This story is by Alec Adsett and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Three days of ferocious fighting. Three days of rain and fog. However, the soldiers from Australia’s Ninth Battalion held fast in a defensive line of trenches they’d nicknamed the glue pits because the rain and humidity turned the red soil into a sticky gelatinous paste.
The long undulating ridge the Australians defended, rose from the jungles like an infected green boil. One, the Japanese Eighteenth Army planned on lancing before December twenty-fifth, nineteen forty-two.
In one of those boggy dugouts, two soldiers, Jack and Curly, stared into the humid air filled with hovering clouds of insects feeding on the bloated and torn bodies scattered between the blackened craters of the battle ploughed clearing. The soldier’s faces were taut. Their hearts heavy with a sense of loss and despair.
Ill-equipped and unprepared they doggedly survived the savage Japanese assaults, disease and the unforgiving terrain. Yet, the recent and fatal wounding of their platoon Sergeant, their leader and their friend cut deeper than all those combined horrors of jungle warfare.
Curly, the older of the two men, lowered his eyes to the crumpled body lying on the wet earth under Jacks ground sheet. Curly felt sure the death of his best friend meant there would be no tomorrow for the platoon. Despair turned into frustration, “Christ, what are we gonna do now?” Curly slumped on an empty munitions crate, “we survive Rommel and the desert, only to get the chop here in this stinking bloody mud hole.”
“We do our flaming jobs. That’s what we do,” Jack confronted the bald veteran of Tobruk, “So pull your head in, and start acting like a flaming soldier.”
The subject of Curly and Jacks debate awoke under a pale azure glow to find a woman in her early forties bent over him and lifted back the ground sheet as the light faded.
Confused, the Sergeant pushed himself upright. “Who the hell are you?” he barked at the woman who stood in his trench, carrying a briefcase and wearing a pinstripe skirt, matching jacket and cream blouse.
“You may call me the Magistrate.” The woman replied as she adjusted the fringe of her dark hair.
“Magistrate?” The Sergeant scowled suspiciously at the intruding woman, “How in blazes did you get in my bloody trench.” The Sergeant reached for Curly.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t allow that,” the Magistrate gently touched his shoulder. “Besides they can’t hear or see you.”
With her touch, the Sergeant found himself frozen, unable to move even an eyelid.
The well-dressed woman turned her nose up at the digger’s, torn, dirty and sweat-stained fatigues, splattered with semi-dried mud. She opened her briefcase to take out a leather bound, rectangular, glowing glass plate, which she then turned on before tapping his shoulder again.
The sergeant almost stumbled after she touched his shoulder the second time. On regaining his balance, he noticed the object’s glow. “Shit! Turn that frigging light off. Jesus, it’ll bring the whole bloody Jap army on us.”
The Magistrate raised an eyebrow, “No it won’t,” she shook her head, “as I told you, nobody can see us. Therefore, no one can see this.”
“What the hell does that mean?” The Sergeant pointed towards the illuminated piece of glass, “I can see that… thing and I can bloody well see us too.”
“Ahh,” she consulted her screen, “William, you are one for stating the obvious.”
“It’s Bill or sarg. And I’ll tell you what’s flamin ‘obvious’, is I’m either dreaming, or I’ve got the chop.”
It took several minutes before the Magistrate could calm the confused and irate soldier down enough to explain he was neither dead nor dreaming.
“As for the blue light,” she said, “We use it as a transitional portal into a zone referred to as nether-space.”
“Nether-space. Dead but not dead. And if we’re invisible then why freeze me?”
“In their plain, and with your emotional state, you would be– what is the term– a poltergeist.”
“A poltergeist. What a bunch of malarkey.”
“It most certainly is not malarkey,” she flared, “such merges create havoc to everyone concerned and their plans.” the Magistrate tapped the glowing plate.
“Alright, Magistrate, am I in the dock then?”
“In a manner of speaking. You see my role considers a case when a plans juncture brings a person, such as yourself, to nether-space. I then rule if that person moves into a place of peace and harmony, or one of misery and torment. However, on a rare occasion, there have been circumstances to argue a case for the return to their previous continuance.”
