Breakdown

Cover#10

Illustration by Frank Wu

by Steven G. Johnson

 

Strike the earth and it will jump. Dust will spray, form a cloud, then settle as a fine grit in every crease of skin and every fold of clothes. Strike the earth fast enough, hard enough, and the dust will come alive like a Mexican jumping bean, skittering on a skillet too hot to stand on, not hot enough to kill.

The cloud of knee-high dust that ruled the dugout was never still. Shells whirled down above like murderous crows, cawing their two-second mockery before they plowed the earth. The dugout’s walls bulged and lunged like the sea in a storm, a storm borne to them through dirt and stone and frail timbers that framed a space for men to breathe.

Brian Furlough felt the dust explore his nostrils, riming his hairs with pale summer frost. His eyes were already wet, gummy with the mud that dust and optical humours combined to form, regardless of how little, or how much, the man who owned the eyes needed to cry.

For a moment, Furlough remembered a whitewashed porch on Hastings Street, a glass of cold, tart lemonade, a girl’s smile. But the smile was for someone else now; a fact which had more to do with why he was here in France than democracy and America and the perfidy of the Hun put together.

The platoon sat huddled, five lonely men, the last of fifty who had staggered up the pier in New York City under loads of blankets and ammunition. The blankets lay caked around them, weighing more of French mud than of good English wool. The bullets were gone, one by one into the darkness or belt by belt into the chattering jaws of the machine guns.

And the men had gone, too, one by one on night patrol or row by row, mown down by German guns in ceaseless attacks which had pushed the Hun back almost two miles since the Americans arrived, eight months ago. Replacements had come and gone, sometimes before he learned their names. Six commanding officers had come and gone, bearing less and less of the glitter of rank on their shoulderboards and in their bearing.

And now Furlough was in charge.

Furlough squeezed the sodden blanket closer to himself as another surge rocked the floor. His men were all awake, but they bore the dazed, unfocused stare of amputees. Three were volunteers like himself, fresh enough from civilian life to cling to the delusion (shared but never spoken) that their surroundings might just be a terrible dream, from which they might presently awaken with a feeling of shaken relief.

The fourth did not share that fantasy. His name was Pitts. He was a sergeant, and he was a Marine.

“Gettin’ further away,” Pitts said, working his jaw around a plug of tobacco. His words were a flat statement, but the tone required a comment, an affirmation.

“Yes,” said Furlough. That seemed inadequate, so he added,

“They’re hitting the second trenchline now. Working west to east, most likely.”

“Aah.” Pitts spat a stream of tobacco juice into the jumping cloud, parting it like a curtain. The juice hit with a flat slap and the dust swallowed its wake.

Furlough heard the whistle-whooosh-BOOM an instant before the ground slapped his thighs. Pitts was right—that one was further away. Or it was a smaller shell, but that wasn’t as likely. The Germans liked to use the same cannon to work the same section of the line, every time; in artillery as in all things, they were methodical, rational, predictable as clockwork, except when they got within arm’s reach.

Another shock rattled the dugout’s frame. They were definitely moving away now, Furlough was sure of it. He clung to the sudden conviction like a cat to a rope. Their reports were so much fainter, they must be miles down the lines—too far to shake the earth the way they were doing.

“Masks!” barked Pitts, clawing at the ever-present bag at his hip. The volunteers sat dumfounded, as helpless as Furlough himself to assimilate the new in the face of the old. Surely, the sergeant was losing his mind. Those sounds couldn’t be a danger to them, as far as they were—

And then he understood. Pitts was squeezing his face into a rubber mitt, with dirty glass lenses in front and a breathing tube for a mouth. Of course, the shells sounded quieter, thought Furlough as he ripped his own bag open. But they weren’t further away. They didn’t make as much of a bang—

The light turned a nauseous yellow-green as the sun grew dim.

—because they were gas shells.

Thick white smoke invaded the bunker, crawling low like the tentacles of a pale sea beast. The edges of their rifles, the metal of their buttons, gleamed an oceanic green where the light glinted through the gas. Chlorine, then, and not mustard. Chlorine did not attack the skin. As long as they avoided breathing it, they would be all right.

One of the three volunteers grabbed his chest and lurched erect, banging his helmet on the roof of the dugout. His mask strangled his voice, letting just the high-pitched wails through, drowning the meaning.

Not that his meaning was in any doubt, at that moment.

