The Empire’s Line

The constant clatter of distant gunfire was almost too much to bear. A thick, choking smoke filled the trench and surrounded Edward as he pushed his face into the dirt, hands clamped over his ears to gag the din. He was out of ammunition and allies, the dead all over the ridge of the trenches; laid low in cold and sodden earth. For two months he had lived in the dirt of Trench Twenty-Six and now he cowered there, too afraid to see what was thudding towards him out of the darkness. He wished he had never signed up to the defense movement; he had never expected to die, not really, he had come to kill Cogs not be killed but now there was no way any of them were getting out of here alive. He started as a heavy thud landed next to him, splattering his already plastered uniform with fresh flecks of mud.

“Watcha, taking a little nap are we?” The man was familiar, vast, bulky and tall. His sergeant’s stripes only just visible under the muck. Pulling out a small, copper box he offered Edward a cigarette. Shrugging when he shook his head he lit his own and took a long calming drag.

“Bloody Cogs, they’ve taken half of the East Lands already and their fast marching on the Southern border. I happened to overhear that we’re one of the last fortifications between them and the South Tower.” He snorted a little and coughed on his cigarette. “Some defense this turned out to be.”

Still Edward said nothing, choosing instead to gaze up at the steel grey sky. Skysliders powered through the smog, their engines rattling with the effort of staying above ground. Great wings slicing through the clouds to reveal a hint of sunlight beneath. For a moment Edward felt a stray ray of daylight upon his face before the gap closed and the cold air settled in again, stealing the warmth from his skin.

“Where have you been Bram?” It had been a number of weeks since he had been separated from his superior. The lines between trench Twenty – Six and Twenty – Four had been blurred by the detonation of a planted mine, a showering of mud and sandbags collapsing in the intricate networks.

A sudden abrupt thudding reached both their ears, cutting the conversation short and making both men leap to their feet in shock. The very ground beneath them shook violently making them stagger and slide on the uneven surface, as if the world itself quaked with the force. The sergeant grabbed Edward’s arm as he nearly toppled backward over a dead man’s leg. Still holding tight to him, he popped his head over the edge of the trench and Edward saw the colour drain from the sergeant’s face.

“What, what is it?” Edward wailed, the distortion of fear shaking in his voice. No one hid their terror anymore. War was the great leveller.

His eyes grew wide as Bram slid back on his arse with a heavy sigh. Unable to hold himself back Edward hoisted himself just far enough over the ridge to glimpse a long line of androids marring the horizon. A military bike chugging black smoke came roaring up from the rear and the leader leapt off the back with a flourish. His long trench coat gleamed with a sheen of water from the previous hours of rain. His bronze occulace roved over the battlefield, winking in the little light that was left.

A sharp tug on his boot made him loose his grip, causing him to slide back into the trench. He turned an angry face on the sergeant, who met him with an equally foul gaze.

“Are you trying to get yourself bloody killed? Why not just run out into the Deadlands and get yourself shot now if you’re going to be so damn stupid? You’ll give our position away and I have no intention of dying for your blunder!” Edward scowled and turned his face away, it would do him no good to argue with a superior, he might need his help later on.

The sergeant fumbled with his Lee Enfield rifle, roughly tearing the scope out of its bracket and cautiously leaning up over the trench to use it as a telescope. After a few minutes silence he took his eye from the horizon and sat back down, fixing the scope back into place.

“What I wouldn’t give to see Tetra again.” Edward sighed, casting a shaking look over at his comrade. The whistle of the odd shell dropping a few miles off pierced the void in their conversation.

“On the South Border? I wouldn’t hold out much hope of that my friend.” Bram remarked without looking up from the task in hand.

“My family.” He whispered to himself, he couldn’t even remember their faces; all of them blurring together to create a void peppered by old memories.

“That doesn’t matter.” Bram’s keen hearing just picking out the sadness in Edward’s voice over the screeching of their oncoming death. “What matters right now is that we have about ten thousand cogs on our backs just riding the ridge. I estimate there are about three thousand directly behind with the rest fanning out towards the west. The one in the front, with the coat, that’s General Hicks, so named after the great Doctor. I assume you’ve heard of him.”

