The Little Wooden Box
Squeaking tracks, rattling armor, and roaring engines droned over the battlefield. Private Tims stood in the top hatch of the claustrophobic A6- Warwaggon to get some air and look out over the field. Fresh air was too much to ask for and to call it a field was generous. Where there had been trees, there were shattered and scorched stumps. The rolling hills of green grass were now slick mudslides chewed to oblivion by the endless punishment of armored vehicle tracks. Farmers’ fences had been flattened, pounded, and pressed into the mud. In their place, barbed wire stretched in long lines as far as Tims could see.
Bloated men lay face down, mud smeared on their uniforms. Tims couldn’t tell if they were the enemy or his countrymen. He supposed it didn’t matter in the end. They had been forgotten either way. They lay there to rot as the war raged around them, over them, on top of them.
The sky was sick. Gray-green clouds hung low overhead, threatening toxic rain. Black exhaust from hundreds of tanks spewed their filth into the mixture. The Second Armored division, “Creeping Death,” pressed slowly, steadily toward the enemy lines. A horse was tangled in the wire. It screamed and kicked wildly as the line of tanks approached. The closest tanker aimed his pistol out his top hatch and put one in the beast’s head. The scrawny horse dropped limply into the mud and Tims felt happy and sad for the thing at the same time.
Four biplanes growled as they flew almost low enough to touch. Gas canisters and hellfire bombs hung heavily under their lower wings.
Should have joined the airforce, Tims thought. I could drop the mustard gas and white phosphorus and just fly away. Let some other poor bastards do the ground fighting.
“Tims,” Sergeant Duffy yelled over the roaring diesel engine and tugging on the Private’s pant leg. Tims was pulled from his daydream and crouched into the stinking darkness to listen to his Sergeant.
“Close the hatch and man your gun,” Duffy shouted right into Tims’ ear. “We’re getting close.”
Tims nodded and shuffled back to his post at the rear machine gun. Duck walking past the other crew members, Tims noticed a variety of expressions. A nervous Private First Class darted his eyes around the cabin. A grizzled Specialist struck a match to light his sloppy, self-rolled cigarette. Then Tims came to the lieutenant at the rear next to the rear gunner’s seat.
No one talked to him much. He didn’t belong on the crew normally. Just for this mission. He sat on the floor with his legs crossed. With his back stiff and his eyes closed, he breathed slowly in through his nose and out through his mouth. Tims had only seen his kind once before. Or at least the aftermath. Bloody chunks of enemy soldiers. Whole artillery pieces had been rolled up into a ball the size of a horse. Tims hardly felt safe sitting next to a source of such destruction.
Although, the man isn’t the source.
Tims’ eyes flashed to the box at the lieutenant’s feet. The smooth wood was beautifully unmarred by the rough battlefield conditions around it. He thought about the weapon inside and his guts fluttered. Such magics were the devil’s work where he came from. Those who used them were devils themselves.
“Tims,” Sergeant Duffy shouted from the front of the cabin.
Private Tims’ eyes jolted away from the box. Duffy shook his head.
“It’s not yours to worry about,” Duffy shouted, jerking his head to the meditating lieutenant. “It’s his. He’ll do his part if you do yours. Now get on that gun.”
The cabin jolted, causing Tims to fall roughly into his seat. The line of Creeping Death passed the allied infantry lines and Tims pulled the heavy machine gun receiver into his lap so that the muzzle was pointed up and away from the troops. Dirty faces stared at him as the tank rolled over the trenches. Nothing in them. Husks of men lined up to die.
Whistling pierced the sound of droning engines.
The infantrymen ducked into their trenches, like rodents ducking into their holes. Shells struck the battlements. Explosions rocked the tank, showering muddy sod and splintered wood onto the armor plating.
This is it, Tims thought. I’m in it.
The tank crews would be safe from any mortars or artillery unless it was a direct hit or gas. The intelligence said the enemy didn’t have any more gas on this end of the fight. Tims knew the intel could be wrong, though. It had been in the past.
More biplanes roared overhead as anti-air shells popped in the air like lethal puffs of popcorn. One plane was struck and burst into flames. When it hit the ground, the hellfire bombs it carried showered the hillside with pellets of white phosphorus. Each one could melt into a man’s flesh.
Duffy shouted indistinct elevation and windage to the main gunner. When the cannon boomed, the tank rocked violently. The empty casing dropped out of the breach with a clang and pungent smoke filled the cabin. In an instant, the assistant gunner had a fresh round in the breach and slammed it shut.
An explosion rocked the tank as if the main gun had fired again, but it hadn’t. An artillery shell must have struck the ground close by. Or something big is shooting at us, Tims thought.