Pitts gave a shake of his head like a fractious horse. He reached into the settling dust, drawing back a cylindrical filter element clenched in his hand. He seized the young volunteer by the front of the mask, where the filter was supposed to fit. The man jerked back, out of Pitts’ grasp.

A fresh crump from outside blew more gas into the tiny enclosure. Pitts struggled with the volunteer, grappling for his face amid dust and chlorine clouds. The young man clawed at Pitts’ face, wild with terror, but his nails raked rubber as invulnerable to them as iron.

Furlough felt suddenly sick. He couldn’t breathe. He had to see the sun, if only for an instant. The sun was outside. Therefore, he had to get out.

He was moving without consciously willing it. He ran to the entrance, up the zigzag of the slanting tunnel, and out into the main trench. Men in greatcoats and gas masks hurried to their positions, stepping on duckboards to avoid sinking knee-deep in the rich black muck in the bottom of the trench. No one paid Furlough the slightest attention.

The sunlight there in the trench was green. Billows of chlorine rose over the lines like smoke from piles of autumn leaves. Back among the second and third lines, fresh jets of earth exploded skyward around burgeoning clouds of poison gas. In the other direction, the wrenched-up, battered waste of no-man’s-land slept quiet, for once, beneath a blanket of chemical fog.

Someone slapped him on the shoulder. Sergeant’s stripes on his greatcoat, globe and anchor on his tin hat. Pitts.

With him were the two other soldiers of the platoon. Furlough realized with a familiar shock that he had already written off the man in the dugout.

Pitts shouted something in his parade-ground rasp. Even through the mask, his meaning reached Furlough’s ears, as distinct as the dying man’s screams had been otherwise:

“It fell out. His filter just fell out.”

Furlough had to shout back.

“Keep your hand on your own, then. Don’t let yours fall out,” he said.

“Mine ain’t screwed in only half-a-way, like his’n.” He paused, as if seeking his memory for the missing word. It came to him.

“Sir,” he said at length.

Not for the first time, Furlough questioned the wisdom of brigading Army and Marine Corps troops together to form the Second Division. The Marines were veterans, seasoned in the endless “banana wars” in Latin America, some of them with ten years or more of combat experience. By contrast, the Army soldiers had enlisted less than a year before, and very few had ever heard a shot fired in earnest. All the experienced Army troops had gone to form the First Division.

But that was before, in another land and another time. The soldiers that were left were plenty experienced, Furlough remarked to himself. His hand found the filter element of his mask and twisted it tighter without any conscious decision. New reflexes had formed, or else their owners had taken their old reflexes to another place where they might, or might not, apply.

Pitts handed Furlough a Springfield rifle, a gas mask, and a bayonet in its scabbard.

“Meyer’s,” he said. Furlough hadn’t known the name of the choking man until then.

The shapes in the fog moved on, leaving Furlough and his men in a little green-tinged, mud-floored island of their own. He extended his periscope, a brass and walnut specialty of Abercrombie and Fitch, a gift from his mother on the first Christmas he had spent away from home, four months before. All he saw was fog.

“You think they’ll hit us?” he demanded, more stridently than he’d intended. It was unbelievably difficult to be both loud and calm.

“Never have yet,” Pitts opined. He turned his snouted head as if looking for a place to spit. “More skeered o’ gas than we are.”

One of the volunteers wanted to say something, but it came out muffled. Furlough was reminded of the man who choked—Meyer—of Meyer’s last words, whatever they were. He didn’t like the memory.

“Be quiet,” he said sternly. “They might try and rush us before the gas clears.”

“I tell yuh, the Hun’s skeert o’ gas, whether it’s our’n or his’n,” Pitts insisted. “He won’t—”

“Quiet!” Furlough screeched.

Pitts studied him with unblinking eyes.

“Aye-aye,” he said after a time. “Sir.”

They waited for the Germans to come, or the gas to lift. Presently his lenses became fogged by his breath. He didn’t really believe the Germans would come, but he wiped at them anyway. Foolish, because the fog was on the inside, but the outside of his lenses were foggy, too. However, those outer droplets were nothing like water.

The sky overhead turned white in a blazing instant. Furlough flattened his face into the mud, expecting a shock that would drive him under like a whale going deep. A horrid warbling screech, like fingernails being raked over a blackboard in relays, flayed his senses as it crescendoed first in one ear, then the other. So painful were the light and noise that Furlough wouldn’t have minded the explosion, if only that would make an end of it.

