The Resurrection War
The war was welcomed by certain quarters of society. Badly needed social hygiene, some said. Others said that there’s nothing quite like a good, solid war against a common foe to unite the people. An unambiguously evil regime, who we would not feel any scrap of troublesome sympathy for while murdering its foot soldiers by the millions.
And it did unite us, like never before. Britons fighting alongside Chinamen, Americans alongside Mohammedans and so forth. A profoundly beautiful moment in which every nation of the Earth worked seamlessly together towards a singular purpose like a vast, well oiled machine. But then, we began to lose.
Nobody took the notion seriously even as they watched it happen. We’d been regaled with government broadcasts about how glorious the postwar world would become if only we endured a little longer. Work had already begun on new drafts of textbooks including detailed descriptions of the war to date and how we’d come together under one banner to achieve victory.
Loss was unthinkable, given the nature of the enemy. How could it happen this way? How could the world be given over to such creatures, and what sort of twisted husk of civilization might they carry on after we’ve all been destroyed or joined their ranks? How could the future of warm blooded, vibrant, living creatures be consumed by the ever swelling ranks of the dead?
First news of the outbreak identified London as ground zero. Though subsequent intelligence indicated that they were already plentiful by that time, living in hiding throughout a network of subterranean colonies. All the work of a queer little firm which did well to conceal its gargantuan earnings, operating out of modest, run down buildings nearby graveyards.
Efforts to map these underground facilities were sabotaged at every turn by powerful politicians, royalty and banking families, all of whom had long since availed themselves of the firm’s primary service. Every time those fighting to root out and destroy the coldbloods appealed to a higher authority in order to bypass local corruption, they only found more corruption.
I can scarcely describe the feeling of it. War is an abstract thing, a matter you only read about or hear reported on the radio...until it reaches you. You feel terrible for those fighting on the front lines, yet never imagine that it will spread far enough to consume the place and people most dear to your heart. But then it does.
It is the same unfathomable fear felt by a smaller animal as it’s eaten alive by a larger one. Thoughtlessly crushing your body, your very life in its jaws, indifferent to your cries. Or like someone holding your hand against a stove burner. Even as you wail and thrash, wholly unable to accept what is happening, it simply continues to until all that’s left is ash and bone. Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, does not go away.
I remember falling to my knees, frantically tearing out chunks of hair in a fit of madness as I watched them take my city. The church where I was baptized. My old schoolhouse. Even St. Bartholomew’s, the hospital which received a steadily increasing number of wounded as the war front approached.
A precious windfall for the coldbloods. So many of ours lay ill or dying within, defenseless against what came for them. Now their blood runs cold, and they fight for their captors. One by one the great institutions of the city were consumed, like the organs of a dying man shutting down in sequence.
It was this ability to revive our fallen soldiers and recruit them which slanted the odds so strongly in their favor. As well as astonishing electrical technologies they’d developed by necessity over the prior decades spent living underground, where the steam or combustion engine is unsuitable. The seed of discoveries made by such visionaries as Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison found fertile soil in those dimly lit warrens.
Imagine our surprise when their gargantuan steel war machines first trundled up out of their buried hangars and onto the battlefield before us. At that time still secure in the inevitability of our own victory, suddenly confronted with enemy technology like nothing we’d seen before.
Rusted, certainly. From being stored in damp underground chambers until use. But exceeding the size of our own largest tanks by a factor of two, three, sometimes four. Immense, grinding land barges rolling effortlessly over every obstacle placed before them. Crushing everything beneath their treads, great armored wheels or in some cases rudimentary mechanical legs.
All the while, mystifying electrical coils jutting up from their rear crackling loudly, sending out brilliant blue fingers of current into the air. Competing, I think, with the constant artillery explosions to further deafen us. All over their exterior shells they trailed the signature black banner of the coldbloods. And on various pikes mounted to the chassis, the impaled bodies of captured soldiers. As if the rest were not sufficiently imposing.
So they came, surging, in wave after wave of bizarre, demented fighting machines. As cold inside as their pilots. Our own tanks roaring with heat and life by comparison, burning fuel to drive them onward. As the dead needed no supply lines for food or water, so too their vehicles did not depend on supply lines for conventional fuels, powered instead by a strange fluid the nature of which we can still only guess at.
It appears one in the same with what drains from their bodies when they are stabbed by bayonet or blown apart by mines. An all purpose elixir which powers their technology, revives the dead, even oils the gears of their great engines of war. Wherever it splatters on you, a rash appears soon after. As if living tissue takes it for poison of some kind.
For my part, I was a radio man. The tests didn’t indicate aptitude for anything else, although it didn’t matter much in the end. As our numbers dwindled, each of us became a Jack of all trades by necessity. Any man who questioned the sense in continuing to fight was beaten within an inch of his life, but never killed, as there were precious few warm bodies left by then.
The audacious perversity of it. I can imagine no way to overstate it. When you first see them advancing, row after row of frigid, gaunt bodies. An insult to the natural order, twisted caricatures of their former selves which even so continue to jerk their limbs about in a pale imitation of life. It is at first impossible to take them seriously. They seem to you wholly unauthorized to exist, as if you could command them to return to their graves where they belong and they’d do it.
Yet they continued to advance. I raced through the muddy trenches, nearly losing a boot in the muck now and again. Struggling past the valiant few living souls pinned down in that godforsaken ditch with me as I delivered the most recent set of firing solutions to the Captain serving as our battery commander.
The mud gets everywhere. The trench is a miserable soup of it up to your ankles, most of all after a heavy rain. Just a drizzle at the time, but when the sun returned the mud caking my arms, legs and face would dry and begin to flake. Mixed so completely with dried blood that no hope existed of distinguishing the two.
As I navigated the serpentine trench, I came upon a wretched wounded fellow on a stretcher, spasming gently and muttering in his sleep. A field medic knelt beside him and, looking up at me, slowly shook his head. “Fever dreams, on account of the infected bullet wounds. Can’t imagine what he’s enduring. But I’ve already done everything I can, it’s up to him now.”
There were many more like that before I reached the Captain. Dead weight which we nonetheless cannot afford to dump. When I found him, he was peering over the rim of the trench with a pair of dingy brass binoculars. “For God’s sake man, what took you? Spit it out already.” I dug the notebook out of my coat pocket and began rattling off the numbers.
I didn’t get far. “Impactor inbound!” one of the men down the trench hollered over the constant booms of the artillery. The damned things fall too quickly to hit them with anti-aircraft guns, only slowing down by solid fuel retro rockets within the last few hundred feet. I turned to watch in awe as the sleek, black coffin shaped capsule came to rest in the distant reaches of the trench.
Soon after I heard the faint sounds of screaming and far off gunfire. I’d seen one land before and so could guess what was happening. The dome at the top is a teleoperated Lewis gun turret which clears the immediate area of opposition, then continues to lay down suppressing fire as the sides of the capsule blow off and the contents of it climb out.
But oh, those contents. The crawling. The teeming, relentless crawling! What is there to say which hasn’t already been screamed by those who return from an engagement with them? Piteous, traumatized witnesses to the grave mites.
The Captain adjusted the focal distance on his binoculars and muttered “We’re lucky they only send the bulls. The females are more aggressive by far, but also the only ones who secrete. Since their whole war machine relies on the secretions there’s no way they’d ever let us get close to a mite farm.”
Farms? Didn’t ask, didn’t want to know. The only farms the coldbloods have any use for, to my knowledge, are for us. So that when we’re defeated, they’ll still have a sustainable supply of replacement parts. I’d been along for a raid on one of the few we were able to liberate before the tide of the war turned.
The stench hits you before the screaming. Something like the inside of a meat processing plant. Anguished cries mixing seamlessly into the cacophony of thumping machine noises. Would’ve simply been an impressive feat of industrial efficiency, had it been any other animal they were feeding into it.
Row after row of pregnant women huddled on all fours, shackled at the wrists and ankles. Some sort of mask was strapped to their faces such that they could not remove the feeding and respiration tubes passing through it.
Most were being milked. They still collect it to wean the children. A few were in the middle of delivering, a team of coldbloods receiving the infant, snipping the umbilical, then rushing it to the incubator. It was these wretched women, most out of their minds, that we rescued first.
The deafening rhythm of the machines drowned out our gunfire and gave us the element of surprise. The dead barely notice being shot. Even a bullet to the head only leaves them disoriented and clumsy. So we’re trained to take off their limbs from a distance, then finish cutting them apart at the joints once they’re immobilized.
