PLEASE NOTE: This story contains some profanity, and a scene of harsh interrogation. Reader discretion is advised.
The war, in a word, sucked.
Lieutenant Michael Zhang Cuthbertson craned his head to track a flock of Australian ornithopters as they rose in a chattering pack from the camp's crude airstrip and buzzed out over the Indian Ocean, their wings locking in to glide on the highways of wind beneath the cloud deck. The sun winked off their gun turrets. Like vultures, they circled.
Mike sighed. His ears pounded in unwilling sympathy with the wash of hard, thrashing electric music that routinely blanketed the Allied base: Nine Inch Nails, Towers of London, Cherry Nuk-Nuk, The Apocalyptoid Rebellion. Only in the brief dip between songs did the native tapestry of Madagascar's birds, frogs and monkeys shine through the wall of rock. Mike winced, then adjusted his ear-plugs.
He took another bite of something crumbly and sour whose label claimed it was a field ration. Mike had his doubts.
He sat on a milk-crate. The world around him stank of unwashed bodies, gasoline, marijuana and excrement in roughly equal proportions. The aroma was repellent but familiar, somehow less offensive to him than the sour crumbs rattling around the bottom of his ration envelope whose scent was, to his mind, distinctly fungal.
One of the younger recruits grimaced. He was a skinny Australian kid who didn't look old enough to drive. "I think my ration's gone off," he whined.
"Shut up, virgin!" bellowed the nutritions officer.
"But it's all hairy --"
"I will shoot you. Look into my eyes. Am I joking?"
The nutritions officer stomped off. The young recruit tracked his progress with wide eyes. Mike tapped him on the shoulder. "The first rule of field rations: never look. Just reach in, take a hunk, and put it in your mouth."
"But it's disgusting, mate."
Mike nodded philosophically and pressed another wad between his teeth. "It sure is," he agreed, chewing. "Welcome to the Allied Forces."
Most of the diners didn't speak. It was difficult to discern the men from the women. Everyone wore the same shapeless, mud-stained camouflage fatigues, the same worn boots, the same sun-burned, dazed and dour expressions of people who had anticipated the worst, met it, and resigned themselves to more. Some of them were bandaged. Many were scarred. Nobody smiled.
One man keeled over and started vomiting violently into the mud. The nutritions officer spared him a glance. "Medic!" he called mechanically, then strolled on.
"Uh, sir..." ventured Mike.
"What is it, Cuthbertson?" he snapped.
"That is the medic, sir."
The nutritions officer frowned. "Bloody hell."
The only respite Madagascar offered Mike were his forays into dense woodlands infested with armed and desperate enemies. Both the Axis and Allied lines of material communication had been cut, and neither side was comfortable. Mike was a scout. His job was to ply the forest separating the two stranded camps of soldiers to make sure the Axis wasn't about to launch a raid against the Allies. From either side of a narrow ridge of foothills both camps were bent to the purpose of making sure neither side made use of Antsiranana Bay to gain new supplies. At the mouth of the bay the broken remains of Antsiranana City smoldered, ribbons of smoke torn free by the fierce ocean winds to trail dozens of kilometers north-east toward Arabia.
Despite the danger of his missions Mike enjoyed his time away from camp. He nosed his way cautiously through the brush, prodding aside leaves with the barrel of his Mini-Mitrailleuse, pausing to listen to the hidden animals hoot or chirp or squeal.
He knew the trails well. He himself had stomped them flat. He was supposed to be mindful not to leave trails, but after five weeks making the same rounds through the same tangled, leafy gullies he saw no practical way to avoid it. In fact, he frequently crossed the trails of his Axis counterpart. They were scouting the same no man's land, after all.
The trails converged by a massive old baobab tree.
There was a hollow in the tree, and Mike reached unflinchingly inside and removed a carefully wrapped package of soft, brown bananas and one sad-looking apple. He'd have given anything to know where the Axis camp was getting fresh-like fruit from. The accompanying note said:
Mike grinned. He gingerly peeled one of the bananas and then scooped out the discoloured pulp with his fingers. He licked them clean, then attacked the apple which he enjoyed thoroughly, worms and all. When he was done he removed a cloth-wrapped package from his backpack and added a folded note before shoving it deep inside the baobab's hollow. His note said:
Make eat thise in good health. Dou you think rainey season come early? I smell waters on the winds.
