A Life to Give
by Richard Fife
Trig tightened his grip on the rifle and swallowed hard. The explosions had stopped, but that hardly meant it was safe. The sound of an engine filled the air, and he looked up to see a zeppelin drifting by overhead. Steam puffed out of the pipes near its back, and the symbol of the Adervyn Military, crossed swords surrounded by five stars, stood out in bright red on the side of the balloon. Trig looked down at the same symbol on his shoulder and took a deep breath: they had air support.
“Don’t relax now,” Vlod said beside him. “We aren’t out of the smoke yet.”
Trig turned to the broad faced man. “And yet you’re the one smiling! You’re face will stick like that one day, you know.”
Vlod’s smile only widened. “Would it be so bad to always smile? Come on, we’re supposed to already be on the next ridge.”
They both took a deep breath before they bolted out from the small hollow. More soldiers were moving to either side of them, and almost instantly the explosions started again. The field gave little cover, and with each fountain of dirt and smoke that abruptly appeared, more men went down, some screaming, some silent.
Somehow, Trig and Vlod reached the ridge and fell flat as they looked out over the field ahead. Sandbag fortifications surrounded the large, armored guns that pointed skyward as if to shoot at the zeppelins. Barbed wire fences formed rings around the fortifications, and Trig saw several gatling guns pointed expectantly at the open space.
“Doesn’t this look promising,” Vlod said. “I’m glad we aren’t actually going down there.”
Trig put his rifle to his shoulder. “But we still need to make them think we are.”
Vlod sighed and trained his own rifle downfield. “That we do.”
They started firing down on the enemy soldiers that were hunkered behind the sandbags. The soldiers quickly scrambled to safety as bullets rained down on them from several places along the ridge as well as from up in the sky. The artillery continued to fire, shaking the ground with each blast, and Trig winced as a zeppelin took a direct hit and went down in flames.
Vlod cringed as a bullet landed nearby and sprayed both of them with dirt. “Where’s our Troena-be-cursed support?”
As if waiting for that swear, a ridge on the other side of the enemy line suddenly lit up with muzzle fire. Several of the enemy soldiers fell in the initial wave of fire, and they scrambled to face the sudden, new front in the battle. As they turned, a bugle sounded somewhere behind Trig and Vlod. Trig glanced back over his shoulder in worry then realized it was an Adervyn call on the horn.
“A charge?” Vlod said. “Are they serious? That wasn’t part of the plan!”
“Some officer is trying to look brave.” Trig frowned and looked up and down the line as soldiers obeyed the call. “Well, we only have one life to give, right?”
Vlod frowned but followed Trig as they joined the charge down into the line of the gatlings. Even confused as they were, the enemy soldiers were still quick to get the clusters of barrels spinning, and the loud, methodic rhythm of a hundred bullets a minute joined the din of battle.
Before Trig and Vlod even reached the barbed wire it was over. Now only a random pistol shot filled the air as enemy survivors were found and killed, and Adervyn soldiers stood at ease by the artillery pieces. The air was strangely absent of the sound of men dying; the gatlings had been gruesomely efficient.
Trig looked over at Vlod, unsure how either of them managed to escape unscathed, and they both started to continue down the hill. Out here, there were no enemy soldiers to be killed, but there was no shortage of work. Bodies of the faster soldiers were tangled up in the fences and needed untangled. Trig told himself he was recovering bodies for the families back home, not clearing the fences so they could be broken down and set up on the other side, facing the enemy lines. He told himself, but he knew it was a lie.
Trig grabbed a body and started to ease it off the wire when it made a noise like a door being opened slowly. He stared at it for a moment before he realized that the body had groaned.
“Vlod, get over here and help me,” Trig said. “This one’s still alive.”
Vlod dropped the body he had been dragging and ran over to help. The smile was gone from the man’s face, and they both worked silently to untangle the wounded man. His leg was all but blown off, and his face was a bloodied mess, but none of it looked particularly fatal, at least if the man got to medical soon.
“It’s going to be OK.” Trig looked down at the man’s nametag. “Petir, right? We’ll get you back to medical, and they’ll get you fixed right up. General Traval himself will probably even give you a medal before they sent you home a war hero. How about that, eh? You’re going to get to meet the general!”
