Jason sat with his head down in the darkness of the cargo hull. It looked as if he was sleeping. His slender frame rocked back and forth due to the turbulence that shaked the plane from time to time. His eyes were firmly closed, but his thoughts were through realms of invented and fleeting images. He looked for explanations among the blurred flashes of colored movement in his mind. Each one of them was a memory of a life that would not come back. The memories remained, but the reality of the world that had created them, was gone for ever. In his gloved right hand there was a little rubber ball that he squeezed until his veins in his arm felt as if they were to burst. Each specific thought, with its accompanying blurred flashes of color were followed by methodic squeezes of the rubber ball. He meditated like this for hours.
Jason knew exactly how long he had been sitting in the darkness of that C-130 military cargo aircraft. Five and a half hours had passed since they took off from an undisclosed location in the north of Africa. The big propellers had cut through the dry north african desert-air and the plane soared towards the skies like some winged beast from primal myth. Blackened against the red african sky, soaring towards the nameless tenebrae beyond. The paint and the military markings on the fuselage were flaking off in such way, that it was almost impossible to recognize it as one of the few still serviceable cargo airplanes in the dwindling US Air Force inventory . As it had become common during these strange times, it had been barely checked by the pilot and crew for structural damage before take-off. The pilot and copilot just stood calmly on the tarmac. They complained about the scorching heat, chatted and smoked. Not a care in the world. Not a single mechanic was around to supervise their departure. Even his commanding officer had, during the briefing, looked distant and uninterested. His greasy long hair undulated by the wind from a desk fan. His uniform looked stained and ragged, his beard had grown larger and wild. For a time now, It seemed as if the human race had started devolving towards a state of complete anhedonia. A perfect blackness had started to simmer through our common subconscious, the weltgeist had become corrupted, speaking in an alien tongue and chanting some unholy rite. A subtle but progressive unravelling disintegration of those values that for so long had maintained the human race alive in this planet . “We are slowly moving towards the abyss” Jason thought. “We are utterly fucked and they want me to document it”.
The decline, started around a year ago. Overnight, satellite communications with Europe and Russia had ceased. No one knew the reason why. At first, it was thought that a solar storm had knocked out communications satellites. That reason was quickly discarded because GPS and communications satellites worked fine everywhere else. Planes flying over the atlantic from Europe had vanished over the vast ocean without any trace. Merchant ships carrying goods over the Atlantic suffered the same fate. When experts looked at satellite imagery of the area, they were dumbfounded by what they saw. Over the entire European continent, there was some kind of peculiar atmospheric phenomena that had been unknown to humanity. Meteorologists speculated for the reasons for why a dark cloud of gas had covered an entire continent, obscuring any attempts at getting a glimpse of what had happened on the surface.
With worldwide panic and communications severely hampered , the economies began their slow decline towards a horrible recession. China’s economy now saw one of its biggest markets disappearing. The economic contraction led to millions starving in Asia and South-America. Africa had become a giant cemetery. With the only serious investor in the continent (China) pulling out, the small african economies collapsed. The same tragedies that had struck the continent so many times before, now struck again with a brutal, apocalyptic force. The only bastions of life that remained were foreign and crumbling military bases like the one Jason had taken off from.
The trade war that followed, as governments attempted to reverse the effects of the global economic meltdown, led to an implosion of the globalization process. Taking the world back to the dark ages in terms of trade and wealth. The unemployment rate in the US rose up to unimagined levels. But people had changed. Such draconian economic measures that decades before would have led to revolutions and dictatorships, did not seem to bother people. Nothing seemed to matter anymore as people prefered to die in their houses, glued to their TV-sets and their computers. The news talked more and more often about entire families perishing of starvation or thirst, not because water or food weren't available but just because they wouldnt move.
Jason had been sheltered from these changes to a certain degree. Newspapers would arrive at the base sometimes, although most of them weeks old. Internet access was very limited and used almost exclusively to download intelligence data from the few active units around the area. The military had been the last institution to undergo horrible budget cuts. When the time came to realize what had happened it was too late. The base in northern Africa stopped receiving new supplies of food and water from their under contractors. When the issue was raised with HQ, the response was that they had been simply forgotten. Shortly after the base commander told this to the remaining demoralized and ragged troops, many deserted. Choosing to become bandits and raid the north african countryside for a living. Those few patriotic souls that remained faced a terrible present. Haunted by the horrifying prospect of starvation and death.
After some days that seemed like months, during which they had resorted to bargain equipment with the locals for food and water, they received an emergency call from HQ in Washington. The drowsy guard at the communications bunker had fallen asleep. It was after several shrill rings that he finally woke up from his stupor and with tired hands picked up the line. Even when he did that, the guard almost hung up in disbelief. The unit was to be reactivated with immediate effect, as a matter of fact, trucks with supplies, fuel and water were already on their way along the dusty north african roads. The reason for this it was told, was that the US government had decided to make an attempt at finding out exactly what had happened in Europe and possibly save any survivors. The few remaining operative bases around the globe were to send highly trained operatives deep into the unknown wasteland in search for survivors and to document the catastrophe. Earlier attempts had been made, without success. From what was known, the scouting parties had been lost without trace. The few survivors were found in different parts of the world, wandering aimlessly, grey and malnourished. Rambling incoherencies.
