Portrait of Two Soldiers Chasing a Flare at Dawn
At around 0100 hours a crimson flare streaked across the night sky, and hung briefly against the night just beyond the border before it's red glow winked out. From the northernmost watch tower, the flare was just barely visible on the horizon. A faint red dot calling out from the darkness. The watch tower wired news of the flare to the old fortress, where they debated until just before sunrise what should be done. Finally, a lieutenant who had recently been transferred to the fort, fed up with the inaction volunteered to personally go investigate the source of the flare. She was met with no objections.
Within a half hour, she had gathered two days of rations, a canteen, a compass, kindling and a lighter, a 9mm pistol, one magazine with seven bullets, a sleeping bag, and had fueled one of the two olive drab motorbikes that the fort maintained. She debated bringing a map for only a second before deciding it wouldn't be of any use. Just as the sun broke over the horizon, the Lieutenant was about to set out when a young private called to her.
"Lieutenant Carver, please wait!"
The private was scrambling across the open courtyard of the fort in full dress uniform, and carrying her own rucksack—the buckle of which she had failed to secure in her rush. The lieutenant glanced towards the northern horizon just briefly before dismounting the bike.
"Something I can help you with?" the lieutenant asked as the private ran up, panting slightly.
"Lieutenant Carver, ma'am, I'd like to ask permission to accompany you," the private said, straightening herself up and performing a an improper salute—her hand against her forehead rather than the tip of her eyebrow.
"Sorry, only room for one on the bike," the lieutenant feigned an apologetic tone, and out of politeness did not yet turn away from the private.
"We have a sidecar at this fort ma'am, I'm sure you saw it as you were preparing the motorbike."
The lieutenant eyed the private up and down. Her uniform was very prim and proper, with fresh creases on the pants and not a hint of lint or loose threads anywhere on the dark green jacket, which she was wearing fully button including the incredibly stiff collar. Her light blonde hair, had been made into a neatly braided bun..
"You've done your hair," the lieutenant said.
"Ma'am, in peace time we are to serve as models of our nation's dignity and prestige. I take this to mean we should look as presentable as possible at all times."
The lieutenant herself was also in dress uniform, as was required during peacetime, but her jacket was undone and she was wearing a simple, black t-shirt underneath. Her own dark hair was loose and unkempt, and the slight bags under her eyes betrayed the lack of sleep she had gotten the night before. The private was a head or so shorter than the lieutenant, and despite being only three or four years the lieutenant's junior, the gap between them seemed to emphasize the private's youth, making her barely appear any older than a child, and rather unflatteringly compound the lieutenant's maturity.
"You can stop calling me ma'am,” the lieutenant said, “I'm not technically on active duty. I'm supposed to be here for R and R."
"Shall I go get the sidecar?"
With a sigh, the lieutenant gave a curt nod, and the young private scampered off. She leaned back against the bike, arms crossed, and briefly wondered how it was possible for her days in the military academy to feel so far away. Within a few minutes, the private returned, pushing the sidecar from behind, and wordlessly the lieutenant attached it to the bike. As the sun finally broke off contact with the horizon, the two set out towards the northern border.
The northernmost watchtower was just over sixty miles from the old fort, and though it could've taken an hour to reach it, the lieutenant didn't like to go fast. The rising sun cast an orange glow over the sprawling, flat plains, and the morning breeze caused the tall grass to undulate giving the plains the appearance of a great, bronze ocean through which their single dirt road cleaved a path. The fort rapidly faded into a distance, and for almost a half hour, maybe longer, there was nothing around them. No signs of life, human or animal. A few times, the private tried to strike up a conversation, but the wind swept her words away and cast them out into the plains behind them.
By the time they reached the watchtower, the private was slouching in the sidecar, caught in a deep sleep. The lieutenant decide not to rouse her. It wasn't until the lieutenant started the engine of the motorbike again that the private awoke.
"We're not stopping?" she said, pulling herself upright and covering her mouth in hopes of stifling a yawn.
"Already stopped. No one's home."
The private blinked once or twice, trying to cast the last bits of sand out of her eyes.
The lieutenant hummed a noise of affirmation. Sure enough, the old wooden watch tower had show no signs of life save the few cobwebs hidden in the dark corners of the supports.
