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by Rodryn
Rated: 18+ · Fiction · Action/Adventure · #2310574
A brother's desperate race against time
         Only fools dared challenge blizzards from the Craxtia Mountains. First came cold that pierced into bone, no fire provided warmth, and deafening wind cast a blanket of impenetrable darkness upon the world. Survival depended upon preparation and a small measure of skill. Father loved recounting such tales, being held at nature's mercy while rambling about survival techniques and displaying two shortened digits on his left hand. Father's eyes were brown for a reason, and Johnathan did not entertain such fables nor believe himself a fool. Desperate, given the circumstances, but father always said desperate men were fools without patience. The howling gale outside the hastily dug snow shelter concurred with presented evidence. For once, father was right.
         Gloved hands danced a vigorous routine across Johnathan's chest. Sleep was tempting; however, it would be permanent. A metal tin popped, and a small fire sprung from its opening. The leaping flame was bright as sunlight, but its heat failed to break the chill. He placed a metal canteen atop it. It wasn't much, but the water within became warm, then hot. Trembling hands unbuttoned two layers of clothing and shoved it between wool and skin. His shivering subsided by a minimal degree.
         "God dammit Reggie! When I get my hands on you, you're gonna wish you were dead!"
Tempting as it was to kill Reggie, doing so meant his current predicament was doubly foolish, and mother would be...
         A shivering groan bounced off the compacted snow walls. No matter the perspective Johnathan approached it from, fault rested squarely at his feet. It wasn't Reggie's boyhood stupidity or father's claptrap boasting that placed him in dire straits. Mother possessed proper sense with the courage to act upon it, and damn her for doing so. Wide, tear leaking eyes pulled Johnathan aside the day Reggie returned home, crisp uniform and polished boots, and with hysterical, motherly conviction, conscripted him into a commitment destined to fail.
         The raucous gale showed no signs of abating. Johnathan's thoughts remained sour, and he struggled to occupy his mind. Constant movement kept warmth flowing through numb extremities, but if sweat threatened to form, he stopped and unbuttoned the outer layer for a few moments. Numerous rifle inspections ensured frost didn't obstruct the action. Every peak at his wristwatch advanced time by paltry seconds, and a growing frustration pulsed through chilled veins. An agonizing epoch later, the howling dropped to a low mumble, then silence.
         "Back to it then..."
Sunlight pierced the last layer of could cover and provided a modicum of warmth. Defiant pines stood dusted with alabaster powder beneath towering mountains wreathed in cotton strands, and neither bird nor beast stirred. Johnathan took a moment to orient then set off, gulping crisp, scentless air. Three miles north sat the town of Volks, a rustic village with old world charm. He expected to reach it within the hour, but such thoughts were quickly dashed. Every step either sank shin deep into the crystalline layer or was threatened by obscured obstacles. Burning lead filled his legs, yet he forced them onward, demanding haste to compensate for the delay. Trees grew in proximity and a sharp tug halted all momentum. It took several precious moments of vicious struggle to break the tenacious grip, and the effort ended in a face first tumble into snow. Vulgarities flew from frozen lips but were cut short. A low buzzing filled the air.
         It became prominent and a heavy dread settled upon exhausted shoulders. From the east zipped a single plane adorned with adversarial markings, and the gurgling engine faded into the west. Johnathan resumed his journey with fresh desperation. A reconnaissance flight. The enemy's main force was closer than expected, but they had to dig themselves out of the blizzard's aftermath first. However, when they did, their advance would be rapid. He needed to find Reggie and get them back to friendly lines before the vanguard arrived.
         Healthy forest transformed into a graveyard of wooden corpses and blackened stumps. Impact craters and deep trenches blemished the earth, and the husks of artillery batteries lay dormant with deformed barrels. Johnathan forced his gaze away from the carrion fowl pecking at frozen remains of their operators. Guilt plucked his bowls. Stopping to collect their tags was unfeasible, and heaven knows how many remained buried under snowfall. The devastation reached past the clearing a short distance to Volks. Any walls or roofs fortunate enough to stand were punctured with holes, rubble strewn underneath in heaping mounds, and wooden frames were little more than charcoal pillars. There was a lack of corpses by comparison, much to the chagrin of crows. A deafening silence sat upon the town that turned his blood colder than it was while in the storm.
         Three days prior, Johnathan sat with Reggie in a cafon the northeast of town. They sipped coffee, bitched as grunts do, and took jabs at each other for sport. The waitress, Carmella? Or was it Carmen? She was a looker with jewels for eyes and a voice of honey. He saw she had eyes for Reggie, but that imbecile remained oblivious to subtle advances. Reggie earned a few smacks from Jonathan after he pointed it out. Opportunity missed, likely gone forever. A muted prayer for the woman's safety fluttered over Volks' newfound reticence.
