A small patch of leafless trees and the burning wreck of an aircraft were the only features of the land for miles around. The scenery was colourless, as if nature had run out of paint and had been forced to content itself with white and black. The ground was almost without exception covered in dark brown mud. There was only the orange of the flames, burning yet subdued.
Around the downed aircraft, half a dozen corpses lay still and lifeless in the mud, their clothes covered with patches of brown where the mud had dirtied them, and dark red where the bullets had gone through them. But one still lived. He was on his knees, heaving, injured. Around him stood three men, clad in clothing similarly as he and his fallen comrades were, though of different colours and patterns. They aimed their weapons at him, but they said nothing. There was no point, they knew, for they spoke different languages and came from different corners of the world. He knew this too, as he raised his head to look in the eyes of the soldier in front of him who was aiming down the sights of his rifle. His eyes were tired, on the verge of closing even though he was not sleepy. Yet they were lifeless, lacking any trace of hope or joy or regret. And they shot him, a single shot that went right through his head.
The three soldiers left the wreck and its corpses and headed for the patch of leafless trees. They laid down their weapons and sat on the ground. It was much more solid there, not as muddy as the rest of the field. They took off their helms and let the cold air hit their faces and blow through their trimmed hair. It was autumn, but winter was fast approaching. Though the wind was cold and to any other people it would’ve been freezing, they were sweating. They felt the cold wind on their skin, but it was as if the cold bounced off, leaving only the heat and sweat.
One of them, a young man in his early twenties with dark brown hair and a freckled face named Myles Bell sat silently. He looked into the distance, but he wasn’t looking at anything. His was a blank stare, empty of any interest in whatever was caught in his vision. Only an arm’s length away sat James Welsh, his oldest friend that was still alive. And a little further, under the ineffective shade of a burnt tree, Caleb Gardner knelt and fiddled with a device that produced only buzzing and incoherent chatter. They were the last survivors of their unit, originally fourteen strong. Neither Myles nor James knew Caleb that well. Myles knew only his name and where he came from. He had come from the homeland, across the ocean, and that he had been assigned to the unit as their communications specialist. Before coming upon the downed aircraft, they had walked for days without seeing neither friend nor foe.
Caleb hit and shook the device before speaking into it.
“Hello? Is anyone receiving? This is Corporal Caleb Gardner. Is anyone receiving?”
He had been doing that for the past few days, with no response save for the buzzing sound. Myles and James were wholly uninterested in what he was trying to do. They knew it was pointless, and that it didn’t matter much. As long as they kept walking due east, they’d reach the frontlines. Myles opened his pack of cigarettes. With mild annoyance, he saw that there were only two left.
“Havin’ a smoke? Mind sharin’?” James asked him as he sat staring at the two cigarettes in the packet. He did mind, because there had not been a day since he had turned fifteen that he had not smoked. Unless they reached the frontlines by tomorrow, he’d have no cigarettes left. But he couldn’t bring himself to say it. And so, he took out one and handed it over to a grateful James. He lit his and James brought the butt of his cigarette over towards Myles to have it lit. Caleb was still fiddling with the device.
“Would you give it a rest, Gardner?” Myles half-shouted. The sound was beginning to get on his nerves. “It’s not going to be working anytime soon. So just shut it.”
“Aye, Myles’ got it right. We just ‘ave to keep walkin’ due east. We’ll reach the frontlines eventually,” chipped in James.
Gardner wasn’t much for talking. In fact, he was silent most of the time. At Myles’ snap, he shrank and just sat down against the tree. There the three sat under the sunless sky, its figure hidden by the gloomy clouds. If an enemy aircraft were to spot them at that very moment, they would’ve been sitting ducks and their unit would truly come to its end.
Between sucking in the smoke and puffing it out, Myles stared at the dead sky. It was truly dead: grey, sunless, cloudy. There were no birds and it seemed as if it could rain at any time. He couldn’t be sure they were true clouds. Some of the soldiers said that there weren’t any clouds anymore, and that what they’re seeing is just smoke from fires and battles. It was like a blanket that covered the entire world, or at least he thought it did. He had never been far away from home. This was the first time and farthest he had ever been away from home. He began thinking of the sky, and what of it he had really seen.
