Seasons of War

Rivens are born in the uniform. Never take it off.”

I.

Sergeant Zayne Riven breathed over shivering fingers, his father’s voice trailing in his mind. The wind bellowed up from the north and whipped through rows of tents that fluffed up like white clouds. The days grew colder, the nights longer. The war waged on nevertheless, impartial to troops whose stiff feet bled in the cold, or families burning the last of their precious coal in the furnace, praying for one more night before the frontlines engulfed their homes. If war had any decency, it would grant them warmth in death.

Zayne buried his hands in the crooks of his arms. In the distance, grey draped the sunrise in a heavy sheet of rain.

“One hour.” Brock Carter scoffed as he stepped beside Zayne and raised his beer to his lips, pausing. “What am I supposed to do with one hour?” He tilted the drink further when nothing came out. A single amber drop plopped into his mouth. “God dammit.” He squinted into an empty bottle.

“Calling us in this soon after an operation, the casualties at the Bridge must be worse than we’ve been told.”

“It’s always worse than they tell us.” His friend turned in a tight circle, scanning the fire pit where his men scarfed down soup and bread. “How’d those privates get all that beer when all I got was this?”

“As a senior medic you ought to send a better message to the troops than to drink before an operation.” Zayne kept his stare on the horizon.

“You think you’re hot shit now?” Brock whispered. “Just remember, Little Riven. Your brother and I strung you up by your underwear more times than you can count.”

“ I believe you meant to say, ‘Little Riven, sir.’” Zayne cut a look at Brock and sneered.

Brock ran his teeth along his bottom lip, eyeing the new private. “I’m in need of new victim then, aren’t I? Sir.”

Zayne twisted to see Private Graves, warming his hands over the fire, laughing with the rest of the squad as if he’d served with them for years. The ink marking him a soldier of Ciondo had hardly dried before they shipped here to the colonies. Zayne’s stomach tightened. The last one hadn’t made it more than a few months.

The kid plucked a cigarette from his case with his teeth and offered one to his buddies left and right of him. The Privates gave a terse shake of their head, glancing up to Zayne. He turned to face his squad fully, eyes narrowing.

Right when Graves lit up his cigarette, Zayne’s First Corporal ripped it from his mouth and stomped it into the ground.

Seeing his moment, Brock sidled up to the group, his grin too easy. “How many times do we have to say it, Dipshit?”

Corporal Edwards spoke in an even voice. “When you compromise your body, you compromise your team. We don’t need a single disadvantage.”

“I’m sorry, sir.” Graves threw his cigarettes into the fire, case and all. “I forgot.”

The squad tittered. One step forward from Zayne and they silenced.

Graves jumped to his feet and stood at attention, shoulders squared. “Sergeant Riven, I apologize.” His eyes betrayed him, straying to the fires littering the campground, where cigarette smoke mingled with the flames of hard oak and hickory.

“Would you like to join another squad where you are permitted to smoke, Private?” Zayne set his jaw, hands clasped behind his back.

“No, sir.” His voice deepened. “It is my honor to serve in your squad. One day, I’ll tell my children I served the son of our Great High General. There could be no greater glory.”

Heads shifted downward. Brock’s grin straightened into a line. Graves glanced at his comrades, shifting.

“I… I’ll tell them I…”

“Private Graves.” Zayne maintained his stare.

He swallowed. “Yes, sir?”

“Shut up.”

Graves nodded. “Of course, sir.”

“Sit down.”

The Private dropped to the ground, cheeks bright. Zayne motioned at the two beers beside him. “That’s the last thing he needs before this battle. Get it together, Private. I have neither the time nor the willingness to coddle you.”

Brock yanked the beers from the ground. “You can get these back when your mommy tells us you’re a big boy.”

Graves’ head lowered. Zayne held back his sigh, keeping himself from looking at Brock. The men would see. Saying nothing else, Zayne departed from the group, taking his last few minutes of rest to remove them from his sight. He ducked into his tent and sat down inside, breathing out slowly. Despite the bedding beneath him, the cold still leached the warmth from his body.

