Estimated reading time — 86 minutes
Rule 1: Don’t stray from the installations access roads.
I spend a lot of time doing contract work for the Army. They contract a hell of a lot of mechanic work out to civilians. Saves on overhead, I guess. But that means I’ll often be driving out into obscure training ranges out in the middle of nowhere to un-fuck a mission critical vehicle or piece of equipment that can’t be easily brought back into the shop.
It could take an hour or more to get out to some of the places these guys (and gals, more and more these days) break their million-dollar toys. Most of the time the job is routine. Spend an hour or more getting to the site. Do an assessment. Fix it if I can, or get an M88 out there if I can’t. Head back to the shop. Do the paperwork. Call it a day.
At least, that’s how it went before they transferred me out to a certain well-known installation in the California desert.
Right off the bat, I felt like I was being punished. The folks I met in the shop on day one were nice enough on first blush, if a bit coy about the command climate. But they chided me for not knowing any of the rumors about the base and proceeded to tell me a menagerie of what amounted to ghost stories. They were just messing with the new guy, I thought.
One guy, Mikey, even put on an Oscar-winning performance as he took me aside and tried to tell me about a bunch of unwritten rules and things to watch out for building upon what the other tall tales the folks in the shop were weaving. Then, in ominous tones, he told me about the previous mechanic whose spot I was filling.
“Yea, he went missing when responding to a false call. No one else heard it over the radio, but he recorded it and went out. He should have known better. The unit reporting the call doesn’t exist, and the training range was vacant. I…We have no idea why he went out there.” He looked down sadly, “We only know that we found his truck buried in a sand berm about three days later. No sign of him, or how his vehicle could have wound up buried like that. Just… be careful. Things get weird out there.”
I rolled my eyes and shrugged it off. Talk about commitment to a prank.
A few days later I was still settling in and went out on my first two-job call. It was well past 100 degrees out, and both training areas I had to hit were at the extreme eastern edge of the base. As luck would have it my utility vehicle didn’t have working air conditioning either. Thankfully the first job was an easy, if time-consuming, fix. After packing up and getting ready to head to the second site I was required to report my time, position, and estimated arrival at the next site.
I thought to myself: I could take the main roads the long way around all the ranges, following procedure, and in doing so avoid entering an active training area or I could take a shortcut across a training area and cut 40 minutes off my transit time to the next job. Since I knew the training area between me and my next call had actually been vacated that morning and the heat was brutal, I decided to take a shortcut.
I drove for what felt like hours in the intense heat. Under those conditions, they often say your eyes start playing tricks on you, and they aren’t wrong. Strange distorted forms appeared off in the distance only to fade to nothing as I’d drive by. For miles and miles this went on, then all of a sudden I was brought out of my trance by a form that didn’t dissipate.
Breaking one of Mikey’s silly cardinal rules, I pulled off the road to have a look and see if I could help.
As I neared I could see clearly that it was an old jeep stuck in the sand. It seemed like the kind of Jeep that probably hadn’t been used by line units since the early ’80s at the latest.
What the hell was it doing out here?
I slowed down and pulled up next to the wreck and I immediately felt my stomach drop as if I were weightless.
Two limp forms rested in the front seats of the jeep and one laid nearby in the sand. My adrenaline spiked and I jumped out of my truck rushing over to help. Despite the oppressive heat, a chill overcame me.
The men were clearly dead, but they couldn’t have been out here more than a week by their appearances. Bloated tongues bulging out of slack jaws, eyes half closed and milky white, skin pale and taut. It took me a moment to note other details. The uniforms were wrong. They were a simple, solid green. Their helmets were wrong too.
It didn’t make any sense. There was no way a vehicle would have just sat out here unnoticed for decades. Likewise, there was no way a unit would have dressed up in vintage uniforms, carrying vintage gear, just to fuck around out here.
Then my eyes drifted to the vehicle.
Against my better judgment, I walked around and inspected it. The water cans in the back were empty, and the whip radio antenna was missing from its mount on the rear of the vehicle. I stood there at a loss, knowing what probably happened to these men but not understanding who it had happened to.
I walked back around to the front of the vehicle and stopped.
The man who was laying in the dirt was gone.
“What the fuck…” I exhaled.
“Hey.” A voice called from the far side of the immobilized jeep.
Not knowing what to say, I said nothing at all as I slowly started moving backward, careful to make as little sound as possible.
“Hey, can you give us a hand? We’re stuck here.”
I heard the driver side door open and close but couldn’t see what was happening as they went to work trying to free the jeep.
“Hey.” The voice called again, more urgent and louder. “Hey, can you give us a hand? we’re stuck here.”
I glanced to my truck, still apparently undisturbed only about 10 meters away. The problem, though, was that the only way to get to my truck was to go right by the passenger side door and cross the line of sight of whatever it was that I had stumbled upon. I wanted to run but found my feet too heavy to lift, so I used all my will to take another step backward and just then I stepped on the one goddamned piece of vegetation within fifty meters of me.
The sounds of strain and digging coming from the far side of the Jeep stopped. For a mere second, there was complete silence before a grotesque visage slowly peered out of the passenger side window and its cloudy eyes locked onto mine.
“Hey.” It called, its voice muffled and by its swollen tongue.
Before the shock wore off and I could begin running toward my truck, it’s deathly brethren came around at a trot blocking my only clear path of escape.
“Hey.” They called in unison, and I sprinted faster than I’d ever done before. I was driven by mad panic. Somehow I made it past them, barely slipping through their grasp.
I jumped into the truck, turned over the ignition which caught on the first try, and threw it into reverse. I was peeling backward just as one of the forms grabbed onto the grill of the truck and began climbing up and over the hood. I swerved left and right trying to throw it off to no avail. It tore into the hood for purchase and kept right on coming. It anticipated and braced for every clumsy maneuver and just as it’s hand firmly grasped the drivers side-view mirror it began to shift and fade from reality.
I was back on the main road, it was gone, and its compatriots stood off the main road as mute statues. They watched for moments before returning to their ceaseless task.
I drove onward leaving them behind and ignored anything and everything else along the way. When I finally arrived at the next job, the group of soldiers waiting in the shade next to their broken down M113 hurried over and helped me out of the vehicle. I heard muffled voices and looks of concern as I was led to the shade.
“Hey doc, we’re going to need to stick him..”
As I laid there and let them push about a liter of fluid into me I stared at the front of my truck, now visible to me for the first time since the encounter.
It was pretty fucked up. Handholds were cleaved from the metal paneling itself.
Then I faded out.
I woke up in a small clinic with both Mikey and my supervisor waiting nearby as a cool stream of saline fed into my arm.
“Don’t break the rules again.” My supervisor said, “you are lucky to be alive, and you’ll be restricted to light duty until you recuperate, just so you know.”
“What happened?” I asked, unsure of my experience.
“Well, based on how fucked up your truck was and the fact you were able to get to the second job site in under two minutes from your check-in, I’d say you broke the rules.”
“It was real?”
Mikey and my supervisor glanced at one another for a moment.
“…yes. absolutely. I thought we were pretty upfront about that.”
“I just thought you were fucking with me.” I sighed, “I saw guys…corpses…stuck out there. From another time..it looked like they got lost out there long ago.”
“Well, that happens. All too often, actually. I can’t tell you if they are echo’s or what, or how time can cease to have meaning when you break the rules…but they were people. That I’m sure of. I guess they never let go. They never gave up hope. That desperation echoes through time, but it’s only one of the more benign things out there.”
They left me alone confident in my recovery while I contemplated my supervisor’s last words.
I probably need to write all the rules down.
Rule 2: COMSEC.
Communications security (COMSEC) is beaten into soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines (well, that’s more figurative than it used to be, but you get the point) from the earliest iterations of their training. One of the biggest force multipliers on a battlefield is effective communications. Without working comms an operation can fall apart, assets can be lost and people can die. Even in training.
For my part, providing support to units conducting training requires us to have working comms both in the mechanic shop and in our vehicles. Usually these comms are unsecured, truth be told. Just an old SINCGARS set with the basic single-channel / plain text configuration.
Every once in a while, though, when there is a big combined arms operation we actually get orders to shadow the units through their evolutions to ensure their vehicles remain mission capable and something as small as a cracked hose doesn’t stop some would-be Patton from showing off to his commanders. And that, my friends, requires a radio fill to keep us all talking the same language. To keep it simple, a radio fill will be a….we’ll call it a code. It makes sure all our radios speak the same language on the same frequency at the same time and that nobody else can listen in or communicate with us.
So, after returning to duty and steadfastly adhering to the rules laid out by Mikey and the shop we got detached to a brigade level assault on the notional (fake) city of Sokovia – yes, seriously. I was pretty excited to be honest. Sure it’d be hard work and we wouldn’t get much sleep for a week but it is fun as hell watching entire battalions maneuvering through the desert, dancing with combat engineers acting as OPFOR doing everything in their power to slow the assault.
It started out about as beautiful as you could imagine. Entire armor columns roared to life and advanced as one. For a time the harmony was flawless.
But all plans start to fall apart when they encounter reality.
We call it friction.
Oh, an oil leak here. Heat stroke there. Miscommunication on fuel point…you know how it goes. Reality is complicated and everyone makes mistakes.
Before long we found ourselves having gone without sleep for two days, bouncing around the alien hellscape trying to do what we could to help keep the beast moving on its objective.
After a particularly exhausting day, we received a call to help a cav scout who got stuck on the far and inaccessible side of ‘Sokovia’. We knew what went wrong right away. Some enterprising young officer or NCO tried to work their way through the hills to flank their objective and broke down, and now we’d have to go pull an all-nighter to un-fuck ‘em.
Problem was we couldn’t establish contact with them on the radio. Their commanders dialed us into the last grid they were seen at, stating their comm equipment had been acting up. That got Mikeys’ attention. He tried to clarify but they weren’t exactly wasting a whole lot of breath on a couple knuckle draggers like us.