The reason for this new initiative was not thoroughly explained by Washington. As the hollow voice spoke through the speakers, the few people allowed to listen to it were immersed in their own doubts and thoughts. The air was heavy in the conference room, some of the participants in the meeting sat bare chested, their feet on the table and smoked marihuana. A ceiling fan just pushed around the foul air. Sweat trickled from furrowed brows. Jason had been sitting during that meeting. Looking at the dirty floor and biting his nails, a bad habit he never had been able to kick. He knew that this entire project was probably the last ditch effort by some bureaucrat in one of the intelligence agencies to avoid downsizing and unemployment. A sudden and unexpected death spasm by the corpse of the US government. By feigning humanitarian reasons and obscure “truth finding” motivations they were going to send him to a suicidal mission. But then again, it could be seen the ultimate sacrifice. He could die, to let other people live, for just a little bit longer. Until they too, met their inescapable demise.
The mission had been hastily put together. Jason was one of the few available operatives left. His physique had long ago deteriorated. His body was very thin and he had no contact lenses available so he had to use thick rimmed glasses. He had lost the muscular mass that he had been so proud of, the ribs stuck out under his skin and the arms were flaccid and scarred. Inactivity and boredom made him indulge a bit into the habit of pot-smoking in the base which also contributed to his decreased lung-capacity. But despite all the obvious physical flaws, he still was by far the most experienced operative in the base. Jason remembered his time as a Green Beret in northern Iraq, helping the kurds and coordinating airstrikes on Iraqi forces. That period he remembered fondly as an action filled wholesale-slaughter in which he was allowed to unleash tons of fire and steel on mostly analphabetic farmers and workers, their only sin ever committed, to be born under the dictatorship of a psychopath.
Later he joined the paramilitary branch of one of the many intelligence agencies under the US government. He had lived in Europe for many years and knew the continent’s idiosyncrasy well. During that time he did surveillance, kidnapping, intelligence gathering and the occasional torturing. He was not proud of that, but he knew very well, that taking a person's life, was something he was very good at. Fortune had not given him good looks or a delightful wit. He was born to kill, might as well do it for a seemingly “good cause”. Hunting european-born islamists had not been easy. At least it had taught him to be patient and wait for the right moment. Patience would turn out to be his most precious asset, he remembered. The mission’s duration had been described by his commanding officer as “The time it takes to achieve the objectives”. Open ended.
“Smart dude, that bureaucrat in Washington” Jason thought and slowly opened his eyes to face the tenuous red light inside the cargo bay.
The Crew chief’s silhouette stood like a ghost in the scarlet obscurity. The ghost signalled him to get up and check his equipment. They were flying over his designated area of operations.
Jason checked his equipment, which was simple but highly practical. Firepower was not prioritized as he was there to gather intelligence and document what happened. It was imperative for his survival ( he laughs) and the mission’s (another laugh) survival to maintain a low profile. He wore an old 90’s style woodland uniform. His gaunt face was painted green and black. He carried as a primary weapon, an old M4 rifle with simple iron sights. He had on him ten magazines of thirty rounds each, they were snugly packed inside pouches, that were themselves attached to a light bullet-proof vest. He also had in his leg holster a simple 9 millimeter Beretta M9 with 5 magazines. A spare bullet had been sown on the inside of his uniform jacket, the use for it was as unglamorous as it was simple, when the nightmarish essence of his life, became insufferable to the point that death would be the only exit, he would use it. In his backpack there was also night vision equipment, in the form of a spotting scope and goggles. He also carried food, an encrypted military radio, spare batteries and ready to eat meals.
The cargo door creaked and a rush of cold air entered the cargo area. He checked the straps of his parachute and made sure his equipment was in place and firmly attached. He put on a gas mask and adjusted his jump helmet. Once the cargo door finally opened, he could see the blackened desolation beneath. Although the cloud cover seemed to be pretty low, he could see at times what looked like lightning strikes in the ground. They were inexplicable phantasmagoric flashes of light that adorned the puffy and grey cloud cover beneath. Once the Crew Chief gave the order, Jason took a step and jumped. Without thinking and with the suicidal relief that came from exiting that nefarious cargo airplane. He silently cruised the darkened skies of a wasteland.
As his body cut silently through the air, he could take some time to admire the lack of a definite landscape. Because the cloud cover was so low and the flashes of lightning were so intermittent, he struggled to see the necessary landmarks he needed to attempt a safe landing. That meant that the parachute would have to be deployed higher up than he felt comfortable with, which again made him vulnerable for longer. But then again, what could possibly be down there? What survivors of earlier scouting parties had seen, the exact horrible details had not been revealed to anybody. The few functioning parts of the US government had at the time gone to extreme lengths to silence them. Off course rumours were heard. Things that did not exactly make sense.Things that evoked terrible misgivings. What Jason had heard however, was shrouded in his own scepticism. Stuff of legends, he thought. The product of that long process in which a story is told to one person and then gets distorted in terrible ways until the essence of the original tale gets lost for ever. He prefered not to think about it and suppressed any more attempts by his consciousness to evoke again those thoughts. He now concentrated solely on the mission ahead.
His body jerked with a violent force. He felt relieved again once he saw that the parachute above him had been deployed correctly and that he now was slowly descending through the darkened cloud cover. The red sky above him disappeared and for some moments he was covered in a terrible and putrid fog. Miasmic greenish gases caused by some horrible cataclysm now seeped through the filter of his gasmask. He choked and could not contain the terrible necessity to puke, but he held down the bile. He maneuvered the parachute in order to accelerate his decent and what he saw once he was through that toxic cloud cover, took away a part of his humanity. A greyish landscape were there once had been pastures and fields, intertwined with blackened green spots and clusters at different distances, which he supposed were forests or trees of some sort. Much like mold on stale food, it has spread to leave its peculiar brown and black marks all over the landscape. Tumorous hills covered with ashened stumps. Square objects dotted the landscape at different intervals, they too clustered in some places. Those objects he assumed to be farmhouses and villages, but the darkened essence that emanated from everything he saw was just abnormal and wrong. A memory of a land. A faded dream of a country, or perhaps a very real nightmare.
