My old man was so proud when he first saw me in my dress blues, he cried a little. Jesus, what a sentimental old dork. Anyway, he wept and told me, for about the squillionth time, about how he had gotten a medal for his “leadership skills” in Vietnam. The part he always leaves out is that he led his men into a field full of land mines that got damn near every one of them killed. I guess that medal means a lot more when you have survived such a supreme **** up.
I had heard the story of his ill-begotten honor a time or two before, so I nodded and kept this big, cheesy grin on my face like I was ecstatic at the prospect of being shipped off to fight for a president I didn't even like much. I mean, dig this: I was what they call a “late in life” baby and what my mom calls a “miracle baby”. My old man came back from Vietnam amid tales of Agent Orange and God only knew what else; he'd been in country two years. They tried for ten years to get pregnant, with no luck. They even spent a whole bunch of money at a fertility clinic to try and find out what was wrong with them. What they got for their money was some old fart in a white lab coat who told them they should be thankful for their own health, especially my pop, who had come out of Nam alive and well. So when my mom got pregnant at the ripe old age of forty five, it was considered a divine gift from God.
Sorry folks, no divine gift, just plain old Andy Williams. The war was my way out, don't you see? My mom was a tired old lady by the time I entered middle school, my dad an old man with a shock of white hair when I progressed to high school. I mean, he was almost fifty when I was born. My thinking was that they might not live to see me get married, or have a kid, or any of that crap that makes parents happy. They certainly weren't going to see me get some great job, not in that tiny Ohio town in the midst of a recession. I thought I could be great over there. Hell, I could even come home with a medal pinned to my uniform.
It all started with the British. They got it in their heads that if the US won the war in Iraq, we would squander all the gas and oil we could simply because it would be available, not to mention cheap. They wanted a piece of the action. So, even though we were allies, they teamed up with France and declared war on us. Sneaky little wankers. It was, in their eyes, a pre-emptive strike; after all, they needed petrol, too.
Then, in 2010, Russia got in on the act and decided to back us up. The only problem was, they wanted to fight their way, which meant spraying a particularly nasty strain of that crazy bird flu over France and Great Britain. The flu caused uncontrollable bowel movements, vomiting, fever, dehydration, heart palpitations, and a curious skin rash, which wasn't a rash at all but a mild form of leprosy. Over 5,000 people died and many more became violently--sometimes irreversibly--ill because some Russian got an itchy trigger finger.
Like I said, I didn't know much about any of this until I actually got there, so I heard this story over lukewarm coffee in a burned out church in what used to be downtown London. The air raid horns were silent for the moment, which was rare, and the church offered shelter from the bitter wind that had kicked up. Christmas was only a week away.
“Those Russians, man, they don't care,” Charlie Franklin was saying. He had been a stockbroker in his old life. That was what they called it: the old life. Nothing would ever be the same.
“They're smart and all, but not much in the patience department, you know what I mean?” he went on. “I mean, Jesus, look at what happened two years ago, with the Germans.”
I nodded as though I knew what he was talking about and sipped coffee that tasted like brown water. I had never kept informed about politics, to be honest. There were too many good games on Playstation.
While Charlie babbled on, I started to wonder where the rest of our unit was. There were eight of us all together, and all but Charlie and me had gone out on patrol. They should have been back a while ago. I sat back and let his drone lull me into a near-catatonic state and looked at our surroundings.
The church was almost unrecognizable on the inside; only part of an altar and a huge, wooden crucifix with a sad-eyed Jesus confirmed the building for what it was. The crucifix lay abandoned on the stone floor, the victim of one of the blasts that had torn part of the roof off the church. The cross itself was amazingly intact, but the figure of Jesus was blackened by soot in some places. His ribcage stood out in stark relief, His dark hair reddened with blood from the crown of thorns. His eyes seemed to roll toward me in the dim light of the fire we had built with what was left of the pews. I thought it must have been a Catholic church. Only they would have held services under such a tortured figure of the Lord.
It was three am when the horns went off again. I had been dozing beside the last of the fire and sat up too quickly at the sudden noise. My neck was sore from where I had fallen asleep sitting up. I rubbed it a little and realized Charlie and I were still alone in the church. He was a few feet away from me, sleeping on his side and drooling onto the stone floor.
“Wake up, man,” I whispered in the dark. I couldn't pinpoint why I was whispering, but it felt right so I went with it. A soldier's gotta trust his instincts, right?
Charlie stirred, snorted...and was quiet. I nudged him with my foot and he grunted and lazily opened one eye. I lit up the green LCD light on my watch and the room took on a ghostly glow.
“It's three and they aren't back yet,” I said softly. “Should we go look for 'em?”
He yawned and sat up, looking like a sleepy child. “I guess so. Man, I was sleeping so good. Best sleep I've had since we been here.”
“We should wait until the sirens stop,” I said. I was still whispering, and still I could not have said why.
We sat in the darkness of the church for another ten minutes or so and waited for the air raids to cease, ticking off the seconds with my watch. Finally, the London night was quiet again. Too quiet.
“Where do you think they could be?” Charlie asked, now affecting a dramatic stage whisper. I think he felt it, too. Whatever it was.
“Maybe they got caught out during one of the raids and camped somewhere. Or maybe they're playing a joke on the new guys,” I said although in my heart of hearts I didn't believe any such thing.
