The search for survival during war
The Day of Two Suns
by Vivian Gilbert Zabel
The soldiers plodded across the scorched, barren fields. Tiredness weighted their feet and shoulders, but their eyes darted back and forth, never missing a spot of the alien world surrounding them.
“Do you think some of their forces are really waiting up there?” Corporal Ted Jones whispered to the sergeant who trod beside him. “The Air Force said they bombed that place to pieces.”
“Yeah, but you know that we can’t believe everything we hear.” Sergeant First Class Jake Morris shifted the heavy pack on his back. “Even if nothing should be stirring there, the enemy manages to find cover and hit us.”
“Wish we could ‘a found a way to see them.” The younger man mopped his forehead with a calloused hand. “They come and go like spooks.”
The long column of men, four abreast, continued toward the village wavering in the heat on the horizon. Slight pillars of smoke snaked their way from the pale red buildings toward the blue-gray sky. The blazing sun beat down, heating men and ground. The men carried the heat and the heavy packs on their backs ever forward to the only landmark within sight.
Sergeant Morris dropped out of line, standing in place to watch the column pass. Yeah, Jones, I know what you mean. They’re spooks. He gazed around him, trying to find a dent, a ditch, a hole, a ripple in the earth where a man could hide himself. Nothing but seemingly bare, flat ground spread wherever he looked. There’s got to be somewhere to take a stand, somewhere we can have a chance. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. Wish the brass who decided to conquer this planet had to face these unknown 'things' that no one can even see.
Another soldier dropped out of line to join the sergeant. Morris gave a brief but sloppy salute. “Captain.”
“Sarge. What do you think?” The captain slipped his pack from his back, letting it fall on the baked ground.
“I think we’re doomed.”
“That’s kind of my thoughts, that we’re just fodder being fed into the war machine.” Removing his helmet, the tall, thin officer ran his fingers through sweat-dampened, black hair. “What can we do to even our odds?”
“I’ve been looking for any kind of protection, but we’re completely in the open.” The stocky sergeant gave a dry cough. “Pun intended, sir.”
“I’d laugh, but my throat’s too parched.”
“Know what you mean, sir, even if you insist on using those big dollar words.” Taking out a canteen, Morris took a quick swallow. “Water is scarce as protection.” The sergeant let his eyes roam the countryside again. "I can understand the original natives building around the water sources, aren't very many." He took another drink before wiping the mouth of the water container and handing it toward the captain.
After waving the offer away, the captain removed his own canteen from its hook on his belt. “Thanks, but better save what you have.” Taking a gulp of the stale water, he sloshed it around his own mouth before swallowing the welcomed wetness. “I’ve been thinking, too, and I might have an idea.”
“Glad someone does. What’s yours, sir?”
“First drop the sir. No one’s listening, Jake.”
“If I forget and call you by name when someone’s around?”
“Everyone knows we’re brothers, so stop the...” The younger man walked a few steps away before pivoting. “Jake, we’re brothers. We may not have more than a few hours. Can’t you forgive me?”
“There’s nothing for me to forgive, s...” Jake stopped and paused before adding, “Kyle. You were smart to go on to college, but you should have done anything else except come into the Army... just because Dad and I...”
“Maybe you’re right, but it’s too late now for what I should have done.”
“Well, what’s your idea?” Jake wiggled out of his pack, squatting beside it, wishing for some shade.
“We figure the enemy will be waiting, somewhere up there, right?”
“They have hit us every time we've 'taken' a town or village or camped nearby. Even when scouts have told us no one is left.”
“Uh-huh, but they attack only close to buildings or inside a compound, only at night.” The captain sat on his pack, his eyes studying the village in the distance.
“Have you wondered why?”
“Why? You mean why they appear only where there are buildings?”
Grinning at the other man, Kyle answered, “Uh-huh.”
“All right, Kyle, out with it. You have one of your nutty ideas, so share.” Jake squinted into his brother’s face. “I don’t know how you do it. You have such crazy ideas sometimes, but you’re usually right. Give.”
“I wonder if they hide where there’s protection from the sun.”
“What does that matter? How do they get there in the first place? Our scouts can’t find a sign of them, but there they are after we come in or close by. They’ve annihilated thousands of our people.” He wiped his eyes, trying to rid them of the dust and fine grains of sand that invaded everything. "Why anyone ever thought we could colonize this barren rock, I'll never understand."
“Well, the scouting reports go with what I think.” The captain stood to peer at the sun moving toward the horizon. “Every time we enter a place with buildings, they don’t appear until after dark, right?”
“I think they have hiding places within the city, town, whatever, that our scouts don’t find. I think that’s how we get caught.”
“But, what about the bombing? Why aren’t they wiped out by the bombs?”
