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Cradle Elbows Wide

by Vehemently

TITLE: Cradle Elbows Wide
AUTHOR: Vehemently (vehemently @ yahoo.com) UNIVERSE: Firefly
RATED: NC-17 for grossness.
SPOILERS: Loosely derived from "Serenity", script only. ARCHIVE: Go ahead.
DISCLAIMER: Begged, borrowed, stolen. In loving violation. SUMMARY: The Battle of Serenity Valley was the tail end of the Independent rebellion, and a siege lasting two months. At the end, the dead of both sides combined numbered half a million. I have no idea how many numbered the living. THANKS: cofax.


The first thing was, you had to strip them down. The walking were walking wounded, see, and the clothes were cotton or linen or flax, and that was bandages. Reynolds thought about it for a little while and told them to sort and stockpile everything else, but he didn't tell them why. It was only the sixth day, after all, and it might come to nothing. And the duty was bad enough without his putting a scare in 'em.

Quing made some crack about how if we'd been on the other side, alls we woulda had to work with was plastic, and Zoe shushed him right quick. It was a good idea though, and it wasn't altogether a shock when piles of Alliance helmets started showing up after the night patrols out beyond the Line, along with the scavenged rations and ammo. Then some dumb kid got hisself captured from wasting time unhooking the clasps from under dead chins, and after that night patrols went out with knives and came back with whole heads.

The heads went on top the ramparts, cause it was eight days and it boosted morale a smidge, but the bright beetle helmets went on the new breastwork walls they'd built, up and down his hundred yards of flank. Benou led the builders, stacking the helmets row on row over the wet walls in the dark. And you know, they held pretty well, except for direct hits. Reynolds reckoned if the battle went on long enough, he could build a whole town out of purple plastic.

He hadn't figured it out himself, but when the six guys left from the Interplanetary Brotherhood of Horse Renderers Regiment had come to him and the Ell-Tee that second day and explained the situation, it had been clear what they meant. It was warming spring all around, and would have been more obvious if they hadn't squashed all the greenery to mud, so when the Renderers had showed him the pile he could see and smell what they meant.

The Ell-Tee had wanted to bury them or some damn thing, and Reynolds had been keeping a firm hold on his patience when the Ell-Tee had gone up right there, caught smack in the innards with the explosive rounds the Alliance favored. So Reynolds had blinked the blood out his eyes, and snapped up the Ell-Tee's shiny new leather boots, suddenly a bit the worse for wear, and done what he'd wanted to do all along. All it had required was to scrounge up some more pointy objects, which was easy, and some grunts who could handle disembowelment duty, which wasn't.

Finally Zoe pointed out that the 17th Voudoun Nation Volunteers were part of the detachment, half-strong because they'd come down the hill after the initial engagement. They had experience with rituals and the dead, and even if they preferred chickens, he could argue them into taking on the disposal of corpses. The Renderers showed them how to do it in one curved cut and then found a spot on the line where the intestines could be piled up as a stinky natural defense between two hillocks, down where the dysentery cases were made to go. A few days later the last of the Renderers was dead and the Voudouns had to start recruiting for gut duty.

But they all did have a fine time, watching down beyond the Line where the Alliance corpses lay cooking in the heat of midday, bellies swelling with gas till they popped. It was only a few days before the imperialist scum figured out how to deal with their own dead.

The Voudouns were pretty popular after that, even among those ordinarily disinclined to unpleasantness, and they had all the recruits they needed. Kids from Whitefall and Boros were painting chevrons on their faces in blood, imitating the VNV regulars, and it wasn't long before the new Voudoun recruits were tattooing crude Vs on their cheeks and arms, and praying to the spirits with their dead-duty brethren. It could have been worse, Zoe said. You could have turned them all into Anarchist Irregulars.

Reinforcements came again on the twelfth day, the 76th from Embla with all the bullets you could ask for and a light artillery piece and food for only three meals each. And at the rate they barfed out on the Line, it wasn't gonna last three meals anyway; so he appointed a company of 30th Augustinians under a Corporal named Kelef as the quartermasters and had them confiscate and guard everything they thought was edible. He was pleased to see that Kelef took her ascetic marytyrdom seriously and took less than quarter-rations while the resupply lasted. Which was four days and four nights, and then it was back to bark soup for a day before the next wave, who at least came with the standard five days of everything they could carry.

