of him. It was a pointless fight, but there wasn’t really anything else left to do. The world was pretty much fucked. Even if the enemy could be beaten back, and the small bit of civilisation which was left protected from them, they couldn’t fight the wind. As if summoned by the thought, a light breeze picked up, the kind which should have been pleasant on a summer afternoon. Instead, it was a breeze now laden with poison and radiation, a deadly delivery far more effective than any missile or bomb, albeit slower and uncontrollably indiscriminate. It would be dark soon, and the artillery barrage would start. Anything the enemy could throw at them to keep them awake and soften them up for the inevitable offensive that would wipe them all out. He hadn’t slept properly since he’d arrived here.
Powley looked but saw only craters and mud below a grit-filled sky, “What’s what?”
Pierce pointed. “There, something moving. Use your scope.”
Powley raised his rifle to his shoulder. Something was moving, and moving more like a someone than a something, but that couldn’t be the case. Nobody walked out there. “I see it, what is it?”
“Who is it, more like,” Pierce said. “Walker,” he shouted off to his left. “Walker!”
“Go and get Stone. There’s somebody out there.”
“Fuck off. I’m not falling for that.”
“Walker, you twat, I’m serious. Go and get Stone or I’ll come over there and kick your arse.”
His tone ensured Walker got the message. “All right, I’m off, but if you’re fucking about he’ll be wearing your balls on his belt come morning.”
Pierce nudged Powley and winked, “It’s useful to have a reputation sometimes.”
Powley said nothing. The week before deployment to the front, he’d seen Pierce put a man in hospital for trying it on with one of the girls who worked as a cleaner at camp. Some men thought the breakdown of society absolved them of the need to behave morally, the ladies’ man who wouldn’t take no for an answer amongst them. But all the same, he’d seen how much Pierce had enjoyed breaking his arm and three of his ribs. He was as much a thug with an excuse as a paragon of chivalry.
“Whoever it is, they’ve stopped. They’ve hunkered down behind that ridge,” Pierce said.
“Aye,” Powley agreed. There’d been something about what he’d seen that unsettled him. He’d been unable to focus on the shape, unable to make it out properly. Looking directly at the figure—who he assumed could only be an enemy soldier— had disorientated him, as however he had looked at it, it had always been on the periphery of his vision. Perhaps it was fatigue, but he felt more awake than he had in days.
“Good to see you’re awake, Private,” Sergeant Stone growled. “Now what the fuck do you two ladies think you’ve seen?”
“Someone’s out there,” Pierce said.
“Doing what exactly? Picking flowers?” Stone raised his field glasses. “I don’t see anything, but I doubt you’re stupid enough to be yanking my chain. Suppose it could be a scout.” He paused for a second. “Or an enemy deserter.”
“That ain’t likely. They’re fanatics,” Walker said.
“And who made you head of bloody Intelligence?” Stone asked. “They can get scared just as much as piss-pants Powley here, and a deserter would get a nice little room well away from the front line while he tells us all about what his zombie buddies are up to. Now sod off, and tell the lieutenant what’s going on while I babysit these two.”
Walker scurried off. Life had been a lot easier in the days of mobile phones and two-way radios, but those times were gone. The EMPs had fried everything electronic in the early days of the war. That was why men were once again fighting in trenches, like it was 1916. The idea that twenty-first century wars would be fought by geeks in bunkers who could just as well have been playing Call of Duty on their PlayStations had proven to be well off the mark. Instead, it was conscripts in ditches using obsolete weapons.
Stone rested his hand on Powley’s shoulder. “Right then, Private, tonight could be the night you pop your cherry. You saw the target, you’ve marked where you last saw him, so when he nips his little head out again, you take him out. Aim for the body, son; knowing you you’ll either take off his head or his bollocks.”
