Desmond Harriet took his place in 3rd Company’s front rank and pulled a sleeve across his sweat-soaked face. Not to be outdone, it seemed, the August sun was bearing down on Brooklyn with as much vigor as the British Army. Now, Continental forces deployed to meet this invasion of Long Island in the first major conflict after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
With the new Army’s organization, the Rhode Island Regiment became the 9th Continental Regiment. It was assigned to hold Guan Heights, the defensive position chosen to protect the Continental forces from an inland attack. 2nd Company stood atop the heights with the supply caravan behind it, and enviably so, Desmond thought. He and 3rd Company were positioned below them at the edge of a field, a soon to be battlefield. To Desmond’s right, 1st Company stretched along the base of the slope and into the woods. To the left, the 1st Massachusetts Volunteers’ lines snaked around Guan Heights and out of sight.
Desmond found himself at the extreme right flank of the Continental Army lines. He was fairly certain that was not a good thing. It was a position of honor, and therefore given to Colonel Marsh because he would be capable of making fierce battle. That meant Desmond, standing in the exposed defensive perimeter, would be asked to make fierce battle.
An uneasy quiet ran down the line, as the shifting stopped and men stood only two or three rows deep, awaiting the redcoats. The wait perturbed Desmond most acutely, and his eyes flickered up and down the lines, searching for something to give him courage, or for assurance that other men were as frightened as him.
“This is an abomination, yes?” he wanted to ask someone. “Am I correct in feeling that this is a most wasteful use of human life?” But he could not give voice to those words. He felt alone on that battlefield, afraid that every British musket would be aimed at him. The thought of hundreds of metal balls flying toward him at killing speed was maddening. How could anyone stand here and await their senseless destruction? Then again, these men had volunteered out of patriotic fervor, while Desmond had been tricked and more or less kidnapped by the Rhode Island Regiment.
An officer shouted from horseback, behind 3rd company’s line. “Remember your training, men. You are sons of a new era. We will not be defeated.” The words were comforting to Desmond, if only a little. “These British invaders may be the largest, most professional fighting force in the world, full of hardened veterans who’ve seen a hundred skirmishes,” the officer said, “but they will lose here today. They will break when they see our resolve. They will blanch at our unceasing yearning to throw off occupation.” The officer cantered down the line toward Desmond as he spoke. “After today’s blood is spilled, they will lay down their arms and beg to become free men as you are.”
Cheering went up from the ranks, and the sergeants did not attempt to quiet it. The cries relented eventually, and a soft sound trickled out of the forest across the field, a gentle pitter-patter bouncing through the trees. As it grew louder, the colonial forces went silent.
Before their red coats became visible in the dimness of the trees, British drummers announced their arrival. A flash of steel and red caught Desmond’s eye, not ahead, but to the left. A British line had formed and marched in front of the Massachusetts Volunteers.
“Why do we stand at the bottom of the hill?” Desmond asked to his left.
A man named Cheaply replied, “So as we can retreat up the hill, I reckon.”
“Retreat uphill? That’s—”
“You there! Quiet in the ranks.” Sergeant Frost scowled at Desmond when he looked back.
Desmond clenched his jaw and peered into the forest, only now beginning to see the enemy.
Were they the enemy? The enemy of what? Of Whom? None of this made any sense. Men were about to die? Many men would not leave this field, and yet they stood there like sheep?
He froze with fear as the first row of redcoats emerged from the trees. Their ranks took shape as more men in their column filed out to the flanks until the line stretched to join up with the other British unit. Unlike the Continental line, the British stood five ranks deep, with more men in reserve should any fall in the front.
A bead of sweat gathered and raced down his forehead into his eye, and Desmond regarded the morning sun. The air began to shimmer again, unnaturally so. With a line of men ahead of him, waiting to kill him, Desmond became distressed by the remembrance that Norman Shook complained of such visions and aberrations of sight, before he died one day in his field. In the name of learning, the doctor examined his corpse and cut a tumor out of his brain the size of an apple.
Surely Desmond was only afraid. Yes, it was not a tumor, he willed himself to believe, just an overzealous set of nerves.
What Desmond saw next did nothing to settle his fears. The red lines parted to make way for cannon. Three artillery pieces now joined the British ranks, and their tenders began stuffing them with charges and shot. Desmond looked right and left, expecting to see men quavering and darting off into the forest to their right, yet none moved.
