The story so far:
I felt my legs give out and blissful darkness overtook me. But it would not be blissful for long.
I began to dream immediately, and the dream was of the beginning, and it was bad. I was pulled into the mind of a man named Andy Williams, a man who had only wanted to do the right thing...and paid dearly for it.
It was three am when the air raid 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. A glance at my watch had me worried.
“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, Andy. 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 streetlamps, the ones 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 some deadly disease; 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.
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 hell we had just stepped into here. “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 the weapon had no ammunition or 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.”