There was no explosion. A series of soft pops crossed the field from where the scream had died.

Furlough looked up. The blinding light was still present, as if the sun had landed just forward of the lines. Thick waves of white and green hid the source of the light, but it was still powerful enough to cast shadows like cones of gray cutting through the fog. Furlough heard a rasping sound like a file on metal, steady and prolonged, punctuated by a rattling bang like nails being driven, very fast. Once or twice there was a flare of bluish light that eclipsed the main glow with its burning intensity, banishing the shadows for an instant.

Furlough’s eyes hurt from the glare. He turned to look at his men. Pitts was sighting along his Springfield, one eye closed while the other lined up the sights on the center of the glow. The two volunteers lay motionless, staring. With their heavy coats hiding their bodies, he could not even be sure they were alive.

Furlough could not have said, later, why he took the liberty he then did. Considering the reputation of the Marines in general, and his experience with Pitts in particular, he had excellent reason to fear for his safety, even his life, by crossing his sergeant. But like his flight from the dugout, like his tightening of the mask, his action did not require deliberation or decision. His intent simply came to him, fully formed, in the moment that he acted.

Furlough put his hand on the Springfield’s barrel and pushed its muzzle to the ground.

Pitts jerked his head around, genuinely startled. There were no Germans within reach when he settled in to aiming, and no one else who would have the temerity to push his rifle down. So when he saw the young lieutenant’s mask staring at his own, lit a deep forest green by the distant glare, his mind at first could not fathom the occurrence.

Before he could, Furlough supplied something concrete, even familiar, to grasp. He said:

“It’s an aeroplane, Pitts.”

Pitts gaped, then nodded.

“It may be one of ours,” Furlough added. “Don’t shoot till we know.”

Pitts nodded again. He drew back his rifle, checked the muzzle for mud. Furlough snapped a bayonet onto Meyer’s rifle.

“We’d better get up closer in case we’re needed,” Furlough said. He tried to draw a deep breath through the stifling mask.

Then he spoke an incantation, a ritual assumption of death for the entire group, spoken by the one who would likely die first. It was the first thing they taught young officers to say.

“Follow me.”

They moved off down the trench line. A metallic buzzing like nothing on this earth swallowed the sound of their footsteps in the mud.

* * *

By the time Furlough’s platoon was directly abreast of the white glare, the gas clouds were all but dispersed by an imperceptible but continuous breeze. Thick greenish-white ribbons still clung to the edges of the duckboards, heavier than air, carrying poison into the mud and soil beneath the trench.

Rifle shots crackled fitfully up and down the line, Springfields and German Mausers. Furlough extended his Christmas periscope above the parapet. He steadied his focus on the center of the glow, directly northeast and perhaps seventy yards distant.

He took a step back, off the duckboard. His shoe sank into caustic mud, but Pitts and one of the volunteers caught his shoulders by the straps of his greatcoat. They steadied him before he went in any further.

“What is it, sir? What d’yuh see?” Pitts wanted to know.

Furlough wiped the lenses of the periscope carefully on his lapels, the least muddy portion of his clothing. Then he looked again.

As before, the periscope showed him a silver object about the size of a one-horse barn. It was pear-shaped, the broad end facing him, and surrounded by a glow like an incandescent lamp. The thing’s silvery surface did not glow, itself; rather, it was as if an invisible container, the same shape as the thing but a bit larger, surrounded it and gave off the glow.

A portal opened in one side of the thing. As he watched, heads appeared silhouetted by greenish light from within, retreated, vanished. The portal closed.

“What is it? Is it one of ours?” Pitts demanded from beside him.

“See for yourself,” Furlough said, and passed him the scope. Privately, inside the sweaty confinement of his mask, he added,

“Damned if I know.”

Pitts looked, and swore. He passed the scope back.

“No aeroplane I ever seen. Yuh reckon it lost its wings?”

“It’s metal, Sergeant. That isn’t a plane,” Furlough said.

“What, then?”

What indeed. “Maybe some kind of tank.”

“Ours? Or theirs?”

“Can’t be ours.” Of that much, Furlough was mortally sure.

“Mebbe it’s French, then?” Pitts suggested.

“Could be.”

Furlough didn’t remember seeing any markings. But he wanted to make sure. He looked again. The portal was closed now, but something was moving on the ground near the thing. He adjusted the periscope lens to focus in closer and stuck it up again. The moving something was an arm, reaching out of a shellhole still filled with heavy gas.