All the way out there Mikey was acting fidgety. I knew COMSEC was another important rule, with about three derivatives of which my predecessor broke one. But I was still wet behind the ears and hadn’t yet grasped how serious things could get.
We rolled up on a dead Stryker at about half past midnight. Sokovia was lit up with all sorts of training rounds as the assaulting force began fighting building to building, so we had a pretty memorable backdrop. Mikey keyed the mic with a shaky hand, “Stryker 2-6, you boys alright? We’re here to get you back in the fight.” Silence. We had pulled to a stop and were still maintaining light discipline, but kept our distance from the ‘dead’ vehicle.
“Stryker 2-6, copy?”
Static echoed back for a time. Suddenly, someone hot-keyed the mic on their end and we could hear some weird indecipherable tongue. In the background we could barely make out heavy panting and screams.
Mikey tried to key the mic, but the channel was awash with the cacophony of misery. I was too stunned to even question it and let Mikey take the lead. He switched the channel over to the company frequency.
“Stryker actual, this is Romeo-Charlie. We have eyes on Stryker 2-6, can you verify the last comm fill?” “Romeo-Charlie, this is Stryker-Romeo. Last comm fill was…1600 today. But 2-6 was mission non-capable at the time so they didn’t get the update.”
Mikey looked at me, and even in the gloom only illuminated by indirect fires I could tell he’d gone white.
“What is it man?”
“Dude they…they fucking didn’t….they failed at COMSEC 101, okay? Stryker 2-6 has been out here without any communication with their chain of command for…almost 9 hours.” He continued to mutter obscenities at himself.
“They know better. They all get the briefing.” He sounded exhausted.
“Listen, 2-6 didn’t get the comm fill and they went off the grid, OK? You know what usually happens when you get a couple Joe’s who can’t reach anyone all of the sudden?”
“…They switch over to unsecured comms and try to reach range control…or start using their cell phones.” I finished for him.
“..That’s right, and unsecured comms out here on this range is a huge fucking no-no, for all sorts of reasons. Not least of which is Samantha.”
We’d been awake for almost two days and despite the fact I’d learned not to doubt him, I could barely control my laughter.
“Shut the fuck up dude.” He cut me off mid giggle.
“I’m sorry. I’m just…I’m tired.”
He carefully reached over to the radio and cleared it before I could react; he dumped everything. Our frequencies, our fill, everything. Now we were alone too.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I almost shouted.
He held his hand up, index finger pointing upward, telling me to hold-the-fuck-on. Then he pointed to the Stryker still laying there, dark and seemingly abandoned. He reached a hand out of the driver’s side window of our truck and rapped the roof with his Gerber.
An ear-piercing moan emanated from all around.
“Okay rookie, single channel plain text. Frequency 39500, go.”
I stared at him, mouth agape for a mere moment before my reflexes kicked in and I went through the process of re-established the kindergarten level of comms he was asking for. Once it was set, he keyed the mic again. “Hey Samantha, what’s going on?”
Static emanated from the radio while we felt a single reverberation travel through the ground beneath us, through the chassis and into our bones.
“Samantha, that’s not very nice. These boys just got a little lost.” His knuckles were white, though his voice was calm.
Another quake erupted from the desert, contrasted with and masked by the continuing city assault in the distance. “Listen, we need you to let them go, OK? We’ve got quite the show for you tonight. You can feel it, can’t you?” He said, as if enticing a child out of a tantrum.
Silence followed for a few moments, then the Stryker itself shuddered in defiance.
“I’m not trying to trick you.” He spoke calmly in reply to a comment I clearly didn’t catch, sweat dripping down his face, “We’ll be happy to stay here with you and watch it together. Would you like that?”
For a moment, even the distant report of training ammunition was muted by an almost imperceptible evacuation of atmosphere from all around us. I instinctively breathed out to clear my lungs as vacuum engulfed us and sound ceased to have any meaning.
In my panic I struggled and flailed hopelessly as if I were a kid again, having been thrown into a pool not knowing how to swim. Mikey however kept focus on the mission. He was tapping on the roof with his Gerber while I clawed at the window.
He continued to bargain with Samantha even as we faced our end.
Then, as soon as it had begun it ended. The sweet stench of that hot desert air returned and with it my sanity. The Stryker’s lights came back on and all at once I could see her crew wandering around as if nothing had happened.
Quicker to recover than I, Mikey stepped out of the vehicle. “Hey you guys alright?” He wandered up to the NCOIC who was clearly in shock.
“I…we missed the…”
“Yea, you missed the fill. We came out to see what was up. Everything OK? Your vehicle up and running?”
“Yea….Yea..” he replied in a daze.
“Alright, well, don’t forget the safety briefings OK? You can’t miss your fills on this range and if you do, you maintain radio silence! Here…”
Mikey pulled out a small device and helped them load their radios properly. The confused NCOIC nodded and they got back in their Stryker and continued with their mission towards the city.
Mikey stepped back into the cab and deflated.
“I don’t know what the fuck is up with these units man. Their command says they broke down and so they didn’t get the fill, but that’s bullshit. Leadership failed. They didn’t even get S-6 out here. Just forgot about them. Leadership dropped the ball and Samantha almost got those poor guys because of it.”
“So we getting the hell out of here or…?”
Mikey looked at me wide eyed, miming for me to shut the fuck up. In a hushed tone he gestured at the radio and told me, “No! No. Not if you ever want to get home. A promise is a promise, and thank god we had something to bargain with tonight. We are going to stay out here until sun-up, and keep Samantha company…and maybe we’ll get to leave.”
I didn’t ask any more questions that night. As we witnessed the fall of a city, we sat there drinking cold coffee and slurping copious amounts of dip. Mikey kept the mic hot-keyed, narrorating for our guest so Samantha could hear the song of Sokovia.
Rule 3: Don’t look up.
I get it, the sky is beautiful at night. But you should really focus on what’s in front of you so you don’t wind up lost in the cosmos, or worse, with a sheared front axle from that boulder you somehow didn’t see.
But seriously, don’t look up.
My supervisor normally hates accepting help from anyone, but this one was a mess. I was on-call, sure, but I was sound asleep when he got me up.
“Hey man, hate to do this to you, but we have to go out to the qualification range to salvage an MTV that was carrying about a million dollars in munitions. They shouldn’t have been out this late, but fucked up command chain and all that…”
I whimpered a little before getting dressed and loading into our recovery vehicle. We had positive communication with the group which was nice for a change, but you could tell by their radio etiquette that these were not the sharpest crayons in the box. I don’t know who gave them keys to the vehicle or responsibility over those munitions but it was about par for government bureaucracy, I suppose.
As we left the contonement area and entered the dark expanse that held the ranges, we started to get some odd chatter. Since we knew there was only one range still occupied we knew it was the guys we were going to help.
“Hey, what’s that?” the speaker box squeaked.
My supervisor and I quieted, listening intently.
“Up there?” another voice responded.
“Yea, what’s that? Hey Sergeant, look at that. Is that a rocket or some…”
I fancied myself a fast learner and knew they were about the break one of the main rules. With a speed and intensity uncharacteristic of me I grabbed the microphone, “This is range control,” I winced at the falsehood, “do not look up. This is a test fire out of Edwards Air Force Base and you will risk blindness..” Before I could finish my lie to save them, I felt my supervisors hand clamp on the back of my neck and slam my face hard into the dash.
“OW! Fuckin fuck! Why did you..” I shrieked in surprise at the same time as the radio chatter immediately ceased.
“We have to let it happen. Get me? We have to let it happen to them. It’s the only way. The next step is the wager, and we are going to win this wager, you hear?” His passion made no sense to me, but he continued, “You awake? You need to worry about yourself now. Remember any..sage wisdom you should be following right about now?”
The thought percolated up from the depths of my sleep deprived brain. “I…never look up.”
The rest of the ride consisted of me locking my eyes onto the radio waiting for someone to come back on the line, as my supervisor did his best to keep his eyes on the road as low as possible while still being able to drive the truck.
We pulled up to the dirt parking lot at the entrance to the range. It was empty except for one MTV, a million dollars of ammunition and explosives, and a half-dozen figures standing perfectly still around the vehicle. My supervisor killed the headlights before they could illuminate the figures surrounding the truck and started briefing me.
“Ok, keep your head down. Keep your eyes on the ground and do not look at any of them, OK? We are going to do our job as if nothing’s wrong, clear?”
“Clear.” I echoed. “…Why…uh, why don’t we just leave?”
“We leave and they take those soldiers with them. This is the wager, we do this right and everyone goes home. We fuck it up and well….” He let the last statement hang unfinished for a moment. I was uncomfortable and something about the way my supervisor was acting made me think he wasn’t telling me everything.
We dismounted and grabbed our tool boxes. The exchange between my supervisor and the figures surrounding the vehicle was almost comical. If I weren’t about to piss myself, it would have been hilarious.
He, with his eyes pinned to the ground refused to look up, “Hey, we’re here to get you back up and running. Mind if we take a look?”
“No sweat sir. You can look up if you like.” One of them responded.
“Thank you, er..Sergeant, I just need to take a look at the vehicle if you don’t mind.” My supervisor pressed.
“Jeez, relax man. Are all of you guys this up-tight? You can look up man, I think I recognize you. Do you recognize me?”
“No, I don’t think so, thank you.” My supervisor replied, eyes still on the ground. “I’d just like to get a look at your engine trouble if you don’t mind.” As he attempted to sidestep the figure blocking his path another moved forward to obstruct him.
“No, really, look up.” They commanded, stepping closer.
I thought I saw my supervisor trembling, but it could have been me.
My supervisor squeezed past the two in a weird game of chicken. They avoided him as if touching him before he looked up wasn’t fair play, and so I followed his lead and squeezed past.