Finally, like the post-mortem scarring on a newly embalmed corpse, he saw what once had been highways crisscrossing the dead landscape. He could discern what looked like slow movement, lumbering along dead roads. Moving towards some unspecified objective. Whether it was human movement or not, he could not say at the moment.
Upon looking at that vista, he felt that same feeling he would have once he got to know that an airstrike had killed innocent civilians or that he had tortured the wrong person. Those events had shattered a part of him. The landscape that grotesquely sprawled beneath him, welcoming him, was of an absurdly dissonant blackness. A pure blackness. For some seconds he remembered books he had read many years ago back in college. The type of books that made you regret you ever picked them up. Books that at the time had evoked in him a terrible sense of futility and meaningless existence. Books that opened the soul to an unhealthy introspection, digging into fears we humans had long tried to control. The words “Pure Blackness”, “Leng” repeated themselves in his head over and over again as he descended. Then he noticed that peculiar howling or chanting that he could hear through his helmet and ear protection. It seemed to be all around him, but somehow it felt as if it was coming from within his own tired thoughts. It was a low moan, like whispers from a faulty speaker.
He ignored it. The ground raced towards him with terrifying resolve. It seemed impossible now to avoid that sprawling black glistening pit beneath. He pulled the handles on the parachute in order to slow the descent, which he managed to do, but it now looked as if the splashdown on that nefarious pit was unavoidable. Before he knew it. He was racing towards the lake too fast. once he was between twenty and thirty feet above it he made a decision. He quickly unsheathed the knife he had attached on his leg. With a swift movement he cut the chute. Had he landed with the parachute on and the equipment on his back, he would have surely drowned. Landing with only the weight on him might give him a chance. He just prayed that the black pond or lake, was deep enough.
The putrid black water engulfed him in seconds. At first the coldness of the water shook him completely to the core of his being. He panicked and swallowed the fetid black water. Chunks of grisly and slippery material worked its way into his mouth and throat. He was paralyzed for a few seconds. He tried to swim, but he noticed immediately that there were other things with him in the water. Things that were soft to the touch but completely immobile, as if they had been congealed in the lake. Once on the surface, he gasped for air and swam towards the green parachute that floated in the water, which he noticed, had an abnormal viscosity to it. While he tried to retrieve his backpack, he prayed for it not to be sunk as he dreaded the thought of once more diving into the stinking water. After fumbling and splashing about, with the clumsiness of the cold and weary, he finally managed to grab his equipment and he swam with his legs and one arm towards the shore. His breath was short and he felt dizzy. He had removed his gasmask before the splashdown in the water. His muscles burned and ached terribly. Gasping for the foul air he finally reached the elusive shore.
He laid down for some minutes. He laid down on his side. He wanted to cry because of the pain. Because of the pure void that engulfed the world and that he felt had a life force of its own. Jason catched his breath and managed to get a quick glance of his surroundings. Long trained senses started to kick in, awaking him from his tupor of self pity. His heart was beating too fast for comfort. He was way out of shape and definitely not up for these type of missions anymore. But perhaps, with a little bit of luck, he prayed, it would be his last. There were not many sources of light. He glanced at his watch and saw that the time was 05:00 AM. But there were no signs of dawn when he looked at the red and grey sky. The miasmic cloud cover above reigned supreme. He could not see past it, but once in a while a feeble ray of the low sun on the horizon would sneak through and illuminate the landscape with a moribund yellow haze. Sometimes a small glance of the crimson sky beyond could be seen between the thick cloud cover. He touched the grass with his trembling hands and noticed that it was so brittle that it merely turned into ashes when he touched it. Around him, the signs of a cataclysmic event were obvious, but what the catastrophe itself had been was not clear. Most of the vegetation retained its original shape, but greyish colorations were visible, and even the faintest gust of air would turn the smallest leafs into clouds of dust which would dissolve into the air and get into his nostrils and itch intensely. Wildlife was not present at all, besides from the few distorted and exuberantly big birds that stood on branches from the barren trees. He had seemingly landed on what was once a lake, surrounded by what once had been lush green meadows. It was all gone now, and all that remained were ghastly shadows of a dead world.
The air in general was corrupted and stunk of death. But it was not that peculiar smell of death after a firefight. Cordite, offal and copper. There was a peculiar odour that Jason felt was intrinsic to this specific area in which he had landed. He grabbed his flashlight and turned the weak red beam towards the water. He breathed heavily and with his gloved hand he adjusted his glasses and parted some of the wispy wet hairs on his forehead. To his horror, he saw that what he had felt and touched while in the water were the bloated and rotting carcasses of several animals. What he had ingested had not been anything else but the stale and liquefied remains of wildlife. Jason hunched over and put his hands towards his cramping stomach. Vomit exploded from his mouth. He stood on his knees, dry heaving for some minutes. Tapping on whatever little strength he had left. The evidence was clear once he decided to face this horror. Small paws and hooves had made their marks on the ashen grass. They came from all around, especially from the direction of the forest surrounding the area. Once he regained his composure, he directed the weak beam towards the rest of the water. Carcasses floated and some of them were washed to the shore. Deer, cows, dogs and cats in different stages of decomposition floated in the water. His head pounded and that same horrible howl he had heard while descending once again appeared in his mind.
