Western Front, 1974 – Somewhere under Troyes
Eduard, Robert, and Antonio had been lost in the tunnel system for hours now. They had met an older, grizzled man, probably about 19 years old, and he had given them a rough idea of where to go, but they’d lost their way again. “This is hopeless,” Eduard exclaimed.
Antonio cursed in Italian, then retorted, “Well what do you propose, captain?” He readjusted the rifle on his shoulder. “I mean, we’ll find something sooner or later. We just need to keep walking.”
Eduard sighed. “I was just hoping to get into the action. I grew up watching all the action on the front. I wanted to be up in the trenches blowing revenants away with a machine gun, not be a bloody Rat!” He kicked a clump of dirt down the tunnel.
“But think of how dangerous it is up there! You could be blasted apart by a wheel-mine, or crushed by a falling aeroplane, or…”
Robert watched on from behind as the two Continentals conversed in French. He was shaking his flashlight a little, trying to stop its flickering. Eduard looked back at him. He loathed most Imperials, but this one didn’t even speak French, which was especially odd for a Canadian. At least he’s an Anglo, he thought briefly. He waited for Antonio to finish his thought.
“…or even blown up by a landcruiser. A lot of terrible ways to go! I’m glad we’re down here. The instructors always say how bad being a Rat is, but we haven’t even seen a trace of the Enemy yet. I bet we’d already be dead if we were up in the trenches!” He laughed a little. Robert laughed a little too, not because he understood what Antonio had said, but because he hoped to make a connection with his compatriots. That’s what his mother would’ve wanted him to do. Eduard groaned a little. Maybe he could lose Robert somewhere in these tunnels.
Eduard was certain they were going in circles. These tunnels all looked the same; brown dirt held up by wooden beams, or grey rock held up by wooden beams. He was almost out of water. He’d managed to sneak some from Robert when they were resting a few hours ago, but they needed to find some more if they hoped to go on much longer. “If we don’t find anything in the next few hours, I say we turn around and try another tunnel.”
Antonio nodded his head. He’d grown less talkative as the hours wore on. He’d begun hearing noises, like an incessant scratching. Eduard said he didn’t hear anything, and he wasn’t sure if Robert could. He shook his flashlight; he’d already replaced the batteries twice now. He was hoping they would find something- anything- soon.
As that thought finished, he smelled something. Eduard smelled it too. He motioned them to stop. They remained motionless for a full minute. He finally said, “Follow me,” in a solemn tone. Antonio slowly inched forward, while Robert waited until he understood what he was supposed to do. They all pointed their flashlights forward. They eventually shone on a rotting corpse. Robert gagged.
Eduard pulled his shirt up over his mouth and approached the cadaver. It was a French Rat, about his age. A massive chunk of his chest was missing. He pulled the dog tags off the body and stuck them in his pouch, and after a bit more searching, he found some notes in their backpack. He read them.
13 April 1974
we entered the trenches earlier this morning. i have four men under my charge,
two french, one spaniard, and one imperial out of the far east, can’t even speak english well. headed down tunnel 94, will make for east of troyes, commander said significant enemy presence there.
13 April 1974
stopped for night, no encounters. spaniard told me that the imperial says he hears
noises, took his rations for fear mongering. will sleep for few hours.
14 April 1974
was awoken by enemy rat. heard him running down tunnel, we awoke and fired on him. killed, no casualties on our side, but spaniard was hit in leg, will recover soon. we heard something running away, will pursue now.
trap storm troopers waiting killed spaniard frenchmen imperial ran
hit in leg chest bleeding bad hiding in other tunnel
i hear it now scratching scratching
the wall i
The notes abruptly ended there; if there was any more to it, it was now covered up by dark blood stains. He handed them to Antonio to read, then pointed his flashlight down the tunnel, peering into the dark. He noticed part of the tunnel had collapsed. Perhaps it was time to turn around now.
“Mio dio.” Antonio looked up from the blood-stained papers. “Do you think we- “
“Yes,” Eduard interrupted. Robert was nodding in approval, sensing the fear in his squad mates’ voices. Eduard stood up, and turned to go back down the tunnel. He felt like he could hear it now; feel it now, right in the back of his head. Scratching. Scratching.
It took them several hours, but they found another tunnel to go down. They’d also managed to find some rations and water canisters. Their spirits up, they started down the dark corridor. Robert trailed behind the other two; they were talking to each other about something. He really wished he’d paid attention to his French classes during his training. His mother had once told him there used to be a lot of French speaking people where they lived. She told him they were the first to go during the first years of the war. Maybe he’d be speaking French if they hadn’t.
Robert noticed that Eduard and Antonio had stopped talking. He looked up at them; they looked scared. It must have been something on that paper, he thought. If only I could understand French. They walked for what felt like hours. The tunnel went on and on.
Robert remembered how the body of the Rat looked, almost like something had torn it apart. He had once seen the body of a man torn apart by a bear back home. That man’s body looked really similar t-
A blood curdling scream suddenly ripped through the tunnel. The trio froze. Another scream. They raised their guns. Then, a gunshot ran out, and muzzle flash brightened the tunnel in front of them. Antonio and Robert shot at where the light had appeared. Another scream, followed by a groan.