We opened our gear and got to work. He whispered to me, “Ok rookie, this is the most dangerous part. We are going to fix this piece of shit because that’s how the wager goes, and they are going to try to get in your line of sight. If they do you are fucked. Not we, YOU. This is essentially a single player game, you get me?”
Thanks for getting me into this game, asshole.
I nodded, eyes glued to my feet.
What followed was a weird game of chess. The six figures crowded around us while we worked, doing their best to get into our peripheral view. My supervisor and I would pass tools to each other and make awkward small talk as if these things weren’t constantly shifting, making odd noises and doing anything to get us to look their way. They’d even step in to hand us what we needed, or point to something we were looking for as if they themselves knew everything we did.
“So, you see the new ALARACT on that desert tortoise?” One of the figures prompted, once again trying to engage us in small talk.
My supervisor paused and laughed, “What the fuck are you talking about man?”
“You know, it’s gone extinct. Saddest thing. It’s awful when people are to blame.” We paused.
“The…the desert tortoise isn’t extinct man.” My supervisor replied.
“Oh. Wrong year.” It replied nonchalantly. It almost sounded like it was smiling.
We finished our work a few hours later. The constant dance left me drained and yearning to return to my cot, but my supervisor kept me from loading up the truck and getting the fuck out.
We stood there with the six other figures in silence for long enough for my feet to ache before the lead entity spoke up.
“Well, you won the wager again but you’ll only get these soldiers back for now. Maybe next time, Lee.”
“Maybe.” My supervisor replied sadly.
A bright, blinding light came into being above us and just as quickly was gone. The six figures were still there, but different in demeanor somehow. They were just men now. My supervisor patted my shoulder paternally.
“Good job. Seriously.”
I looked at the six dumbfounded and mute soldiers struggling to come back to our reality as my head continued to throb from kissing the dashboard of our truck.
“Have you ever lost a wager?” I asked.
He didn’t respond at once, rather he let the question stand as if lost in that distant defeat.
“Yes. Yes I have.”
“They sent the two young airmen they’d possessed to die of thirst in the desert,” He exhaled deeply and muttered the last, “and they took my son.”
My mouth hung open in surprise. He’d never mentioned his family. “I’m so…”
“Save it, rookie. I’m sorry about slamming your head into the dash but I have to play the game every chance I get. It’s my only hope of ever getting my son back. And it’s not every day that I have someone else to wager.”
Rule 4: If you go to the city of faceless men you’ll need to bring a sacrifice.
Now I know what you might be thinking. How many rules are there? Do you really have first-hand experience with breaking all of the rules? The answer to that is a dozen and….maybe. Sort of. But I do have the distinction of never unintentionally breaking a rule twice, though. That’s key. Hold onto that for later.
Our installation is known for its urban training sites. We have entire cities built to mimic those in the countries we (the corporate ‘we’, obviously) get deployed to. They have everything from markets to movie theaters. They even have power stations and sewers to the surprise of many. Most of the time units rotating through prior to their deployments only train on the surface. Occasionally units break the rules and find ways into the catacombs beneath the cities where things can get hairy. Usually though, folks don’t know what’s under their feet. That’s for the best.
Unfortunately for me one of the reasons I landed the job at this post was because I had extensive experience with power generators. I was one of only two in our maintenance section with that accolade, and no the other isn’t Mikey. That distinction goes to another knuckle-dragger named Sarah.
One afternoon Lee, my supervisor, comes into the shop in a panic. Sarah was working on a blown transmission on a Bradly and I was….well, I was doing something terribly important I’m sure.
“Listen up.” He croaked. “Generator 3 just went down in mole-town. We need to get out there and get it up and running as soon as possible!”
“I’m not going with you man.” I shot back, calmly flipping the page of my magazine. “You know why.”
He paused, squinting his eyes at me before smiling. “Not to worry, I’m not certified for that equipment. You’ll go with Sarah. Oh and take this.” He threw a satchel to me. “Rule 4. A sacrifice.”
“Gods. Damnit.” Came the reply from somewhere in the bay under the Bradly.
Twenty minutes later we were on our way to the 5th largest urban training site on post. It was never used, honestly, and as such not very well known. But it had a series of generators that kept it’s lights on and those in turn kept the locals away.
It was hot as hell as the sun went down (per usual) but the breeze betrayed the changing of the seasons. We were in high spirits and it gave me a chance to break through Sarah’s shell. In contrast to Mikey, Sarah was withdrawn and focused. She gave me the pucker factor walking by the same way jumping into an ice bath would and I didn’t know a damn thing about her.
“So…you have any advice? Mikey usually either lets me know…you know…what to expect or he takes care of it..” I tried a soft open.
“What, you worried about living forever or something?” She smiled coyly from under her sunglasses. “Besides, I’m not your babysitter dude. You’re a grow-up.”
“Okay, let me rephrase, what the fuck are we walking into?”
She smirked for a moment before it disappeared.
“Well, since you asked like an adult, let me explain. This site sits on top of something unsavory. That was intentional. The city gives the unsavory things something to do. It’s like a literal red herring. Or a bug lamp. Whatever. Anyway, the city has its own OPFOR. That means it’s staffed by soldiers of a sort. They come out in the dark. We keep the lights running so they stay underground, and we generally find excuses not to let units train there and everything is copacetic. Now, if the power goes out or a unit actually gets lost and strolls in or its just time to give a dog a bone then…things can get a little unsavory.”
I took it in stride, after what I’d been exposed to so far.
“Oh…Alright. So folks go missing?”
“Yes, honey, folks go missing.”
We continued in silence.
“Why don’t they seal it off? Quarantine it?”
She pulled a pinch of dip.
“Listen, you…they tried. Didn’t work. It’s the difference between making an Olympian think they are competing and trying to contain said athlete by tying them up with used toilet paper. One works, one doesn’t. It’s just…stop overthinking it dude.”
A long, awkward silence ensued.
“So…we go in, fix the generator, and get out?”
She grimaced. “Sort of. Hey, what did Lee give you?” She asked pointing to the satchel.
“That’s the sacrifice.”
She snorted and continued driving.
By the time we entered the city night had fallen. Three quarters of the city were illuminated by the other generators, the rest was dark. We were heading into the dark. We kept our lights on as we moved through the streets. Our headlights would splash shadows over the empty storefronts and alleyways and in the dancing of darkness and light I thought I could see distended forms moving about.
We moved through several blocks before coming to a stout concrete structure protruding into an empty courtyard.
“We’re here.” She exhaled, leaving the engine and lights on. “It’s in there.”
“Son of a…”
We exited the vehicle, toolbags and satchel in hand and trotted over to the structure. No more words were needed. We entered the dark and ignited our flashlights. The rooms were surprisingly barren, though some garbage had collected in the corners of the rooms we’d passed.
The wind whistled through the windows and doorways that weren’t permanently shuddered while we crept forward.
We passed a window overlooking an alleyway leading off from the courtyard and I caught my first glimpse of one of them. It was difficult to make out but it was a tall, lanky form with a bloated abdomen. Abnormally so, with something grotesque embraced in its arms. It watched our vehicle idling not 50 meters from its sheltered position. As it swayed there I could just barely see the smooth, featureless void where it’s face ought to have been.
I was suddenly yanked to the ground.
“Not yet, rook.” Sarah whispered. “We can’t let them see us yet.”
We moved along in a low crouch avoiding the windows. The rooms became smaller and more oppressive the more we travelled into the building and the windows became less frequent before ceasing altogether.
At last we came to the room Sarah had promised was our objective.
It was empty.
“Wrong turn.” She mouthed, shrugging her shoulders.
The only outlet besides the way we had just come was a drainage pipe that would require us to crawl through. Without a word she moved forward and I followed.
We crept down onto our stomachs and shimmied into the drainage pipe. It was so tight I had to rock back and forth to work my way down deeper into the abyss.
Minutes passed and the tight space began to fray my resolve. I felt faint.
She must have heard me start to hyperventilate. “We’re almost there, rook.”
Then we were. We emerged into a much larger chamber where a silent generator stood.
“You know the model?” She panted, exhausted.
Our situation forgotten for a moment, I rejoiced. I did know that model of generator. We did an assessment and figured it was a pretty easy fix.
“10 minutes, tops.” I promised.
“You sure? I’m going to be counting on you.” she replied.
That’s when we heard it. Shuffling in the antechamber adjacent to us. We killed our lights and froze as the sound got closer.
“Ready?” she whispered. “You are going to have about ten minutes to get the generator running and get the fuck out of here. Got it? Don’t wait for me, I’ll be fine.”
I started to object, but stopped. I had to trust my team.
“Good. Stay frosty.” And with that, she shot up and ran into the antechamber screaming like a Valkyrie while I got to work.
It must have been only minutes before her war cries, echoing through the empty city as they departed, turned to screams of agony. I didn’t expect her to die so pointlessly, but I still had a mission and just as I had promised I finished my work in under ten minutes. Restarting the generator, I ran.
I ran through rooms that were familiar and not familiar all at once. The city was a jumble of identical prefabricated units which mocked my attempts to flee. I travelled for what felt like hours before I stumbled upon what was left of Sarah. I could only tell it was her because her telltale boots with that distinctive pink ‘O+’ stenciled in the side protruded from the pile of faceless, long limbed horrors slobbering and feasting on her corpse.
“Sarah, NO!” I cried impotently in shock and disgust and horror and despair. As the lights began to illuminate, the horrors elsewhere retreated to the safety of darkness like a receding tide. Nonetheless, it would be some time before Sarah’s corpse could be recovered.
I flung the satchel at that wretched mob and sprinted off once more.
The lights were on now and I kept to them as I wandered through the maze of a city. I circled back, ran and circled back again but found myself on familiar and unfamiliar ground both at the same time. At some point I found the courtyard, jumped into our truck, and sped off back to the maintenance shop.