Instinct and training, fought their way through the several layers of horror in Jason’s mind. With trembling arms from a body depleted by energy and shivering with fear, he picked up his backpack and rifle and went down in one knee. He gave himself five minutes just to listen to his surroundings. He wanted to make sure the sound did not come from his head. This was confirmed by the rustling of trees and creaking of large birds that could be seen crossing the dark morning sky, which for a few seconds managed to dampen the howling of those voices. He held his rifle at the ready. Shifting directions at regular intervals. He decided to walk towards a tree line about 300 yards west of his current position in the lake. Shaking legs lifted up his carcass from the dead ground. His emaciated silhouette looked like a tired pack animal in the dim light of the early morning. He used a dried up causeway to conceal his movements towards that tree-line. His eyes quickly adjusted to the low light and the grey darkness that it seemed was intrinsic to this new world. Once on the treeline, he produced his GPS that lit up his gaunt face. He proceeded to track his position that the touchscreen on his device, it showed that his location was 30 kilometers south of Berlin. He thumbed through the colour map of his GPS that showed the different contours of the terrain. He shifted the map view from topographic to satellite view and realized the stark difference between the terrible wasteland around him, and the cheery colors in the electric screen. He decided that the best course of action would be to seek any high ground around the closest settlement. Once there, he would make a camp without a fire and set up a concealed surveillance position in order to track any movement along the highway. He would also be able to send a scheduled report back to base. The route he set up would allow him to take cover in light forest, keeping the highway a good kilometer to the east. Avoiding detection by whatever lifeforms that still lived, was imperative.
The sun’s light never grew stronger. From time to time he would stop and turn his radio on and try to scan the different frequencies to hear any emergency broadcasts. It was in vain. Only shrill white noise came out of his earbud. He walked avoiding high ground when necessary, using the undulating terrain as cover. The ground turned in patches from brittle grass to volcanic stone. His boots left deep marks on the ground that did not disappear. His thoughts would sporadically shift back to images of the lake. He thought about the way in which it seemed as if the wildlife had realized there was no way out. “It killed itself” he muttered.
The chanting was all too real now. No longer a part of his head, but rather an all existent part of the air he breathed and embedded with the light all around. It was monotonous and was definitely not in german or any other language he could think of. The words uttered in the mystic chant, rolled out of the distorted tongues of many but without a definitive shape or consistency. More like a harrowing murmur in a dead language. At times he would walk with his head down. Looking at his feet. Even if he knew that it was completely against his training, he had to do it in order to maintain his thoughts focused in one thing at the time. The words from a psychologist came into his mind. He attended sessions of therapy once he came back from his first tour of duty. He had resolutely decided not to bury his head in a bottle but actually talk to an expert. His anxiety had grown larger, the reasons for it remained unknown to him. After his last tour of duty depression hung over him like a gargoyle perched on his thin shoulders. The slick psychologist, that must have been far younger than Jason, had during a specifically trying session, in which they spent what seemed like hours, talking about his violent thoughts, said some very wise words: “Your attention is like the beam of a flashlight in a dark tunnel. If you flash it around the beam will go everywhere and you will never find the path. You have to keep it directed towards one point at all times.”
These words helped for a while. It had helped to remove the fleeting thoughts of dismembered bodies and crying wives. The horrible urge to smash in the head of someone at the store. The thoughts of american flags on top of plastic coffins. Later, more combat and anti-depressants did the trick to dampen those thoughts. Right now he had none of those.
Perhaps it was this blunder of letting his thoughts get out of hand that allowed him to see what he otherwise would have avoided. Had he been more careful he would have seen the dark contours of the barn in the middle of the clearing. The doors were wide open, welcoming him or perhaps they were the jaw of some unknown predator. Jason did not see the barn until he saw that the weak canopy of trees and the fading shade it made, was no longer present. He looked at the gaping entrance of the barn and instinctively unslung his rifle and barrel rolled to one side. His right eye squinted through the rabbit ear sights of his rifle and it pointed straight towards that blackened entry. He stood there in silence for some minutes. The only sound to hear, was the weak breeze, his own breath and the horrible chant in his head.
Should I yell? Should I enter it?
Guided by the peculiarly strong will that we sometimes cannot comprehend, yet makes us do things we later regret, he walked with hesitant steps towards that gaping barn. His feet crumbled away the grey grass without leaving any footprints and the trees and clouds looked more distorted than ever. A landscape painted by an unhinged mind. Flashes of light illuminated the area at intermittent intervals, making shadows of abhorrent and macabre shapes along the dead, grey ground. The chanting was omnipotent and maddening. The putrid wind shaked the lifeless trees and they swayed like phantasms in the grey morning.
He walked sideways. His rifle at the ready. through the sights he could see the darkness of the barn, yet still, shapes of unknown form were highly visible inside. He stopped once his sore right shoulder touched the rotting wood of the barn. The opening stood threatening in front of him. Threatening with sights of nightmares we do our utmost to avoid. Before he cut inside and showed his own menacing silhouette to whatever was in the barn, he retrieved with sore and reddened hands out of a pouch on his chest-rig, two chemlights which he broke with one hand and threw them into the gaping black hole. Low, muted thuds were heard but no response came. He cautiously cut inside the opening. It smelled sweetly of hay, rotten meat. Flies were everywhere and they elegantly placed themselves all over his face, hands and his rifle. He slowly lowered his weapon, swatting away at the fat flies with one of his hands. He realized that unless the dead now walked this dying continent, the figures that had been savagely hung from the ceiling hardly would do him any damage.