"The watchtowers are never supposed to be empty, shouldn't we wire the fort? Let them know?"
"I'm thinking it's the other way around. The fort wired the watchtower and told them to pack it up."
"Why would they do that?"
The lieutenant cast the private a sideward glance, only to find the private's earnest eyes locked on her own. She turned off the ignition.
"How much do you know about the border?" the lieutenant asked. The private broke her eyes away from the lieutenant and cast them northward.
"I don't know... about as much as everyone I guess? There's us, and to our south is the enemy, and to the north is the border, and beyond that there's nothing."
"But look." The air above the horizon seemed filmy, obscured. "There's not nothing out there beyond the border. This is the border more or less right here. We're standing on it, and we can look out there and there’s land."
"It's a wasteland though, inhospitable. Nothing can live there," the private rebuttaled instinctually, but then looked at the miles of tall grass stretching out before them.
The lieutenant started the engine again. “I don’t think people know why we don’t go pass the border. And I think that scares them.”
Barely jutting up over the horizon was a slight deformation, something that looked like a small, black tooth of the land. As they set out again, the tooth seemed to grow bigger and bigger. A few minutes after they had crossed the border, the tooth grew large enough that the lieutenant took notice of it, and as soon as she did something wrenched in her gut. Cropping up from the ocean of grass (that had now turned golden-green with the rising of the sun) was some sort of formidable dark mountain, and the sight of it made her feel dizzy. On the eastern horizon, white-gray clouds were gathering and slowly rolling forward.
The further past the border they progressed, the more the tooth grew. As it did it seemed to become more geometric, and split and fracture. Soon it was no longer a black tooth, but several dark, rectangular stakes that were embedded in the earth and stretching miles skyward. Closer and closer the private and lieutenant approached, and higher and higher the black monoliths rose into the sky. The dirt road gave way to some sort of dark stone that resembled hardened tar, and was adorn with faded white and yellow glyphs. Perhaps a mile away from the fearsome cluster that the tooth had become, the lieutenant noticed a large, green sign and pulled over by it.
"Why are we stopping?" the private said, clutching her arms around herself. The clouds had rapidly blown in. Now they blanketed the colorless sky, and the temperature had dropped significantly.
"I wanted to see if I could read this," the lieutenant said, nodding towards the sign.
"I can't even tell what it's written in."
"I took cryptography at the academy. I can read it phonetically but I don't know the meaning. It says 'welcome to Ashland.'"
"How can you read the phonetics but not know what it means?"
"It's the latin alphabet. We still use it for ciphers today, but it used to be part of several different languages. The letters all sounded the same between them, but the words and grammar were different. Makes it hard to identify." The lieutenant stared intently at the simple, green and white sign. She reached out a traced the letters with the tip of her finger. "This is a grave of the old world. Back when we were still able to make things like this," she tapped the motorbike gently, and suddenly the rust and wear of time on it seemed to grow more apparent.
"You mean this is a city? Was a city?"
"Sure was. They've got buildings like this in the capital but not nearly this size."
The private wasn’t looking at the sign. Instead her eyes were locked on the surreal labyrinth of dark pillars in front of them. "We should turn back. We should report this."
"There's no way the upper brass doesn't know this exists,” the lieutenant said walking back towards the bike. “Might be why they don't want anyone going up here. They're afraid of people catching the Blues."
The private had curled herself up into a ball. The wind was picking up, and starting to howl faintly. The lieutenant reached out and ruffled the young girl’s hair.
"Look, if you want to head back, I'll get off here and you can take the bike back. Just send someone to get me after a few-"
"No," the firmness in the private's voice surprised the lieutenant. "I'll stay. It was wrong for you to be sent here alone, and it would be even more wrong for me to leave you behind." The private uncurled herself in an effort to look more stoic, and the lieutenant smiled as she mounted the bike.
A faint drizzle began to fall. The shadows cast by the forest of buildings before them began to fade and melt away into some sort of amorphous shape that threatened to swallow them up. The lieutenant brought the engine back to life, and cautiously pressed forward. As the outside world meandered away from them, and they became entangled by the city, the private turned back to watch the ocean of grass fade away. The lieutenant kept her own eyes forward.