Powley looked down his scope and waited. The magnified ridge of mud, behind which the figure had disappeared, became his world, the sole focus of his attention. His finger rested on the trigger. Sweat ran down his forehead and stung his eyes. His heart pounded in his chest. He had never killed anything. In his shop, he’d had a gadget—bought off one of the satellite TV channels—that picked up spiders safely so that you could put them outside. People had ribbed him about it, and he’d told them that spiders were an essential part of the world’s ecosystem and shouldn’t simply be killed for giving people the willies. That was a laugh now.
These days the planet’s ecosystem, if it could be said to even have one, had more in common with Mars than the Earth he’d grown up in. Next to nothing grew. Food was scarce, and the grocery trade he’d followed since school was virtually extinct. The only place that guaranteed a meal a day was the Army, and that was synthetic garbage that tasted like wood. His thoughts were racing, and he suddenly realised he was thinking about spiders and ecology instead of the fact that any second now he would be expected to take a life. A human life.
The fatigue had returned. His limbs were lead-heavy, and he felt sick. He’d spent a good deal of time dwelling on the thought of taking a man’s life since receiving his papers. There’d been nights on watch when he had pondered if he would be able to live with himself after committing what, in his eyes, would be murder, even one sanctioned by what remained of the state. In a kill or be killed situation he had no idea if instinct would take over, self-preservation taking the lead, or if he would freeze, and die. But there was no time for such thoughts now and besides, this was different. Whoever was out there was no direct threat to him, to take the shot would be little short of an execution.
Part of him wanted to be like Stone, devoid of feeling, a killer without conscience. He wasn’t on some anti-war crusade. He was just a normal guy. The enemy was guilty of atrocities on an industrial scale and many of them undoubtedly deserved to die. But he was in no place to judge, particularly when he knew nothing of the man out there. Perhaps it was someone just like him? Someone for whom killing wasn’t in their nature. He couldn’t do it. He wouldn’t do it. His finger came off the trigger to rest on the guard.
“I beg your fucking pardon?” Stone snarled in his ear. “You can and you will, soldier. It is an order. It is the right thing to do. That thing out there is the enemy.”
Powley’s eyes were shut tight. The voice in his ear sounded like a devil. He knew the consequences of disobedience, but it made no difference. He wasn’t a killer, not like Stone. They’d been lined up during training to witness their sergeant shoot a deserter—from their own side—in the back of the head, like a cow in an abattoir. A deserter who’d seen his best friend disembowelled by a piece of shrapnel, not two feet away from him, and had run off into the night, still covered in blood and intestines. He hadn’t been a coward, just a man with the type of emotions any human being should have been able to empathise with. Once, there would have been counselling for such victims of the conflict. Such individuals were now burdens and bad examples. Bad examples put to use by being made an example of.
“It’s a person, a he, not an it.”
“No, it’s not. It’s the enemy. Detach yourself and dehumanise that target.”
Powley paused. Did that explain it? Had Stone’s constant haranguing of the enemy prevented him from seeing whoever was out there for the man they were? His mind conditioned to obscure the kind of details that would make it harder to pull the trigger? To kill a man once you’d seen his eyes, the curve of his mouth, the lines etched on his face, would undoubtedly be more difficult than to take the life of a figure no more distinctive than the stock targets they had practiced on during basic training.
“What if he wants to surrender?”
“Then he’s a pussy or an arsehole, Private, and you know what pussies and arseholes get, don’t you boy?”
At twenty-seven, Powley viewed himself too old to be called “boy”, but here and now he felt like a small child. A child in a world too big and too harsh for him. The only answer that came was the tears from his eyes.
“You pathetic cunt.” Stone’s mouth was against his face, his hot breath blowing into his ear. “Pussies and arseholes get fucked. If he’s either, he’s fucked. If he’s still got some fight in him, he’s fucked. If you don’t shoot him the second he shows himself, then guess what? You. Are. Fucked! Now take a deep breath and open your eyes.” His voice was lighter now, almost soft. “You can’t shoot a man you can’t see. If you don’t neutralise the target, you know what will happen to you, and what’s the point of that? You won’t be saving his life because the moment I give the nod, Pierce here will do the job without a fraction’s hesitation. He’s a dead man walking. A zombie. He means nothing. When he reappears, you take the shot. One shot. That’s it. Then your shift is over. You can go back to your pad, get some sleep and wake up a man. Put your finger back on the trigger. Come on, lad. Do that for me and I’ll talk you through this, just like your first girlfriend telling you which hole to stick it in.”
