Routine Maintenance

The sun shines through the clouds. The dust settles. The dead begins to smell.

It never rains here. No, here is a desert, a collection of sand and gravel grounded to fine dust. Bodies decompose that much slower than in the damp of Central, the face still recognizable after a few days. She cannot truly name the faces. The dead is a blur. Flies gather from nowhere. It's dry, drier than the northern summer where it also never rains. The cold of winter clings to those mountain valleys like a jilted lover in the summer, its whispers frost to the short-lived flowers in bloom. It never rains, but it's never dry. In this case the dust gets into everything, the water canteens, the tents, the shallow dreams at night when she is allowed to retire from her post.

I found one more moon, he said, pointing to the sky and smiling like a madman. She didn't blame him. The desert is full of illusions and tricks of light, and if she hears in the streets the ghost gunfire and imaginary crack of the sniper rifle, it's not a stretch of imagination for him to see two moons. Hawkeye never did see any, thanks to the haze and the smoke and the gun-spark flitting across each alleyway, but that is no reason to think he is the same as her and never has the time to look at the sky. It's often held that spending moments doing things that do not benefit survival is an academic trait, one she has never experienced, and sometimes it's easy to forget that he's just as much an academic as the glassed old men pouring over texts just as brittle as dust.

Dust. It collects. From nowhere at all it came, the ground or the skeletal frames of buildings, nobody knows too much. Nobody thinks too much. It falls, just like snowflakes, but it never melts away. Not entirely, no. Fire melts snow but not dust. Explosions do nothing but create more of it. And it's silent, falling and blanketing everything in grey.

She wonders if it can ever get to two inches deep, the way she remembers snow from where she was born.

Dust falls. The dead die. Wounds fester. It's a matter of time before the flies gather all over the place.

Sometimes the Major asks her to accompany him on his inspection of the perimeters, and there's no reason to disobey the not-order for it. Sometimes it's night and he carries a lantern. In the flickering light he looks almost young, she pictures him with five year's reversal in her mind's eyes, erase the military coat for once and replace it with the worn jacket of a university student, not so different than her own when she attended hers. She pictures the lantern to a candle, the soldier's face eased to the face of a young man intent on writing his late night report. Now the city feels almost as old as ancient Xerxes, one of the theoretically youngest field grade officers in the military feels almost as old as the falling dust, and she is reminded that there is much in this world to be saved from. Much to be saved from, and too few saviors living and plying their trade. Which may actually be sensible, as all the saviors she saw are dead.

Sometimes he asks for commentaries, hunched over a map spread on rocks and makeshift tables. She always wonders why he couldn't have transmuted one, equipment being left as scarce as water in this place, but always offers what she thinks. Crooked smiles often decorate his face as he listens, and he sometimes remarks, you know, Second Lieutenant, I never said I was enlightened. Calling back the desire for witticism and retorts, she salutes and says, no, sir, you're not. The peculiar irony that creeps onto his face at those times reminds her of the old professor of civil laws, chuckling at his students' arguments to the contrary of theory. And she wonders why he does so, she thinks why, I do agree with him. They are anything but enlightened, the dust-snow blanketing the city almost like a small village up north, and they are just living. There's no time for philosophies or pronouncements of discovery. The dust falls and the living walks, head bent, along its trail with rifles slung across their shoulders. It's the matter of counting the survivors at the end of the day, old faces disappearing at the campfires and the slow acknowledging nod, too numb from the cold dust to mourn the dead. The mourning falls to the flies, gathering above the unburied bodies like loyal retainers giving a grand salute at the funeral.

They feed, he argues, they feed. Not too much food in the desert before, they're having a population explosion. See that private? He explains; see how the flies gather at his mouth? Looks like a kiss. It was those damned nodules of dead proteins in his brain...they're having a feast. We should really get a shovel here, a shovel for two hundred corpses. I can blast away a hole, but where's the dust going to go afterwards if not the sky? Or maybe, really, I can burn them and be done with these goddamned flies.

Of course, the Major catches himself and looks chagrin. He ages himself another year in those five seconds, coughing and looking at the sky and saying, Help me, Hawkeye, I think I'm going insane.

Sometimes he calls her by her last name. Sometimes he calls her by rank. Usually he calls her nothing at all, a glance is often enough to convey his request for presence. She walks after him, watching his surroundings, staring at his back. Sometimes it occurs to her how small he really is compared to a number of people under his command. He's not that taller than her, nor is he built particularly large, unlike that other Major from another company that returned to Central, long long ago. He just carries himself with a certain atmosphere, one that feels like splinters of buildings falling off walls and landing broken or the smell of roasted flesh. It's fear and authority he radiates, the authority either from the way his steps speaks of confidence, that he knows just as well as everybody else what he is, the fear from what he knows just as well as everybody else what they think he is. Not really many people walk with him often enough to see him falter sometimes, stumble over rocks sometimes. Not really many people walk with him often enough to catch him when he falls.

