The sergeant did yell at the unit, though he had only been promoted from among their ranks a few months ago, and part of him still flinched at having to inflict discipline. He thought of the old rising sergeants who had seemed to change their personalities overnight, suddenly overconfident and smug. Some days he envied them. Other days he feared that they had all felt this way deep down, and that to his men, he now looked just like one of them. Sergeant David Powell, just another big-headed man aiming to stick his head up above the rest of them.
The rant that he gave was rote and general, recobbled from words he had blustered and heard blustered before. The bluster had been better on other days. In a moment of faltering silence, he decided to begin the briefing for the mission. He knew how the briefing was going to end, and he didn’t know how to conclude the lecture. That was how he made his decision; what would let him escape this chore with some dignity. It surprised him, just how many of his leadership decisions were guided by that.
He paced along the line of men. He looked better than he felt. He was a man with a slight build but quietly regal posture. His skin was the deep reddish brown of a chestnut shell, and he had recently grown a small mustache that suited him. As he walked, he would periodically lock eyes with a soldier. When he could not hold a former comrade’s eyes anymore, he would glance quickly to another’s face, without looking up or down. Hoping nobody saw a flicker of uncertainty in between. Nobody did.
“In fifty years, Matteo Garibaldi is the only defector to reach us with credible, useful intel. To provide us with information, he has been making use of a series of caves, which he believes the Arcadian patrols are unaware of. He will be leading us through those caves. The journey will take the better part of our week, but it will let us out at a point near a trio of watchtowers. The Elementals posted at these towers have overlapping ranges with each other. By taking all three out, we will create a gap in their electromagnetic defenses. Our planes will be able to fly through, straight to the heart of their capital. The success of this plan, from the journey through the caves to the attack on the watchtowers to the ultimate destination of the plane, relies entirely on information supplied by Matteo Garibaldi. So if you aren’t willing to trust him, fall out now. You’re not welcome with us.”
Sergeant Powell waited. In his head, he heard rebuttals, the kinds that would never be uttered in line, but saved until they fell out and he was out of sight. Most of them would revolve around good reasons to distrust him (he’s Arcadian, why is he doing this, how is it that no one else has found these caves before him, how do we know this isn’t a trap) and fun suggestions for what they could do to him if he did betray them.
Of course, nobody fell out. Of course, nobody trusted the scout.
“Very good. I’m glad to see I can rely on you all. The cave entrance is in the middle of no man’s land. It can be crossed at night. Take only what you need. And try to get some rest this afternoon. You’ll need it.”
The desert that the Arcadians had created extended for two miles. Across the first mile, the elementals in the watchtowers allowed the military to retrieve their dead and wounded. If their invasions passed that points, the rescuers would soon need rescuers themselves. By now it was easy to see the point of no return. It was littered with shattered jeeps, melted tanks, downed planes, fragmented weaponry. You could find a bone here and there. No skeletons. The crows and vultures scattered bones as they picked them clean. The unit crossed without lights, in a stooped, single line. In the distance, lights flickered in the watchtowers, where the night guards kept their eyes on the perimeter.
The cave’s entrance was just a little slit in the stony earth. Sergeant Powell thought for a moment that Matteo had simply taken cover behind a low boulder, then wondered why he had stopped for so long. Then Corporal Ciernik tapped him on the shoulder, and moved him a few inches closer. Ciernik’s gift included sharpened senses as well as enhanced strength, and what was invisible to David was clear to him. As he looked closer, Powell saw that one shadow was not a shadow. It did not move with his vision.
“Jesus Christ, that’s small,” he muttered. Ciernik nodded. Powell took a deep breath.
“Stay behind until all the men are through. Make sure everyone can see it.”
Ciernik nodded once more, and Powell dove into the crevice.
Powell was not normally claustrophobic, but this was not going to be pleasant for anybody. The boulder that partially covered this entrance was an iceberg; a little bit poking above, a swollen mass below. The rock dipped and rose, forcing him to slither back and forth to avoid unpleasant bumps. And, though it might have been his imagination, the uneven slope of the ceiling averaged downwards faster than the floor did. The space was small, and it was getting smaller.
Ahead, a right light flickered. Matteo had a little ball of light inching along with him. Behind Powell, a soldier clicked on a flashlight to make his way forwards. Seeing the size of the narrow gap made Powell’s stomach wrench more, not less. He pushed on.
The gap opened up all at once, dumping Powell down into the floor of the little chamber. The passage ahead, just big enough to walk through with shoulders barely brushing the walls, looked roomy compared to what they had come through. A few moments of waiting in silence, and then Loman, the first man who had been in line after Ciernik, rolled out. Barnes came next, followed by Warren. The chamber was getting crowded.
“Start the march,” Powell said.
Matteo shook his head; a gesture that pricked some immediate annoyance in Powell. Intellectually, he knew the man was a civilian, not trained into military discipline, nor required to follow it. But emotionally, a scrawny kid who nobody liked was undermining his authority.
