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First pages

PROLOGUE

Marty Crickson sat patiently in his tiny seat, waiting for Sergeant Planer’s orders to come over the interphone. After a few weeks, the unsteady rhythms of the tank as it passed over the hills and brush of Northern France had quickly become routine to Marty, and with nothing to look at for days but the back of the Sherman’s 75mm gun, he often passed the time trying to imagine the terrain their column was crossing by the bumpiness of the ride. His column, made up of five M4A3 Sherman tanks, seemed permanently on patrol, following the lead tank as it took a preplanned route. Boredom was his chief opponent -- Marty hadn’t put much thought into the likelihood of encountering the actual enemy, and the officers seemed to be in the dark about it, too.

As usual, his mind started to wander, picturing how a fight against the Germans might go today. As his imagination worked, he let his hands get to work as well, running them through the loading procedure for the hundred-thousandth time. Grab round. Pull breechlock lever. Insert round. Close breechlock. Poke gunner.

Marty was proud of his loading speed. The role of the assistant gunner wasn’t glamorous, but the past few days had proven the complete inadequacy of their Sherman tank’s gun against German Panzers. The Panzer armor was so thick, and the Sherman’s gun so weak, that only a very lucky shot could hope to do any damage. Since they were down on quality, they had to rely on quantity, and at least that was where Marty could shine.

His loading practice fell into an easy rhythm, and Marty was just finishing up his 31st practice round of the day when Sgt. Planer announced that they had spotted the enemy and were engaging. His nerves lit up with frozen fire, but he swallowed and got ready to do his job. Marty knew the column would be splitting up and trying to flank the Panzers, as shots to the weaker side armor would have a much higher chance of penetrating. But his tank, second in the line, would be following Lead right down the center.

The call came. “Target Mark IV. 2 o’clock, 400 meters.” Sgt. Planer’s baritone, ever steady, overwhelmed the interphone’s electric crackle. “Load AP,” he added, a beat later. Marty rolled his eyes – he didn’t need to be told to use an armor-piercing round against a Panzer, which would treat a high-explosive round as little more than a tickle – and set to work. Grab AP round. Pull breechlock lever. Insert round. Close breechlock. Poke gunner. While he’d been loading, the gunner, Corporal John Colombe, had been rotating the turret and lining up the shot. As soon as he felt Marty’s poke, he fired the gun. Marty felt his bones rattle from the tremendous explosion, and quickly pulled back to let the steaming shell fall from the now-open breech into the basket below.

“Negative,” called Sgt. Planer, “let’s try again.” Marty sighed and went to reload. Grab AP round. Pull breechlock lever. Insert round. Close breechlock. Poke gunner. This time, Colombe, anxious sweat beading on his brow, took careful aim before firing, and Marty could feel the Sherman kick into gear as the driver, Technician Muster Ruben, tried to maneuver into a better position. The gyroscopically stabilized gun’s aim wouldn’t be disturbed by the sudden motion, which was one of the few advantages they had over the Germans. As they rolled into position, Marty noticed Sgt. Planer partly crouching, probably trying to limit his profile sticking out from the top of the tank.

Colombe fired, drowning Marty’s world with sound and vibration. A second later, Planer reported, “That was a hit, but I think it was deflected. Try again.” Marty reached for a round, but stopped, shaken by a coughing fit. His mouth filled up with thick mucus, and he felt fluid in his lungs, but he forced it down and carried on. He took the round from its rack, focused on its solid weight and stability. He had a good feeling about this one. Grab AP round. Pull breechlock lever. Insert rou-

A chain of explosions rocked the tank, and all at once the interior filled with heat and smoke. Marty realized he had dropped the round to the floor, and goggled at it in horror. If it had been an HE round, they could all be dead now.

“Back up, you idiot!” roared Planer. He had closed the hatch and ducked down into the turret. “They’ve got a Tiger. Lead just exploded, and we’re next if you can’t get us out of here.” Colombe turned around to look at Marty, and they shared a worried glance. The gunner turned to the commander.

“Uhh, should we keep firing?” Colombe asked, voice quavering.

“Only if you want to die today,” shot back Planer. “The smoke from Lead going up is providing cover. No reason to reveal where we are just to bounce one off that Tiger.”