Back when he was a child, the sky was not much different. Slightly bluer it was, but not substantially different. He remembered the training he went through at seven years old, going through an obstacle course that ran through the hills right outside his hometown. That was his only memory of the sky in his childhood. Everything between then and now was an incoherent haze. He could only clearly remember as far back as a mere few weeks ago.
The sky was like this too back then. It felt like there was not a single difference. He remembered the sound of the ramp slowly opening and his commanding officer shouting above the sound of the anti-air gunfire around their plane.
“Have no fear, lads! We’ll be winnin’ this war! The enemy won’t know what hit ’im! Come on, now, shout along with me at the top of yer lungs! For the Republic!”
And so, they shouted and shouted, but still Myles kept his eyes on the sky. There was something about it that was pulling him in. It was no special sky, and it was filled with bright flashes as the shells exploded mid-air, failing to hit anything. Sometimes he’d see other planes get blown to pieces and the burnt and nearly unrecognisable corpses falling from the sky.
And next thing he knew, the ramp was fully open, and they were standing in line. His commander stood in the middle, looking at them with mad, passionate eyes. He smiled a sadistic smile, taking pleasure in the fact that they were going to battle “for the Republic”, as he liked to say it. As the light above his head turned green, he raised his arms and shouted “go, go, go!” One by one, they ran down the ramp and threw themselves into the sky below, arms and legs spread wide as they descended.
When it came to Myles’ turn, while he ran and as he jumped, he could not keep his eyes off the sky. It lasted for less than five seconds, but to him it felt like a century. Time seemed to slow down as he let his imagination run wild. Somehow, he felt that this wasn’t how the sky always was. Somehow, it felt like the sky shouldn’t be like this, as if this was some distorted corruption of the sky, and not the sky itself. He could imagine the sun shining brightly in a beautiful blue sky and soft white clouds leisurely sailing through the air. That he felt was how the sky should be. He had never seen such a sky, and yet he felt as if it was the true sky. But then he was falling, gunfire, explosions, and dying men around him, and he couldn’t see the sky anymore.
“Myles,” James shook him out of his daydream. “We’ve got to move now.”
James was already carrying his rifle and putting on his helmet. He pulled it over his head and the visor closed down on his face like a lid closing over a coffin. Myles got up and brushed off the dirt from his armour as best he could. Caleb was already a few steps away, holding his rifle ready to shoot at anything that moved. Caleb had always been the wariest of them three. His eyes darted from point to point, scanning the featureless horizon as if some monster might come out of the ground at any time. Myles put on his helm and let the visor slide down, his vision of the world now slightly clouded by its dirty surface.
They continued their journey towards the frontline. The lands were flat and almost without any variation. What lay before and after them was dirt, mud, and the aftermath of battle. Myles imagined that decades ago, nostalgic rural cottages dotted the land, standing amidst crops and fields where the livestock grazed. But now, all they could hope to find were corpses, wrecks, and sometimes one or two stones that remained of such cottages. Myles was thankful, however, that until the sun set, they met not a single enemy. It was around midnight when they finally halted in the roofless remnants of what used to be an enemy bunker.
Caleb immediately went back to his usual work of trying to get the communications back up. The moment they made sure the bunker was safe, he went to the nearest corner and took out the device. Myles went out with James to a nearby patch of trees that at one point seemed to be part of a great forest and collected what firewood they could. There was not much, and Myles could feel that the night ahead was going to be cold. They brought back what little firewood they had gathered and lit a fire. After eating their meagre rations, Caleb fell asleep first. Myles and James sat near the fire, staring emptily at its flames.
