“Sir, you’d best take a look at this,” Williams said.
Townshend folded the chart spread across his knees. “What?”
“Burnt-out lorry on the road ahead. One of ours.”
Frowning, Townshend leaned in front of the grimy block of glass that was the driver’s viewport, forcing Williams against the wall. “I didn’t know we had any units this far inland.”
“Maybe they were like us.” By which Williams didn’t mean His Majesty’s Army. Not the normal rank and file, anyway.
Still staring out the window, Townshend jabbed a finger forward. “Is that a man?”
“Oh, bloody hell, it is.”
From behind the smoking wreck of the vehicle, a man in a British uniform jogged out. He didn’t have a rifle, but he moved as though he were unharmed.
“Stop a moment,” Townshend said, but Williams was already doing it. The tank creaked to a halt, the hellish roar of the motor subsiding from a level that jellied your organs to one that was merely torturous.
“We’re stopping?” Duncan shouted from the gunner’s seat. “Why’re we stopping?”
“You just mind your post.” Townshend rubbed a hand over his face, grimacing at the tangled status of his beard. Ever since the incident, remaining clean-shaven was impossible, and so was proper hygiene this close to the full moon. The potential of being cut off from the tank was not an acceptable risk, not for the sake of a bath. If they were unable to lock themselves away from civilians…
“We can’t take him with us,” Williams said, just loud enough for Townshend to hear.
“We can’t bloody well leave him here, either. There have to be Nazis around here somewhere.”
“Better if he’s shot by a Nazi than if one of us get him.”
The soldier came to a stop before the tank, the barrel of the main gun looming over him. He didn’t say anything. Nobody within the tank would have been able to hear him if he did. He stared at the window, eyes hollow, hands trembling at his sides.
“He’s not going to move, is he?”
“I doubt it.”
“There’s someone outside?” Duncan banged a canteen against the wall. “Hey! Who is he? Some saboteur aiming to blow us up?”
Townshend grimaced. “That’s enough, Duncan.”
“Come on, look at the truck! He can’t be one of ours if he was in there! We should go out there and—”
“Duncan!” Townshend turned to his gunner and suppressed a flinch. Instead of their usual green, Duncan’s eyes were colored amber. He was changing already. He’d always taken a perverse pleasure in his curse, but if he was changing now, before Townshend could feel it starting…
“You will stay at your post,” he said, not permitting his composure to crack.
Duncan stared back, his jaw twitching. “You know how they got me, sarge? Wasn’t one of their damned raids. It was some bastard who went around getting in fights in Army canteens. Bit people. Some little swine just like that mutt out there, had the right look to him, had the right accent, but not one of us.” His lip curled. His teeth gleamed in the twilight within the tank. “This scum is just the same. I can smell it. Bloody hell, I can taste it.”
“I said stand down, man!”
Outside, the soldier’s head twisted around. He turned back to the tank and spoke. The words were lost to the roar of the engines, but Townshend knew what he was saying.
They’re coming. Please.
“Sir,” Williams said.
“I know.” Townshend checked his watch, then the almanac strapped to the wall. “Everyone out.”
“Moonrise is in fifteen minutes, and we’re far from any village on the map. The only Germans nearby will be soldiers. We go out and give them hell, and let that bloke have the tank until morning.”
Williams shook his head. “They might have heavy armor, sir. It would be suicide.”
A laugh escaped Townshend’s throat. “We’re already dead, Michael. We can’t ever go back home, and when this war is over… I would rather die in service, before some chap in Whitehall realizes we’re too dangerous to leave alive. Would you agree?”
With a snort, Williams produced a flask from his pocket. “One last taste of civilization before we go, then?”
“Good man.” Townshend took a drink and passed it to Duncan. “If you touch that soldier, I swear to you I will rip out your guts and eat them once the change comes. Understand? Save your fury for the enemy.”
Duncan bared his teeth and nodded.
“Very well. Shall we, gentlemen?”
About the author:
After a fortunate encounter with Eragon addicted him to both dragons and writing, Nathan Slemp has been indulging both of those fascinations, jointly when possible. He also works in IT in the middle of a forest in Michigan. His short stories can be found in the Fairytale Dragons anthology by Dragon Soul Press, in the Continuum anthologies on Kindle, and upcoming in an collection by Black Hare Press. Other works and musings can be found at wordwyrm.wordpress.com.