28 Mar Cursed Sands
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"Cursed Sands"Written by Ian Smith
Estimated reading time — 73 minutes
I’ve been many different things at different points in my life. I’m an eight year veteran of the United States Marine Corps who served in the Gulf War. I was, for a relatively short time, a husband and father. I’ve worked in construction, trucking, food service, and many other menial jobs. More recently, I’ve had some success at building a solid career selling insurance, a career choice I’m hoping will ultimately last, unlike the last four or five times I’ve tried. I think at the ripe age of 51 I’m finally starting to think clearly about what I expect from life, after decades of false starts and missed opportunities. I still struggle with depression and self-doubt about the failure of my marriage and how far I’ve drifted from my children, but I’ve gotten used to frequent disappointments in my life. For years I also struggled with a moderate case of agoraphobia, and it has only been within the last few years that I sought serious treatment for it. For anyone unaware, agoraphobia is a generalized but intense fear of certain places and settings, and the image of a house-bound agoraphobe largely stems from a desire to avoid at all cost these dreaded places.
I was never fully house-bound like many people with agoraphobia, as I instead simply tried to power through my fear and nascent panic whenever possible, at considerable cost in stress and anxiety. It was only after suffering a mild heart attack last year that I finally sought serious therapy for my condition, because the stress of ignoring it all these years is probably killing me. People with agoraphobia tend to experience this fear in specific environments that trigger feelings of vulnerability and dread. In my case, I’m terrified of wide open spaces, particularly in remote and isolated areas. I remember in the summer of ’97, not long after I left the Marines, I took a road trip to Las Vegas from my home in Riverside, California. Interstate 15 runs right across the flat expanse of the Mojave Desert between these two cities, and throughout the trip I had to stop three times to have a panic attack at the side of the road. I guess this is why I have always preferred to live in crowded cities, and why I travel so little, despite the irresistible wanderlust of my youth. I’ve known for years what exactly triggered my development of agoraphobia, and you’d think knowing this would make it easier to work through it. I only wish it was that easy in my case. What I experienced in those dark days in March of 1991 is clear in my mind, even though I know on an intellectual level that everything that happened should not, could not be possible, and this uncertainty has been a dark cloud over my mind ever since then. On one level I know that my anxiety about what I saw is probably overblown, that I’m worrying about something over which I have no control, and that I can’t even confirm is actually the truth. But on the other hand, I can’t help but feel that I should be worried, that dismissing it would be like ignoring a speeding train when you’re seconds away from being hit by it. When I began my therapy, I was told that writing and journaling my thoughts would be cathartic and relieve my anxieties. I can’t say for sure whether it will or won’t. But putting it all to paper might help me answer a few of my own questions.
Like I said before, I’m a veteran of the Marine Corps who served during the Gulf War of 1991. I enlisted in the Marines in the summer of 1987 when I was 19 years old. I had graduated the previous year and spent my first year after high school attending community college and working a menial job delivering pizza. I had always intended to join the Marines, but as a promise to my parents, I gave the whole “higher education” experience a try before deciding for sure. Well, after a year of hitting the books and delivering one too many pizzas to former classmates, I was ready to make the plunge. I wasn’t motivated by any sense of patriotic duty; I was never all that patriotic. But my own father had served in the Navy during Vietnam, and his stories about all the friends he had in the Navy and all the exotic places he had been were what drove me. That, and maybe I watched a few too many war movies as a kid, including such classics as The Longest Day and Patton. The chance to make new friends, see the world, and experience true camaraderie was irresistible to lonely young man who had never even been outside of the United States.
Fast forward three-and-a-half years, and I’m part of a tank crew in Bravo Company, 1st Tank Battalion, U.S. Marines, and we’re posted in remote desert camp in Saudi Arabia just south of the Kuwaiti border, waiting with baited breath for the order to breach the border and drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Our battalion of M60A1 Patton tanks had been waiting coiled and ready to strike for three months, hearing distant shellfire from Iraqi artillery many kilometers ahead. That’s right, we were still using Patton tanks when we went over the top in the Gulf. While the Army was almost fully equipped with the latest and greatest Abrams tanks seen in all those pictures of the war, we were still making use of the last generation of tanks in the Marines. Anybody who has served in the Marines knows that when it comes to logistics and procurement, the Corps has always been the like red-headed stepchild of the military, and so we just made do with what we had.
But that’s not a knock on the venerable M60 Patton tank. Despite the design being thirty years old by this point, it was still an excellent and fearsome fighting machine. Throughout the years, the design had also been continuously upgrade with new equipment to keep its performance well up to par with other modern main battle tanks. Our machine, which we had affectionately nicknamed ‘Hell Hound’, had received the standard suite of upgrades: advanced modern optics, a gun stabilizer, an explosive-reactive armor package, the works. I’m glad to say that our crew had complete confidence in our tank, and I can personally attest that our machine was more than up to the task of taking on any tank or armored vehicle the Iraqis had, like the T-55, T-62, or even the dreaded T-72.
There were four men in our crew. I was the gunner, which in my admittedly biased opinion was the most important part of the crew. Our tank commander, or TC for short, was guy named Paul Hilaire, who was a few years older than me and a steady, competent professional; the loader was a squat, muscular guy named Gilbert Castro, who like me was also from California, and the youngest; and our driver, Tim Laury, who was rather highly-strung, but still managed a very dry sense of humor. We had all trained together for two years at Camp Pendleton and later 29 Palms, and now that we sat on the brink of a real combat operation that we had hoped for all that time, we were restless impatient. Our isolated camp in the middle of the Arabian desert was at the literal ass-end of nowhere, and being that we were so close to jumping off, we were confined there for several weeks. When Iraqi forces tried to invade Saudi Arabia and take the city of Khafji in January, we were on the edge of our seats, hoping that we could finally see some real action. All these months we had entertained dreams of racing forward across the desert like Rommel, taking the fight to the enemy, but we were disappointed when other units received that honor instead. I wasn’t until late February that we finally got the order that we had all been waiting for: to breach the border and cross into Kuwait to drive out the occupying Iraqi forces. I admit, I was more excited and thrilled than scared. It might seem like a stupid attitude for a young man to rush so willingly into war, unaware of what he would encounter. But you have to understand, we spent years training for this sort of operation, and we saw ourselves as consummate professionals, like tradesmen doing their jobs, and we were eager for a chance to actually apply our skills, and give Saddam Hussein and his much-vaunted Republican Guard a swift kick in the nuts. Such is the gung-ho attitude of Marine Corps. In the small hours of the morning on February 24th, 1991, we and the rest of the 1st Marine Division got the order to advance into Kuwait.
As a part of Task Force Papa Bear, we surged forward over the sand berm that marked the Saudi-Kuwait border and we encountered…. not a lot, actually. We tore through several areas blocked by barbed wire, but actual resistance by Iraqi forces was quite limited. Every now and then an enemy unit would halfheartedly fire upon us, mostly just a few shots for honor’s sake, and surrender as we returned fire and closed on their position. Iraqi troops, who we were told were battle-hardened after years fighting Iran, were actually quite tired and unhappy and only too willing to surrender. I can’t blame them; a man like Saddam Hussein is hardly worth dying for. So for those first few days, that was the most of what we encountered. Marine units collected thousands of prisoners, took few casualties, and met only occasional Iraqi armored units. It bears mentioning that we didn’t directly encounter these enemy tanks, and we wouldn’t see a serious tank battle until a few days later. On a few occasions we fired upon objects we thought could be enemy tanks, but which often turned out to be already wrecked vehicles.
It was only on the 27th when we finally reached Kuwait City that we got the chance for a real battle that we had been waiting for all this time. The Battle for Kuwait City International Airport was one of the largest tank battles of the war, though much of it actually took place in the suburbs surrounding the airport. And that battle did not disappoint. We encountered a large force of Iraqi Army and Republican Guard tanks just short of the airport, and in a brief but incredibly tense battle, we just wiped the floor with our enemy. We destroyed over 100 tanks and armored vehicles in that action, and I myself scored my first real kill in armored combat. Well, the whole crew takes collective credit for such achievements, but being the gunner and the one who “pulled the trigger” so to speak, I was quite satisfied with myself for a time. As we pushed forward, the TC spotted an Iraqi T-62 skulking behind a line of destroyed buildings, presumably trying to flank us, and I traversed the main gun and put him in my sights. And at a distance of 850 meters, I put a 105mm round right through the turret of the tank just as it gave me a beautiful side silhouette just like the ones we get in training. That shot visibly rocked the entire enemy tank as if it were struck by a boulder, and a large plume of smoke followed by a brilliant jet of flame erupted from the top hatch, which must have reached nearly twenty feet into the air. I was quite proud of that shot and scoring my first armored kill, but after a few moments I was struck by the real gravity of what I had just done. Despite the fierce “kill’em all” attitude cultivated in us throughout our training,doing the actual deed is quite different. When you see an enemy tank, you tend to think of your enemy as being the machine itself, as if the human beings in the crew don’t even exist. But when I came to the realization that my shot had probably just killed all four men in that tank, some maybe hit by the shell itself or who were incinerated when the ammunition cooked off, I was struck by a strange feeling for several days afterward. Even though the moral context of war would make my actions somewhat more explicable, I couldn’t help but feel that I had committed something truly serious. After all, I had ended four human lives with the pull of a trigger; nobody escaped the flaming wreck of that T-62. But despite knowing that would likely have done the same thing to me in their position, I was still awestruck and disturbed by the feeling of having such power and choosing to use it so destructively. But like I said, I guess that’s just war. And there’s nothing like a war to teach you that morality is a fickle beast.
I still felt this way, even as I also fired on and destroyed two Iraqi BMPs and an armored car; a moment of brief exultation, followed by a nascent but palpable sensation of guilt. But I’ve learned through the years that even though regrets can set you on a better path, little good can come of dwelling on such things that you can’t take back. Learning this is what has kept me afloat all these years, and I try to impart on others the moral perspective I developed back then. But I digress. The ground campaign in Kuwait was rather short, only about four days, and what Saddam Hussein had promised would be the “mother of all battles” had mostly been a catastrophic rout of Iraqi forces that badly damaged his international prestige. For our part, it was decidedly…. disappointing, especially compared to what we were told to expect. But we got the war we had craved for so long, despite its disappointments and unexpected reality checks.
For a few days, we held our position at a place in the western reaches of Kuwait city known as Al Jahra, as other forces pushing around Kuwait through southern Iraq were mopping up enemy forces trying to retreat. It was during this phase that controversial battles like the Highway of Death or the Battle of Rumaila took place, which were controversial because they happened after the cease-fire and were fought against Iraqi units who were technically complying with international mandate to withdraw from Kuwait. On March 2nd, we received our own mission as part of this effort, with the intent to block the retreat of any stragglers trying to retreat into Iraq by back roads in north-western Kuwait. We were to conduct a road march across the desert to take up a blocking position on a road that ran parallel to the Iraq-Kuwait border, where we would stop anybody trying to force their way through. The blocking position we were meant to assume was actually over the border inside Iraq itself, although this wasn’t strictly unusual, as other Coalition units were also well inside Iraq.