The chemical light cast an eerie and weak light inside the barn. The blue glow illuminated the rotting faces from which thick tongues hung out and the yellow bloated skin was liquefying. They hung swaying weakly from thick brown ropes around their necks.The clothes of the unlucky victims were stained with their own dried blood and the liquids emanating from the release of their bowels. Jason walked towards the fly infested victims. There was absolutely evidence of torture. The corpses showed head wounds and what might have looked like burns on their feet and hands. Jason had seen the signs before. He had seen what the Iraqi Republican Guard had done to the kurds. The images from another life again appeared in his mind. It didn't take long before he made his conclusions.This german couple had been hung up there in the barn after some barbaric and gruesome torture. But for what reason? The withered and fungus infested wasteland stretched itself from portugal to the ukraine. Under these conditions, what could drive a person to commit these atrocities? hunger? fear? vengeance?
The answer to that question was closer than he imagined. Jason saw it as he staggered off away from that terrible barn. It had been crudely painted in blood on the left side of the rotting black building. Written crudely on the rotting wood, flakes of white paint from years ago were still visible. With scarlet letters from which there were still dried and pink pieces of fat and meat embedded, there could be read: “Es gibt keine andere bestimmung , als die Tsalal”
Right under those letters written in the wall, he saw where the materials for writing that had come from. Her little head had been split open. The contents of it used as paint and her little dismembered arm used as a brush. Without saying a word. He turned around and trudged along his way. Away from the nightmares of that barn and that forest. The chant still echoing in the distance.
He thought about the message on the wall and its inconclusive meaning.
“There is no other destiny than The Tsalal.”
Tears streamed down his face. He held his rifle unslung in one tired arm and he used the brittle vegetation for cover. Jason had lost faith in humanity a long time ago, yet there had always been something that contained the savagery. Either the threat of a war crime conviction, or a human rights group gathering evidence to show the brutality of war in all its gory splendor. But here, brutality and violence were unfettered and unchained. Mutilation and torture ran rampant like horses on the prairie. A family slaughtered. A warning painted in an infant’s blood. A chanting madness. Our nature. Humans.
On the grey flat horizon there were abnormally large birds that danced like witches in the sky. The undulating ocean of greyness and despair stretched as far as he could see, yet on the most distant horizon, the eerie silhouettes of a dead city could be seen. Closer still, he could see a crooked highway and next to it there were the dotted blackened squares from which plumes of smoke soared from towards the star patched, crimson and black void above. Fires could be seen on the village but no humans were visible, only the smouldering remains of human habitat were left. To his left there was a tree covered hill from which he intended to survey the area. He wiped the tears from his face with a dirty hand. Each step was more difficult than the last one. Each step killed him a little bit more. He felt one with the landscape. Moribund and weak. From the moment he had landed in that horrific death-soup, he had felt his will to continue, diminished and eaten away by the fungal infection of the earth. It sucked his energy to give life to the emerging darkness. He looked at the sky and noticed how the stars that were still visible in the sky even if it was late morning, looked strange and less bright. But stranger still was that smoking ghost village in the valley below. He noticed how the gases and putrid fumes were not just hovering above the world, but spreading in all their omnipotence, spreading to engulf the earth. While he walked, he hummed the rhythm of the chant. He did not know the words because those were not human words, yet he hummed along. Tsalal. Perfect Blackness. It felt as the only sane thing to do. The dissonant tones left his throat coarsely and they soothed him in an unsettling way.
Once on top of the hill he collapsed on his knees and willingly let the weight of his backpack push him forward. The weight and the force of the impact mushed his nose against the dusty ground. He felt the breakage of cartilage and sinew as the ground scraped his skin. He layed on his face, collapsed. Worshipping and breathing the infected earth. The dust and its millions of particles composed of withered bones and flesh infected his lungs and coated them black. He prayed for relief and death. He cried some more, letting the returning ghosts from his past come back.
Whether the strength to set up camp came from the remaining will he had left in him, or it was just a consequence of the invigorating and strange chant he mumbled while walking, he did not know. He found a flat spot on top of the hill overlooking the village and the highway, where the bushes still had some vegetation to set up his surveillance post. He laid on his back. It was supported by some rocks and his sleeping bag, on top of him he had set up a camouflage net that barely covered his height when sitting. It would have to do. He put on his headset and turned the radio on. The green battery light lit up graciously. So strange to see a lively color in a land of death. He clicked the buttons to the preset frequency. He keyed the radio.
“Voyager one calling for Mothership six message, over”
Jason clicked the handset one more time. No feelings were noticed. Calmness. He did not want to hear the voice on the other side, because he suspected what would happen.
“Voyager one calling for Mothership six message, over”
A crackling sound was heard on his headset.
“Go for Mothership Six, Voyager One?”
Answered a tired voice on the other end. Jason sat still for some moments in the darkness of his low camouflage tent. His hand around the old radio. He keyed the handset one more time, he gulped.
“Sector 5 is code red. High chance of survivors but I don’t see the possibility for it to sustain life any longer. There is no apparent reason for any of this. Have set up surveillance position along autobahn 23 south of Berlin. Over”
“Acknowledged Voyager One. Other operatives report of similar activity in their respective sectors. Not all callsigns have reported in yet. We are counting on you. Over and Out.”