As the sun went down, Myles sat staring silently into the night sky. James sat next to him, inspecting his weapon despite having done that several times after dinner. It was silent, with the only sound in the air being that of the fire crackling. Myles closed his eyes and tried to hear anything, something around them. But he couldn’t hear anything, not even the sound of crickets. It seemed to him that they were the only source of light and the only source of sound for miles around – isolated, alone.
Myles noticed something he had missed before: a single star in the night sky. Save for the partly covered moon, the rest of the sky was as dark and empty as they had always been. Usually if he squinted his eyes enough, he could just make out dark clouds slowly floating through, but no stars. He couldn’t even remember the last time he saw a star. In fact, he couldn’t remember if he ever did see a star. But he thought to himself that, surely, he had seen one. Otherwise, how would he know that the bright point in that sky was a star?
He couldn’t keep his eyes from it. He sat there, staring, mesmerised by that single point of light in the sky. He was sure now that he had seen it once before, perhaps in his long-forgotten childhood. He searched through his memories, struggled to try and pull it out of the depths of his neurons, but found that he could not. The only thing he had was a vague, proof-less conviction that he had once seen it, exactly once in his childhood. He admired it. It seemed to him that the star was alive, not merely a static feature of the sky. It felt as if the star was pulsating, beating like a heart, as if it was calling him, beckoning him to…
To what? He could not say himself. As he admired it and pondered, finally a long-gone memory surfaced from the depths of his mind. He thought it wasn’t what he had desired, but it was related, nonetheless. Without turning his head, he spoke to James.
“James, ever heard of some song going on about a shining star or something?”
James didn’t turn his head or made any movement to acknowledge the question, but he replied.
“Hm, what you goin’ on about?”
“Like an old song – a folk song, or maybe a lullaby – about a star shining in the sky.”
James stopped fiddling with his rifle and instead looked up at the sky, noticing the star as Myles did.
“A star, huh? Not that I recall,” James said, quite sure in his answer. As he went back to his fiddling, he spoke again. “Then again, I don’t know any folk songs or lullabies ’cept the ones we hear round the barracks.”
James smiled at the thought of the boisterous songs about drink, women, and the tomfoolery of their comrades. But Myles, who is usually amused at such a thought too, was disappointed to hear that James had no recollection of such a song.
Just then, as if something had fallen out of the sky and struck his head, the memory came to him. Slowly he remembered it, like a puzzle gradually coming together piece by piece. First, the melody came, followed quickly by the words. He could not be sure if the words were correct, but he felt that they probably were. And he began to sing.
Twinkle, twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky
James stopped his fiddling and turned his head towards Myles.
“That the song you were goin’ on about?”
“I think so, yeah.”
“Sounds like a bloody kids’ song,” he said, going back to his rifle. “Definitely old if it’s real alright. Would never hear any song like that these days.”
Myles felt happy for some reason. The song, which he doesn’t remember ever actually hearing – but he most certainly did, otherwise he would not have known -, brought over him a nostalgic feeling of days gone by. As he sang, he could imagine lying in the grass outside of town, a light breeze shaking the leaves of the trees around him as he stared at the moon and the few stars he could see. There was no artillery, no bullets or aircraft, no corpses or smoke or muddy ground.
He stared at the star in the sky and tried to imagine it as a diamond. It was shining, the only thing you could say truly shining in the sky. It was beautiful, more beautiful than anything he had ever seen. At that moment, he felt he could give up his arms and armour, the women that followed their camps, the cigarettes he smoked, the drinks he drank, if he could just always see that star shining up above the world so high. It wasn’t twinkling like in the song. Once a while it would glimmer and seem to fade, but that was because cloud or smoke would by chance pass in front of it. But it would never last long, and that bright light would come back.
He sang it once again, savouring the moment. He listened to the tune he sang, while looking at the star. Afterwards, he continued to hum the melody over and over and over. To his surprise, James began humming the melody too, having finished whatever he had been doing with his rifle. They hummed together under the clouded moon and the shining star, the only sound besides the crackling fire that could be heard for miles around.
James finished humming first and went to sleep. Myles had the first watch. It was good that no enemy came upon them that night, Myles thought. He could admire the twinkling little star in the sky.
