Screams. Bangs. Whistles. Rattles. It seemed like the only sounds produced by the world anymore. Kurt heard them while asleep. He heard them when they stopped, as rarely as they did. He could never remove them from his head.
The young—the physically young—rackye peered over the side of the trench into the empty landscape, his fuzzy pointed ears twitching. The dirt and dust and smoke filled the black nose at the end of his long snout—he hadn’t smelled anything else for weeks. He would soon make another charge out there. He gritted his sharp teeth and shivered, rubbing the thin red fur under his ragged, dusty yellow uniform. He’d always been taught to believe the netherworld was a dark, chilly place. It was true, and he was there.
Once the place had smelled of fresh trees and flowers. Once a river had flowed through it. Once the sky had been blue.
Now the ground was jagged, exposed rock. Now the river had dried up. Now the sky was shrouded by thick smoke. It would never return to how it once was. Kurt would never return to how he once was. He felt as dead as the land now, but unlike the land and so many others, he was still alive.
Another blast in the distance; an explosion adding to the smoky sky. The smoke flashed as airplanes fired at each other. Sometimes one would plummet in a flaming tailspin and smash into the hard, dry ground. Once an airplane had crashed into one of their trenches. No one anywhere close survived that.
For three years Kurt had been on the front lines. For three years they’d fought against the neighboring country of Malatar. Fighting for the glory of Ealon, his homeland.
Why were they fighting? Because the Malatarese were aggressive. Why did Malatar fight? Because the Ealoners were aggressive. Was there any other reason? Not anymore.
A crash, a scream, and a plume of smoke told of mortar fire blasting a trench. Kurt wondered if anyone died in the blast. He wondered if anyone survived.
There may have been no reason for the war to begin with. No one was sure how it started, not even the superior officers. In times of peace Ealon and Malatar were rivals but not outright belligerent. Then one day tensions exploded; soon after they went to war.
Kurt and his old buddy Logan heard the news. Those rotten Malatarese were set for war. Everyone had to do their part. Kurt and Logan enlisted and were sent out the next day.
A rocket screamed overhead, a streak of musty smoke behind it. Kurt was about to go out into that chaos. He gripped his hand, the one with the broken claws, remembering the pushes from the past three years.
They had now gone months with no advance or retreat. They seemed to be locked in an endless stalemate. Even early in the war, every time they advanced the Malatarese then pushed them back. It was an endless back and forth that finally hit a grisly equilibrium.
The officers had said this would be the push to win them the war. It wasn’t the first time they’d said that. One push remained clear in Kurt’s memory. Where so much had blurred together, he still remembered that push. They had gained nothing from it, and Logan had lost his life.
Kurt had been running side-by-side with his friend across the warzone, heading straight for the enemy encampment. Then Logan screamed. A sour, metallic smell hit Kurt. His friend crumpled to the ground right next to him, his head stained with green blood.
And yet Logan had saved him that day. Kurt had frozen in place before he kneeled to his friend, unable to believe what he saw. Not wanting to move from that spot.
Then the ground ahead of him exploded. If he hadn’t stopped when his friend died—if he and Logan had kept running—they both would have been blown apart by that bomb.
Gunshots whizzed over Kurt’s head. He shook his hand to keep it from going numb. He had been one of the lucky ones. He’d been shot, but all he got was a broken wrist. His dominant hand, but he learned to use the other while it healed.
No, he’d seen far worse in the medical ward. He still had his hand. It would just lock up occasionally—having a piece of lead jammed in the wrist could do that. He remembered one guy who had just arrived as a new soldier. He disappeared shortly after. Kurt figured he died or deserted. Later he found him in the medical ward. He’d been caught in an explosion that removed half his face, burnt the rest, blew off an arm, and left both legs paralyzed.
Still, the guy had been optimistic. Probably because he was alive and wouldn’t have to fight—he’d been drafted like most soldiers in the second year. He said he had a wife and kid at home. His wife had probably been drafted since then.
Kurt knew why he was one of the lucky ones. They’d promoted him to lieutenant; he made sure they hadn’t promoted him further. Officers were a big target. They lost them so often they resorted to promoting whoever was handy at the time. He made sure to never be near an officer alone. If an officer died, let someone else be promoted. The titles were practically meaningless now except for the highest ones, and they weren’t down there in the fight. They weren’t at risk.
This would be the fourth charge they’d attempt that week. None of the others gained them anything, and they lost lives in the process. Kurt recalled a few soldiers he’d played cards with last week. He lost every game. This week those soldiers lost their lives.
That wasn’t fairness. Out here, though, there is no fairness.
Kurt heard a scream of death from the field. He wondered which side that soldier was on, but it hardly mattered at this point. Especially not to the soldier. Rackyes were vicious when cornered. Kurt knew his species could be brutal; even if some rackyes tried to move past it, they couldn’t win against their nature.
In one charge Kurt had found an injured soldier out on the field. He’d carried the soldier on his back to the camp to save her. Then he realized she was a Malatarese soldier. His superior officers took her prisoner and commended him for capturing one of the enemy.