The voice on the other end sounded uninterested and hollow, even more than usual. Jason fantasized about it being due to the thousands of kilometers it must have travelled through the ether but he knew that was not the case. Darkness is spreading.
A click sounded and he cradled the radio. He turned it off. His eyelids became heavier. The chanting was now hypnotic. He put on a wool hat and crawled inside his sleeping bag. He closed his eyes and thought about the birds in the horizon. He thought about how large they looked and he wondered why they seemed like winged demons from an outer dimension, he wondered about the mirage-like city on the horizon and the smouldering fires. He thought he heard soft murmurs coming from beneath the earth, a foul whisper from an infected and dying planet. He thought about the sickness spreading from the ground towards immense expanses of time and space, beyond earth. Blackened stars and smiling moons. These thoughts disappeared however, as his fatigued body collapsed into a heavy unconscious sleep.
He woke up in the middle of the night to the sounds of screams and laughter. Sounds of music, song and torture. The sound of a cheering crowd. Jason tried his night vision scope with as few movements as possible. As suspected, nighttime did not differ in anyway from daytime in this place. Perhaps the only difference, was that the dim stars and the idiotic moon looked like faces laughing at him. He crawled a few feet from his position. Rifle in one hand, Night Vision Scope in the other.
Without looking through the scope, he saw that there was a grey mass of undefined shape snaked along the highway it's consistency that of mud and from which thousands of grey, yellow and brown protrusions could be seen. He lifted the scope and zoomed in, the mass was not a unified entity although it felt like one, rather, they were a horde of people, walking along the highway. The low stamping of feet could be felt on the earth. Shadows danced among the ruins of the villages below. He produced his scope one more time and looked through the green tint of the lense.
In the village there seemed to be some kind of congregation. Among the smoldering fires, thin and long shadows started to appear among the blackened houses. Although the true nature of the congregation was unknown, he could certainly discern the shapes of people in great frantic exaltation. He zoomed in and could see the ragtag group of survivors holding what seemed like captives from their necks. The faces were grotesquely distorted. Faces stained with big blotches of black and blue, eyes sunk into gaunt faces on top of thin bodies, that did not seem to have eaten in months. Some of them played flutes, some other played drums and danced whimsically, dressed in all types of absurd regalia. Some of them were armed with rustic clubs and spears, some held rocks in their hands. He saw a thin woman wearing a soccer-jersey and a bloody wedding veil on her head, nude in from the stomach down while she danced and moved her bony body around in horrible ways. He saw a man holding a captive by the hair that was kneeling in front of him, the captor was dressed as a judge and wore a ridiculous green wig. He was slapping the captive while the captive simply smiled and seemed to be laughing. Other captives had been tied firmly to the dusty ground by their hands and feet, while others spat and kicked them. These captives too seemed to be enjoying the absurd and brutal abuse. Jason gaped and in disbelief rubbed his eyes and adjusted his glasses. He produced a little booklet in which he made annotations from time to time. He followed the congregation from his vantage point. Not for a second did he move as he feared these savages to take him prisoner if discovered. He moved his rifle closer and chambered a round. The touch and feel of the lubricated steel was calming and remained him of times in which he was in control. He kept vigil. The group of the deranged seemed to be warming up for some kind of ritual. The captives they held seemed to be at peace with their fate as none of them fought. They too had disfigured faces, barely a reminder of their former humanity. But they also looked better fed than the rest. The dancers and musicians dressed in absurdly clothes kept their horrible display. Even their instruments were adorned and Jason thought he had seen a trumpetist play on an instrument from which severed human fingers were hanging.
Jason kept looking at the gathering of the insane dancers, musicians, captives and captors. The maddening cacophony of distorted sound and nightmarishly cheerful display was a bizarre sight given the dead and pale surroundings. The light from the fires in the village reflected on these people, made long haunting shadows on the barren ground. However it did seem appropriate for these entities to behave in such fashion, Jason was unsure of the exact reason. While looking upon the darkened holes in which dead eyes lingered, he could see that their humanity had not been lost, but rather purified, whichever doomsday event that had happened, had taken these people back to a primal state of humanity.
Walking along the highway there were thousands of ragged and thin skeletal people, meandering in a dull procession. They avoided the rusting cars and corpses that littered the road. Some of these walking skeletons laid by the road, collapsed and struggling for breath. The unison death-rattle of these wretched beings filled the atmosphere with an eerie humming. Mothers held their children in weakened, scaly arms. The children themselves, in their faces reflected a resignation as if there was no point on cursing their dreadful existence. They were all walking to the same unison rhythm of the chant. The chanting was coming from their own bloated tongs. They all sang a song that they did not understand, but they knew its message. Images from another world appeared in his mind. The similarities to a religious celebration were uncanny.
Suddenly, a big commotion erupted from the burning village. Guttural screams could be heard and hands pointed towards the highway and the brainless chanting masses who walked there. An echo from another world was closing in. It was a deep rumbling sound. Jason moved his scope towards the direction of the highway. Through the greenish and grainy haze on his lense, he saw the bodies of the chanting devotees being flung far and land in distorted, unnatural shapes. Some of them were being crushed under a darkened mass that fought its way along the highway and out of the thick mist. Clanking sounds of metal and a hollow splatter was heard under the chanting that never stopped. Out of the mist two gigantic headlights illuminated the highway and the lumbering human mass on it. The gathering in the village, every single member fell down to their knees and they stopped their dancing and playing. They too were chanting now. The figure that appeared out of the mist crushing everything and drove now mindlessly and without any care out of the highway and towards the village was a gigantic mining truck, of the sort that could be found in great open pit mines.