By then he was back up to around 1500 mouths to feed, depending on how enthusiastic the Alliance scum got on any given day. HQ up in the pass told him to stop sending up his wounded, that there was noplace to put 'em all. They put off his questions about medship evac, and said he should use runners if he really needed to coordinate with the battalions on either side of him. Sit tight and hang on, they said, and they sent him shells for the light artillery piece that turned out to be the wrong gauge.

We could throw them at the enemy, said Quing, and that time even Reynolds had to laugh. And then they cut open the shells for the explosive charges to make mines, on the off-chance the Alliance rushed the walls again.

There was a pair of sisters, Gaelach nationalists from Green, who went through and chopped up the pile of boots for him. He didn't know why they volunteered, and he thought they'd gone crackers, but he watched them for a few minutes on the second day of that and figured it out. They were breach-loading the grommets, see, the lace-grommets from the boots, into their shotguns, to weight their buckshot. He asked the one who still had both eyes about it, and she said something about her illustrious ancestor shooting at The Man with buttons when he'd run out of bullets.

She never did explain who The Man was, and later on he tried to reckon what you did if you had all the bullets in the galaxy but no gunpowder to make 'em go. When both sisters got blown away by the same shell, their shotguns like hot licorice on the turf, the pile of boots was done and he was left with leather, rubber, shoelaces and about three million little useless tin grommets.

Zoe rousted up a few of the people who'd lost legs and gave 'em summat to do, sewing the things into clothes in overlapping patterns like chainmail. They were fuckall use against the shells, but when the guy next to you exploded in little bits, at least with chainmail in the way his belt buckle wouldn't cut off your nuts. Hell of a sickup, but no actual amputation.

It was Quing again who had the clever idea of building a lean-to for them as really couldn't help standing up, after a rifle bullet from the other side traveled six or eight miles in a narrow yaw and popped him in the ribcage in the middle of a staff meeting. It ruined Reynolds's only terrain map, but Quing had the right of it again, and they strung up coats and tarps on shoelaces tied to the most broken of the guns. It made a funny tent you had to crouch in, but it was waterproof and they all slept there that night, Zoe and Benou and Quing and him, the last of the original platoon. Quing went to sleep joking about the crazy-quilt roof over his head, but he was dead before morning. He gave Reynolds his secret stash before he kicked off, that he'd kept in his drawers as close as could be, but Reynolds opened up the crinkly plastic and found it was only a spare set of false teeth and a lucky spoon.

Quing got stripped, cut open and added to the walls, just like everyone else. The spoon melted down nicely and went to solder to fix the rifles. After that one night, Reynolds went back to sleeping in the mud, with the twin peaks that shepherded the valley as his walls. He told the other two they could stay in if they wanted, but they looked at him funny and curled up under the clouds with him instead. Soon the worst of the wounded were in that tent, looking on like delirious generals during the staff meetings.

Bullets were getting scarce by about the fortieth day or so, and the Alliance was smart enough to stop throwing ground troops at an entrenched position. The radio man up at HQ was real vague, so Reynolds started punching in Independent frequencies at random, and asking who and where and what's the status. Not a lot of responses, but a spotter squad leader up high on the ridge said the beetle helmets were on all sides, in and out of the valley, that they were coming down over the snowy peaks and what the hell was the point. Reynolds told him to hang on, that they'd get evac soon, and the guy said, I'm in Serenity: I'll never leave.

After that Reynolds couldn't raise him on that frequency, and HQ couldn't even tell him who he'd talked to.

Zoe led lateral raiding parties down the flank with a handful of VNVs from off dead-duty. They poached from their own side, but the pickings were poor and Zoe reported the other battalions had practically no entrenchments at all. She started a rumor around the camp, that their hodgepodge forces were the best tacticians in the whole battle. Reynolds wanted to strangle her, till he saw that it raised morale a little while.