He always felt he should have left her to die. From the stories he’d heard about the interrogation they used on prisoners, he imagined she would have preferred it too.
Kurt jolted back to the present. One of the officers was shouting the preparation order. They were about to charge into the field. Kurt pulled on his heavy backpack, tightening it and clipping it into place. If worst came to worst, everything he would need was in there. Everything but a way to finally end that endless war.
And then they charged.
Kurt bounded over the trench wall onto the battlefield and charged forward. Fellow Ealoners charged with him. Kurt held his assault rifle close and ready to fire when he was within range of the enemy.
Not that it would help them win that winless war.
The barren land was choked by dust and smoke. Kurt watched his step for holes. The land was a patchwork of muddy slopes, charred craters, brittle stone, and cracks just waiting to catch a charging soldier’s foot. Kurt felt a crunch beneath his feet but kept running. It was probably some poor soldier’s skeleton. He wondered whose it was but only for a moment. He needed to focus on things that were alive. That included the Malatarese tanks up ahead. He was trained to ignore them—their Ealoner tanks would keep enemy tanks engaged.
Kurt saw a soldier in the distance explode. A land mine. They were nearing the center of the warzone. Still Kurt waited to shoot even as gunfire whizzed around him. He needed to conserve his ammunition. Blasts erupted from mortar fire and tank shells. Rockets streaked across the sky in both directions. A Malatarese tank exploded into fragments.
Kurt looked to his right. Off in the distance stood a lone tree. A dead tree, bent, crooked, like a dislocated arm coming out of the land, held up by sheer, unending natural forces.
A fireball streaked down from the sky. A fallen airplane plunged onto the tree and exploded into a flaming wreckage.
In the smoky distance Kurt saw the Malatarese advancement. Covered in dirt and soot, they looked the same as the Ealoners and barely smelled different, a slight bitter smell through the smoke to distinguish friend from foe. Kurt couldn’t even remember what the scent they spread on his side smelled like—he was numb to it by now.
Kurt passed the plane wreckage and opened fire on the advancing Malatarese. Now he could smell and see them clear enough to get accurate shots. He shot down enemy soldiers, rushing forward to engage the ones he missed. He blocked out everything else—all that mattered was getting past those soldiers.
He didn’t know why. He didn’t ask why. He only did it.
They’d be close enough to directly engage any second now. Kurt readied his knife in his pack, longer, stronger, and more reliable than his natural claws. Then fire and smoke engulfed the soldiers up ahead as an explosive blasted them. Kurt charged through the smoke, racing for the Malatarese trenches as if arriving there would end the war. End the bloodshed. End the madness. There was no end to the madness. There was only the madness. Arrive at the enemy forces. Do something. There was nothing to be done. But he would do it anyway. He would win this for his home country–
The world spun wildly like a roaring tornado. Everything became a mix of blazing lights and choking smoke. Pain shot up Kurt’s leg and then discharged out his knee like a flood of fiery bugs. He smacked hard into something dirty and stuck to it.
It was the ground.
Screams, gunfire, blasts rattled all around him. Smoky clouds floated in front of him. He stared at the sky as his scrambled thoughts reorganized and caught up to the present.
He’d been hit. No, a close hit. The blast threw him to the ground. He lost his rifle, he lost his knife, he lost his backpack, he lost his . . . leg. Everything below the knee was gone. The knee felt as if dipped in boiling oil and red-hot needles.
He couldn’t get up. He couldn’t be carried back to the base this far out. If a Malatarese found him and carried him to their base, he didn’t doubt the awful interrogation techniques they would have for him.
So that was it. He was dead. There was no way out but death. There was never a way out but death. There . . .
There it was. A great flash of light, blinding him after such a long darkness. The world brightened, and a gust of wind blew through the area. The heavens were opening up to him; finally, after enduring such a painful and hopeless war, he would receive eternal–
All the fighting ceased as if a switch had been flicked. Right in the middle of the warzone danced a fetid, smoky dankom who laughed like a chittering rodent, their sharp teeth practically vibrating. They were hardly taller than a cannonball and the bright goldenrod of their scaly, jagged body stood out against the dark landscape.
The dankom pointed at a rackye with webbed claws and shouted “April’s Fools!” then pointed to another one with the same taunt. Their arms twitched as they pointed to all the rackyes within range, laughing as if they’d just said the greatest inside joke ever.
“April’s Fools! I just pranked you all! Yes! I, Parker, the King of Pranks, am the greatest prankster!
“Three years ago on April’s Fools Day I went to an online message board and posed as citizens of Ealon and Malatar to strike up an argument! A flame war proceeded that eventually grew into a real war! But . . .”
The dankom jumped up and down. “April’s Fools! April’s Fools! It turns out neither one of you started the war! I did! April’s Fools!”
From that moment on, Ealon and Malatar became the closest of allies as they banded together to chase out that pranking dankom and tear them limb from limb.