Early that afternoon, our platoon of four tanks, led by our platoon commander Lieutenant Rattner, set out on our road march as per our orders. The distance was about 100 kilometers, although we were fully fueled up, and a Patton tank can do 500 kilometers easy at a reasonably efficient pace. The whole journey was about three hours, although as we were within 7 to 8 kilometers from our objective, we were suddenly given the order to turn around and return to base. This was irritating, as we were glad to have another mission, and we had driven all this way for nothing, just as a the weather was starting to turn. A rather large shamal, or windstorm, was forming off the northwest, and the idea of being caught in a sandstorm in the middle of nowhere was not very attractive, especially since a shamal can last several days. After a brief pause, we plotted the route we would use to return, and since the war was pretty much over and because we were in the middle of a trackless desert, we decided there was no risk in taking the same route back.
But a shamal moves quite quickly, and after only twenty minutes, we found ourselves overtaken in the midst of a ferocious sandstorm that completely obscured our view. In these conditions, we had to adapt our methods to avoid becoming separated. While some individuals floated the idea of simply staying put and waiting out the storm, this was quickly dismissed, as it could last several days. Instead, we slowed our pace to under 20 kilometers per hour, turned on our forward lights, made a point of staying within 10 meters of the vehicle in front. Likewise, the commanders of each tank were urged to open their hatches and direct their drivers, despite the blowing sands; they were expected to cover up and bear with it, so they would have a cleared view of the tank in front. Both the gunners and commanders could also use their thermal optics to look out for the vehicle ahead and avoid getting separated. Our radios wouldn’t work all that well in this weather, but we did our best to stay in contact with the others.
As we moved out, I kept a close eye on the thermal signature of the diesel exhaust of the vehicle ahead. We were last in the column, so it was on me to pay extra attention. Hilaire, our TC, had his head out the top hatch, letting in gales of wind and sand inside the turret, and I think at least a pound of sand must have gone down my collar into my uniform. With all of that mess inside our turret, Hilaire got fed up and closed the hatch, ordering me and the driver to pay extra attention to where we were going. Some commentators later described the Gulf War as a “GPS war” because of the influence the system had on our tactics, but in our platoon, only the platoon commander’s vehicle had it. So I did my best to lock eyes on that diesel plume, while also scanning for unlikely threats we might encounter. It was then that we started having trouble keeping up. Our radio, which we needed to stay in contact with rest, began to fail at the worst possible time. That itself wasn’t unusual; sometimes radios and other comms can just go haywire or crap out without apparent reason. But without it, we only had visual contact with other vehicles.
Lieutenant Rattner was a pretty good officer, but he could be rather erratic and make snap decisions without always telling everybody what was going on. I noticed that the tank ahead of us was slowly inching away, apparently going faster than us. Hilaire shouted down to Laury to pick up the pace and keep up with the rest, but with visibility so poor, speeding up only did so much to improve the situation. Worse still, that distinctive outline of a tank in the thermals was starting to become hazy, probably from all the wind, and it constantly got harder to see our fellows ahead of us. The column’s speed seemed to constantly increase, and despite gunning the throttle as much as we considered safe in this situation, they kept creeping away. We were all starting to get concerned, and Hilaire, who was working with the radio, tried his best to restore comms with the rest. After smacking that radio case and issuing a colorful rant, Hilaire finally gave up on the radio for the time being.
At that point, the tank ahead of us started to fade from visual range. We had nearly doubled the speed of our march, but with the constant blowing sands, the road we followed was starting to get buried and fade from sight. Finally, after a few tense minutes, the rest of the column faded from sight. Laury kept moving forward in the hopes that we would find them again, but this proved futile. Hilaire went on another bout of swearing and implying that Lieutenant Rattner had carnal knowledge of his mother, and decided to use his flare gun in the hopes that somebody else was paying attention. He opened the hatch and fired our flare pistol in the air, though it didn’t do much good; the wind simply pushed it way off course and quickly disappeared. Now we were all starting to get worried. At this point, we were unofficially lost and separated from our unit, stuck in the middle of a trackless desert with virtually no visibility. The road was no longer visible, having been buried by sand, so we couldn’t reliably follow that either. Laury kept us moving at a slower pace in the same general direction, hoping that we might get a break in the storm soon so that we could see where we were going. After a short time, Hilaire told him to stop; moving forward without knowing where could risk putting us way off course, especially when the road was no longer visible, and if we strayed too far into the sand, we might risk getting bogged down and throwing a track.
When we were still in camp, we had heard about other units getting lost in sandstorms while on maneuvers, but this was the first time it had happened to us. Hilaire suggested, and we agreed, that we should stay put for now until the storm calmed down somewhat, and do our best to restore comms with any friendly units nearby. Using a compass and simply heading straight east from our position seemed logical, as we were bound to encounter a friendly unit in that direction. Again, we were still concerned with the idea of getting bogged down in the sand dunes, so waiting for the road to clear seemed the best bet. So, we remained in our position for several hours hoping for the storm to relent. But evening was falling, and the storm not only seemed strong as ever, but it even seemed to get worse. Pushing through a sandstorm in the daylight was difficult, and doing it at night seemed out of the question. We made the decision to remain there for the evening, a rather unpopular one, as this pointless aborted mission had gone on for way too long at this point, but we apparently had no other choice.
I’ve slept inside our tank before, and trust me when I say that it is not ideal. But sleeping outside on the rear engine deck or digging a sleeping hole in the sand was an even more uncomfortable proposition, so we rested in our tank, taking shifts for watch. Our auxiliary engine was running so we could keep on the heaters and optics, but trying to sleep in that cramped space was difficult. I imagine it was worse for Laury, because the driver’s position was even more cramped, although it was more reclined. Hilaire kept tinkering with the radio while Castro and I argued about our favorite basketball teams; he’s big time Bulls fan, despite being from California. I didn’t expect to do much sleeping in the tank, anyway. Finally, Hilaire lost patience and decided we should try to move out anyways, relying on our compass to keep us oriented east, since we couldn’t see the Sun. He warned Laury to take it easy if we seemed to get bogged down in the sand, although the desert was thankfully flat, so we wouldn’t have to actually climb a sand dune. Laury turned us east, put it in gear, and we moved out at a slow, cautious pace.
Moving across the sand was slow going, and Hilaire was worried about how much fuel we were burning compared to traveling on the road. We had used about a fifth of our diesel fuel getting this far, so we didn’t worry too much about making it, even if the engine was struggling. We tried to keep a path straight east, but often deviated our course to go around troublesome bits of ground like sand dunes. It was then that something really bizarre started happening. It was still dark and dusty outside, and without seeing the sky, we needed our compass to keep us oriented the right way. But our compass began to act very strangely. The needle wavered and began spinning around, not keeping any strong orientation and would snap back and forth even as we traveled in the same direction. Hilaire, baffled by this development, ordered Laury to stop. I have no idea what sort of phenomenon could make a compass behave like that, but it was certainly happening to us. We were worried before, but this bizarre event now had us all on edge.
The compass would briefly seem to fix itself, but every few minutes it would go haywire again, and the fact that we needed to keep going around certain spots didn’t help to keep us on track. We decided yet again to simply stop and wait for daylight to regain our bearings, thinking we had not gone all that far off the road since our brief detour. Around dawn, we decided once again to have a look around to see just where we ended up. The sandstorm had calmed down somewhat, as we had apparently found a gap in the storm with relatively clear skies. The storm front still raged to the east and west of us, so this respite would likely be short lived. We were all horribly dismayed to see that the landscape around us looked nothing like any we had seen so far, with no visible landmarks, paths, or anything; even our tracks across the desert had been swallowed by the sand. All around us were rolling sand dunes, and with the storm on the horizon in both directions, nothing was visible beyond our position. That’s how it is during a shamal; millions of tons of sand being kicked up in the air and deposited elsewhere, seeming to move entire hills across the wastes. This is what had apparently happened to us. Our surroundings had almost completely changed, and in the middle of a trackless desert, that was a dangerous situation.
Now that it was the next morning, our absence and lack of communication would surely have been noticed by company commander, we reasoned that a search effort would likely have been underway by this point. This assumption made us feel better, even though our radio was still not working. Likewise, with Coalition aircraft being highly active in this region, we thought we could be spotted by a passing plane who would relay our position to friendly units in the area. But this optimism wouldn’t last. The storm was starting to pick up again, with the walls of sand closing in on us, and no aircraft were becoming visible. That was extremely odd to us. Throughout the campaign, there was a constant stream of fighters and bombers overhead at all hours, striking positions throughout Kuwait and Iraq, and we had seen plenty as we set out on this very mission. Perhaps, we thought, they were grounded because of the weather, and once the shamal had passed, they might have a better time finding us. But the shamal could last days, and it might be longer to find us in our new position well off the beaten path.
We all got out of the tank hoping to stretch our legs, relieve ourselves, and maybe spot a gap in the storm we could exploit. I had gone off to take a piss, even though it was still quite windy, while Hilaire stayed back in the tank, having it out with the radio again. I was on my way back to the tank, incredibly ticked off because the wind had caused me to get piss all over the front of my uniform, when I heard Hilaire and Castro shouting excitedly. According to them, the radio was working again, which was a major relief. We all rushed back to the tank, confident that we just found a way out of this mess, and we all crowded inside the turret to see what was going on. Hilaire was fiddling with the radio set, adjusting the band and trying to get a clean signal. He stopped when something sounding like a voice came over the speaker. But it was a deep, muffled, static-filled voice with unintelligible words, but the rhythm and cadence definitely sounded like a person talking. This continued for several minutes as we watched with baited breath while Hilaire fiddled with the knobs, with no apparent effect. That deep muffled speech just continued with short pauses, when Laury pointed out that the words were repeating. It was just the same unintelligible phonemes in a sequence about twenty seconds long, that pause briefly before playing the same message, if it could be called a “message”.
We were all stunned by this unexpected turn, and no matter how much Hilaire fiddled with the knobs, the sounds on the radio stayed exactly the same. Finally, after about five minutes, the signal simply cut out in the middle of the sequence, leaving only a low whisper of static. My heart sank into my stomach as I realized we were now again cut off from all communication from the outside world. But we all wondered out loud what signal we had even gotten over the radio. Hilaire had changed to every frequency and band, and still that same unintelligible speech, over and over again. Laury speculated that the signal might have been a prerecorded message, like an air raid warning, that we had picked up by accident. We couldn’t tell what was being said, so it could’ve been in a different language. I told him that the words didn’t sound like Arabic, and voice seemed too deep to be human, like it was a computer or something. Near as we could figure, I might’ve been chatter from another Coalition unit that spoke a different language, like the French.
But at this point we were just spit balling. The fact was, the radio signal had cut out and couldn’t be reacquired, nor could any other signal be picked up, so the radio was back to being pretty much useless. It was at least able to turn on, which it hadn’t done the previous day. All there was left to do was go back to our original plan of heading east, all the way to the Persian Gulf if necessary, and hope that friendly units could help us out. Being surrounded by sand dunes now complicated that, as we would now have a hard time getting across them in whichever direction we went. We couldn’t even say exactly where we were, because the landscape all around us had completely changed. But wandering the desert seemed better than staying put and dying of thirst, and even though we had a fair amount of rations and water, camping out in this place wasn’t very appealing. The storm was still going and now starting to close in, the sky getting hazier by the minute. We remounted our tank set out again, hoping that our eastward drive would come to fruition.
