“Where do we go from here?” he asked, running a gloved hand over his oil-slicked hair. The air was filled with an acrid smoke that bit the sinuses and carried the faint smell of burned meat. Weak shafts of sunlight lanced through the lumpy clouds above and drew their illuminating caresses over the battlefield. Nothing moved down there, not a damned thing. It was as though the bomb had sucked all of the sound and color from the scene, leaving only a charred horror behind. A still life in soot and sculptures of coal and carbon.

“Go?” I asked, fishing in my uniform breast pocket for a cigarette. I knew that I’d left one in there when we’d deployed from the forward base, but it was gone. Maybe I’d smoked it. The last few hours were a swirling mess of thunder and death, and it felt like I was waking up from napping for too long in the afternoon. A low and distant whine was ringing at the edge of my hearing. “Do you hear that?” I asked.

“Hear what, captain? It’s as quiet as a tomb here.” He thumbed the hammer back on his revolver and peered into the breech. “Well fuck me sideways. No wonder the damn thing didn’t fire.” He picked what looked like a sliver of metal from inside the gun. “Shrapnel. Piece like that coulda done all sorts of bad things to a body, guess it’s a good thing it ended up in there. Probably slipped right in there when I was firing. Of all the things, eh cap?”

I gave him a nod. “You think we’re safe up here?” I asked.

“Safe, sir?”

“From the radiation. Or chemicals. Or whatever was in that explosion.”

“Wouldn’t have been no radiation or chemicals, captain.” Boots crunched behind us, and I turned to see Steveson approaching. He still had the crumpled remains of the radio strapped to his back. “At least, no chemicals that didn’t get consumed by the fire. Clean bomb, that one.” He adjusted the thick black frames of his standard-issue glasses and I saw that one of the lenses was missing a big shard.

“Clean,” I said, and spat. “This is one of the biggest god-damned messes I’ve ever seen.”

“Ain’t that the truth, cap. Ain’t that the truth.” The private’s voice was flatter than the dead plain below us, and I wanted that cigarette more than ever.