The head continues to move even once separated from the body. It must be crushed or burnt. By the time we’d cleared the place out, we were all caked in the foul black syrup they bleed. It was a moral victory more than a practical one. Even as we gently eased the screaming, weakly thrashing nude men down from the conveyor of hooks that ran along the ceiling, none were cogent enough to speak with.
They’d been swallowed whole by a throbbing mechanical beast, belching thick black smoke from its nostrils. Passing through its labyrinthine insides, stripped not just of their dignity but their sanity as well. Filthy, bruised and gibbering, most could not be salvaged. There was no choice but to shoot and burn them, as otherwise they’d be reclaimed for parts.
None of us hesitated. Just as there is no speaking of surrender or reconciliation, there are none among us who dare to question choices of that nature. Even then, we’d begun giving up on the pretense of heroism. Of decency, and a just war. There was no atrocity the coldbloods would not resort to. Which they hadn’t already. So, unapologetic barbarism was the order of the day.
I’ve run out of tears since then. Not so much strengthened by these experiences as worn out. The endless cavalcade of horrors, unbearable at first, has since grown banal. There is nothing they won’t do to destroy us, and nothing we don’t do to survive. A fairly straightforward struggle...if only death were still permanent.
Another impactor landed ahead of us as we fled down the trench. With one in back and now another in front, there was simply no avoiding them. I knew what to expect, but it still took my breath away when the first one came into view. It’s the eyes that do it. Grand, bulbous compound eyes sprouting from either side of a head only slightly larger.
Paralyzing to gaze upon. No matter how many times you engage them, you never get used to it. I figure it’s because the primal part of the brain which assesses threats has no basis for comparison. If our ancestors had ever encountered such a creature, there’d be some record of it.
The Captain stepped in, supplying an abrupt shotgun blast to one of its eyes before it could reach me. The torrent of sticky black blood and jiggling bits of brain matter absolutely drenched us. There’s a distinct sickly sweet smell to it which never fully washes out.
“Where’s your head, idiot!? Pull yourself together, it’s another two kilometers to the evac point.” I gaped, wiping black goo from my forehead. “We’re...retreating?” He dragged me to my feet. “Falling back, for the time being. It’s not ours to second guess.” I looked back at the men behind us, still fighting what I now realized was a doomed battle. One of many comprising a doomed war.
The beleaguered remainder of a platoon met up with us at the end of the trench, evidently instructed to escort the Captain. I was of no such import that I knew of, but had the good fortune to be along for the ride. Again, he shouted at me to run. This time the moment we were clear of the trench rim.
I looked back again as we ran. Long enough to witness thousands of grave mites surging down the trench toward us like a dam had broken. I then watched in quiet anguish as the front line was overrun with corpses. Waves upon waves of the dead tumbling over the edge, indifferent to the bullet holes they’d been riddled with and the coils of barbed wire tearing at their flesh.
Behind them, a raucous procession of tanks and various other machines of war, grinding along on all shapes and manner of treads. Chaplains perched atop some of them, before podiums mounted to the upper deck of each rusty behemoth, recited melodic invocations to battle over a loudspeaker system. Behind the podiums hung the banner of the coldbloods, tattered from gunfire but fluttering defiantly in the breeze. Even their symbols are not so easily destroyed. Nor their faith, whatever it is.
One after the next, after the next. Unholy men bellowing their musical recitations, throngs of cold blooded soldiers mobbing about to either side and dancing with renewed morale. Like an unstoppable parade of remorseless depravity. Occasional lightning strikes, drawn to their extended collectors, turbo charge their advance.
Even a single risen corpse turns the stomach. Why has God allowed such a flagrant violation of natural law? The dead finally spilled out onto the surface of the Earth as foretold, but so far there’s been no sign that anybody will come to save us. By this point, there’s precious little left to save.
Unthinkable, that a just and merciful God should sit idly by as we’re consumed by our own fallen comrades. But then, I’d seen a great many unthinkable things in recent years and their frequency was only increasing. Drowning us all in a rising tide of cold, pale flesh as God either sleeps or turns a blind eye.
Some take it as reason to abandon their faith. Others cling to it more strongly than ever, insisting that Christ will soon appear in the clouds with angels blaring their trumpets just as our darkest hour arrives. Still others believe we’re being punished. That the mountain of moral debt we’ve accrued over thousands of years of bloodshed is finally being collected.
I don’t know what I believe anymore. I’ve heard it all and none of it resonates. If you’d told me six years ago that a dead man can be restored to some semblance of life, that he could again walk, talk and operate a rifle, I’d have thought you mad. I’m not even sure I believed when I saw the first row of them approaching over the horizon. Stiff, ambling silhouettes I’d been told were in fact the recently departed.
Nor am I sure that I truly believed even as they began shooting at me. Even as I pinned one to the Earth with my bayonet, thick black sludge trickling from the wound as it writhed about, more frustrated than hurt. “Asinine. Demented. Obscene” I remember thinking as I aerated it with my bayonet, black goo splattering my boots. And yet it moves.
And yet it moves! Words mistakenly thought to have been uttered by Galileo, post-trial. Defiantly affirming that regardless of what we believe, it’s what we observe that’s real. “And yet it moves” I muttered, beginning to chuckle softly to myself. “And yet it moves. And yet it moves.” No, that’s no good. Keep it together.
An idling truck awaited us across an open field. Some of the men whooped. Only the Captain seemed troubled. It wasn’t clear why until, when we’d reached roughly the middle, filthy pale hands began erupting from the soil all around us. One shrieked. The others swore, and started shooting.
Must’ve buried themselves under a thin layer of dirt. No need to breathe of course, the coldblood version of a minefield. “Shoot for the eyes!” the Captain shouted. I nearly asked him why not the joints until the first of them fully emerged from the Earth, wearing armor designed especially to shield the knees, shoulders and elbows.
We could still blind them. Headshots were made difficult by unusually thick helmets designed to prevent it, but they remained open faced for ease of communication. I’d once seen a shot enter through the mouth, ricochet off the back and exit through the eye, bursting it like an overripe grape in the process.
Gunfire deafened me, for once louder than the shells and mortars. Bullet casings filled the air like a sort of glittering mist, the escorts circling their wagons around us, Lewis guns blazing in all directions. In the distance, the truck began rumbling towards us. Salvation! So close I could taste it. Until I noticed it was avoiding the dead.
Once close enough that I could see the pale fellows driving it, they started shooting. I hollered to the others, but there was no competing with the relentless report of their guns. They only noticed once it was nearly on top of us. I don’t remember clearly but it must’ve clipped me, as the next thing I recall after that was the dream.
Surprising that it should return after all this time. I had it on and off for the first two years of the war. I suppose because it’s my earliest happy memory. The one everybody retreats to when forced to bear the unbearable. For some, the colored lights and festive music of their first Christmas. For others, their first awkward experiments with love. For me, a birthday party.
Thomas and Harry were there. Also Gwyn, my first crush. Though I’d invited two other girls to disguise that fact. At the time, it made sense. Such laughter! All eyes expectantly trained on me as Mom pulled the cake from her trusty Sunbeam oven, twisting a gleaming chrome knob on its face as she did so. All for me, to make my special day as perfect as she knew how.
But then the dead man showed up. He looked perhaps thirty, though age no longer means much after your heart stops. Pale, disheveled and clothed in a tattered suit, banging on the window. We all tensed up but didn’t look. We weren’t meant to, and knew we’d be punished if we did. Mom closed the drapes, and soon the banging stopped. Everyone appeared relieved, so I took my first shot at blowing out the candles.
Trick candles! Still a novelty then. Everyone laughed, I blushed, but then redoubled my efforts to extinguish them. The dead man began banging on the door next. Thomas was sweating, fighting the urge to look. The urge to scream. But we’re meant to keep quiet. I blew the candles out, and again they re-lit. The fun had faded, and instead become mild frustration.
A second one joined him. We forced out stilted laughter, Mom handed out additional party favors as a distraction. Always the competent hostess. I blew as hard as I could. Some went out, but the rest re-lit so I simply snuffed the remainder one by one with my thumb and forefinger.
The two outside became four. Then six. Then ten. Don’t look. Don’t ever fucking look. So long as we don’t react, it isn’t really happening. Soon enough there were hundreds. Mobbing my little home on all sides, pounding and clawing at the siding. And the door, and the windows. Harry began losing it, giggling out of control until Mom calmed him down.
The kitchen door burst inward. One of them lurched towards us, but Mom threw herself into its path, seizing it by the wrists. Even from across the room, the stench of decomposition was overpowering. I motioned as if to get up but despite everything Mom cried “Don’t! It’s fine! Everything’s fine, cut the cake!” Step by step, she forced it back out through the door, then kicked it flat on its ass.
