The old soldier looked down at the photograph of the forgotten hero in his hand. He'd known the name once that had belonged to that face. The photograph was creased and faded, softened by time. When had it been new and crisp, colors clear and bright? Oh, I knew many things once, but the years go marching by. At least, he thought, I think I knew things once, but perhaps I knew nothing then and have forgotten that too.
Nothing now except the whine and thump. Whine-thump, whine-thump. And sometimes whine-THUMP if it was closer. He heard it in his dreams. He couldn't sleep without it.
The woman in green, he dreamed of her, although he couldn't recall her name. But she was important once, wasn't she? Or else why would he remember her. She glittered for him, held in his arms. She was warm and light as air, trembling with nerves. Why nerves? Was someone watching as they danced? He couldn't see anyone else, only her face and the breathless concentration in it as they'd turned and swept, lightheaded in the brightness. You're one in a million; did I tell her that?
He set the photo back on the shelf. His watch had been lost or broken, he didn't know which, ages before, but he tried to stick to the right time. He guessed by following the path of the sun. He gathered the last of his ammunition and robotically went through the drill of load, lock, fire. Strange that he'd once found this hard to do.
Well, he thought as he slumped back against the mud, it's all gone now.
Later he woke and everything was quiet. Something's wrong. For a clear minute he didn't know what this was. When did I last hear the guns? It was silence that had woken him.
Have we won? He thought this without any enthusiasm. Too tired, too old to be glad. Will I go home?
But here's my home. This trench. What''s home but where you live? This trench, where all my memories live. Where I saw Doug and Phil get blown up. Where I buried them after, under this mud. How long is it? Fifteen years? Twenty?
He was nearing the end of his supplies. Even the dry biscuits, which he hated, were down to the last packet. Three months worth and he'd got through them. No wait. That was three months for the three of us. What's that? Nine months? Is it really that long since I saw anyone?
We must've won. So where is everybody?
Or we've lost maybe.
Hell, he thought finally. No more biscuits, no more anything. To hell with them, I'm not staying here to starve. I've waited - what, a week? Is it a week since they stopped?
He picked up the stick he'd notched and counted off ten days. But how did he know he hadn't notched it twice now and then? Or missed a day out?
He filled his pack with the last useful bits and the water, and stood, knees creaking. His hand grasped the ladder and slowly he hauled himself up.
When's the last time I did this? How'd the sun get so bright?
He blinked and stared across an expanse of gray. It was empty, utterly quiet, featureless apart from the ridges and hummocks of trenches and bomb-craters. He stood at the edge on limp, wrung-out legs, trembling and feeling horribly exposed. There was too much space everywhere. The sky too big. He fought an urge to jump straight back in the trench. Back to the familiar mud walls like a cocoon around him.
In the dead quiet he began to walk. Everywhere was the same, unnervingly still apart from the wind that blew stinging rain like mist into his eyes. He averted his gaze from the trenches after a while as there was nothing to see but broken bodies. Odd limbs in various states of decay littered the pits, some corpses almost whole. Once he saw a man sitting, arm resting casually on a bent knee. Untouched, his mouth open as if he was just about to speak. Above that mouth was nothing, just raw red flesh with flies around it buzzing.
He'd never trusted what was said. None of it. You looked for the things no one said. In the gaps, in the cracks, that's where the bad news hid.
He limped on, in boots that had become a part of him and nearly walked over the man. If he hadn't caught that sudden intake of breath he'd have carried on oblivious. The other soldier was in gray.
I walked across the lines, he thought. Clean across no-man's-land without a scratch. God knows how many mines I missed.
Mines - I forgot about the mines.
The soldier in gray had a gun, and was aiming it. He had a dirty bandage around his left leg. His pale finger tightened on the trigger.
Silence. Silence that sucked away everything else, that pressed, that oppressed, that was static in the air.