Austin Alexander Whittom, Captain, Yuma Army
5:58 a.m., April 14th, 2070
By the ungodly hour before dawn, most of the dead (the Yuman dead, anyway) had been dragged from the field. The Sackies, in one of their few acts of generosity, had allowed the Yumans to recover the bodies of their fallen heroes so that they might be given a proper burial.
The ceremony would be conducted later that day, the third day of the siege. The dead would be remembered in a commemoration of the glorious, triumphant first assault. The king himself would bless the souls of the departed, thanking them for their courage in liberating the river and the surrounding lands from the tyrant’s forces.
Most of the hundreds of dead had been accounted for, thrown into a mass grave, a freshly dug pit approximately the length and width of a football field. Every city in the kingdom was represented by at least a few corpses.
The Wild-Childs and Suiciders had been left to rot in the sun, of course. Testament to the courage and power of Yuma. A constant reminder to the Sackies that their days were numbered.
Austin, leaning on his crutch, with Underwood supporting his left side, stared at the peaceful faces below. Their eyes were closed, their expressions contented. They knew they’d helped take the first steps toward securing the single most important victory in the history of all the wars of Mankind. When Sacramento fell, a new age would rise: the Age of Yuma.
Tears welled in Austin’s eyes. He could almost see it, there, just out of reach, but closing in.
Next, he looked to the one non-corpse in the grave and he said, “Why stick around? Why won’t you just die?”
Underwood said nothing.
There she was: Dara Meadowlark, resting at the top of a pile of bodies five men-deep, ten men wide, and ten men long (the rest of the pit would be filled in the coming weeks of the siege). Dara, the only Sackie prisoner they owned.
“What a troublemaker you were,” said Austin and he took the time to spit at her naked feet. He fell just short of the mark.
Somehow, she still clung to life, in spite of her ripped up throat, in spite of how long and hard the road from Victorville had been on her. Austin and his contingent had taken her and the Deaf unawares, capturing them, forcing them to serve in the Suicide Brigade. The only reason she, personally, had been spared that fate now had a bullet in his brain.
Stupid-ass Edwin Grady, thought Austin. The perfect example of why Yuma must reign supreme.
Neither one of them able to sleep after all the excitement, Underwood had recounted to Austin the whole, ridiculous episode down to the last detail — from the messianic mumbo-jumbo to the rather anti-climactic tussle between Dara and Armistead. They talked as they watched her fade.
Nasty little trouble-maker. Serves you right.
And yet she would not die. Austin couldn’t understand it.
Wynkoop had had to leave, finally, around 2 A.M., to get some shuteye. That left Austin and Underwood alone with Dara, transfixed, fascinated by her slow, slow circling of the drain. Fascinated, but increasingly impatient.
“Let go, let go!” Austin told her.
But she held on. And she held on and held on. The habitual stubbornness of women couldn’t explain this kind of tenacity; the arrogance of Sacramento couldn’t explain this degree of strength. She just kept on holding on. How?
Then, at last, right around six o’clock in the morning, her eyes — the only remaining part of her still capable of defiance — stopped moving.
Underwood made sure Austin was steady on his feet, slid down into the pit and touched his fingers to Dara’s wrist.
He looked up at Austin and shook his head.
“Jee-zus. Took the bitch long enough,” said Austin as Underwood joined his side again.
The low but steadily rising amber sun at their backs, the Yumans made their way back to the field hospital…
…Though, they didn’t make it far.
They plodded along for a minute or two, Austin leaning heavily on the sergeant for support.
Austin’s ears pricked at the echo of trumpets sounding. He smiled. “Hear that?”
Underwood nodded. “They’re launchin’ the charge.”
“This is it for the Sackies. God, but I wish I could be there with our boys.”
“Damn right, sir.”
Austin was about to say something along the lines of, “Look at us—just a couple o’ wounded pups” when—
Without warning, Underwood cried out and spun in place. The force of his turn swung his elbow into Austin’s abdomen, knocking him off balance, sending him to the ground. Gasping for air, the captain looked around. Underwood had been thrown down, too.
Austin looked up. What he saw made no sense. Try as he might, he could not comprehend how he now was gazing into the wide-open, clear eyes of Dara Meadowlark when he knew, knew for a fact, that she had died minutes ago.
She stood over him, sun at her back, a fearsome silhouette. Her face made no expression; upon it, only the purest — what would you call that look? — serenity.