“What about the Mark IV?” Marty spoke up. He looked down at the dropped round. It seemed to glow with its own special light, and he just knew it was lucky.

“Hell, what about it? It’ll still be there tomorrow.” With the order to pull out given, Planer’s hard-set battle demeanor softened, and the tension of battle slowly left the rest of the crew. Retreat was never ideal, but the sergeant was right: it was a better option than certain death for no gain. The Germans would never pursue them with an entire armored division backing them up, so they should count themselves lucky even to have the option to retreat. And losing only one tank to mixed German armor, including a Tiger, was something of a blessing in itself, even if it meant the column had lost its commanding officer.

After the sounds and smells of battle had faded, Sgt. Planer popped the hatch open and stood again to keep an eye out. When Marty was sure nobody was looking, he reached down and grabbed the round he’d dropped, quickly replacing it in the ammo rack. For a second, he had been sure that it felt warm to the touch. He eyed it warily the rest of the ride back, but it just sat there, nothing more than an inert piece of metal.

***

The return trip lasted twenty uneventful minutes. Back at the forward field station, they gave the tank a quick once-over and left it to be refueled and rearmed by the maintenance crews. It was the first time this particular vehicle had seen action; their last tank, named “Foldy Roll,” had broken down without ever seeing action a few days before, and they were all grateful that the new, untested vehicle had performed well enough to get them back alive. Sgt. Planer ordered his crew to spend the rest of the afternoon thinking up a name for their new tank, and dismissed them.

Marty lay by himself on a short hill, staring dreamily up at the untouched white of the clouds above. Even the bombers and scout planes constantly zipping back and forth overhead couldn’t mar their fluffy perfection. His fingers were still shaking from the adrenaline of combat, yet his eyes kept stubbornly trying to close and send him off to sleep. But nodding off wouldn’t be safe at all, as an artillery bombardment could come at any time, and he’d have to be awake to take cover. Just to be on the safe side, he forced himself to sit up, surveying the station. Despite the mechanics working frantically, climbing over each tank like ants on a dropped donut, there was a strange sense of calm to the scene. He thought about the terribly intense fighting that must be happening all over France, and it felt strange that he couldn’t see anything but peaceful countryside all around. He noticed an ordnance officer arguing with Sgt. Planer next to the maintenance tent, but aside from that, everyone was quietly minding his own business.

In the tent, even the column’s four surviving tanks submitted to the indignity of their repairs silently. Basic tank training had included an extensive education on the function and repair of every component, so Marty and his crewmates could have handled the repair work themselves. However, as long as a maintenance crew was available, it made sense to use it; the maintenance teams had the tools to do more lasting repairs, and they hadn’t spent the day sitting in a cramped tank getting shot at, either.

The Shermans themselves, while distressingly inferior to their German opponents’, were, in Marty’s opinion, a miracle of engineering. Each tank’s sloped front, short gun, and large tracks gave the impression of a bulldog’s face, ready to fight. The large anti-mine flail fixed to the front of his own tank added to the effect, as it looked just like a set of crooked, angry teeth. Even with the vast quantities of men and materials required to build it and keep it running, in the family of tanks, it was still just a small, scrappy fighter, relying on ferocity and speed to make up for what it lacked in power and toughness.. Unfortunately, a good gunner could still hit a speedy tank, but no amount of skill could penetrate thick armor. Some crews had even resorted to strapping scrap metal to their tanks to try to bolster their meager armor, though it seemed more like wishful thinking to Marty.

Still, whatever armor the tanks carried offered a far sight more protection than that of the ripped-up chassis of a Half-track that sat alongside in the repair bay. It was essentially an armored truck with tracks instead of back wheels, and Marty always saw at least one in for repairs at any given time. The mechanized infantry units that rode around in them complained about their thin armor, but never about the powerful .50 caliber machine guns they sported; they called the vehicles “meat choppers” for the power of their weaponry, even if they could do little against heavily armored targets. But for all the infantry groused about the lack of armor on their trucks, the day’s events had proven that a Sherman’s armor might be little better.