Through the flapping canvas opening, Zayne saw troops finishing their meals and packing their bags. Soldiers milled about, laughing as without a care in the world. Yet a few more sober minds huddled near fires alone. Young faces with jumpy eyes and pale skin.

How many men had shared his view throughout history? Absurd to think of how many of them spent their last moments. What else could be expected from a world built upon the ashes of another? The Collapse had proven that even when given the opportunity to start over, mankind lacked the capacity to change. Phaedra Macklroy, like all the Phaedras before him, and like so many authoritians who came before them, seemed intent to keep history from repeating itself by forcing the Empire to remain united under his control. Might be ironic if it wasn’t so obvious.

He shut his eyes and refused to see the world he’d been born into.

When Zayne returned, his squad crammed into their trucks. Edwards passed Zayne’s gear to him and hopped in beside Brock. Soon after he was seated, the Convoy took off.

Dust clouded the air.

Brock wiped his sleeve across his eyes. “Last thing we needed was this change in mission today. I hate being called in for reinforcement. Turns out to be a shit show every time.”

“Keep an eye on Graves.” Zayne looked at Edwards. “You too.”

“He’s not looking so good,” Edwards said, eyes on his rearview mirror. “Starting off in your squad can be a lot on a kid. He knows your father might notice him.”

“It’s the Phaedra, not the General, I’d be more worried about.” Zayne tightened his helmet. “We never had the luxury of being scared. Don’t afford it to him. That’s what gets him killed.”

“He’s a born-to-die,” Brock mumbled.

“What’d you say?” Zayne asked, turning to face him.

The medic sighed. “You heard me. You know it’s true.”

“Even if we get one of those boys in our squad, we don’t call them that. Ever. They’re fast-track soldiers.”

“Doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?” Brock leaned down in his seat.

Zayne shook his head, teeth clenched. Graves had graduated from the academy like the rest of them. The first round of sixteen year old fast-track boys wouldn’t flood their ranks for another year.

Brock nodded and sighed at Graves. “I’ll watch out for the kid. Alright?”

These last few weeks had them all on edge. Zayne tried to loosen his muscles.

A drop of rain landed on the windshield. Thin clouds hovered close to the ground. That cold wind picked up. So be it with Graves.

“We’re five minutes out,” Edwards said.

Silence settled over the group as they approached Bridgen, their exaggerated tales and laughter left smoldering in the campfires. Yellowed grass spread out of what must have been the most flat land in the Empire. A few trees speckled the far-reaching fields. Weeds overran the terrain, countless snaking arms reaching for the sky. Home looked nothing like this. From his bedroom window, the frosted tips of the mountains pierced the sky, every bit as unquonerable and inescapable as Ciondo.

The city materialized down the road, the only structures in sight. The river ran south through the middle of the city, carrying on beyond Bridgen to another city untouched by war on this day.

Zayne’s earpiece buzzed with his captain’s voice. “Supplies are in. We’re setting up in town square. Taking the injured. Town’s been swept. It’s clean. Barricade the perimeter and wait for my call.”

They pulled into line and exited, waiting at the jeeps for the captain’s orders.

Edwards settled his gun against his thigh. “Didn’t have time to finish my letter to Aylie. Thought I’d do it after eating but got sidetracked.”

“Finish it when this is over,” Zayne said.

Edwards shook his head. “Just been a bad week all around. Bad weeks only get worse.”

“I’ve known you too long to put up with your shit. You’re stuck in your head. Home is right around the corner. You might even make it in time for the baby.”

Edwards shifted. “Yeah. Guess I wish I was with them already.”

“When Paige was born…” Zayne gave a lopsided grin. “Thought you’d need to be resuscitated when that letter came. You made it then, you’ll make it now.”

Edwards scratched his nose with his thumb. “It’s not the dying itself that’s the problem. It’s the not being there for them. New kids always get me thinking about all we got to lose.”

“Your baby or Graves?” Zayne asked.

Edwards grunted and rolled his shoulders. “Both.”