Getting out of the dunes was as difficult as we feared, and we all sat on the edge of seats, listening to the engine roar, hoping desperately that the dreaded sound of a track being thrown wouldn’t come. Finally, it seemed that we crested the hill and were moving down, when we saw that the dunes continued in that direction for miles. Hilaire was now starting to get seriously concerned about our fuel consumption; we had four-fifths of tank left when we first turned back, but now we had only three-fifths left, even though we had gone only a fraction of the distance across the desert. The effort to climb up those dunes had taken up a lot of fuel, and now with sand dunes in every direction, and the sandstorm picking up again, we were all starting to despair. Hilaire remained cool, and ordered Laury not to climb up any more hills, and just stick to the low ground between them. Castro however was starting to get agitated. He was not quite twenty years old, and in his short life had probably never been in a situation as bad as ours. He was starting to pester Hilaire with questions about where we were going, did we have enough fuel, are we sure this was right way, et cetera. Finally Hilaire snapped at him to calm down, and Castro retreated into himself, sulking.
After a few hours, the engine started to overheat from the exertion, and we stopped to give it a chance to cool down. The storm had slacked off again, and we all dismounted to do a maintenance check and scout around for a potential path. Hilaire decided to clean out the air filter while the engine was cooling off, Laury and I checked the track tension, and Castro was sent out to scout across the top of a sand dune for a way out. We had gone far enough that the desert had flattened out a bit, with much more space in between hills, and we took this as a good sign. Still, fuel was now a concern, and lacking any landmarks we couldn’t tell how much further we needed to go. Castro returned from his scouting mission, saying that there were still no landmarks, but the ground to the south was much flatter and probably easier to get across. Laury and I went back to our work, thinking Castro would just mill around until we remounted. A few minutes later, we looked up to see that Castro had wandered off. He had one of the weapons issued to our crew, a Colt Commando, and we were worried what he might have gotten himself into. I climbed a hill to west to get a view around to find him, and I saw him cautiously walking west, rifle in hand, as if he expected a threat. He was probably about a hundred meters away, scanning the horizon, and didn’t respond when I shouted his named. I ran out after him and caught up with him before he got too far, but he still didn’t respond even when came up next to him. He was absolutely fixated on some point in the distance that I couldn’t recognize, and I practically had to shake him to get his attention. He acted like a man coming out of a trance, and when I asked him what the hell he was doing, he answered, “Nothing, I didn’t see nothing,” almost as if I were accusing him of something. He abruptly turned around, slinging his rifle, and brisked walked back in the direction of the tank.
I was baffled by this strange behavior, especially from a man like Castro, who wasn’t much more than a kid. I chalked it up to the stress of the situation, but I still resolved to tell Hilaire about it, in case something escalated. I returned to the tank shortly after Castro and saw that Hilaire was still working on the engine and nursing some skinned knuckles. The engine had finally cooled down, but he said that the coolant was starting to pick up sand, which could clog the whole system. Unless we jury-rigged some kind of water filter, we’d just have to deal with it and watch the engine temperature more carefully. I told him about Castro, and he said that noticed similar behavior, and the normally verbose young man was uncharacteristically quiet. Our concerns expressed, we remounted and proceeded south, towards the hopefully flatter terrain.
We went south and east, trying to stick to low ground, and for a time we had relatively clear visibility in our path, so we could stay on a rough course. It was like this throughout the afternoon, with Laury counting down the ticks on the fuel gauge. Out of nowhere, in the course of less than a minute, the storm brewed up again more violently than at any point so far. We were all startled when we heard especially harsh gales of wind and sand pelting against the outside of the tank, and visibility dropped so low that even the thermals couldn’t make out anything much further than 60 meters. Worse still, we even noticed some bright flashes of lightning, and if there was lightning, there could be rain, and in this terrain and sudden downpour could cause a flash flood that could swamp our tank. The suddenness of the storm caught us all by surprise; we had gotten used to the general ebb and flow of the weather, with periods of relative calm in between constant winds. I kept scanning the horizon through the thermal when I started noticing some strange objects. Actually, they didn’t even seem like just objects; I could swear they were moving! At first I briefly panicked when I thought I saw a human outline, maybe a hostile enemy, but it sank low to the ground and tumbled across the sand like no living creature I knew of. I was thinking that perhaps it was some kind of loose debris, a tarp maybe, that had drifted across the desert in the storm, but then I noticed that there were more of them.
I was so stunned for a moment that I didn’t immediately tell Hilaire what was out there. I wasn’t even sure what exactly *it* was out there. There were at least three or four signatures in the thermal, all white hot like you would expect from a person or animal, but there was nothing about them that made them seem like a person. After all, what would a person be doing out here in a storm like this, in the middle of nowhere? I saw some of those signatures suddenly flip up, and I could swear then that there was something vaguely human about that posture. When I told Hilaire, he immediately got on his periscope and scanned in that direction, but he couldn’t make out anything. Castro suddenly seemed even more agitated and froze up, just riveted to his seat. I wondered at that for a second, but kept scanning for these “beings” or whatever they were, not sure if they were hostiles or just wild animals. But as quickly as they came into view, they suddenly disappeared into the storm, with no trace of their passing.
The sudden apparition and the brief panic it caused left all of us rattled for a time. We were definitively lost out in the middle of the Kuwaiti desert, with no clear clue where we were or what direction we should go, and now there was the possibility that we were trapped with some strange creatures in a blinding sandstorm. I say ‘possibility’ because I was not completely sure that what I saw was a living thing, but the way it glowed in the thermal scope would suggest that it was. The storm continued to rage all around us as we moved further south and east, and the pelting of sand against the turret hull grew stronger and stronger. Fuel was now getting worryingly low, as according to Laury, we now had just under a third of a tank left, enough to get us 150 kilometers at an efficient speed, but we were not at an efficient speed. We were still trudging across open desert, burning more fuel than usual, and the possibility of having to hoof it from here to civilization left us all deeply worried. Eventually evening came with still no sign of human habitation anywhere, and we knew that it meant spending yet another night out in the open desert. As a Marine I’m used to the idea of spending nights far from civilization, but out here, totally alone, and with some strange creatures roaming about the wastes, I was starting to have serious doubts about my choice of career.
When the storm finally eased off, we stopped to do our necessaries and call it an evening. Castro was being particularly fidgety, so we gave him the first watch. Exhausted as I was, having not slept much the previous night, I finally was able to get some quality shuteye, curled up at the back of the turret floor under the loader’s ready rack. Since I had third watch, I was able to get a few hours in before my turn. I was woken by Laury at 0300 hours to begin my watch, although I wasn’t thrilled about spending any time outside the tank in that storm. I opted to keep my sidearm with me in addition to the rifle; whatever was out there, I would take no chances. I sat outside the tank on the front glacis next to the driver’s hatch, surveying the scene. I was glad that I would have a break in the storm, but this small comfort was rather short lived. The wind slowly picked up its pace, and once again the tank was shrouded in complete darkness. It was then that I was able to register a faint sound, indistinct at first, but which started to stand out as high-pitched howl. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve said it was like the nasally hoot of an elk, but I knew it couldn’t have been that. In a different situation, I might have dismissed it as a trick of the constant winds, but this time I was fully alert and on the lookout for any sign of the creatures from the previous day. I pounded on the hatch and Hilaire almost immediately came out of it and wanted to know what was happening. I told him that I heard something out there, even though I couldn’t see it, and I wanted to be inside the tank if it showed up.
We both climbed back into the tank and I immediately got to my position and scanned the horizon for anything. But to my disappointment, the thermal optic was on the fritz, and everything appeared hazy and dim, but even so I could make out something in the distance. I was just about shitting bricks at this point, convinced that these were the creatures I had seen yesterday, and even though I couldn’t prove they were hostile, I just felt it. The storm was making it difficult to see, but I recognized those forms, and I was sure they were getting closer. That howl was now slightly audible inside the tank, and everybody was on alert. We had done numerous close-combat drills before, practicing scenarios where enemy troops got in close enough to our vehicle that we couldn’t use the main weapons against them, but even our practiced minds couldn’t fathom just what kind of threat we faced.
We stayed absolutely silent inside the tank for several minutes, trying to discern the howls from the ceaseless gales outside. The howling ceased abruptly, and Castro, who had gone white with fear, suddenly jerked up from his seat. Through the turret wall behind him, we could make out a faint scratching noise, like the pawing of an animal, and we were so riveted by this that we were caught off guard by harsh thunk on the turret behind me. I jumped at this and nearly brained myself on turret roof, and a few seconds later, I could swear I heard something like laughter. It was a thin and sibilant sound, not human at all, high-pitched and sinister. Then we heard a skittering sound across the roof of the turret, like a large creature scuttling across it, and Hilaire tried to look through the cupola to see what it was, but nothing was there. The scratching sound became more insistent, and now the pattering was happening across the entire outer surface of the turret, and sharp, screeching sound came from the front, right over the port for the gunner’s sight. Castro, who was fighting panic this entire time, finally lost it and began pounding on the turret walls, screaming and cursing, demanding to whatever was outside to leave us alone. At first we were about to smack him and make him be quiet, but his outburst gave way to a moment of silence around the tank. When the attacks resumed, we all took Castro’s cue and started banging on the walls, shouting and swearing, giving our best ‘war faces’, trying to scare off the hostiles. Finally they gave up their attack and ceased their scratching and banging on the outside. But as they made their retreat, I once again heard that horrible, sinister laugh, fading into the night.
Morning came with all of us completely drained. The attack during the evening had left us all shaken, and now more than ever we felt the urgency of our situation. We all wanted to leave this area immediately, and Hilaire agreed with us. But the situation did not improve. We kept rolling onwards in the same direction for about an hour when Hilaire suddenly ordered us to stop. None of us saw any reason for the delay, but we weren’t stopped for a second before he jumped out through his hatch and strode in front the tank. We all followed his lead, not knowing just what he had in mind. We caught up with him to see that he holding his head in his hands, growling “No, no” to himself. We asked what was wrong, and he rounded on us pointed out that it was impossible for us to have gone so far and not arrived anywhere near civilization. We had traveled well over a hundred kilometers since getting lost, but in all that time we had not seen or discovered anything. There should at least have been a road or trail somewhere, or a village or hamlet. There should have been aircraft overhead, and even though we were lost, some kind of search effort must have been underway, but we had neither seen nor encountered anything but endless hills of sand. He cursed himself for his decision to go off the main road when we first got separated from the column, saying we should have stayed put and waited for a break in the storm.
But he was right about one thing: we should definitely have encountered something by now, just by the sheer distance we had traveled. Kuwait is a small country, it seemed impossible that we should be so hopelessly lost when we knew where we started from and how far we needed to go. All we had seen since then was nothing but rolling sand dunes that always seemed to be in a different place when you looked at them. Our fuel was now perilously low, only about a quarter of a tank, and days’ worth of travel had gotten us nowhere. Had we wandered out into the desert even farther than we thought? We knew that heading east, even with a moderate deviation to the south, should have gotten us someplace that could recognize, but there was nothing but desert in all directions, and no sign whatsoever of human civilization anywhere in all that time. Unless Kuwait had magically gotten twice as large in the span of two days, this couldn’t have happened. Hilaire was almost despondent, and seeing him start to lose it had a serious effect on us.
All this time Laury was observing the horizon, which had now mostly cleared as the shamal finally died down after all this time. He called out to us while we listened to Hilaire, and we saw that he was pointing to some spot on the horizon that we couldn’t make out at first. But he was insistent, and kept pointing towards what he called a “tower”, and after a minute I saw just what he was pointing at. Far in the distance off to the west I could faintly see a grey object, a tower like he described, and I could see that it actually glittered slightly in the sunlight. It was quite small in the distance from where we stood, hardly poking out above the hills, but it seemed attainable, and it most definitely was not a mirage. But it was to the west, deeper into the desert, in the complete opposite direction we had resolved to go. This dissuaded us for minute, but when we realized we had endlessly driven east with no result, heading west towards a sign of civilization seemed totally rational to our desperate minds. All at once, our spirits lifted tremendously, and we decided then and there that we would turn west, making a dash towards the only sign of humanity we had seen in days, fuel reserves be damned.