The Major usually writes to a Captain in intelligence, working with typewriters and code machines back in the main camp. Rare, fond smiles light up his face when he scribbles away at those notes. He's a longtime friend, he says. Hawkeye often wonders what it is that he writes, what memories play in his mind that he recalls with such fondness. She never asked. Sometimes he tells her about it, little snippets of memories a world away from falling dust, transporting himself back to those times. She can see it in his eyes that he's elsewhere then, he sees in green and blue and gold. She patiently listens, of how the Major and the Captain play pranks on each other like schoolboys, how he carries pictures of his girlfriend everywhere and showing them to everyone. She listens to details about a wintry evening meal he had with both of them, laughter and beer and jokes and all the Major's embarrassing secrets as his friend tells them, how he laughs a bit when he recalls the memory. Imagines the candlelit table into the distant campfires of the other companies. They should've moved back to the trenches. The no man's land is death, or so Hawkeye thinks as her commanding officer tells her of the one bumbling date Captain Hughes had the first time he asked his girlfriend out.

There's no time for these pleasantries and she knew the Major knew it. But each time he talks of the recipient of his letters, of the lies that he tells that he's all right and war is progressing on schedule, something returns to his face that's never really there. It's a ghostly hint of another man, and Hawkeye always listens and watches as those ghosts flit across his face. They have no time for sentimentalities, but she wants him to have that luxury of remembrance, that reminder that he's still alive. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether they're living or dying. He's not like that very often, just when they're talking quietly, out of ear reach of the rest of their company, and she wonders when it started and why it was her. It's not always easy to tell with war. Things are always a jumbled mess, he says. Things have always been messy.

In retrospect, Hawkeye supposes it can be considered romantic in the books she read before coming to war. It's a secret for two, a chink in the mail of his impregnable confidence, shared over a candlelit dinner under the soft falling snow-dust. It's staying alive, and doing whatever it means to retain the slices and keeping one's mind firmly enough to not expose oneself to sniper fire, to survive the whole process of assimilation by the ruined city they created. Some would consider it incredibly romantic. Some consider war romantic. Some never tasted dust.

In the trenches her duty is providing sniper fire, turning a man cold as he pulls his pants down to shit in the latrine. Easiest sniping spot in the book, they say, and who is she to disagree? The Major's duty is usually inspection in those days, accompanied by trench engineers and giving orders to men slumped in desolated boredom. In the no man's land of crumbled buildings her duty is one of the protector, making sure one of the most effective weapons of the Amestris army stays operational and well maintained, able to live and destroy another day. Hawkeye wonders if that too is considered engineering on the military's part, if some portion of his mind that sought presence considers it routine maintenance. Her duty is merely to hold the pieces of his sanity together long enough for him to patch it back like a quilt, and she wondered if the reverse is also true. That's usually something one associates with this kind of secret, the whole symbiosis between the blind and the blind.

Most days, he destroys another section of the town. Never underestimate the power of equations, he tells her wryly one day, when the company is breaking out the field rations. I can't make a better dinner with arrays, but hell, I'm good at making burnt corpses, he said, chuckling lightly. She responds by telling him cooking is an art form, sir, not a science. He chuckles and muses if that is true.

Rare days, he's wounded and needs to be supported as he walks back to camp. It's like a trigger for moments of special weakness; he asks her if she thinks he's human. Hawkeye thinks it over for a bit, recalling the human part of the word human weapon and the weapon aspect of it, and asks for the why of the question.

No reason really, he said, looking at the rubble near his feet. No reason at all. Hawkeye can tell that it's true, there's really no reason for the question.

So she stopped for a while, leading to a puzzled glance from him. There's no reason to stop, either.

We're alive, sir.

Yes, we are, Lieutenant. Can you be a little less obvious?

Well then, she said, we'll go by your definition. If being good means being fully human, what does it mean to be wholly alive?

He stared at her a bit, then snorted. You're a cheat, Hawkeye, he said. You know I'm hardly a philosopher.

I know, sir, but you asked a philosophy question. I respond likewise, she answered nonchalantly, taking the next few steps in the layers of falling dust.

Dust falls. The dead die. The sky turns grey and blue again, and the second moon shines brighter in the night.

We're alive.