The Mad Desert
If you're reading this, then I am dead and all is lost, and you are standing in the ruins of Mecca. I am - was - the XO of the First Division, First Lieutenant Ryan Simmons.
Please read this carefully. If you are an officer or enlisted man in the United States Army or Air Force or Navy or whatever, this is an order.
Destroy this city. Do not finish this letter. Get outta this whole country and annihilate it. Consider this a Defcon Zero end of the goddamn world scenario. Nuke it. Nuke it all. Blow it all to hell.
We were eight days out of Medina, tracking an intermittent and scrambled distress call from the IDF 36th Division, deep in the desert of the Arabian Exclusion Zone. We found it - or rather, we found a twenty mile-wide streak of oil and fragments, the largest of them still burning. The night before, the enlisted man on watch had reported seeing a flash of light on the horizon. Israeli tanks and jets lay scattered across the dry ocean.
The men of the division were nowhere to be found, except for one lone private, unburned at the far end of the debris field. He had been shot in the forehead with a small caliber revolver. He was still clutching a knife in one clamped hand. What we were able to piece together from the fragmented and confounding evidence was that for reasons unknown, they had been in conflict.
Visibility was only a few hundred feet as we spent the next several days, drifting silently among the debris and dunes, in hopes of finding any sign of life from Saudi government officials or clerics or civvies or anyone. The Islamic State had attempted an invasion of the peninsula to take back their holy cities from Satan. And just like that, the Islamic State vanished and collapsed, its fanatics vanishing into the Zone. As the world lost all contact with the Sauds, oil prices skyrocketed, and it didn't take long for the feds to send us in.
The men were already visibly shaken by the discovery; the grim dread of the fog, and the remnants of the Middle East's militaries unsettled even the most seasoned of us. We had expected an easy victory, and the simple investigation into the lack of contact with the Saudi government. What we got, at first, was a silent and oil-coated desert, a single corpse, and more than a few nagging questions.
The holy city of Mecca lay next - Johnson thought it'd be the best place to search before our excursion to Riyadh. There was nothing initially remarkable about the spot, a cold and lonely set of co-ordinates just outside the outskirts and little else. I was in my tent, just settling down when the call sounded from the Captain, offering little information, just a stern order to meet him.
Dressing quickly, I emerged from my tent into a cloud of palpable unease and fear. The enlisted men and the junior officers were coursing through the camp like panicked rats. No one made eye contact, or spoke. There was none of the usual gallows humor, or camaraderie, that bubbles up in situations of limited information, just a grim inertia that pulled us out into the arctic night.
The night was unnaturally clear and cold, and the bright of the stars burned in the frosty air. Around us in every direction, just a few hundred yards away, the fog and clouds whorled, as if held at bay by our presence. The Colonel was at the center, leaning over along with the men on watch. I approached him, suddenly desperate and panicked to know what was happening, when I saw it, the light flooding up from around us.
The desert was flat, like the surface of a mirror. The sand was black, reflecting the pale pinpricks of the stars, but beneath the surface, something glowed with a cold light. Pulsating shapes of violet, green, and deep cobalt blue shone from beneath. They flowed and merged and shimmered silently, deep below the glassy sand ocean.
We stared, dozens of men and women, struck dumb and horrified by the sight. There was a sense of scale that emerged from the fluid movement of the lights; they seemed to be many fathoms ahead of us, which would make them terribly large and impossibly fast. There were no solid shapes, and no disturbance of the water, just a deep field of liquid flowing light.
We watched for what seemed like hours, entranced by the mesmerizing ballet of cold light across the sand. When it ended, abruptly, there were three almost simultaneous events. First, the lights seemed to contract, each mote freezing in place and collapsing like the iris of an eye in bright sunlight. Secondly, there was a tremor in the air, that first raised the hair on the back of my neck. As the ghostly lights winked out of existence, it rose in intensity, until I thought my eyeballs might shake their way out of my head. Through the fog of sudden pain, I heard a noise rising above the frigid wind, a humming vibration from the dead city itself that matched the electric shuddering in my skull.
Every lightbulb and headlight in the company suddenly flushed with power, flaring bright and buzzing noisily in their housings, and when the whine had reached a fever pitch, they began to pop and shatter among a shatter of sparks. From start to finish, it lasted less than two seconds, and we were left floating silently in the sand, our company rendered immobile and useless in a single moment.
The damage was invisible, without any obvious cause, and total. Nothing aboard any of our vehicles worked, each carefully crafted system of multiple redundancies had crumbled. Every light was shattered, and even the replacement bulbs, and the small flashlights we all carried held fused and useless filaments. Satellite phones, shortwave radios, laptops, all means of communication were useless bricks of plastic and wire. Every battery was dead, every stereo system was silent. We were adrift, isolated from the world by a hundred miles of black wasteland and dark ruined monoliths.
We moved through the city that first night like moles, fumbling through dark corridors with only a few pale green chemical lights. They relayed each disheartening message like a fire brigade through the darkness, to where the Captain and I stood before the decimated kaaba, trying to make sense of the senseless. At last, when nothing else could be done, I fumbled my way back to my tent, and tried to sleep, the darkness feeling like an oppressive many fingered hand, slowly gripping my chest.
The next morning, I again took stock of our situation, hoping for some fragment of hope we had passed by in the night. The damage was total. We would have to find a way to send a distress call, and hope that we had not moved too far from our last known coordinates. The men may not have known the full details, but it was clear from their haunted visages that they knew how dire the situation was.
The first death was that afternoon. The sounds of screaming brought me out of our tent and into a thick heavy fog. High in the gloom, I could see bright burning specks of light, descending slowly. My stomach turned; it was two signal flares drifting uselessly through the haze. Some fucking idiot fired the signal flares. I burned with an unfamiliar and foreign rage, and rushed through the fog with hatred in my blood and my fists clamped tight.