The door’s hinges were busted such that it wouldn’t just go back on. So I had to get the knife myself while Mom, sweat making her mascara run, held the door in place as what was behind it struggled to get back in. It wedged its head between the door and the frame, jaw snapping.
Hair in her face, makeup streaked down her cheeks, Mom shouted at me to “cut the cake already! Everything’s fine! Always has been, always will be! Cut the cake, it’s your special day!” I sank the knife into the soft, pliant cake. It bled the familiar black sludge.
I awoke with a start, hitting my head on the bunk above me. Surprised to find I wasn’t on the battlefield, but also to be alive. I could feel my own heartbeat of course, but placed a hand over my chest, then checked my pulse just to be certain. Waking up after a bash like that means one of two things, and I was in a hurry to rule one of them out.
“Oh I saw him alright. Prancing about like an excitable little twit. Just had no clue what his problem was until the truck was on us. I wouldn’t put this on him, he did what he could. Still, he’s dead weight. I don’t see what’s so important about this one fuckin’ radio man that we can’t just-”
Their eyes locked with mine and widened. As if about to ask how long I’d been awake, although what came out instead was “Welcome back to the land of the living.” Less so with every passing minute. The room around me was plainly some sort of bunker, corrugated steel sheeting forming a hemicylinder with flat concrete walls at either end.
After bickering with the nurse for a bit over whether I was in a condition to stand, I was finally permitted to leave the bunk room. Just to use the bathroom initially. But then I’d added that I’d like to shave. Then that I could use a shower, and so on until she grew tired of waiting outside for me and left me to my own devices.
It was nice to be fussed over, and in truth I did still feel somewhat shaky. But although I suspected there was only one way it could turn out, I wasn’t about to lay back and watch it happen while somebody periodically changed my bedpan and gave me sponge baths. There is some part of men, a nagging voice in their head which grows louder and more insistent the closer death is.
Get up, it whispers. There’s still so much left to do. The longer you lay there, contemplating final submission, the louder the voice grows. Until it’s shouting at you. Berating, demanding, imploring you not to accept your end.
Because while that voice reviles death, another competing voice welcomes it. Death is comfortable, and comfort is death. It’s too easy. You’ll stagnate, weaken. Until after relaxing for too long you find you can no longer stand.
Life is a struggle, so to struggle is to live. A cliche familiar to anybody who’s listened to the non-stop propaganda broadcasts, but with a basis in truth. I surveyed the adjacent room and found it bustling with activity. With life that had not yet surrendered. Which would not yet contemplate it, holding out hope until the end that some scrap of our civilization can still be saved.
A great array of round glass picture tubes hung from the ceiling in a semicircle around a central control console. Men in wheeled chairs wearing radio headsets scooted from panel to panel, twisting knobs, toggling switches, reading aloud sequences of numbers from tape being printed out into an ever growing pile around their feet.
“Depot 118 is overrun. Withdrawing remaining teletanks to reinforce forward defenses at foundry 326. ETA seven hours, forty five minutes assuming they don’t encounter opposition en route.” The man next to him operated a set of joysticks. The monitor before him displayed the view out of what, when I noticed the cannon looming overhead, I realized was a tank.
Remote control by radio! With video transmission no less. Only the second time I’d seen such technology in person, the first being a world’s fair before the war broke out. Really state of the art stuff. Other monitors told the same story, with the men peering at them controlling all manner of fighting machines from aeroplanes and tanks to zeppelins and battleships.
“Triage. That’s what you’re looking at, son.” I turned to see the Captain standing behind me, brown trenchcoat speckled with black stains. “Saving whatever can still be saved. Judiciously sacrificing what can’t. Don’t think it doesn’t pain them to leave men behind. So few of us left now. But with this technology, every drop of red blood equals a gallon of the black stuff. Those dozen men you’re looking at are doing the fighting of a thousand.”
Before I could inquire how, he herded me through a doorway in the opposite wall. Row after row of glass tubes I recognized as the sort found in any home radio covered every wall. A low pitched hum enveloped me, and I could faintly hear a continuous series of mechanical clicks. “We call it Monstermind. It’s a thinking machine of sorts. Maybe too grand to call it that. But it’s enough to continually carry out the last set of orders any given tank, plane or other machine received until it’s issued new ones.”
Absolutely astonishing. I felt alarmed at the brief rekindling of hope within me. Not that I opposed it, but because it’d been burnt out for so long. What other technological wonders were being kept hidden from the men on the ground? But then, would we rush so readily to our deaths if we knew our orders came from an unfeeling machine, not so different in certain ways from the enemy?
“Is there truly hope?” I inquired. “That we might somehow pull through, I mean.” He looked at me with undisguised disdain. “What the hell sort of question is that, boy? Irrelevant navel gazing. If we didn’t believe there was hope, why do any of this? Why fight? Why carry on, why breathe, why live? If you’re in such a hurry to join the dead, there’s a shortcut I can avail you of.” He fingered a sleek black pistol hanging from his belt. I elected not to test his sincerity.
The next room he took me to looked unexpectedly familiar. Row after row of caskets lined the floor, with disused channels to the surface above them. “Gravestation 907” was stenciled in letters ten feet high across the far wall. “This whole complex was converted from a captured coldblood settlement. That’s how we got our hands on much of the technology you’ve seen so far. But there wouldn’t be nearly enough electricity to power all of it if not for the POWs.”
His meaning was unclear until I noticed the casket nearest me shaking. Like there was somebody inside trying to get out. Closer inspection revealed that it was nailed shut, locked, and wired in series with the rest of the caskets via thick red and black cables. A little bulb on the lid flickered with each blow, but stayed lit.
“The tech boys tell me they’ve still got no fuckin’ clue how to extract electricity directly from the black stuff, the way coldblood tanks do. But it’s easy enough to just pull current from their bodies.” A trio of technicians wrestled a gagged coldblood into an open casket, restrained him, then attached alligator clips to a pair of bolts drilled into either side of his neck. Finally the lid was shut, and soon the bulb on it illuminated.
The Captain seemed to sense my dismay. “Don’t look so shocked. They feed on us, we feed on them. Any man who imagines there to be such a thing as ‘rules of war’ profoundly misunderstands what war is. After we’ve won, after the dead have been returned to the soil for good and the last grave mite has been gassed, we can sit down and discuss whether what we did was morally right. Until then, we haven’t the luxury.”
The nurse finally tracked me down, and the Captain visibly strained himself trying not to laugh as she lectured me. “A shower, you said. A shave. Some shower! Some shave! Back to bed with you! Don’t think I’ll fall for that twice, either.” I didn’t resist. The tour took more out of me than I expected.
On my way back to the bunks I stole a glimpse at the monitors. Yet more asinine, otherworldly fighting machines dreamt up by minds no longer fully human. A pair of immense hoop-like wheels, resembling something you’d see at a carnival, rolled lazily over every obstruction in their path. The cabin suspended between the wheels served as an armored Lewis gun nest, spraying hot lead at infantry fleeing the various fortifications it was in the process of flattening.
“If it works, it’s not stupid”. That was the mantra of my old unit. Yet over the years I’d been witness to machines of war which seemed designed as much around the desire to deviate for the sake of deviation as they were intended to be effective in combat. “How can we lose to something so inane?” you ask, even as it happens for the hundredth time.
Hadn’t some of that rubbed off, though? I’d seen plenty today which lay well outside the bounds of human decency. “Take care when fighting monsters”, and all that. How far could it go before our only difference from the enemy truly was temperature? So seductively easy to rationalize every step along that path.
A possible outcome other than the ones I’d so far contemplated now occurred to me: the dead fighting the dead. No longer concerned with preserving the purity of life, simply out for revenge. Corpse versus corpse on the battlefield, mutilating one another’s cold, pale flesh. Even though the cause is long since lost.
I found my bunk as I’d left it, though there was now an unfamiliar new fellow in the adjacent one. Bedraggled beard, disheveled hair, restrained at the wrists and ankles by thick leather straps. I didn’t get a chance to ask why, as he immediately launched into a tirade the moment I lay down.
“They stuck you in here too huh. Big surprise, tyrants. TYRANTS! It’s understandable, isn’t it? I was under so much pressure, said some things I didn’t mean. But what if I did mean them? Is it really a secret that we’ve lost? We’re already dead but walk around like we’re not. No different from them, just warmer. But not for long.”
