Back to the Great War (of the Worlds)
I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season.
Mine was great. We stayed home, which is my favorite way to celebrate, and I worked on revisions of my novel. That was the first time I spent the holidays doing that, and well, let’s not do that again.
Thanks for reading Are You Not Entertained?! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
I also finalized the cover:
The book is with beta readers right now, and depending on their feedback it will be available on Amazon in March or April.
I’m still a little fried, so this week I’m going to share chapter #1.
Have a great week!
Emil launched himself out of the parapet and into No Man's Land. His throat tightened as he hurled himself downrange toward danger. *Find the enemy gunners and kill them.* Those were his orders. *Kill those other men who don’t want to be here any more than you do.*
115... 114... 113...
He focused on staying low as he scanned for cover, keeping an eye out ahead. Fritz Seith pulled away as he ran to Emil’s left. Seith always outran Emil, no matter how hard he tried to keep up. A natural forward to his midfielder back in their school days.
Knots of barbed wire forced him into a serpentine path. There were still blotches of vegetation scattered between the wire, and less erosion than one would expect considering the rain of the past two days.
This place had been someone’s livelihood. A few weeks ago, it had fed a family. Soon it would be an abattoir. For the third time in a couple of weeks, Emil was leading an advance across a crudely built Belgian front.
110… 109… 108…
He threw himself to the ground and low-crawled behind one of the pockmarked wooden barrels that the tangles of wire had come from. The pounding in his ears slowed as he caught his breath, and he remembered to keep his face down so the enemy gunners couldn't see the condensation. Up ahead, Seith hurled himself to the ground, face down, almost as if he read Emil’s mind.
Rotting asparagus stalks jutted out from one side of the barrel. The leaves drooped, mourning their loss. Emil held his breath and raised his head and to look for a place to go next.
94… 93… 92…
In 90 seconds the rest of the company would charge. Emil and Fritz needed to get as close as they could to the Belgian trench and kill the enemy machine gunners before they could fire on the charging men of Third Company.
Unteroffizier Oberacker always chose Emil and Fritz for this job because they were the smallest, the fastest, and worked best together. But that didn't mean Emil got used to it.
The count took over, a meditation for thinking too much.
86… 87… 85…
He rolled to his right, jumped up, and ran behind a berm in the middle of No Man's Land. Fritz found another about 200 meters away.
80… 79… 78…
The sun was high enough to hang behind the enemy trench to the east, interfering with visibility. They were attacking into the rising sun: a bold move. They were rolling over Belgium so easily it seemed the officers didn’t think they could lose.
The rising sun started to cut through the morning chill, but No Man's Land remained a cold and muddy shambles. Emil’s knees sunk into the ground as he peered over the berm and spotted a machine gunner from the glint of his gun barrel. Either no one had shown him how to dull the metal with mud and oil, or he was just as sloppy as this field. Emil scowled and tried to bring himself back to the count. It was a safe bet the enemy gunner was barely 18 and had a life dominated by schoolwork and schoolgirls just a few months ago.
Emil scanned the line to either side of the gunner. There must have been at least two more gunners to the south.
He rolled to his left and stopped. No response. Staying in a crouch, he advanced to a half-broken barrel 25 meters downrange. Seith appeared and started toward the next bit of cover in front of him.
The whistle blew.
They're sending them in early? But he and Fritz hadn’t taken out any gunners yet. The Belgians would cut the men to pieces.
At least three enemy gunners sprang to life. Emil dove back behind the barrel, took a deep breath, then poked his head round and looked toward where Fritz was. He was lying face down on the field. Bile rose in Emil’s throat. Fritz hadn’t expected the early whistle either, so hadn’t been behind cover. Emil jumped up, sighted the flash of the enemy gun, fired, then dropped behind the berm. Behind him, the rest of his platoon advanced. Rounds flew over his head from both sides.
Fritz shifted, struggled to his hands and knees, then scooted forward to the nearest berm. Emil breathed a sigh of relief.
He jumped up again and fired another round toward the enemy position. No response. He could still hear the other gunners firing, but the advancing men kept them busy. Maybe the gunner was already dead or had fled. Emil ran in a crouch and reached Seith at a full trot, nearly landing on his face as he reached him.
“Are you OK?” Emil gasped as he wiped mud from his chin.
