The word was foreign in my mind, and it seemed to echo ominisouly, making my eyes water and my tongue itch.
It was dark, and the air was permeated with the scent of sweat and fear. Not a single person moved or spoke. The men were under a spell, marveling in the movement of the ship as it swayed beneath them. That combined with the hum of the engines and the soft whish of the wind was enough to lull them into sleep.
Still, we did not close our eyes.
I felt the cool metal of the gun in my hand, glinting softly, alluringly. I worshipped it, bowed to it, feared it, and clung to it all the tighter.
This was my ritual, my promise, my vow. I whispered it to whatever god or spirit or man alike, whatever strange ghost listened, to them I sent my silent prayer.
“Permission for battle granted. All gunmen to the helm.” A metallic voice shouted over the intercom. The spell was broken, and I stood, clutching my gun to my chest. The others began to move too, and the small space was filled with the sound of motion, the clatter of metal against metal and flesh against flesh.
“Tomorrow.” I whispered again, pushing my way through the crowed. In the distance I could see a light, a flash of white, and even from here I could feel the gentle touch of the breeze, drawing me forward. Taking a deep breathe, I could taste the coolness of the air, sweet against my lips, like those butterscotch candies you received when you were a child. I let it melt on my tongue, savoring it, memorizing it, as if the very presence of it would keep bound to this heavy body.
“In positions!” the voice ordered again. Stepping outside, I followed the other men, forming long lines across the deck. I could see the sky now, blue as a wish, churning in anxious preparation, like a cat, shifting on its haunches. And the clouds, pale and breathless, silent, unmoving as a corpse. So quiet, I wished I could leap over the edge and comfort it, dive into that vast blue abyss and forget the world above and below.
Perhaps it was I that needed the comforting.
“Load bullets!” I could no longer hear the voice, I simply followed the movements of those around me.
Snap! We slammed the butts of our muskets to the floor
Klunk! We dropped a thimble full of tiny balls into the nose. My hands were shaking, and I watched the balls spill over the edge. They sounded like bells as they hit the ground, disappearing left and right with the movements of the ship. Bells, tolling softly with the rising of the sun, silver bells.
We lifted the guns once again, placing them in the crook of our arms, like a woman would hold a new born babe. These were our children, these beasts of iron and steel, these creatures of death and destruction. Theirs was the call of the shadow, of the reaper, the devil, the heralders of the apocalypse, clad in flashing silver, the wielders of hell’s fiery blade.
“Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.”
“Guns at rest!” snap snap! I lifted the musket, holding it before me. For a moment, I was caught in awe of its lithe form. Then my eyes swiveled to the man next to me. His hands, clad in milky white, were shaking, and there, on the reflective surface of his weapon, his eyes, staring forward, empty. I wondered if I too had empty eyes, those eyes of a man waiting for death. Of a man going to die.
“Tomorrow.” I said again, looking forward. There, before us, not one hundred yards away was another sky ship. This one was white, white as a woman’s cheek, white as the gloves of the man beside me. On its deck was a sea of dark green, men, like me. Men with families and futures. What was their ritual, their hope?
I did not care to know.
“Men, today, the honor of our nation is at risk. The knife of collapse ifs at our necks! We fight for the privilege of our children, and our children’s children. We fight for Akmeria!”
There was an uproar as the men cheered, but their calls were hollow. Hollow as those glass dolls my daughter loved so, whose bodies would crack open when they hit the floor. Hollow as glass eyes, and empty muskets, and the color white.
We were the marble pieces awaiting the next move. We would tumble one by one, our broken bodies piling to become the thrones of kings. We were the pawns, the tens and the twos, the hearts and the clubs of this gamble.
For our lives were worth nothing but the battle.
“First line, at the ready!” Clack Clack. I could hear them, the whispers of the others. They stared ahead, at the white ship, at the frozen sky, at the quite clouds and the peace. They tightened their grips, holding their breath, waiting. Like snow, they drifted, fragile, tugged by the vicious whims of the wind.
“Forward!” There was the sound of thunder, of fire, of hurricanes and earthquakes, of lives lost and moments past. The
taste of butterscotch, of glass and snow, and all those other things that are so precious, but so easily forgotten.
As if a switch had been turned, we were running, pushing, lurching forward. Towards the target. Towards the white unknown. Our feet moved to the pounding of our hearts, thump, thump, thump, and for a moment we were a single living, breathing life form, a single being, immortal, eternal, pressed into a book and hanging, suspended, like stars.
“Tomorrow.” The sound of a bullet whizzing by, and the man beside me falls. As I passed, I caught of a glimpse of his face, and he looked like me, and then another fell, and another. They were blooming all around me, red roses bursting from their chests and arcing into the air, embracing the sky and dying it the color of our greed.
“Tomorrow, Tomorrow, tomorrow…”
I released my shot, then fell to my knees, staring out at the horizon. Around me they were falling, one by one, their grunts of pain and horror the only sound within the fire. I sat at the center of the flames, and they licked me, cold as ice, burning the images of battle into my mind, like pages in a book, piling up, piling up.
“Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.”
And suddenly it was silent, the battle over, the fire gone. Around me was a garden of corpses, their dead faces staring at me in wonder. I looked wide eyed, upon the mass of bodies, none of them familiar.
The game was done, the play over, but what had we won. For the sacrifice of today, we have secured tomorrow.
But really, what is it’s worth anymore?