Heliograph dispatch to the Commander-in-Chief at 8:30 AM, from the officer commanding the Allied forces at Spy Hill:
"Am exposed to terrible cross-fire; can barely hold my own; water badly needed. Help us.
"Fifteen hundred yards: rifle-fire, coming from Fairview Mountain," said Fairview, flat on his belly with his spy-glass to his eye. "Pom-poms, also from Fairview Mountain – about twenty-five hundred yards from us. The shell guns on Fairview Mountain are about two miles away. Directly north from the knoll: machine-rifles. And that eastern ledge that's just below the summit has several dozen Mippites shooting up at us."
Fairview, the steamer pilot, had the best eyes of anyone I knew, and the best ears too. Even so, I said, "Below us? Are you sure?"
I had to shout; we both did. All around us came the scream of shells and the scream of men being hit by shells and rifle-fire. Fairview didn't waste words; he handed the spy-glass to me and pointed to a rock further down the slope.
I took the spy-glass reluctantly. The news was depressing enough as it was, for the Mippites' rifles could hit us easily from Fairview Mountain, while our rifles simply weren't accurate at that range. As for the Mippites' pom-poms, I longed to wring the necks of whichever penny-greedy bureaucrats had decided that the Landsteader armies didn't need the Vovimian-manufactured automatic cannons. The Mippites had promptly bought every pom-pom.
Sighing, I looked through the spy-glass. For a moment I saw nothing. Then there was a flicker of motion, a discharge, a bullet whizzing past my ear.
"Blast!" I handed the spy-glass back to Fairview. "They must be within a hundred yards of us." I looked around, but Canton wasn't in view; in any case, this called for a conference. "I'll tell the General," I informed Fairview and scrambled out of the trench before he should demand we flip a coin to decide who left.
Not that the trenches made a bloody bit of difference, as far as I could tell. As Spearman had hinted to the General, shallow trenches are little better than no trenches at all. From the knoll to the north came the rattle of the Mippites' machine-rifles, and the result was like watching a lawn mowed; bullets landed in a strip down the trench to the north of me – not the one I had just left, thank goodness. I could hear Fairview shouting orders behind me.
Closing my ears to the screams of the unfortunate men in Tice's left-flank trench, I scrambled forward on hands and knees, unwilling to rise high enough that I should become a handy target. I heard a scream above me – not from a man – and fell flat on my belly, hiding my face in my arms.
There was an awful crash above me, and then, far more terrible, the sound of metal striking rocks, like a deadly rain. The screams were starting again. I waited tensely, but felt nothing more than a fiery line across the back of my hand.
I raised my head finally. The first thing I saw was blood welling out of my hand, from where shrapnel had slashed it. Cursing, I rolled over and managed to pull out my handkerchief, then used my teeth and my good hand – my shooting hand – to wrap the handkerchief around the wounded hand.
All around me was shrapnel, along with the shattered remains of the men who had experienced the explosion of a shell. Near me was the severed head of Canton. I turned my eyes away, struggled to regain control of my stomach, and then scrambled to my feet and ran. Trying to travel by hands and knees through a field filled with shell fragments is as good as suicide.
As I'd predicted, I became the new, favorite target of the Mippites. By the time I reached the General, I'd lost my rations packet; it had been shot off my belt. I collapsed behind the rock where the General huddled, along with his soldier-servant and his wide-eyed messenger-lad, who was just finishing writing down a message for the signalmen. The lad looked at what lay between him and the signal station, gulped, and then scrambled out into the deathly field.
The General took no notice of his messenger's departure. Sweat covered the General's face, which had gone pale. He was clutching his book of poetry and staring at the mangled remains of Tice, who lay nearby.
"Sir," I said in a voice that trembled only slightly, "I have a report for you on the enemy positions." I rattled off the information that Fairview had given me.
The General continued to stare at Tice's corpse.
"Sir, if we ask the Commander-in-Chief to send word to our gunners, I believe they can put the machine-rifles on the knoll out of commission – our big guns are within range. . . . Sir?"
The General raised his gaze finally. His eyes were wide, like that of a warhorse which smells blood for the first time. "Return to your men," he said.
"But sir, about the knoll—"
"I said, Return to your men!" He shrieked the words. His voice was nearly hidden by the booming of the Mippite guns.
"Well?" said Fairview, pausing in the midst of giving half a dozen orders to his subordinate officers, who were gathered around him.
I didn't bother to keep my voice low this time. "He wouldn't listen to a bloody word I said!"
Fairview paused, not to consider what to say next, but because we both had to flatten ourselves at that moment as another rake of rifle-fire went by us. "Tice?"
"Dead. Spearman is wounded; I saw him being carried off the hill by his men."
"Well, then, it's just us left. —Stiles, inform Major Arundel of Colonel Tice's death and tell him that he's in charge now of the left flank. Branchwater, have your men close up that gap caused by the shell-deaths; if the Mippites on the hillside below us attack at bayonet range, the center is where they're most likely to charge. How much water do we have?"
Fairview's cool enquiry brought me back to my senses. "Not enough. —Gillingham." I turned to my own second-in-command, who had followed me to the main trench. "Have the men save their water for the wounded. I don't know when we'll be getting our next supply. Also, they're to hold their fire unless they actually see something worth shooting at. Our ammunition won't last forever."
"Here." Fairview had been scribbling in his notebook while I spoke; he tore off the page and handed it to Davey. "Give this to the signalmen. Have them send it to the Commander-in-Chief at once."
Davey didn't so much as blink, good lad that he was. "Shall I say that our General handed this to me?"
"Send it without a name; if anyone asks, the General is currently incapacitated. —For how long?" he asked in an undertone as Davey darted away.
I shook my head wordlessly.
"We need him in charge." Fairview glanced around as his officers scattered, returning to their companies. "I'll go this time."
"We both will. I gave orders to my officers on my way back here. I've done everything I can for the moment."
We found the General standing at the farthest end of the left flank's trench, staring down at the mangled, moaning men there.
"Sir, get down!" urged Fairview. Like me, he had wriggled the final yards to the General on his belly; the rifle-fire had intensified, and the Mippites were showing what fine marksmen they were. One Mippite rifleman in particular – a field-cornet, I judged from what I had glimpsed of his ragged hat, which was rank-coded blue – seemed to bring down a man on our side every time he fired his rifle.
The General ignored us. Again. "I've sent a message to the Commander-in-Chief, requesting water," he told one of the moaning soldiers, who was clutching what I recognized as our General's own water bottle. "You'll just have to wait, I'm afraid. —Here." He leaned over to offer his cigarette to the man.
It was a ridiculous scene. The General should have been issuing orders, not handing out cigarettes to dying men. But in that moment, as I witnessed the man who had wanted a quiet diplomatic job step out of the safety of his rock in order to comfort a dying man, I felt the first stirrings of admiration toward Pentheusson.
From the corner of my eye, I saw a blue cloth blur as the Mippite officer steadied his rifle. The rifle roared.