Long before the sun had risen, they had awoken and had continued on their way. The moon and star were long gone, and in their place the sky was blanketed by endless clouds. It was neither dark nor bright as they journeyed on, slowly trudging their way through the mud. They went on for miles and miles meeting nothing until they finally came upon a two-storey house. From its outward appearance, it looked to have been an ancient thing, from a time long before the wars began, and had been abandoned for nearly as long. The windows were shattered, some boarded up with planks of rotting wood. Parts of the roof had collapsed, leaving holes in their wake. The house itself had part of a farm, being surrounded by a low wall of cobbled stone, most of which had collapsed, leaving only parts. Behind the house stood a smaller house, a shed, that looked to be of the same dilapidated state as the house itself.
It was on the side of the road they were following, and so they passed by in front of it. Myles felt drawn to the house, like fireflies to a light. He felt like there was something special about the house. He thought that perhaps it was because it was a relic of a time past, when things were simpler, and life was more peaceful. And it was at that moment that a shot rang out that deafened their ears. Myles and James instinctively dropped to the ground and ran for cover behind the low walls. Another shot rang out.
“Bloody sniper!” shouted James out as he tried desperately to stay as low as possible.
Myles looked around for Caleb and saw to his horror that he was laying on his back in the middle of the road, his dirt-streaked clothes covered with spots of dark red. A pool of blood was slowly spreading under where he lay.
“Caleb! Get the hell out of there!” Myles shouted at him. He wanted to run and drag him to the low wall, but the shooter was definitely in the house and would have a clear shot at him.
Gathering what strength he had, Caleb flipped over so that his blood-streaked chest touched the road. He was heaving, and Myles could see that he was gritting his teeth with the pain. Myles saw to his horror Caleb’s body jolting as another shot rang out and hit him in the back. He writhed and struggled for a while, but then Caleb stopped moving and lay silent in a pool of his own blood on the road. James was shouting.
“Caleb! Hang in there! Fuck!”
Another shot rang out, hitting the top of the low wall Myles was hiding behind. Out of the corner of his eye, Myles saw James close his eyes. Then suddenly he opened them. He held his weapon tightly and his eyes were focused with determination.
“Take this, you cocky bastard!”
With that, Myles raised himself and started shooting at the house at random, being unsure of where the shots had come from. He was shouting at the top of his lungs a fearsome battle cry as he emptied his magazine. When the bullets ran out, he ducked and hid again behind the wall and loaded another. Myles readied himself to do the same as James did, and for a while they ducked behind the walls, waiting for the sniper’s counterattack. Waiting, and waiting, but it didn’t come. They exchanged glances, both unsure of what they needed to do. Myles tried to catch a glimpse but knew that even popping up a bit of his head would make him a target. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see James signaling after him.
I’m going in, cover me, James mouthed.
Myles nodded and readied himself, keeping an eye on James. Then almost at once, they both raised their heads and aimed their rifles towards the house. It was eerily silent, and the silence was worse. They moved a few steps out of their cover and there was still no sign of the sniper.
“Get Caleb behind the wall. I’ll cover you,” James said as he aimed his rifle from window to window.
Myles nodded and ran back to Caleb. He wasn’t moving, but he was still breathing. It was rough and difficult, as if he could barely get the air in.
“Hang in there, Caleb,” Myles said to him as he pulled him to the relative safety of the low walls. Caleb’s eyes were open but dazed, and he made no reply.
Having dragged Caleb to safety, Myles rejoined James and together they quickly reached the house. They stood leaning against it, each of them on one side of the closed, wooden door. At the count of three, they burst into the house. James went in first, followed by Myles. It was dark, with only the windows providing any kind of lighting. They saw everything in shades of green through the night vision of their visors. It was silent. The only sound they could hear was the old wood creaking under the weight of their feet.