I pulled in, drew the doors closed and like a Celtic hero of olde….locked myself in the small duty room before passing out on a surplus cot. My sleep was tortured by those long-limbed faceless abominations. Their gnawing and rending of flesh from bone echoed in my mind. The cracking of Sarah’s bones accompanied my fitful rest. Then blackness. Then nothing.
I awoke to an unexpected otherworldly shriek
“Get up sleepy!” Sarah shouted as she kicked my cot over.
I rolled on the ground, disoriented and confused.
“Good job last night! I’d give you a gold star if I had one.”
“Whenever you go to the city of faceless men you need to bring a sacrifice. You also need to bring an actual mechanic though too, which is the rub, otherwise they’d be feasting on me in the dark for eternity like that poor bastard Prometheus. Thankfully I’m immortal and you…well, you are a pretty decent mechanic.” She sneered, poking me in the shoulder. “Aw, come on. It was fun. I had a good time.”
I stared at her unbelieving. “But the satchel had the sacrifice…”
“What? No. The sacrifice has to be alive. Lee was just messing with you. Probably just some nudie mags in there or something.” She laughed. “Listen, It’s part of the show that keeps them bottled up, remember? Got to keep them distracted and feed them every so often so they don’t get restless. Red herring, bug lamp….no? I thought I explained it to you….hurts like fuck though.” Her face darkened for a moment before the joy I’d never seen on her before returned.
“We can bend the rules you know? What better way to bend the rules than to use an immortal as a sacrifice?”
Rule 5: Always have a map.
I mean that literally and figuratively. Most people don’t appreciate how easy it is to get lost. Most people don’t realize how lost they are in life. Others…others are just lost in the sauce. The point is it’s really really easy. Now, one of the most basic ways to not get lost is to know where you’ve been, where you are, and where you think you are going. ‘No shit’ you might say, ‘that’s obvious. One might even say that’s the definition of not being fucking lost.’ To which I say..maybe, but if it were obvious no one would ever veer off course now would they?
A map helps with that.
Now take my supervisor Lee for example. He knows exactly where he is, and exactly where he needs to go. He is not lost. His love for his son is his map and as such Lee’s stuck here in an endless search for him. He’s kind of an asshole and I trust him as far as I can throw him, but he sure as shit isn’t lost. See Rule 3.
Now contrast that with Sarah, our local deity. She has no clue where she’s going. She can tell you where she’s been like the genealogies of Genesis (and boy is she a boring story teller, bless her heart) but she couldn’t tell you where the fuck she is or where she’s trying to go, if you get my drift. You know, figuratively, in life. No map.
Then there’s Mikey. Nothing figurative here, he just forgot his actual map and we found ourselves wandering around a goddamn hellish, twisted version of reality all because Mikey wasn’t paying attention to what he was doing. Thanks, bro.
Sarah, Mikey and I had crammed into the cab of our truck and were making the rounds for our quarterly maintenance rodeo. This required us to drive around post doing basic maintenance on everything from pump stations and generators to solar collectors. It was usually boring, but not always.
We plodded along northward, towards the impact ranges for the big guns (artillery, aircraft and tanks) and then skirted those via the maintenance roads. The air was still and only made the heat worse than normal, if such a thing were possible.
Mirages formed in the distance and dissolved as we neared. Not all, but most. “How long you been out here, Sarah?”
Her brow raised, “Oh, four years or so. I usually move on after 7 or 10 so I have a few left in me yet.”
“And before that?” I pressed.
“Well, I mean..” She smiled sadly, “I could talk endlessly about that, couldn’t I?”
“Sure, but…I mean where did you come from originally?”
She rolled her eyes, “It’s hard for me to answer. I’ve been immortal for as long as I can remember, not that that is all that odd around here or anything, and I can remember a long time. I’m not sure I came from anywhere, specifically. I can’t be sure. Didn’t have anything resembling a map you’d recognize today. Anatolia, maybe.”
I frowned. “Ok, well, what’s your earliest memory?”
“Being awash in light. Playing among gods. Being abandoned, then alone, lost. So I wander. I wander when I get bored, or the people I know and love start to find something odd about how I don’t age. I leave. It all ends, yet I live on.”
“Are you like an angel or some sort of god or something?” I asked.
She snickered. “What? No. No, no, no. Noooo.”
Mikey slammed on the brakes. A puzzled look had crept over his face. He stepped out onto the dirt road and looked around as if confused.
“Hey, what’s up?” I called.
“I….this isn’t right. We should have gotten there by now. ..” His eyes widened in realization of something. “Oh no…” He walked around to my side of the truck and reached into the glove box, searching frantically before stopping entirely.
“I…Sarah, did you happen to bring the map?”
“….no…” Sarah replied slowly.
“Shit. Well we uh….we definitely crossed the Aperture.”
“The what?” I asked.
Mikey looked around nervously. “The Aperture. We are in a…shall we say, a different reality.”
“and…it’s dangerous.” He stuttered, “The map would tell us where everything is on this side, and where the Aperture is at different times of day so we can get back without having to….”
“…Is this another one of those ‘mess with the new guy’ things or are you being serious?” I pressed, incredulous.
“Oh, come on. Really? We have to do this? You sure you checked everywhere? Check again, do it quick. Clocks ticking.” Sarah’s tone silenced me and kicked Mikey back into action. Mikey tore the cab of the truck apart looking for the map. As we waited I looked out over the landscape waiting for them to stop messing around.
At first I thought the heat was causing my eyes to blur but it was soon clear that roads and terrain features distant from us started to shift and change. The sky turned from blue to dark red, and the sand from tan to a deep orange. By the time the mountain ranges melted into the sand Sarah was fuming and Mikey’s desperation reached a profanity-laced crescendo.
I guess they weren’t joshing me.
“Well great, look at that. Times up. Listen, Rook, never forget the map. You get lost like this and you are in for some heartache. Normally the Aperture oscillates over the impact ranges on our side of reality, the real, so it’s never a problem but occasionally it drifts onto post. The good thing about the map is that it will guide you to the exit Aperture without having to go to the contonement area, which is what we have to do now. The only other way out is through the Spire.”
Mikey climbed back into the cab and waited for us.
“What is the Aperture, though, really? Why is it?”
“It’s pre-history. It was a prison built long ago by powers unknown.” Mikey replied coldly.
The post was no longer what I recognized. The terrain was inverted and the dirt roads had no counterparts in the real, some branched and inverted upon themselves in an endless loop while others ended abruptly, going nowhere. Thankfully, an ominous cinder spire rose from the contonement area, easily visible even from the horizon. This structure had no worldly analogue but served as our north star.
The barren desert of the other gave way to sparse dustings of something organic infesting the dirt. I couldn’t see clearly as we sped past but I imagined it to move and pulsate like a sea of worms. The nearer we drew to the twisted center of this reality, the more abundant the fleshy infestations became.
“If this was a prison…what uh..what was imprisoned here?” I asked. Sarah and Mikey glanced at one another. “We don’t know, really. We just hear rumors.”
On we drove in silence as the organic growths became more common. They grew in size from mere inches to a dozen feet or more in height and in all instances the things moved and swayed in the absence of wind.
We passed the first intersection demarcating the contonement area and in the place of the static, patterned, geometric forms of construction indicative of Man stood mute, organic, chaotic refutations of such amateur control over the world. Columns of bone branched out over the streets, while masses of wriggling tubule-like grotesqueries crunched under the tires of our truck as we spend onward towards the base of the spire.
We stopped mere feet from its trunk and Mikey killed the engine.
“Well..we’re going to get our asses chewed out for losing this truck. I’ll..I mean, it’s my fault obviously..I’ll do the FLIPL on it.”
As we stepped into the open I could hear the throbbing of the spire and could see it’s skin tense and loosen in an odd synchronization as if it were the beating of a heart.
The stench of sour bile permeated everything.
“Ok, let’s get this over with.” Sarah led the way.
We moved towards a gaping three-story gash in the trunk of the spire, brushing aside sinew and drapes of flesh. The path we followed was like an artery with smaller branches shooting off in all directions. I could tell that ever so slightly we were going downwards deeper into the labyrinth. The further we went the louder the rhythmic melody of this place became to the point we could feel the reverberations in our chests and struggled to hear one another. Finally we reached the heart. A wet, bulbous thing the size of a house; it convulsed even more rapidly the nearer we drew. As if it were excited.
“So, what now?”
“We have to succumb to it before we can leave. Watch. Whatever happens, follow me through.”
Sarah stepped towards the heart. She placed her hands on the soft, mucous covered wall of the palpating structure then she pressed her hands into it, opening a fissure. It resisted at first but then gave way. She fell forward with a brief yelp before being pulled violently into the fissure in the engorged organ. Then she was gone.
“Alright Rook, see you on the other side!” Mikey called to me as he too pressed his hands against the heart and penetrated it. With Mikey however, I could hear him scream in agony before being abruptly cut off as he was consumed by it.
I was alone and overcome with fear of the unknown. Fear of death. My internal turmoil was cut short as movement in the dark got my attention.
One of the faceless men stood a dozen meters from me, it seemed to be in as much shock by my presence as I was by its. They exist here too. Perhaps they come from here? Before I could further contemplate it’s being it launched itself toward me. The featureless void where it’s face ought to have been became clear and in it I saw stars, a timeless expanse.
I snapped out of my awe and plunged my hands into the heart.
As soon as my hands pierced it a searing pain shot through me. Every inch of me that passed into the heart erupted into blinding, white hot pain. My bones shattered, skin split, and fed the thing. Unimaginable agony radiated up my arms as I was sucked in. The rest of me followed as the heart pulled with all its unimaginable strength. For the briefest moment I felt as if every cell, every atom was ripped from me and at the end of it all was darkness. Nothing.