Petir just groaned incoherently, but Trig kept talking. Medical was a good five miles away, and what little field medicine they could apply here would not help much. Vlod quickly tied a few rags around the ruined leg while Trig let an officer know about Petir. The officer, probably the same one who sounded the charge, looked more bothered than relieved that someone survived, and nonchalantly ordered Trig to take care of it.
Petir was completely unconscious when Trig got back, and he and Vlod solemnly carried the man back through the silent, pock-marked fields. Explosions rang out in the distance like thunder. The war would not stop just for one injured soldier, but at least the soldier could stop being a part of it.
* * *
Trig walked out of the medical tent and wiped the sweat from his eyes. Soldiers walked around, and the sound of distant explosions echoed from over the horizon as always. Beside him, Vlod had started smiling again and patted him on the back.
“Doc said not to worry.”
“They always say that,” Trig said.
Vlod shrugged and looked over to a knot of soldiers. “What’s going on over there?”
Trig frowned and walked over to the group with Vlod, where it seemed all of the men were listening to one particularly bedraggled messenger in the middle of their huddle. Trig and Vlod elbowed their way into the circle.
“. . . don’t know anything more than that,” the messenger was saying. “Don’t ask me how the assassin got in, but I’ll tell you one thing, I haven’t delivered a single dispatch from the general since it happened.”
Trig looked over at one of the nearby soldiers. “What happened?”
“An enemy assassin blew up half the central command post two days ago,” the soldier said. “This guy says they got General Traval.”
“Anything confirmed?” Vlod said.
“Nah.” The soldier spat. “Knowing Traval, he probably wants the enemy to think he’s dead. Man’s a Troena-blessed genius.”
“He’s smart alright,” the messenger said. “But not even the smartest man can avoid an explosion big enough. I’ll tell you one thing, though. I’ve carried a few interesting dispatches to a particular man. Perhaps some of you have heard of him? Quintin Lazris?”
“That nut-ball doctor?” Trig said. “I hear that guy hacks up bodies for fun. Why would the general staff send messages to him?”
“Because Jareth Traval is too important to lose,” the messenger said. “They’re going to Recycle him!”
“Oh, I’m sure,” Vlod laughed. “Next time we see Traval, he’s going to have a steam engine jutting out of his chest and gatling gun for an arm!”
“I’m telling you,” the messenger said. “Recycling is real!”
Several of the soldiers made rude comments at the messenger, but before he could press his point, an officer walked by.
“I didn’t realize we were all out having a picnic,” the lieutenant said. “Why didn’t anyone invite me? Oh wait, we aren’t! We’re at war, and I’m pretty sure there’s a front somewhere all of your are supposed to be on, so get to it!”
The soldiers grumbled but quickly dispersed. The messenger tried to slink off too, but the lieutenant quickly walked up to him and dragged him off.
Trig sighed and looked at Vlod. The man was still smiling, although tightly. They walked back to the front in silence.
* * *
Explosions lit the night sky. It had been a week since the official news had came out about the attack on Traval, but the war would not stop for him anymore than it would stop for Petir. There were towns to take and to defend, lines to press and hold, and always bodies to be carried off.
Trig sat with his back against the foxhole wall while overhead artillery shells screamed on their way to the nearby town of Vorberg. Vlod sat nearby and ravenously worked on a cold can of beans.
“How can you eat?” Trig said. “Any moment their going to sound for us to charge.”
“Eat when you can,” Vlod said. “Have to keep your strength up, right?”
“And it could be your last meal,” Trig said.
“All the more reason to enjoy it.” Vlod crammed a large spoonful into his mouth and chewed on it with an exaggerated exuberance.
Trig looked away and chewed on his lip. His stomach was tied in knots, and he tried to think of the last time he had even eaten and tasted the food. Lately, he had been forcing food down mechanically, and then only when Vlod forced him to eat.
“I don’t think I’m going to make it out of this one,” Trig said.
Vlod finished his beans and looked at Trig. “Since when did you become a pessimist?”
“I’ve listened to the messengers’ reports,” Trig said. “We’re losing this war; we just don’t have the manpower. And now, I’ve used up my luck. I just know it.”