Castro, however, did not seem all that pleased. I thought he would be the most excited by this news, given that he was under serious strain from our situation, but he was actually quite muted. We told him that our new path led west, and assented to this without any comment or complaint. But the rest of us were jubilant, thinking that the end of our ordeal was in sight, and we gave little thought to what we would actually find there. We mounted our machine and turned it west, into the direction of this heavenly sign to a group of stranded and desperate men. We took a much quicker pace than we had in days, only loosely paying attention to our remaining fuel. Our tank surged across those hated desert sands, and even as the weather yet again took a turn for the worse, we felt unstoppable. The shamal we thought had died out picked up with a vengeance, and once again we were nearly blinded that curtain of sand and grit, but we kept that shining tower in our sight the whole way. As if rising to the challenge, the storm grew ever worse, and soon visibility was nearly gone, but we still had our bearings. Through the thermal I observed the horizon for this tower, catching faint streaks of heat in the direction we were going, convinced that this was our destination.
At this point, Hilaire once again began working on the radio, and after days of inactivity, that voice recording once again filled the speaker. It was still muffled and filled with static, and no more intelligible, but it was a stronger and clearer signal than before. Days before we had wondered at the wisdom of trying to follow such a signal, but in our desperation, we were prepared to accept many risks. Indeed, it seemed as if the source of this mysterious signal was coming from this tower we had spotted in the distance, as the signal came in clearer and clearer as we kept going. I thought we must have been very close when the violence of the storm suddenly became worse, and the pattering on the outside of the turret gave a sign of what we had feared most: rain. We were in one of the driest places on Earth, and we had somehow stumbled into a goddamned rainstorm! I suppose it was possible that a shamal could bring in scattered rain clouds that hung over the desert, but this seemed like an unfathomable stroke of bad luck. But still we pushed on, hoping that our mad dash would bring us to our destination before the worst of it took hold.
Our desperate hopes proved fruitless as we came upon a distinctive sight of a torrent of water rolling across the sand: a flash flood, brought on by this rain. For a vehicle as large and heavy as a Patton tank, a flash flood might not seem that dangerous, but we were driving over soft, porous sand, and there was no telling just how deep this stream could be or if the ground beneath would hold out. Hilaire was unimpressed by this obstacle, and seeing we were so close to our goal, he made a snap decision to just ford ahead through the flood, hoping that speed and weight would keep us upright. At Hilaire’s signal, Laury gunned the throttle and drove forward into the mud and muck of the flash flood, and the tank noticeably sank into the ground, but we still managed to keep moving forward. But this momentum was slowly fading, and as we made to within a few meters of the other side, the tank started getting bogged down in that water-logged sand. Laury kept at it, pushing the engine harder and harder, and old Hell Hound managed to slowly inch forward. After a tense few minutes that seemed like hours, we finally reached the other side, but it was still not over. The rear of the tank was still in the stream, and just as the rear made it up onto the bank, we heard the dreaded clunk-clunk-screech of a track being thrown. Despite lurching onto more solid ground at the last second, the Laury had still placed too much stress on it, and it simply bunched up and rolled off.
We all got out to examine the damage, our once high spirits now crushed, and saw that it would take hours of work to get the track back in place, hours spent out in this horrible storm, even when we were so close to our destination. Hilaire wanted us to focus on getting the tank back in order, but Castro and Laury both floated the idea of simply pushing ahead on foot, hoping that we were close enough to reach our destination without transport. Hilaire aggressively vetoed this idea, saying that leaving our machine behind was not an option, especially since all of the weapons were still operational. Following his suggestion, we all gathered at the side of the tank to begin the arduous task of getting the track back on the road wheels. All this time, the storm had kept up its constant assault, and even face-wrapping and goggles could only do so much against the high speed barrage of sand. Thankfully the rain had ceased and the threat of any more flash floods was gone, although the stream of water we had just crossed continued flowing for hours.
We had been working on the track for just over an hour and making good progress when Laury pointed out that Castro yet again seemed like he was going wander off from the rest of us. He was stalking off into the storm, rifle in hand, behaving very similarly to that trance-like state I found him in the day before. Shouting over the wind would do no good, so I ran after Castro to try and get his attention. To my surprise and shock, Castro suddenly broke into a heaving sprint further into the blowing sands, and Hilaire bellowed from behind me to follow after him. I wasn’t thrilled by this idea as I was convinced that I would end up getting myself lost out in the storm, but I was still deeply worried about Castro. His increasingly strange behavior these last few days had left us all quite disturbed, especially since he had been so cool and levelheaded during the battle at the airport. I charged after him, barely keeping up and struggling to even see him through all the dust and grit in air. For a few moments, he disappeared from my sight completely, and I nearly panicked thinking that both of us were now hopelessly lost out this weather. I kept running in the direction I last saw him, silently praying that he would turn up while simultaneously cursing him for running off like this. Without warning, I suddenly moved into break in the storm, my vision suddenly clear, and I saw Castro at a dead stop about thirty yards in front of me, staring up in awe at something in the sky. I was then that I saw just what we had been traveling towards all this time.
Looming high above us, silhouetted against a sky still filled with storm and moving sands, were a pair of dark stone objects that I recognized as buildings. The bases of these buildings seemed totally buried in sand, but the rest of them stuck out above the ground at least five or six stories tall. They were mostly square and featureless, the sides canted inwards slightly like a trapezoid, with no trace of windows or doors on the outside. The facade of each building was just a flat, barren stone exterior, not sand-colored or beige like most structures I had seen in this region, but dark grey and very smooth. Above us they loomed on the side of a particularly steep sand dune, like the ramparts of a great fortress, spaced only a short ways apart. Castro and I were equally dumbfounded by this unexpected discovery of such strange architecture in the middle of a barren, featureless desert. But odd as this was, it was still the first clear sign of civilization we had seen in days, and these clearly were not natural features of the land.
I finally broke out of my own astonishment and got Castro’s attention. He was still awestruck, but not pleased or excited as I felt. I urged him to follow me back to the tank to tell the rest that we had finally arrived at the mysterious destination we had been following this whole day. With some reluctance, he agreed to follow me back to the others. We must have wandered off close to a quarter mile into the storm, and I had no clue how we might find the rest going back through the storm. Castro suddenly took the lead and began moving briskly back in the rough direction we had come. Since I had no better ideas, I followed him closely through the storm, hoping that he his sudden confidence meant he knew where he was going. To my relief, we shortly caught sight of our tank and saw Hilaire waving his arms over his head, signaling to us his position. He must’ve been incredibly relieved to see us back. I excitedly told Hilaire and Laury what we had found ahead, and they were just as perplexed by what we told them as we had been when we found it. The work on the track was nearly done, outstripping our expectations, and I tried again to urge Hilaire to just push ahead on foot back the structures. Again he rejected this idea, but with Castro and I back, we could more quickly finish repairing the track.
With great speed and excitement we got back to fixing the track, and in less than an hour, our tank was operational again. We remounted and proceeded in the direction we had gone earlier, still carefully rationing our last sips of fuel to cover the short distance. Once again, we made it through that sudden break in the storm and once again beheld the awe-inspiring sight of those looming towers. We knew we likely couldn’t get the tank up that steep hill, so we circled around the base of it, our eyes fixed upwards to survey the perimeter of this bizarre settlement we found so far out into the desert. As we drove around, we saw that there were other structures around the top of the hill extremely similar to the first two, spaced evenly apart. Between two of them we finally found a relatively manageable slope leading up to the crest of the hill, and cautiously we moved up this path, alert for whatever we may find in this strange and remote place. We reached the top of the slope and moved slowly between the two structures, nervously eyeing the upper reaches for any possible sign of trouble.
We passed between the towers and came into a flat, empty area surrounded on all sides by these strange buildings, an area that seemed strangely like a plaza of some sort. And in the center of this plaza was the glittering tower we had spotted in the distance hours before. It was an enormous steel-gray obelisk that must have been a hundred meters tall or more, built out of smooth and polished stone that still shined slightly in the dim sky. But despite this obvious sign of civilization, there was no trace of human life anyplace around the whole area. This whole unexpected scene left us dumbstruck for many minutes until Laury suggested we dismount and explore the area in the hopes of finding any locals we might ask for information. We were reticent about this at first given the unnatural solitude of this strange and isolated city. Apart from these blank and ominous buildings, the whole area was still as barren as much of the rest of the desert we had just left. We moved slowly and cautiously deeper into the plaza area, now completely unnerved by the silence. Though the sky was still hazy and mostly obscured by the sandstorm, the wind on the ground level was quite calm. We finally parked our tank in the shadow of the obelisk, and we all sat quietly for a few minutes, internally debating our next course of action. The excitement of the hours before, when we thought our predicament had come to an end, was all but gone. No sign of life was remotely present here; all we seemed to have followed were some ancient and long-abandoned ruins far from anywhere.
After a few quiet minutes, Hilaire ordered us all to dismount and survey the perimeter for any signs of life. With reluctance, we all climbed out and had a good look at our surroundings. The buildings, particularly that obelisk, were even more impressive and ominous up close and personal. We explored all around the base of the obelisk, and on the others side from where we parked we saw yet another strange structure that escaped our notice before. It was a large ziggurat, mostly covered by sand, set in a low depression in the ground, like something sitting in the base of a bowl. But this wasn’t like any normal ziggurat I had learned about in sixth grade history class; this one had rounded edges on each successive tier, and each tier was not flat, but slightly inclined upwards. Unlike the other structures, this ziggurat was quite fairly squat and wide, though still very tall compared to the others, and the stones that made up the outside were a dark rusty red color, almost like brick, but completely smooth and without seams. At its base was an arched opening with a high peak, blending seamlessly into the smooth exterior. Being in a depression in the ground, the top of the ziggurat was still lower than the other buildings, but up close we could see that it was at least as tall as all the others.
Entranced as we were by this unusual scene, we still couldn’t deny that we were in a similarly dismal situation as before. We were still stranded far into the desert, and now we had too little fuel left to go anywhere else, and the hopeful sign of human habitation had turned out to be totally lifeless and abandoned. The best we could claim was that we now had a recognizable landmark, but without fuel or other transportation, navigating according to this landmark would have been useless. The buildings might provide better shelter from the sandstorms, so could still hope to wait out the shamal and try signaling to passing aircraft. This of course was assuming that aircraft were momentarily grounded by the storm. We still had plenty of MREs and fresh water, as well as a mostly-stocked survival pack with medical supplies and tents, so if needed we could last in this spot for a week or more, but none of us were excited about that. But there was no alternative. We had used much of what remained of our fuel getting here, and driving back out into the desert would have been worse than useless. However, being at a distinct landmark in a featureless desert could make it easy to find us from the air, so for the time being that was the obvious choice.