“Yeah, got lucky,” Seith said with a smile. He held up a fold of fabric in his trousers, showing where a bullet went clean through.
“Through and through!” Seith said and laughed.
Emil dropped his head down toward the mud again, sighing in relief. He’d known Fritz since they were kids playing Fußball back in Euleheim. Losing his best friend here, in a field in Belgium, was unthinkable.
“I guess we might as well get this guy together?” Fritz said.
“He’s quiet now. I might have got him, or maybe he ran,” Emil said. “The rest of the platoon is about to get here, anyway. If I didn’t get him, then Fluse’s early start will.”
“So he sent them early? Idiot. I thought I had lost the count.”
“No, it he did. Maybe he thought he’d get a promotion if he took that hole in the ground 70 seconds earl— “
The whistle blew again, but three sharp blasts this time.
“Gas?” Seith said, his eyes huge. He reached down for his mask.
Emil took his mask from his belt and slid it on in one practiced motion, but no matter how many times he’d done it before, gas was always terrifying. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as he looked toward the German position, expecting to see a cloud of yellow-brown mustard gas.
Instead, a roiling mass of black smoke swelled across the field, moving from behind the German trench and toward them.
They’re back? A weight dropped in his stomach. He started gasping for air as the mask closed in to smother him. Sweat broke out on his brow.
Breathe in. Breathe out. He practiced the mask drills he learned years ago in basic training.
The Martians have returned? But they’d dropped dead nearly twenty years ago.
He sat up and reflexively held the lenses on his mask steady, trying to peer through the smoke for a Martian Wanderer dispersing the Smoke. Emil had seen Black Smoke when the Martians attacked Euleheim. He'd seen more than that.
He struggled to take another deep breath and listened for the sound of a Wanderer’s steel feet or the terrible hum of a heat ray.
No. Not again. They can't be back.
The lethal smoke reached them and brought Emil back to the present.
“Fritz, are they really here?” Emil shouted over the shooting and his mask. “I don’t see anything, do you? Let’s run for the Belgian trench. We can’t get trapped like we were back home.”
He batted at the thick Black Smoke, looking for his friend. Fritz lay on the ground a few meters away, his mask askew. Emil’s heart raced as he reached for his friend and grabbing at the mask and trying to fix it.
“No! Fritz! Wake up!”
He heard troops run past, but he couldn't nmake out friend or foe through the quick smoke. Somewhere downrange, a lone Belgian gunner still fired.
“Medic! Help!” Emil shouted as he struggled with the mask, trying to get it straight on Fritz's head.
The sweat ran into his eyes and he nearly dislodged his own mask trying to wipe it with his sleeve. Then he saw the holes, one on each cheek of Fritz’s mask. Bullet holes. He looked at Fritz’s mask pouch on his belts and saw the same two holes.
Through and through.
Fritz was dead. Killed by a bullet that never touched him. He had survived that day on the Fußball field, when the Martians had attacked, only to be killed by a damaged mask in a foreign field.
A bullet didn’t kill Fritz, a career-obsessed Leutnant did.
More men ran past, but Emil still didn’t see any sign of attacking Martians. The men were from the 109th, running toward the Belgian positions, though, so it seemed to be the safe place to head to.
Emil picked his friend up in a fireman’s carry and started that way. He wouldn’t leave Seith for the Martians. Waves of smoke nearly blinded him, and he stepped carefully, afraid to get stuck in the clots of barbed wire.
The smoke sank, an ebony pall draping itself over a dying field. As it settled, the smoke left a ptch black residue, and the sunrise lit a very real hell.
The outlines of the machine gunner’s nest that had been Emil’s biggest problem until a few minutes ago were about 100 meters to the east. Emil headed that way, picking up his pace as he listened for a Wanderer or a heat ray.
He nearly walked into the black mass of a barrel and a large patch of overgrown asparagus. An alien powder scroched its leaves. A dead soldier sprawled across the barrel, black dust still settling on his helmet and back as if he fell asleep next to a coal shuttle. Near him lay three more men, one of them tangled in barbed wire and not quite covered with dust yet. Emil swallowed hard and tried to catch his breath under his mask.
He reached the gunner’s nest and craned his neck to look in. The gunner was only a boy. His right hand gripped the stock of his gun, and his left the trigger. The barrel still shined in the sunlight. A single bullet hole sat right between his eyes. Emil’s stomach heaved. Did he make that shot?
