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 went 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.
Stay Tuned for Part 6!