They searched every nook and cranny of the first floor but found nothing except dust and rotting wood. They went to the staircase that led upstairs. If the sniper was here, he’d be on the second floor for there was no other place to hide. James stood at the foot of the first step and held up his hand in a fist, signaling to stop. He turned his head around slightly and, sure that Myles was behind him and following, signaled them to move forward. They climbed the steps slowly, making their footfalls as light as possible as to avoid creaking the wood and announcing their arrival.
The stairs turned around midway so that the second half of their climb came directly to the second-floor corridor and a room that opened onto it, right across the staircase. The door was ajar, and inside with his back against the wall under the window, he was slumped forward. He was still holding his sniper rifle in a loose grip in his hands. There were spots of blood around him, but the colour didn’t seem right. They were dark red as blood should be, but it seemed as if the blood had seeped into the walls and floors and its very texture was that of the planks. They kept their weapons aimed at him, unsure of what his condition was. They slowed their pace further and continued to climb.
In the blink of an eye, James had fallen onto his back on the landing on the stairs, his weapon thrown out of his hands, and blood gushing everywhere. Myles could hear the ringing of the gunshot but could not hear his own voice screaming as James fell slowly before his eyes. Without a moment’s hesitation, he aimed his rifle directly at the enemy and rained on him an entire magazine’s worth of bullets.
In the end, the enemy was riddled with bullets and a pool of dark red, wet blood started spreading around his corpse, covering the dried blood that Myles had seen. As for James, he lay on his back on the stairs, heaving, unable to move. His chest was bleeding profusely, and he writhed in pain.
Myles did what he could with James’ wounds and brought him to one of the other rooms. At their state, they could no longer continue their journey today. Sure that James was as comfortable as he could be, Myles went back outside for Caleb. As he reached the stairs, he looked back into the room across and took a look at the corpse sitting against the wall. He wanted to curse him, spit at him. He contemplated closing the door but decided against it. He went downstairs, leaving the corpse to rot in the pool of blood.
He found Caleb still in the position they left him, not having moved a single inch. As he knelt to get a closer look at him, he noticed that Caleb wasn’t blinking anymore. He wasn’t breathing, his chest wasn’t rising or falling. Caleb stared blankly at the road, unmoving, limp. Myles stood up, and for a while he just stood there, looking at Caleb’s corpse. He didn’t do or say anything – he just stared.
After some time, he sighed deeply and dragged Caleb into the house. He laid him down with his back to a wall on the first floor. He was going to bury him later, when he had the time. It was the least that he could do. Taking a look at Caleb’s empty face once again, he sighed and went back upstairs. As he reached the top, he saw the sniper’s corpse again. At least he had paid for Caleb’s life with his own, he thought as he slowly walked past the door towards the room where James was sitting in pain.
They spent the night in the unlit room, bathed in the little dim light streaming in from the broken window. They hadn’t spoken a single word since Myles told James of Caleb’s death. Myles had walked towards the wall across the door and sat with his back to it, James sitting leaning against the wall to Myles’ left. They just sat there, emptily staring; Myles towards the doorway, James towards the wall opposite him. All the while, Myles had his rifle at the ready, sitting on his lap in case anymore unfriendly visitors come upon them.
Myles decided to take the first watch, to cover the greater part of the night when it would be most dangerous. He was worried for James and wanted him to get as much rest as possible. James tried to sleep but found that he could not. He closed his eyes but did not sleep. Eventually, he gave up. He opened his eyes, and Myles noticed.
“Your wound still hurting?” Myles pointed at his chest.
“Yeah, like hell. But that’s not it.”
They stayed silent, Myles looking at James expecting him to speak at any moment. But he didn’t, and Myles broke the silence.
James nodded in response.
“There was nothing we could’ve done. We didn’t know.”
Another bout of silence followed.
“Got any smokes left?” James suddenly asked.
Myles shook his head in disappointment. The silence continued, until finally after how long neither one knew, James broke it.
“Sing me a song, Myles.”
“Anything. What about that one you were going on about last night? What was it again? ‘Bright Little Star’ or something?”