He struggled against his restraints and spit at the nurse when she scolded him for it. She set the tray of food on his stomach, grinned smugly when he complained he couldn’t reach it with his hands restrained, then sauntered out of the room. “TYRANT!” he shouted after her. “All of ‘em. But hey, fuck eating. What’ll happen if I don’t? I’ll starve to death? Not likely. Not enough time left to starve. They’ll get inside before then. After that, I’ll never be hungry again.”
He sounded almost excited. Repulsed, but also enticed by the prospect. “There’s a lot to recommend it, you know. Death. It’s an end to all forms of suffering. To material need. No worries about where your next meal’s coming from. Or finding a warm, dry place to sleep. You can transcend all of that. It’s all in how you look at it.” The way he put his all into selling me on the idea provoked some nameless nausea in me. Coaxed out of the most primal parts of my mind, which recoil from any hint of death or disease.
“I mean, who’s to say? Who’s to say, really, that life is preferable? You? Look around. How’s life working out for you at the moment? There are fleeting moments of beauty and pleasure, of course. Life can be better than death. But it can also be so much worse. Isn’t it usually worse? You can’t so much as break even. Better to cut your losses, that’s what I say.” If he meant to convince me that he’d been wrongly detained, he was doing a poor job of it.
After eating my own dinner and ignoring the loon in the next bed long enough that he fell silent, I lay back and let sleep overtake me. I used to have such trouble with that as a boy. Felt too much like death. I’d get close, then panic. Snap my eyes open, breathing erratically, heart thumping. Right to the precipice, over and over. Only to turn back every time.
I got over it by taking on faith that, if I surrender to the approaching wall of impenetrable blackness, I’d wake up soon after. A comforting prospect at the time. But these days, that’s exactly what I’m afraid of. As I begin to lose consciousness I see a vision of myself from above, pale as a sheet of paper and laying in a modest casket. Seemingly at peace. But should the eyes open….
“Don’t open” I think. “Don’t open. Don’t you dare open”. I notice what I desperately hope isn’t motion behind the eyelids and again implore them to remain shut. Anxiety builds, I feel as though I’m writhing in agony though I lay perfectly still. I want to scream but find sleep paralysis has already set in. The most I can manage is a faint whimper. Don’t open.
However I begged, it made no difference. The eyelids snapped open, and my heart shot into my throat. I couldn’t breathe. As if my lungs had been pounded flat. Tried to cry but couldn’t. Tried to scream, but couldn’t. Neither could I look away. Even as I felt my mind coming apart, I still watched.
The irises were jet black, as were the veins radiating from them. So too were the veins of my face, the skin so pale that they showed right through. I struggled ever more intensely to move my limbs. To close my eyes or look away. But to no avail. Instead, the mouth opened and glossy black roaches poured out.
Blackness. I’d have cried tears of relief if it were possible just then. A reprieve. Or rescue? At the precise moment that I needed it most desperately. Back to my safe place. Back to the birthday party. Everything immaculate, exactly where I remember. Except now I was alone. Neither my mother nor any party guests to be found in the kitchen, or anywhere in the house as I explored it.
I admit, it felt good to be alone. There’d been no opportunity to sit in quietude and self-reflect for literally years. All my memories of that time bled together into one long smear of explosions, screams and gunfire, defying every effort to pick out any discrete moment. Scraping, grinding, dragging itself forward however desperately I wished for it to stop.
I took a seat by the window and gazed out at the hills behind the house. A paler shade of green than I recall, as if desaturated. Then I noticed something moving on them. So distant that it was impossible at first to make it out clearly. A sort of creeping mass of tangled, thrashing stalks. Something like a forest, but consisting of black tendrils whipping about, five and six jointed limbs emerging from the slowly approaching flood of oily sludge only to melt back into it over and over.
No. I don’t allow it. Not in this place. Yet it only drew closer, gradually enveloping the distant hills like a crawling black carpet of wriggling spider legs. “I won’t abide this” I thought. As if that ever mattered. An insult to life in every respect. The final singularity of perversion and cruelty. Infinite reversal of the natural order, unraveling the world of light, color and sound as it spreads.
“Stop” I feebly begged. Knowing too well that what I wanted would never matter to it. “No closer. Can’t I at least have this house? Take everything else, but I beg you, let me keep this much.” Something ribald and licentious about it. Like an out of control party consuming everything it touches. Puckered, glistening orifices forming moment to moment simply to blast jets of black fluid into the air, which then fall back into and are absorbed by the great crawling mass.
I awoke to find the fellow who’d been restrained to the bed next to me was now gone. When I asked the nurse about it, all she’d tell me is that he’d been listening to Rigor mortis Doris for too long. As a radio man I’d tuned in to her propaganda program myself a number of times, though mainly for laughs. It’d never occurred to me that it actually had the intended demoralizing effect on anybody.
No way to put a face to a name. For all any of us knew she could be a literal talking head they’d propped up before a microphone, with a bellows connected in place of lungs. But did she ever have a voice for radio! Sultry always, sympathetic sometimes. Alternating between fiery scorn for our continued impudence, and impassioned pleading that we lay down our arms and rush into her welcoming, allegedly bosomy embrace.
Some of the men from my old unit got their hands on dirty playing cards bearing illustrations of what popular imagination held Doris to look like. Discipline was swift and severe when the cards were discovered during a dormitory inspection.
But, in the interest of matching the enemy weapon for weapon, the remaining governments of the world all put forth their own radio personalities to counter coldblood propaganda and remind their boys at home and overseas what they were fighting for. We’ve got Bombardier Betty, the limeys have Victory Vivian, and so on.
My role as a radio man was never just to relay strategic information, but also to ensure that the reassuring, motivational voices of these faceless women continued reaching war-weary ears in the trench. As it turned out, what I’d been brought here to do. The compound included its own dedicated propaganda broadcasting station.
“Please tell me you’re the radio guy. You are? For heaven’s sake, you took your sweet time didn’t you! Right this way.” I’d done no such thing and was tired of hearing it, but she gave me no chance to object. The slender bony redhead, hair done up in a tight bun, dragged me by the wrist down a corridor lined with propaganda posters. The relevance of which I only understood when she remarked that it was some of her best work.
One depicted several long, thin segmented legs poking out from under a bed, with a scared child peering over the edge. “Don’t let the bedbugs bite”, it said in dramatic, stylized text of the sort you’d expect from the poster for a scary motion picture. “Immediately report any grave mite sightings to your local extermination authority.”
The next featured forced perspective ships approaching across the surface of the ocean, submarines beneath them, airplanes overhead, and a procession of tanks on the distant shoreline. It read “By air, by land, on or under the sea, we fight for warmblood supremacy”. ‘Warmblood’ curiously in bold red text while the rest was only faintly colored.
The next few were either covers or full page ads from comic books. I found it difficult to believe there was still any market for such things. One of them caught my attention as it bore an image of Corporal Patriot. I had a big box full of Corporal Patriot back issues in my room when I was a boy. Thrown out as soon as I left for university.
The scene was an oddly colorful interior view of some sort of control room. Everything in faded pastels. Corporal Patriot had apparently just burst through the door as though it were tissue paper. Naturally the first thing he’d done was to punch a coldblood officer so hard his jaw had come off, and one eye hung from the socket. In the background various coldblood soldiers looked on in shock.
“Back to the ‘ol grim reaper with you, courtesy of Uncle Sam!” he shouts. I’d never seen grown men read these, but they must if the publisher saw fit to use them as a channel for propaganda. The full page ad in the next illuminated frame confirmed that was indeed their target demographic. Front and center was a curvaceous dame in black eyeliner and lipstick.
A dopey looking soldier holds her close, hearts circling his head. “Of course I’ll tell you the coordinates, doll face” he croons. Small text at the top reads “To our boys on shore leave, don’t fall for the oldest trick in the book.” Then much larger cursive lettering below that: “If she’s pale and cool, YOU’RE being played for a FOOL!”
I tried to get a better look at some of the more unusual ones but the pushy broad carting me down the corridor wouldn’t slow down for anything. Finally we reached the end, and upon opening the steel double doors I found myself in what I soon realized was a broadcasting studio. A sort of windowed room within the room sat nestled in the corner, the walls inside lined with noise canceling foam.
Inside sat a hefty beast of a woman that I couldn’t believe was Bombardier Betty even after my redheaded escort confirmed it for the third time. So that’s what they mean by “a face fit for radio”. She noticed us, winked, then waved to the woman I would’ve figured for her secretary if not for the hallway full of posters earlier. Co-worker? Packed into the same office apparently. I suppose bunker space is at a premium these days.
