By Dave Dentel
This is an excerpt from the title story in an anthology now available on Kickstarter.
In a cave on a small island a man sat stirring a pot of dark, oily brew. For lack of any better name he would call it tea, though God knew the nasty substance probably tasted little better than aviation fuel.
Now there was a sad joke. They’d run out of fuel before they had run out of tea—and before that they’d run out of meat, out of rice, out of bean paste, and finally out of biscuits. They still had tons of bullets and shells. It was a busted grenade case the man squatted on and wood from a splintered cartridge box he used to fire the metal stove.
But anything approaching sustenance was long gone. The man was forced to scrape and roast and boil whatever organic scraps he could scrounge—compost that should have been the leafmeal of someone’s garden but instead was being poured into soldiers’ cups as black as death, only not so bitter. No, that taste would soon follow.
Stove flames threw a lurching shadow across the far wall as a fellow soldier stumbled into the cave, a canister slung over one shoulder. Beneath his other shoulder his right shirtsleeve hung limp, empty.
“Well, there’s another load gone, lieutenant.” The one-armed soldier slumped onto an empty crate near the stove and let the canister tumble onto the volcanic gravel at his feet. “I don’t see how they can keep guzzling this stuff.”
The cave rumbled and shook before Lieutenant Fujimoto could reply. Another enemy barrage had found its mark. But the noise and shock and dust of encroaching violence had become so commonplace he did little more than flinch his one good eye before sighing his usual, abbreviated reply.
What a pair they made, Fujimoto thought, squinting across the fire at Corporal Kobe. One half-crippled, the other half-blind—between their wounds and their misapplied skills the two of them didn’t make for a single decent regimental cook. And yet here they served, however ineptly, because the army needed eyes and limbs, never mind if they didn’t come in set pairs, standard issue, inspector-general certified. Rigid physical standards were not so necessary since the army’s principal duty had become to commit slow suicide. You could be half-disabled and still bring the emperor honor in death—assuming of course, you still met the strict definition of martial honor. Fujimoto didn’t, and he suspected Kobe didn’t either. So instead of fighting, the two of them tended fires and washed pots.
Another barrage shook them in their seats.
Kobe cursed, flailing his arm in an absurd attempt to protect the brewing tea from a shower of dust. The fine powder sifted into the pot anyway, fizzing.
“Oh well.” Kobe spat, kicking the canister at his feet an effort to knock some dirt loose. “A little dried lava. Don’t guess the men on the line will care. They’re so starved they’ll stick anything down their throats.”
“Even the enemy?”