“Someone’s alive out there!” he exploded.

“Not for long,” Pitts said. “Listen.”

A machine-gun cut the gloom to their left. It sounded like an American Lewis gun, but he couldn’t be sure.

“Them First Division boys ain’t shootin’ at spooks, that’s certain sure,” said Pitts. “An’ when them Huns starts a’comin’, they don’t stop for nothin’. Less’n yuh kills ’em all. An’ sir—there ain’t near enough o’ the Big Red One left tuh stop a first-class attack. Not after thet dammit-all winter.”

The machine-gun sputtered again. The arm waved wildly, clearly trying to attract attention. When the machine-gun stopped, the arm stopped waving and hung, half in, half out of the hole.

“Leave ’im be, sir. Poor shote’s gonna die, ’nother minute or two, with all thet gas in ’im. Better we’d be lookin’ to rustle up a Browning, or even a machine-gun, before…”

Furlough handed him the periscope.

“He’s got a mask, you fool,” he said crisply. He was outside himself again, running on intuition. “Cover me.”

“Sir,” said Pitts, “them Huns’ll be here any minute—”

“Then we’ve got to get him now, don’t we?”

Furlough stepped over the parapet in one giant step, pumping his legs straight down to avoid slipping in the mud. Peeking over the top was no good, his last commander had said. Be up and over before the other fellow knows what’s happened, and keep moving.

Sound advice, and borne out in practice. His last commander hadn’t been killed going over the top. He’d been found by an artillery shell, which didn’t care how well concealed he was or how swiftly he darted from cover.

Furlough was fifty yards from the trench when the first bullet pocked the mud to his front. Then there were two, almost simultaneous, to his right and left. His last two steps were into a rain of spattering mud, kicked up by a dozen or more shots tearing the ground at his feet. But the Germans had had precious little time to aim, and none of them found their mark.

One hand on his rifle, one hand on his gas mask cylinder, he toppled headfirst into the crater.

As he had guessed, the bottom was full of water, six inches or more. He jerked his head up as quick as he could to avoid getting his filter element wet. Activated charcoal worked well enough when moistened, but if it became waterlogged, it would cut off his air as effectively as poison gas.

He saw, through the heavy layer of gas, that the other fellow still had his hand outside the hole. He seized the arm to haul it in.

The arm was short and bent the wrong way. He turned the man over, hoping he was still alive.

He was not a man.

The head was too small, and too round. The mouth was huge, round and toothless, fringed with small fingerlike projections around the bottom and sides. There was no nose, just a cluster of whiskers above the mouth. The eyes were two, set further apart than a man’s, large and deep blue with no hint of iris or pupil. The entire face was deeply furred, the color of asphalt.

The fellow’s neck was almost two feet long, but the rest of him was short and compact. A pearl-white garment covered most of his upper body, leaving the stumpy legs bare. He couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, even counting the elongated neck.

“Lurgggh,” came a sound from the great, wet mouth. The creature touched Furlough’s shoulder with great, blunt nails on the end of leathery fingerpads. Its eyes were directly aligned with the lenses of his mask. “Lurgggh.”

It tried to sit up, and Furlough tugged it down again. Renewed gunfire cracked overhead.

“Stay down,” he urged the creature. “Stick your head up and they’ll shoot it off.”

“Lurgggh,” it insisted. It pointed toward the silver tank or plane.

The pear-shaped plane still glared like the sun at high noon, but something in its chroma had changed. Furlough reached for his periscope, remembered giving it to Pitts, and grimaced.

“Sorry, friend—”

“Lurrgggh, lurrgggh,” said the creature. It tried to sit up again. This time, when Furlough pulled it down, he saw the rip in the pearlescent fabric and the wound in the white flesh beneath midnight fur.

“All right, fellow—Lurg, is it? Just lie still,” he insisted.

He pressed Lurg’s shoulders into the dirt hard enough to make his point. Then he stuck his head up above the lip of the crater.

He saw the portal was open again. There was a figure in the doorway, of the same general proportions as Lurg and dressed similarly. A cascade of greenish-white gas belled out of the opening.

That was enough. He ducked down fast enough to lose his helmet, but fast enough to beat the bullet that cracked overhead just after.

Lurg groaned, a surprisingly human sound. He pointed at the ship just a few yards away. He stared into Furlough’s eyes, his expression unreadable.