Before the Sergeant could respond, the night around them erupted into a firestorm. He stared at the strange woman and her total indifference to the surrounding Japanese assault as she scrolled, tap and read her glowing folder. Then the Sergeant realised the unfolding attack occurred in deafening silence.
Bewildered, he watched the muted clash in impotent anger as her hand brushed his shoulder. Once again, he couldn’t move, while nearby, the Magistrate disappeared into a warm amber light.
By the end of the failed Japanese offensive, his anger turned to dread. Is this nether-space what she meant by misery and torment? He should be there directing his men and supporting his mates. Tears filled his eyes because he could do neither.
Behind the Sergeant, the amber light reappeared. A hand touched his shoulder, and he collapsed against the trench wall. He cuffed away the tears watching the radiant light fade behind the Magistrates silhouette. The air smelt of lavender and iron filings. The Sergeant immediately paired the odour with the enigmatic woman. Pleasant with a tang of metallic hardness.
“Where the hell did you nick off to?”
“My apologies, I needed to plead your case.”
“Who with?” Bill crossed his arms. Plead my bloody case. He just wanted an end to this nightmare with its over-dressed, dour peahen.
“The Chief Magistrate of course.”
“The chief–” Flamin bloody hell. “Look, Missus, I’m starting to get a little pissed off with–”
“Good grief. I can assure you I am not married!” the Magistrate rolled her eyes.
I reckon I know why too. Bill pushed himself off the mud wall, “what’d you mean by ‘plead my case’?” He peered over her shoulder at the luminescent screen full of intersecting multi-coloured lines and streaming letters. “Is all that frigging gibberish my life’s plan?”
“My, you are a clever boy,” the Magistrate flashed a condescending smile. “I went to plead your case for continuance because your plan, and that belonging to one of your men has developed a paradoxical fault–”
“You mean it’s busted?”
Her curt smile confirmed question.
“Hang about… Did you just say the plan for one of my boys is also stuffed up?”
“Ugh,” the sergeant scratched the back of his neck, “I’ll lay odds it’s Tommy. He’s a good lad and all, but struth, the lad near wets himself when a monkey farts.”
“I am afraid it is not Tommy–” she noticed the expression on the Sergeant’s face. “Oh, don’t fret William, Tommy will live to see the war out.”
“Then who? Curly? Shit, it’d serve the old bastard right.”
“Why would you wish a friend dead?”
“Jesus you’re dry… It was a bloody joke,” The Sergeant shook his head, “well then, who is it?”
“Jack?” The Sergeant looked across to see Jack peering into the darkness behind his rifle.
“Yes.” She closed the leather case, “You see Sergeant; Jack is one of those who is required to be around for the sake of others; to guide and help them,” She plucked some lint from her sleeve, “many of whom will simply be better people because of him.”
“Struth you make the bugger out to be a saint.”
“Jack is a good man, but I doubt he is ‘Saint’ material.” The Magistrate moved between Jack and Curly, “Jack isn’t destined for greatness as such. But the reasons for his continuance is no less important.”
“Not being dead, keeping Jack alive and meeting you. Bloody hell. I don’t reckon anyone will believe this yarn.”
“Ahh, I am afraid there will be little of our encounter you will recall or remember.” The Magistrate pointed towards the ground sheet, “now, I need you to lay back down.”
Eager for the return to his men, the Sergeant, surrounded by the azure light, lay back onto the damp, tacky soil.
Curly took over the watch from Jack who glanced to his right as the Sergeant’s arm pushed back the ground sheet from his face.
“Bloody hell!” Cried Jack.
Bewildered, the two men leapt over to their sergeant.
“Christ Sarg. You scared the shit out of me,” overjoyed; Curly hauled his friend upright.
“Just knocked for a six I reckon,” the Sergeant gathered his Owen sub-machine gun. “All right you soppy bastards. Get your flaming arses back to the wall.”
The Sergeant returned to where he belonged. Alongside his men, in a place of true misery and torment.