“Because we’ve been doing the bombing during the daylight hours and...”
“Captain! Sergeant!” a voice barked.
Sergeant First Class Jake Morris snapped to his feet and to attention. “Colonel!”
Captain Kyle Morris turned to face the colonel. “Sir! I asked the sergeant to discuss some ideas with me, sir.”
“Good. I hope you came up with something. Please, at ease. I don’t care about who’s supposed to salute whom and all that now.”
“Yes, sir, we were just talking about how the enemy never attacks except inside or near areas with buildings, and they only come out after dark.” Kyle watched the colonel’s face, searching to see if his senior officer was going to scoff or to accept his idea.
“That’s true,” the colonel agreed as he, too, removed his pack. Catching the eye of one of the passing soldiers, he called, “Soldier!”
The man dropped out of the column to stand before the officer. “Yes, sir?”
“Find Major Thomas and bring him here on the double! He’s back down the column.”
When the soldier started to run back the way he had already marched, the colonel yelled, “Wait! Remove that pack first.” He shook his head as the soldier dropped the heavy pack before taking off again. “I still can’t get used to people immediately doing what I say.” Looking back at the other two men, he suggested, “Let’s get as comfortable as we can. I’m going to have the march stopped until we talk.”
A major on a motorcycle pulled up beside the colonel. “You wanted me, sir?”
“Yes, major, I want you to stop the march and, uh, what'll work? I guess we might as well set up camp for the night.”
The major frowned briefly before remembering ‘wondering why’ wasn’t part of his job description. “Yes, sir.” He sped off toward the head of the column, leaving a dust cloud in his wake.
Coughing as he tried to wave some of the dust away from in front of his face, the colonel walked a few steps away to perch on his pack. “Okay, what’s the idea, Captain?”
“What makes you think I...”
“Come on, Kyle, everyone knows you have an ability to see through problems to a solution,” his brother interrupted. “Uh, sorry, colonel, I meant captain.”
“Sergeant, don’t you think you have the right to call your brother by his name?” The colonel glared into the blistering sky. “Give me strength,” he mumbled. Lowering his eyes he watched the embarrassed man staring at the ground beneath his feet. “Man, we have certain death facing us. Do you really think I care about protocol?” Visibly, he forced himself under control. “Uh, sorry for yelling. Now, captain, what’s your idea?” The white-headed man rubbed his face with trembling hands.
“I’ve noticed that the enemy, whoever, whatever they may be, never comes out very far to meet our forces - and never during daylight. They’re never seen by the scouts, or by any of our forces during the day. They always attack after dark, and if they're seen then we have no way of knowing, because all our forces are destroyed.” Kyle removed his canteen to wet his hoarse throat. Coughing, he then continued. “I think they may have some kind of hiding place, below ground, where they’re completely hidden from the sun.”
“That would explain why our bombs haven’t taken them out,” Jake added.
“Yes, it would, but if light is their problem... That still doesn't make sense. Our forces build fires, have halogen lamps and flashlights. They've even sent up flares during attacks to signal for help. None of that changed anything." The colonel scowled at a nightmare only he could see. "Every one of our people was brutally massacred, not one survivor. They were left, drained of all body fluids, only husks."
"We know, sir," the sergeant stated. "That's why the captain, uh, Kyle thought the enemy hides from the sun. If all the lamps, flashlights, and fires were combined, they wouldn't begin to be as powerful as the sun."
Taking a deep breath, the ranking officer released it with a whoosh. "So what do you suggest, captain, sergeant?” Exhaustion echoed in the weary man’s voice.
“I think we need to wait here for now,” the captain said. “We need to find a way to hit the town with a huge bright, hot light in the sky during the dark.” He gave a short, humorless laugh. “Yeah, all we have to do is have the sun come out at midnight.”
“If anyone can find a way, you will. Well, let’s set up our camp and do some thinking. Sarge, you set up here, too. I’m going to send for all the squad leaders and officers to meet with us in, say, thirty minutes.” The colonel spotted another sergeant standing a short distance away watching him. “Ryan, come here.” When the soldier reached him, the colonel gave crisp, brief orders, and the man left at a trot. “Let’s get with it. We’ll have a tent ready as quickly as Ryan can bring a crew.”
“Sir?” Jake offered.
“Yes, uh, Sarge.”
“Sir, I really think I should join my men.”
“Well, sergeant, I don’t, and since I still make the decisions...” The colonel lowered his head to glare through his brows at the other man.
“Ah, yes, sir. I’ll set up my hole just over there.” He pointed toward a spot a few feet away.
“Jake, I know this is going to make you more uncomfortable than you are, but I want you in the tent with your brother and me tonight. We, uh, we have lots of planning to do.”
