The sun was baking hot, but, then, that was only to be expected. It had been no different the past week, except that today there would be no preparations, no training, no briefings. There were tufts of grass here and there, most torn from the earth and dying, a few clinging on to life on the edges of rocks. Otherwise the fields that had once been were gone, churned into a battlefield of mud and decay, rolling hills replaced by the irregular patterns of artillery craters, the trees and bushes all gone, now only broken tank traps and twisted wire.
Private First Class Eshim Macharius Laresz, first squad red platoon black company nineteenth Oernsworld regiment, squinted against the heat of the sun. It didn't do much good, all that remained in his world was a blurred landscape under a white sky. He could no longer make out the features of the terrain properly - not the ridge, not all that far away, where he and his squadmates had said their prayers; not the half-buried wreck of a Chimera he had crawled from, as his friends burned; not the crater only a few feet away where the shell had brought the ground leaping up beneath him; not even his own legs in front of him, twisted and bloodied.
Eshim felt around with his good arm, finding the tattered pouch by his side. He wet his lips with a few drops of water, noting the weight of the canteen said it was almost empty. The last bite of MRE rations helped the hunger that had built up during the cold night, a little. He wondered why he bothered, under the circumstances. Habit, perhaps. Nothing better to do.
A shadow fell over him, with a suddenness that caused him to jerk his head up, then groan out loud at the pain this brought. A figure, armoured perhaps - it seemed to blaze where it caught the sunlight on its shoulders. It knelt down beside the dying man.
"Who are you?" it asked. A female voice, oddly distant. Very neutral.
"Eshim M. Laresz, private first class, first squad..." Eshim mumbled through his dry throat. He trailed off, wondering at how instinctive it was to recite his rank and position. It occurred to him that it hardly mattered now.
"You fought here," said the female. Not a question, just a statement - an acknowledgment of an evident fact.
"We were going," Eshim began, his words coming from a long way away, "to turn the tide... stop the rebels in their tracks. All the Lakel peninsula, except here, this was where we would stop them. Did we stop them? Sergeant said we'd stop them here... said we'd stop them... one big push, and we'd be flying our banners from the tops of the hill forts..."
"I do not see any banners," said the stranger.
"We had one," persisted Eshim, "rolled up. It was red, red with a big white eagle... only, the eagle got red on it... five seconds, it was. I counted. Green light go, one, two, three, four, five... must've been an HE hit us, on five. Right when I counted five, then the roof just swung down. I don't know what happened to Sarge, I guess he was under it. But I had the banner, see. I had it... he gave it to me to take care of. He said 'whatever you do, you don't drop this.' He said 'I ain't gonna be the only Sergeant without a banner when we get there.' I held onto it, I did, but it all fell apart, and there was water in the hull, and I couldn't breathe, so I let go of it so's I could get a grip on something, pull myself up... only the metal was hot. Burned my hands, see?" Eshim help up his left hand. The stranger leaned closer, peering at the blistered palm.
"A big white eagle," he went on, staring sightlessly into the sky, "and I tried to get it back, but it was stuck. Something on top of it. And red all over it. Red like blood... might've been mine, maybe. Don't know, really. But I couldn't get it out, so I ran. I'll get help. Stay here, I'll come back. Immobilised, bring a medic, wounded need treatment... and I fell. Ground blew up and I fell here. Couldn't see anything, all smoke and fire. Must've been hit by shrapnel or something, passed out. Or blood loss. Heard 'em say you can pass out from blood loss, that might've been it."
"It is possible," offered the stranger.
"I'll wait here, they'll come for me," Eshim went on, seemingly in a world of his own, "they'll come for me. Won't leave me here. Fix me up, back on the front lines in no time. They didn't come for me, though. Why didn't they come for me? Must've had to move on, push the rebels back. Can't stop now, have to push on. This one'll stop them, drive them back. Push them back all the way to their graves. You don't stop. My dad always said that, you don't stop. Not once you've got 'em beat. You keep pushing 'til they fall over dead, and you don't stop 'til then. Don't leave 'em upright, or else you'll be back a year later fighting 'em all over again. Push on, don't stop. My dad was a Colonel, he knew how to fight. He knew. He knew I'd be fighting, so he taught me. I was always going to fight, I was always... going to be a soldier. Going to be a leader. That's why my name, see? Eshim Macharius Laresz. Named for Macharius. Greatest soldier in the galaxy. Macharius conquered a thousand worlds, and never lost a battle. He never lost. You'll never lose, either, will you? No, you'll win. I know how, I'll teach you. You'll never... why didn't they come for me?"
Eshim looked again at the silent figure standing over him, motionless, and frowned.
"We didn't lose, did we?" he asked.
"I do not know," said the stranger.
"We didn't lose... can't lose. One big push, all the way to their graves. Stands to reason. Wouldn't be here just to lose. We'll fly the banner by tonight... I lost the banner. Lost it, and it getting all that red all over it... don't even know whose blood it was. I was... I was going to have a family, one day. Go back home. I'll only be away a few months. I'll wait for you. I know. Take care of yourself. It won't be long. I don't... I'm not going home, am I?"
"I do not believe so."
"I'm not going... I didn't want to leave. Wanted to stay. Wouldn't have been away long, though. Just a few months, I'll be back soon. They'll come for me, and I'll go back. Long way away. Saw the stars here, once. Right before the big push. Don't know which one was mine. Wait!"
The figure, which had turned away, paused.
"Are you with our regiment? What's your name?" asked Eshim. The pause continued for a moment, then the figure turned back and faced the man.
"My name is Kyria."
"What? Who are you?"
"I no longer know."