The scene that emerged from the fog broke me from my stupor. The enlisted man, a flare gun still in his hand lay broken in a pool of blood. The Captain stood over him, driving the heel of his boot repeatedly into the broken mess of the boy's skull. I realized then that the screaming I heard, the high keening wail was coming from the Captain, his face in a rictus of animal rage. Around them was a small crowd, standing motionless and silent, watching like sentinels.
The Captain turned to see me, and dropped into a crouch, his fingers wrapping around the flare gun and he raised it level with my eyes.
We stared for a long moment at each other, our eyes locked as he panted heavily, his face lightly spattered with blood. The only sound was the wet gurgling exhale of the enlisted man's death rattle, a bubble of blood forming on his ruined face.
I'd served with this man for nearly a decade. This was not the man I knew. This was a hollow simulacrum, filled with violence and terror. I spoke to him then, in a soothing voice I asked him to hand me the flare gun. He said nothing at first, and then spoke, his voice a tiny trembling sound that was swallowed up by the thick gloom around us.
"It's done, Ryan. The fog… the light has died…"
He shook his head and clenched his eyes tight, as if he were trying to shake himself from a dream. Then he shuddered once, violently, his back arching like a seizure.
"This little fuck has killed us," he choked out. The flare gun wavered in the air, and I took a step closer, reaching out for him. He opened his eyes and I froze again as we stared silently at one another.
"You're going to die here." He giggled quietly. "I always wanted to watch you die, you fucking coward."
He tilted his head back and laughed, one hyena-like bark to the grey sky, and then put the flare gun in his mouth and fired, the last flare igniting and temporarily bathing his head in a halo of magnesium orange and smoke. He tumbled back over the railing.
I stood for what seemed like a very long time. It slowly dawned on me that I was alone, the silent audience having melted away into the dark, no doubt taking the grim tale with them. I feared for morale, an absurd concern, I realize now, but could not move from the spot, as if sheer force of will would cause the fog to regurgitate this man, my friend.
The first gunshot broke me from my reverie.
In the emergency packs, I found that a handful of flare guns remained, and I stuffed one into each pocket, and entered the dim passageway to the streets. Over the hollow retort of gunshots, other muffled sounds began to emerge, the choking sobs, the screams of pain and anger, all bringing the faint impression of the copper smell of blood.
The dark was oppressive and thick as my heart rose in my chest. The pale fading light of the chemical glow-sticks that hung at regular intervals illuminated the buildings, and I moved slowly toward the rendezvous.
It had been sacked, and my service pistol was missing. The next two houses held the corpses of the fire team leader, their broken forms still in their bunks, skulls opened like blossoming flowers under their own bullet wounds.
I felt the distinct and irrational desire to run, to turn my own gun to my head. I gripped a flare gun and held it out ahead of me, less like a weapon and more like a talisman, and began to pace slowly down the corridor of the apartment, to the enlisted bunks.
The door was wide open, and the smell of blood and fear and shit was nauseating. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the dim, I saw a field of bodies, torn, shredded, and shattered by bullets and makeshift clubs. A few of the men still moved, twitching slightly. I watched in frozen terror as one man, his face a mask of blood and rage, turned up his head to regard me, and with a weak cry of rage, began to drag himself with his arms, trailing a broken and shattered leg, towards me.
From the shadows, another form pounced on him, a boot digging into the wounded man's back with a wet cracking sound. I recognized the attacker's face in the green chemical dim, a quiet and bookish young man. Like the Captain, this was not the man I knew, this was a beast that wore his skin.
He reached down and grabbed the wounded man's jaw, thumb slipping into his mouth. The wounded man growled, a feral mindless sound, and tried to bite down, but his attacker gripped tight, and pulled.
The jaw came off with the sound of tearing tendons and a ululating shriek that vanished into the air.
I was no longer breathing, holding silently at the entrance, but the attacker snapped his head up to see me, nostrils flaring. The jawbone hit the floor with a meaty sound, and he lunged toward me with silent animal grace.
I fired the flare gun, and it hit him square in the chest. His shirt caught fire, and all air escaped his lungs with a sudden forceful exhale, but impossibly, he continued on towards me. As I passed through the portal and slammed the door, the fire had climbed into his hair and he was squealing now, his clawed hands still outstretched towards me.
I felt him impact against the door, and saw that nightmare visage wreathed in fire through the small porthole, lips already burnt away to reveal two rows of perfect teeth. He wailed and began to smash his burning form against the door. Once, twice, three times, and then silence. I raised my eyes to the porthole, and saw only the faint image of the burning shape as it disappeared into the darkness. All conscious thought evaporated and I fled from that charnel house.
Three men were swept up by the flabby claws before anybody turned. God rest them, if there be any rest in the universe. I can't even describe it - no fucking words.
I have barricaded all entrances, and doomed myself to slow death at the hands of the enveloping cold. I can still hear them there, screaming and banging on the doors. They are not men, and this is not the mission I thought. I console myself with this thought, as I leave them in the dark to starve or murder each other.
If you have read this far, and God forbid, not left this country, then I beg you again: Leave now, while you can. There are none of us left to save, and certainly none worth saving.
It's cold now, the fading day surrendering the wan grey light to the dark. There are no stars now, nothing but the heavy blanket of night. If I could slip outta here, I would find some way of destroying the city like Medina, but it's too late. The most I can make of my last moments, as all feeling flees my extremities, and writing becomes impossible, is a warning.
Tell no one you found us, and never return. There are things and primal desires older than man, and forces beyond the grasp of our simple minds; and they dwell here, beneath the black stone. The Muslims knew from the start, for they and their prophet worshiped them. It called to all of them in their great jihad.