I was instructed to wait on this side of the room for the time being. From this distance I couldn’t make out what she was saying as the glass muffled her voice too much. So I instead focused my attention on a picture tube suspended from the corner of the ceiling, which seemed to be displaying a feed from some nearby battlefield so Betty could commentate in real time.
There was some mild interference but I could make out the ocean, beach littered with ‘hedgehogs’, mines and a variety of other defenses. As I stared, something immense began to emerge from the surf. I’d seen plenty of U-boats before, but none were amphibious. It crawled up onto the beach on row after row of stout, crude hydraulic legs before coming to a halt and settling into the sand.
Jets of steam from around the nose preceded its opening. First it turned slowly, as though threaded like a screw. Then on a massive actuated hinge, it swung to one side to allow its ‘passengers’ to storm the beach. Though I’d never seen them delivered this way, I did recognize the tumbleweed tanks. Spherical rolling death machines, pivoting Lewis guns mounted to either side mowing down infantry as it bounds along.
A few were destroyed or disabled by mines. The rest cleared the beach, simply rolled onto and crushed the machinegun nests along the top ridge, then roamed about picking off stragglers. All to make way for the grave mites, who were next to emerge from the guts of the amphibious sub. As I studied it I noticed the hull of another sub behind it, attached as train cars would be to one another. Legged too, I assumed. Something like a tremendous steel centipede.
Had it crossed the ocean by crawling along the bottom? Or could it swim, undulating side to side like an eel? I wondered how long movement along the bottom could take before remembering that the occupants had no need of food or fresh air. Come to think of it I’d never seen any ventilation on tumbleweed tanks, nor any means of entry or egress.
The great gangly bugs, resembling something between a mole cricket and an earwig, combed the beach searching for bodies. Each was accompanied by the coldblood equivalent of a field medic. One of them came upon the camera and, with the butt of his rifle, smashed it. The feed abruptly turned to static.
I lowered my gaze when I heard the door to the little booth open. Betty stepped out, carrying herself better than my uncharitable imagination had given her credit for, and issued instructions to my escort from earlier. “Just switched over to the evening rotation, ‘Over There’ is playing now. Next up is the commercial for Blue Coal, after that improvise a little. Maybe some classical or something. Remember, no dead air! I’m gonna step out for a smoke.”
She brushed dangling blonde curls out of her face, scratched at a sizable mole under her eye, then smacked my behind on her way out of the room. I yelped but didn’t scold her. It’s not every day you meet Bombardier Betty, even in such a fleeting manner. Soon I was on my hands and knees in the little booth inspecting the radio internals via an open service panel.
Evidently there’d been issues with hissing, popping and whatnot. I protested that I was trained in the operation and maintenance of field radios but she deemed that close enough, and added that everybody specifically trained to service the equipment in question was either dead, or deadish.
“Well the first thing that jumps out at me is the burnt mercury arc rectifier. I can’t guarantee that’s your only problem but it’s the most obvious. Do you have any spares?” She set down a case next to me. “Just what’s in there.” I rummaged through it, finding only a single magnetron and a few different types of vacuum tube. I peered up at her and shook my head as she looked on with exasperation.
“Well can’t you jerry rig something? That’s what you’re good at, right?” I smirked. “Lady these things don’t run on wishes and dreams. Only the right elements put together in exactly the right way will do the trick. Either you’ve got another arc rectifier on base, or you haven’t got a working radio.” She fretted about for a minute before struck by an epiphany.
“Now I’m no radio whiz but I’d bet my last pack of smokes that if there’s another one of those things around here, you’ll find it in the lab. My husband Fritz does his pokin’ and tinkerin’ there, so I’ve got a pass that’ll get you inside. Tell anybody who gets in your way that you’re on an errand for Gertrude.” From within her blouse she produced a photo ID strung from a lanyard and handed it to me.
Good enough for me. Got me out of that stuffy little booth for a while, anyhow. On my way out I took a closer look at some of the comic art. Lil’ Abner in a Brodie helmet, fending off legions of the dead is just one of those things you never expect to see in your life. Near the end I passed Betty, thin trail of smoke from her cig sucked continuously up into a ventilation duct.
“Hey big fella. You look run ragged! But when you get a chance, clean yourself up and swing by my room. I might have some more work for ya.” Now, no doubt some of the men on base found her overtures enticing. But that crowd doesn’t include me so, face a slightly pinker shade than usual, I hurried past.
In the central chamber with the stacks of monitors, I noticed a new addition. A board bearing a map of the world with scattered, illuminated bulbs all over it. A group of officers stood before it, rubbing their chins, pointing to various bulbs and chatting nervously. I stood just behind them, studying the board for clues to its meaning. Just then one of the bulbs flickered and went out.
“That one just went dark.” It took another two repetitions before they noticed me. I pointed to the bulb I meant, and one of them gestured dismissively. “The bulb simply burnt out. Thats all, no concern of yours. I’ll have it replaced soon enough.” That explanation might’ve satisfied me too, had he not been visibly sweating.
On top of that, the fellow he was talking to shook like a leaf, and all of them were smoking. A habit I’d noticed a sudden, widespread uptick in during my stay. No time to dwell on it just then. A bit of asking around and checking usefully placed wall mounted maps of the facility delivered me to the lab entrance.
I stood before a great metal hatch inset in a concrete wall. Something like the series of blast doors I’d come through on the way in. To one side there was a booth with a small porthole, glass that looked to be an inch or so thick and undoubtedly bulletproof. The bored, muscular looking woman within barked at me over an intercom as I approached. “Present your security pass, please.”
I held it up to the glass and she peered through with a penlight. I began to explain why I was not the slender freckled woman with frizzy red hair in the picture but she cut me short. “So you’re Gertrude’s errand boy today, huh? I keep tellin’ her that’s against protocol. What’s your business?” I explained that I needed a replacement mercury arc rectifier for the broadcast studio, and added that Gertrude must’ve sent me for fear that she wouldn’t remember which specific part was needed.
I stood there fiddling with my hands while she placed a phonecall. “Gertrude. This is Harriet. You send a scrawny rat faced lookin’ fella to pick up a part for you?” I thought to object to her description of me but decided against it. “Alright, you check out. Go on through, but you gotta decontaminate first. I suggest you hold your breath, no idea what’s in the stuff you get sprayed with.”
That didn’t sound promising. And indeed, once the outer hatch sealed behind me, I was blasted from all directions with some sort of foul smelling vapor. I covered my mouth and nose in time but didn’t think to shut my eyes, so I wound up rubbing away tears as they turned red and puffy on my way through the inner hatch. Once I reached the lab itself, I could not at first make sense of my surroundings.
It is to some degree common knowledge that the level of technology available to the military exceeds by a few decades what is available to the general public. That’s fairly academic. Quite a different thing to step, bodily, into something which seems straight out of a penny scifi rag. The room was vast but darkened, the only illumination coming from rows of internally lit glass chambers along the far wall.
I could faintly hear the same familiar whirring and clicking from the computer room the other day, as well as the all encompassing low frequency hum. However I tried to navigate the room, on account of the darkness I only wound up banging my hips and knees on every possible surface as I fumbled around. I heard a gurgle, and stood as still as I could to listen for more. When only the usual hum and clicks followed, I resumed trying to locate a light switch.
“Just stay where you are, you blasted simpleton.” I spun around trying to identify the direction it came from. Out of the black recesses of the room, a pair of dim red eyes approached. What I figured for eyes anyway until, my heart thumping more and more violently as they drew near, I realized were tiny bulbs of some sort. “I’m sure I gave you a start with this contraption on. But you’re quite lost. Who let you in here? Was it Harriet? My work is terribly delicate, I can’t have random people barging in at all-”
I cut him short and hastily explained who sent me and why. The mystery voice fell silent for a bit. “That makes sense of it. Bless her heart but Gerty doesn’t mind interrupting my work in the slightest. Never did. You wait here while I fetch the part. She was right to send you to me I suppose, I’d just have liked some advance warning.” The pair of faint lights bobbed and swayed off into the darkness in the direction from which they came.
I heard rummaging in an adjacent room. But after several minutes of it, I was no longer content to stay put. So, I gingerly made my way towards the only source of light I could see, the glass cases along the wall. I immediately regretted the decision once I got close enough to glimpse the contents.
It’d been alive at one time, I think. Certainly looked like living tissue, however abstract. The first one simply a cluster of organs in a paper thin sack, like a placenta. In various spots, what looked like partially formed insect wings jutted out from the piteous mass. The one in the next case over discernibly less malformed, but still impossible to identify as any creature familiar to me.
