Cigarettes and Roses, by Ben Peek
The Desertion of Corporal Perkins, by Bill Congreve
The Hours Before Sunrise, by Bill Congreve
The Mullet that Screwed John West, by Bill Congreve
2005 short fiction (pdf)
2006 short fiction (pdf)
The Desertion of Corporal Perkins
First appeared in Passing Strange
Copyright © Bill Congreve, 2002, all rights reserved
Up close and personal, the artillery barrage was an act of violence that made Corporal Perkins scrabble at the dirt as though he could crawl into it. Then it stopped. The echoes rolled into the hills -- where they remained, crackling and rumbling like thunder as the artillery fired on other units.
The war between the Vikings and the Panzers, the Bureau of Entertainment's first experimental night war, had begun.
Private Novice Farouk raised his head and looked at his watch. "Only twenty seconds," he whispered.
Perkins was more pragmatic. "Too expensive for them to keep that up for long." He wiped dirt from his mouth.
"Report!" The order was whispered out of the dark.
Every warrior in the section responded, the novices sounding surprised as name after name called off. The section remained ten strong -- six men, four women.
"Most times it's just a light show. Then the next shell will wipe out a whole section," said Perkins.
Farouk nodded wisely.
The scout moved out. The section formed at three-metre intervals in an arrowhead formation across and along the ridgeline. Their mission was to cut off the rear of an enemy outpost that was to be attacked by the remainder of their company -- an offensive mission. They had been defence in their last campaign. But the enemy quite obviously knew where they were. An ambush would happen soon, and they would defend again. Roles change.
The vegetation was sparse, long dry grass dotted with gum trees and outcrops of rock. The half moon above the western horizon gave enough light for each man to stay in visual contact. When the moon set they would draw closer together, perhaps hole up somewhere and wait out the night, and damn to their orders. Perkins was tail-end Charlie. Farouk was in front of him, behind their sergeant. Perkins grunted. There was a jauntiness to Farouk's step as if, after surviving one artillery barrage, he had a prerogative never to die.
Barely visible in the darkness, the scout rapped sharply on her rifle butt and dropped to one knee. A flare burst overhead and illuminated the section like frozen statues on snow. She ran for cover.
"Contact!" shouted the sergeant.
The scout was bowled off her feet within a second. The body didn't come to ground for two metres.
They've got us cold, thought Perkins. What happened to her ... dumdums! They're using dumdums. No warrior does that! And Farouk's just standing there, enjoying the show.
Perkins block-tackled Farouk. The bullet aimed for Farouk's heart only grazed his shoulder.
"Do you want to die?"
* * *
Perkins peered into the darkness up the slope. Nothing but flickers of light as the enemy fired. He aimed at where one had been, more in hope than expectation.
The light machinegun carrier pulled a squat, ugly pistol from a holster on her ammunition carrier's corpse. Sheltered by the body, she aimed the pistol into the air. A couple of seconds later a flare burst over the enemy position and the gunner began firing short bursts at darting targets. Then she stopped.
Perkins aimed again, paused, and swore.
The enemy wore no uniforms.
"They're spectators! We've been ambushed by fucking specs!" The sergeant shouted and lifted his head. A bullet from a sporting rifle exploded through his helmet and his skull and splashed Perkins with fresh blood.
"Where's the controllers! Where's the controllers!" Farouk shouted in outrage.
Shapes darted back and forth without discipline on the ridge above them, shouting, some wearing military dress, others in jeans and flannelette shirts. The shapes carried a variety of weapons: laser rifles, flechette guns, hunting rifles. Perkins even saw a hunting bow.
"Cameras? Any cameras?" Perkins shouted.
The machine-gunner obviously didn't care about being caught. She began firing again; the toll of spectators mounted. Perhaps she had decided more quickly that they had no choice.
Perkins took a deep breath and put aside his discipline. He used his FN automatic rifle -- of obsolete design but recent BuEnt manufacture -- on the civilians. Boot-camp basic training took charge. Aim. This is not a human being. This darting shape on the hill will kill me if it can. Breathe out gently and let the sights settle on the target. Squeeze the trigger.