Marty found himself thinking of the men in the lead tank, who must all be dead by now, even if they had survived the initial hit. Lieutenant Grear, “Ducky” Trevors, Jimmy Swanson, and Iggy Marsh. He hadn’t been too close with any of them, even though he’d gone to the same high school as Jimmy. He thought about Jimmy’s mother, who had worn their school’s bright orange and blue colors to basketball games with such pride, and felt a little sad. Marty’s own mother had died of a bad heart when he was just 15, and had never gotten the chance to attend any of his school activities. If it had been Marty who died, instead of Jimmy, there’d be one less grieving person in the world. Life had a funny way of spreading the misery out.

***

The next morning, the column rolled out again, one tank short. Although protocol dictated that the ranking officer’s tank take the lead, Staff Sergeant Lee Thurmer made a field decision to move the command vehicle into the middle of the column. He put Marty’s tank in the front, which meant it rode loaded with an AP round, and Marty had nothing to do but sit and wait for the first shot to be fired.

Ruben had won the tank naming contest, and that morning they’d christened it the “Nervous Lover.” Sergeant Planer made a joke about the gun firing too soon, but it went straight over Marty’s head, and that was that. Marty had hoped that his choice would win: he wanted to call it the “Rolling Blunder,” to keep a thematic connection to their last tank, but the apparent humor in Ruben’s name had won the day.

It was a bright summer morning when Marty had slipped into the tank; after a few minutes riding in its cramped interior, he could only assume that hadn’t changed as Sgt. Planer kept borrowing their canteens and seemed to be sweating up a storm. Marty supposed he didn’t mind the noise and stuffy air inside the tank if it meant he could stay out of the sun.

The column proceeded down the road for over an hour without incident. Their orders were to press forward, luring Panzers out of hiding and marking their locations for artillery or bombers to deal with later. Their actual operational orders were to engage enemy armor, but whenever a heavy tank like a Tiger or, more rarely, a Panther was spotted, any column leader knew well enough to pull back. Only the medium-sized Panzer Mark IVs and lower could be engaged by Shermans with any hope of victory.

The day was quiet, and they swept through their first few waypoints without any hassle. On the way to the fourth, though, the column came to a sudden halt.

“We’ve got a Mark IV!” shouted Planer, with plenty of excitement in his voice. They all needed a win after yesterday’s tragedy. “11 o’clock, 600 meters. Doesn’t look like they have any idea we’re here.” Planer went over the radio and conversed briefly with the Staff Sergeant before coming back over the interphone. “OK, boys, it’s a clean shot. Take it.” Colombe took a moment to aim carefully, then let fly. Marty shook more with excitement than with the gun’s vibration, as he’d loaded his lucky round that morning and felt certain that it would kill the Panzer.

“Yes!” shouted Planer, giving a thumbs-up to the men inside. “Looks like they caught fire. Great shot, Colombe!” Colombe turned, grinning, and Marty smiled back at him, then the moment passed and Planer scowled at Marty. “You blockhead, get that thing loaded! There could be more of them out there!” Planer stood back up and slowly spun around, scanning for any more enemies. Marty couldn’t believe that there would have been just one, so he kept his hands hovering over the ammo rack.

Six tense minutes passed as Sgt. Planer and the other commanders scanned the area while their tanks idled. Unexpectedly, Marty’s arms started itching intensely, almost like someone had poured sawdust down his sleeves. He was overcome with the need to scratch, and received derisive looks from Colombe and Ruben, who each snickered anxiously at his antics. Marty was at least happy to give them something to ease the tension, even if it came at the cost of his dignity.

Sgt. Planer gave Ruben a light tap with his foot. “Staff Sergeant says move out,” he relayed, “but keep it leisurely.”

“You know me, Sarge. Leisurely is about the only clip I got.” Ruben put the tank into gear, and the tension eased as the familiar bumps and thumps returned. The moment the tank kicked into motion, the bizarre itching sensation vanished, replaced with a surprising sense of refreshment. Marty shook his head, blaming his overactive imagination, then let his mind drift to the men who’d been in that Mark IV, and whether any of them had survived. It was folly to dwell on the lives of the enemy, but the previous day’s casualties had put death on his mind. He was still brooding over the confusion of feeling sorry for men who’d have tried to kill him when Sgt. Planer ordered another halt.