“This is madness,” Desmond whined to himself.
“Present arms!” Sergeant Frost called.
Desmond found himself mechanically obeying the instructions, wondering where his arms had found the strength to move. He pointed his shaking musket at the men before him.
“Make ready to fire.”
Desmond pulled the hammer back to full cock.
Their fusillade crackled deafeningly, and smoke billowed out before them.
Desmond stood still, musket at his shoulder. Had he fired? He couldn’t be certain. The men to either side of him were reloading furiously. Desmond took his ramrod and tamped it down his barrel to mimic the others, then shouldered his weapon again.
BOOM, the first cannon sounded.
Men screamed to his right, and sergeants quickly pushed men forward to fill the gaps the cannon had created.
The second canon fired. More screams to the left.
A crashing report echoed out at them as the British unleashed a musket volley of their own. Bullets pounded into men like horses’ hooves, tinged off metal barrels and cleaved through bones. For a moment, Desmond heard only silence, then men began to fall out of line, some dead, some mewing and screaming, clutching in agony at a segment of their anatomy.
Private James to Desmond’s right pulled a hand away from his belly. He looked upon it in disbelief, then turned it to show Desmond. It shone with blood. “I think I’ve been hit,” he said, somehow still standing.
“Take aim!” Sergeant Frost commanded in his gruff baritone. “Fire!”
The Rhode Island men fired another volley into the British line, all except Desmond and Private James who stared equally puzzled at the bloody hand.
Before Desmond could even register that the third cannon had fired, Private Cheaply exploded in a wash of gore along with three other privates and Sergeant Frost.
“Chain shot! They’re using chain shot!”
Desmond wiped his hand down his face to clear it of bits of bone, fabric and flesh. He’d lost his hat. Rather it had been flung away by careening bits of Private Cheaply. Desmond showed his own bloody hand to James, unsure whose blood he held. Simultaneously, the two men dropped to the ground, James from his wound, Desmond from sheer panic.
Sergeants pushed men into position around them, and the fighting continued. Desmond crawled back behind the line and looked over to see the Massachusetts Volunteers already backing up the hillside onto Guan Heights. Ahead, up the hill from Desmond, the other Rhode Island units awaited. To his left, the trees beckoned, whispering of safety.
He crawled behind the Rhode Island line for twenty yards, half the distance to the trees, when a sergeant pulled him up to his feet.
“I don’t know.”
“Where’s your musket?” His words were cut off by another roaring Continental musket volley.
Desmond shook his head, eyes wide. His musket was back in the line, a place he had no intention of going.
“Where is your musket, man?” The sergeant shook him by the lapels of his coat.
Desmond pointed to the end of the line stretching into the woods. “Over there?”
The sergeant’s gaze darted to the tree line and back. He dropped Desmond and shouted to his men, “make ready to fire!”
Before the sergeant could turn back from calling out orders, Desmond broke into a run. Someone shouted from the hilltop, but it was too late. Desmond was in the trees now.
His body felt weak, yet whole, for which he was thankful. He knew not where his feet carried him.
“Away,” he wheezed through huffing breaths. “Away from that hell.”
He darted through trees, over fallen logs, and straight through a creek bed, kicking high through the water. The cool rush gave him the urge to wash himself. He plunged back into the knee-high flow and submerged himself, clinging to slimy rocks. When, he picked his head up out of the slowly moving water, the unmistakable sound of horse hooves on soft earth met his ears. Not far upstream, he saw three men, Rhode Island men, trudge out of the forest onto the creek bank, heads darting around. A man on horseback rode out behind them loudly giving instructions.
Desmond released his anchoring stones and drifted downstream with the current. He pushed himself along the bottom, gathering speed. His small sense of growing relief soured in his stomach as the men turned along the creek bed toward him. He pushed harder at the stony bottom, but could hardly outpace the jogging men. Soon they would see his footprints in the mud. Perhaps they would see the prints on both sides and follow his intended path into the forest. Perhaps they would see his tracks going back into the water and know for certain he lay in the creek.
The men gained on him. He considered breaking into a run, but knew he had to wait until he was away from their sight. As the horseman came into view, Desmond saw it was young Lt. Trumple hunting him.
“Damn,” he gurgled into the current.