If the army controllers came now, or if BuEnt's cameras were watching, they had no excuse. They would all be executed.
Perkins smacked Farouk's boot with the butt of his rifle. "What are you waiting for? If we don't get out of this, we're dead anyway!"
* * *
One by one the section died.
Perkins lined up another careless shape and shot it. A body twitched and fell across rocks. "Look at the jerks. They haven't got the faintest idea!"
"But there's too many!" Farouk fired past Perkins at a rapidly moving silhouette.
Perkins couldn't see when the shape went down whether Farouk had hit it or if it had dived for cover.
"Shit!" said Farouk.
"There's always too many. Specs breed like fucking rabbits! If they didn't have us pinned down we would've carved them to pieces by now!"
Then Perkins and Farouk were the only two left alive, and they looked at each other and ran.
Bullets kicked dust. A laser brought smouldering branches down. Fire and smoke obscured their path. They jumped rocks and crashed off the ridgeline, tumbling through the dust and scrub into darkness.
They crept around a ledge of rock aiming to get uphill behind the spectators. Here, they were outnumbered. Up there, they might have options.
"Okay?" whispered Perkins.
Farouk nodded, and poured water from his canteen over a flash burn from a reflected laser blast. Drips splashed on the dry earth.
Voices sounded close by. They froze.
"Did you see that scout? Man, did I bag her!"
"Back off, Fred! I got her first!"
"Yeah? Just like you did those deserters in Perth last year, I suppose?" The first voice sneered.
"I want the head."
"Jesus! Don't get caught."
Farouk stood, fired twice, and then screamed.
"Feel better?" Perkins asked.
They ran again, along the side of the slope, hidden in the thicker vegetation but making noise, and reached a saddle between two massive outcrops of volcanic rock that sat like mediaeval fortresses on the ridge. Cliffs reflected a ghostly radiance. Perkins and Farouk climbed into the saddle until the cliff above occluded the stars. Beyond the saddle, the ground sloped steeply into a black valley deserted by the setting moon. Then came the lights of a small coastal resort and behind that a glimpse of a flat black horizon that was the ocean.
Perkins jumped a fallen tree and dived behind a boulder. Farouk went to ground behind the log and looked out from under it. They had a view over a sloping rock platform dotted with boulders, stunted acacia and tea-tree scrub before the ground sloped into darkness fifty metres away.
"They've got too much cover," said Farouk.
"It's the best we'll get. And they've gotta come this way. See anything?" Perkins whispered.
Perkins turned and looked towards the coast. Somewhere down there a regular army battalion would be patrolling the reservation boundary, containing the war and arresting and shooting deserting warriors.
Shadows danced among the rocks, too quickly to be fired at. A flechette gun burped, and shredded bark exploded off a tree a few metres away.
"Where did spectators get that thing from? And the laser?" Farouk asked.
"They must know where BuEnt's and the media's cameras are. Otherwise they couldn't be here, doing this," said Perkins.
"That means they have no choice. They must kill us. Are they off-duty army, or something?"
"Army's better than this. These guys are amateur. Maybe they are the media. Or BuEnt bureaucrats." Perkins aimed down the slope, waited, and fired twice. A scream began, and didn't stop.
"What did you do, Farouk. Why're you here?"
"Immigration sentenced me. I came off a boat."
"You think you'll survive your year? Become a civilian like these aresholes?"
"I got life," Perkins grunted. He looked behind him into the dark valley, towards the reservation boundary. "Fuck this. No judge told me I could be shot at by civilians."
"I can't come with you." Farouk's gestured back along the path. "I've already run once, it didn't work."
"What we just did isn't running."
"Not that. Before I came here."
Perkins didn't try to change his friend's mind. "Cover me?"
"Give me a chance to get up in those rocks."
There could be nothing more to say. They clasped hands. Perkins opened fire at the darting shadows. Farouk climbed into the rocks.