“Alright, fellas, it appears we have some sort of an attack site off to the side of the road. Muster, pull up next to it so we can get a closer look.” Ruben brought the tank to a stop and Sgt. Planer hopped out. Colombe stood up in the hatch, so Marty slipped into the empty assistant driver’s seat and looked out past the machine gun at the blasted site in front of them.

The ground was blackened and empty of any trace of vegetation, with bare rocks and dirt carved out from the foliage in a circle sixty meters wide. The skeletons of three wagons were lying, broken and burnt, in a row next to each other in the middle of the clearing. Remnants of barrels, crates, and shelves peppered the ground around the wagons. Marty’s breath stopped as he realized that many of the objects on the ground were human bones gone half to ash. He watched as Sgt. Planer took a few halting steps towards the middle and then collapsed to his knees, digging into the mixed dirt and ash at his feet and uncovering a tiny human skull. He pulled it to his chest and lowered his head without a word. Sergeant Thurmer approached the site, pointing his pistol at the wagons as if he was worried they’d contain enemies. Marty could see that there was no possibility of these wagons concealing anything alive.

Marty felt a sharp pain in his stomach, pulled Colombe down, and barely made it out the hatch before puking off the side of the tank. As he finished heaving, still trying to catch his breath, he noticed some shining things in the dirt at the edge of the burnt area. He shuffled over and raked his fingers through the grass, coming up with dozens of discarded shell casings. He just stared at them, confused, until Sgt. Thurmer noticed him and came over to inspect it for himself.

“See that there?” Thurmer pointed at the small pile of casings in Marty’s hand. “MG34 ammo. Before they torched the wagons, the Germans shot them all to pieces.”

Marty blinked up at him. “What do you mean, sir? Why would they shoot a couple wagons?”

Thurmer swept his foot through the ash, revealing the lacquered front piece of what had probably once been a drawer. “Look at this, Crickson. All the locals have already got their fancy stuff out, or decided to stay put. Only one kind of people would carry wagons full of trinkets around now.”

The glare from Thurmer’s glasses made his eyes hard to read, so Marty settled for standing up and shrugging at him.

“Gypsies, Crickson.”

“You mean...fortune tellers?”

“Some of them, I guess. But no, these were just people who preferred the life of the open road.”

Colombe, standing in the hatch again, looked bewildered. “Sergeant Thurmer, you sure know your stuff when it comes to Gippoes.”

Thurmer rolled his eyes dramatically enough for it to be visible through his glasses. “Romani Studies is something of an interest for me. That was good work finding these shells. Back to your post, though; we need to be ready in case we get attacked.” Marty nodded, and Sgt. Thurmer walked over to Planer, resting a hand on Planer’s shoulder. Planer was still on his knees, head down.

Marty shook off his confusion and got back in the tank. Real Gypsies! All dead, though. The thought dropped like a lead weight, starting in his brain and picking up speed until it landed in his gut, mere discomfort gradually giving way to horror. He got back in his seat behind the gun and sat quietly, trying to imagine the strange and fascinating things the Germans were taking out of the world.

After a few minutes of quiet reflection passed, he heard the steady sound of rain falling on the tank. Sgt. Planer hustled back inside, and seemed to have gotten over the feelings that had affected him so strongly. He grabbed his poncho and stood back up in the hatch, ordering them to continue down the road, then went silent. Marty attempted to picture the raindrops bouncing off of Planer’s craggy face, but all he could envision were tears.

***

By mid-afternoon, the rain had stopped and the tank was warming back up. Colombe described the village they were approaching to Marty, and seemed excited about the little stream that ran through it.

“We had a stream just like that at the summer camp I used to go to!” Colombe’s boyish grin had never been more fitting. “I’ll tell you, one summer, it got so hot, the girls from the girls’ camp came by, and we--”

“Treated them with the respect and majesty the fairer sex deserves?” butted in Ruben, elbowing Colombe as he said it. Colombe shoved his arm away and went back to peering out at the village.

Sgt. Planer seemed to be uncertain. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this place. It looks empty, but not looted. What do you boys think?”