The creek took a merciful bend, and Desmond dashed out of the water, up the bank and into the mossy wood. He stormed through the underbrush, thankful that every branch and thorn scratching him was not a whistling bullet. He crossed an oblong clearing of tall grass, and vaulted a rotten old fallen log. He could hear the men behind him, shouting to one another. They must be near to giving up now.
Desmond felt a rush of warmth over his skin. Was that glee at his survival? It grew warmer, uncomfortably hot even. The air grew hazy around him, even as he ran. The sun flickered through the trees down onto a glittering spot above his head that seemed to move with him. The glittering, fuzzy air began to roil, until a great rent tore open above him. Light poured out along with darkness and cold whipping wind replaced the feeling of heat. Desmond grew dizzy and slowed his pace, wondering at the dazzling yet baffling sight. Then a piece of the vivid hallucination flew toward him, cracking him in the forehead. Desmond heard a great sucking sound as he tumbled to the earth. He came to rest, wedged under another fallen log. His head bobbed a moment, aiming to gaze upon whatever had just hit him, but his vision was blurry, and consciousness failed him.
“…weapon… America… Great Britain… future must... cannot win… fate of humanity depends…”
Desmond’s sleeping mind captured the tinny voice speaking to him only in bits and pieces. As he came back to full awareness, the speaking concluded. Then he heard snapping twigs and the whinnying of a horse.
Lt. Trumple and the men chasing him were close.
“Sir,” one of them called. “Should we not return to the battle?”
“Momentarily, Wells. We must snatch up this deserter first. We cannot allow a precedent to be set in our first major action. Cowardice must be punished.”
Eventually, to Desmond’s great joy, the men made their way off further into the woods. He rolled to hands and knees and kneaded tenderly at the growing lump at his hairline. His gaze flitted from grass to tree root to wildflower, searching for whatever he’d run into, or rather, whatever had impacted him.
Four paces away, he spotted it. For the second time that day, Desmond crawled along the ground. It lay in the grass, less than three-feet-long, black with touches of green and blue. It was terrifying to behold, yet beautiful. His fingers traced its odd edges and knobs, much like burnished metal, firm, smooth and cool to the touch, but in some way unnatural. He pressed the green spot and, unlike the metallic surface, it had ever-so-little give. Something inside sparkled when he pressed it, cracking like tiny bolts of lightning.
Desmond reared back on his heels. What was this… this… thing?
On what he supposed was the object’s underside, he found a protruding grip. He carefully laid his hand under it and curled his fingers. The grip drew his fingers toward it, like a lover returning an embrace. Desmond was able to move his fingers still, but the pull he felt through them was undeniable. He furled them, then tightened his grip. He picked it up, using his other hand to support the long end up near the green bulge.
“My word,” he whispered. Had it been as heavy as it appeared, he feared it would have killed him upon impact, but it was only the weight of a leg of lamb, a good weight, but not unwieldy. He moved it about, pointing the end in different directions. Not unwieldy at all, he thought. The motions he made almost reminded him of handling a musket, but unlike a musket, there was no stalk to press into his shoulder.
The portion above his grip hand began to shift. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he stammered. The mechanism unfolded like a cascade of small panels turning in impossible ways to encase his lower arm.
“Gach,” he cried out in expectation of pain and clutched the device with his free hand, but no pain came. In fact, he couldn’t feel anything. He tried to wriggle his fingers. Curious, he thought. It wasn’t that he couldn’t wriggle them, it merely felt as if they weren’t there at all, as if he’d never had fingers, as if he’d been born with this monstrosity for a hand. He shook his arm and slapped at it, but the thing didn’t budge.
“Damn, damn, damn.” Desmond screwed his eyes up in frustration and shock. “What in God’s name is this?”
“Stay where you are,” a voice commanded.
Desmond looked up, hunched over his newly altered arm. One of the soldiers had his musket leveled from twenty paces away, bayonet affixed to the muzzle. “Stay right where you are.” The soldier whistled to signal the others, then approached, not taking his eyes off Desmond in the bead of his sights. Desmond stood up.
“Don’t move,” the soldier said more forcefully. Two other men flanked him with their muskets up and ready. The horseman, Lt. Trumple, trotted up and called out, “You there, you have deserted our ranks and—” He cocked his head. “Mr. Harriet. Is that you? From Cranston?” He walked his horse up behind the approaching men.
“Aye,” Desmond admitted, hoping to ameliorate the situation and figuring their acquaintance couldn’t hurt. “Tis I. Desmond Harriet.”