This one had most of a body, but every limb save for one simply terminated in a stump. The one fully formed limb looked to be the arm of a baby. Protruding from its shoulder blade was a single fully developed insect wing about the span of my elbow to my wrist.
When I got close enough to the glass, perhaps sensing it, the wing abruptly began beating. At such a rapid rate I could hardly see it, the vibration rattling the cases to either side. “And yet it moves”, I whispered to myself. “And yet it moves.”
“I distinctly remember instructing you to stay put, yes?” I felt a firm grip on the base of my neck. “What have you done” I muttered, unable to take my eyes off the biological atrocities before me. “You give me too much credit. I’d have no idea where to start creating something like this. They were found this way when this compound was first seized. The enemy hadn’t any chance to set fire to it, as they did the labs of every other colony we’d claimed until then.”
My stomach turned. I put one hand on my stomach and struggled to keep my breakfast down. “What are they?” The voice took on a thoughtful tone, plainly much more accustomed to such sights than myself. “Well they didn’t do this surgically. No sign of stitches, no scars or anything of that nature. Each possesses different features of both Homo Sapiens Sapiens, and Acarina Sepulchrum. The common grave mite.
What’s known of evolutionary history precludes the birth of successful offspring between the two, nor anything even so developed as what you see. Mammals and insects are simply too distantly related for any possibility to exist of hybridizing the two by...ahem...conventional means. Figuring out how they managed this is the primary goal of my research.”
I winced, continually trying to look away. But every little twitch of its nubs captivated me. Witness to a crime against the divine author of life, supreme trespass against the animal kingdom and natural world it arose from. No natural circumstances could birth this. For what possible reason had the coldbloods debased themselves in this way?
“All’s fair in love and war, they say. These creatures are certainly not the product of love, but of the desperate ingenuity of an enemy which, at the time, we had on the ropes. The fact that we’ve not yet seen any hybrids on the battlefield suggests they regarded this line of research as a dead end, or ill advised. Perhaps there are depths to which even the dead will not sink.
I, on the other hand, do not limit myself in such a way. Least of all when uncovering the secrets of this project could hold the key to turning the tide of the war, even in the eleventh hour. That’s what drives me, anyway. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
Even if they felt there was no need to continue down this path when existing weapons and tactics were proving successful, I hope I may yet find some diamond in this dungheap that will vindicate my persistence. That will justify everything I’ve so far done, and still have left to do.”
He handed me some bulky headgear which, when he audibly flipped a switch on the rear of it, revealed itself by a pair of dim red lights to be the same manner of goggles he himself had on. “Put these on. I’ve removed all the bulbs in the room, the others are terribly sensitive to light.” Others? I slipped the goggles over my eyes and, as I adjusted to the new light level, nearly wet myself.
Row after row after row of incubators, like a nursery. But inside of each, what I now realized the atrocities I’d seen before were merely aborted versions of. Infants, only possible to mistake for human from a distance, with various insectoid features. Some with three sets of beady black eyes and long, delicate antennae protruding from beneath them. Others with the bulbous compound eyes familiar to me from male grave mites I’d encountered in the trenches.
The one nearest me suckled on its segmented, chitinous thumb with glistening mouth parts as little vestigial wing nubs on its back periodically vibrated. Instinctively I tried to back away, but the door was on the other side of the mess before me. The great, unforgivable offense. I’d not come ready for this and still couldn’t accept it, even as it surrounded me. I began to whimper.
“Oh stiffen up. You’ve seen worse in the trenches, I’d wager. And if in the end we are swallowed up by the dead, what difference will any of this have made? If instead we can somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, who will judge us? Do the victors not write the history? Will anyone still alive by then truly condemn me for doing what was necessary to ensure the future of our kind?”
I had nothing to say. Instead, as I noticed he held a pristine mercury arc rectifier in his extended hand, I took it and followed the outer wall to the exit. On the way I switched off my goggles as soon as I felt sure I could make it to the door without them. I simply didn’t want to see any more if I could help it. As I set the goggles down just outside, I heard him quietly chuckling to himself. As if I was childish to react as I did.
Perhaps it really seemed that way to him, endless months slaving away in that darkened room of inexcusable errors warping his notion of human decency. I felt ashamed to realize that I could see his side of it, even if I didn’t ultimately agree. That, should he discover some miracle weapon, future generations would likely venerate him as a visionary and hero of the war. Textbooks would simply omit the ‘unnecessary details’ of exactly how he’d done it.
On my way back to the broadcast studio, I noticed more bulbs on the world map had gone dark. Faulty batch, they’d tell me. So I didn’t bother asking. Instead, I approached the cluster of agitated officers animatedly discussing the matter and eavesdropped as inconspicuously as I could manage.
“What do you mean, it’s gone? I received an inventory report from depot 109 by radio this morning. It can’t simply be gone.” Another reached out as if to calm him down, but be recoiled. “Overrun, just in the past hour. Manufacturing complex 320 as well. We over-extended our defenses, if you’ll recall I advised against it when it was proposed.” The other fellow made some sarcastic remark about the clarity of hindsight.
“Then we’ll recall the remaining tanks to the factories two hundred miles south and shore up their naval defense by re-routing carriers from-” The other fellow somberly shook his head. “You don’t mean to tell me…” But in fact, he did. “They didn’t stop at depot 109 but pressed their advantage, I just came back from listening to gunfire and screaming by radio. Couldn’t raise anybody of ours. Have a look at the board.”
The first fellow did a double take. Indeed, the light in question was now dark. I too could have sworn it was lit just a second ago. Our own bunker complex was the lone red bulb on the board, but it was rapidly being encroached upon by unlit bulbs on all sides. Our territory shrinking by the minute, gobbled up by the ravenous ranks of the dead.
The repairs went mercifully quickly. The magnetron was also faulty as it turned out, but I already had a replacement on hand. After giving the whole mess a few minutes to warm up, I had Betty try it out and received glowing approval soon after. “It’s going out clear as a bell! Why, I could kiss you!” I allowed it so as not to sour the occasion, and soon after was showered and ready to hit the hay.
The day had taken more out of me than I realized, mentally as well as physically. I was out cold before I knew it, visions of six eyed babies swimming about under my eyelids. Perhaps because I needed the comfort, I again found myself having the birthday dream. Alone as before, except for my mother.
She stood at the stove in her floral print apron, back turned to me, stirring a steaming pot of something or other. I edged around to one side but couldn’t seem to glimpse her face, and pestering her provoked no response. So I gave up and headed for the window. Hoping, wishing, begging to see anything else. Feelings of foolishness blended seamlessly with despair as I surveyed the landscape.
It was so close now. Within a hundred feet. From there, extending in all directions to the horizon, having already engulfed everything else. Thrashing, boiling, folding over on itself continuously. The nearest patch of it extended a feeble pseudopod and groped around the edges of the window. “You can’t have this place!” I cried, striving to be heard through the thick weatherized glass. As if that would make it stop.
By this point, could I really object? I’d done nothing to save anybody elses home. Watching from a distance, emotionally detached, as the creeping black mass swallowed them up one by one. Now that it was my turn, I at last understood how they must’ve felt. The abstract nameless nothing which they’d ignored with such determination until then, finally arriving at their doorstep. At the one place they never believed it would reach.
Satisfied that it couldn’t penetrate the window, I turned to explore the rest of the house. Only to find it oozing in under the front door. Frantically I gathered towels from the bathroom and wedged them into that crack, for what little good it did. The sludge just kept coming. I rushed to the garage to fetch the mop and bucket. When I tried to fill the bucket from the spigot by the doorway, it wasn’t water that gushed forth.
I again bashed my head on the bunk above mine when I awoke. Swearing furiously, cradling my head in my hands as the new gash bled all over them. I wanted to scream, memories of the nightmare still fresh in my mind. To cry and writhe on the floor, but I’d already seen what becomes of those who seem unstable around here. It was the effort of nearly half an hour to put myself together enough that I felt I could talk to anybody cogently.
I emerged into chaos. The corridors and main chamber were lined everywhere with gurneys, most of them makeshift. On them lay bandaged, moaning soldiers. “Survivors of complex 320 and the farms” a nurse with deep, puffy bags under her eyes hastily explained as she dressed one of the soldiers’ wounds. I asked which farms she meant, and she stared at me like I was some sort of idiot.
“The last ones. We’re down to what’s stored here, on base. That goes for medicine too. There’s just not enough beds! There never were enough beds. Really, the merciful thing to do would be to burn ‘em so they can’t be brought back. But we don’t have the facilities for that. Now either make yourself useful, or get out from underfoot.”