“Graves has a chance.” Zayne said. “Another month and we’re headed back.”

Brock sighed. “Then we’ll do it all over again.”

“Yes.” A gust stung Zayne’s ears, whistling past the buildings. “We will. It’s our duty.”

“The territories will destroy themselves,” Brock said. “Might as well let them leave the empire. They’ll come crying back in ten years, tops. Then I kick my feet up and relax.”

“They aren’t freedom fighters.” Edward’s voice rose a notch. “The United’s manipulating these farmers and merchants into fighting the war for them. They’re destroying their own homes. It’s not for freedom. It’s not for the people. It’s to take the empire from the Phaedra. The leaders in the territories are just vying for power so they can be the one to rule.”

“Yeah.” Brock shrugged. “You listened real well in the academy, didn’t you?”

“What’re you trying to say?” Edwards asked.

“That you’re right.” Zayne narrowed his eyes, meeting Brock’s. “They taught us well.”

“What he said.” Brock crossed his arms. “I’d be crazy to disagree.”

“You would.” Edward’s stood straight as a board. “Day in, day out. It’s a lot. We all know. But it’s worth it. Keeps our families safe.”

Zayne blinked. Day in, day out. His old sergeant had always said that.

Images flashed in his mind. His Sergeant’s eyes on his in the north.

“Don’t say a word, kid.”

Grey fingers. Red puddles. Random pieces of a puzzle that he refused to put back together again flitted through his memory.

Zayne shook his head, rubbing the tattoo at the base of his neck.

“When you have a kid you’ll get it.” Edwards sighed. “It’s not a good world to be raising them in. I want to change that.”

Not a good world at all. No need to have a kid to get that. His arm brushed the stubble over his face as he pulled his hand away from his tattoo. Time to shave. The scar on his jaw stood out even with a few days growth, especially with his hair darkening as he lost more blond with each passing year. He looked like his father too much these days. Eyes grey like the sky overhead with a hint of blue beyond. Taking after the old man had been all he ever wanted. Now another promotion loomed on the horizon. His brother and his father hadn’t been much older than him when they’d made lieutenant. Could he stop the climb up the ladder to High General if he wanted to?

Ridiculous to think about. Why wouldn’t he push on for his father’s position? His brother had five years on him, but the Phaedra had never hid the attention he paid to Zayne. All he had left to get in order was finding a wife and starting a family. Even if it was just about the last thing he wanted to do. The race to the top should be all he wanted.

Would it make for a better world like Edwards thought?

Grey fingers flashed again.

“Don’t say a word, kid. Not a damn word.”

In Zayne’s periphery, Graves tapped his hands against his leg.

Focus. No time for getting stuck in his mind like Edwards did.

Zayne paced a few steps forward, putting distance between himself and his men. None of what happened before would happen to his squad. He didn’t need to think about it. He really didn’t need to think about a promotion, not when he hadn’t even finished this tour.

Behind him, Edwards and Brock had started on it, their hushed voices sounding more like a yell than a whisper. Their personalities alone would have always caused tension, but Zayne knew it was more than that. Loyal as they came, Edwards adhered too rigorously to metagenetics and preferred black and white people go their separate ways. Even Phaedra Macklroy believed in the unity of Pures, so long as they didn’t mix. After all, the Rivens had stood by the Macklroy’s side for generations without race coming between them.

Zayne glared at them. Edward’s mouth snapped shut like someone had sewed it up. Race had always seemed like a ridiculous reason for his family to not be able to adopt Brock back when they were children. He didn’t have the patience to deal with it on the field.

Another few minutes passed before the captain ordered them to move in. Zayne nodded at Brock. “A lot of injuries coming in.”

“Yes, sir,” Brock said. Just like that, his medic and corporal put away their disagreement for another day.

He motioned at his squad. “We’re taking the rear.”