The blood on her throat had dried, but the wound was still a hideous, ragged cleft. How she stood, Austin couldn’t understand.
So, he started to ask her, “How—”
But he would never learn the answer.
Underwood Gaines, Sergeant, Yuma Army
6:02 a.m., April 14th, 2070
The shot echoed across the field. In response, far, far away, birds took the sky, sputtering black dots of static against waves of pale pink that bled into streaks of cerulean blue. Shouts erupted from the camp, echoing, too. Somewhere between the echoes lay silence; in that silence could be found a lifetime’s epilogue.
Austin’s punctured head slumped, his outstretched hand slapped the crutch on top of which he’d fallen. His assassin had done him in with the dispassion of a veteran grammar school teacher erasing a sentence from the blackboard.
Underwood, however, didn’t pay much attention to any of these details. Every fiber of his being was tied up in the passive act of watching the dead woman approach.
“It just ain’t right, ain’t right,” he stammered.
She did not speak or scream or utter any sound whatsoever.
She hadn’t made even the smallest noise when she’d shot Captain Whittom.
“…right.” Underwood couldn’t believe it. She’d executed Whittom, at nearly point-blank range, with his bodyguard’s own gun — she’d disarmed Underwood in less than a second and, with inhuman strength, tossed him like a doll onto the ground. If he made it out of this alive, he’d probably have one hell of a time explaining to a military tribunal why he wasn’t directly responsible for the demise of his commanding officer.
“If he made it out of this” seemed, however, to be a very big if right about now.
The woman, Dara, aimed for his heart. Still nothing changed in her expression or her body language. About to commit murder, she demonstrated roughly as much interest in her own actions as a blind man would the showpiece of a mime. She wasn’t really seeing what she was doing; rather, she seemed to move as if tangled in a gossamer web of dreams.
She’d raised the gun. Underwood had never been so alert. He could see, hear, and taste everything as every damn detail slowed to a crawl: dew droplets glinted on individual blades of grass; the crickets called it a night, and there was silence, total silence, except for the frantic buzzing in his skull; the damp in the air, the coppery runoff evaporating from the corpses in the mass grave, settled on his tongue and in his nostrils and in his every pore. He swallowed.
All she’d have to do was squeeze the trigger and he, defenseless, grounded, wouldn’t even feel his brains exit his skull to paint the arid fields of Sacramento.
He closed his eyes.
There was a click. Click, click.
He opened his eyes. The gun had jammed!
Dara tossed the weapon away. She looked at him and gave no indication of understanding what she saw, gave no sign of coming to a decision. Then she looked to the air and, finally, something in her face changed. It was small, almost invisible. But Underwood had been observing her with the attentiveness, the all-seeing absorption of a man who is about to die and wants to burn absolutely everything around him onto his retinas, and that was how he observed the subtle but sweeping change. She had noticed something, something coming from a distance, and she had not liked what she’d discovered. Half a beat later, she turned and sprinted — long, clean, efficient strides — southeast, away from the city, cutting between the camp and the river, headed into the wilderness.
He let out the chuckle of a condemned man who’s just had his sentence commuted; the laugh of the ten-year-prisoner who finally knocked free with his spoon the last brick in the outer wall of the jail.
So, she was running. Did she hope she’d be safe there, in that vast expanse of desert? That would be an incredibly stupid and short-sighted assumption. She had just blown the brains out of a Yuman officer, a captain, no less. There was nowhere she could run where the nobles couldn’t find her. Yuma owned every patch of land she’d tread upon for the next two weeks.
Still, she was really hoofin’ it. Whoever went after that crazy, returned-from-the-beyond bitch would need to do so on horseback if they wanted to have any hope of catching up. So, first things first, Underwood — who, thank God Almighty, had been spared by some miracle — had to get back to camp to report this tragedy. The brass would dispatch the right team for the job of apprehending the fugitive.
Underwood reminded himself that he, himself, was the farthest thing from “right for the job.” (He didn’t much care to flirt with death twice before breakfast.) What he really needed was a drink… or seventeen. He needed to sit down, rest his goddamn leg, and evaluate how he was going to proceed from here on out. He’d do all these things, just as soon as he reported the shocking execution of Captain Austin Whittom, hero of the kingdom — and, all ’round, pretty damn decent guy.
“What a fucked up way to go,” he mumbled as he rose to his feet.
His fall had opened up the wound on his hip again; blood already soaked his loose pants draped over the gauze.