“He’s someone’s son. A husband. A father. A brother. I can’t.”
“I don’t give a shit who he’s related to.” The vicious tone was back. “He isn’t my family, and he isn’t yours.” Stone was now standing behind him, and Powley heard a cold, clinical click. “I’ll give you to three to get your finger back on that fucking trigger, Private. One…”
Powley wondered if Stone had ever been like this? Fearful and afraid? Had he wrestled with his conscience before taking his first life? Or had he taken to dealing in death without a moment’s thought?
There was no time left to think. Powley opened his eyes, rested his finger on the trigger and looked down the scope at the figure, the zombie, the enemy soldier, the man, who at that very second emerged from his hiding place.
Powley didn’t shoot.
“You useless, cocksucking faggot,” bellowed Stone. “You just signed your own death warrant. Pierce, take the shot.”
Now a shot did ring out, and as Powley watched down his scope, he expected to see the man flung back by the bullet’s impact. Only he wasn’t. He didn’t even flinch. Pierce wasn’t the best shot, but he should have hit the target from that distance. The man took a step forward. Another shot, another miss. Powley continued to watch the magnified image in his scope, but he still couldn’t pick out the type of physical details he should have been able to at that range. His brain couldn’t process what his eyes were seeing with any degree of clarity. His was a world of shape and shadow, uncluttered by detail. He blinked, squinted, and tried to make out the approaching soldier’s features. For the first time he could clearly see the approaching target, but where there should have been a face there was nothing more than an empty blackness.
As he stared into that void, Powley could feel his mind unravel. He knew he was going to die, possibly right now, for disobeying Stone’s order. His life had come to this. All that effort at school, all that hard work to build up a business, only to die in a ditch for refusing to shoot an unarmed man.
Unarmed? How hadn’t he seen that before? They were shooting at an unarmed man. Powley stood, shouting as he did so that they were all murderers who would burn in Hell, when he was hit by a sharp and violent explosion of pain in the back of his skull.
He heard a voice in the scarlet- tinted darkness that swallowed him.
“Shut the fuck up, prick.”
* * *
Powley could only have been out for a moment, and as he regained consciousness he could see Stone cleaning the grip of his sidearm on his jacket. He felt blood running down his face. The rubber eyepiece that should have been fitted to his rifle’s scope had been missing since his second day of training, and he assumed he must have cut himself on it when his head had been thrust forward by Stone’s strike. He guessed the back of his head was bleeding too, but he didn’t pause to check. His concern was for the man Pierce was still trying to kill.
Raising his scope to his eye once more, Powley could see the man had lifted his left arm and was pointing it toward their position. His right arm was also raised, the elbow jutting out from his body, the hand just in front of the abyss that should have been his face. He was aiming an imaginary rifle, like a kid in a school playground.
Another gunshot rang out, and something warm and wet splattered against the side of Powley’s face. Pierce’s blood and brains. As Powley wiped himself in disgust, he felt something sharp embedded in his cheek and, without thinking, pulled it free. When he realised that the item he held was a shard of Pierce’s skull, he vomited against the wall of the trench.
Looking to his left, he saw Stone pulling the rifle from Pierce’s hands, before positioning himself against the trench wall.
“If you want something doing right. Then do it your fucking self. Now look down your scope, Private, and watch me kill this fucker, or I’m going to execute you first.”
The figure had moved closer, and Powley could now see the flag of the enemy embroidered on the breast pocket, an epaulette hanging loose from the left shoulder, but he still could not discern a face beneath the helmet. He scanned down the man’s body and could have sworn that a host of scorpions were creeping over his boots, but as soon as he looked again, they were gone.