For the rest of the day we explored the whole site, examining the buildings for any clue of recent human activity. Many of the buildings on the perimeter were still inaccessible, their entrances presumably buried underneath the sand, and only three had usable openings. The insides of these structures were strange and fascinating, but disappointing as far as survival was concerned. Like the exteriors, their interiors were largely barren, consisting of a single cavernous chamber whose ceiling was many meters above our heads. Strangely, the insides were reasonably well lit, even though there were no windows or obvious sources of illumination. Looking up, we saw that there was shallow dome protruding from the ceiling that seemed to be composed of a highly polished metal that appeared to be brass or even gold. The dome was highly reflective, and though its surface was totally opaque, there still seemed to be a mesmerizing amber glow that seemed to reflect from within it. This feature was repeated in identical fashion in the other outer buildings we accessed, and it struck us that such a building didn’t seem like it was meant for humans to dwell in. What could this building even be for? It had no furnishings like tables or places to sit. Higher up there were ledges that stuck out from the wall, but with no clear place to climb up to reach them. These bizarre identical buildings seemed to have no obvious function, and in fact didn’t even seem like they were meant for human beings at all.
We explored the ziggurat last, thinking that this might be the obvious place for us to shack up during our time here. The entrance to the ziggurat was quite dark and seemed to shrink a bit as we moved inward. It led into a similar open chamber as the last last buildings, but this one was almost in the shape of globe, with the walls and ceiling being a cavernous dome and the floor being a bowl-shaped depression similar to the one the ziggurat rested in. In the center was a trapezoidal mound with rounded edges, perhaps six feet tall and similar dimensions wide and long. Like the others, this chamber was illuminated by some unseen source, but with a soft greenish-blue light instead. The ground in the depression was especially bright, as if cast in the harsh glow of a spotlight, but from no visible source. The surface inside the dome was noticeably less smooth, but on closer examination, we could see that it was because it was absolutely covered in strange drawings and hieroglyphics etched into the stone. These markings were so bizarre that we could hardly decipher their meaning, but some of the drawing were more legible. The drawings clearly showed crude human shapes, not much more than stick figures, but they were clearly meant to represent humans.
The drawings showed many vaguely recognizable scenes, like people gathering around what I assume was a campfire, and another appeared to show a battle of some sort. But this battle scene was where things got strange. On one side was clearly human shapes, gathered with spears and other weapons, but the other side was composed of something that didn’t even resemble a human being. It appeared to have two arms, but instead of legs it had a cluster of flat, wide appendages that were splayed out almost like knives. Altogether these strange “legs” formed a wide fan, like a bird spreading its wings. The head was also oddly shaped, with a pear-shaped base and a wide crescent perched on top. From this “head” were etched lines pointing towards to humans on the other side, like some kind ray or emanation. Further down was another drawing with human figures arranged in a sequence. The sequence started with a typical drawing of a human figure, but further drawings showed human figures with increasingly long limbs, while at the same time they adopted a more hunched gait, like more like a gorilla or a chimpanzee than a man. Above the sequence was a figure of the non-human creature from the previous battle drawing, hovering above the sequence as if it were observing it. What was most odd about this sequence is that it appeared to go right-to-left, with the normal man at the logical beginning of the sequence, and the long limned creatures further down towards the end of the sequence.
But these disturbing drawings weren’t our main focus for now. When we finished our explorations, it was nearing darkness and about time for us to set up camp. The storm outside, which had previously been so calm around this strange city, was now increasing in force. But strangely, the wind didn’t feel like it carried the familiar abrasive sand; now, it appeared more like a very fine dust, almost like smoke, with only a few grains of sand mixed in. Laury mounted the tank and drove it around to the front above the ziggurat so that we could clearly see it from the entrance. In another situation it would have been more appropriate to camp near our tank, but with such crappy weather and a spacious shelter so close at hand, we decided to make our camp inside the ziggurat. To avoid the brightness inside, we camped in the middle of the entrance tunnel, sheltered from the wind but with a clear line of sight up to the tank.
Our guard was relatively low as we bedded down for the night, but we kept all of our rifles and sidearms with us at our sides. Since there was no sign of human life in the area, and because we were so isolated, we didn’t really expect visitors. But at the back of my mind, I clearly remembered the previous night, when we came under attack from those creatures roaming through the sandstorm. We weren’t really all that far from where it happened, and as darkness fell, I felt my heart sink, desperately fearing that those creatures might have followed us. I volunteered for first watch, not wanting to take any chances, and for two hours I sat on watch, ruminating on our situation. I thought mostly about those creatures. They had descended upon us the previous night in the middle of the storm, as if it didn’t bother them. Clearly they had no trouble moving in the storm, and had even managed to follow us for a ways before their attack. But they couldn’t just liveout in the empty desert, could they? Did they need any kind of shelter as they roamed the sand dunes? Maybe they burrowed into the ground, or hid under rocks like scorpions. If they burrowed, maybe there were whole underground colonies of them out there, lurking under every dune or canyon wall. Maybe they sought shelter other places; maybe even in a place like this.
Hilaire had the second watch, and I woke him after I finished mine. I almost didn’t want to end my watch, trusting nobody else to hear what I heard, or see what I saw. I could’ve let Hilaire stay asleep and continued on my own sleepless vigil. He could certainly use the sleep after the last few days we’ve had. But at the appointed time, I woke him anyway, still nursing vague hopes of sleeping through any of this. Castro, who had been on edge for three days straight, was now sleeping like the dead, so if he could do it, I suppose I could as well. As I closed my eyes, I kept thinking about whether or not we were really alone out here. Hilaire took up his post without complaint and reassured me that he would keep a sharp lookout; he must have known what I was thinking. But as I drifted off to sleep, I could swear I heard through my dreamless haze that distinctive high-pitched howling in the far distance, echoing slightly through the entrance of the ziggurat.
I woke up to find my blanket covered in dirt from the storm the previous night. Laury and Hilaire were discussing doing any more exploration around the perimeter, hoping that our elevated position would give us a better view of landmarks in the distance. A stiff breeze was still blowing, but it didn’t carry much dirt or dust, so I was hopeful that the hellish shamal was finally calming down. Castro sat against the outside wall of the ziggurat, staring blankly off into the distance. Once again, we set ourselves to exploring the outer limits of the ruins, looking for any other areas that might be accessed. We would spend most of this day examining the horizon from the edge of the hill, hoping for a sign of a landmark, all the while keeping an eye on the sky for any passing aircraft. Still, nothing. That didn’t make any sense to any of us. We knew the war was pretty much over, but there still should have been aircraft overhead. Even worse, the weather was now quite clear; Coalition planes shouldn’t have been grounded. Unless the Coalition had completely stopped their air operations, I couldn’t think of any reason why we were so isolated out here.
We convened back at the ziggurat to discuss our options, so thoroughly discouraged by our lack of success that we were all starting to doubt that we would ever get out of this place. Tempers began to flare as we argued about our next move. Laury was now openly pessimistic about our chances; Hilaire was doing his best to convince us to stay together stick with the plan; Castro didn’t say much at all. He abruptly left the argument and began tentatively exploring around the mound at the base of the ziggurat chamber. We hardly paid him any mind while we argued, but then a resounding thud echoed throughout the chamber, followed by a ear-piercing hiss and an enormous gust of air from the middle of the chamber. As we turned, we were just able to see that the mound in the center had collapsed into the ground through a large sinkhole, and we saw Castro falling after it. We forgot our grievances with one another and sprinted to edge of sinkhole to see what happened to Castro. Leaning over the edge, we called out his name at the top of our lungs, hoping that he had survived the fall. But that sinkhole was astonishingly deep, so far that we couldn’t even see the bottom of it, even with the light in the chamber. After several minutes calling his name down the sinkhole, we finally heard his voice faintly echoing up the abyss.
We called to him to see if he was injured, but we could hardly make out his voice, he had fallen so deep. From what I could make of his faint words, he said he was unable to get up. We couldn’t see him from where we stood, and the light we shined down the hole couldn’t penetrate the thick dust that still hung in the air. Hilaire went back to the tank and quickly returned with a length of rope, intending to try and rappel down the sinkhole to retrieve Castro. The hole was so deep that Laury and I didn’t have high hopes for retrieving him, but we knew that we would certainly try. Laury and I both secured the rope and Hilaire began his descent down the sinkhole, shining his light down into the abyss. He tried to descend rapidly, but the dust and loose dirt at the edge of the hole made it difficult for him to get a decent foothold. He went ever deeper in to the hole, getting so far down that we could hardly see him, and we were starting to run out of rope. All the while Hilaire was calling down to Castro, trying to reassure him that we would get him out of there, but Castro’s responses became increasingly faint and inaudible, and finally ceased completely. When we ran out of rope to safely lower Hilaire any further, we called down to urge him to come back up. After a few minutes he resurfaced, utterly defeated and on the verge of tears. It seemed that Castro was all but lost down that godforsaken sinkhole, and it seemed like we had no real chance to get down there and find him.
Morale was poor before, but losing Castro like this was absolutely devastating. He was the youngest man in our crew, just shy of his twentieth birthday, yet dependable and steadfast as a man twice his age. Despite his odd behavior in the last few days, we still owed a lot to him. He led us here to this place, and even though we were still lost, it was better than taking our chances in the desert. In those early days, when we were bogged down in the sand dunes, he took the personal risk of scouting a way out of there. Losing him like this, in this strange and ominous place, was something that hammered home more than anything the hopelessness of our situation. Even so, Hilaire still talked about making another rescue attempt down the hole, even though Castro’s voice was gone, and we didn’t have nearly enough rope to make it down. When Laury and I suggested that Castro could be gone for good, Hilaire flew into a rage and cursed us out for just abandoning him like this, saying that we shouldn’t even be thinking about leaving a man behind, alive or dead. We didn’t say anything in response. Between our fatalistic helplessness and Hilaire’s guilt about this whole situation, hope seemed like a vulgar proposition.
Hilaire sat by the hole for the rest of the day, occasionally calling Castro’s name down the hole with no response. Laury and I camped outside of the entrance, ostensibly to keep watch, but mostly to commiserate where Hilaire couldn’t hear us. Both of us were convinced that we would probably die out here. Either we would run out of food and water, or be the victim of an accident like Castro’s, or we would try our luck in the desert and die of thirst and heat stroke. Darkness came again, and Hilaire was still inside the ziggurat, shouting down the sinkhole until his voice went hoarse. Laury and I regretted telling Hilaire to just give up, even though we still believed it was hopeless. No aircraft had ever shown up. No sign of a search operation looking for us. We were the only human faces that any of us had seen in days. There’s really something strange about being stranded in a place so lifeless and empty. I guess we’re not really used to the idea of being so alone, so far from city lights and crowded avenues, the general hustle and bustle of human life. This place, these ancient ruins, all of it should have reassured us with a reminder that once upon the time, human beings had set foot in this place. Instead, it seemed like there was nothing really human about this place at all.
We prepared to spend another night in the ziggurat, and Hilaire finally gave up his desperate mission. This time, he volunteered for the first watch; Laury and I were nervous about being around him, because of his desperate and clearly agitated frame of mind. We didn’t really think he would hurt us, but his abrasive outbursts were starting to get more personal and hostile, and being around him like this was an extremely unpleasant experience. Nonetheless, we supposed that he could really use some alone time to work through his issues. Being around us probably wasn’t easy for him either, the way Laury and I were moping and being generally hopeless.