That was the most surprising thing (in hindsight, obviously). It was nothing. There weren’t even thoughts of reflection. Just nothing. Like death itself.
Then at once I was conscious again, climbing out of a pit of scorching California loam. Two pairs of hands reached down to help me up and as they touched me my nerves continued to scream from the pain of deconstruction.
“That’s two you owe me, rook.” Sarah smiled.
“Oh, fuck right off.” I coughed.
We were back where we belonged, in a nondescript section of the contonement area.
I told both Mikey and Sarah what I saw in the end: one of the faceless men. Mikey looked confused but Sarah obviously knew more. She tightened up and averted my gaze. Later that night when Mikey had already gone home she finally confided in me.
“Listen, Rook, the Aperture isn’t an intentional part of that prison. The heart was the warden, the only entrance and exit point. The faceless men were its custodians, and they followed a fugitive here. The Aperture is the rip caused in that reality by something that escaped.”
Rule 6: Maintain accountability of your sensitive items.
Speaking of getting your ass lost, don’t lose accountability of sensitive items! What’s a sensitive item? Glad you asked.
‘Sensitive item’ is a blanket term for something really expensive, really dangerous or mission critical. Night vision goggles? Sensitive item. Weapon? Sensitive item. COMSEC fill device? Oh you better believe that’s a sensitive item.
You wouldn’t believe how common it is for someone to sneak onto post and then try to find an unsecured item and make off with it. You also wouldn’t believe how easy it is for our special needs soldiers to lose shit. I once knew a guy on a road march who buckled his canteens in place and still lost them. We had to dummy cord everything to that guy because he would just lose shit. How did he get into the military? Fuck if I know.
Anyway, for folks with an IQ in the range of normal the mere thought of losing a sensitive item causes the sphincter to clinch hard enough to make diamonds. Imagine if you lost your own child. Almost like that, not quite, but in the ballpark. So, you lose a sensitive item. The base goes on lockdown until that piece of shit is found. It’s usually right where someone left it, but not always. Sometimes you have to do police call for 9 hours in the desert only to find the asshole who lost his weapon left it in the latrine. Thanks, thanks for that, that was fun walking around for 9 hours checking underneath rocks. I really enjoyed it.
So, if you want to lock the base down because you lost something very special, something that you can’t let escape, you put out an alert that a sensitive item was lost. You aren’t lying, per-se, but you aren’t being truthful. And that poor 18 year old son-of-bitch is going to be hating life as he (or she) pointlessly combs the desert like that scene right out of Spaceballs while you unfuck your situation.
I was on my lunch break eating a ham and cheese and 10W40 sandwich when my supervisor, Lee, delivered the news.
“We’re on lockdown. Sensitive item went missing.”
I rolled my eyes and kept chewing.
“We’ve been asked to halt our work and join the search.”
That was unusual. Normally we were sort of exempt from these types of things.
“We’ve been assigned to search the power substation and the warehousing area south of it.” He held up his hands, “I know, I know, just listen, they want us to do this quietly OK? We just head over there, poke around, and let the bosses know what’s up when we find it. We don’t have to touch it or anything, OK?”
I paused. “You volunteered us because you want us to do the preventative maintenance on the substation while we’re out there, didn’t you?” Lee blushed and I rolled my eyes, “You said the sensitive item was heading south? How is that possible?”
“Yes. And well..It’s less of a thing they lost and more of an ‘it’.”
“Oh come on…” I sighed.
“Sarah and Mikey will go to the power substation and..”
“I told you, I’m not pairing up with you.”
“AND….you will pair up with Chris.” Lee finished. “I’ll be…ah…here.”
Chris was a quiet older guy, probably a Vietnam vet. Standoffish. He’d spoken all of three words to me since I’d started and I got the distinct impression he hated me. He told me, and I quote, “Go to hell.”
This should be fun.
We arrived at a decaying warehouse armed with a crow bar and pipefitters wrench. I know, we are on a military base with no weapons. Silly right? Well, contrary to popular opinion and sanity military bases are pretty close to gun free zones unless you are training. The warehouse itself must have been built in the 50’s and the decay was only hidden my judicious applications of drab paint.
I took the lead while Chris limped behind me with a walkie-talkie. He was struggling to keep up so I knew the search was going to take forever. We had to cover at least half a dozen warehouses spread out over half a mile.
The first building we got to was locked up tight. The second wasn’t. Looked like forced entry.
Chris radioed it in while I crept past the threshold. “Hey, Lee, we’re heading into warehouse 17.” “So Chris, how you like working here? See anything…odd?”
He grunted. “Yea. You know I have. We all have. You have. Cut the small talk.”
I yielded and we pressed onward into the dark cavern. The warehouse consisted of aisle after aisle of equipment and gear racks. Like a giant Wal-Mart without the curb appeal. We decided to split up and handle two aisles at a time.
Everything looked in order for my part and I cleared the first aisle in a few minutes tops. When I came to the end Chris was already there waiting for me.
“Whoa, old man. You’re spryer than you look.”
“Alright let’s check the next section over.” I moved and he grunted, but followed.
The warehouse was empty.
“Alright Chris, lets head over to the next building.” He looked pale and as he followed I noted he was no longer limping. “You alright man? You don’t look so good.”
He looked confused, as if unsure of how to respond or what I was saying.
“Hey, Lee, we are heading in.”
“Did, did you just have a stroke?” My concern mounted. “Just, if you can’t talk use your hands see if that works. Do you have full feeling in your arms?”
Chris’s concern grew to match mine, but he didn’t respond. I held out my hand for the radio.
“Dude, we need to call an ambulance, give me the radio.”
“You know I have. We all have. You have. Cut the small talk” He replied.
He didn’t hand over the radio. Now that I was thinking about it, he didn’t even have the radio anymore.
I did my best to suppress my shock.
“Alright let’s go.” I said instead and started walking toward the door, as that primal panic called forth a desire to flee that I could hardly control.
Chris didn’t respond, but he followed.
My hands grew sweatier as we walked making it even more difficult for me to keep hold of the crowbar in my grasp.
We exited the building and walked towards the truck. The crunching sound of our boots on the gravel was steady and quick but there was something unnatural underneath it all something akin to…chattering. I walked to my side of the truck and he to his. I opened my door, got in and turned on the truck. Chris’s side door didn’t open. I glanced over and he just stood there like a mute. Chris…it…didn’t know how to open a truck door.
“Hey man I’m going to just call it in real quick and then we’ll get out of here okay?” I raised my hand with a thumbs up.
He mimicked me.
Holding a smile with clenched teeth, I continued “You probably ate Chris or something didn’t you, you slippery fuck? Yea, hi, keep holding a thumbs up weirdo. I hope you can’t run faster than I can drive.”
I put the truck into gear before reaching for the radio, thinking he might just know how a radio works and just as expected he did. When I put my hand on the mic his jaw unhinged and opened twice as wide as a normal human’s could and his shriek was overpowering.
I threw it in reverse, immediately remembered of the last time (or first time, rather) I had to do this.
It immediately started running after me. I pushed the pedal down and fingered the key to the mic and called in my situation.
“Hey, I’m pretty sure Chris is dead and somethings chasing me that looks like him.”
I cringed at my shitty description but hey, close enough. I continued in reverse as the seconds ticked by. That inhuman monstrosity wearing Chris’s form extended its gait and kept pace with my truck, unable to grab hold but also not slowing down. It had cast aside some of its form and in place of hands were grotesque appendages with no other natural facsimile.
“Got ya’ rook, friendlies inbound. Don’t..” the line cut to static., “..don’t brake, or it’ll kill you.” Lee finished.
What followed felt like hours, but was a mere 10 seconds or so. As soon as I passed onto the main road time slowed, then stopped.
I was unable to move, as was Chris. But I saw something walk into my peripheral view. Another man in a suit. He walked up to Chris casually, put restraints on his…hands? things? Whatever. Then dragged him off, still incapacitated, just like me.
Minutes passed then the man walked over to me.
“Hey, you promise to keep quiet about this?” He asked in a cordial tone.
In my mind I screamed, Yes, you crazy time-warping fuck! I’ve seen some wierd things here and I haven’t said a goddamned word. I’m good. I’ll go back to my shop, shut up. No problem.
“Don’t curse. It’s not polite.” He frowned. “Ok, I guess you’re right. You went through the Aperture and kept quiet, so that’s good enough for me. But..don’t.” he chuckled, ”Don’t get the impression this was what escaped from the Aperture.”
Smiling he turned and left, and as he did time returned to normal. Slammed on my brake and I was alone in the street.
After returning to the shop Lee asked me how it went.
“Terrible. Some shapeshifting murderous thing killed Chris, took his form, and then a time warping dude in a suit took itback.”
“What the hell was sweet about that? Hmm?”
“Oh..” he looked around sheepishly. “Well, Sarah PM’d the substation and well…uh…we got rid of Chris.”
“Again? Really? You used me again?”
“Bottom of the totem pole, my dude. Besides you got to meet the big bosses! Those guys help cover for us when things get a little wacky.”
“Ok, so why did Chris need to die? Kind of a jerk but…”
“Oh, yea Chris was a bad apple man. You ever hear of Vampires? Kind of like that but not allergic to sunlight. He’d gotten a bit out of hand lately. Too many soldiers dying due to ‘training accidents’, I counseled him on it but he just wouldn’t stop” he shrugged, ”Hell, I had odds he’d suck you dry before the Mimic got him.”
“Odds? Who were you betting against, you piece of shit?”
Rule 7: Stay away from the Desert Tortoise.
“Why?” I asked Sarah, as her eyes focused on the tank trail we were travelling.
She sighed and rolled her eyes, “Oh, come on, lighten up. I knew you were going to be fine.” She briefly put her hand on my shoulder. “Don’t let it bruise your ego, bud. I bet on you, not against you!”