Eduard ran forward, shining his light. There, in a small hole dug out in the wall, sat a wounded man. “Imperial!” he shouted. Antonio and Robert ran up, examining the soldier up close. He was Chinese, and bore the insignia of the Foreign Corps. He was frightfully thin; it was clear he hadn’t eaten for weeks. Robert knelt down and started talking, hoping that he spoke English.
“Are you alright?” he inquired. The Chinese man stared back at him. His eyes almost seemed to be bulging out of their sockets. “English?” He still sat motionless, breathing rapidly. Antonio had pulled some medical supplies out of his pack, and was attempting to dress the man’s wounds. Robert still pressed him. “What happened?”
“Enemy,” he finally whispered. Eduard froze up; was this the easterner the note mentioned?
“Enemy?” Robert repeated. The man nodded. Eduard tapped on Robert’s shoulder, gesturing back the way they had come. He understood what he meant. He turned back to the man. “Did you come from the other tunnel?”
The man nodded again. Antonio stopped bandaging his wounds and looked up at Eduard, shaking his head. “I don’t think he’ll make it.” Eduard let out an exasperated sigh and took out his notebook. He slowly grabbed the man’s dog tags and wrote down the information on them. Robert was still trying to get information from him.
“What happened?” he asked again.
“Enemy,” the man repeated. Robert sighed.
“What else?” the man slowly rested his head back against the wall and his breathing slowed. “Guys, we’re losing him!”
Antonio put his hand on Robert’s shoulder. He looked up at him. Antonio shook his head. Robert looked back at the man. He wished he could do something.
Eduard closed his notebook and let the dog tags fall back onto the man’s frail body. He turned, then froze. He felt something in the back of his head. He heard something. “Do you-“
“Yes,” Antonio interrupted. Robert nodded.
The man suddenly jolted upright. “Scratching!” he tried to shout, instead coming out as an exasperated gasp. “Scratching!” He jumped forward and grabbed his rifle from under Robert, who fell backwards. The man turned the gun around. “SCRATCHING!” he finally managed to scream. He pulled the trigger and blew his head apart.
They were still reeling from what just happened when they suddenly heard footsteps from down the tunnel. Eduard turned. Through the dark, he managed to make out two green lights, slowly bouncing up and down in rhythm with the footsteps. “Stormtroopers!”
Automatic fire ripped through the tunnel from the two enemy soldiers. Eduard fired off a shot before dropping to the ground. He heard it ricochet off their armor. Antonio crouched down and fired. One of the stormtroopers staggered, and let out a robotic sounding groan, before balancing out and continuing forward. It let out another burst of automatic fire, ripping apart Antonio’s upper body.
“Antonio!” Eduard shouted. He turned back to face Robert, who was trying to fix his jammed gun. Eduard wanted to be brave. But the stormtroopers were getting closer. Closer.
The Scratching was closer. Closer. He could feel it all over his body now. It filled his mind.
He didn’t even realize he was running until he heard an explosion. Robert must have used a grenade to blow himself up along with the Enemy. He heard the tunnel collapsing behind him. Only adrenaline pushed him now. He had to make it out. He ran fast, but the tunnel collapsed faster. He fell, his leg became trapped under a falling rock. He prepared to embrace death. The collapse stopped before that happened.
He breathed rapidly, still trying to process what happened. It took him several minutes to feel the unbearable pain in his leg. Broken, he thought. He looked back up at the tunnel in front of him; his flashlight was resting a few feet out of reach. His rifle was gone, and his pistol was trapped with leg under the rock. Even if I get out from under this rock, he mused, it’s still miles back to the entrance. He tried to calm himself.
It must have been hours when Eduard heard it again; the scratching. He tried moving his leg again, only to be met again with pain.
His breathing quickened. He pushed against the rock.
The noise grew ever louder, invading his mind.
He began to hyperventilate. He had to get out.
He grabbed the knife off his belt.
He plunged it deep into his thigh, screaming.
Eduard wheeled his head back around. Down the tunnel, he could barely make out part of the wall collapsing.
He could see something making its way out of the hole. It almost looked like a dog. He couldn’t tell. He began to cry.
He could hear the thing sniffing the air. It slowly began making its way towards him. A mechanical clacking filled the air. His flashlight began to flicker. As it approached, his body tried to force out a cry, but it came out as a strained whine. He could finally see it in the fading light.
It was a man; at least, it used to be. A massive set of metal jaws with knifelike, blood-stained teeth had been driven into its head, its eyes barely glimmering within. Metal plating had been screwed into various parts of its body. It hands and feet had been removed, replaced by serrated, metal claws.
Eduard’s body was trying to scream. He remembered the stories of the rattentruppen. He hadn’t believed them. His mind finally snapped, but his eyes still stared onward at the beast. He pawed at the ground. The sanity that remained in him wished he had died with the others.
The beast lumbered forward, crushing the flashlight. Darkness filled the tunnel. Then scratching.
11 November 1974
Discovered that tunnel 93b had collapsed. Found dead French Rat, head missing.
Eduard LePen, age 13. Entered 14 june.
Will report back to command in a few days to close case. Assume that his squad perished as well.
Must get that ruffian Walton examined as well, says he hears noises. Bloody imperials.