When he heard Farouk start shooting, Perkins rolled backwards off the rock shelf and ran into the valley.
* * *
The torn and burning wrecks of hovertrucks and laser tanks, their camouflage paint blackened and invisible in the dark, showed where the army had recently maintained a well-armed and disciplined presence. Concrete bunkers were blasted apart; the electrified, razor-wire fence was shredded and torn.
The corpses littering the ground didn't bother Perkins so much as the meaning behind the desolation. And that bothered him even more than Farouk's decision to stay on the mountain.
Acrid smoke stung Perkins's throat and made his eyes water. He dodged past the wrecks, keeping to the darkness, expecting the crackle of a laser at any second. But the winking lasers atop their semi-intelligent concrete fenceposts had also been taken out. He held his breath for twenty metres until the sea breeze blew the smoke away.
Pieces fell together in his mind: random words overheard in a bar, a secret stockpiling of ammunition, a concentration of elite army units caused by media concern over the night war, a battle between the two largest and best trained gladiator armies -- armies whose leaders were brothers. The government due for an election -- needing attention drawn away from politics at the right moment.
A suspicion formed in his mind.
He cursed as he tripped on something soft and slippery. A burst of automatic fire disturbed the dust behind him. One bullet grazed his calf muscle, and he felt blood trickle into his boot. A bullet? That meant another gladiator. Or a spectator. Or ... God knew what.
He abandoned caution and ran.
The road wound out of sight through thick forest. Ahead of him lay the resort village of Bendemeer. He had always wondered what it would be like to visit a place like that, reserved for government cronies. Tonight he would find out. He would sneak in during the early hours of the morning and hide in some bureaucrat's garage.
The night became still. The war on the reservation still thundered, but that was becoming amorphous, spread out, the sounds seeming to come from all directions. Perkins wondered which other reservation boundaries had been over-run, and by whom. He slowed his headlong rush and walked silently, struggling to control his breathing. He listened.
Night sounds: animals, the whispered pounding of distant surf, tree branches creaking in the breeze.
A surreal sense of peace permeated the bushland. It could not have existed for long: a military unit of some kind, army, gladiator army, organized spectators, some-Goddamned-body, had come this way ahead of him.
Neither could the sense of peace continue.
An owl hooted. He froze, and heard screaming in the distance, down the road ahead of him.
Two civilians on bicycles saw Perkins' Viking uniform, his rifle, and shied away.
At least they're keeping to themselves.
A shape darting away from a garage caught his eye. Perkins crouched, aimed and waited.
The shape appeared again. A burst of automatic fire from some modern weapon Perkins couldn't recognize kicked up dust two metres away from his feet. Bastard couldn't shoot. Perkins fired and ended the exchange.
Too many goddamned amateurs in this war.
The two on bicycles pedalled furiously away.
A few streetlights still glowed. A thin trail of refugees pushing wheelbarrows, carrying suitcases and children, had formed in the town, winding down the hill towards the ocean and the coastal road that ran south through the national park to the harbour city of New Forster. They were well dressed but in shock, like bureaucrats who had failed a job interview and had their funding cut on the same day. That would change.
Perkins smiled at his cynicism. He almost felt sorry for them as he ran alongside and used them for cover. He had been running and fighting for two hours now. He needed rest. He had just deserted from a gladiator army, a hanging offence, but the world had gone crazy at the same time. And none of these souls would be able to tell him what was going on. He would put money on that.
But without the craziness, he would already be dead.
More shots rang out behind him, up the hill. The refugees scattered. Perkins into a kneeling position in the gutter, ready to fire.
Army! But only two. They hadn't seen him yet, had been shooting at some other poor bastard.
Were they alone? Didn't matter, they were coming this way. Perkins aimed and fired. One soldier fell.
The house beside him was recessed further from the road than the others. A woman peered from a front window, her face right up against the glass, thinking she couldn't be seen.
The connection was made in his mind. The place would have to do.
Screams, and more shooting from further up the street. The remaining soldier was firing a flechette gun at the front of a house. A woman ran out the front door, holding her arms out to a child in the front yard. Her chest disappeared in a rain of blood. The child screamed.