Mike straightened. He took a careful look around, cocked his head to listen, and then proceeded along the trail as he peeled his second limp banana. It fell apart in his fingers but he jammed what he could of the brown, seedy paste into his mouth. He wiped his face on a leaf and then wound his way back toward the Allied camp.
I don't know how your guys are doing malaria-wise, but here is some extra permethrin to use against the mosquitos. I hope the rainy season does come soon because our water tastes awful!
He was just close enough to detect the first strains of rock'n'roll when he became aware of another sound: the hum of aircraft. He blinked as a brace of shadows flashed overhead, blocking the shafts of sunshine streaming down through the forest canopy. The tone of the aircraft engines ramped up in pitch as they accelerated.
Where the devil did the Axis camp get planes?
Mike accelerated, too. He barreled through the last fringes of forest and burst out into the clearing around the camp just in time to see a string of bombs drop from the two Axis fighters. The concussions from the first explosions knocked him off his feet, sending him tumbling backward down into the shallow valley through which he'd just trudged.
He was stunned. His ears were ringing. Bits of smoking debris dropped all around him, tearing holes in the leaves with a series of hisses.
Mike clambered to his feet, checked himself for damage, and then struggled to climb out of the valley again. Beyond the clearing the base was burning, great angry clouds of black smoke billowing upward from half a dozen locations. Sirens were wailing, and people were screaming. Anti-aircraft guns stuttered and barked, bursts of flak peppering the sky.
A flock of ornithopters swooped in from the coast, engines buzzing and guns blazing. Mike ignored them as he sprinted across the clearing. He tossed his gun aside and dropped to the mud beside the first person he saw, ripping off the bottom of his pant-leg and pressing it against a bloody, black-edged wound. "It's gonna be okay," claimed Mike, looking into the soldier's panicked eyes.
A badly burned arm reached out to him from a pile of what Mike had taken to be inanimate debris. Mike took hold of the proffered glove and squeezed it. "Don't worry!" he shouted. "Help is coming!"
The only response was an anguished gurgle.
Mike flinched as a horrendous bang signalled the destruction of one of the Axis planes, its fuselage crumbling as it tumbled out of the sky. It struck the ground to the west of the Allied camp with an earth-shaking thump. A riot of birds burst out of the forest in alarm, and were seconds later cut down into a mist of disconnected feathers and spatters as they crossed a vector of anti-aircraft ordnance.
Ragged strips of sandgrouse, crested ibis and grey-headed lovebird rained down, smacking Mike's helmet. He covered his face with his arms. The lumps of meat smelled like roast chicken and fireworks. A surreal snow of shredded feathers followed.
Covered in blood and feathers, Mike got to his feet and ran deeper into the camp, dodging to avoid other soldiers as they loomed out of the thick, roiling smoke. Their faces were black with soot, their eyes bulging with horror. He skirted the flaming infirmary and then skidded to a halt as the veil parted and afforded him a momentarily unobstructed view out over the water.
The long grey hull of an Axis aircraft carrier was cutting the waves, moving into Antsiranana Bay, another fighter lifting off from its deck with an air-splitting shriek. The massive vessel was flanked by two smaller warships, their turrets swivelling to train on the Allied camp. "Warships!" screamed Mike, his own voice lost in the din.
Infantry was already pounding across the beach to man the big guns. Mike jogged up to the forward bunker on the ridge overlooking the beach to help three other soldiers lift a fallen timber off the satellite communications gear. They tossed it aside with a grunt and then an American with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth grabbed the microphone. "I need a pulse!" he yelled. "I need a pulse now!"
The warship's turrets flashed. Shells struck the beach with geysers of surf and sand, boot and face, metal and flesh. Mike saw a dozen die in a span of seconds. Allied mortars boomed in response.