         The cluttered road remained undisturbed by either man or machine. A tough choice presented itself, east or west. It was conceivable Reggie could have passed Volks before the blizzard, but that assumed his crew retreated from staging positions. No... Command ordered all northern units to advance to counter the enemy's assault. An empty gesture in the end. Without warning, knees buckled into the snow, and panic surged to an apex. Reggie could already be dead, and assuming Johnathan could find his body, getting it through enemy lines undetected was a tall order. Panic morphed into a choking despair, and mother's sobbing wail filled his ears. Through sheer force of will, and a couple hard smacks to the face, Johnathan's bearing returned.
         Reggie loved griping about Captain Richards, the unit commander. From morning to dusk, every man was drilled until they could perform their jobs blindfolded, pissed drunk or half dead. Wrangling hundred ton vehicles crewed by manic chickens into a cohesive column was no mean feat. Failure to perform was not tolerated, and although Reggie did not inherit father's penchant for embellishment, Johnathan doubted rumors regarding the Captain sending men to the firing squad. However, Reggie's unit had the highest court martial rate in the army. If any of them survived to receive a retreat order, it would be orderly, and along an established route that... Johnathan tore out his map. Symbols representing friend and foe alike took on a life of their own and mimicked their last movements prior to the disastrous route. The marker for 237th Armored charged west, clashed with an enemy unit, and retreated east. They bypassed a southwest road, the east-west road in town, for another that cut south into Volks. Open terrain meant Captain Ball Buster, Reggie's affectionate term for the man, could maneuver his column. The eastern road wound through terrain that was prime real estate for ambushes. Weight lifted from Johnathan, replaced with confidence in his decision.
         Agitated caws and flaps erupted from the east. A mechanical growl grew prominent as the murders symphony waned. Johnathan darted into the nearest building with enough structure to conceal him and focused on the sound. The approaching engines were too light to be tanks, and he placed their number at half a dozen. It was either a forward screening element or a scout platoon. Pressed behind a rubble heap in a ravaged bedroom, he made himself small and fixed his gaze through a small opening.          Six transports bearing the enemy's flag barreled up the road and stopped in the town square.
Soldiers spewed from their backs, and a chaotic yet organized mass swarmed the square. Jovial shouts and laughter were punctuated with occasional barks from superiors, and two groups formed. One group snatched up tools and was directed to various tasks by a clean shaven junior officer. A haggard looking non-com took the other group, split them into several two-man patrols, and led them to their routes. Johnathan spat and racked his mind. Egressing south or west was not an option because circumventing the town through the forest would take most of the day. Only one option presented itself: move east, then cross north, and he needed to move immediately. Once the work detail completed their tasks, they could establish a proper perimeter. Silent as death, he crept from the building and slunk east.
         Avoiding the patrols proved easier than expected. They were spread too thin, providing ample opportunities to exploit, and their demeanor was lax, borderline complacent. Why would they expect trouble? Their decisive victory shattered any possibility of a counterattack. Johnathan wondered how far west they could advance before encountering resistance, but it was a bitter thought. It was the same distance he would need to traverse with Reggie, and finding a spot to cross was a better way to occupy the mind. Several options were available, but there was no way to avoid exposing himself. Fortunately, countryside towns were notorious for roads of meager width.
         Crouched beneath a window, he prepared to cross, but voices from the left and right reached his ears. Two patrols met, and instead of passing each other, they stopped to strike up conversation. A rush of warmth filled Johnathan's stomach. One soldier leaned his back on the windowsill and lit a cigarette. Chuckles rose from them, but they refused to depart. Frozen in place, taking shallow breaths, Johnathan seethed. Ten lashes for negligence, and another ten for getting in his way. Actually, make it twenty on both counts followed by double duty for the rest of-
         A sharp barking ended Johnathan's pondering and the patrol's merriment. The non-com swooped upon them. He flew into a guttural dressing down, where threats and promises were the same. Nervous yelps and muted excuses were offered, and the non-com's blood pressure rose further. None of them noticed a figure dart into an alley down the road.
         Rubble choked the alley, and deft movement still produced a level of disturbance. However, the non-com's continued emendation of his wayward subordinates concealed the gentle clatter. Charred support beams crisscrossed like spider webs within the confined corridor. Each step was off balance and Johnathan was forced to brace with either wall or beam. One foot in front of the other, he neared the alleyway's end, but a sudden shift underfoot lurched him into the wall. Several bricks clinked from up high, wall buckling. He abandoned stealth and shot from the alley, vaulting through a broken window. A crescendo of brick showered the ground, and alarmed shouting erupted from the road.