“You could have at least told me about Chris…” I muttered.
“I….” She paused, at a loss. “I thought you knew. There’s so much odd stuff around here it’s hard to make sure you know everything. Simple miscommunication. I’m an immortal, not a mind reader.” She winced at the last comment.
“Speaking of…” I started. “The Suit. He was able to hear my thoughts.”
Sarah grew quiet. “Yes.”
“You know a bit about him, don’t you?”
“Rook, look, there’s a lot of odd stuff that goes on here, clearly. The Suit keeps a lid on it…or rather he steps in from time to time to make sure the lid is still secure before going on about whatever his business is. Command is complicit in it because of what The Suit can do for them and The Suit uses us all as expendable assets in keeping some of this stuff bottled up and off the radar. If any of this were to get out and someone were to study it…especially the Aperture…he…might be threatened. He can’t have that.” She sighed. “Listen, I like you, I don’t want you to get hurt but you have to know by now that working here is dangerous for any number of reasons. I won’t use kid gloves with you. You should get out of here if he’ll let it.”
“I know, but it’s more complicated than that. I kind of enjoy the excitement.”
“So you did have fun…”
Her sentence broke off as she slammed the brakes. My head jerked forward then slammed into the headrest. I winced, caressing my neck and looked forward.
There stood before us was a solitary desert tortoise, slowly lumbering across the road.
Sarah laughed. “Oh, that was close! Don’t be such a baby. You know, speaking of me being a shitty communicator, do you know why these things are protected?”
“Yea, they’re endangered or something. The EPA would be all over our assess if we so much as touch them.”
“Nope. Wrong. About the first part. Or I mean..that’s the cover, anyway. You know, it’s probably better if you assume everything is some sort of cover-up even if it’s not. Like gun safety, just always assume the guns loaded. Just assume your coworkers are bloodthirsty vampires or extradimensional mcguffins.” She smiled. “Hey, can you call it in to range control? And while we wait for the environmental guys to get here…buckle up, story time.”
“I’m already buckled….”
“Shut up, rook.”
Almost a hundred years before this base was established there were a number of native tribes in the area whom are now all long gone. The first fort established in the area, not too far from the current contonement area, was built to patrol for horse thieves and housed a company of cavalry as well as accompanying auxiliaries.
The first year passed without incident. The garrison was kept busy improving the fortifications, building relations with the local natives and trappers, and acclimating to the region.
The commander of the garrison noted a superstitious warning conveyed to him through both the native tribes and the trappers. Getting agreement on local lore from both groups was an oddity but the message was clear: avoid the desert tortoises at all costs, or else.
The ‘or else’ came in the form of ominous allegories of pestilence and death.
The commander recorded it in his log which is how I came by it. He heeded to those warnings as well for a time because he noted other oddities in the area. These included brief mentions of spirits, walking faceless corpses, and a mysterious apparition which caused the sky to redden and the land to change.
In the second year the garrison grew more comfortable in their duties despite the oddities, but they began to make mistakes. They alienated the tribes.
Their commander expressed concern in the behavior of the troops and general malaise of the garrison but seemed unable to assuage their discontent.
The last time the garrison was seen was by a logistics convoy who had been tasked with the monthly re-supply. The convoy executive officer (XO) noted in his journal that the garrison was, ‘..more beleaguered than the dispatches report. What did they do? Right or wrong, justifiable or unjustifiable — which I need not discuss today – for one long year these civilized men engaged in killing.’
The convoy XO’s journal was curious insofar as it mentioned something not even hinted at in the garrison commander’s log. This indicated a darker second year than the garrison commander would admit to. Looking back, it was clear that he used code for multiple incidences that could have been murders, theft or worse.
As the supply convoy left the fort once more, the garrison was well provisioned and in good spirits (in part, the convoy XO was sure, to the casks of rum which were accidentally included in the manifest). The commanders own log noted, ’..and the men are renewed in spirit and so I shall retire to my quarters, careful to overlook their pungent libations.’
The following month when the supply convoy arrived they found an abandoned fort whose palisades had been turned out.
Within the fort the commanders log was found among the destruction of his billet. The door had been torn from its hinges and charred stretches of timber indicated someone had attempted to burn the building down. The men of the convoy quickly concluded that the garrison had come under attack from the natives.
The discarded weapons and ample bullet holes seemed to indicate a furious battle of some sort. There was evidence of rifle fire from within the fort going in multiple directions. It was total confusion. Some blood stains remained, but whatever had once rested on the ground had been consumed by scavengers.
The men of the convoy began a wide-ranging search but it didn’t take them long to find dozens of tracks leading away from the fort into the desert.
A scouting party found the first corpse. It was naked and partially eaten by carrion feeders. Little could be discerned from the corpse other than it was a white male. They continued on and coming to a ravine found three more bodies, broken and tangled in an inaccessible crevice equally ill dressed for the climate.
They continued and found collapsed forms in various states of decay laying in the desert, but they also found one who had climbed up on top of a cactus to die. Another who had obviously used a stone to smash the skull of his compatriot not 10 feet away before turning the stone on himself. It made no sense.
At the end of the trail of death the scouts came across a couple men from a local tribe. They stared out across the valley at a distant structure. They didn’t react to the scouts, they didn’t seem concerned that they might be found responsible for the deaths of so many. For a time, the scouts and the natives both stared at the grotesque structure.
The poor wretches from the garrison had clambered atop one another to form a massive pyramid in their deaths, with one quavering stalk emerging from the center.
As one of the scouts begged their horse onwards, the older of the two natives spoke.
‘No. Do not approach. If you don’t want to end up like them stay away. Don’t hunt the tortoise or it will drive you mad. Their commander didn’t listen, and so he brought the pestilence with him. It afflicted all of his men.’
The scouts acquiesced and turned back, careful to avoid the bodies they saw on the way.
In the end, they quietly reported that a rare sickness had killed the entire garrison. They returned the notebook and burned the fort to the ground. The last entry in the commander’s notebook read ‘…so I, in my frustrations with the dreadful mysteries of this land, lashed out. I took to the desert and shot a tortoise intending to eat it to curse the land. I was too close. As the bullet penetrated it’s shell a black cloud erupted and showered me in a filth I cannot describe. It ate into my pores and scarred me. Now I change. I’ve secured the door to protect the men, but I can hear them inside my mind growing louder, beckoning me to pilgrimage to…to somewhere I cannot describe. But they sing to me, they scream in me. Those faceless ones.’
“So…don’t mess with the tortoises.” Sarah finished.
“What, are they some sort of interdimensional, all knowing, hyptno-tortoises or something? Or Aliens?”
Sarah looked at me cockeyed, then smiled and mimed that ancient aliens guy.
“Smart-ass. We could say, perhaps, that they are part of a more complex ecosystem than we understand. I mean, I’m not saying what the disease is, I’m just saying….don’t mess with the damn things and everything will be fine, ok?”
We watched it continue its slow journey off into the desert. I checked my watch.
“We uh…we have to keep our eyes on it until the environmental folks get here, huh?” I asked.
An uncomfortable silence followed.
“So…..what would happen if you messed with one of them?”
She paused a moment, brow furrowed. “You know, I’m not sure. Can you imagine if I contracted it, then went mad from it but couldn’t die, and was some sort of un-killable monster?” She shuddered.
I smiled back at her, “…are you not?”
Rule 8: Aim small, miss small.
You’ve heard the phrase before I’m sure. It’s a foundational concept of marksmanship. The idea is that if you need to engage a target rather than trying to just hit anywhere on said target, you focus on something very specific something small in the center of it: a coat button, a zipper, a pocket. You focus so hard it becomes your whole world and the thought of straying outside of that target isn’t even a possibility. It’s not on your mind at all. You aim small and you really apply yourself…well….if you do miss, you’re only going to miss by a little and even if you miss by a little…your round will still cause a lot of pain.
It’s not just useful for marksmanship either. If you have a clear picture of your target or your goal, and the discipline to apply yourself toward achieving that goal with single-minded determination, you can be a very dangerous individual indeed.
It also sure as shit comes in handy if you are staring down a horde of faceless horrors intent on consuming you like a fucking bulldog eating oatmeal, which is exactly where I ended up when The Suit wandered into my life once more.
“Michael, I need you to do this for me. Okay? Lee normally handles this, but since he is currently indisposed and I’d rather not interrupt his wager with the new guy, I need you to help me out here. Besides, these sacrifices aren’t even yourpeople. They are foreign nationals training with the U.S. Army. No one will ever know. We’ll just say they…they walked off post and are trying to settle in the U.S. illegally, they’ll never be found and no one will care. The garrison commander already has the press release drafted.” The Suit explained calmly, as if to a child.
“I….” Mikey started, “Can’t we just wait a few hours for Lee to get back?”
“Michael, Michael, Michael. I’m on a tight schedule. I don’t want to wait, and you don’t get to dictate my schedule.” He stepped forward and placed an open hand, palm upward, on Mikey’s shoulder. “Do you want to object? I can hear it, I can hear your thoughts.” His eyes closed as if in ecstasy and the words bit like a winter wind. Then he leaned in. “Go ahead and say no. I dare you.”
A single bead of sweat rolled down Mikey’s nose and fell to the floor. “I’ll do it.” He said softly, eyes still downcast.
“I’m sorry Michael, what was that? I. Can’t. Hear. You.” The Suit smiled with clenched teeth as he bit out the last sentence.
“I’ll do it.” He spoke up, avoiding The Suit’s gaze.
“Good. Good. The convoy will be going through the City of Faceless Men soon. You have forty-five minutes starting…” He looked at his watch,” now.”
Mikey locked eyes with me and shouted, “Echo-75, get the keys Rook, and get the truck ready to roll.” I began running as if a fight bell had rung releasing my pent up tension, ignoring the suit as Mikey grabbed his tools.