Perkins fired, and killed the soldier.
A whistling scream began high in the air, curving down.
He pushed out of the gutter and dived across a hedge into the front yard of the house.
The salvo crashed to earth outside the town limits, in the bushland near the devastated army post.
The refugees pulled themselves to their feet, hurrying now, looking nervously over their shoulders. Nobody cared or noticed that Perkins had disappeared from the road.
"If you keep still and quiet, you won't get hurt!"
A stout, almost matronly woman of about fifty years of age stood in the kitchen doorway, holding a cup of tea in one hand. She wore sturdy clothes and boots; a backpack leaned against the wall by the back door. The heavy curtains were drawn, a corner reading lamp was on, but dimmed. The only other light came from a television showing a news broadcast, the sound turned low. On the screen, a talking head was advising people: 'Keep off the streets.' This woman was doing just that, but waiting.
Perkins waved the woman over to the lounge with his rifle. She placed the cup on the coffee table, her hands steady, and sat down. He wanted to trust her. "My name is Corporal Robert Perkins of the Vikings. I'd like it greatly if I could join you until morning." He stalked nervously about the room.
"You've got an awful hide coming in here."
But Perkins thought she sounded indecisive as well as angry. Was somebody else in the house?
He backed up to the kitchen, checked it. Empty. "Then, in the morning, I'll be on my way." He aimed the FN vaguely in the direction of the seated woman, and waited.
On the television, the talking head sweated like he was burning, and kept glancing to one side. Beside him, the Media Bureau representative had a wry smile on her face as her fingers hovered over a glossy red button.
The talking head took a big gulp of air as if to boost his courage. "The latest news from the Bendemeer Reser --" The Media woman's fingers jabbed down, there was a loud gong and static filled the screen.
"They won't tell you the truth anyway," said Perkins.
"Of course not. It's entertainment." She looked at him like he was a simpleton, indignation and anger evident in her posture.
Entertainment? Who did this bitch think she was? He took a deep breath, containing his anger, and was possessed by a sudden need to tell what he knew. To explain. "The others in my section, they're all dead. It looked like being a good war, you know, the kind that gets us a bonus. Suddenly we was ambushed by specs. Filthy, goddamned spectators!"
Still nobody else. Perhaps she was alone.
"It couldn't have broken up faster if the generals had planned it." He was babbling. The power of confession. "Maybe they did, maybe they knew the specs were going to come on the reservation tonight to hunt, not just to watch ..."
Another whistling began, this time louder. The salvo exploded over a kilometre away, down the hill, towards the sea. The lights flickered.
Perkins was suddenly very tired.
She stared at him, challenging, expectant.
"Look, I'm sorry I broke in like this, but now neither of us has a choice. I'm going to trust you. If you've got a cellar, I think we should get into it." He lowered the rifle.
"Good. But don't expect me to be friendly. You can't just walk in here and wave a gun around like you own the place!"
He watched the emotions grow in her as she reacted to his apology. He'd expected it. She suddenly stood, walked across to him, and slapped him. "You're just a fucking mercenary. Get out! Now!" She shouted into Perkins' face.
Perkins pushed her away with the barrel of the rifle. He aimed at the ceiling and fired a shot. Plaster fell between them.
Another salvo crashed to earth. Closer. The lamp flickered, went out. The snow winked out of the television screen.
Perkins watched her shape bounce about the room in the dim glow from the streetlights outside. "You've got no right. It's against the law. It's ..." She stopped, the thin, distant whistling in the air replacing her voice.
"What's your name?"
She faced him. "Jo Watson. Ms Jo Watson."
"Ms Jo Watson, do you know how to survive an artillery barrage?"
Watson stopped, and faced him.
"No. Do you?" Still challenging.
"Lady," Perkins said, "It is civilized people like yourself who are making us kill each other up there." Perkins levelled his FN at her silhouette. "You can stick your civilized attitude up your ..."