Colombe and Ruben spoke their agreement while Marty slipped into the empty assistant driver’s seat and peered past the machine gun mounted there. He was startled to see tendrils of mist seeping up from the ground throughout the town, reaching all the way up to their column, but he supposed that it might be the residuals from the rain shower earlier.

“Looks peaceful with the mist there like that,” offered Marty.

Ruben fixed him with an incredulous look. “What mist? Aren’t any mists about.”

Marty frowned and looked out the machine gun port again, and was shocked to see a bright and sunny day.

“I...I guess I was seeing things. Sorry about that, guys.” Marty returned to his seat, feeling the worry gnawing at his mind. There had just been too many strange things happening to him; the cough, the itching, the glowing round. It was too much, and he longed for the simplicity and ease of losing himself in the repetitive action of loading the gun.

His wish came true. The day’s tranquility was shattered by a high-pitched whistling noise that ended in a dull impact, showering them all with dirt.

“Contact, two Panthers spotted!” shouted Planer. “We can’t hurt ‘em, load smoke!”

Marty went into his loading trance. Grab white phosphorous round. Pull breechlock lever. Insert round. Close breechlock. Poke gunner. Colombe wasted no time; he barely aimed, trusting the white phosphorous to rapidly spread its smoke and conceal their locations. The gun fired more quietly than with the directly offensive rounds, and the tank barely shook at all. Still, the gambit seemed to work; as no more shots came into the smoke, Ruben was able to spin the tank around and make good on their escape.

“Muster, watch out for our guys. We turned a lot faster than them,” Sgt. Planer suggested.

“Alright, I’ll be as quiet as an underweight skink,” Muster spoke through clenched teeth, totally concentrating on his driving.

“Should we drop more smoke?” asked Colombe, who looked agitated and unsure. Despite intense training, tank-deployed smoke was a relative novelty; it was much more common for infantry or artillery to put down smoke clouds. Sgt. Planer reached down and smacked him in the back of the head, which Colombe was wise enough to interpret as an order to do nothing of the sort.

“We’re outpacing the column,” Sgt. Planer said, “so slow down and pull off into that grove of trees to the left. It should provide all the cover we need.”

The tank began to shift off of the road, and Marty found himself nearly blinded by a sudden burst of light from the ammo racks. He covered his eyes with his left hand, then remembered what he had done with the last glowing round he’d seen.

“Sarge, I think we need to go back. I think we can kill them!” Marty’s excitement gave his voice an uncharacteristic quaver.

Planer kicked backwards at him, just missing. “Boy, I gave an order and we’re following it. You can go ahead and reload the ammo rack if you’ve gotta load something.”

Marty squirmed with frustration and terror. He risked a peek at the rack, and the glow had mostly diminished. He looked through the hatch and saw trees over Sgt. Planer’s shoulder, meaning they had reached the woods, and the cover and safety they provided. He let out a deep sigh, just then realizing he’d been holding his breath. He saw the same tension leave Colombe’s shoulders and Sgt. Planer’s stance, although Ruben remained just as focused on swerving around the large trees they’d come upon.

The world exploded with light again, but from behind him instead of from the ammo rack. He felt wind rippling over his exposed neck, carrying dust and some stowed tools to the front of the tank. A wrench bounced off the back of Ruben’s head, and at the same instant Sgt. Planer’s legs tore away from his body. Blood burst from his abdomen and from Ruben’s skull, while Marty spun around to see what had happened.

The last thing he saw was a wall of white moving towards him, as thousands of slivers of metal and paint tore apart his eyes and peppered his bare face and hands with burning splinters. He tried to suck in a breath, but he found nothing but smoke in the air. He called for help and heard nothing, then realized his eardrums must have burst in the explosion. He groped blindly in the tank, feeling someone’s leg or arm, then realized it was one of Sgt. Planer’s disconnected limbs.