No, it must have been someone else.
He found a ladder and climbed down without dropping Seith. German voices rose as he descended into the gloom.
“Who’s that?” thundered the deep voice of Ludwig Oberacker, recognizable even as it strained to overcome his gas mask. Ludwig was the Unteroffizier of Third Platoon, Third Company, and a man born to the role. Large, intimidating, and dedicated to the Kaiser’s Army.
Emil hoisted Seith off his shoulder and laid him on the floor of the trench, wiping the black powder off of his dead friend before he answered. He looked around. No Belgian casualties. The boy had been guarding an empty trench.
“Who is that?” Ludwig said again as he stomped over to intercept Emil.
“It’s Zimmerman. And Seith,” Emil said as he pointed at the body.
Ludwig stopped and stared at Emil, then looked at the body.
“You carried him down here?”
“He couldn’t make it on his own.”
Ludwig looked at the body. Seith’s mask was hanging off his head to one side, and his arms and legs lay in an unnatural pose. Ludwig stood still, looking at Emil through the fogged lenses of his mask. Before he could answer, shouting rose a few meters down the trench.
“All clear! All clear!”
The smoke was gone. It has settled in the trench, leaving a black stain on the walls. It drained the light from the trench so it wasn’t much easier to see when Emil pulled off his mask.
“What happened?” Ludwig asked. “And why did you bring him here? We have crews to recover the dead.”
“I didn’t want to leave him for the Martians,” Emil asked.
“Martians?” Ludwig tilted his head and eyed Emil up and down.
“Yes, the Martians. This is their smoke, isn’t it?” Emil pointed to the dust on the ground.
Ludwig sighed, and his shoulders fell in a half-shrug. “No. That’s German smoke. The Martians have been dead for a long time, Emil,” he said, and folded his mask.
“We used that? We used Black Smoke to take an empty trench?” Emil clenched his fists.
“Yes. We did. Apparently the Pioneers got their signals crossed and thought we needed the support.”
Fritz had been killed by friendly fire. By a weapon that Germany had agreed, along with the rest of the world, to never develop or use after the first Martian Attack.
Nearly a year ago, terrorists celebrated New Year's Day by killing Franz Ferdinand, younger brother to the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, and his family in their castle. The Bosnians had used Black Smoke. The Kaiser’s righteous indignation over their use of an illegal weapon was one of the many reasons he started a war.
“Needed the support? Just like that? They thought we needed support and deployed the same weapon that started this war?”
“Calm down, Emil. We’ve talked about this. You’re going to get yourself in trouble. Why don’t you tell me what happened to Seith?” Ludwig spoke slowly and lowered his voice as he held out his hands.
Emil felt the sweat return to his brow, and the pounding in his ears grew louder. He took a deep breath that was more about preparing to speak than to calm down.
“His mask had a bullet hole from when that idiot Leutnant sent you out too soon. A gunner opened up on us and got him before he found cover.”
Ludwig grimaced. “Look, Emil…”
“So the Pioneers released the smoke and Fluse sent you out too fast. He got Seith shot and then gassed with German Black Smoke. He can count that body twice.” Emil took a step forward, clenching his fists again.
Ludwig frowned again, but didn’t step back. He locked eyes with Emil.
Before either man could speak, Leutnant Fluse appeared, pushing a hapless corporal out of his way to join their conversation.
Fluse was a tall, thin man with a weak chin and, somehow, a spotless uniform.
“Sergeant. Gather up your men. We’re moving to the next position. This one’s too primitive—what the hell is that body doing here?” Fluse’s face grew red, and he pointed at Seith as if he were a messy bunk or a pair of unshined boots.
"His name is Seith." Emil said.
"What is it doing here?" Fluse screamed, his voice gaining an octave.
“*He* is the man you got killed, idiot!” Emil shouted. His vision clouded as adrenaline surged through his body.
“What did you call me?” The Leutnant shrieked.
Ludwig stood between the two men, looking back and forth like a line judge at a tennis match between two madmen.
“I called you an idiot,” Emil said, and then tried to push his way past Ludwig to get to the officer.
He clenched his fists and wound up to throw a punch.
Only Ludwig placing his bulk between them stopped Emil from killing Fluse.
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