Perkins stopped. His outburst was as pointless as hers had been. They glared at each other, dim shapes in the darkness.
The thunder of artillery became louder.
* * *
"Down here!" the woman said.
The garage was dug in under the house. As such, it wasn't really a cellar, but perhaps it was better. There were several ways out. It was buried to the ceiling and higher on all sides except the curving driveway, and that was protected by an external bank of earth. There were two small rooms leading from it that were even further under the house. A stairwell from the kitchen descended into the rear of one room. The garage and both rooms were interconnected, and the other room had a door that opened out under a two-meter retaining wall that held back the garden.
"Perfect," Perkins said. "Now we want mattresses, pillows, blankets, a couple of heavy chairs, anything ..."
The earlier orderliness of the house became an absolute shambles.
* * *
They worked by candlelight. Perkins dragged two stout armchairs to the stairwell and toppled them down. He placed them under the stairwell so that they would support the stairs if they collapsed. Between the chairs and the wall went the pillows and blankets. Over the chairs went the mattresses.
"Here's the cushions from the other chairs. Can I get you something to drink?"
"Only if there's no arsenic in it." They glared at one another, then Perkins grunted and laughed. He tapped the water bottle on his belt. "This is nearly empty. It might be an idea to fill a couple of bottles and bring them down. And a first-aid kit if you've got one."
* * *
"I want to see what's happening outside."
Shit, what should he call her? Ms Watson? Mrs Watson? He fought a brief surge of anger. "Watson, you're safer here than out there!"
"Don't patronize me. That's my world out there, young man. It obviously means nothing to you, but it means something to me. I need to see it for myself."
Oddly chastened by her need, Perkins took his rifle and crept through the house behind her to the window in the front room. "Stay back from it. They can see us."
Watson turned and saw the rifle. "Jesus, boys and their toys!"
The refugees had become an eclectic bunch. Most were nervous civilians with a few possessions, pushing along screaming children. Some were indignant, and stalked down the street. Some had the predatory look of specs and carried banners and hunting rifles. Others were in uniform, some of them armed. Army? Vikings? Panzers? Perkins couldn't tell.
Professional to the last, a BuEnt video crew roved the street and attempted to interview the refugees. Their satellite dish lay smashed in the gutter behind them, but they could still record.
"Go baby," Perkins whispered.
Two men stalked the video crew and tore the camera out of their hands. They tied a grenade to it and threw it into the front yard of the house opposite.
The grenade exploded.
"They can be sentenced for that!" Watson said. "That's government property!"
Perkins laughed even harder, and waved his arm vaguely towards the street.
A salvo of shells landed on a bluff overlooking the shoreline only a kilometre away. Bendemeer's microwave relay tower was up there. The street plunged into darkness, illuminated only by fire and gun flashes.
The next salvo landed on the reservation road above the town. The flash reflected off the glass of the buildings opposite and the thunder echoed down the street. The next salvo landed closer.
"They're going to march the salvos down the road --"
"Who is? Your bunch?"
"The gladiator artillery emplacements are in the middle of the reservation. They don't have the range."
"Maybe they moved the guns."
Perkins looked at her. "Maybe the army moved the guns. What I can't figure out is who would want to shell the town? There's nobody here but civilians and refugees!"
She stared out the window, mouth open. "God, what's happening?"
The next salvo landed.
"Downstairs! Hurry!" They ran out of the room.
"Maybe I'm wrong, but this is what I think's happening: I think the gladiator bands have allied to take on the army, and the army are only just starting to figure it out. This town is the only way out for any retreating army units and the quickest way in for an army advance."
"You really think that's it? Your guys've got the guts? You think you can get away with something so blatant? I think you know bugger all!"
"There's laws, and then there's ethics. One thing I do know, Ms Watson. All they gotta do is tell us it's payback time. Get the government. Tell idiots like you that you're the problem. Don't blame us for starting it. If you want to talk about what's happening, go look in a fucking mirror!"
The next salvo landed. The floor jumped and plaster fell from the ceiling.
