Dupeche raised his firearm. Where had all this sweat come from? Why did the butt shake and slip through his fingers? Was the ground moving? Voices blared over the inter-com, fire raced through the sky. Somewhere, something was crying, maybe a dog or a child, it was too hard to tell. The war had stripped away all detail and all that was left were the inherent meanings; hot, cold, fear, death, fire, kill. That must be why he couldn’t remember where the sweat had come from. War was killing the past, it went straight into Dupeche’s brain and cut it out with fire and steel, and all that was left were the inherent meanings; live, die, shadows, fear. Fear most of all. Dupeche was shaking. Why was he shaking? When had that started?
Someone was shouting into the inter-com. They could be dying or they could be ordering the troops. It wasn’t easy to tell. Dupeche stood beside four other soldiers. He didn’t know their names. He just called them Glados, Silver-Bread, and Boy. And Eliza. They weren’t in his regiment. They may not have even been his countrymen. Countries didn’t matter. They were from the past and war had seen to that. Glados was tall and lean, her hair cut short so that Dupeche could see her pretty eyes. Silver-Bread was shorter, but broader, he smoked and made Glados blush. Boy was small, and blond, and though he lied about it, Dupeche knew he couldn’t shave because instead of a razor, he carried some old, bent game cards with pictures of fire and ice and warring swords. Whenever things grew quiet, and they were ever at risk of forgetting the war, those cards made Dupeche think about it all over again.
Dupeche had to fight hard to work these memories, he had to sift through possibly years of destroyed truths, happenings eroded by the war, and pull them from that shapelessness. As he did, they came back in parts, flesh-sloughed, cowering, malformed. He could piece them together as best he could, but, they were never perfect, never whole. They were Frankenstein’s monsters of memories – putrid and swollen and ungainly.
Eliza was on the ground beside Dupeche. Her hand was soft and dark in his. He couldn’t remember taking it in his, but then, he couldn’t imagine a world in which Eliza’s hand wouldn’t be found in his. As far as he could tell, they’d been that way forever. He didn’t want to let go because he had no idea what would happen if he did.
They sat behind a crumbling wall. At one point, it may have been a barn, or a mill; full of old stonework and great wooden beams, and a rapidly fading scent of hay and dirt. Now, the stonework was crumbling and the wooden beams were rotted and burnt, Dupeche could feel the heat from the fire that had scorched the stones. His leg was at an odd angle. When had that happened? He could see the blood, then feel the pain. He struggled to his feet – his leg could take his weight, but it made him wince. The blood looked old and dried. The ground was warm beneath Dupeche, and smoking in places. A crater. That’s what it was. The Angels didn’t have guns or bullets or intercoms or bombs, but they had Holy Fire. And when it rained from the sky, there wasn’t much Dupeche or anyone could do but hide and hope.
The roar of guns chewed at the sky and the fire.
Eliza was quiet, lying in the dirt. Her hand was still in Dupeche’s.
“Their line’ll break soon,” Silver-Bread was saying.
“What makes you so sure?” Boy was nervous. He was always nervous.
“You saying I don’t know what I’m talking about?” Silver-Bread slammed his fist into the side of the barn. Something on the other side fell with a grinding sound.
“Jay,” Glados warned, watching the sun sink behind burning hills, “easy on the kid.”
“You’re lucky Tess’s here, boy,” Silver-Bread growled, “and that I’m trying to sleep with her. You’re lucky I’m here to keep these Angels from smiting the shit out of you. And you’re probably lucky the weird guy’s here too.”
“Sure, we’re all the luckiest mortals in existence!” Boy screamed. His gun shook.
“Shut up, Zoran.” Glados was still watching the horizon for signs of Holy Fire. The Angels were content to burn a forest if it would end a single human. “He’d never treat you this way if you didn’t give him reason.”
Boy rubbed his nose. Dupeche was leaning against the mill or the barn, taking in deep breaths. They were difficult to drag down his windpipe as if they fought every inch of the way. His chest began to pain, and with each breath that he subjugated to his lungs, the air fought harder, and as it fought harder, he struggled and dragged the oil-flecked, ash-scorched air down into his lungs where it roiled. His throat was tight and his eyes began to hurt. He didn’t let go of Eliza’s hand. It trailed down from his own, to her shoulder, looking like some leash to keep a pet from running away. Because that’s what Dupeche wanted. He didn’t want her running away.
“They’ve fallen back.” Glados announced, lowering her weapons. The jagged edges of the mountains around the farm were black against the red sky.
Silver-Bread snorted and spat at the ground. “What’d I say?” He thumped his chest, glaring at Boy. “They’ve fallen back, they do every time. We’re not the enemies we used to be, back when they were near all-powerful.” Silver-Bread began to shout at the ring of mountains and the Angels fleeing through the scree. “Their swords and shields aren’t any use against us now! And they’ve realised that they’re on the losing side!”
Glados took Silver-Bread’s chin in her hand. “We need to fortify this barn, Jay.”
“I’ll say.” Silver-Bread was grinning. “The two of us are gonna set the night on fire, Tess. D’you know that tune? Set the night on, fiiiiiiiiire!”
Glados smirked. “Nuh-ah. The medics’ll be here before long and they’ll never work in something like this.” She rapped her knuckles on the barn’s unburnt wood. “Not the way that it is. We’ll need to pile up some sand bunkers on the north side.”
“Fuck the poxy-bastards.” Silver-Bread’s mouth was laughing, but, his eyes were tired. “Armageddon my arse. Armageddon a hernia, more like.”
“Why don’t the medics just take her…you know, back to the bunkers?” Boy seemed to feel comfortable enough to stand apart from the barn, in the open.
Other soldiers were slowly making their way over to them as the gloom thickened and the fires retreated. Some were limping, others were staring at the mountains, fearing a rain of fire. Dupeche didn’t know any of them. Did he? None of them were familiar; a tall one with long blond hair, a short one with piercings, a girl with only one arm, but it must’ve been lost a long time ago because Dupeche could see that her shirt sleeve had been sewn shut. No, he didn’t know these people. None of their faces were familiar, just pages from a book unwritten. Or erased.
Glados was kneeling next to Eliza. There was dirt on her boots.
Dupeche was still holding her hand.
“Do you need me to help lift her, Dupeche?” Glados stared up from Eliza’s shoulder.
“We can take her inside the barn,” Boy said, looking down at the ground.
Dupeche wasn’t sure what Glados meant. Did they know each other?
“Oh shit.” Silver-Bread was pale. “I didn’t notice. How close was she to the blast? Fuck, Tess, look at Eliza…”
Dupeche’s hand slipped, but he couldn’t let go, he said he never would, not since war had eaten away at the past that had made him, leaving him as a swaying tower, one without a foundation, or worse, one that had to build its own foundation after the fact, and that foundation had been Eliza, Eliza and her hand and holding it and holding it proved that she was still there and that, by default, so was he, so, he couldn’t let go of her. Silver-Bread had said that the Angels were on the losing side of the war, that their calculating and arrogance separated them so much humans that they had to lose and that their lines would break and they did, Dupeche had seen them flee up the mountains, trailing feathers of silver, watching their haloes of gold tarnish and turn to brass, he had seen them fall, seen them admit their position. But, if they’re on the losing side, and if Dupeche and Silver-Bread, Glados, and Boy were on the other side, then what side was Eliza on? If Dupeche didn’t have Eliza…if she was gone, if her hand were to be wrested from his – because he would never let go, never – then, how could he consider himself to be on anything other than the losing side?