“Where do we go from here?” the private asked, running a gloved hand over his oil-slicked hair. Acrid smoke that bit the sinuses and carried the faint smell of burned meat filled the air. Weak shafts of sunlight lanced through the lumpy clouds overhead and drew their illuminating caresses over the battlefield. Nothing moved down there, not a damned thing. It was as though the bomb had sucked all the sound and color from the scene, leaving only a charred horror behind, a still life in soot and sculptures of coal and carbon.

“Go?” I asked. I fished in my uniform breast pocket for a cigarette. I knew that I’d had one in there when we’d deployed from the forward base, but it was gone. Maybe I’d smoked it. The last few hours were a swirling blur of thunder and death, and I felt like I was waking up from an overlong afternoon nap. A low distant whine rang at the edge of my hearing. “Do you hear that?” I asked.

“Hear what, captain? It’s as quiet as a tomb.” He thumbed back his revolver’s hammer and peered into the breech. “Well fuck me sideways. No wonder the damn thing didn’t fire.” He extracted a sliver of metal from inside the gun. “Shrapnel. Piece like that coulda done all sorts of bad things to a body. Guess it’s a good thing it ended up in there. Probably slipped right in there while I was shooting. Of all the things, eh cap?”

I gave him a nod. “You think we’re safe up here?” I asked.

“Safe, sir?”

“From the radiation. Or chemicals. Or whatever was in that explosion.”

“Wouldn’t have been no radiation or chemicals, captain.” Boots crunched behind us, and I turned to see Steveson approaching. He still had the crumpled remains of the radio strapped to his back. “At least, no chemicals that the fire didn’t consume. Clean bomb, that one.” He adjusted the thick black frames of his standard-issue glasses and I saw that one of the lenses was missing a big shard.

“Clean?” I said and spat. “This is one of the biggest god-damned messes I’ve ever seen.”

“Ain’t that the truth, cap. Ain’t that the truth.” The private’s voice was flatter than the dead plain below us, and I wanted that cigarette more than ever.

2015.04.13 – 2023.11.04

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