It was starting to get quiet on the other side, just a few shells in the mornings and wild rifle volleys somewhere way down the right flank through the day. Benou said the imperialist scum had probably run out of bullets too, but Reynolds wondered about HQ up in the pass, and where else the beetle helmets might be. Talk got started that there was truce, or palaver anyway, and he let it go on, while he schemed with Benou and Zoe to ambush the Alliance resupply. There were only so many able enough to fight, and of those only a platoon-worth stealthy, but Reynolds planned all the same and waited for the Alliance supply ships that never came.

Benou blew his hands off the next day, trying to build handgrenades out of shotgun parts and those gorrarn grommets that were still everywhere, underfoot. By nightfall they had the bleeding under control, but then a few days later the red infection lines started up his arms and everybody knew that was it. Reynolds told him and told him they didn't need hand grenades, and anyway the Alliance ships couldn't be far, and everyone knows the enemy's got antibiotics you ain't never even heard of. Benou let him talk all night long, but didn't have much to say back.

The VNVs came marching up to him at dawn, shoving along a pair of bound Communists like pigs driven to market. Turned out they'd cut legs from the walls, the newer sections, as food to cook. One of 'em was from Shadow Moon, and he called on Reynolds as a fellow cowman to explain about how bull's blood was like drinking a god's mead or somesuch.

Reynolds hanged him and his buddy, in an assembly near the Line. He left the corpses long enough for everyone to see 'em, even the Alliance, who took a couple of potshots from their dirtholes a few miles distant. Then they were pulled down and stripped and carved just like everyone else, and added to the breastworks. He let it be known there wasn't no call to turn into mad cannibals, and anyway there was nothing nastier and more sick-making than a rottin' corpse, and the VNVs came off like heroes. Reynolds got a look at them, and the whole Voudoun detachment was kids from Whitefall and Boros; he guessed all the original Volunteers had bought it, but he couldn't remember when. Zoe waited till it was all over and then berated him over the two new dead, and asked why they was killed here when they could die just as easy out beyond the Line.

He took one look at her hollow cheeks and decided to let the Quartermaster, Kelef, the last of her regiment, in on the pile of boot leather that had done nothing but grow while the ranks grew thinner.

She called it squirrel jerky when she started passing it out in the evening ration two days later. She asked him whether it was really nutritious, but Reynolds didn't know and didn't care, as long as it felt like dinner in enough bellies. Nought but a few guessed they were eating their brothers' shoes, and eat they did. But the pile wasn't altogether large, and when he radioed HQ that night for resupply, someone whose voice he didn't know told him to go gnaw on the enemy, and cut out. The longrange holler transmitter gave him nothing but static, and that was when he guessed he knew who'd won.

He didn't tell Zoe. He told Benou, who said that sounded about right, and that there was nothing left to do but hold on a little longer. Turned out, there really was nothing left to do, what with the Alliance soldiers sitting around on their side of the Line, and his own bunch trying to look fierce over the skull-studded ramparts. If they sat still for long enough, it seemed like they stopped being so hungry.

Silence reigned for a day, and then two. Benou got feverish, and then he got crazy, and finally he shook his way out of Zoe's arms and died. That was it for him, but nobody had the energy to strip him and carve him up right then. They'd have to, tomorrow, if they didn't want him to pop open like a balloon full of guts, but the VNVs let Reynolds have the night with the corpse by his side.

A little longer, he told Zoe. We hold out a little longer. He asked Kelef to make sure the squirrel jerky would last, and she said it would if they went back to quarter-rations, but it had better rain on account of they were running out of water. Reynolds nodded his understanding and told off the evening sentries as usual. It was high summer, and hot in the darkest night, but he grabbed a jacket from the clothing pile and wrapped it round his shoulders before curling up next to Benou.

He rested his head in the crook of the dead elbow, and nodded once more to Zoe at the corpse's feet, and closed his eyes, and slept.

END


For cured leather as emergency edibles, see Emile Zola's novel "Germinal". For information on independent bridages trying to cohere as a single army, see the (losing side of the) Spanish Civil War. For further information on the disembowellment of war dead in hot climates, see Ritter's excellent biography "Shaka Zulu". For everything else, go bother Joss Whedon.

10/02


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