That was it. He decided that he’d gone insane. A rational decision in the most irrational of circumstances. He looked again, everything now seen through a thin crimson veneer of rain-diluted blood running down over his eye. He heard Stone take a shot, curse, take another, curse again. Shoot again, and again, and again. The enemy soldier kept coming, bolt upright without missing a step despite the churned-up state of the muddy ground. When he reached the lip of the trench, covering the distance far more quickly than he should have, he stopped. As Powley held his breath, the figure spread his arms, clapped his hands in front of him and the world exploded.
Powley was thrown backwards into the wall of the trench. His body numb, his mind reeling and his eardrums shattered by the blast which he could now see had torn one of Stone’s arms from its socket and thrown it five feet from where it should have been. Stone was still alive, firing his rifle at the enemy. Impervious to the bullets hammering his torso, the man jumped down and lowered his head to Stone’s face. At the sight of whatever was beneath that helmet, Stone finally stopped shooting and began dragging himself away from the encroaching figure, hurling inaudible curses as he tried in vain to use his single arm and two crippled legs to reach a pace even approaching glacial. In seconds the figure was upon him.
Powley could only watch as Stone screamed a silent scream with tears streaming from his eyes before his head lolled to the side, a look of terror frozen on his dead face.
Rooted to the spot, Powley could do nothing as the figure now approached him. The man’s uniform was full of bullet holes, but there was no blood. Perhaps Stone had been right and this was a zombie after all, an enemy soldier brought back from the dead, a reanimated corpse ordered to lead the attacking troops into battle. His pulse raced as his heart thudded in his chest and his throat constricted with fear, threatening to choke the life from him and save the advancing monster the trouble.
Powley readied himself for the end as the monster squatted and raised its hands to its helmet. The helmet slid back, and the most beautiful face he had ever seen smiled at him. He had glimpsed insanity, and now looked upon infinity.
Numbness and fear departed his body and spirit, leaving a warm serenity which turned to bliss as the figure placed a hand against his cheek. The figure came closer, the deliverer of death to Stone now an angelic messenger sent to release him from his broken world. It cradled him in its arms as soundless explosions shook the ground beneath and held him tight as showers of mud fell upon them. Amidst the tumult and upheaval, he felt nothing but the lightest of kisses to his cheek. The kiss of a father wishing his son a good night’s sleep. All was peaceful and serene. It was a massacre, Powley’s regiment slaughtered as he watched. Most were cut down by automatic rifle fire, others, Walker included, burnt alive by flamethrowers spitting liquid hell. A tank swept over the top of the trench as silent as a summer cloud, crushing a man beneath it as it passed. It was as though he was watching it all on TV with the volume muted.
Yet more figures were now swarming over the side of the trench, but these were neither devils nor angels, and they weren’t zombies. They were men. Men with faces. Men like him. Men like Stone. Men like Pierce. The offensive was in full swing and destroying anything in its path. One of the enemy soldiers drove his bayonet into Stone’s chest, needlessly twisting it this way and that before pulling it free and approaching Powley, who greeted him with the kind of smile normally used when greeting an old friend. Powley was amazed that time stretched, allowing him the opportunity to wonder why this man was here, thousands of miles from home and with murder in his heart. Was he here by choice? A born killer like Stone? Or had men like Stone forced him to become a twisted by-product of the machine of war, humanity ripped from him to be replaced with animalistic aggression? Were those on each side really that different? The long bayonet was now pointing directly at him from underneath the cold black eye of the gun barrel. There would be no answers to his questions. The black dot at the end of the gun was a full stop at the end of his life.
As his hand rested on the Bible in his pocket he awaited the inevitable, feeling that he should be scared, though he wasn’t. Even now, comforted as he was by an angel’s embrace, he doubted the book held the answers to what would come next. Stone had been right about that. What it did contain was a picture of his family, a lock of his daughter’s hair and a drawing by his son of a sunny day. It was those which he had spent his time looking at, not the archaic dogma written in a text too small to read. It was those, as the figure holding him began to fade and the blade came down, that gave him peace.
Everything’s Annoying is available from Amazon for Kindle and in paperback here. Coming soon to Audible.
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