Very quickly, it became impossible to continue on the bike. The streets were littered with cracks and potholes from where the vegetation had gestated beneath the surface then finally burst forth through the dark stone that paved the streets. The lieutenant had tried to detour around the areas where the roads were too distressed to be traversed, but the constant twists and turns made it hard for her to keep track of which direction they were heading, and fearing they might get so turned around that they ended up back where they started, the lieutenant decided to park the bike next to a bright blue mailbox that she hoped would be easy to spot when they returned. With a little more flourish than might have been needed, the private hopped out of her sidecar and dramatically stretched her arms and back while yawning.
They continued on by foot. Walking down the decrepit city block, the lieutenant realized the private’s footsteps would pause every so often, only to rapidly start up again, and turned to see the private was studiously examining every window they passed. Every storefront, every restaurant, every grocer and book store. She'd pause, face almost touching the glass, and mesmerized she'd take in every facet of the displays. The glittering sequins falling off of fraying dresses, the yellowed pages of thick tomes with bright pictures of the sun setting behind a hill and gold embossed letters on their pages, photographs of the most immaculately cooked steaks she had ever seen, now brown and cracked with the age of centuries, so faded they were barely even visible. After a moment the private would realize she was falling behind, and quickly rush to catch up with the lieutenant only to get distracted be the next display and fall behind all over again.
"Is this your first time seeing old world relics?" the lieutenant asked after watching the process repeat for the twentieth time.
"Well, we have the bikes at the old fort, and old world rifles and pistols, and things like that. Nothing like this though," the private reached through the broken window of a toy shop and picked up a stuffed rabbit, whose black button eyes had somehow avoided the tarnishing of time, and still had a faint shine to them.
"You've never been to the capital then? They have quite a lot of this stuff there, whole museums and archives. Of course this place makes all that seem quaint."
"You mean,” the private's voice was small and quiet, “they did. Before. Not anymore." She placed the rabbit back on it's display. The Lieutenant let out a small chuckle that made her throat tighten up as soon as she did.
"No I guess not. Capital doesn't have much of anything anymore. Probably looks a lot like all this now, actually."
The rain had maintained a gentle downfall the entire time they had been in the city, barely even noticeable. For a brief moment though, both of them heard the slight pitter-patter of the rain as it hit against the stone ground and glass.
"Yeah," the lieutenant didn't even let the private finish her question, "yeah I was there."
"What was it like?"
Like everything was underwater. Like you were being boiled from the inside. "Hot,” the lieutenant said, holding back her words, “it was hot. No one knows how the fires started, or how the enemy forces even got into the city, but all I can remember is how hot it was." You couldn't see, the flames caused everything to shimmer and all the people with black silhouettes dancing in the chiaroscuro.
"How'd you get out?" the private asked. The two of them had been standing for quite a while in the same spot, not moving, and the private hadn’t looked away from the stuffed rabbit the entire time—though she wasn’t exactly looking at it either. Her arm was still reaching out, touching it, as though the second she had placed it back on it's stand she had been frozen solid. The lieutenant turned and continued onwards.
"I got lucky, I guess."
The two passed a high school, but they didn't know it was a high school because much of it had collapsed. A great oak tree had crashed through the ceiling of several classrooms, and once it had done its damage the rest of the school began to come apart at the seams. They passed an old, burned-out arcade, but they didn't know it was an arcade, because they didn't know what an arcade was. Even if they had, so completely had nature reclaimed the building that it looked more like an arboretum than anything else. Across from the arcade was an empty park, covered in dust and soot. Further in, they passed a gaping hole in the ground that once served as a subway entrance, but now—half caved-in and with any signage that had once been eroded away by time—resembled some sort of tunnel dug by a great beast. They passed a modest apartment building, whose foundation and supports had crumbled and now the entire building was slumped to the side. It look as though at any moment the building would keel over, but it was now desperately fighting to stay alive and awake. The sun began its downward descent.
They came to a river. One that slit its way through the city, creating a rift between the twisted, toppling corpses of the buildings. The rain was still lightly falling, unsettling the surface of the water and casting out ripples that bounced off the hull of a derelict ferry stranded between the two banks.