They were shocked into silence for a moment. "Why do we do this? One of us says something friendly, and the other jumps in their face!"
But Watson ignored his comment. "It might be time to get under that," she said.
They settled under the mattresses and blankets, the candle alongside their heads against the top wall. They lay beside each other but not together, neither of them entirely alone.
Another salvo landed. The ground shook under them. As the rumbling died away, they heard a noise upstairs.
Watson blew out the candle.
Perkins fired two shots from the FN up through the wooden stairs and into the kitchen floor.
They heard a rapid scrambling, and a whispered curse. A door slammed.
Another salvo landed then, closer, and they clung to the floor. Thunder assaulted their ears and the floor pushed back.
"There's something elemental about being trapped under an artillery barrage," Perkins said, trying to calm his companion. "It's like standing at ground zero in an electrical storm and waving a long metal pole over your head. You lift your head and watch lightning sheet through the towers of cloud above you, and with every new flash, your heart catches."
"Jesus you're strange. Too much information."
After that, they waited with the kind of impatience a heart attack victim might feel waiting for an ambulance.
Where would the next salvo fall? Would Perkins know it if it did? He listened to Watson crying, felt her trembling, and thought he might be doing the same.
His first instructor in boot camp had always told that Perkins that he thought too much, and she had been right. Though it had taken her months to get him to understand that about himself.
The fear would get worse, not better. And it was the same for everybody. Some people just adapted to it more quickly than others. But for Ms Watson -- Jo she had said, and Perkins smiled at that -- this was new.
He smelt it when she pissed herself, but said nothing. Soon, he might do the same.
Yet they would survive if the house remained intact. She would endure it as Perkins must endure it. And the odds were shortening against him with every shell that exploded.
So he thought about it. He thought about the road outside, the people on it, and the shells falling. It was abstract. He saw everything from the nose-cone of a shell, the high explosive behind him pushing him down out of the stratosphere, always falling, falling. The people below were spread out like sheep in a slaughter yard. He could choose who would die. He saw bodies and explosions. He saw the children yearning for something they couldn't name but which they felt in their guts. He saw the adults for whom security wasn't enough struggle for something more abstract. He could toy with them if he wanted, and there had been a time in the past when he had gladly done so. He could choose victims -- that old man, that woman, that child, that soldier -- but he knew now that in making the choice, he would also die.
Perkins didn't notice when the back of the house went -- just another loud crash along with all the others -- but when he poked his head out from under the mattress, he saw a star through a corner of the ceiling. If only the rest of the world could be so peaceful.
During that same lull in the shelling he heard the unmistakable crackle and spat of a laser strike. No warrior ever forgot the sound. The army wanted all gladiator bands to understand what would happen if a reservation boundary was crossed, and often held demonstrations of their laser cannon at local cattle ranches. There was never enough left from one cow for a single warrior to eat a charred steak.
So, Watson was still conscious.
"Laser. Means the army are here. Can't touch us below ground level."
"Then I can go and report you in the morning. If you don't kill me first."
"And in the morning I can tie you up and leave town." He felt behind his back for the rifle. Good, it was out of her reach.
"What did you do, Corporal Perkins?"
Perkins avoided the subject. "A kid in the platoon, he died in my arms. He went out with his older brother for his seventeenth birthday and got drunk."
"I don't believe you. I'm a senior case supervisor with the Bureau of Justice --"
"Is that what you do? Thought it must be something like that."
"I'm proud of what I do!" She sounded fierce in the darkness.
"A bouncer beat up the kid. There was a brawl."
"Oh, bullshit! Why do you think this war is happening? That kid died with shrapnel in his lungs!"
"Look, I don't know why this war is happening any more than you do, but your attitude isn't helping. I'm trying to understand!"
For a moment he thought she would cry, then realized it was as much anger he heard in her voice as despair. He thought about it from her point of view. High-ranking bureaucrat who never had to question anything in her life, and now her world was coming apart. Yes, he thought too much.
"You oughta ask more questions when you watch the news at night."
"And you still haven't answered my question."