Then he heard it, a noise he could only describe as a whirring. A round-and-round pounding, rapid-fire, toof-toof-toof-toof, that he couldn’t compare to anything else he’d ever heard. It was like the beating of a war drum from deep, deep down in a dry well. The full-blooded sound pulsed in his ears, making him tremble as the whole field seemed to quake beneath his feet.
And when he could bear the suspense no more, when not knowing threatened to kill him before anything else could, he turned around and saw it: his death, and the death of all the world. He turned to face a thing that should not exist, that no kind and loving God would allow to be.
He turned and, with his own two, terrified eyes, he saw the Dragon. Risen from hell, its skin was black as coal and tar and fire-scorch. Its wings moved so fast above its body that these could scarcely be seen by the naked human eye. Mighty talons extended on either side of its stiff frame, bristling with spikes; its own glassy eyes glinted with malice, reflecting back upon the beholder every fear he’d ever known. And the abomination drew closer, flying at impossible speeds toward the camp Yuma had established only two days before.
All had been in vain, Underwood realized, and he had never been more certain of anything in his life. The Dragon came and surely brought with it, in one swoop, the end of everything Yuma had fought for. How could so black and terrible a behemoth fly so swiftly? What could mere men do against the beast?
The evil thing approached, chopping the air with its razor-sharp, whirring wings. Then it was overhead, immutable and yet unreal, hovering in the sky above the camp. Even over the din of its beating wings, Underwood could hear his brothers’ screams of terror amalgamate into one final death-knell, the last cry of Man.
But, from within the dank, abandoned halls of the fortress of his being, a sudden beating of his own occurred. In hopelessness, utter hopelessness, a hammer struck the anvil of his heart and so forged a hammer. This hammer he would use, one last time, to strike one last blow against despair. He would die, doing so, if he had to, but he would not abandon his brothers in arms to a lonesome doom. Too late or too slow to save Austin Whittom, he could still redeem himself with the bravery he knew was buried in him; he could still do his father and brothers proud.
With every ounce of fervor and of strength his soul contained, he limped from the mass grave toward the camp. There’d he find a weapon and he’d attack the Dragon. Even that behemoth must have some weakness — he would find it, or he would be broken upon the earth of that field south of Sacramento.
There was one last moment of eerie quiet as, all at once, the voices of the fighting men of Yuma unanimously drew in their last breaths to scream.
And then the Dragon belched its flame; there was a whistling sound, brief, before an explosion rocked the camp. The beast was intelligent, it seemed; it had destroyed the royal pavilion at the heart of the camp first of all. Therefore, there would be no resistance, no counterattack. Headless, the body of Yuma Army disintegrated into its components, and these broke apart into smaller and smaller units, until — after a few dozen revealing, unforgiving seconds — it was every man for himself.
The Yumans and non-Yuman conscripts shoved one another aside in an effort to flee fastest from the flying calamity, but it didn’t matter at all: another blast tore through the campsite, stealing countless lives in the unraveling inferno.
Underwood slid to a stop, resting on his cane. Panting, he shook his head. The tears flowed freely.
He turned his head toward Sacramento in time to see a sight that would have made him empty his bowels had he not already done so.
A second Dragon took to the skies. It soared for the northernmost river outpost, blasting that tower and all of its Yuman defenders to pieces in the span of a few beats of its black wings.
Clearly, God and the Devil each had a sense of humor, and they were in on this bleak joke together.
Chaos. Pillars of flame whirled high in the sky. The war dogs scattered among the men, driven mad as their masters. Each of the horses, trapped in their stables, burnt to a crisp. Droves of men were torn apart by the biting fires of the Dragon.
Much of what was left of the camp was cinders.
Soldiers and Wild-Childs thudded into Underwood as they passed him by; Underwood stood transfixed, for now he was watching the southern gate of Sacramento open, and what he saw come forth rendered him mute. He wanted to laugh hysterically, cry his heart to stillness, but he couldn’t. He could only stare as from the gate burst a series of black vans, speeding down the road toward the scattering Yumans. Behind the vans, a row of squat, metal-hided monsters crawled forth. Their skins were green and they moved like centipedes along the road and their long, green noses swiveled toward the Yuman camp’s survivors. These thin noses belched more flames and, where the launched projectiles landed, bodies exploded in showers of guts.
It’s just not… fair, Underwood thought as he watched his comrades around him pop like fleshy red bubbles.
The foul musk of seared skin and shredded innards filled his nose. He bent over and puked up his unsatisfying breakfast, the latest entry in — he realized — a wholly unsatisfying life.
