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.”
Stay Tuned for Part 2!