Beside Mike, the American hooted as the screen on his lap illuminated with a satellite image of the bay, the Axis ships grey smudges in the surf. The American fixed the crosshairs with a practiced twist of the dials. His thumb twitched over the contact. "We're aligned and ready to fire! Major?"
"The major's dead!"
The American nodded to himself curtly, then dragged on his cigarette. He stabbed the trigger and growled through clenched teeth: "Avada kedavra, motherfuckers."
The air over the bay crackled as a hundred kilometers above the Allied Satellite Network found its mark and engaged. A split second later the aircraft carrier and its flanking warships turned bright red and then exploded, throwing up a ten-meter-high shockwave of salt water that surged away from the epicentre. The shattered remains of the ships and a few metric tonnes of ocean were then boiled away into fumes by a second ignition of the orbital laser-pulse weapon.
The noise was horrendous, a quadruple thunderclap of unholy proportions. The blasts of hot air knocked those standing off their feet, the soldiers on the beach tumbling in sequence like dominos. Mike found himself tangled in a litter of tree branches and torn canvas, his body aching, the breath torn from his lungs.
The echoes died away into a silence more profound than it should have been. The crackling fires were mute.
The men on the beach stood up, threw their arms into the air and appeared to cheer. The surf turned dark with the bodies of a thousand flash-fried fish.
Mike crawled out into the clear again, rubbing his head and wondering where his helmet went. He was startled when someone clapped him on the shoulder. He spun around. The American grinned around his blackened and splayed cigarette stub. He said, "America -- fuck yeah!"
"I can't hear anything," said Mike, gesturing to his ears and shrugging.
"What are you saying?"
The latrine had exploded. There was broiled crap everywhere. A new infirmary was improvised in the officer's mess hall, partly because it was still relatively intact but mostly because it was the tent furthest away from the potentially infectious poo. It still smelled terrible, though. Mike volunteered there until he could no longer stand, and then he slept in an overturned rain-barrel until he was awakened by a sergeant with an eye-patch who tried to drink him.
"Where's the goddamn water?" asked the startled sergeant.
"I don't know," mumbled Mike, blinking against the morning light. He stumbled into the bushes and peed on a fern. He stepped on something that crackled and looked down to discover that it was a human hand. It wasn't connected to anyone, so Mike just left it there in the underbrush.
There was no rock'n'roll that day.
None the less, Mike was grateful to be sent on patrol. Trudging through the forest was considerably less like a living nightmare than the mop-up efforts at the ravaged base. Birds chirped, monkeys howled. Mike could come within spitting distance of forgetting where he was, or what the weapon slung over his shoulder was for. Simply getting away from the smell of burning was invaluable.
He splashed through a brook and then up the embankment toward his baobab tree, his boots crunching on twigs and dried patties of moss. As he approached the tree he started fishing through his pack for the meagre offering of saltines he planned to stash inside the hollow for his friend.
He stopped short. Flies buzzed.
There was a body beside the baobab tree. It was a young Axis soldier with brown skin. The top of his head had been spread into a wide, chunky spray that glistened in the sunlight as it was crisscrossed by streams of ants. "Oh no," whispered Mike.
Mike's friend was dead. And though Mike had seen a lot of death over the weeks, and then quite a bit more over the past day and night, it was this particular loss that caused his knees to turn to jelly. He dropped to his haunches beside the dead soldier and blubbered. He clutched his hair. He struggled to take a breath deep enough to ease his feeling of suffocation.
He wanted to look into his friend's face, to know what he looked like at last, but he couldn't bear to let his sight stray over the grotesque injury. Instead he tugged forlornly on the soldier's pants. "Oh, my friend..." he sighed, his own body feeling monstrous and heavy and dumb.
Something clicked. Mike looked up sharply.
He was surrounded by a platoon of British soldiers, the oil-streaked muzzles of their SA80 assault rifles trained on Mike's head. "Hands up!" they shouted. Mike put his hands up. "Freeze!" they shouted. Mike froze.
"I'm Allied," he offered feebly. "I'm Canadian."
One of the British toggled his radio. "We have him," he said, cold eyes fixed on Mike. "I repeat: we've captured the traitor."