“I don’t actually know the title. But the first line was ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ if that’s what you mean.”
“Yeah, that one. Sing that for me, please.”
Myles didn’t immediately sing. He dug up the lyrics he had sung the night before, still unsure if those were the right words. The melody came to him first, and then the words. Feeling that he was ready, he began to sing.
James closed his eyes and sat still. He made no movement, uttered no word. He just leaned against the wall and listened to Myles’ singing. When he finished, Myles could not be sure whether James was asleep or not. But there was something soothing about the song, something about it that he could not put his finger on. It felt like a simple song, and yet to them sitting in that empty room in an abandoned house it seemed foreign, despite the English lyrics. It seemed to be of a different land, a different time, a different reality. A more peaceful and hopeful one, with a sense of wonder and childlike curiosity. Seeing James sleep so soundly, he sang it once again. He didn’t know if there was a second verse, and so he just sang what he knew once more until finally, he was sure that James had fallen asleep.
Myles began his watch. Thankfully, nothing happened. A few times he thought he heard something moving, and he’d go silently to the window to peek out and see if he could catch a glimpse of anything moving, and sometimes he’d go to the doorway and peek into the corridor, but every time he found nothing.
Two hours before dawn, his eyes had begun to feel heavy. A few times he almost fell into the embrace of sleep. He struggled his hardest against it, desperately trying to stay awake. He contemplated whether to wake James so that he could take over the rest of the watch. It would only be a few hours, but he’d get some rest and James should’ve had enough rest by then. He looked towards James as he contemplated and saw that he was still resting peacefully.
Myles called out to him, but he wouldn’t wake up. Myles stood up and walked over to where he was and shook him by the shoulder. James fell limp to the floor. It was then that Myles noticed that he wasn’t breathing. Myles shook him again and again. He tried to find a pulse on James’ neck, tried to notice any sign that he was still alive. But James was gone.
Myles sat next to James until the dawn came, and for a while he remained there. His eyes were fixed on the wall that only hours ago James was still staring emptily at. He felt limp, as though the very life had been sucked out of him. At first, they were a dozen strong, and then three, and now he alone survived.
Finally, Myles pulled himself up. He lay James back against the wall again, wanting to at least let his body rest in peace. He took a last look at James and sighed, before going to the doorway. At the doorway, he stopped and looked back again. His heart was full of grief and regret, but he had to move. He left James in that room and went towards the stairs. On his way, he looked back into the room where the sniper’s corpse still lay undisturbed. He wanted to smite it, to curse it, but he had no strength in him left to do it.
Near the door on the first floor sat Caleb, his head tilted to the side. His skin was pale, and his eyes open, unblinking. Myles headed over to him and knelt. He straightened Caleb’s head and closed his eyes. That was the only thing that he could for him, the last thing.
Myles went out of the house of the three dead men. The sun was rising, casting a warm orange glow on the landscape before him. He shielded his eyes from the bright sunlight and looked down the road that they had travelled on yesterday. With one last glance at the house, he started walking, his weapon at the ready in his hands. He walked down the road, its destination shrouded by the morning mist and the distance, and he didn’t look back again.
The road led him to a great forest. For days he had not seen living trees of any kind and now thousands stood before him. He could not be sure of how large the forest was. As far as he could see, the forest reached the horizons on both sides and neither could he see its end through the branches and the leaves. He didn’t know much about trees – what sort of trees there were, what the difference was – but he could see that the trees here were old, probably far older than he was. Their trunks were thick, and their branches reached high into the sky. Though it was day, it seemed far darker inside the forest. The numerous leaves formed a canopy over it, allowing little sunlight in. The road continued into the forest, and the branches and leaves above it seemed like the ceiling of a tunnel that enveloped the path.
He knew that they– he would have to go through the forest at some point. He remembered it from the maps they pored over before the invasion began. The front, if it had not moved, should be a few miles on the other side of the forest. He had been confident that the three of them could go through it in relative security. But he was not so confident now, having been reduced to himself. He had no one to watch his back. But to go around the forest would take days, days that he did not have. Food and ammunition were running out and some of his equipment had begun to lose power. He knew he had no other choice. He held his weapon at the ready and reluctantly walked in.
