A cold grey mist slathers itself across the sky. The air is wet. Wool uniforms are wet. Feet are numb and wet. Skin puckers cold and thin. Fingers overly sensitive, every bramble, every hard tap feels like an injury.
There is the smell of burning diesel on the wind and an orange glow on the horizon of the forest on fire. Probably only kept at bay by the shitty weather.
Signs of an army on the run. Along with unburied shit and bodies rotting just out of sight in the treeline. They chase a defeated military. An undisciplined military. A military with nothing to lose.
The road is mud, inches deep,
A huge single turret track is stuck. The line is held up while a platoon is tasked to dig it out. The huge machine is loud with a protesting engine and the spray of mud under the useless rotation assembly.
Soldiers should never be kept waiting.
A man called Chappy hands a new private a canteen. The private is maybe sixteen. A week ago he was sleeping in his childhood bed eating meals cooked by his mama. And now he is a vet. He has killed. He was made to thrust a bayonet through the skull of a Polan bitch warrior.
None of the men use the polan bitches for sex. The rumor is they booby trap their nethers with razors.
Plus it is bad luck to foul the bodies of a warrior foe. Death is the warriors blessing. Rape or mutation just doesn’t happen.
Camp followers are a different story. Civilians also. Every Roman grunt fantasizes about finding a wee lass in a vulnerable spot.
The private lifts the canteen to his face. The smell of the ethanol inside makes him retch.
“Drink it, pup. It’ll put hair on your beans.”
The child eyes the older man, a brute with deep ragged scars on his face and a dark shadow of a beard constantly on his checks. His eyes are hollow and cold and his hands hard and quick to punch.
He lifts the canteen to his lips and takes a dainty sip and coughs and throws up his breakfast of hard tack.
A few other infantry standing nearby laugh as the join up in a loose circle. One takes the canteen from the youth and takes a huge draw. Sighing with contentment after he hands it down the line.
The youth gains control of his stomach, but his Helica Railgun feels heavy, slick and useless in his hands. He has yet to fire it. To him it is an inert thing. Finger disciplined and off trigger, but his mind wonders if the next firefight will be the one the old rifle will crap out on him. Every magnetic propelled round has the chance of killing the person who fires it. They just explode in the chamber. Maybe one in a thousand, maybe a soldier’s story, maybe it has never happened. But the truth is every soldier knows the senate does not care. Soldiers are fodder. Their use is in stopping rebellion. Stopping questions about imperial rule. There is little care for safety. Only for fear. Fear is generated so the soldier can do their job. Hesitate and get a mag round in the skull. The commanders love it. They are promoted not because they are good leaders but because the part of them that is human is dead.
There is a commotion up the line.
A whisper is quickly flung back to officers in the rear.
A man fell into a spike trap.
“Gristly death, that.”
“Common tact too for a retreating force.”
“Cowardly, but common.”
Six feet down and lined with sharpened tree limbs standing ready. One man falls, four have to carry him back for care, or most likely burial.
But of course he could be shot and put out of misery also.
Another rumor quickly follows the first he landed hard but escaped injury.
“Or maybe he is the unlucky one.”
“Maybe a leg injury would get him sent home, get him a check the rest of his life signed by the Caesar himself.”
“Be a hero, get whore house compensation and front row seats at the Colosseum.”
Nobody knows anything. Soldiers all talk shit. Nobody can read. So its just hearsay.
Maybe all rumors. Stories told around camp heaters. Tales while waiting for the order to charge into a firefight. Lies told to appear smart.
“This is the perfect day to be a soldier.” One of the grunts says to no one in particular, “This is the type of day that lives in a man’s soul. That if they make it home they can sit idle in their minds when they bask by the fire burning on a hearth. Nothing can occupy them outside the house. This is the type of day that helps make excuses for when it’s cold or rainy out.”
No one responds, but the canteen is passed back and forth. The youth is happy it doesn’t come to him again. His head spins from his single sip.
The track is pulled free.
“Fuck,” the beastly soldier whispers just as he gets his hootch back again.
The private looks up and sees two officers sitting on white horses. Both centurions look just as miserable as the private feels.
Without a smile the officer nearest the group of enlisted reaches out a hand and the man with the ethanol hands it over.
“Get back in line,” the officer commands before giving his mount a small kick with his heels to get him moving again.
The private watches as the officers work their horses through the mud sharing the liquor back and forth.