Still he avoided it. "I used to tell the other guys all the different ways I thought about a battle. I used to imagine it from a bullet's point-of-view, or a worm's. The blood, killing other men and women. Nothing stopped me thinking.
"There is a glory in death, did you know that? But it goes away. It stops. There aren't any excuses. You simply get used to killing people. The excuses are for the people who send us out there to fight."
Perkins realized Watson was winding him up deliberately, manipulating him into talking, letting him lose some of the tension even while she discovered more of his world, his motives. She might be a bitch, but she was trying.
He was grateful.
"A spec tried to kill me once. I'd been left for dead with a hole in my shoulder, and I'd only just regained consciousness. This guy was bending over me with a knife in his hand. He already had a handful of my hair, and was getting ready to slice into my scalp for the trophy. I scared him off by shooting past his ear, but then I only missed because I'd been too weak to shoot straight. That's when I started thinking about the ones who died. What did they do on leave? When we aren't fighting? I thought about the men and women who loved them; I wondered if they had children, and the homes they had built and been forced to leave. I even thought about the ones I had killed.
"See? I think too much!"
"No. That's just empathy. We've all got that."
"You reckon?" Perkins laughed.
"Are all gladiators as cynical as you?"
Perkins said nothing.
"Okay then, I've got one last question for you, then I'll leave you alone. A trivia question, I guess. Why do the shells whistle?"
"It's an old World War Two thing that worked for bombs dropped from aircraft. BuEnt decided to make it true. Modern artillery is supersonic.. You die before you hear it arrive. They reduced the load so that the shells are subsonic and have a shorter range, then they put a whistle in the nose cone. Scares the shit out of whoever's under it, and it sounds great for the cameras.
"Now, I've got a question for you. Why do you think they did that?"
Perkins didn't expect an answer. He rolled over away from her. Perhaps the lull would last long enough for sleep.
They heard the whistle of incoming shells. Again.
This time the whistling didn't let up. It grew louder and louder. Watson wrapped herself around him. For a fraction of a second he thought of her as a woman, albeit a much older one, and wanted to hold her. No! He forced the thought down.
The house shook, and the earth below crashed up to meet them. The world flared and went dark.
When Perkins first woke, he was alone. He felt warm and comfortable. It wasn't cold under the mattress, the dust had settled, and the fresh air smelt good. It was still dark outside, but he was alive and it would soon be morning.
Not a bad combination.
The pain struck.
He jerked his legs up. His left pulled free with an ugly ripping sound, but his right wouldn't budge.
He shouted, and realized he could hear other screams in the dark.
Of Watson, there was no sign. He grunted. That meant he had to free himself before she could bring the troops back. Then she would have the chance to watch them execute him. She might not believe it, but that's what would happen. Yes, it was time to move.
He felt carefully around his trapped leg. Bricks. The wall had come down. About a tonne of bricks and dirt was being supported above him by nothing but a broken staircase and a couple of crushed armchairs.
Gritting his teeth, he levered his leg sideways, towards the crushed chair. Good. No broken bones, and his leg moved. He wriggled on his back until he lay between the chairs and pushed his rifle and pack out of the shelter. He looked up. Stars.
He put his left foot up against the bricks and pushed as hard as he could. His right army boot scrapped against brick. He levered his right leg back and forwards, and it slowly pulled free.
The staircase groaned, creaked, and sank without drama into the space Perkins had vacated. He looked down at his boots with new respect.
* * *
The cold of the stars glared down between pillars of smoke from a cloudless, moonless sky. The east was grey with predawn light. Perkins moaned. It was like a biblical story: bugger all stones left standing one upon another. Just plumes of smoke and the occasional flicker of fire.
The house behind him was a ruin. The roof had gone, as had the lounge room floor above the downstairs rooms. The brick wall separating the kitchen from the lounge had crashed down and taken the stairwell with it.. The front corner room from which they had looked out at the street was a crater.
He managed to fill his water bottle in the kitchen, and raided the pantry for a loaf of bread and some tinned food. Then the fridge fell into the garage in a cloud of dust. He accepted the omen, and limped away.