We stood slowly and pulled our weapons into position, me leading the way. I thought, a little crazily, that I might get a medal for leadership, just like my dad did. He would bust a gut with pride.
I reached the double doors at the front of the church and crouched down low. One of them was slightly askew on its hinges. I nudged this one with the toe of my boot and it fell open enough for us to get through.
It was snowing. Silent snowflakes fell in the still air, lending a surreal quality to the early morning. The few streetlamps that still worked cast a dim yellow glow over the scattering of snow that had already fallen, making it appear dirty.
I led Charlie down the empty street, our boots crunching in the cold gravel. Up ahead a red light flashed its discordant strobe into the night. I swept the sight on my M-16 across the deserted horizon, relaxing a little when nothing moved.
I gestured toward the only other intact building on the street, which had once been a bakery, and Charlie moved around to my left, sweeping his gun as he did so. The horns were still silent; we probably could have heard an ant crawling if we'd tried.
The bakery was dark and had only one window that wasn't broken. I crawled through the big picture window and immediately jumped aside for Charlie to come through. We crunched over broken glass (more loudly than I would have liked; I still couldn't quiet the voice that was telling me to be as stealthy as possible) and moved back toward the kitchen, which stank of yeast gone bad. Some sense of foreboding caused the hairs to stand up on the back of my neck and, a second later, I found out why.
The kitchen was crawling with ants, probably the only living things that had survived all the bombings. Sugar and flour dusted the floor and mixed with a small stream of blood, which appeared to be moving because of all the insects teeming inside it. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I registered that the tile had once been a green marble pattern.
In the corner beside the huge black industrial stove sat the remains of a man. A soldier. It appeared he had contracted the flu that had been sprayed over the country a year and a half prior; his eyes were sunken, his hair mostly fallen out, his body grossly misshapen under his fatigues. His skin hung in loose flaps on what was left of his face. But that wasn't the worst, even though I read the name stitched onto his flak jacket and realized he had been in my unit; Hell, he had shared his dinner with me earlier, a can of franks and beans cooked over the fire.
The worst was what was sitting next to him, gnawing on what had been his right leg.
It was a creature that I find hard to put into words. I, dedicated Trekkie and comic book fanatic.
It was twice the size of a normal man, yet it had the features of a human male. Sort of.
The eyes were red and bulbous and protruded further than any man's, giving it an odd, fishy look. Its torso was short and bulky, but long, long legs were tucked up beneath it as it fed. It had no hair to speak of, but its head was not cleanly shaven and shiny, either; tiny points of skin stood up all over, giving it an electrified look.
Suddenly, it looked up at me. I heard Charlie suck in a disgusted breath behind me but dared not look at him.
The thing had little divots of meat between its teeth. Joshua meat. Tiny, wickedly sharp teeth. Blood ran in rivulets down its chin. The bakery had no electricity, so the only light came from the streetlamps outside and the odd, pulsing red light that I had, until now, not thought much of. It suddenly occurred to me that when something happened to shut down the air raid sirens, a hostile action of some sort, timed lights went off to announce the presence of an enemy. I almost smacked myself in the forehead in disbelief that I could have been so exquisitely stupid.
But who was this enemy?
“What the **** is that thing?” Charlie asked in a horrified whisper.
The thing in question stood up slowly, seeming to savor our fear, because even I could almost smell it seeping from our pores.
“Stop!” I called, hating the weak note in my voice and unable to help it. I just couldn't stop shooting glances at Joshua, poor Josh, and wondering what the **** had happened. If he had contracted the flu, was he still contagious? And how had it worked on him so damned fast? “We will shoot if you do not stay where you are!”
Behind me, Charlie vomited gracelessly onto the kitchen floor.
And still it came forward.
I watched with horror as it chewed the last of the meat in its mouth and swallowed.
“Try to use your weapon against me,” it taunted softly, and I wanted to scream at the burbling sound of its voice. It was a voice full of madness. “Just try it,” it invited.
I pulled the trigger and heard nothing but a dry, hissing pop.
“No,” I whispered.
It shambled on its spidery legs toward me, ever closer, and I could smell dead meat on its breath and something else I couldn't identify.
It reached out and stroked my arm and I screamed and pulled hard on the trigger, hearing nothing but that same dry wheeze, as though I had tried to fire it under water. I was frozen in place. All my training hadn't prepared me for this. I couldn't hear Charlie anymore and thought wildly that if he had passed out if would be up to me to kill this thing.
Or to be eaten.
“I am not alone,” It said. “There are thousands of us. Tens of thousands. We have been here long before you, and we will be here long after you are gone. You might call us the boys of Company B.”
It laughed at its own joke and I shivered and felt tears of shame and disgust well up in my eyes as my bladder let go and hot urine flooded down my leg and into my boot.
“What are you?” I asked hoarsely.
It chuckled. It was enough to drive a man crazy, that laugh.
“I am all,” It said simply. “I am humanity. I am you.”
“I don't understand,” I whispered.
“People rarely do.”
I cracked then. Screw the Medal of Honor, I thought. I didn't want to die. I had made it this far and I would be damned if I was going to lose my life, not in this stinking war, but to some sort of monster.
“Please don't kill me!” I screamed. “I don't want to die!”
“Then you should have never been born," It said.