He started on the road, but soon followed it from the sides, walking amongst the trees. Though the road was maintained well enough, he did not dare to walk on it. If somehow there were enemies on either side, he would have no cover. He might as well have a target painted on his head and back. But walking through the forest, even this close to the road, proved more difficult that he expected. There were big roots, bushes, and large rocks that made his journey more difficult. The forest floor was littered with fallen leaves and branches. He had to be careful to avoid them, or to at least step on them lightly. He had the uncomfortable feeling that he was being watched or followed, that he was not alone here. If he made loud sounds, he would give away his position.
As he walked through the forest, he often thought that he could hear something following behind him at a distance. When he stopped, he thought he could hear something coming to a stop just a millisecond after him. Every time he did, he’d turn around and try to catch it in its steps, but he never saw anything. He’d wait for some time, to see if something moved or not, but he’d see and hear nothing.
He moved as fast as he could, keeping closely to the road. But his pace was twice as slow as it would’ve been if he had taken the road itself, and he felt as if he made no progress. He kept moving forward, turning left and right following where the road did so, but in the distance, he saw nothing but trees and more trees. Once he saw a light and he thought he had reached the forest’s end. He rushed towards it, only to find that it was a small clearing where the sun could shine through clearly.
Except for that small clearing, he couldn’t tell what time it was because the leaves kept the sun out of his sight. He could only guess at the general time from what light did come through. Eventually, the forest slowly became darker until soon all the trunks, branches, and leaves became a single, mass of pitch black. Myles couldn’t decide whether to use the night vision of his visors and deplete what power he had left, or to save it for another time. He had been walking for almost the entire day, and the darker it got the less he had heard of whatever had been following him. In the end, he decided not to use it and instead relied on what little moonlight came through the leaves and felt his way through.
When he guessed that it was roughly midnight, he stopped and sat against the trunk of a large tree to rest. Having been on his guard for most of the day, he had not realised how tired he was. But now, sitting on the forest floor, it came to him all at once. All his muscles and joints were aching, and lifting his arms proved to be a heavy feat. His eyes felt heavy, and his neck felt as if it would snap at any time under the weight of his head and helmet. The tree bark was rough and dry, but he had never felt as much relief at leaning against such a hard tree before.
Feeling safe, he closed his eyes. He would get three hours of sleep and then move on. Slowly, he started to lose sense of the reality around him. He felt as if his head was slightly spinning around. It must be the tiredness, he thought. He started dreaming of things he didn’t even remember he knew. He dreamt of the rolling hills near his hometown, of the peaceful forests with the chirping birds just a few miles out, and of a few stars shining through the clouds and smoke in the night sky. He could hear the laughter of the children as they played, the bustling of the village at midday, the sound of shuffling feet.
He opened his eyes. That wasn’t part of the dream. He was sure he heard feet or movement nearby, somewhere among the trees around him. He got up and raised his rifle. He looked all around him, but the darkness was all that he could find. He decided to turn on his night vision. The forest was now bathed in shades of green as he slowly turned around and eyed every side of the forest around him. He had just passed over a small patch of bushes when he thought he heard something from it. He snapped back at it and aimed his rifle downwards. He listened for a while, but no sound came. He slowly approached it. Right before it, he stopped and braced himself.
He leapt past the bushes and aimed at anything that moved. To his surprise and relief, it wasn’t a man. It was a squirrel. He relaxed and let down his weapon. He breathed a sigh of relief and knelt down towards it. He could not remember the last time he saw a squirrel. By all his guesses, it was more than a decade ago when he was still a young boy. It didn’t run away from him, to his surprise. He thought that perhaps this squirrel did not fear humans because there’d been no people living here for a long time.