“Why can’t you make it, fellow?” Furlough asked. “You’re not hit that bad.”

Lurg closed his eyes. He held his side with one hand. Now that the chlorine was thinning, Furlough could see a greenish jet, like steam, puff from the wound in time with the rise and fall of the creature’s chest.

“But then, you’re no kind of soldier, are you? No—and you can’t hold your breath, either.”

Furlough opened Meyer’s gas mask bag. He fanned the mask around the bottom of the crater, filling it with chlorine. The mask fit easily over Lurg’s face; in fact, it made a tight seal at the base of his neck, swallowing his whole head.

The filter tube jiggled in its fitting. Furlough screwed it in tight with his free hand.

Slinging the creature over both shoulders in a fireman’s carry, he braced his feet as best he could on the wall of the crater opposite the ship. He waited, and when he felt Lurg take a breath, he pushed off and ran up the side of the hole, over the top and onto the uneven ground beyond in one continuous rush.

This time there were only a few shots; evidently, no one had expected him to run straight toward the machine. All went wide.

The portal had been closing, but now it dilated, to twice its earlier dimensions. Several beings of Lurg’s race stood with arms outstretched to receive him as Furlough tipped his burden forward into the portal.

They caught him. Chlorine issued in a cloud around him, blurring their outlines. They turned to him, and as the portal closed, Furlough saw one of them pry the mask off Lurg’s head. Lurg’s eyes sought and found Furlough; the long-nailed hands took the gas mask and held it up, holding it out to him.

Then the portal closed. Using the silver shape as a shield, Furlough ran hunched over back to the American lines. A machine-gun started up just as he reached the parapet, clipping his heel and toppling him head-over-teakettle into the trench in a cloud of chemical dust.

Sergeant Pitts caught him before he dashed his brains out against the duckboards.

“Sir? Sir?” he shouted, but even his stentorian roar was washed out by the catastrophe of sound that boiled out of the silver shape between the trenches. The vessel—for such it clearly was—flickered at a dazzling frequency as its surrounding glow collapsed to touch the metal hull. It left the ground, swaying not straight up, but somewhat northeast, toward the German lines.

A line of machine-gun tracers reached up, stitching the side of the craft and spattering away in clouds of sizzling yellow bits that dimmed to red and went out before they struck the ground. The craft seemed undamaged; it floated low over the ground until it was directly over the machine gun crew. Then the glow seemed to gather itself, to deepen in hue toward a dazzling violet, and all at once the silver craft became a streak of light that flashed into the sky like a line ruled by a draftsman, and was gone.

Nothing remained on the ground beneath save a smoking, flattened plain of mud baked hard as brick. A dark track through the centre of the plain marked the location—the former location—of the German trench.

“Whew!” said Pitts. “What monsters!”

“You saw them, then?” Furlough said.

“Left me this gadget, dincha?” Pitts said, indicating the periscope. “Neck like a giraffe, legs like an elephant—and that face! Pee-yew! Whatever possessed yuh?”

Furlough scratched the back of his head. The rubber straps holding his mask in place itched terribly against his muddy hair.

“They weren’t Germans, Pitts. They were just—travelers, I guess. Motorists, aviators. Maybe they had a breakdown and went to repair it, somewhere they could find enough chlorine to breathe. Only the chlorine went away, and the Germans came, and one of them was stranded away from the boat.”

“Or maybe they set down for some other reason. It doesn’t matter. He needed help to stay alive. I helped him.”

Pitts scratched his head.

“What d’yuh mean, it don’t matter? Ain’t it hard enough to stay alive already, without yuh gotta risk yer neck for some Martian?”

Far away, artillery boomed, making the dust jump.

“You’re right, it is hard to stay alive. They certainly got that impression, from the first time they landed here,” Furlough said. He pointed out at the baked circle in the ground, at vents of steam and shining puddles that were once men and guns.

“The Germans are bad enough, Pitts. Now look over there and tell me—would you really want to be fighting them, too?”

Pitts followed the finger with his eyes. Neither man used the periscope, yet nothing moved as far as they could see.

At this moment, in this place, nothing and nobody was trying to kill them. And as they realized that, Furlough and Pitts felt for what seemed like the first time a mysterious, mutual, glorious absence of fear. It was the purest happiness they could imagine.

Far above, a violet streak cut the sky from right to left, dwindling as it dimmed until it merged with the setting sun.

Soldiers

Illustration by Frank Wu

 

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