I did the latter. As I entered the main chamber, I felt a series of tremors. A sort of rapid “whump whump whump whump.” Then again. The teletank operators were nearly buried in wadded up data tape and cigarette butts, nonetheless continuing to smoke like a couple of chimneys. It hung thick in the air and I contemplated searching for a gas mask before deciding it wasn’t worth the trouble.
Save for a few which now showed only static, the monitors displayed what I slowly worked out was the same battlefield as seen from different angles. There, in fuzzy monochrome, I witnessed a pair of approaching zeppelins. The gas bags needlessly ornate for a vessel of war, printed to resemble decorative lace. Shiny black flying machines swarmed about the carriages slung from the underside. Only as they grew closer, it became clear that the flying machines were in fact winged grave mites.
Of course. Why did I expect anything different? It’s just one thing after another. They never stop. Never have before this, not sure why I thought they would now except that I couldn’t make myself contemplate the alternative. Worse still, as I watched a feed of teleoperated anti-aircraft guns blasting away at the incoming swarm, I noticed the series of shots matched up perfectly with the tremors I felt.
“Whump whump whump whump.” I’d assumed this was some distant battlefield. Hoped. Wishful thinking, as ever. Instead it was taking place right on top of us. I recognized two officers from the other day, still arguing with each other before the board with the map and lightbulbs. “Fuck the refugees. Fuck ‘em. They’re slowing us down. We should be making preparations to retreat to colony 431.”
The other took him by the shoulders and shook him. “You’re not listening, Danny. They took colony 431 half an hour ago.” It was no help. He looked beyond reason, fidgety and drenched with sweat. “Then we’ll retreat to the shipyard southeast of here, from there we can-” The other fellow lost his patience. “I told you Danny. I told you. They took the shipyard yesterday. It’s all gone, Danny. All of it. There’s just nowhere left to go.”
I gazed up at the map and sure enough, all lights except for the red one were now unlit. The poor wretched fellow collapsed to the floor in a mania. “How can that be? There’s gotta be something left. How can there be nothing?” The other officer initially knelt as if to help him. But then he looked around, sighed, and wandered off. A single, much more intense tremor shook the room.
I looked to the monitors, about half of which now showed only static. The first impactor had landed. The cloudy grey sky in the background was full of ‘em, like shooting stars. A second impact set the lights overhead to flickering, and showered the teletank operators with dust and debris. Not long now, I thought. Not long at all. I headed for the lab, rehearsing in my head on the way what I should say to get past Harriet.
No need. Inexplicably, both hatches hung open and the little windowed booth to one side was empty. Even the entrance to the lab was packed with gurneys. Most of the patients lay motionless, but one on the right wall writhed about, whimpering and muttering to himself. Night terrors? No, he was like the poor wretch from the trenches. Hard to imagine that wherever he was right now could be worse than this.
I called out for Dr. Fritz, but received no reply. I knew him to be an irritable man, and had expected the approaching front to have compounded his stress. But instead I was met only with eerie silence as I stepped through the doorway into his darkened lab. No hum, no clicks. They must’ve redirected power to keep the strict necessities online.
“Fritz? Are you in here? I’m just looking for a headset.” Still no response. The reason became clear soon enough. I spotted the pair of dim red lights at the far end of the room, carefully navigated through the incubators to reach it, then pulled it free from the stand it was on. Once strapped tightly to my face, all was revealed.
The stand I’d pulled the goggles from was in fact Fritz’ stiff, lifeless body. Slumped over his desk, surrounded by empty morphine syringes. All told, a fairly pleasant way to go. Probably the best of a lot of bad options. If he’d left enough for me, that might’ve been the end of it. Selfish bastard. Instead, figuring he had no more need of this chamber of horrors, I fished a hammer out of the first toolbox I found and began correcting his little mistakes.
How they screamed as I crushed them. Halfway human, but with a chittering screech mixed in. Even after I reduced the first one to quivering mush, the remains continued to twitch and writhe about. I was afraid of that. “And yet it moves” I muttered. “And yet it moves”. One by one I moved among the incubators, raising my tool of correction and bringing it down over and over.
“AND YET IT MOVES!” I shouted in a murderous fit, sticky black blood splattering my face and arms as I went about my vital work, no longer concerned with appearances. Far too late for that. Surely, far too late. “AND YET IT MOVES!” I brought the hammer down again and again. “And yet...it moves.”
I don’t know what I hoped to accomplish. The sticky black remains only continued to bubble and twitch. I suppose I was after absolution. For the doctor. For myself. For the rapidly dwindling remainder of living, breathing humanity packed together in our final, now-crumbling bastion. Reasoning that if nothing else, we might reclaim some small shred of dignity before the end.
I wiped the noxious crud from my face as best I could, then set off in search of a gun. That’d be a trick. Everybody in any condition to shoot would’ve already claimed one from the armory, and would now be cleaning, loading and otherwise preparing it for use. The impacts were now so regular that there were no intervening periods of silence. Just constant pounding from above, light fixtures swaying about violently, many having already gone dark.
On my way to the central chamber, I stopped by the broadcast studio. Gertrude was nowhere to be seen, but there was Betty, having locked herself into the recording booth from the inside. When she noticed me, she weakly smiled and cracked the door. I told her I was searching for weapons and asked if she wanted to accompany me. I was rebuffed.
“No darlin’, this is where I’m staying. The boys gotta keep hearin’ my voice to the very end. I’ve been with ‘em for so long, how could I abandon ‘em now? I can still hardly believe it. How can they get Betty? That’s what the boys must be thinkin’ still.
That the voice on their radios could never die. That whatever else gets swallowed up, they’ll never lose good ‘ol Bombardier Betty. How could they? That’s the magic of radio. Your voice goin’ out loud and clear to the hopeful multitudes, you seem to them like something more’n human. Somethin’ that’ll still be floatin’ around even when everything else burns away.
I’m no less naive. This whole time...I dunno. I couldn’t take it seriously. That it would really turn out like this. I kept thinking it would stop just short. That God, or nature, or history somehow wouldn’t allow this outcome. That someone, or something, would arrive just in time to save us. But it never did.”
A single tear snaked down her cherubic face, forming a wet spot on her blouse where it fell. Her voice drained of all life, such that I could be certain she’d resigned herself to what would happen. I asked what had become of Gertrude. All Betty would tell me is that she’d gone to be with Fritz. On the off chance that she’d used a gun to do it, I doubled back towards the lab.
As I passed through the control center, I noticed every monitor now displayed only static. The chairs, occupied until recently by teletank pilots, sat empty. The lone red bulb on the map board flickering with each successive tremor, final candle in the darkness on the verge of being forever extinguished. Most of the refugees lining the edge of the room were no longer breathing now, perished for lack of manpower and facilities to treat them.
A sudden earth-shattering explosion threw me to the ground. All of the remaining lights finally gave out, plunging the facility into darkness. The impacts slowed to a halt. For the first time in as many days, there was total silence. I pulled the headgear on, toggled the switch in the back and waited.
There were a few initial crowds of panicked nurses, engineers and so on flocking across the room from one corridor to the next. The first time I nearly joined them until I saw them gunned down. It proved to be a pattern. The invaders clearly expected us to run and were laying in wait, so instead I hunkered down among the gurneys and continued to watch.
Dust now filled the air. Still swirling about from those last few impacts, and from the blast. Clinging to every surface. To every fallen body. Into the hazy stillness emerged a team of three coldblood medics carrying queer rifles. They paused at each body, checking for a pulse. Then locating a major artery in the thigh and jabbing the rifle’s bayonet into it.
The bayonet consisted of two large diameter needles. From one trailed a long coiled transparent hose carrying the black stuff. From the other, a hose which was empty at first, but then filled with red as the rifle’s integrated pump went about exsanguinating the body. Replacing the vacuumed out blood with the foul, oily syrup I’d become uncomfortably familiar with the scent, texture and flavor of in the past hour.
The displaced blood simply blasted out the back of the rifle’s stock, spraying uselessly against the wall behind the medic. Dripping down it and pooling at the floor, steaming, still warm. When at last the blood was exhausted and some amount of the black stuff sprayed out the back instead, the pump was shut off.
Then the same bayonet was plunged instead into the corpse’s heart. One needle positively charged, the other negatively, fed current by red and black cables from a set of cylindrical lead acid voltaic cells dangling from his belt. Loud crackling commenced, and as I looked on, the body spasmed violently. Even for some time after the crackling stopped.