The driver turned right and the left side machinegun opened up, filling the cabin with an unrelenting rat tat tat tat tat. Tims peered out his port and there they were. Enemy infantry hunched behind their cover. Tims pulled the trigger and his machine gun bucked on its mount. Rat tat tat tat. One infantryman got it just under his collar bone and fell back onto his trench. Another ducked just as a tracer blazed through the air over his head.
Tims fired another burst, splintering wood and throwing mud clods into the enemy battlement. He waited for a moment as the tank drove on and a brave or stupid enemy infantryman poked his head up. Rat tat tat tat tat tat. A pink mist bloomed from under the soldier’s helmet and he fell limp into his hole. Tims fired another burst and another, chewing up their defenses, keeping their heads down.
The water-cooled machinegun barrel hissed and smoked. Tims opened the cover and loaded another belt of ammunition. Just as he slapped the cover closed, enemy fire raked over the rear of the tank. A bullet pinged off the edge of his port and zinged into the cabin, bouncing off two walls before finally stopping.
They’re shooting at me.
He gritted his teeth and squeezed his trigger. Fire belched from the machinegun’s barrel. Tims walked the trail of bullets along the battlements to the enemy machinegun. The gunner ducked under the stream of bullets but his assistant fell dead beside him. Tims walked the stream back and finished the gunner.
Boom. The main cannon fired rocking the tank again. Boom. Something struck the mud just beside the tank’s tracks and exploded, throwing mud and clumps of dirt into the air. Tims could see two other A6- Warwaggons from the Second Armored Division following along the enemy line. Something struck one of them and the left track broke apart in a powerful explosion. The tank halted, unable to get enough traction with the remaining track to move in this thick mud.
“They got anti-armor,” Tims turned around and shouted to the rest of the crew.
He returned to the disabled tank and watched dozens of enemy infantry rushing to it. The machine gunners cut down as many as they could, but there were too many too quickly. They climbed up the left side and swarmed all over the steel hull like ants on a beetle carcass. Tims fired upon the disabled tank, swiping several enemy soldiers off of it, but it was too little, too late.
One of the soldiers pulled the pin and dropped a grenade in one of the gun ports just before Tims cut him down with a concentrated burst. The grenade exploded, spraying white phosphorus from every orifice in the tank. The top hatch opened and two men climbed out of the fire. They tumbled to the ground. One rolled, but the flames wouldn’t go out. The other ran in circles, flapping his arms wildly before he was gunned down.
Tims felt as if he had been punched in the head and everything went black. When his swimming vision returned, he blinked to clear it. The bright flashes went away, but Tims realized he couldn’t hear anything other than a high pitched whining in his skull. He grimaces, clenching his eyes shut, willing it to go away, but it didn’t.
He turned back to the cabin to find a gaping hole on the left side. Jagged sheet metal had twisted inward around the breach like a massive hole saw. The private who had been manning the left side gun was gone. No. Not gone.
Sticky crimson smears covered every surface of the cabin’s interior. The main gunner sat back against the ammunition rack, took a shaking breath in, and let it out with a labored, rattling sigh. His eyes stayed wide open, but he stopped moving. Several dark stains spread from tiny holes in his uniform.
The driver and navigator leaned forward on their controls, unmoving. Sergeant Duffy pressed his left hand over a growing bloodstain on his left hip and he pulled his pistol from its leather shoulder holster. Tims reached out to shake the Lieutenant awake, but he didn’t budge. Tims tried shaking his shoulder’s again and the Lieutenant’s head rolled back limply. A jagged piece of metal protruded from his forehead. He was dead.
Blood dripped from the right side gunner’s mouth, soaking the sloppy cigarette that hung from his lips. He glanced around the wreckage drunkenly.
Shouts from outside came to Tims gradually as if the sounds came from the other end of a long tunnel. Something heavy dropped into his lap from the gunport. A grenade. Tims scooped it up and flung it back out the gunport with reflexes alone. The grenade exploded, showering white phosphorus outside. Screams of agony reached Tims through that long invisible tunnel.
Another grenade clinked in through the ragged hole. Tims couldn’t reach it. He wordlessly shouted his frustration. The right side gunner dove on top of the grenade, pressing his body down onto it. The grenade exploded, throwing him into the air. He caught fire, but Tims could tell he was already dead.
“Use it!” Sergeant Duffy shouted from across the ruined cabin. “The box! Use it!”
Duffy fired several shots through the hole. Tims searched around his feet for that wooden box. It was pinned under the Liutneant’s leg. He rolled the dead man off of it and opened the box. A flutter of panic or dread spread from his belly throughout the rest of him. He wasn’t sure which. Maybe both.
The dagger appeared quite simple. It was old, he could tell, but it had been maintained well. The blade was weathered yet sharp. Two scales of black wood made up the hilt.
