Someone was shrieking again.
She closed her ears to the sound, knowing there was nothing she could do, and trudged on, picking her way around holes and trash and the occasional corpse. She had a report to give, by all that was unholy...and nearly all of it was to be found here...and she would give it. That was the only thing that kept her from giving in to the horrors herself.
Somewhere above, the sky was the light blue natural to this world, but smoke still clouding up from the battlefield and the pyres tended to obscure it. The stench was unbelievable--burnt earth, rotting flesh--but by now her nose was numb to it, as her body was all but insensible to the filth that clung to her skin. Sweat, blood, mud...it was all beyond help, and therefore not worth wasting thought on. The idea of a real bath had taken on the aura of an impossible fantasy, and clean clothes were not far behind.
Metal creaked behind her. She whirled, gun held up reversed. No one had any ammo left, but the weapon would still make a good club. A fresh puff of ash and smoke billowed out of the wrecked flyer, but no one emerged. She looked closer, and saw the door, half off its hinges, swaying back and forth as the crumpled machine settled further into the ground. Straightening, she let out a hard breath, and winced as adrenaline added to the throb in her head.
It didn't take her long to reach the relative safety of their little camp. The sentry, a bloody bandage wrapped round his arm and the glitter of fever in his eyes, waved her through silently. A tiny fire flickered in the center of the camp, flame almost invisible in the daylight, but ash-smeared figures huddled around it as though to absorb all its warmth. One more sat a little distance away, every line of his hunched body expressing weariness beyond exhaustion. She paced up to him and stood patiently until he looked up, then saluted him.
"Report, Zoe," he said quietly, his voice harsh from shouting over gunfire and explosions.
"It's gone, sir." Her tongue felt clotted with ash, and the tearing thirst rose in her at the mere thought of water. "Nothing but a shell impact where the spring was."
Sergeant Reynolds merely closed his eyes. Their small group of soldiers grew sicker each day; most were wounded, and they had no supplies to tend those wounds. Food was a matter of scrounging the various outposts, hoping to find something that was still edible...and hoping against hope to find no more soldiers dying instead of dead. The real problem was water.
"Sir..." Zoe hesitated over the words. The sergeant had kept them together, kept them alive as best he could, but even he could only do so much. Each mutilated corpse they had to drag to a pyre, every person looking to him for leadership, each mad one they had to drive away or kill weighed heavier on him every day. She could see it. "Sir, what are we going to do? They've abandoned us."
The sergeant opened his eyes again, and they shone oddly in his dust-streaked face. "Do you have any suggestions?"
Zoe glanced back at their pathetic little group, but she knew as well as he did that most of them were too weak or hurt to try to walk out. And they could not leave them behind.
She shook her head. He made half a tired grin at her, fierceness still lingering beneath the dirt. "We wait. They couldn't kill us with guns, and they won't do it with this."
He waved an arm at the devastated field. Dust and smoke and ash, and the sun like a stain in the sky. Scorched metal, dried mud, tangles of wrecked equipment. One lone big gun, its twin muzzles pointing up in empty defiance. The situation was hopeless.
"Yes, sir," Zoe answered, placing her faith in him yet again. He'd pulled them together, kept them going against terrible odds.
He'd do it again.