Vlod reached over and slapped Trig hard across the face. “And that’s what it got you. Now calm down, we’ll be charging soon, and I need you to keep your head about you for when some random shell blows me half to hell and you need to drag me out.”
Trig rubbed his cheek then laughed despite himself. “I knew there was a reason you kept me around.”
They sat and listened to the artillery into the night. Sometime around one in the morning, the shells stopped. Silence hung ominously over the field, and Trig took a deep breath and checked his gun one last time. Not even half a minute after the shells stopped, the clear cadence of a bugle call filled the air. Trig and Vlod got up and jumped out of their foxhole along with hundreds of others.
The town was a flickering orange light a mile ahead, and the eerie silence was only broken by the sound of men running and the distant fires. Perhaps the artillery had completely broken the town. They had covered half the distance to the first buildings when enemy artillery finally answered.
The impacts were painfully bright in the starless night, and each one left a hazy afterimage in Trig’s eyes. Men screamed to every side, but Trig just kept running, if for no other reason than Vlod at his side. Soon the explosions were only behind them and the pale walls of the town, painted orange by the fires, surrounded them.
They slowed to a near crawl, shooting at the enemy and being shot at all the while. Even for a solid day of bombardment, the enemy soldiers still were not even close to broken.
It must have been near dawn. The fires were still the only light, but the sky seemed brighter than it should have been. It could have also just been Trig’s imagination. He was tired—no, more than tired, bone-weary exhausted—and he was not entirely sure of where he even was. Vlod was still at his side, and that was about all he could be sure of. Somehow, though, he still heard the distinctive, metallic clang of the grenade as it landed in a nearby window.
He reacted more out of instinct than thought, and one hand pushed Vlod down while another vainly tried to shield himself. The blast seemed oddly muted, and then he was staring up at the sky. It was definitely brighter than it should have been.
Vlod coughed next to him. “Where did that come from?”
Trig only continued to look up at the sky. Something was wrong, but he could not tell what. For some reason, he could not quite feel his right hand. Vlod appeared above him. Why was he not smiling? That man always smiled.
“Troena above,” Vlod said. “Trig, look at me. It’s going to be OK. I’m going to get you back to medical, and they’ll patch you right up, you’ll see. The general himself will give you a medal!”
Vlod kept talking, something about a war hero, but Trig let it wash over him without really listening. The sun had to be rising. Vlod disappeared, and something picked Trig up. Vlod’s voice kept going on, promising this and that. It somehow felt very familiar.
* * *
Everything was painfully bright, so Trig just kept his eyes closed. Somewhere to his side, he heard the distinctive sound of a steam engine chugging away, and the air smelled heavily of gas lamps. That alone told him he was not at the front anymore. Only the officers had gas lamps, and no one had engines.
His arm felt strange, as if he had slept on it all wrong. He flexed his fist, but the feeling would not go away. When he tried to lift his arm to shake it, he realized that it was strapped to his side. He shot his eyes open despite the pain and looked down.
At least, he would have, but his head was strapped in place too, as was the rest of his body. All he could see was the flickering of a gas lamp above him and the cold, metal ceiling of the room.
“What the—?” he said. “Where am I?”
He did not expect an answer and jumped when one came from the strangely accented voice of a man somewhere behind him.
“You’re in my lab, my boy,” the man said. “About fifty miles outside of Adervyn.”
Trig swallowed and tried to think. “What’s going on? Why am I here?”
“Why, my boy?” A lean old man with a drooping, gray mustache walked into Trig’s sight. “Because you were hurt, and badly at that. They sent you to me to get fixed up.”
“And who’re you?”
The old man smiled absently and disappeared. “Of course, they don’t really give me anything I need to do a proper job of it. Oh, sure, for the first one, but every new boy I get in here has to go more and more without. Why, soon I’ll be patching you together with bits of string and whatever scrap I can find outside.”
Trig strained against his bonds, and a sharp pain seemed to lance through him from the base of his skull. “What are you talking about? Why am I strapped down?”
“Talking about?” The old man reappeared with a deep frown. “Why, the secret of silver! They asked me to teach it to them, even if they said it was an abomination. I guess when a war is going badly, the Regents are willing to be a little less than perfect in Troena’s eyes, eh?”