Edward grimaced to himself. Everyone had heard of Doctor Hicks, the orchestrator of the two year war that everyone could only just remember. Hidden away in the big house on the Palace Hills he had created the first android, an all functioning killing machine with cognitive thought, reasoning and independently powered. Rouge artificial intelligence had raged through the race making them more than copper and cogs. They were exceptionally hard to kill, their metal skins near impenetrable, and in all of the years they had existed only three had ever been recorded to have been dispatched. The machines had wanted more for themselves, more freedom and power. His father had died in the first war, trying to hold back the steady flow of malicious metal, and now he would die in this one. Revenge had brought him to his knees in this hell and yet he had killed no cogs, sated no grief. His revenge was worthless and unearned. He balled his fists against the tirade of bitter anger and despondence.

“So he’s …”

“That’s right, The First Creation.”

A dull sounding blast fired off somewhere behind them, throwing up large chunks of earth and rock, showering down upon their unprotected heads. A man screamed somewhere in the chaos, and the gunfire increased its muster. A sudden queasy feeling hit Edward in the stomach like a fist and refused to budge, it was all he could do to prevent the nerves from getting on top of him.

“How ready are you to die for the North Lands?” Bram asked, fixing him with a deep stare that sought out the lie in his eyes.

“I’m always ready to do whatever it takes to keep the Lands safe,” he replied with practiced ease.

“Very good.” Bram didn’t question him, if Edward wanted to buy into all that ceremonial bull shit that was his decision. He wasn’t going to die by someone else’s code. He would die on the edge of battle shrouded in glory and honour and live forever, becoming the sung hero of the Floating Earths.

“Right then, let’s get on with it. No time like the present.” Springing up Bram loaded up his rifle and extended a hand down to Edward, who took it albeit shakily.

“I’ve got no more ammunition.” Bram nodded and crammed a small pack of spare bullets into his hand and cocked his own weapon. Quickly stuffing a bullet into the chamber, Edward scrambled to his feet, his heart in his mouth and yet still pounding painfully in his chest. Sneaking a look he could just make out the first cogs pouring over the edge of the hills like hot oil. Without a seconds hesitation Bram vaulted over the top of the trench screaming every curse word that came to mind. His mind hurtling at a thousand miles an hour Edward hauled himself up into the battlefield a great deal more clumsily than the sergeant. The mud and pools of water clung to his feet like angry hands. Stumbling, falling and dragging himself through the chaos Edward let off his first round with his body pressed into the ground.

The chaos raged around him as sparks flew as metal ricocheted off metal. All around him pistons, nuts and bolts littered the floor but there were no bodies of the cogs, just his own friends. The blood pooling, the copper gleaming with the slick red, mingling with the metal in death. He heard the crunching of metal feet over the barren ground before the flat of a foot powered into his back pinning him with super human strength against the sludge. Rasping his breath and blowing up bubbles of water in the mud he waited for the inevitable blow that would end his life. Using every inch of strength he had left he gazed upwards into the barrel of Bram’s gun just in time to watch the bullet plough a hole between his eyes.

Breathing heavily Bram rammed the Webley Revolver back into the leather holster at his waist, his final instructions fulfilled. He’d spent months with the last dogs of humanity on the edge of hell all for a little glory and by God would the rusting, degenerate race of Cogs bring him that and then some. Fate always favoured those who took risks, who were prepared to sink to the lowest. He glanced up from the bleeding body to grimace at the face of the living machine who still stood on top of Edward’s cooling body and wiped the sweat and blood splatter from his face. He cast a gaze over his shoulder at the land behind him; the now still terrain at the rear of the trenches spat black smoke up into the broken horizon. The deep scars of land now his to own, the only survivor of the great wars; Elog would weep for his return.

The feeling of something watching him made him turn on his heel to meet the gaze of The General. Raising a hand in comradeship he narrowed his eyes when his metal counterpart refused to acknowledge him. An age seemed to pass between them of unspoken malice and shaky alliance before The General raised a hand to the clouds and motioned to something hovering over the battlefield. Bram went cold as a deep, long, dark cloud poured over him, from above the gentle grating of the rusting Skyslider was suddenly the only sound in the world. A great chasm in the belly of the ship shuddered open, raining a fine rust down into his eyes. Terror froze him, for all his glory and deception; he had seen this happen before.

A sudden clattering and rasping and a multitude of cables and wires came flying out of the great hole in the gut of the ship and plucked Bram from the ground. Whipping him up into the air and slamming the wound shut. The ship juddered and rolled onwards through the sky, casting its silhouette across the pockmarked land. The General’s eye roved over all his now owned, the last defense in his way cleared, men had proven weak. It was over.

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