As the smoke began to suffocate him fully, he let himself collapse. How did they spot us? We were in cover! He could feel a warm sensation from the direction of the ammo rack, and reached out for the last piece of ordnance that had saved him. Before he could lay his hands on one of the rounds, the heat intensified to an agonizing burn, and he realized that his uniform had caught on fire. He pushed himself away from the ammo rack, attempting to stop the flames from setting off the HE rounds. But he fumbled around, unable to find the rounds, and realized they must have been knocked loose from the rack. Even though he couldn’t hear anything, he felt another rush of expanding air, his last sensation before the HE rounds cooked off and obliterated everything that was still recognizable inside the Sherman. No one was left to appreciate the shot that had turned the interior into a miniature replica of that morning’s torched clearing.

CHAPTER ONE

Marty woke up on the ground, on a packed dirt pathway in the forest. His gaze fell on a small boulder in front of him, unremarkable except for the perfectly round circle that had been drilled through it. Disoriented, he looked all around, but could see no trace of the tank or his crewmates. He tried to move towards the boulder to inspect it, but his body seemed incredibly heavy. He was groggy, and his legs and arms had gone totally numb. He felt himself slipping into unconsciousness, and a hawk’s harshy cry from overhead only stirred him for a moment before sleep overcame him again.

***

When he opened his eyes again, night had fallen, and he felt both hungrier and thirstier than it made any sense to, since he’d just eaten that morning. His body seemed to be screaming for nourishment, so he moved out of the forest as quickly as possible, not bothering to go around smaller bushes or trees and just brushing them aside.

He felt strange as he moved, and he seemed unable to avoid stepping on the forest’s undergrowth no matter how he tried to lift his legs, which were still completely numb. The lack of sensation worried him, but he also felt refreshed and awake like he hadn’t since coming to France. He decided to focus on the positives of being lost in a forest; it was just like when he had gone on hikes in the woods during his summer vacations, challenging himself to crush a twig with every step, and he found that he enjoyed the satisfying sound of wood snapping just as much now. Only, as an adult, his feet were big enough that he didn’t seem to be able to miss the branches anymore, and that took some of the fun out of it.

Eventually he ran out of forest, and he made his way onto a dirt road that wound between a series of rolling fields. There were stone walls periodically breaking the fields up into sections, but any agriculture that had taken place here had gone to grass in the course of the war. He scanned the horizon for signs of life, and spotted a thin plume of smoke. He knew that it might be Germans, but his stomach was growling loudly enough that risking capture was probably worth it.

As he went towards the smoke, his hunger increased with every inch, and it was almost driving him mad by the time he came to the low stone wall next to the field containing his goal. In the middle of the field he spotted a little camp with a few tents and a fire burning low. A solitary man walked slowly around the perimeter of the camp, and Marty figured he was on patrol, though it was too dark to tell which side he was on.

At the sight of the man, something came over Marty that took control away from him completely. Before he knew what he was doing, he had pushed a short section of the wall over and was moving at an impossibly fast speed towards the man. As Marty got closer, the patroller noticed him, screamed, and turned to run. He was too slow, and Marty fell upon him. He watched in horror from some corner of his mind while a deeper part of him tore the man to pieces in a steady, focused manner, and devoured him bit by bit until there was nothing left but his helmet and rifle. Marty wanted to scream, and cry, and run, but more than anything he wanted to know what had happened to him. For that matter, hadn’t he gotten blown up? He was sure he should be dead.

Hearing the scream, another German came out of his tent and reacted exactly like the first man, turning and running as fast as he could across the field. Marty found that he felt no need to chase the man; one entire body must have been enough to sate him. As the man scrambled into the distance, yelling all the way, Marty stood and pondered his fate.

Had he become some kind of vampire, someone who needed to eat people to survive? He remembered that vampires were supposed to die in the sunlight, so he slowly made his way back to the dirt path where he’d woken up, backtracking past all the crushed plantlife he’d left behind. He’d been in the sun all day, but he supposed maybe his vulnerability to sunlight didn’t kick in until after he’d eaten somebody. Either way, that spot seemed pretty secluded, and he wanted to avoid anyone else seeing him. He wondered what he must look like to cause people to react with such terror. He’d always heard that vampires were supposed to be evil creatures, crimes against nature. He wasn’t about to let himself hurt anybody else that way.