If everything he had seen up to this point had suggested a terrible absurdity, then what was onboard of the truck was even more disturbing. Adorned on every side, hanging from windows and the metal of the chassis there were the trophies from earlier sacrifices. They hung dead in the most grotesquely and broken shapes. Their hides and scalps had been placed in such a way as to protect the rusting metal of the truck. Thick mats of hair, nipples and genitalia adorned the massive truck, covering panels and windows. The scalps of these disgraced beings, were strung together with wire and hung like christmas decorations from the bloody and rusty edges of the truck. These grotesque trophies, combined with the powerful light emanating from the massive vehicle, made for a terrible and forgettable sight which shook Jason to the point that he almost heard his own heartbeat pounding away in fear. On the platform on top of the vehicle there was what looked like a crude cage, made of rusting metal and animal bones. Inside there were other captives, naked and fat. They looked as if they were feasting on something. Their meaty hands and faces were smothered in a viscous scarlet smear and those faces seemed happy and content, although their repugnant and shining grins did not hide their ultimate savagery. Even more unsettling were the sharp angles and shapes that insinuated the contour of some obscure altar from which leathery masks had been hung and adorned it. Upon closer look, Jason saw that the masks were indeed human heads.
Some other figures dismounted from the truck. They too were dressed in strange garments. They faces were painted with white make-up trying to hide the disfigurements and sores over their lanky faces. The trucked parked with a strident clattering of clanking metal and dirt in such fashion that blocked Jason’s line of sight, so he could not see what happened with the submissive captives behind it. Meanwhile, the crushed and mangled mass that had been walking on the highway, those that could still walk rose up with ungraceful spasmodic movements and even with broken limbs and torn chests, they kept walking as if nothing had happened. The chanting that had been interrupted for some time now resumed, even if some of those who chanted had broken windpipes or lay by the side of the road and could barely breathe. The white painted ghouls were seen dragging the captives from their hair and arms towards the truck. Some of them smiled as they were manhandled and dragged in the most demeaning ways. They were loaded up the ladders with the help of other white ghosts who yelled guttural sounds to the moon and the stars, their deafening howls filling this terrible night in which the birds flew above this horrific display like valkyries over a battlefield. Jason’s instinct was to look for his radio, grab his rifle, kill one of those savages, but deep inside Jason knew it would be futile, because even through the grainy green pictures were not at all clear, the eyes of those people were not human. They had been infected by that fungus and empty void which had filled every cell of any organism in the barren wasteland of the european continent.
The captives were manhandled and loaded by white bony arms onto the roof platform of the truck which stood parked on that village like a white cyclopean monster in the desert, the headlights illuminating the carnage around in all its inglorious violence. The moment the captives stepped on the platform, a ridiculously clad figure with a clown mask, which wore the dired hide of a woman as a shirt, howled with a guttural force that would chill the blood of any warrior and pointed towards the blackened stars and the dead sky, with brute force smashed the head of every submissive captive and was thrown into the cage with the fat people inside. Immediately the terribly smeared chubby faces started gorging on the new flesh that had arrived. Their round bodies shined in the pale light as they feasted on the captives. More guttural sounds were heard and the flutes and drums continued their hellish cacophony, the dancing continued with furious intensity and the truck backed off slowly towards the highway. The ritual had been completed for this time, but its existence was as eternal as mankind itself and Jason knew that as long we existed, the same ritual of death and feasting would repeat itself over and over again. It had been happening since the eve of time, always in the shadows, always hidden, but know in this new Europe of the deranged, it was the religion of the masses. Jason wished he had been an anthropologist so he could make sense of all of this.
The truck’s huge wheels made uneven crevasses in the muddled earth in which the putrid black water and blood spilled started sipping down to making fetid pools, the roar of the engines like the grunting of a dying elder god. It was then during this moments of terrible brutality and dehumanization of everything Jason understood and believed in that he moved the crosshairs of his rifle, towards a particularly grotesque fat head which was munching on a pink and fat piece of large intestine. He did not longer look through his scope but used the lights that emanated from the village to find his target. He swore he had seen the eyes on that ghoul light up with fiery rage, red with hunger and the hate of mankind. He was not sure whether he imagined it or whether it was the ghouls pure and illogical existence that had given it glowing scarlet eyes but he used them as a reference for zeroing his sights and then with the calmness of the killer who has sent many other souls to meet their makers, he squeezed the trigger.
The bullet travelled the distance in less than a second, breaking the monotony of the chanting and the drums for a fraction of time in which pure cryptic silence reigned. One of the obese figures with the red smear on its face, its head exploded disfiguring the rancid skin and skull to an undecipherable shape. Jason quickly realized his mistake, the effect of which had been diminished by the strange satisfaction of being able to impart his own justice upon this world of nightmares. He knew he had some time left and nervously grabbed his spotting scope to confirm the kill. Indeed the fat man laid dead inside the cage, his comrades already ingesting him. He was no longer a privileged one, but nothing else than food.