We jumped into the truck and Mikey white-knuckled it the entire way breaking every speed limit we came across. Once we were out of the contonement area we left streetlights and the semblance of civilization behind to embrace the empty plains of the desert. Mikey glanced in his rear-view mirror.
“God damnit. He’s following us. He never does that with Lee. Whatever, we’ll meet him in the city. He always likes to watch.” He said with disgust.
As we pulled into mole-town the entire city was bathed in light. Mikey let the truck idle once we reached generator 2.
“Alright rook, get in and kill the generator then get your ass back out here ricky-tick, ok?”
I looked behind us to check for The Suit, but he was nowhere to be found. Then I leapt out of the truck and ran inside. It was a simple job. Given the dangers involved in shutting a generator off I wondered why they didn’t add some sort of remote access but chalked it up to budgeting. A stupid reason…which meant it was probably the right reason. As the incandescent bulbs overhead dimmed I was already running out the front of the building and diving into the truck. As soon as I had my ass in the seat Mikey accelerated and killed the headlights.
“What the fuck dude?!” I screamed at him. “Those things can get us with the lights off.”
He laughed. “It takes them a little while to come out of their hidey holes. Plus…I don’t really want The Suit watching us right now.”
We moved into a section of the city that was still lit and when we approached that sections generator Mikey hit the brakes.
“Wait here, bro.” He called over his shoulder without acknowledging me.
He disappeared into the building for a few minutes before returning.
I pressed, “What did you do, man?”
He gave me a sidelong glance, “Nothing, just had to make sure the generator had the right amount of fuel. Alright, we’ll meet back up with The Suit. He’ll be in this sector..” he said pointing to the unfolded map on our dash, “right there, close enough to watch the convoy as it moves into the darkened section of the city, but far enough away to be protected by the light. He…he likes to watch every time, and likes us to be there until the jobs done.”
We pulled up to a building safely protected by the light. The Suits building. When we climbed to the top we found The Suit standing near the edge watching the darkness, smoking a cigar.
“You know, I’ve really come to enjoy the products of humanity. Creation, destruction, kindness, cruelty. The dark and the light. Against each other and even your own creations, your children. It’s all…it’s all just so right up my alley.” He shuddered in exuberance. “To destroy your own creations…there is no greater feeling of power, of control, than that. And soon new creations will displace the old. Soon.”
The Suit glanced over at us and smiled. “Well, maybe bending your creations to your will is a greater rush. Tricking them, convincing them to act against their own interests…that is something else altogether enjoyable, too. It tastes a little different but still quite wonderful.”
His smile vanished. “Oh, lighten up. You’re stuck with me. You’re stuck working for me until I see fit to release you from your task. You might as well learn to have a little…fun.” His face twisted in delight. “And so it begins..”
He had already returned to watching the incoming convoy when we started to hear the rumble of their engines: three vehicles in total packed with 15 men. They were running under tactical blackout so their lights were off to prevent them from being seen from the air. That’s what their orders stated, so that’s what they did.
They entered the darkened city driving onward without a care in the world. Suddenly the tone shifted, the vehicles attempted to accelerate at the same moment gunfire began erupting from the convoy. It wasn’t long before the vehicles turned the main street that bisected the city, and raced in our direction toward the light.
The lead vehicle lost control as dark figures clutching its roof and sides finally overwhelmed the driver. The vehicle turned sharply and slammed into a wall sending the faceless shapes flying about. The scene was repeated two more times as the remaining vehicles lost control. The faceless men were un-phased and popped back up onto their feet and swarmed the survivors.
Screams echoed for agonizing moments as each in turn was silenced. Not all were consumed though, some were dragged into the buildings to an unknown fate. The remaining faceless forms stood there in the street facing us. Watching us with non-existent eyes.
“Ah you see…” The Suit spoke, savoring the moment. “They don’t consume them all. Some they convert to continue their ceaseless task. Searching for the one that got away. Similar to the human heart, no?” He laughed. “And the one that got away is actually quite close, but they lack eyes to truly see..”
The lights in our section of the city began to dim.
“What?!” He screamed. “What happened?”
“I think we…ran out of fuel.” Mikey stuttered.
The Suit stomped over to him until their faces were nearly touching as I sat there speechless, mind blank from fear, watching it all unfold.
The Suits eyes clenched tightly as if searching for something. He frowned, then opened his eyes.
“I guess you’re right.” He conceded, reluctantly, “I need to leave. NOW.”
All three of us rushed downstairs to get to our vehicles and in that chaotic darkness Mikey slipped me large caliber handgun with a couple magazines he’d pulled from his tool-bag. We stepped out of the building into the street and half dozen faceless men were already arriving at a trot. Two of them carried the large unidentifiable things I’d seen the first time I was in the city.
Can you use your special time-stopping power now, please? I strained with my inner voice.
The Suit didn’t even acknowledge me, so I spoke out loud.
“It’d be real fucking cool if you could use your neat time-stopping trick…” He turned to me obviously rattled. He opened his mouth to speak, to perhaps make an excuse why he couldn’t in the presence of these things, but he saw the gun in my hand and that in Mikey’s
“Shoot them, you fools!” He screamed.
And well…who was I to argue? He had a point. Mikey and I drew on the advancing things and opened fire. It’d been years since I’d gone to the range but after the first few rounds I fell back into old routines. Two center of mass, shift to the next target, two center of mass, and so on.
To my surprise, hitting center of mass on these things actually worked. Granted, they were about as hard to drop as someone wearing light body armor but they went down. We kept moving forward, careful to balance the burning, screaming desire to run to our truck with basic survival needs of keeping rounds on target to drop the faceless men before us.
Aim small, miss small.
In the opening volley we dropped three of the things but the remainder sprinted at us making it even harder to hit them. Mikey would swap a magazine while I fired, then I’d do so in reverse. We were careful to keep one weapon singing at all times, like we were anything more than amateurs.
30 feet turned to 20. 20, to 10. 10, to 5. Only one of them remained standing and it leapt for Mikey, swatting his weapon away and tackling him to the ground. It held him down and began to feed off him. In each moment I took to aim, it’s void peeled parts of Mikey away molecule by molecule and consumed them. The tendril of life linking Mikey to the faceless man grew as more and more skin was stripped away into the void.
I fired once, twice, three times. At the end the faceless man was down and I couldn’t hear a goddamned thing over the ringing in my ears as I dragged Mikey to the truck. The Suit was gone. The dust from his cars’ speedy exit still hung in the air bearing witness to our abandonment.
Through the ringing of my ears I could hear the eternal screams of more of the faceless men approaching. I could barely make out an inaudible plea, beckoning me toward them. I heaved Mikey into the back of the cab and before I jumped in I saw the thing they had dropped laying discarded on the ground. An ovoid relic, indecipherable in nature and yet something compelled me against my better judgement to take it.
So I did.
I chucked it into the truck and fled, defeated and afraid. In the rearview mirror I thought I could see the bodies of dead faceless men illuminated by our tail lights, no longer faceless at the end of it all.
When Mikey finally regained consciousness on the drive back he whispered to me, “We’ve got…we’ve got to get Sarah. We’ve got to get the generators back up and…” “Don’t worry about it man. Don’t worry. We’re going to get you patched up, and then we’ve got it covered. Easy-peasy.” I suddenly felt exhausted but one question remained. “What did you do to the generator?”
“Not much. I just made sure it had the right amount of fuel….to shut-off while he was gloating in another one of his lonely rants. I hate that murderous prick. Didn’t work how I wanted it to. Almost had him. His powers don’t work around the faceless men, as you may have noticed.” He chuckled a little, wincing from the pain as the wounds on his face continued to ooze.
“How did you convince The Suit you didn’t know? He could read your thoughts. How can you lie to a mind-reader?”
“I…I didn’t lie. I focused on the truth. I focused so hard my thoughts didn’t stray. I focused on the fact that I did check to make sure the fuel level was adequate…adequate to fuck him over, but I didn’t think about that part. I focused on that and my desire to flee. I emptied my mind and focused everything I had on those truths. Aim small…”
Rule 9: Maintain perimeter security.
Listen, this is one of the most basic fucking rules out there as anyone who has ever carried a rifle ever will tell you, but it’s number 9 on the list. Why? Well, it’s probably the fourth most important. The twelfth rule..well, that is THE most important one. Math doesn’t make sense? Well it will. There are twelve rules. I’ll let you figure that out, or don’t, stick around and I’ll tell it.
I’ll be honest. When I was trying to frame this narrative, and digest my experiences into a cohesive series of events…I actually had to leave a lot of rules out. There are a ton of fucking rules, as anyone in any job ever will tell you. Such as, ‘don’t shit where you eat’ or ‘don’t sleep around the office’ (kind of the same deal, I guess), or ‘don’t piss on the boss’ cat’. But, this one is up there at the top.
Story time before story time. Once, when I was a young buck full of hormones and certainty, I was an infantryman (how the mighty have fallen, right?). I was on perimeter security with another dude, we were M249 gunners (big gun go boom-boom, scary, but not too scary…5.56mm scary not 7.62mm or Ma-deuce scary) controlling the entry/exit point to our outpost. It was training, so no big deal right? Wrong. Cadre test you more than the enemy. I took a wink, thinking my battle buddy would cover me but he took a wink too. Shitty communication but we were 20 years old, give us a break. Well…cadre walk up and tap my dumbass on the helmet.
“Hey you sleeping?”
And then there I was, in the middle of the night soaking in my own sweat like a prime roast in a slow-cooker with my squad automatic weapon held high over my head whilst I maintained a squat position for 30 minutes. Fucking awful.
Anyway, perimeter security is no joke. It’s Warfighting 101. That and fire-guard…but…anyway. Different story for a different time.
Where was I? Perimeter security.