Before the colonel could say anything else, Kyle looked up from his seat on the pack. “You know, I think I may have an idea. Colonel, do you mind if I take my brother to talk to some of the Air Force techs?”
“Sure, go ahead. Having the techs with us hasn’t been any help so far. Maybe they can prove worthwhile some way.” The colonel waved them off before turning toward the tent being set up by a crew of soldiers.
Kyle grinned at his puzzled brother. “You certainly don’t know how to be diplomatic, do you?”
“Nah, never did. Guess it’s a good thing you’re the officer and not me.” Taking a swig of his water, he added, “Wish we could find a source of water, but the only one within hundreds of miles is in that village.”
“Of course. Now, come on, let’s find those tech guys.”
As the two men strode through the emerging camp, they asked if anyone knew where the Air Force technicians might be located. After several minutes, Jake couldn’t contain his curiosity any more. “Okay, why are we looking for the techs? What’s your idea?”
“I remember reading about a new type of bomb. Maybe you know something about it.” The captain stopped to face his brother. “It explodes above the ground, knocking people directly below unconscious.”
“Sure, I’ve heard about it. I think it’s called an implosion bomb, or something like that. It’s not being used ‘cause it blinds anyone who happens to see its light.” After a short pause, Jake returned Kyle's smile. “Yeah, you did right going to college, little brother.”
Kyle frowned upward a moment. “Here we go again.” Glancing back toward his brother, he asked, “Who’s little, brother?”
“Guess I’d better stop calling you that. Especially since you kind of passed me by.” Glimpsing a flag going up a few yards away, he pointed. “Isn’t that the Air Force techs’ flag?”
Whirling around and spying the blue banner, the officer’s grin grew. “Yep, it surely is. Let’s go. I’d like to finish this battle tonight.”
"I would, too. We're close enough now to the village, that they might pay us a visit tonight." The older man clasped his brother's shoulder. "I really don't want this to be our last time together, Kyle."
"Hopefully, we're still far enough away that we don't seem a threat, yet. I don't want to face that," he pointed toward the village, "either. I'm frightened half to death to meet the end the colonel described." He closed his eyes briefly. "Besides I'd like our family to have a chance to... to become a family again."
"Well, we'll have to see about that, if we get a chance. Now, let's talk to those techs." Jake turned toward the camp under the flying banner. "I, uh, I'm, uh, scared, too. I'm prepared to die fighting, but that... those... the spooks don't fight a fair fight."
The techs listened to the captain's idea with interest.
"Yes," the lieutenant agreed, "your plan sounds okay." Turning to one of his men, he ordered, "Get on the radio and explain the captain's plan to headquarters, see what they have available."
As the rest of the men gathered in the shade of a lean-to, the radio operator raised the Air Force headquarters. Kyle and Jake fidgeted as they waited, watching the sun make its slow but steady journey toward the horizon. Finally, the airman rejoined the group.
"Well?" Jake broke the silence.
"The bomber squadron does have one of the Mighty Blasters." The man cleared his throat. "The, uh, problem is..." He paused again.
"Just tell us, Jackson," the lieutenant exhorted.
"Yes, sir. The problem is getting it here. By the time the bomb is uncrated, loaded, and the bomber can get over the village, it'll be late tonight or tomorrow."
Several faces paled as all eyes swiveled toward the too close village.
"Oh, dear God," Kyle prayerfully pleaded. "That could be too late."
"Look, all we can do is get ready and hope the spooks ignore us tonight. But everyone's going to need to be below ground." Jake tapped his forehead with the heel of his hand. "At least double layers of tarps or pieces of canvas have to cover the holes completely. No light can enter the coverings." The sergeant snapped. "Let's go tell the colonel and the others he's called in to parlay."
"You're right. We have lots to do in little time." Kyle shook hands with the techs. "You know what needs to be done. You might spread the word."
"Yes, sir, we'll do that." The lieutenant gave a sharp salute. "Thank you, sir."
Kyle informed the colonel, other officers, and squad leaders awaiting them inside the large tent that the Air Force did have a bomb. "But we're in a race for time. The Air Force doesn't think they can be here until... probably until too late."
"The bomb may work, or it might not. It may work and be too late to help us," Jake added, "but I have an idea that might help keep the spooks at bay, at least for tonight."
"Then share it," the colonel demanded. "Anything would be better than nothing."
"We could light a fire-line between us and the village. That might confuse them long enough to give the Air Force the time it needs." He stalked a few steps away. "If we just knew what we're dealing with. What are they?"
"What they are doesn't matter now. We'd better get things going if we're to have any chance. Captain Sikes, I'm assigning you to take care of the fire-line. Take a squad and use all the fuel oil you need, any items in camp, except canvas, that will burn. Major Ash, I'm placing you in charge of getting this camp ready for the bombing. Each squad leader will report to you. Let's get with it, men." The colonel motioned for Jake and Kyle to remain with him and his aides.