         Shadow and light produced a peculiar murk within the house. Johnathan slithered deeper into the gloom, but floor boards squeaked under his weight. A voice called from outside the adjoining room. The soldier crept into the room, but failed to spot the motionless figure crouched behind a dresser. Silence was the response to a second call, and his attention turned to the commotion in the alley. Moving towards the window was a mistake. Spotted by the non-com, the poor lad stammered several baffled remarks between rapid bellowing. Having failed to locate indications of trouble, the non-com growled while stomping off, and the patrols returned to their routes. Absent any threats, the soldier strode towards a corner and a trickle of water splattered upon the wall, a mist rising from between his legs. It was a poor moment for Johnathan's weight to shift.
         Turning to face the noise, the soldier's eyes went wide. Hesitation was that fool's last mistake, and like an adder, Johnathan enveloped him in a headlock, muffling mouth, and nose. The soldier clawed and struck like a feral beast, but it failed to loosen the grip. Johnathan guided him onto the floor, pinning his legs. Suppressed cries gurgled from the victim's throat. A violent twist and a sickening crunch sounded from the entrapped neck. Thrashing ceased, the body went limp. Johnathan's gaze lingered upon the lifeless face contorted into silent screaming and hauled it deeper into darkness. He departed the house but struggled to remain covert, a rising trepidation added unnecessary weight to every step.
         On the edge of town sat a church that marked the border between Volks and wilderness. Violated yet standing, the field east of the main chapel contained an orchard of lemon trees before returning to sprawling forest. Johnathan ducked inside on instinct. Even in a dilapidated state, a solemn ambiance filled the sanctuary. Labored breathing and heavy foot falls resembled vulgarities in the reverent silence, and a sense of calm rushed over him. Getting a rise out of their hometown pastor was a pastime sport for Reggie and Johnathan. Their assorted tomfoolery was rewarded with cane marks, but they considered such emblems a source of pride. During adolescence, the parish considered them hell-raisers. Father Mason still addressed them with the moniker, but was happy they grew out of their mischievous ways. Chuckling, syrup slid into Johnathan's larynx.
         Ending human life behind a rifle had a distinct flavor compared to up close. Lord knows many adversaries fell under his crosshairs, but a face to face never occurred. That miserable wretch was the same age as Reggie, with a similar boyish complexion. Did he fall for the same drivel? Why couldn't they both have remained at home? Something tugged on Johnathan's chest, and he forced all thoughts from his mind. It had to be done, and there was no point dwelling on it. Johnathan realized he and Reggie needed to see Father Mason when they get home.
         Clamor arose from the town square, and Johnathan snatched up a broom, observing the happenings. Soldiers scrambled through buildings and alleys, shouting and motioning with their rifles. Joviality was absent from their voice and their motions were sharp. A squad breached the church. Every pew, side room, and crevasse was canvassed with furious intent. They departed empty-handed and continued their search elsewhere. Johnathan buried the broom under snow and vanished into the forest.
         Exposed terrain enveloped the northern road on both sides, and the tree line grew thin. Speed took precedence over stealth as cloud undersides turned orange and the chill deepened. Another choice presented itself, either continue or pick up the search at first light. Johnathan growled, driving his legs forward, postponing a decision. If Reggie still lived, he would be in enemy custody by morning. Not ideal, but acceptable if it kept him out of the war. At least mother could get his letters, and Johnathan would surrender to keep an eye on him.
         Sunlight glinted upon something in the distance off the road. At first it appeared as metal on a mound, but the profile became angular and sleek as Jonathan drew near. Through a pair of binoculars sat a tank with friendly colors. A welcome change, but where was the rest of the column? Optics fell from shaking hands and he sprinted towards the tank. The name "Gnasher" was painted on the cannon, Reggie's tank. Reason took hold and brought the mad dash to a halt. Why was it stopped? No signs of external damage and the treads were intact. He consulted his map, and confirmed no mines had been laid. Maybe a mechanical failure or it ran out of fuel.
         The mighty husk of Gnasher loomed before him. A shout flew from chapped lips, but no reply was offered and nothing stirred from within. Rifle stock shattered ice off the hatch, and it opened without protest. Another shout, more subdued than the last, shot through the opening. Johnathan crawled inside the dark confines of the turret and activated a torch. Circular light slid across the metal, revealing a misshapen mass by the shell compartment. He approached but froze, then flopped into the driver's seat.
         Three unmoving bodies, pale faced with blue lips, sat intertwined upon one another. Johnathan's vision blurred, but Reggie's face remained in focus, and mother's frenzied wails filled his ears. His broken promise stared closed eyed back at him. Thrice now, he was a fool. First, for making the promise to keep Reggie safe, and second, for getting caught by the blizzard. But the worst transgression was attempting to keep his promise to mother. In war, people die, and there wasn't a damn thing anyone could do about it.

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