He took off his glove and held out his hand towards it. The animal fascinated him. Its head seemed to always move, its head tilting from one side to another but always looking up at him. Maybe it was expecting that he would give it some food, but Myles had not much left for himself, let alone anything to give. His hand had reached it and it didn’t resist his touch. He slightly scratched it under its chin, and it seemed to like it. It was simple yet pointless, but it was a welcome change of pace after what he had experienced the last twenty-four hours. He smiled to himself at what he was doing. He never would’ve imagined somebody like him doing something like this.
And then with a jolt he fell to the ground with a knife in the side of his neck. He fell with his back on the ground floor. He saw his assailant standing above him in the dark. His visor started malfunctioning and he couldn’t see his face. Myles desperately clawed for his rifle, but his opponent kicked it out of his reach. He was screaming in pain. He could feel the blood on his neck and shoulder as a pool slowly spread beneath him. The visor stopped working and he was again in the pitch-black light of the forest. From narrow rays of light that penetrated the foliage, he could make out the satisfied grin on his assailant’s face.
His assailant was heaving, and even in the darkness Myles could see that he was trembling. His fingers were shaking as he stood above him. He started laughing slightly and spoke some words Myles couldn’t understand. He couldn’t understand the words, but he could feel the animosity and spite aimed at him through them. He knelt beside him and put his hand on the handle of the knife. With his devilish grin, he slowly pulled it out of Myles’ neck. Myles wanted to scream but found that when he did no voice came out.
His assailant stood examining his blood-covered knife in the dim light. He looked it from this and that angle, as if he was appreciating the beauty of a gem. He smiled while doing that, and sometimes said a few words to Myles. At last, he laughed and stood up. He sheathed his knife and went for Myles’ rifle. Myles tried desperately to get something, anything out of his mouth. All he could manage was a wordless grunt.
His assailant looked towards him. He spoke a few taunting words while idly picking up the rifle. He came nearer to Myles and started taunting him. He didn’t know what the words meant, but he could almost hear it in his mind: “What? What you tryin’ to say?” Before the man could leave, a shot had broken the silence of the night, and he was lying on the forest floor near his feet, blood gushing out of a red hole in his face.
Myles let the handgun fall out of his grip. The sudden silence felt eerie, and he couldn’t help but keep his eyes on the corpse at his feet. He felt that at any moment, the man would stand up and laugh off the shot. But he never did; he was really dead. After some time, Myles relaxed. He could feel the life going out of him. He noticed to his left, in between the trees, a light shone through on a small clearing. He felt drawn to it, like his life depended on it.
He crawled over with what strength he had left. Soon he was bathed in the light coming through the leaves. He thought it was the moon, which he had not seen for a long time. But when he looked up, all he could see was a lone star. He lay there on the leaves and branches on the ground, his head looking up through the gap. His eyes were fixed on the star. He crawled his way to a nearby tree and, gathering up all of his remaining strength, brought himself sitting with his back against the trunk. At once, all his limbs fell limp. He couldn’t move his hands or feet even if his life was on the line.
With his head leaning against the bark, he stared at the star in the night sky. Looking at it, a single tear rolled down his cheek. He was losing blood fast, and his vision started to blur. He noticed the path that he had crawled through was now smeared with blood, his blood. He heard a voice singing, whose he could not tell. He couldn’t make much sense of anything now. For all he knew, it could be his own. But the words he could make out clearly.
Twinkle, twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky
There was nobody else there. Despite what had happened in the past few days, the little star in the sky still shone brightly, twinkling away without a worry. Myles didn’t know what stars really were. All he knew was that they were things shining in the sky. It was so high up above him that he couldn’t fathom it. It seems even if he were in the planes that they took into battle, he wouldn’t get any closer or nearer to it. It was beautiful, remote, peaceful. How he longed to take its place. To be so high up that none could reach him, to be so far and remote from the world and everything in it, to be shining so brightly and beautifully. None could destroy it, and no weapon of man would move it. It would just stay there, twinkling, up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky.
Lush trees and a corpse were the only features of the land that he could see as he closed his eyes.
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