A hollow ring started to drone on from somewhere. The private took their canteens and went down to the river. The ferry once had probably been a slick black, but now, weathered and old, looked grey. All cracked and wrinkled. The lieutenant tugged at her collar, she was starting to feel hot. She had done up the buttons of her jacket earlier when it had become colder, but now, inexplicably, she was beginning to feel warm again. She took off her jacket and tied it around her waist. The rain pounded her skin. It was scorching. Each drop felt as though it sizzled away the moment it made contact with her skin. The lieutenant sat down on the rain-slick pavement, and pulled her legs in close to her chest. The ringing started to grow louder, more defined, more distressed. Someone, a great many someones, all crying out.
"Lieutenant?" the private was standing over her, offering a canteen. The lieutenant slowly pulled herself up off the ground.
"It's getting late. Let's find somewhere inside where we can set up a camp while it's still daylight."
A few blocks down from where the two had found the apartments, there was a small, brightly colored building that seemed to be more sturdy than the rest, likely due to its tiny stature. A red, white and orange plastic band ran around the perimeter of the roof of the building, and written in bold letter were the words "Quik'N'Cheep"; these too the lieutenant could not decipher the meaning of. In the back of the store, the private found a bright, red axe which they used to chop up the wooden counter towards the front of the store for firewood. That chore took up most of the remaining daylight. They finally lit a fire and laid out their woolen sleeping bags just as the sun disappeared behind the maw of the city.
"I heard a lot of people didn't make it out of the capital," the private said.
"A lot of people didn't," the Lieutenant answered. She was cooking their rations in a black pan they had found in the store. The private had washed it out with a bit of water from her canteen.
"Why did they give the order to evacuate?"
"The city was burning, we needed to get the civilians out."
"Not at first though, right? I heard it took a while for the fire to start to spread, and that the enemy force was a small one."
"You heard wrong," the lieutenant wasn't curt when she said this, her tone was softer and more patient, "the fires consumed half the capital in under two hours. The enemy force was small, but it was scattered. Hit and run. They're weren't looking for an actual fight." The lieutenant paused for a moment, watching the fire crackle and listening to the wind whistle as it slipped through the cracks of the building. "You’re right though. The evacuation was rash, I think if we had tried harder, we could’ve stopped the fires. The brass didn’t care though. They had given up on the capital, because the enemy force had a Spook with them."
"A spook?" the private asked. The question buffeted the lieutenant, and she broke focus for a moment as she looked over towards the private, tilting the pan and nearly spilling their food into the fire.
"You don't know what a Spook is?" the lieutenant asked, "You went to the academy right?"
"I'm a private. I was drafted, and never attended the academy," the private answered. The lieutenant turned to look back at the fire hoping to hide her disbelief.
"A Spook is like... I don't know.” The lieutenant tried to gather her words for an explanation, “I don't think anyone knows what they are. They look like us, they look like anyone. Could be any face you see in a day. Except they do things. They give you the Blues. You know what the Blues are, at least, right?"
"Yeah I've heard about them," the private said. "I don't know very much though. People don't seem to like to talk about things like that."
"People are afraid if you talk about the Blues you’ll get infected. And of course once you’re infected, you're a ticking bomb. A danger to others and yourself. If you have the Blues, that's it, you're done, because sooner or later, the Immaculate General is going to send his own kind of spooks after you and you better hope you get yourself before they get to you."
The private was sitting very still, with both her legs tucked underneath her and her hands cupping her knees. The way she was absolutely motionless hinted to the lieutenant that she was perhaps trying very hard not to show that she was scared. "And Spooks can infect you?" she asked.
"Yeah, that's right. Well," the lieutenant paused again, the words she needed flitting around like moths in her brain, "no... they make you think differently about things. They make you believe different things. Once they do that, you're susceptible, and eventually you'll catch the Blues."
"So the Immaculate General let the capital burn because there might have been one Spook?"
"One is all there has to be. The Immaculate General will scorch the earth if he thinks it will stop just one Spook from getting to the populace. You see people think once you get the Blues, once you've been infected for a while, if you somehow survive for long enough you erode away, and you become a Spook yourself. The Immaculate General is afraid of an epidemic."