I was asleep when Hilaire charged in through the entrance shouting in pain and panic, rousting Laury and I from our leaden sleep. As we came to our senses, I noticed that the air outside was utterly clouded by a resurgent sandstorm and through it I heard distinctly that high-pitched howl that we all knew so well. Hilaire was limping as he sprinted inside, and I saw that his right leg was slick with blood and a large gouge was ripped in his pant leg. He shouted “they’re back, they’re back” as he charged in, more terrified than I had ever seen him. In less than a second we gathered our weapons and trained them on the entrance, nerves alight and convinced that this would be our last stand. The howls grew louder with each passing second, and more of those horrific, sibilant voices joined in with the chorus of screams and howls. For several seconds we focused on the wall of airborne sand blowing across the entrance, knowing at any second that something could come storming in with great numbers. When a shadow became visible through the storm, one of us must have panicked an opened fire through the entrance, the report of gunfire nearly deafening us in the confined space. All of us joined in, firing rapidly at every shadow and vague silhouette visible through the darkness, without regard to conserving our ammunition. When my rifle went dry, I didn’t pause for a second to reload, instead drawing my sidearm and keeping up the fire until I emptied that as well. We had taken the ammunition for our individual weapons with us when we made camp inside the ziggurat, but anything more powerful than small arms was still on the tank, outside the storm and probably surrounded by those creatures. As our magazines went empty, we stopped for a moment, examining the entrance. Nothing had apparently come through, but we couldn’t see if all of our fire had actually hit anything.
But something was obviously out there. We turned our attention to Hilaire’s leg wound, a sizable gash running down his right leg that must have been nearly a foot long. That was clearer evidence than anything that whatever had followed us here was now clearly hostile and meant to do much worse to all of us. We were now unexpectedly throw back into a fight for our lives, and if Hilaire was right, then the outside of the ziggurat was just about crawling with those creatures, and they were almost certainly prepared to descend upon us once they had gotten their second wind. Holding out inside the tunnel might have some advantages; we could funnel the hostiles into a narrow path and create a virtual shooting gallery out of whatever came through, but we could only do this with our small arms. And what would we do once we ran dry? Could we possibly hope to kill or drive off a hostile force of that size using only what we had? If they remained committed to the attack after we fired our last rounds, the only hope of defense would be to physically block the entrance, and without any nearby loose debris or entrenching tools, we couldn’t make that happen. But our tank seemed the best bet for defense. The coaxial and cupola machine guns still had thousands of rounds of ammunition left, and if that failed to drive them off, then we could just button our hatches and wait out the hostiles.
But getting back out to our tank would mean having go back outside and dash over 150 meters up the edge of bowl, all through both the storm and the creatures outside waiting to ambush us. As we saw it, there was no alternative. As long as we stayed inside, we were confined in a kill zone from which there would be no retreat. We hastily reloaded our weapons, planning to make a dash for the tank, firing from the hip in the hopes that we could suppress our enemies long enough to make it. Hilaire stuffed a rag into the wound on his leg, and I worried about whether or not he would be able to make it the distance to the tank, but he had as little choice in the matter as any of us. We braced ourselves for a few seconds, preparing for our mad dash, convinced that we would all be dead within the next few minutes. Hilaire, like a true leader, was the first out the entrance, and we followed close behind, expected to be set upon the second we left the opening. We were relieved not to have anything jump on our backs as we plunged into the storm, but that relief was short lived as we saw dozens of silhouettes coming through the sand on both sides. We fired wildly from the hip, spraying fire at the level of these grotesque, vaguely human shadows. This bold maneuver certainly did catch these things off guard, backing off for a few seconds, but others ducked and weaved and carried on their attack. Laury, immediately behind me the whole way, stumbled to the ground as I saw one of those things tackle him from behind, swiping and scrabbling at the back of his head. I turned back, and rather than risk shooting Laury, I charged in like an old time Napoleonic soldier, rifle tucked at my hip, and reaching the creature I swung out my weapon like a club and bashed it across its face with the butt of the rifle. I helped Laury to his feet and got him moving again as he clasped the back of his head with both hands.
The dash to the tank must have taken a minute at the most, but it seemed like at least an hour, a frantic hour firing wildly at shadows in the mist. But against all odds, we had actually made it back our machine, and I have to say, the dusty outline of Hell Hound seemed like a divine gift from above. We remounted the tank like getting reacquainted with an old friend, but rather than close the hatches, Hilaire got on the fifty-cal machine gun on the cupola and without hesitation swung around in the direction of our assailants. He bellowed a vicious war cry that seemed to come from the bowels of Hell itself and without pause opened up on the outlines coming through the storm. Laury and I crouched at the bottom of the turret while I inspected his wounds. He had indeed sustained numerous cuts on the back of his scalp, and though these didn’t look too deep, they still bled like mad bastards as scalp wounds often do. I wrapped his face rag around the back of his head like turban hoping to staunch the flow of blood; that was the best I could do for time being until we got out our medical supplies. I used the commander’s override to switch on our auxiliary engine and restore power to tank, and even though we were dangerously low on fuel, I knew it could keep us going for a little while longer at least. I tapped the back of Hilaire’s leg and let him know that I was about to traverse the turret, and he shouted back in acknowledgment. I shifted the turret the turret in the direction of our attackers, turned on the thermal and flipped over to the coaxial machine gun. And good God, I must have seen hundreds of thermal signatures through the dust. Pausing was not an option. I immediately let it rip with the coax into the line of thermal spots, firing long bursts in a general sweeping motion aimed at ground level. For the first time, I could see with my own eyes that we were doing serious damage to our attackers, mowing them down in absolute droves between the sharp chatter of the coax machine gun and the steady hammering of the fifty cal. But these little bastards learned quick. Soon they were skittering across the ground, ducking and weaving and even leaping several feet in the air to avoid the incoming fire. Worse still, I could see in the peripheral that now thermal signatures were coming from further to the sides in both directions; there was no way I could move the turret fast enough to get them all. I shouted to Hilaire that they were trying to split our fire, and that he should aim right as I moved the turret left.
But there were just too many of them, moving too quickly in all directions. No sooner did I set my sights on the attackers from the left that Hilaire screamed that they were about to climb onto the tank. I heard then the pounding and scratching on the turret walls as the creatures scrambled up the sides, and Hilaire screamed something and tried to draw his sidearm. One of those things tackled him and tried to grapple with him, and for the very first time I got a close look at what exactly these creatures were. It was pale and hairless thing, humanoid in shape, but with no nose and a long, sloping maw with no lips and glossy black orbs for eyes. I was stunned by this sight for a second, and I tried to pull Hilaire down into the turret. Several more scrambled up the tank piled on top of him, scrabbling and clawing at his whole upper body as he screamed with panic and rage. Laury threw himself around Hilaire’s legs and we pulled as hard as we could to get him back into the turret. With a sudden and violent jerk, Laury and I were yanked upwards with Hilaire, bashing our heads into the turret ceiling, and in a flash we felt Hilaire’s legs slip through our grip and out of the turret hatch.
We were stunned and horrified for a few seconds as we struggled to comprehend what had just happened. Hilaire was gone, torn out of the turret by the creatures that had overwhelmed our position. For a few moments were stared dumbly at the open hatch, listening for a scream or any sign that Hilaire was still out there, alive. I thought I could make out his shouts through the roaring storm, but they quickly faded into the din of howls and gales of sand. Laury had the presence of mind to finally close the hatch, a move that in that instant probably saved our lives as well, as the hatch wasn’t closed for a second before violent scratching and pounding resonated through it. We both slunk to the bottom of the turret floor, staring at the hatch and hoping that it was secure enough to keep out a determined group of these creatures. And they were determined- we must have sat there for hours riveted on the hatch, jumping at every violent assault on the turret hull. Good God, there must have been hundreds of them out there, and not the least bit dissuaded by the heavy losses they took trying to overwhelm us.
We lay on the turret floor horrified and completely despondent about our predicament. We were now down to half of our number. Losing Castro had been bad, the worst moment so far, but losing Hilaire was a virtually irrecoverable blow. Without leadership, trapped in a metal box, with our choices being to stay here and starve or risk getting torn to pieces, we believed we now had a clear picture of exactly how we would end up dying. When it finally struck us that Hilaire was lost, I couldn’t take it anymore. I broke down in tears, both in despair and disbelief. I had never suspected that such a situation like this was even possible on Earth. I had expectations of dying as an old man, surrounded by my children and grandchildren, or of dying a noble death in combat with a foreign enemy. Getting trapped in the middle of the desert and getting torn to bits by hideous unknown creatures didn’t even seem possible, but no matter how much I blinked and rubbed my eyes, there was no waking up from this nightmare. There are no words to describe what it’s like to stare your imminent death in the face. Even in the worst scenarios, there would seem to be some optimism, some skepticism about death that could carry you through the worst of the fear. That battle at the airport those days before was like that. Rolling forward against enemy fire, wary that a lurking enemy tank or RPG could suddenly light you up end your war without warning; that was a real fear, but you also knew that it might not happen as well, that you’d be lucky or good enough to get out of combat with all your parts intact. But knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that the jig was up, in a way more horrible and seemingly impossible than you ever thought possible, took my last reserves of courage right out of me.
Laury wasn’t doing much better himself. He had never broken into tears, but he was definitely showing the same hopelessness that had crushed me. Without options, we just curled up on the turret floor, resigned to waiting hours or days or whatever might come. Somewhere in there, I fell into a dreamless sleep that must have lasted several hours. No nightmares; when you’re truly exhausted, miserable, and emotionally drained, there are no dreams or nightmares. The only nightmare is waking up again. When I did awake, I looked at my watch and saw that it was 0530 hours. Laury was still awake, staring back up at the hatch. He turned his attention to me and pointed out that the outside was completely silent, no pounding or scratching. This got my attention. Had our attackers given up? Were they waiting for another opportunity, or did they have some other plan for leaving us? Laury proposed that maybe we should take a brief look outside, even consider making a run for it. That didn’t make much sense to me, because there didn’t seem like there was any place to run. However, having a quick look around for an idea of what to do next wasn’t a terrible idea.
I looked through the thermal sight and saw nothing. Laury used the commander’s cupola to examine in all directions around the tank, and again, no sign of anything. He picked up his rifle and cautiously opened the hatch while I held my breath, waiting for something to storm in as soon as it opened. But there was nothing, silence. Unusual silence, in fact. Even the storm had finally calmed down, and although dust still hung in the air and clouded the sky, there wasn’t even a slight breeze. For several minutes Laury scanned all around, not sticking his head out above eye level. He noticed that the fifty cal machine gun had been torn out of its mount and laid on the ground next to the track. Laury said he going out, and even though I protested harshly, he pulled himself up and out of the hatch. After a few minutes with no screams of alarm, I tentatively followed him up. Indeed, the whole scene was eerily still and silent. No trace of our attackers remained, not even the corpses of all those we had slain the night before. They had evidently taken their dead with them and done God knows what with them. More disturbingly, there was no sign of Hilaire either. When he was snatched from that turret, he had simply disappeared off the face of the Earth. But at this point, I had no real hopes of finding him. I can only surmise what must have happened him at the hands of those creatures, but if their violent attacks were any indication, I would be surprised if anything was left.
Laury pointed down at the entrance of the ziggurat we had abandoned the previous night. He suggested we should try to make our way back there, maybe for any trace of our former commander, or to reclaim any supplies we had abandoned at our camp in the entrance. I thought now he was starting to take some excessive risks, but the silence and stillness of our surroundings swayed me. Daylight was starting to come on more strongly, and nothing was visible in the distance. I think he was mostly interested in the first aid kits we had left behind; although the bleeding from his head wounds had stopped, he must’ve wanted to find something more than a dusty rag to bind his wounds. With some reluctance I got fully out of the tank and followed to the edge of the bowl. With some hesitation, we proceeded down the bowl to the ziggurat with a slow and particularly cautious pace. But something about the ground beneath our feet didn’t feel quite right. Until now, it was mostly soft and porous sand, but now it seemed more firm, like it had settled and was squirming under our feet. We were suddenly overcome by a chorus of hellish shrieks, and I saw just what made the ground feel so strange. Dozens of the creatures burrowed out from the sand and leaped straight up from the ground on all sides of us. These fucking things actually ambushed us! They had deliberately waited us out, hoping we would leave our armored refuge, all so they could take us out in the open, from right beneath our feet!