The man laughed then sighed. “But, whatever the reason, they shall soon find that even left with string and scrap, Quintin Lazris shall perform his art masterfully!”
Trig felt the blood drain from his face. “You’re Dr. Lazris?”
“Jackpot.” Quintin smiled but it did not reach his eyes. “You don’t remember what happened, do you?”
“I was in Vorberg, and it was almost dawn,” Trig said. “I was tired as anything, and then . . . Troena above, the grenade! Where’s Vlod? Is he alright?”
Quintin sighed. “As I understand it, Corporal Vlod is who carried you back to medical, but what has happened since, I don’t know. But, I think it isn’t he with whom you should be considering yourself.”
Trig again remembered who the man was: Dr. Lazris, the mad butcher who tried to put machines in people. “What do you mean?” he said softly.
Quintin walked over to Trig’s side and touched the arm that felt as thought it was asleep. “You were in pretty bad shape when they got you to me. I probably could’ve saved more of the arm if those lunatics that call themselves field doctors hadn’t tied the tourniquet so high. As it is, I was lucky to save the elbow.”
Trig flexed his fist again, and Quintin suddenly smiled.
“Yes,” Quintin said. “You’re picking it up rather well.”
“Picking what up?” Trig could not stop his voice from shaking.
Quintin nodded and reached up to either side of Trig’s head. A moment later, the straps keeping him from looking down were loose, and he instantly stared down at his arm.
Just after his elbow, a thick brass ring circled his forearm, but what should have been his forearm was instead a mess of piping, tubes, and gears. Where his wrist should have been, a grooved, steel ball was hidden by some more brass plating, and more gears and pipes formed a cruel imitation of a hand. On the outside of his new forearm, Trig noticed a serrated edge that almost looked like a saw.
“They insist that I give you some additional, practical function.” Quintin sighed and brushed a finger lightly across the teeth of the saw. “It was their idea, and yet they say I’m the one creating monsters.”
Quintin undid the rest of the binding, and Trig reached over with his real hand and felt the metal. It was odd, but he swore he could actually feel whatever the metal touched. He noticed a stitched up scar climbing up his bicep, and as he traced it, he felt more tubes just under his skin. At his shoulder, the scar split into two, one going up behind his neck, and the other trailing down his side.
“Praedin below,” he muttered. Just a little bit before his waist, the scar stopped, and a black tube jutted out of his side and into a small canteen-like tank that was strapped to his hip.
“Your steam-tank,” Quintin said. “Be sure to keep it filled, or you will not be able to use your arm. I guess it wouldn’t be so bad for you, not compared to others, but it would still be a nuisance.”
“Steam?” Trig noticed two small gauges on the tank, one for pressure and one for heat. Both were all the way to the right. “Why do I need steam?”
“I already told you!” Quintin scoffed and walked over with a mirror in hand. “You need the steam to use your arm. Without steam, it will be a useless weight. There is something else, too.”
Quintin held up the mirror to Trig’s side, and as Trig turned to look at it, he noticed a small bundle of wires just behind and below his left ear. He turned to get a better look, and the pain at the base of his skull seemed to throb. Right where it hurt, a small rectangular stump that looked like it was made of silver was surrounded by angry, red flesh. The wires came out of the end of the stump and then quickly buried themselves into his flesh at the base of his neck. The sewn-up scar then traced back down to his shoulder.
“What in Troena’s name . . . ?”
“The secret of silver,” Quintin said. “I had to ram a silver spike into your brain so that you could use your new arm, my boy. A small price to pay, I’d think.”
Trig recoiled and looked back to Quintin. “What have you done? I’m a monster!”
“You’re a man!” Quintin pulled the mirror away quickly and put it down on a nearby table. “A man who had a life to give for his country, and now you have another. Try not to give this one too, eh?”
Trig reached up and brushed the wires gently. “So what now? I’m to be sent home as a freak?”
Quintin seemed to wilt and shook his head. “Maybe one day, my boy, if we’re all lucky. Come now, let’s get you off that table and ready to go. A convoy back to the front should be here soon.”
* * *
It was only a month since he had gotten back to the front, and yet all the soldiers Trig fought beside were cyborgs now. Cyborgs, if people were being nice. Halfmen was the more common name, though. And even that was being generous in some cases.