“Do it!” Duffy shouted, firing four more shots through the opening. He turned to Tims and jabbed at his own chest, pointing with the muzzle of his pistol. “In the heart. Make this count.”
Just then, a burst of gunfire ripped through the hole and into Duffy. He growled and slumped backward.
In the heart. In the heart.
Tims picked up the dagger and turned it into his chest, resting the tip just over his heart. He knew there have been survivors. Users survive all the time, but they had trained for this. Tims had not. He only vaguely knew how this worked. Only what he had heard around the barracks.
In the heart.
He took a deep breath and roared, plunging the bade in between his ribs. The steel felt cold and burned at the same time. Tim’s had never been stabbed before. It hurt more than anything he could remember. He clenched his teeth so hard they might shatter in his mouth. Blood thumped in his ears and his face felt hot.
Two enemy infantrymen opened the top hatch with guns pointed down on Tims. When they saw the dagger in his chest, their expressions turned from brutal intention to terror.
Something strange radiated through Tims from the dagger wound. Tingling warmth. He looked up to the two men on top of the tank and slammed them together just by thinking it. They collide so hard, they popped, spraying blood in every direction.
The cramped cabin of the A6- Warwaggon had offered a sense of security in the past, but now it was stifling. Tims needed to stretch his limbs. He pushed out in all directions and the tank flew apart all at once, flinging the rest of the enemy soldiers away in bloody bits. He pulled on the steel pieces before they flew too far away and they swirled into a tornado of broken metal.
The enemy opened fire upon Tims from their trenches and he threw pieces of the tank at them, crushing, tearing, piercing, severing the enemy. Tims dropped into one of the trenches to get out of the hail of gunfire. He flung the remaining tank pieces along the trench in both directions.
Walking along the bottom of the trench, bloody mud soaked into his boots. He tried not to look at their faces as he passed, but when he did, he was surprised that he felt nothing for them. He had ascended. He couldn’t regret what he had done to them more than a cat might regret killing a sparrow. Tims had become predatory and when more soldiers approached him, he was glad to have more prey.
Tims picked one up with a glance and tore him in half with a blink. He threw the bottom half and the still screaming top half at the rest of them, knocking them to their backs. Then he pulled both sides of the trench, collapsing it on them. He walked over their ruin to look for more sparrows when a piercing boom reached his ears. He spun around to find the anti-armor guns were still firing upon the tanks of the Second Armored Division.
He stepped up and out of the trench and walked across no-man’s-land to the gun emplacements. I have become the Creeping Death.
The gun crews noticed him heading their way and the smart ones ran in the opposite direction. The rest had foolishly sealed their fate. They shot Tims over and over. The bullets felt like pebbles bouncing off of him. He looked down to find they were not bouncing away, but the wounds hardly bothered him. They didn’t even bleed.
One of the large guns was loaded and the crews hurried to fire before Tims could reach them. Just before they pulled the trigger rope, Tims clamped the end of the gun shut with a wink. The gun exploded, shredding its crew and throwing the rest of the crews to the ground.
Tims rolled another gun and her crew into a tight ball. Blood leaked from inside the mangled metal. The final crew aimed their gun directly at Tims and quickly fired. The explosive round hissed over Tims’ shoulder, past his ear, and skipped off into the distance.
“Foolish,” Tims said, though not loud enough for the gun crew to hear him over the din of the battle that surrounded them.
One by one, he stuffed the gun crew down the barrel of their own gun.
He took a moment to admire his handiwork. Three destroyed anti-tank guns. The rest of The Second would now be able to roll right over the enemy line.
A small whistling sound pierced the chaos and Tims looked around to find its source. It was coming from his bullet wounds. Each one whistled and the sounds were growing louder. He put a finger over one an felt a strong suction trying to pull his finger inside.
With a sharp twinge of fear, Tims remembered what he must do. He put both hands on the dagger’s handle and pulled as hard as he could, but the suction would not allow the blade to come out. He growled and tried again with the same result.
His foot caved in on itself with the crunching of bones. He fell to the ground just as his other foot did the same. Then his hand folded into itself, pulverizing all his hand bones to dust under his skin. The other hand caved and he called out in agony, but no one was around to hear it. He had killed them all.
His limbs continued to collapse inward and his chest would no longer allow him to breathe. He would suffocate this way. Several agonizing moments later, pressure started pushing on both sides of his head like he was deep underwater.
His vision blacked from the edges, slowly creeping inward. His chest collapsed entirely. Tims’ mind screamed for air. Then his skull caved inward on itself and he was dead. No more pain, but his body continued to shrink smaller and smaller into the dagger’s wound. Smaller and smaller. Crunching, squeaking, and squishing until his body was the size of a single grain of sand on the tip of the dagger. Then, with a snap, it was gone and the dagger was all that was left, laying in the mud.
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