Caspian Hope – Written By Stephen Fahey. Part 52

That next day we started to see signs of the Shining Light. Burning vehicles on the northern horizon sent us southward on our western heading and away from potential contact; signalling that they had moved on the Caspian as expected. This also added a half night’s march to our tally. Moving south felt like shit. We didn’t want to back away from a fight, but we knew we had to. Once we bedded down on that second night I spoke to my men.

Standing in front of all of them and speaking with a calm but clear tones of utter disgust, I began, “I know how you’re all feeling, Gents. I feel the same. I’d rather turn us around right here and now and throw everything we have at the Shining Light, head on.” Stepping to my right I began to pace from side to side in a short line of a five or six yards. “You know and I know, we can’t do that. That we have The Service and wives and children to think of; so we remain hidden. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still hate the fact we can’t unleash ourselves on these nobodies! I fucking hate this shit. Not being in this sandpit – or the marching – I could live with just fine. I just fucking hate not getting to fight! I HATE IT!!” I shouted with my fists clenched into a white balls and my face turning purple. More than one pair of eyes darting about uncomfortably, looking for the reactions of others so I paused, up and took a deep slow breath, then relaxed my fist. Looking down at my rifle butt as I rested in on the sand beside my foot, I stared at it and didn’t say a word for a about a minute – until I was sure every single person present was completely absorbed.

Without looking up I finished by saying, “I can’t promise you will all make it home, Gentlemen. Nor can I promise you will even make it to the Caspian. I promise you this though; if you die here, you will die in battle as glorious and as pure as any soldier that ever lived!” I said, calmed again.

Silence fell. The same silence that haunts men’s souls in the night. There wasn’t another word spoken that night. I’d raised my rifle to my arms and walked off on watch. L2 did the same without need of an order to do so. And shifts were relieved in silence throughout the day. It was the only time I’ve ever even heard of that happening, before or since. Also, I dreamt that day. For the first time since I had been able to remember. I can’t recall now what those dreams were about, but I remember waking up and realising I wasn’t able to remember the last time I’d dreamt. I was a strange feeling.

We moved again at dusk and again we saw more and more signs of life. At one point we circumvented a destroyed village. There had been maybe thirty or forty people living there, plus livestock of course. And yet there was nothing but the smouldering ruins of homes and bodies in the street, human and animal alike. We could see the charred remains through our binoculars and it was gruesome viewing. The Shining Light had burned everything. It was clear they were out to cleanse the area of certain people, but at that point we didn’t know who they were targeting.

There weren’t many settlements in the area so we made good time. On the third day after leaving the nature reserve we made it to Beyneu. It was obvious the only people there were a contingent of Serik’s boys. We knew straight away from the smoke. They had burned half the town to the ground and there were bodies in the streets there too. They had trucks roving the area and it was there we saw their flag for the first time. It was sky blue and black, split half and half. It was propaganda plain and simple, but they used it to great effect. Flags were hung in pairs from the roofs of the few three storey buildings the town had and they were clear to see from far and wide. It was obvious Serik was versed in more than just military affairs.

We moved further south of Beyneu and crossed the first road we’d seen in weeks. It felt alien under our feet, the hardness of it. I remember the few steps it took to pass across the compacted dirt, the flat feel of it under my feet almost made me stumble. Once we had made it past the town of Beyneu it started getting bright out so we bedded down about three miles from our last lake before the Caspian. I couldn’t find the name of that lake on any map, but we referred to it as Beyneu Lake. Being hardened to desert life by that point we waited without worry for the sun to pass overhead then made our way to the water to refresh ourselves and refill our canteens once dusk fell on the fourth night out of Barsakelmes.

We knew the Caspian was only two nights’ march away, and we could taste our freedom. We all knew it was now more dangerous than ever. Being so close to our goal made us all the more eager, so keeping our heads became far more difficult as we progressed, but my men were solid. I knew I could count on every one of them; even Glynn – in his own way.

Settling down that night Sid and I got to talking. “Sir. We’re miles from the nearest town and though there’s bound to be patrols, what are we expecting by way of contacts, Sir?”

“Serik will concentrate his forces on the towns, so if we avoid the patrols and cover our tracks then we should be ok. That is, until we start looking for transport. Once word is out that the Kazakhs have been overrun the waters around the coast will be quiet. Nobody wants to fish in a warzone and non-military trade will be minimal, so we’re going to have to head north until we hit Atyrau. There’ll be small domestic ports close to it we can use, but heading into the city will be dicey.”

“What are our other options, Sir?”

“We’ll be moving south around Beyneu Lake and that will bring us level with Fort-Shevchenko, but I’m certain Serik will have taken the fort as soon as he could get there. It commands the Caspian for miles around and gives him influence over trade and, in turn, the political system. It’s what I’d do.”

“Sir.”

“It’s a one or two night’s march to the Fort, over rugged terrain, but it’s a straight shot across the water to Azerbaijan from there. If we get there and the Fort is theirs, then it’s a weeklong hike back up Atyrau. It’s a tough call, but it’s the right call. We go north.”

“Sir. Yes, Sir. Can I ask you something personal, Sir?”

“You can always ask,” I smirked. “But that doesn’t mean I’ll answer.”

“Sir. Why did you join The Service, Sir?”

Jesus, there’s a question! I don’t know. Some guys join up for adventure or patriotism, some just for a paycheque and some because their fathers and grandfathers served. As for me; I never fell into any of those categories. I won’t lie, there has been adventure, and I loved every minute of it, but that’s not why I joined up. The money was never amazing, and I have no family ties to the battlefield. There was just something about this group of men. Something that was familiar, even though there was nothing connecting me to it. Fucking hell, Sid, you have me analysing myself here. I never really thought about this stuff, but you could say it felt right. I felt a call to stand with the other men in The Service and do what had to be done. I always knew everyone isn’t able to do that but I knew I could – so I joined.”

“Sir. Thank you, Sir.”

“What about you then, Sid?”

“I went and joined up to impress a girl didn’t I, Sir!?” he said cringingly.

“You fucking tit, Sid,” I scoffed.

“I know, Sir.”

“Is she at least still around?”

“No, Sir. Long gone, Sir.”

“Ha! You floundering tit, Sid!” I bellowed. “Just as well you fight like a LION!”

“Sir!”

God I miss those conversations; soldiers taking stock of their lives in the middle of a campaign. Once dusk came down we moved out at a mile or so from the lake’s shore and made it the ten miles down around the southern tip of the lake, then fifteen miles northwest on the other side. Heading north around the lake would have taken half the time, but with Serik’s boys on a rampage across the country I wasn’t willing to risk it. By the time the sun melted the sky into the by-then familiar purples and oranges of morning, we were so close to the Caspian we could smell it. The air was cooler that close to such a large body of water too, and by Christ it felt good.

“I want Longshot on first watch with me, everybody else bed down. And think on this, Gents. Tomorrow we’ll all feast our eyes on the Caspian.”

It felt so damn good to say that! I still get a lump in my chest when I think about it. We’d lost eleven souls getting that far and with thirteen men still in my charge, it was a sombre feeling of achievement.

“Sir, I’m gonna head up on that outcrop there for a better view.”

“Go ahead, Tony. I’ll be just over there.”

“Sir.”

To be continued…

© Stephen Fahey

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