He had been reassigned when he report back. A special cyborg-only detail so they could keep it quiet to the rest of the army about what was going on, even if General Traval was now openly known to be a cyborg himself. No one could ever tell him where Vlod was, or if he was even alive. If he had been shot, though, Trig hoped it had been in the head. Quintin could replace almost anything, even a heart, so long as the brain was still there.
“Come on,” a sergeant said. “Time to move out.”
Trig looked up from his lap where he had been watching the gears spin in his palm. The other soldiers were already on their feet and filing out of the impromptu bunker. Trig did not even know where they were anymore, and he did not really care. Every town looked the same, and every day had more killing. He got up and fell in beside a soldier that had only just reported to the unit.
The sergeant was rambling off combat orders, but Trig only half paid attention. He could not pull his eyes off the man next to him, if that was even what to call him. Two new legs with reverse joints extended all the way to the man’s hips, and four arms instead of two came out of his shoulders. The face was more of a mask and the body was bulky for the size of the man’s steam-tank and other additions, and it was easy to see that the man had not gained all of his new parts at once. Some were shiny-new, while others were so battered that it was amazing they still held together, and plenty of parts were of varying other degrees. How many times had the man been to Quintin?
Somehow, they had managed to fit a uniform on him. On the left breast, the nametag said Petir.
Trig swallowed hard and looked forward. You only have one life to give. That is what they told them all in boot camp, and every man in this unit had given it. Yet, somehow, that had not been the end, and Trig wondered if there ever would be. The sergeant finished his brief, and they started their march to another battle.
* * *
Two years passed, and finally the war ended. Trig stepped off the train and took a deep breath of air that smelt of gas-lamps and coal smoke. He was home, although he still could not believe it. Even with an endless supply of troops, Adervyn had not been able to turn the tide, and soon other resources ran thin and a truce had been called. How he had managed to go that entire time without being Recycled again, he had no clue. But it hardly mattered now. He had given his life, had been given it back, and now was home and free.
“Troena above!” a woman said behind him. “Get away from me, you filthy halfman!”
Trig winced and glanced back at the woman. Her eyes were glued to the silver stump, so he flipped the collar of his coat up and moved along. He had made sure his sleeve and glove hid his arm, but somehow he had forgotten about the stump. He felt his face heat in shame, but there was nothing he could do about it.
Even with the war over, not all the soldiers had been released from service, but any that had known Dr. Lazris’s special touch had been the first to go. Apparently there had been riots in the city over the Recycling Project, and now even General Traval had been relieved of his commission and was in hiding somewhere. The Regency was desperately trying to save face over the horrid actions it had taken. Perhaps they had never considered how they could explain creating an army of monsters without a victory to go with it.
Trig left the station and bought a sandwich from a street vendor. He moved into an alley to eat it, though, just to get out of the crowd. Most people left him alone; there were other, more obvious halfmen to harass. Still, he could feel their eyes on him, wondering why his collar was up on a warm, summer day.
He was half way done with his sandwich before he recognized a nearby pile of scrap metal for what it truly was. He carefully wrapped the sandwich up and put it in his pocket then walked over and read the nametag on the dirty uniform that was hidden under the bent up metal.
He swallowed hard then looked up at Petir’s face. Both of his eyes were glass lenses so it was impossible to tell if they were actually seeing or not. Trig waved his hand anyway then glanced down at Petir’s steam tank. A huge gash was rent across it, and both gauges were resting to the left.
Trig nodded slowly and said a small prayer over the body. He did not know if it really applied anymore: Petir had been far more machine than human by the end, but Trig still finished the prayer before he sat back down.
When he finished his sandwich, he stood up and looked at Petir’s body one last time. The boy had been turned into a machine of war for his country, and now, just because a few people were unhappy with the Regents, he had been cast aside as if he was nothing more than an old weapon. Who could say, perhaps he was. Perhaps Trig was too.
He ignored the chill that ran through his body and went back into the crowd. Petir’s lifeless eyes followed him, accusing him. “You said everything was going to be OK,” they seemed to say.
“Yeah,” Trig said back to them. “That’s what they told me too, kid. That’s what they told me too.”