He sat there thinking quietly for a few minutes before reaching a decision. After he made peace with his plan, he stayed there in place on the path for hours, not moving or making a sound, just waiting for the sun to come up and take him away. But when it rose, he could barely feel its warmth.

***

Left intact by the sun’s rays, he concluded he must not be that kind of vampire, and set about finding a cliff to throw himself from instead, hoping that would be enough to end his life. France was pretty light on cliffs, he knew, but wherever there were boulders, there were hills, and he just needed a particularly high hill with a particularly sharp rock at the bottom. He set off.

After a couple hours of searching, he found a place that would serve his needs. It was a short hill, only about fifteen feet tall, but the drop was nearly sheer on one side. There weren’t any rocks to land on, but he figured he could just fall on his head and try again if it didn’t work. He pulled himself to the top of the hill, took a second to steady his nerve, and flung himself forward.

He hit the ground with tremendous force, and it seemed like the noise from the impact tresonated all through his body. Something came loose inside, and he felt it bouncing around his internals. He realized he had fallen on his right side, somehow, but despite everything it didn’t hurt at all. On the bright side, he couldn’t move at all; the fall seemed to have completely paralyzed him. He supposed that lying on the ground, being slowly driven insane by hunger, was as good an end for a flesh-eating monster as any. He looked up at the crest of the hill, cursed it for disappointing him, and stayed where he was. There was nothing else he could do.

***

Night came and passed, and aside from a hedgehog skittering past nervously, he didn’t see or hear anything else all day. Strangely, he didn’t feel tired, but he was getting extremely bored. And he felt a bit peckish, but without the burning, all-consuming need for sustenance that had so totally dominated him the night before. At this rate, the monotony, boredom, and inability to sleep might drive him insane before the hunger ever could.

Mid-morning, he was interrupted from his brooding by the abrupt appearance of a woman standing at the top of the hill. She was shading her eyes and seemed to be looking into the distance, using the hill as an observation platform. She looked to be in her early 20s, and wore dull-colored but well-cut clothes. From his low perspective, Marty couldn’t make out much of her features other than a wisp of brown hair curling from beneath her cap. She had a bag slung over her back that seemed to be weighing her down pretty heavily. He considered calling out to her, but decided against it. He didn’t want to risk awakening the beast inside himself. She seemed fairly pretty, after all, and he didn’t want to add “taking beauty out of the world” to his list of crimes.

After a few seconds of scanning the forest, she seemed satisfied and dropped her hand from her forehead. Only then did she notice Marty at the hill’s base. She looked down at him, a puzzled expression on her face, then walked away from the hill’s edge. She descended the hill on the shallow side and walked around to where Marty was stuck.

“'ello, sir,” she said, in mildly French-accented English, “may I ask ‘ow you’ve come to be in this predicament?” Now that she was closer, he could see that she really was pretty, her tanned skin illuminated by a brilliant blue sash tucked under her grey jacket.

He tried to smile up at her, but his mouth wouldn’t seem to cooperate. He settled for answering.

“This is going to sound stupid, Miss, but I jumped off that hill, and I haven’t been able to move since. You should keep your distance, though. I did it because there’s a monster in me, and I might not be able to control it.”

She put a hand against his back, and it was shockingly warm; the first real warmth he’d felt since the explosion. She smiled broadly, without showing any teeth.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Scott Hansen is a lawyer, IT guy, cellist, father, competitive storyteller, and pretty good cook. He combines polymathy, Mid-Atlantic sensibilities, and a self-effacing nerdiness where suitable, and has a bit of a soft spot for humanity.

Q. What books have influenced your life the most?
A.
The greatest influence on my life by far has come from Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. The entire combined work serves as the moral foundation of my life. I wouldn't be who I am without it.
Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
I read the book "Death Traps" by Belton Y. Cooper, an Army Ordnance Officer tasked with recovering destroyed tanks during WW2. His graphic stories of the consequences of war, combined with his appreciation for the more technical details of tankery, made me want to tell a story about a tank.
Q. Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from this book?
A.
I really hope that an authentic M4A3 Sherman could be found to play the main character. Otherwise, a very convincing reproduction could serve just as well. In seriousness, I'd like to see the lead male voiced by Tony Revolori, and the lead female played by Chloë Grace Moretz.

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