It’s not fair.
He’d bled for Yuma since he was old enough to train with a weapon — nine. Everything he’d done in this world had been for the glorification of “King and Country”… and this was how God chose to repay the faithful, good, salt-of-the-earth men of His chosen land? Was it all just an empty promise? Or had Underwood, somewhere along the line, been conditioned to drink in lies and turn his nose up at the truth?
Gasping for air after he emptied his stomach on the ground, he found himself alone. Where everyone else who’d occupied the now destroyed camp had fled farther afield, Underwood Gaines faced Sacramento — that gateway opening into Hell — and he understood that his war had always been hopeless. Nothing could defeat them; their republic was protected by some infernal power a billion years older than Man.
Standing amid the flames that had ravaged the field and leveled the greatest army assembled in forty years, Underwood lamented the loss of those ten thousand and the complete futility of every grand gesture, every battle, every calculation that had led up to this moment. This moment of complete, absolute failure.
Years of planning. Hardship. Famine. Killing.
His family had died for nothing; he was going to die for nothing.
Numb, hollowed out like a melon plucked clean by a spoon, Underwood couldn’t move. Where would he go? Everyone else had given up, why shouldn’t he? Why did anyone expect him to do anything now?
It just isn’t… fair.
And so he didn’t move; and so he didn’t jump aside as the black van, tires squealing, veered toward him; he did nothing as a hatch opened on the roof of the vehicle; Underwood’s knees remained locked as a man raised his upper body out of the hatch and brought out a long pole. Attached to the end of the pole was a whirring, smoking chainsaw, its blade flashing gold as it cut through the air and the glow of the rising sun.
Underwood didn’t even close his eyes as the van careened along that short and blood-muddied stretch. And then the car was upon him; the soldier poking out of the vehicle twisted, swinging the pole-chainsaw.
The jagged-toothed blade hummed and sputtered. It tore through Underwood’s neck like an oar cutting water.
The tank that followed the group of vans rolled over Underwood’s corpse with its treads, rupturing bone and muscle, grinding all into pink gelatin. But his head, which landed several feet away, remained intact.
In a previous century, when Mankind still made use of that most efficient killing tool, the guillotine, there was a certain French doctor who wished to conduct medical tests upon a freshly executed victim. After securing permission from the government, he prepared for the day of his eccentric experiment. Upshot: he discovered that, after decapitation, his subject, a man, recognized and responded to his own name when the doctor called it out. This was made evident by certain facial quirks — a shift of the brow, a jerk of the lip, a twitch of the eyelid and the faintest dilation of the pupil. This doctor, one of a multitude of macabre-minded but highly insightful forbears of modern medical science, determined that the human brain can interpret and respond to information for up to six seconds, give or take, following the severance of the head from the body.
The case of Underwood Gaines was no exception: he maintained near-full consciousness for 5.52 seconds, exactly.
During that time, his flailing, fading consciousness made some observations: the Dragons flew away in opposite directions, as did the tanks and vans, chasing down the scattered survivors of Yuma (few as they were, by this point); the sun had risen, slicing Underwood’s hypersensitive retinas with rays of light like knives.
He also registered an absurd amount of pain; his entire brain sang out the frenzied, high-pitched song of agony, and his facial muscles spasmed accordingly. He bared his teeth and his scalp creased just as his brow furrowed. On pure reflex, he bit deep into his tongue. By then, however, he felt nothing.
Underwood had always prided himself on his mind. It might be slower than some, but it was steady, a strong beast of burden. It got him as far as he needed to go. When he mulled a concept over, he chewed on it like a cow chewing cud. That’s what he did, now, as the blinding light became less intense, less fierce, and more subdued. As he began to see the world as if through a peephole, as the above-described death throes occurred, he held one thought tightly in mind, clutched to it like a man hanging from a cliff by only a finger or two. He thought: this is Armageddon, this is the end; The Fall of the Old World was only the beginning of the end — but this is end. Sacramento is the instrument of divine justice, delivering God’s punishment for Mankind’s weakness and self-destructive, self-serving blindness.
Then even the thought slipped away with everything else.
The plodding forward march of his mind came to a stop, slowly, slowly, like a cow chewing cud and, then, swallowing it down.
His mind, his soul, was the cud and he went down, down, down. Until he dissolved and was no more. And the movement and the sound — all of it — was chewed up and became one, unified thing: nothing.