Laury and I just panicked, letting loose our rifles on the creatures as they sailed through the air above us. To our dismay, the sounds of gunfire no longer seemed to dissuade our enemy, but they did duck and weave just enough to slow them down. We just sprinted down the bowl to the entrance with our backs to the enemy, hoping beyond hope that we wouldn’t get taken down before we made it inside. One creature did manage to reach me, tackling me with surprising strength for their emaciated frames, and I nearly nearly stumbled all the way to the ground. Like a miracle, I managed to get my feet back under me before hitting the ground and I kept going, practically breathless when I finally crossed the threshold of the ziggurat entrance. The creatures balked at first, as if they objected to entering this place, but as Laury and I made it into the main chamber I could hear them making their way down the entrance corridor after us. We had run straight into a trap, an open chamber with no real exit, and I figured now that this is how I would die. But Laury wasn’t finished yet. He ran over to the edge of the sinkhole that had swallowed Castro earlier, staring into it resolutely. He was actually suggesting that we go down into that endless abyss, with no knowledge just where the hell it even led! I was ready to refuse this out of hand when the hoots and shrieks of the creatures near the entrance made me think better. I had resigned myself to a grisly fate at their hands, but thinking about it, plunging to my death down the hole didn’t seem much worse. Laury grabbed the rope we left there earlier and spiked it into the ground with an entrenching tool. Without hesitation, he took to the rope and began his descent down the hole.
I watched incredulously after him as he swiftly descended without braking. When he disappeared from my sight I tried to yell after him, but the noise of those creatures made it impossible for me to hear any response. I saw them finally enter the main chamber, crawling all over the ground and walls at the threshold, and without much choice I took my own place on the rope and slid down. I took it more slowly than Laury, and as I descended below the edge of the hole, the shrieks and howls turned into something else. It became that hideous rasping *laugh* I had heard so many days earlier, as if they were amused by my attempt at escape. When I made it far below the rim, I looked up and saw those horribly familiar faces looking over the edge, giving off that disgusting laugh all the while. I focused my attention downwards on the depths of the pit. Down this far, the dust had become thick enough that I couldn’t see more than two yards below me, but doing anywhere but down was not an option. I slowed my pace and descended until I reached the end of the rope, with the bottom still nowhere in sight. I wondered just how I would go from here, but Laury had evidently made it down, so there must have been some way. The dirt surrounding the pit was quite loose, but it was heavily sodden and probably could make a good handhold. I made the decision then to try and free climb down the rest of the way.
This proved quite challenging and slow, but the dirt managed to hold so long as I plunged my hand as deep into it as possible. I must have gone down another twenty feet this way when the dirt became less stable. As I swung forward to dig my boot into the side of the hole, I lost my grip without warning and tumbled down into the abyss. I slid down against the edge of the pit, desperately clawing at it in the hopes of catching a new hold, but it was for nothing. I fell a good thirty feet before suddenly hitting the bottom and collapsing flat on my back. I felt that the bottom was soft and porous sand, and having slowed myself down against the side of the pit, I had managed to save myself from falling to my death. Castro had fallen down this way as well, and I was suddenly struck by the hope that he might have survived his fall into the pit relatively unharmed. Despite this hope, I saw no trace of anywhere he might have ended up. I remembered he had fallen all the way down the pit, closely followed by collapsing debris from the mound, which dashed my hopes of his survival. If he had made it all the way down, he would have hit the bottom much harder, and maybe crushed by the rest.
At the bottom of this pit was tunnel entrance, a small tunnel that seemed hastily excavated from the dirt like a mine shaft rather than carved or sculpted. I called Laury’s name down the tunnel and to my relief heard his distant response. I worked my way through the cramped tunnel, which must have extended over a hundred yards at least, and I came out of the tunnel to another bizarre and awe-inspiring sight. Laury was just outside the end of the tunnel, staring at the same thing. We found ourselves in another enormous chamber, at least as large as that at the top of the hole. Most of it was quite dim, but in the center was a considerably bright light, almost like direct sunlight, illuminating the center of the chamber. In the center of the chamber, shrouded in blinding reflections, was glossy black pyramid with a short obelisk on top. The structure was entirely colored black, and was polished to a smoothness and sheen like obsidian. The light surrounding the pyramid ended at a stark boundary with the darkness of the rest of the chamber, like a line in the sand, and at the pyramid’s base was a round stone altar. The altar was the familiar red color of the ziggurat above, but the surface of it was as smooth and polished as the pyramid and glinted like a precious metal that I assumed was platinum.
We were riveted by this sight for many minutes, completely dumbfounded that such a thing was lying here under our feet, something even more alien and ornate than anything we had seen above. I started to approach it slowly, this time more confident that Laury. I felt an insatiable desire to approach and even touch the pyramid, struck by its brilliant sheen. I didn’t even seem like it was made of solid material, but a glossy static liquid. Laury followed me to within a few yards of the light boundary on the floor of the chamber, but stopped and began to urge me back. I slowed my pace, but I still wanted to get a good look at it. The boundary of light was unusual, but not immediately disconcerting, and I didn’t feel any fear of crossing it. Laury implored me more urgently to stay back, but he still followed me closer to the line. I stood less only a few feet from the line when I stopped, and I became aware of a reverberating hum in my ears. It was a powerful noise, as if some titanic energy buzzed around the chamber, and this noise gave me pause. Laury came to my side, telling me that we should keep our distance from the light.
I finally agreed with him, but my eyes were still fixed on the gleaming pyramid, and I struggled to take a step back from it. Further back, Laury had stopped dead in his tracks, looking around as if hearing something unusual. I still only heard the hum, but he began whipping his head around, as if barraged by noises all around him. He asked me if I heard what he was hearing; I asked if it was the hum, but he said the sound was more like voices. I listened closely as well, and to my shock and utter horror, I heard that distinctive deep, static-filled voice repeating unintelligible words. It was the voice we had heard on the radio days before. Now it was becoming louder and more insistent, and the fear it gave me broke my trance and got me moving farther from the pyramid. Laury was still listening, now frantically searching about for the source of the voice. He fixed his eyes on the pyramid, and in a low and determined voice, he said “there!” and pointed at the obelisk on the top. He started inexorably striding forward towards the light boundary he had urged me away from moments ago, and now it was my turn to fear for his life.
I came up behind Laury and grabbed him by the shoulders, trying to direct him away from the pyramid, but he suddenly shook me off with startling violence, even elbowing me in the ribs. He slipped from my grasp and began walking to the boundary with great determination. Again I came up from behind and grabbed him a few feet short of the edge, and he began to struggle even more aggressively. I tried to bear hug him and drag him away, but he threw his head back and struck me on the nose. I instinctively let go to cradle my nose, and he charged across the boundary of light as I screamed his name. He got a few feet beyond the line and quickly slowed to a stop. He began writhing on his feet as if something was burning him, and to my horror I saw heat vapor rising off his skin. His cries became audible and his pained groans quickly rose to agonizing shrieks. His body started jerking incontinently as his shrieks rose. He sunk to the ground almost to his knees, but he was suddenly thrown up into the air by some unseen force, tumbling end over end. Then to my shock, his body hung in the air for a few seconds, still screaming, and he began to roll and twist in the air. His whole body was twisting violently, and I saw that this unseen force was twisting, bending and breaking his body section by section. The rolling motion rose to a tremendous speed, and with one last powerful and blood-curdling shriek, Laury was completely torn apart in the air, his shredded remains being catapulted into the far reaches of the chamber.
I was shocked beyond words at this sight and I couldn’t move from that spot for several minutes. I saw Castro fall to his demise into a sinkhole, I saw Hilaire dragged away by those creatures, but the sight of Laury being torn limb from limb by an invisible force was beyond reckoning. Castro and Hilaire’s deaths at least seemed physically possible. But I didn’t know of any force on this planet capable of doing such things, or for several moments I wondered if I had just hallucinated it. After I came around, I knew for sure what I had seen actually happened. Nothing remained of Laury, not even shreds of uniform or spots of blood in dirt below. I backed away from the edge of the light and curled up on the floor of chamber. I was now alone, alone in this horrible place that by rights shouldn’t even exist. I’m a lifelong skeptic, and I should know that places like this weren’t possible anywhere on Earth, but I also know what I saw. I know that Gilbert Castro, Paul Hilaire, and Tim Laury never came back from this place, and that nothing was ever found to prove what happened to them. But even if this whole dark time was just some revolting fever dream, those basic facts remain, and the images will never go away.
I stayed curled up on the ground for what must have been hours. Every death of one of my comrades had driven me ever deeper into despair, and even when I thought I wouldn’t get worse, it did. I can say with complete confidence that those hours were the worst of my life. We escaped thirst and starvation in the desert, only to find ourselves set upon by creatures that probably no living human had ever seen before. We escaped them only to find ourselves faced with being trapped at the bottom of a pit, only to be set upon by physical forces that nobody has ever described. I was utterly defeated. Despite my previous despondence, I had managed to keep some semblance of reason and sanity, but at that time I was finally starting crack up and lose it. I got to my feet and paced around the chamber, cursing the universe for making such things possible, especially here on Earth, no longer thinking of my own death but what would become of this place after I was gone. I was furious that this place had gotten the best of us, had devoured three human lives so swiftly and without any regard or remorse. The idea entered my head that this place might somehow be alive, as if this dead city in an inanimate patch of desert was consciously evil and uncaring. I might seem ridiculous to think such things, but my own safe perception of reality was so shattered that anything seemed possible.
I reached the peak of my despair down in that pit, in the dismal shadow of the pyramid, when I lost all reason and picked up my rifle. The thought of suicide had indeed crossed my mind at various points, but that wasn’t what I intended now. Laughing maniacally, I loaded a fresh magazine, chambered a round, and level the barrel at the pyramid. That hateful object seemed like the source of all my despair, and I cared nothing for any consequence of my actions. I fired round upon round at the side of the pyramid, rounds that mostly bounced off without effect. But one round did make a gouge in that finely polished exterior, and I was exultant at this petty sign of revenge realized. I broke out of my state when I noticed that the entire chamber seemed to tremble. Now I was suddenly regretful of my ill-considered actions, deeply afraid of what new event I had just triggered. The trembling only got worse, and that damned hum I had heard earlier came back with a vengeance, with a volume that was almost deafening. I dove to the ground on my stomach, covering the back of my head while still trying to see what was happening. Now debris was starting to fall from the ceiling under the persistent shaking, and I saw that the light surrounding the pyramid was not only getting blindingly bright, but was starting to expand to cover an increasing area of the chamber.
