(German 77mm gun emplacement destroyed during the Battle of Messines, Belgium, during World War 1. Photo and caption via Wikimedia Commons)
Turner groaned in the darkness, and even though he had only opened his lips slightly, dirt tumbled in. It scratched his throat, causing him to cough, causing more dirt to fill in. Coughing, retching, Turner opened his eyes against the earthy canvass and started pushing with his legs, clawing with hands, pulling himself up until his fingers found firm purchase. He gripped the hard surface and wrenched himself out of his grave.
He laid on his back for a while, gazing at the grey-brown sky. The most fantastic light show was happening; bright flashes, like lightning, followed by hollow booms that he swore he could feel rattled along his spine, shaking the ground.
The word lit his brain, and he was moving before he could question the impulse. He rose to his feet and dusted himself off. His hand bounced off a metal lid that was fastened to his head by a leather strap. A helmet. Turner looked down at himself. He was wearing battered boots that were wrapped in strips of fabric, like bandages. He had a green-grey uniform on, and a heavy, wool overcoat that was making him itch. As he moved about, examining his clothes, his foot knocked against a rifle, half-buried in the dirt and mud.
He stooped and picked up the gun, wiping the action clear of grime and pulling the bolt back, ramming a cartridge into the chamber. Where had he learned this? It all felt natural, like he was piloted by instinct.
The sky flashed and another rollicking boom made the ground quake. He jumped; it was no longer a pleasant light show. Those booms and flashes meant death, he was sure of it. Turner stood still and spun in a slow circle, aiming his gun, trying to get his bearings. He was in a crater, a deep depression that was littered with rocky debris and bits of wood. There was a table leg jammed into the ground, a splintered dresser next to it. Turner glanced upward, at the lip of the crater, and saw concrete foundations sticking out like busted, rotting teeth.
A house. He’d been buried under a house.
Bewildered, Turner leaned forward and started climbing, struggling to keep the rifle off the ground. He had it in his head that the gun was very important. He wasn’t sure that it was important to him, but it definitely had value to someone.
Turner climbed out of the crater and surveyed the landscape. It was grey, crumbling, smoking slightly. Turner thought it looked like the inside of an ash tray that hadn’t been cleaned out in weeks.
He trudged past a metal vehicle; it was boxy and had large treads, but it was husked out and burning. There was a hatch opened on the top, and a uniformed man was slumped over it, half in the tank and half out. Turner watched him warily, but the man didn’t move.
There was a sharp, whistling crack somewhere to his left, and he spun the gun around and crept forward, crouching near a low stone wall, gun barrel resting on it.
A few yards away, another soldier was firing his weapon at the ground. He would fire, pull the bolt back, and fire again. As Turner watched, the soldier pulled a small pistol out and fired it into the same spot, three times, pop pop pop! Then he reloaded.
Turner didn’t know why the soldier reloaded; that pistol held at least five more rounds. Frowning, he strafed sideways and looked down his rifle sights, placing the three pronged little crown directly on the soldier’s back…
The soldier jumped in the air, twice, and then turned around. He raised his gun at Turner, but Turner was already firing, the first shot sounding off but Turner wasn’t paying attention, he was pulling the bolt back and ramming it forward, ready to fire again-,
“Turner! That you?”
He rose out of his crouch, still aiming his rifle. The soldier bounded forward. He was a pale man with a scraggly beard that stretched from high on his checks to below his Adam’s apple. His expression was blank, but Turner was pleased to see him.
Coleman snapped off a goofy, exaggerated salute. “Just got here? Me too. Dug myself out.”
“Same,” Turner said.
Coleman nodded as if he had expected nothing else. He held up his rifle. It was longer than Turner’s, and there was a telescope bolted to the side. Turner thought he remembered Coleman having a shotgun the last time he saw him.
“New?” Turner asked.
“Just got it. Going to try it out real soon. You ready?”
Turner opened his mouth to say no, not really, what was there to be ready for? But another word fired through his brain, and it activated a surge of adrenaline, a need to run and shoot and kill.
Coleman was already running, sprinting west, towards the sounds of thunder and the flashes of lightning. His feet kicked dirt and ash into the air, stinging Turner’s eyes as he ran through it. His legs carried him at a torrid pace, ignoring Turner’s gasps, ignoring the protests from his feet.
They started to breast a large hill, and now the sounds were starting to grow louder. Rapid pop-pops andhoarse screams, whistling explosions and steady, throbbing gunfire. The entire earth seemed to be joining together in a unified click-clack boom, click-clack boom.
Turner was scared, but his legs didn’t care. He was on a train rail to his doom, his hands not his own, his eyes working side to side in terror as they crested the hill and descended into the madness. Coleman was screaming. They both leapt into a trench and lined up with other uniformed versions of themselves, aiming out of the trenches and firing at shadowy figures. Turner wondered if they were real.
His question was answered as a bullet whizzed through the rubble and barbed wire, smacking Coleman in the teeth, knocking the poor man on his ass. Coleman put a hand to his gushing mouth and looked over at Turner. His mouth hung open, and he raised his hands as if to say: “What can you do?”
Coleman went limp. Turner turned back to the grey war. The shadow figures were advancing, he could see white eyes glaring at him. He fired grimly at each of them, watching one clutch its chest and fall.
Something dinged off his helmet. He looked dumbly around, wondering what it was. There was a little object at his feet, a little tube-stick.
Turner started to back away, and that was when it exploded, sending Turner flying out of the trench, his arms windmilling, his head lolling around on his neck like a loose screw.
He landed, hard, and found that he couldn’t move. His eyes watched the war rage on before him, and that t confused him. The war went on, despite him. In spite of him. Without him. That wasn’t fair, none of this was fair.
Turner was going to sleep. That was fine. He only had one question, though.
Whose war was this?