* * *
Bendemeer was a mess. The most complete building was the government rental cycle store, now burnt, looted, and cut in half by a laser strike. Some fool in a Panzer uniform and a medic's armband was trying to turn the remains into a makeshift hospital. A grocery stand two doors up from it was so badly crushed by falling bricks that rotting juice flooded the footpath.
Medic? That might be useful. Perkins took stock. A few wounds from the fighting up on the reservation, now scabbing over. Two cuts on his calf, one of them deep, a sprained ankle and two badly bruised legs. The cuts he could disinfect and dress himself. The bruises and sprain would heal with time.
Perkins watched a lone brick chimney standing five metres above its fireplace come crashing down in a cloud of dust.
A single ghost gum, its leaves scarred by fire and with one massive branch blasted away, stood in the centre of a residential block. Every house around the tree had been totally destroyed, the red tiles from their roofs lying scattered over the ruins like a blanket.
A thin pall of smoke in the air above the town betrayed an inversion layer.
Time to get out of town.
He looked about for Watson. She was nowhere to be seen. Neither were the army troops she was probably looking for.
He trudged back up the road towards the reservation. He had an absurd desire to find Farouk's body and bury the man. Farouk had been right about a lot of things.
Perkins heard the screams first.
An hour after leaving Bendemeer, he had passed the smoking ruins of the army border post and had reached the trails leading along the cliffs and bluffs overlooking the village, its beaches, and the ocean. Smoke tinged the eastern sky orange. The rising sun was red.
From his height the ocean was a bright cerulean blue right to the horizon. It would be a hot day.
The scream came again. Over there, hidden behind those rocks.
There were three in army uniforms, one of them about to drop his pants, and a woman, the lower part of her stout body naked, spreadeagled on the rocks.
Ms Jo Watson, and her army saviours.
The first went down with a carefully aimed bullet between the eyes. Perkins had time to get two shots off at the second, as that soldier dived for his firearm. The first missed, the second hit, leaving the man screaming and writhing a metre short.
The third was more difficult. A cloud of flechette projectiles ricocheted above Perkins' head. Perkins showed the barrel of his rifle above the rock, fired once into the trees. More flechettes. Idiot will shoot at anything.
Still too many amateurs in this goddamned war.
He threw his pack across a gap between the rocks. More flechettes, stopping suddenly, then a curse. Perkins rolled into the gap, aimed, fired as the soldier struggled to reload.
The soldier fell.
The second soldier had wriggled to his weapons, so Perkins shot him as well.
"It's me, Watson." He sat behind his sandstone boulder and waited for her to get dressed.
* * *
A half hour later, he was brewing Watson a cup of tea. "Down there, in the town. They may be gladiators, mostly Panzers, I think, but there will be some kind of organization. And some idiot is trying to set up a field hospital. Good luck to him, I guess. Help him. Use your skills. You'll be safe."
She sat on a fallen tree opposite him, the tree trunk blackened in some old bushfire. She held his field blanket around her shoulders. She had stopped shivering, but she still held herself tightly. "I don't know if that's for me. I might follow the coast south. See what I can find."
"You've got guts. I think this is bigger than you suspect."
"My grandchildren are in New Forster."
"I didn't know. I'm sorry."
"Not your fault." She took the cup he offered her, sipped at it. "I asked you this once before, and you put me off."
Perkins grunted. Yes, Watson would speak plainly.
"What did you do? Why were you sentenced?"
"Still faithful to your ideals, eh? I raped a woman, Ms Watson. I made the TV news."
He watched her mouth drop open. She dropped the cup, the tea sinking instantly into the quartz sand. She wrapped her arms about herself again.
"And now you think I belong up here, don't you. Some kind of animal with all the others, in the zoo."
She watched him, shivering again, violently.
"I think I'd better leave now." He still felt the need to explain himself to her. "There's something I've got to do, then I'm going to find my unit. The town is down that way. Good luck." He pointed.
Perkins turned and walked into the scrub.
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