Darkness settled over the land. Dim, if any, light shone in the camp itself, while a line of fire traced across the landscape between the camp and the village. Men rushed to finish their tasks, always with nervous looks over their shoulders.
Before midnight, without any attack, all the soldiers, officers, and the accompanying Air Force squad had dug into the ground and covered the openings with double layers of tarps, being careful that not even a crack of light could enter around the covering. The colonel, his two aides, Kyle, and Jake hid in a covered trench inside the large tent, providing even more protection from the coming explosion of light. Two battery-lamps provided dim lighting for the men huddled beneath ground level.
One of the colonel’s aides started yanking off his shirt and then breeches. “I can’t stand... this heat. Can't breathe... I’m dying.” His breath came in panicked pants.
The colonel frowned. “Let’s all take off this clothing. We’ll need to stay as cool as possible under all this canvas.” Taking his own canteen, he wet his handkerchief and wiped the young man’s face. “Here, son, put this on your head or around the back of your neck. It’ll help.”
“The first thing I’m going to do, if this works, is find that water in the village and drown my head,” the captain announced. “I never thought my head could be so hot.”
“Of course not, since I’ve always been the hot-head in the family,” Jake joked as he draped his wet shirt over his upper body. “Uh, anyone have a watch? Mine filled with too much sand and quit.”
The second of the colonel’s aides held his wrist up to catch the light. “It’s ten minutes to midnight.”
The men glanced at each other. “Ten minutes seems such a short time, but it also seems so long. Wonder how long it'll feel until daylight,” the aide with the watch muttered.
“If we do something, the time will pass faster,” Jake suggested.
“What’s your idea, Sarge?” the colonel inquired as he mopped his head and neck. “I’m game for anything right now.”
“I, uh, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I know we might not make it.” Laying one hand on his brother’s shoulder, he shook it lightly. “I believe your idea will work, if anything will, but I also know that everything is a guess about what those spooks are.”
“I’ll agree that we might not make it out of this campaign. So?” The colonel studied the rough, tough soldier.
“I have a recorder with me. I, uh, I’m not a very good writer, so I send tapes to my family. I don’t know... my idea might not... oh, well, here goes. Why don’t we record what means the most to us, a message for those we'll leave?”
Surprise filled the colonel’s voice. “That’s...that’s a good idea. I think we should do that.” Looking into the faces around him, he requested, “May I go last?”
Jake slipped a blank tape into his small recorder before handing it to the person to his right. “Here you go, sir, uh, Kyle. Just push the red button and talk. When you finish, pass the recorder to your right.”
Each man recorded a message to his loved ones. By the time the recorder was handed to the colonel, tears dripped from each man’s face.
The colonel bowed his head a minute before raising the recorder toward his face. “We’re sitting under a total of three layers of canvas, waiting for a miracle. If Captain Kyle Morris’ plan works, we’ll be saved, and a way to combat the enemy will exist after all. I wish to thank all the men who have served under me with honor and bravery. I want my wife, Vera, to know that I love her and always will. If I don’t survive, you will be my last thought on this earth." He brushed the tears from his face. "I want to let my sons know how proud I am of them both, how much I love them. I haven’t told them that in such a long time. I tend to think they know somehow without me saying anything. I’m proud of my younger son who followed my footsteps, but I’m also equally proud of my older son who took a different route, but whose toughness, yet sensitivity makes him a stronger man than I am. At least they now hear my love in words before...”
Outside, for the second time that day, a sun burst in the sky above the village. The light exploded with an unimaginable force. Ten miles away, thousands of troops watched the canvas over their heads become translucent in the dead of night. Inside the village, white, fragile forms shriveled as thin arms covered their heads. All the citizens of the darkness died, leaving nothing but piles of white powder. A mighty wind roared in all directions from the crumbling buildings. When it swept across the military camp, the tarps flapped and buckled and were stripped from the holes they covered, revealing men curled in balls or grasping one another, shaking as they raised their eyes toward the once again midnight black sky above.
The colonel and the men with him pulled on their pants and climbed from the trench into the night. The tarps had been partially torn from their hiding place, too, and the heavy tent had disappeared before the gale.
"Colonel? No, Dad..." No sooner had the word, Dad, left his lips than Sergeant First Class Jake Morris was wrapped in his father's arms. Captain Kyle Morris hugged his father and his brother, rejoicing not only in their deliverance, but also in the unification of his family. Over their head, stars twinkled the answer to their prayers.
Winner of The Regular Writing Rampage, April 8, 2003
Word Count approximately 4,500.