“We have a long way to go, and we won’t all have room in here,” Powell pressed.
“We’ve all got to stay in sight of each other. It’s twisty, and there are a lot of forks you don’t want to take.”
Dammit, he had a point. Meanwhile, Gladwin emerged, increasing their number to five, not counting Matteo.
“So stay together. If the man in back can’t see the man in front of him, pass up the word to halt. I’ll wait until we have a full count.”
Matteo accepted this, and began to lead the way. Powell’s men filed through, and back through the tunnels, he heard the periodic call to halt. He quickly repeated the instructions to each soldier as he emerged. Kaufer came through sixth, and he repeated, “Kaufer, six, Kaufer, six,” in his head until McKendrick came out and made seventh. Every now and then, Powell felt a panicky sense that he had skipped or repeated a number. He reminded himself that whatever the number, Ciernik would come through last.
When Salcedo, number eighteen, came through, Powell began to relax. Sorenson would be nineteen, then, if he hadn’t made a mistake, Ciernik would make twenty. Either way, at least he would know.
Moments passed. He heard Salcedo call halt, and without looking, he could easily imagine him waiting in the hall, waiting anxiously as Powell himself.
Then the call came from Ciernik. “Help! We need help up here!”
“Stay put!” Powell shouted, to Salcedo and Ciernik equally. He dropped his pack and dove into the crevice. It was better without his gear, but it was still miserable. He made for the two points of light that were Ciernik and Sorenson’s flashlights.
Ciernik was paused by Sorenson, whose bulk was obviously giving him even more trouble getting through the gap.
“I can’t fucking move, sarge,” he said.
For a moment, time fell into a sickening vacuum. Powell reached for options to get him through the narrow pass, and imagined there might be none.
“Is it your pack?” he said. “Is your gear hooked on something?”
Sorenson shook his head. It wasn’t even on his back. Like most of the soldiers he had dragged it along with one hand. Still, Powell wasn’t willing to give up on the possibility of a problem that was more easily solved.
“Let’s just try getting it out. Ciernik, haul it the fuck out of here.”
“Sure, sarge.” Ciernik’s voice sounded artificially light.
They pried the gear out of Sorenson’s hand, and Powell heard Ciernik shuffle past them.
“Okay, let’s try again.”
“I can’t fucking move, sarge,” Sorenson repeated.
“Well, all fucking right then. Let’s back you the fuck up and give it another shot.”
“I. Can’t. Move.”
Damn. Damn damn damn god fucking damn it.
“Listen,” Powell’s tone took on a soft, half mocking, half cajoling tone. “You got the fuck down here, right? So stands to reason you can move one way or another. So pick a direction and get the fuck going.”
“I can’t fucking move!”
“Don’t you use that tone with me, soldier!” Powell snapped back, and Sorenson’s face took on a new look; that shocked out of himself look. The military, ready for orders look. If he could keep Sorenson in that space, maybe they had a chance. He scanned the space they had left to clear.
“Do you think you’re thicker than my arm is long, soldier?”
Powell held his forearm out, fingers rigid. “Do you think you’re thicker, from your ass to your belly, than here,” he touched his elbow, “to here?” he touched the tip of his middle finger.
“I- I don’t think so, sarge.”
“Good.” Powell put his elbow on the ground. His fingers brushed the ceiling, and he suppressed a shudder. “Now, this is more than your fucking size, and frankly, soldier, your fucking flab is a lot squishier than my fucking bones. So if I can get all the way back with my hand like this, you can squeeze after me. Right, soldier?”
“I guess so, sarge.”
“I said, right soldier?!”
“Good. Now, let’s get going.”
Powell started wriggling backwards. For a moment, Sorenson remained frozen. Then his right arm moved ahead, and he pulled on it. He budged, just a bit.
“That’s it. Get a move on.”
The move was agonizingly slow, and sometimes Powell had to weave to fit his whole arm in. Sometimes they kept moving for five or ten seconds together, but most of the time they moved in shorter spurts, Sorenson wincing in pain.
“That’s it. Don’t worry about losing a few goddamn buttons. There’s not gonna be a fucking fashion show on the other side,” David said.
Please don’t get stuck. Please make it. Please don’t get stuck, Powell thought.
Time disappeared into a rhythm of squeeze, wiggle, freeze cajole, rant, squeeze again. Words stopped having meanings. They were just leftover globs of grease, thrown onto the walls.
Then, the space behind Powell’s feet opened up. He kicked a little to make sure, then grinned.
“We’ve made it, Sorenson.”
Once Powell had rolled out and Sorenson had reached the opening, Ciernik and Salcedo gripped his arms and pulled him the rest of the way out. They clapped his back and teased him while he gasped for breath. He looked pale and shaky, but he was fine. For a second, Powell let himself feel elated.
“Right,” he said. “Enough delay. Let’s move out.”