“And you ran from the battle?”
“I was stunned.”
“What are you holding there?”
“I… I… I do not know. I fear it is holding me.”
“Drop it, now,” the first soldier said, “or I’ll shoot it off.”
Desmond brought it up in his other hand. “I… I—”
The instrument produced a translucent blue light that surrounded Desmond. It was not a light per se, but to Desmond’s eyes, appeared almost like a dome of thin glass. Unlike glass, however, the blue shimmered and moved like water.
“What have you just done?” Trumple asked. “What is th—” Trumple’s horse jumped away, cutting off Trumple’s words.
“I do not know! I assure you most vehemently.” Desmond could weep for the powerlessness he felt. “Please. I was stunned from the battle. I didn’t know what to do.”
Lt. Trumple and his men seemed more troubled by the blue orb surrounding Desmond than his excuses.
“Make it stop,” one of the soldiers said. “It’s some devilry.”
“I can’t. I—”
“I’ll shoot. I will.”
“It’s stuck. It—”
The leftmost soldier fired, and flame and smoke poured out the barrel. Desmond flinched, but felt nothing, hearing only the sound of a ricochet. The smoke drifted away, and the soldiers all stared at the unharmed Desmond.
“Whah?” the shooter asked, mouth agape.
Desmond could sense the other two readying to fire. Before they could, a forked, icy blue stream shot out of his arm and hit the men in the chest. Instead of piercing them or bowling them over, it seemed to engulf them entirely. In a flash, the soldiers exploded in every direction.
The horse reared back again, almost dumping Trumple from the saddle, but he gripped the reins and calmed the horse. The remains of the men, their clothing and even their weapons rained down all around them. That which would have fallen upon Desmond was sloughed away by the strange blue shield.
“What in all of burning hades?” the only remaining soldier asked.
“Desmond!” Lt. Trumple bellowed. “What is this madness?”
The soldier had already begun reloading his musket. Desmond turned the weapon toward him and blew him apart with the same icy blue substance. It was clearly more than simple light, but acted like no matter Desmond had ever encountered.
Another rain of viscera descended to the forest floor.
Lt. Trumple held up his hands. An eerie silence descended around them, punctuated only by the breathing of the frightened horse.
Desmond strained to think. These men had come to arrest him, for desertion no less.
“Please, Desmond. Mr. Harriet. Don’t shoot that thing again!”
Lt. Trumple had said they couldn’t set a poor precedent of suffering desertion in battle.
“What were you going to do with me?”
“I know not.” The Lieutenant had gone pale, and now looked as terrified as Desmond must have in the front line of battle. “I was ordered by Captain Shales to grab you up is all. There was no time to explain his intention.”
“You’re going to hang me as an example, aren’t you.”
“I could not say.”
“But you suspect,” Desmond guessed. “You told them you couldn’t allow a precedent to be set, a precedent of deserters going unpunished.”
“Now, Desmond, I have no say in—”
Desmond aimed the weapon at Lt. Trumple.
“Mr. Harriet. Please, just go! I won’t stop you.”
“I know not how, nor did I intend for such, but I just killed these men with you as witness. I am a deserter and a murderer now. They will cut this mystery from my arm and hang what’s left of me.” Hot tears flowed down Desmond’s face. “I didn’t want this,” he growled. “I didn’t want to go to war. I wanted to make paper. Just paper.” He sobbed, looking over the spots where the three soldiers had been standing. “And now I’m a deserter and a murderer. I’m a good man. I am a peaceable man. This war took that from me. A war I never wanted!” He gritted his teeth and slapped again at the thing on his arm.
“I’m a peaceable man.”
“You’ve made a mistake is all,” Lt. Trumple said, desperation in his voice. “I mean, I saw that you didn’t mean to kill these soldiers. It is that demon cudgel gripping your arm. Yes, I will attest to that.”
Desmond shook his head, still sobbing. “I’m sorry.”
“Mr. Harriet! No, no, no—”
Horse and rider were met with the largest blast yet from the weapon on Desmond’s arm. It was not big enough to envelop the entirely of its target, so out of the evisceration, horse limbs flew away along with one of the Lieutenant’s arms and his head. The horse’s jaw slammed into the blue shield and spun away into the dirt. The rest was rendered to pulp and fell sloppily to the ground.
Desmond bent his head, still sobbing, and the blue shield retracted around him.
“I am a peaceable man…”