White lanky faces sniffed the air and smelled the cordite. Spasmodic movement was seen on the gaunt shapes down in the burning village. The truck had stopped. The mass on the highway had stopped. Their brains had deteriorated but not so much as not being able to recognize when death was upon them. A group of those savages quickly sprinted in the direction of Jason’s hill, although he doubted they knew exactly where he was, it would not take them long to figure out his exact location. Jason retreated a few feet. He grabbed a couple of anti personnel mines and placed them facing the savage’s possible route of ingress. He grabbed his backpack rifle and provisions, hurriedly packed them together and sat on a sprint away from that place. The guttural sounds and screams where coming nearer and he could hear the rage in their growls. He had broken their sacred ritual and killed one of their high priests. He imagined the fate of those captives and the couple in the barn, even though death seemed at times like the most enticing escape, his primal instinct of survival edged him on. He sprinted as fast as his feet would allow him. He looked up to the sky and a white light blinded him for a couple of seconds. They were shooting up white flares into the night sky and they were looking for him. He sprinted through the dead and brittle grass when he saw some howling shapes armed with crude lances and rocks on his right. Their figures not completely visible yet even through the flares illuminated them sometimes, allowing him to see the gaunt bony bodies, painted in grotesque fashion, the wild eyes and the yellow teeth of his pursuers. He wanted to grab his pistol as he run and fire off a couple of rounds towards them just to scare them off but he knew it would only compromise his exact location. He now had two groups of pursuers that searched him through the dusty tall grass behind the hill. Two muted explosions were heard in the distance which he assumed to be the mines he had placed. A short moment of glory. He sprinted and his muscles ached and his lungs were close to falling out of his mouth. His heart beated and he could hear the throbbing pulse in his ears. He shifted direction to a dead forest in which the blackened stumps stood in the dark like rotting puppets. In the darkness they looked as if they smiled and perhaps it was nothing but an hallucination, but he thought he had seen white smiles coming from those dead trees.
He entered the forest gasping for oxygen. His body close to collapse. When the moment in which pain became too strong, he turned around, dropped his backpack and took a knee. White hot flashes illuminated the dead oaks and pines. Birds flew away screaming. Hot lead flew through the air, some of it hitting sinew, flesh and cartilage others burying themselves in the dried eternal dead wood. Howling figures went down and turning around in pain. He could hear them scream but it did not bother him, rather, a strange urge for violence engulfed him. He quickly changed magazines and he walked slowly as he gasped for air towards the moaning savages laying on the forest ground. He scanned the area and sharpened his ears to listen for sneaking footsteps. He heard none. Just the wheezing moaning of the dying. He retrieved his knife and with a rage as eternal as the world and as powerful as a human can conceive, he proceeded to scalp the moaning figures. The fetid leathers and its wispy hairs were thrown away. It disturbed him and enraged him even more, that the savages managed to force smiles as he scalped them, their eyes did not beg for mercy, not a single logical word pleading for relief was heard from them, just moans and ridiculous smiles. They wanted to die. Now Jason smiled.
Jason jogged out of the forest to end up in a shallow valley protected from the forest and the hordes of pursuing savages. The sweat had evaporated from his body and now stained his skin with white fading stains in places. Beneath his painted skin he could feel an itchy feeling, as if maggots crawled between his muscles and skin. He bit his teeth together and thought about the savages. They were like us but without any false pretentions of community or love. Jason thought about this for some seconds and the word “Tsalal” once again filled him. He wanted to chant as he walked aimlessly. He wanted to laugh and to kill. It was no longer a mission in his head.
Behind some dead bushes and the rusting carcass of a bus he found a cave. The cave had apparently been used by some other survivors that had not understood this new world. They too had failed to see the beauty of the Tsalal and the pure blackness, Jason thought. Their bones were bleached and laid half buried in the dirt. Clothes were strewn around, a camping stove, a mattress, children’s toys. The sun had killed the moon for now, but its light which had become even weaker made again no visible difference to the atmosphere and dread of the dead world because the same pale and agonizing light covered this little valley.
The adrenaline level in Jason’s blood diminished. As this happened he found time to realize what had happened. When he scalped those things...he felt so alive yet felt no guilt. Those feelings of regret and guilt belonged in an old world that will never come back. In this new world a new set of rules reigned. Rules as eternal as time itself but none of those could be comprehended at the moment. We would have to die and be reborn a million times for it to be understood. The chant in Jason’s ears was omnipotent, the words were still scrambled and unintelligible because they were never meant to be uttered by human vocal chords, the message of it however, was felt at a molecular level, in every fiber of his being. It did not need translation.
Jason sat in the grotto looking out towards the sprawling darkness. The crumbling remains of former pasts now gone, laid scattered about the area just like the remains of his fragile civilization. He grabbed the radio from the backpack that had become much lighter. When he clicked the key on the handset an agonizing eternity passed and no answer was heard. He left the radio with the speaker volume turned up perched on his vest. The wind howled with the death rattle of earth and everything humanity knew. The sound that came from the radio was at first that blurry screech of white noise and then Jason heard it, first faintly but after minutes that seemed like aeons, he heard it, clearer with each breath he took. The chant was coming from the radio now sung with the dried vocal chords of his commanding officer. Soon all the voices from the base seemed to be singing the chant to him. Miles away but yet so close and all around him. Jason looked at the sky and saw the blackness of the miasmic fog spreading and at that moment he knew that the Tsalal was here, to show humanity the path it had lost millennia ago. It was a darkness that had been from the beginning, but we did not acknowledge it. He could see it spreading to every corner of the globe, beyond Europe and in all directions, beyond our planet and into the constantly shifting void of interplanetary space. Towards life that we had not discovered and life that we knew. The Blackening was god and devil, The blackening was us. Jason closed his eyes one last time and a faint smile appeared on his cracked lips. The chant kept coming from the radio until the batteries ran out.