They followed after nearly every squad had entered town, keeping formation. Apartments lined the gravel road, evenly spaced and nearly identical save for a variation of brown, red, or yellow paint. Shingles hung from a roof to his right. A doll had been left abandoned outside of a door, covered in mud. Patches of grass crawled up from beneath the gravel all over the road, the only evidence of life in the city besides their division. The silence gnawed at Zayne’s mind. He peered at Corporal Edwards and the man met his gaze.

“Why didn’t the militia set up their base here?” Zayne asked.

“I heard they had a fortified base south of the bridge.”

“How convenient.” Zayne gripped his gun tighter, searching the house windows and studying the rooftops. “I don’t like it.”

“Me either.” Edwards looked back toward the perimeter. “I know they swept the buildings, but it doesn’t seem right.”

Zayne tapped the button near his ear and spoke into his mouthpiece. “Captain, Sergeant Riven here… Are all men accounted for?” He caught a glint of the sun on a window three stories up to his right. He blinked hard and continued to watch until he walked far enough to lose the glare.

“Sergeant, none reported missing. I need an all clear from each sergeant. I repeat, I need an all clear from each sergeant. Account for every man, in order from highest squad.”

Another window nearby caught his eye. His stomach clenched. He held his breath, squinted at the glass pane.

Nothing.

Zayne’s muscles had just relaxed when static interrupted the thunk, thunk, thunk of men’s boots.

“Houses,” The cry echoed from each radio. “The houses — ”

Gunfire exploded up the road. Zayne aimed his weapon, motioned to the left and then right. Before their boots touched gravel, shots pierced the air. His men broke in two teams, each heading for cover.

Blood spurted from a private’s neck ahead of them. His body crumpled over his RPG.

The city came to life with gunfire.

“Fire,” Zayne shouted.

The shots echoed down the hall of homes and businesses, exploding down the street.

Bullets shattered windows. Doors swung open.

Pop.

Beside him a private’s shoulder jerked. The wind caught the red spray of flesh and uniform, peppering Zayne.

Graves dove into an alleyway, Brock at his heels.

Zayne held his breath, swung his gun towards a two-story window, and pulled the trigger. He kept his feet moving and his weapon trained. Swarms of enemy soldiers tore for town square as others held their ground from the buildings.

Their division had been surrounded.

His heart pounded.

A bullet whizzed past Zayne’s ear; he pulled the trigger on a sniper hunched by a window.

Zayne faltered. His target flinched as brick exploded.

He took another shot, undeterred. A hole opened between the sniper’s eyes. Small. Neat.

A gasp. Edwards fell to one knee, fumbling for his weapon. His hand staved off the black blood pooling at his abdomen.

Zayne grabbed him by the collar and grunted as he dragged him. Edwards cried out, shoving his feet against the ground and ripping the clotters from his pack. Zayne snatched them from him, shoveled away the blood, and pushed the applicator into the wound.

The scream nearly shook Zayne’s focus. The corporal bucked against him.

“I have you,” Zayne said as he pulled Edwards a few more meters and discarded the applicator. The clotters swelled in the wound. The corporal vomited blood and bile.

Damn it.

Edwards’ body convulsed. He lifted four trembling fingers from his belly.

Four o’clock. Zayne twisted. Caught the glint of the RPG.

His battle-hardened reflexes trained his weapon. The enemy stood exposed on a roof. The RPG faced a group of Zayne’s men taking cover behind a dumpster.

Zayne pulled the trigger.

Fire.

A wall of hot air slammed into them.

He landed on the ground with his arms above his head. His fingertips brushed his weapon. Edwards lay at an awkward angle over him.

Smoke rolled up from the dumpster.

He squeezed his eyes shut from the image of his men.

Pain smothered his body. He started to pull himself out from under Edwards when the fire tore through his leg and hip. A hunk of twisted metal protruded from Edward’s side. He slid his hand through blood to feel the mingling of torn flesh and the piping hot projectile embedded in his own thigh. It had pierced them both.

His head fell back and grey sky filled his vision.

His pulse throbbed in his ears.

Men rushed passed him with weapons raised. Zayne reached for his gun as his eyes slid closed.

[If you enjoyed reading, you can find Chapter 2 here. Thanks!]