The lieutenant finished cooking their rations, and they their meals in relative silence, watching as the fire dwindled away down to embers. Darkness encroached from all sides. The Lieutenant lay awake as the last few sparks of orange flitted around the night. The private was long since asleep, and the rain outside was gently knocking against the roof. When she was six, the lieutenant had heard a story about how when it rained, worms were washed out of there homes and stranded above ground. There was a single, stone-paved road in the village where she grew up, and after she heard that story she used to walk up and down it on days after it had rained and pick up all the stranded worms and return them to their homes. When the rainy season came, she spent hours almost every day returning worms to their homes, and after a week she couldn't beat it any more.
Very suddenly the lieutenant awoke, but she didn't move an inch. The air was slick and ice cold, she could feel it washing over her face. Everything was pitch-black and impenetrable. She heard the private talking in hushed whispers.
"Yes, yes she's got it. I'm certain. Yes completely. I don't know she didn't say. I don't think so. Tomorrow. I'll convince her to head back. No I don't think she'll last. She seems pretty far gone. I don't think anyone else suspects, no. She doesn't know. Not consciously at least, part of her has to know. Alright. Alright I will, over and out."
The lieutenant heard a click and then the tell-tale sound of radio static was silent. Sounds of shuffling as the private returned something to her rucksack, then a few faint footsteps as the private tiptoe'd over towards the lieutenant. She knelt down real close, real real close, and the lieutenant remained frozen, pretending to be asleep. Underneath her sleeping bag, every muscle in the lieutenant's body was tensed. She felt the private's breath against her cheek. She made a sound as though she was sniffing. Several sharp, nasal inhalations. For a moment they were both absolutely silent, neither of them even breathing. The private rose and, no longer trying to remain quiet, quickly returned to her own sleeping bag. She loudly shuffled into it, and for a few moments there was loud rustling as she tossed and turned. Then silence again, and it was silent for several long minutes during which the lieutenant remained petrified before succumbing eventually to sleep.
Weak, white light leaked in through the cracks of the building as the sun began to rise, and came spilling in from the shattered windows. The skies were still overcast, so the light was only a pale and sickly imitation of the morning sun. The lieutenant woke first, and seeing the private was still asleep, silently produced the 9mm pistol from her rucksack. Standing over the private, she loaded the gun, pulled back the slide, and let it rebound back into place with a metallic click.
For a moment, she thought the wisest thing was to shoot the private right then and there in her sleep. It would be clean. Two loud pops, two holes in the sleeping bag, and maybe a little blood would spill out, but it would be nothing except easy and simple. Instead she kicked the private swiftly in her side. Jerking and sputtering the private shot awake, her hair now all frazzled and undone in messy gold lumps. When she saw the lieutenant standing over her, the cold, hollow barrel of the gun looming above, she draw her hands into tiny, scared fists.
"June-" the private began, but the lieutenant immediately cut her off.
"So you do know my name then. I thought you kept calling me 'ma'am' because you had forgotten it."
"What's going on?" the private kept her voice very soft, and very quiet, as though she was in a room full of delicate equipment, and one word in the right tone would cause it all to shatter.
"I heard you last night. You're pretty important huh? Not many portable radios left, I'm surprised they gave you one."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Was I too subtle? I told you. I heard you on the radio last night. Talking about me."
"I wasn't! I wasn't," tears were now openly streaking down the girl's face but still the lieutenant kept the gun firmly trained on her. "You can check my bag, I don't have any radio."
"Who are you with. The Immaculate General? Do you think I caught the Blues back at the capital? Because I can assure you I didn't.” The private said nothing and her lip quivered as she tried to keep herself composed. Her arms were shaking. “No?” the lieutenant continued. “So you’re a Spook then.” The private looked as though she was going to protest, but the lieutenant didn't let her. "Actually, I guess it doesn't really matter." Two loud pops. Two smoking holes in the privates sleeping bag, and two black liquid stains began to ooze out from them.
