Artillery boomed, but to him it was no more noticeable than the rumble of distant thunder. He was used to it. He had grown used to it. Part of him suspected he had been born used to it. He was born used to many things. The shrill wail of the quartermaster’s whistle. The grave-like stench of upturned earth. The rat-a-tat-tat of heavy stubbers and the sharp crack of lasguns.
The fetid taste of trench water.
He could not remember a time where these things were unpleasant to him. They simply were. He did not fear these things, for they were not things meant to be feared. Even the prospect of his own death did not disturb him. Death in service to the Emperor was its own reward. In death, there was peace. In death, there was atonement.
The duckboards beneath his feet quaked in time with the sound of boots running in his direction. He stepped to the side, pressing himself as tight as he could against the trench wall. Several troopers rounded the bend up ahead. They were all dressed like him, in dirty grey overcoats, steel, bowl-shaped helmets, and gas masks that obscured their faces. They were nameless, the only markings on their uniform denoting the unit and regiment they belonged to. Even the way they ran was indistinguishable from each other, a gait drilled into them by a lifetime of training. Like automatons. These men would fight and die beside him, and he would likely never know their names, never know their faces.
Just as they would never know his.
He waited a moment after the troopers passed. The water beneath the duckboards shivered with the shuddering of the earth. He caught a glimpse of his reflection. A gas mask beneath a bowl-shaped helmet, staring lifelessly up at him from the muddy water. He suddenly found it hard to distinguish himself from the corpses that floated face up in the basins of flooded shell craters.
He filed past more troopers as he continued down the length of the trench. Some sat on ammunition crates, fruitlessly trying to clean the mud out of their weapons. Their motions were precise to the point of being robotic, as if they were made with no real intent other than to simply pass the time. Others leaned against the wood revetments, their lasguns slung over their shoulders, arms held straight against their sides, content to simply stand at attention and wait for the inevitable. If any of them looked at him, he couldn’t tell. Their faces were obscured by their gas masks.
Wailing alarms accompanied the shouted warning. The trench suddenly filled with action. Troopers that had been stock still the moment before flung themselves into the relative safety of dugouts and bunkers, like statues suddenly possessed of life and the will to preserve it.
The first shell landed just behind the trench, shaking the earth and sending up a plume of mud and dirt. The next landed behind him. In an instant, twenty meters of trenchworks disappeared in a flash of high explosives. A third struck the lip of the trench, close enough for the blast to lift him from his feet and toss him like a ragdoll against the earthworks. He hit the duckboards hard, then hands grabbed him, and suddenly he was underground.
The dugout was dark. The lumin globes hanging from the rafters were all dead, their casings cracked, and bulbs shattered. What little light there was came from a gas lamp perched on an upturned crate near the middle of the room. There were a dozen other troopers inside, all waiting for the bombardment to stop so they could get on with the next act of this play. None looked up or acknowledged him as he got to his feet.
He made his way towards the back of the dugout, keeping to the perimeter of the space and the pool of lamplight that filled it. His boot struck something metallic. He looked down. A bucket had been placed on the floor, strategically positioned to catch water seeping through the ceiling overhead. Each drop struck the water in the pail with a rhythmic plonk.
Staring up at him from within the pail was his reflection, faceless and masked. He stared back. For how long, he wasn’t sure. Slowly, he raised a hand and placed it over his face. Fingers gripped the treated rubber that obscured it. He pulled the mask up, and the reflection in the water changed.
A man looked back. His face was drawn and gaunt, his skin pale and marked with scars. His eyes were dark, matching the crop of hair that had managed to escape. His lips were thin, drawn back in the perpetual grimace of someone who had only ever known war and hardship.
So this was what he looked like.
Did the others look the same?
A whistle’s shriek pierced the air. Immediately, the troopers in the dugout jumped to their feet, grabbed their guns, and charged outside. In that same instant, his mask came back down. The face in the water disappeared. He gripped his weapon and joined the rush. They all knew what came next.
The air smelled of sulfur and scorched earth as he jumped onto a firing step and aimed his weapon. Somewhere to his left, a heavy stubber opened up with its telltale rat-a-tat-tat. Troopers took shots at shadows moving through the smoke that choked no-man’s-land. He did the same, his lasgun barking as he squeezed the trigger. This was what he knew. This was what they all knew. War.
The knowledge of it rose to the fore of his mind and subsumed everything else. Barrage, attack, counter-attack, repeat. A dance he had been born knowing. A dance he would die performing. There was nothing else. The face in the bucket was just a fading memory.
A memory swallowed by trench water.
About the Author
Greg Williams is a historian by profession. He has been writing for over a decade and has been involved in the Warhammer hobby for even longer. Greg writes primarily as a hobby, but does have professional aspirations. He has been published previously by the Jack London Foundation and Cold Open Stories.