I scrambled away from the expanding boundary of the light, knowing full well what would happen if it overtook me. I pressed myself against the wall towards the chamber entrance, and looking back I could see that part of the tunnel had collapsed. Now I had no chance to retreat or seek cover. The boundary of light slowly expanded towards the edge of the chamber, and the pyramid was now trembling violently in place, and the obelisk at the top emitted a fierce beam of light up through the ceiling of the chamber. As the line edged closer to me, I tried to brace myself for the horrific fate suffered by Laury. But the line slowed, then stopped. The hum was now absolutely deafening, a hellish abyss of noise that felt like it would cave in the sides of my skull. But without warning, the hum ceased, and the light boundary suddenly contracted towards the pyramid, and the entire chamber became deathly silent. A rushing sound like the roar of waterfall suddenly rose and several brilliant flashes of light emitted from the pyramid. I resisted the urge to watch what was happening and buried my face into the dirt. Then, another piercing silence, and a continuing bright light that felt even hotter than standing in direct sunlight, and a swift roar and shock wave that lifted me off the ground and slammed he viciously into the dirt. The roar and shock wave seemed to go on for hours, and in that brilliant spectacle, I lost myself completely.
I thought I was dead. But somewhere in there, I realized that if I was dead, then I couldn’t possibly be thinking anything, much less that. Coming to my senses, I found myself partly buried in sand in the midst of a enormous crater surrounding me. Beyond the edge of the crater I could see that the sky was visible; I had somehow ended up above ground! That sky was clear, refreshingly clear after so long spent in miserable dust storms and penetrating darkness. I was still quite weak, but I was able to shake myself out of my partly buried state and stand on my feet. Now I could see around the crater more clearly. Above the crater, where I assume the dead city should have been, was now a patchwork of hills formed from dirt and sand that looked freshly churned. No sign of the strange buildings or the towering obelisk at the center remained. I surveyed this whole scene in a complete daze, unsure of what had just happened. The roar and the shock waves felt like explosion, and I did find myself at the bottom of a crater, so I assumed that was what happened. I have no clue how I could have survived such a thing. At that moment, I was struck by feeling of victory and exultation the likes of which I never experienced again, not even on my wedding day nine years later. Against all odds, I was somehow still alive when the rest of the city and all the disgusting creatures that inhabited it seemed to have been wiped from existence.
I remember being overcome with a fit of deranged laughter over my unexpected “victory”. In this state, I wandered out of the crater and into the desert, being sure to head east as we had done all those days before. I had no expectation of finding my way out of the desert, no plan to do much of anything. Being satisfied with somehow destroying that hated city was enough to carry my mind through anything. I just trudged east without pause, never thinking of where I was going or if I was still fated to die out there in the desert. There aren’t many memories of this part of my journey. I know that I was walking through the rest of that day and much of the night, although I don’t remember sleeping. All that I could remember was the walking east into the rising sun, hardly a care in the world. It’s not that I forgot or that I was totally nuts by that point, but because at that time I didn’t think the journey was that important. After all, can anyone remember every inch of a daily commute they’ve done a thousand times or more?
Again, against all possible odds, I was finally found and rescued at last. During my walk across the desert, I came upon a road, maybe even the same road we had left days before when we first got lost. I was sitting at the edge of the pavement when a passing civilian spotted me and offered me a ride. Thinking about it later, I should even more grateful to that man, willing to offer a ride to a stranded stranger, especially one in my deranged condition. The next stop we made was a town in Saudi Arabia called Hafar Al Batin, where I was delivered into the care of a British expat who was able to contact U.S. Forces still operating in Kuwait. Seeing human life again was a overpowering experience, and I nearly broke down in tears again when I beheld a busy street scene. Within the day, I was back in the company of fellow Marines, and I was put on a chopper back to Al-Jahra, where the rest of the battalion was still posted.
I don’t what kind of welcome I expected, but I certainly didn’t get a warm one. The entire unit was well aware of our absence and had been on edge for over a week waiting for any news or sign of their missing comrades. When I came back alone, they knew to assume the worst. But there wasn’t any time for fond greetings with the others. Despite my poor condition, I was brought in for a full debriefing on the events of the last several days and to shed light on what exactly happened out there. If I were in a better frame of mind I would have been offended by the accusatory tone of their questions, but after what I had been through, those stuffy pricks didn’t intimidate me in the slightest. Without hesitation, I told them the exact story I’m telling you now, with greater brevity and minus certain details. To say they were utterly flabbergasted by this tale would be an understatement. I could tell they thought my recollection was a lot of bullshit, but I didn’t care. How could I care? *I* knew the whole story, and they didn’t. Maybe they wrote it off as a fever dream of a man stranded in the desert, or some elaborate joke meant to mock them. I was coldly written off as a lunatic placed into the care of Navy doctors to recuperate from the ordeal.
However unbelievable my story, there were still some undeniable facts, facts that have mystified me ever since. We began our journey back to base in north-western Kuwait, near the Iraqi border. When I emerged from the desert and was found, I was well over a hundred miles west of where we should have been. The town of Hafar Al Batin is in north-eastern Saudi Arabia, but the road we took into town came from the west. It is true that we deviated west when we spotted the dead city in the distance, but there is simply no way we could gotten that far, especially since we had spent the days before heading east. Not only that, but based on how far we had traveled in the days before, we should have practically driven into the Persian Gulf before turning west. Instead, we were lost out in the middle of a trackless desert with sign of anything but sand in the distance. How could we have gotten that far west? How is it possible that we found ourselves well beyond the fuel range of our tank in Saudi Arabia, well out of our way? Maybe if I knew the exact location of the dead city on a map, I could work it out, but I don’t think any trace of that place still exists.
I spent about a month in a Navy hospital healing and regaining my strength. A month might seem excessive for a case of exhaustion, dehydration, heat stroke, and some small gashes on my back, and it was. I realized within a few days just why I was kept there for so long. At least three or four times a week I would be summoned to talk with a Navy psychiatrist to go over the specifics of my story. It was clear at that point that I was being accused of having lost my mind and their clumsy attempts at “therapy” and “emotional support” meant I could end up with a Section Eight, or even worse, be confined to a psychiatric unit. From that point on, I clammed up and claimed I “couldn’t remember” anything clearly about that time. My previous bravado when first recounting my story to my battalion commander was more or less exhausted, but I instead learned to be at peace with my own knowledge. Because of all this, I spent far longer than I needed to in their care, but after thirty-three days, I was finally deemed fit to return to my unit and discharged. My guess is that they just got tired of my obstinacy, and decided to waste their time on somebody else.
Returning to my unit was a more distressing experience. The others had been kept in suspense about our fate during that whole time, but the fact that I returned alone and that Hilaire, Castro and Laury were never to be found again changed their attitude towards me. Maybe they thought I abandoned them out in the desert, or that my wanderings were part of some ill-conceived attempt at desertion, but they always held me in suspicion from that point on. As confidently as I had conveyed my story to our superior officers and the Navy shrinks, I never uttered a word of it to them. By that point I was exhausted with recounting the story, and I was starting to worry that repeating it elsewhere might get me thrown back in the psych ward. My silence didn’t help my case with my fellow Marines, who thought I was hiding something, perhaps some proof of something sinister on my part. Oh, if only they knew the truth. Others were more sympathetic and thought I was still recovering emotionally from everything, but they were something of a minority. Marines are expected to bring their comrades home no matter what, alive or dead, and I hadn’t. From then on, I was permanently tainted in their eyes.
I still reenlisted later that year, confident that I was more or less recovered from my ordeal, and a little stronger besides. Because my comrades were turning against me, I was transferred to another tank battalion in the Marines, and thankfully my checkered reputation didn’t follow me. However, I was not fully done with the debriefings. Even years after that, I would still be periodically summoned by officers of an intelligence unit and some men from the Pentagon. They would press me to go through the whole story again, eager to extract some new detail that I might have missed before. Of course they still acted like it was horseshit, but they couldn’t fool me. The fact they were still asking the same old questions years later proved to me that something about my story got to them. But even though they still had a record of my original report, the full unadulterated story I told my superiors before, I started to change my story. I was getting real tired of the cycle of constant interrogations and thinly-veiled suggestions that I was either a nut-job or a liar. The creatures became an “unidentified enemy insurgency”, the dead city was “an unmarked and abandoned settlement”, and what happened to Laury became the consequence of stepping on some “unexploded ordnance”. They must have known I was deliberately changing my story because they wouldn’t stop pressing me for details of my original account, even though *I* was now claiming that it probably wasn’t true. But ironically, despite their assertions that the original story was “ridiculous”, the fact that they were still interested has only made me more secure in my own knowledge.
My last years the Corps were rather rocky, despite the transfer. This was when I was first starting to manifest symptoms of agoraphobia, particularly during training exercises at Twentynine Palms. The sight of that open and endless desert could instantly bring me back to those dark days hopelessly lost with nothing but vast stretches of dirt in every direction. At first my hands would shake and I would become sweaty and riddled with anxiety, but things only got worse from there. On night exercises, I would be trying desperately to suppress moments of intense dread and panic, remembering how those creatures ambushed us from beneath our feet, hoping that we wouldn’t have to spend a night in the field. When we did, I wouldn’t sleep a wink the whole night, always on alert for whatever might be prowling out in the wild, far from human civilization. The thought that any place on Earth could be so barren, unpopulated and unexplored never failed to fill me with anxiety. I knew how it felt to somehow be lost or hidden from sight even when you can see for miles in all directions. It makes me wonder what sort of things can be hidden out in barren wastes and remote places around the world, maybe even places like the dead city or those horrible creatures. Having seen what I’ve seen, heard what I heard, anything seems possible when I behold vast horizons and empty skies.
I think it was because of this that I developed disciplinary problems that marred my service record during those last years. Insubordination, absence without leave, occasionally theft of Marine Corps property, these were some of the more typical offenses that I got myself into. But the most serious problem I developed was substance abuse, particularly alcohol. I couldn’t afford hard stuff on a Marine Corps salary, and weed never seemed to do anything for me. I would brawl with Army guys or sailors, come back to base from leave while drunk, or talk back to my superiors. I don’t really know why I started acting this way; maybe because military discipline no longer intimidated me, or maybe I needed a desperate escape from my thoughts and recurring nightmares, or maybe I was just a lame drunk. I faced some quite serious charges during these pathetic escapades, but thankfully they never pinned anything more egregious on me, and a demotion and some days in the stockade were the worst I got. In 1995, when my chance to reenlist again came up, I opted just to leave. Everybody else wanted me out, and I felt there was nothing left for me to gain by staying. Despite the disciplinary problems, I still managed to receive an honorable discharge, and without any hits my pension.
The rest I’ve already told. Since then, I’ve just bumbled through life, checking off various milestones that any adult should. Hilaire, Castro and Laury never will. I could chalk that up to the fortunes of war, but in our case I don’t think that quite applies. From their loss I learned a few things about the world and about myself, and in some ways, I think I’m stronger because of it. True, my agoraphobia left me virtually crippled for years, but that’s because I know. I know what I saw out there in the Arabian Desert in those early days of March 1991, and I know that my friends Hilaire, Laury and Castro will never be coming back, and I know that in the remote places of the world anything can lurk beneath the vast and cursed sands under our feet. If that means I’m slightly crazy, then so be it. But I simply can’t be afraid any longer and the stress of it all is slowly killing me. That’s why I’m finally seeking help for my condition. My therapist might think the story is just a nightmare or a delusion, but I’m willing to accept that. Somehow, I have to reconcile not being afraid with knowing that the dead city and those creatures actually existed, that any such things are possible on this planet. Somehow, I have to make a future for myself in such a world. But when I awoke in the rubble of the dead city flush with victory, I learned that there is some comfort in knowing that there will eventually be an end to all things, and an end to everything that comes after.
🔔 More stories from author: Ian Smith
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