The lieutenant dropped the pistol to the floor, and her weak knees soon brought her down as well. She was trembling, cheeks flushed and everything was watery and hard to see. She did the right thing. She reminded herself, I did the right thing. She was being set up, she should've known it from the moment the private asked to come with her. No one willingly asks to go above the border. Look, there's the girl's rucksack. Just go grab it and open it, you'll find the radio in there. The lieutenant crawled over to the rucksack and, hands shaking more violently than she was aware, and undid the buckle. There wasn't much inside the rucksack, only the same light provisions she had taken in her own, yet as she searched through it she couldn't find the radio. It should've been easy to find, a big mechanical brick with a collapsed antenna, and yet as she shuffled through all the items again and again she couldn't find it. Finally, she flipped the rucksack upside-down and emptied the contents onto the floor. Canteen, tinderbox, compass, rations. No radio. As the lieutenant desperately shook the bag, a single, faded photograph fell out and fluttered to the floor.
The lieutenant picked up the photo. It was of her. She was standing under a tree, with a fishing rod over her shoulder. Next to her was the private, blonde hair not done up in a bun but free and flowing. Both were still in their dress uniforms, but their jackets were wet and hanging on the branch of a tree in the background. The private was holding a large fish up for the camera and beaming. There was a lake in the distance, so crystal blue it seemed to merge with the sky, and in the bottom righthand corner of the photograph two names were written. "April and June."
"Spook!" The lieutenant shouted, leaping to her feet. "Spook! Spook!" She tossed the photograph to the floor. The photograph burst into flames, and the flames shot out like serpents, twisting and writhing across the ground and scaling the walls. Black smoke billowed from the orange tips of the fire and started plugging all the holes and cracks and sealing off the store. The lieutenant ran, bursting out of the front door, tripping and crashing to the ground outside. The city was on fire. More smoke in the air than oxygen. The buildings were melting away. Twisted metal skeletons underneath exposed. The streets were filled with people. Frantic and screaming. Shrieking babies clutched in the arms of deranged mothers. Men pushing and shoving each other. Those who fell were pounded into the earth underfoot. The lieutenant clawed at a passing man, and pulled herself up as he tried to shake her off.
She ran. She pushed through the crowds. Behind her, in the distance, a building roared like thunder as it toppled over and sent billowing waves of dust and soot shooting down the streets. The grit washed over her, nicked her skin and coated the inside of her mouth and throat. She hacked and sputtered. Tried to spit the dirt out. Her eyes stung, and the heat. The heat. The air was like a razor. Every gust of it slicing white hot across her skin. The lieutenant pushed further forward, through throngs and throngs of crying and screaming bodies.
She saw the boats. The boats on the river, loaded with evacuees. They were leaving. Moving away from the docks, leaving everyone behind. She shoved her way through the crowd, throwing those in front of her to the ground. The water looked like molten gold. The flames danced and undulated like water. The cacophony was deafening, a thousand screaming voices all coming together as a chorus. People had formed daisy-chained human ladders to the boats. One man at the top and another beneath him clutching his leg, and another beneath him, all the way back to the docks, where several others were holding the last man, trying to keep the boats from sailing away. There were dozens of these ladders leeching onto each boat. Along each ladder, bodies scampered up them like animals. Some would fall off into the water below. Others would make it to the top only to be thrown overboard, or throw another overboard in their place.
The lieutenant broke through the crowd and clambered her way over the unknowing martyrs who were holding the human ladders in place. She began to climb her way towards the departing boats, using the human rungs’ mouths as footholds, grabbing their hair and pulling herself forward. Then she saw, along the side of the boat, soldiers approaching the edge with rifles. She saw them raise their rifles, and take aim at the crowd.
She saw herself, among those soldiers on the boat, raising her own rifle and taking aim. She saw her own tiny hands, as she struggled forward. She saw her blonde hair as it fell into her face. She looked up one more time, locked eyes with her doppelgänger on the boat, and then she saw her squeeze the trigger.
The bullet entered through the roof of the lieutenant's mouth, bounced off the back of her skull, and shattered into a thousand silver splinters that spiralled throughout her brain. She died immediately, collapsing onto the floor of the store, next to the sole sleeping bag and the charcoal remains of the fire. Outside the wind howled and shrieked and whipped around the dust that covered Ashland, and the rain poured and poured and washed everything away.