The medic, shiny black goggles catching residual light from the still-lit red bulb on the map board, continued around the room. One by one, reviving the dead refugees. The ones not yet dead were exsanguinated anyway, allowed to perish, then revived after that. In a staggered fashion, the bodies he’d processed some minutes ago began sitting up.
So it went, gurney by gurney, each of the medics leaving behind them a trail of freshly risen corpses. For their part, some weeped. Others stood up and began to wander. Soon enough, one of the medics arrived at the gurney I was hiding under. From this distance I could clearly hear the whirr of the pump. The slurping, churning sound of blood being suctioned from the body. The raucous splatter of it against the cold concrete floor.
Then the loud crackling. The whole gurney shook, even as I held tightly to the frame, struggling to make no sound. It took what seemed like an eternity for the medics to finish their work and leave the chamber. Above me, I heard and felt a body stirring. Two pale legs swung over the side, feet flattening as they met the floor, then the gurney lurched somewhat as the corpse’s weight shifted from it.
It took some time to re-learn how to walk. Like a newborn deer. Dead brain sending signals down a dead spine, cold clammy limbs responding like so much puppetry. Stumbling along, movements growing more precise as the creature who’d once been a man adjusted to its new existence. Raised from the dead, recruited to fight. Converted to the new flesh.
Next through were the grave mites. Feeding on bodies deliberately left untreated for them, attendant handlers loading the excess remains onto their flattened carapaces and strapping them down for transport. Where to? The farms, perhaps. Or wherever the grave mites came from to begin with.
The one nearest me made such sickening noises as it feasted. Slurping, ripping and crunching its way through the midsection of some poor wasted soul. It was a meager consolation that he’d died hours earlier. Others were not so lucky, wailing in agony and flailing about in a feeble attempt to fight off the spindly-legged nightmare creatures which eagerly tore off bleeding chunks of their flesh.
It pained me to cower there doing nothing. But without a weapon, there simply wasn’t anything to be done. I’d only wind up adding myself to their feast. So I continued to wait and watch, my breathing now as shallow as I could make it. Sounds of distant screaming and gunfire echoing down the corridors gradually grew less and less frequent. Mankind’s final redoubt falling to pieces around me, given over at last to the dead.
Twice, the grave mites seemed to smell me. Came distressingly close to my fragile little shelter, sucking in the air around it in moist sounding huffs. Each time I held my breath and remained as still as I could until they lost interest. The last scrap of freedom available to me was to choose the manner of my death, and being eaten alive ranked pretty low.
If only I could get ahold of a rifle. I might then take a few with me, saving the last bullet for myself. I could’ve also beaten Dr. Fritz to the morphine, had I known then that it really would come to this. Worse than useless, at this late stage, to obsess over the what ifs. Just then, something new entered the room. I do mean new. After all these years I thought they could no longer surprise me. That I’d seen every possible expression of their sickness.
It stood roughly seven feet tall, black pulsating veins easily visible through its bone white skin. Bulging black compound eyes leaking traces of the oily fluid as if it were weeping. Hair slicked back, slim colorless lips pressed stoically together. Clad neck to feet in a full body garment which I am at a loss to fully describe.
The texture of the material somewhat resembled the decorative flourishes atop wrought iron fences. Or something like a black tangled mass of thorns. As I studied it, I realized the constituent tendrils were subtly moving. Sliding, wriggling, the garment itself some sort of unliving organism. I couldn’t see how it was possible to move about in such a covering without injury, but he did so effortlessly.
The air seemed to vibrate around him. Distorting the outlines of the room, pulsing, throbbing. His very presence disturbing the fabric of reality. The pale creature closely examined the partially eaten bodies on the gurneys across the room. Then surveyed the chamber as though searching for something in particular...until his eyes came to rest on me.
I held my breath. Silently praying it would again allow me to escape notice. That it was something, anything else on this side of the room which had caught his attention even as he headed directly for my hiding place. No. No, no, no. The possibilities were rapidly reduced to one as he grabbed the edge of the gurney and flipped it. In a flash, I was on my feet and making a break for the nearest corridor.
I heard a furious screech behind me. Vaguely familiar, mostly human but with a hint of something else. I cared not where I ran to, so long as I put as much distance as possible between myself and that cold, white thing in the chamber behind me. But in every sense, there was simply no place left to go. At every turn I encountered either the dead, or packs of grave mites. Not another living soul to be found.
Why, then, did I run? Like treading water after a flood has submerged all land. Burning through my last few minutes of life, driven purely by the animal instinct to survive. But the more I thought about it, the weaker that instinct became. “There’s nothing left”, I thought. Nothing left of humanity to save. Nothing of myself worth hanging onto. Even if I escaped, then what? A few decades, at best, of wandering a corrupted Earth. Only to eventually succumb anyway.
My sprint slowed to a jog. Which then slowed to a shuffle. Finally, I simply stood and waited to be taken. Better that I should go peacefully, if I could still choose. Ahead of me, I saw him approaching. Calm expression, casual gait. As if he knew from the start that I’d surrender. A medic accompanied him and, as the two reached me, prepared his rifle.
I cried softly, anxiety overflowing as my final moments arrived. Surreal, yet also hyper real, my mind racing on final approach to its end. Could things have gone differently? Might I have done this, or that? Useless navel gazing, the Captain called it.
Yet because we are wired for survival above all else, it is a herculean effort to wrestle your own mind into accepting the uncompromising reality that it will die. That for me it was not years, days or even minutes away, but already here. I tensed up and sucked air in through my teeth as the needles penetrated my thigh.
I’m down to just one thing. Only one door is still open to me. All roads lead to Rome. As I watched my own blood leaving my body through the coiled transparent tubing, despite the headset, the room grew dark. Increasingly light headed, I soon felt too weak to prop myself up and instead collapsed onto my back. The shiny black goggles of the medic were the last thing I remember seeing before I blacked out.
Silence. Darkness. I drifted through the abyss for some time before realizing I could still think. That I’d not been annihilated. Death, where is thy sting? It really wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. Hyped myself up for something which, in the end, was really rather anticlimactic. As if to soften my landing, soon I found myself back in the birthday dream.
The afterlife? Or the brain’s own act of mercy to itself as the body shuts down. I didn’t care. It was just what I needed right then. I found myself beside Mom, standing before her Sunbeam oven. Shiny chrome knobs, spotless cooktop, an appetizing scent wafting down from the pot perched over the burner.
Then, slowly, the pictured widened. I could see more and more of the room at once, discovering that there was nothing more to it than the stove and a bit of the wall and floor. I stood next to Mom on that meager patch of coherent reality, as everything around it was already given over to the writhing sludge. Tendrils grasping blindly at our ankles. Seeping down the wall, into the seams between the stove panels.
“No, please” I weakly protested. For all the good it had ever done me. “I’m not asking for a lot. Just let me keep this much. Just this much” It only continued spreading. Subsuming the last precious morsel, sparing absolutely nothing. “Don’t cry”, Mom admonished. “It was always going to turn out this way.” She looked down at me, eyes jet black, veins visible through translucent white skin. As the crawling mass finally consumed us, she ladled some of the contents of the pot into a bowl and offered it to me. I didn’t have to look to know what it was.
Darkness again enveloped me, but only briefly. A great glowing horizon rapidly approached. Splitting apart as it drew near, light and colors pouring through it. Blurry at first, but as I fully opened my eyes, details of the room around me quickly resolved themselves. White walls. White ceiling. White floor too, I assumed, if I could’ve seen it from the operating table.
Everything was so refreshingly clean. An irritatingly bright cluster of bulbs backlit the surgeon peering down at me through his safety glasses. Lower half of his face concealed by a porous surgical mask, the upper half covered by something like a hairnet. All around him stood nurses and various other assistants with relevant specialties. “You really had us worried, buddy. It was hectic for a while, that infected wound was among the worst I've ever worked on. But you pulled through.”
What was he on about? How had I escaped the bunker? The bugs. The medics, the giant. The entire war. All of it began to fade away. As the details of fever dreams tend to, soon after one awakens. I wept tears of relief. There was no fighting it. I’d actually found a way out. Against all odds, a way which never occurred to me throughout the ordeal. One of the nurses dabbed away my tears with a spare bit of gauze, but they just kept coming.
“I want to go home” I managed, though my voice was so feeble I had to repeat myself to be understood. “I bet you do”, the surgeon said. “but that shrapnel was lodged deep. You’ll need at least six weeks to heal up before I can release you. Then it’s back to the front lines. Orders are orders, and you’ve got a war to win.”