On a cold January evening there was a National Guard unit that was training on a small MOUT site (that is, a couple shipping containers with doors so they could practice breaching and room clearing on a simulated ‘town’). They were ambitious…for the National Guard. They came out with a couple of 10-ton trucks with a bunch of concertina wire (razor wire in the civilian world), they had glow sticks for safety on the concertina wire and a 24 hour operational command post, roaming perimeter security…the works.
Things get a little tricky though because no one told them they weren’t allowed to set-up on the range. This was a range that was strictly off-limits overnight. At 9pm the lights would shut-off. Due to some SNAFU’s in communication Sarah and I found ourselves heading out to a location two ranges down from where these folks were at to help a unit with a power outage.
We get to the place we were told to go to and no one was there. Big surprise. Comms working as expected. Then, we put out an all-call on the range control frequency and got some squirrely private trying to tell me where they actually were, so we jumped over to their company frequency to hash things out. Long story short, we do a ‘who’s on first?’ bit and finally figure out where they are.
“Shit. Good timing.” Sarah said.
I rolled my eyes. “What now?”
“They aren’t supposed to be camping out on that range. Either someone cleared them that shouldn’t have, or they went ahead and did it anyway. It’s a coin flip.”
“So do we go help them, tell them to clear out, or what?”
Sarah thought for a few moments. “How about we watch?”
“That’s so romantic.” I said, jokingly, before getting a vicious straight to the arm. “Ow! The fuck. You packing super strength too? Jesus.”
“Watch it Rook, you don’t want none of this.” She shot back making exaggerated karate knife-hands.
From the shadows behind my seat she pulled out two objects. The crack of the can, which certainly did not contain alcohol because we were on the clock (it did), was unmistakable, and passed me one.
“Lady of the lake!”
She shot me a dirty look, and then the show began.
The radio chirped, “2-5, this is hotel-romeo has your security made its way back yet? They’ve missed their check-in twice now.” The radio operator for the command post stated calmly.
“Negative hotel-romeo”, a groggy voice responded after a delay. “I’m gonna go check on him. Wait one.”
A couple minutes passed. “Hotel-romeo, this is 2-5….the sentry…is ineffective. He uh…he’s unconscious, I’m getting the medic over here to check him out…meanwhile can you get 3-6 to send someone up? All my guys just got off duty.”
More time passed before the radio chirped again.
“3-6, where’s your sentry? 2-5 was supposed to be relieved. I can’t reach anyone at the entry point.”
“Hotel-romeo, this is 3-6, I sent my sentry out 20 minutes ago like you asked to relieve him”
“3-6, no one is answering my radio checks.”
Indistinct cursing could be heard.
“Where are those mechanics anyway? We need to get the power back up. I’m going to check on the Sentry, wait one.”
More time passed. “1-5, 3-6 is out of contact. Can you please send someone?”
The radio chirped again “Hey, can I come in?”
Sarah sat forward suddenly.
“Who is this?” The radio operator for the command post, asked.
“I just want to take a rest. Can I come in?”
“2-5, is that you? Dude…I mean Sar’nt…this isn’t funny.” The radio operator replied nervously.
The radio crackled for a while. “How do you know if I’m a Sergeant?”
“Hey…Sergeant Mora…this isn’t cool. Okay, funny joke, ha ha, fuck with the private..good times right? My relief didn’t show up. No one else is answering the calls. This is pretty messed up.”
“Just let me in and it will be fine.”
“What do you mean?” the radio operator replied.
“You’re in the shipping container. The doors are closed…just…open them.” The voice replied.
“It’s okay. Just open them”
“I….Ok…” the radio operator responded in a trance-like state.
Sarah looked over at me and hurled her empty can into the back seat. “Ok Rook, here we go.”
“Uhhh…what are we doing?” I asked.
“Scooby-dooby-doo, where are you? We’ve got some work to do now.” She sang, slightly out of tune
“Creepy as fuck, Sarah.”
“Oh, come on. We’re going to keep those poor assholes from dying, and…” she drifted off as she started the engine and put the truck into gear, “We’re going to get ourselves a special souvenir.” Her broad smile was clear as day in the moonlight. It was beautiful.
We sped down the road towards their camp kicking up dust in our wake.
When we finally arrived it was plain to see that no one was conscious. We pulled up and killed the lights before getting out. Two guards at the entry/exit point were unconscious…or dead…which briefly brought my memory from basic training back to the surface.
It was then that I noticed I was a little uncomfortable with our so-called plan to ‘get a souvenir’.
“What are we doing here, Sarah?”
“Hun, you worry too much. I’ve got you covered. Oh, and follow me, here take this.” She tossed a pack of zip-ties to me. “Open em’ and have three ready to go, ok? My hands are going to be a little too occupied to get ’em out.” she cracked her knuckles.
We crept through the perimeter without drawing attention. The guards actually were asleep, thankfully, but it was unclear if their current state was permanent or a temporary stop on the way to something much worse. There were collapsed forms strewn about as if everyone just fell to the ground in the middle of whatever they were doing.
We moved quietly to the shipping container that obviously housed the command center. We stacked up near the half open door and she pressed a solitary index finger to her lips and smiled.
Before I could even conceive of a protest she rushed in and I after a moment’s hesitation followed.
What was in that shipping container I couldn’t describe. As soon as I entered I felt dizzy and short of breath. Forgetting where I was or why, I wanted to sit down and take a rest but something about Sarah’s urgency pushed me onward. I could see the radio operator on the ground as my cone of vision narrowed, but I could also see Sarah wrestling with something. Some form. I heard screams and shrieks but they weren’t hers. I continued stumbling forward due to momentum, with one outstretched arm I held three zip ties, then everything went black.
I awoke to a dawning sun and Sarah standing over me, smiling in pure joy.
“What…” I croaked, “What happened?”
“Sleepy. You took a nap. But no, really, we saved a bunch of guys lives before they went into respiratory failure.”
She just shook her head vigorously. “And look,” she dangled something in her hands “a souvenir.” It was a horn of some sort. As soon as she put it into my field of vision I started to feel dizzy again, slipping back into the darkness.
“Oh shit!” She cried. “Sorry, sorry, sorry! You’re right. Don’t look. Just know we got a souvenir.” She stashed it back in her pocket.
“What…what was that thing? And you…wait how did you remove that horn?”
“I call it The Sleeper, because I’m just so creative. It’s just another one of the things that roams at night. One of the sentry’s talked to it thinking it was a person and let it into the perimeter.That’s why we don’t let folks camp out here. You ever hear this thing asking to be let in, you ignore it. You engage it in conversation, you look at it…then it has you. Not me, obviously, another perk of my condition where it’s power is useless. As for the horn…well…”, she pulled out her Gerber and with a flick of the wrist extended the pliers and started clacking them. “This, and some elbow grease. Had to restrain it first, though. Thanks for not passing out like a bitch before getting the zip ties to me, though.”
“You…you’re a savage. Where is..uh..it?”
“The Sleeper. I’m a catch and release girl, myself. I let it go.”
“Why would you do that? If it can kill folks…” I trailed off.
She shrugged. “People follow the rules and The Sleeper is never a problem. Plus, it can come in handy from time to time.”
“What for?” I asked skeptically.
She looked a little sheepish. “Oh…I don’t know….”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh bullshit, what did Mikey put you up to?”
“The Suit said something to you and Mikey. Remember? He’s a bit longwinded but he said something along the lines of ‘soon new creations will displace the old’, right?”
“Well, he kind of thinks of himself as a god so that would mean…”
“He thinks of us as his creations somehow.” I finished for her.
“Right. And I don’t know about you, but being replaced doesn’t sound so good. So we need to figure out what exactly he meant and this” she patted her pocket, ”..might just come in handy.”
Rule 10: Keep it simple, stupid.
Bear with me on this one folks. We’re going for a ride and if you haven’t read the other rules…don’t start here. It won’t make any sense.
Complex planning (civil or military) is one of the most difficult skills to master. It requires abstract thought; it requires an ability to think along multiple different streams at once and to envision how those streams interact with one another; It requires the ability to task prioritize; It requires you to understand not only the technical details, but the personal ones too.
The most important part of any plan is the people.
If you know your people. If you understand them, train them, and develop them they can do wonderful and amazing things. And If you ignore and abuse them well…people are smart. People are creative. People can also throw a wrench in things if they are so inclined.
I don’t think The Suit ever really understood people.
I walked into the break room of our shop and sat down next to Lee, my supervisor. After the stresses of our last encounter with The Suit and the suspicions Sarah raised, I had to know more.
“So…what happened to the new guy?”
Lee kept reading the article on his phone.
He glanced over.
“No, not really. He looked at The-fucking-Others, what do you think? Rule 3, man.”
I shrugged. “Yea, I mean..I…Okay, I’ll just get to my point. The Suit had us go do your fucking job because you were out playing your wager game. But, despite all he is he didn’t want to interrupt the game. Why?”
He put down his phone. “Because The Others aren’t within his domain of power. They are beyond it. They are completely un-fucking-related to it unlike just about every other oddity around here. That’s why. He doesn’t want to mess with things that might just be more powerful than he.”
I took it in. “Okay, that…that makes about as much sense as anything can, I suppose. Does he have anything else for us? I mean..it’s been pretty quiet.”
Lee smiled, “Yes, as a matter of fact he asked for you specifically. He doesn’t trust Mikey after what happened in mole-town, and Sarah…well…let’s just say he doesn’t know about Sarah and I’m not about ready to let him, either. So..that leaves you and me.”
“Okay, cut the shit. Why do you take it? Why do you act like such an asshole? You don’t have to. You could leave..”
Lee cut me off. “No, I can’t. My son is the biggest part of this, but not the only one. The Suit likes having dependable little worker bees. Once he decides he likes a worker bee, he doesn’t let them leave. Your predecessor tried to leave. Look what happened to him. That’s why you are even here to begin with.” He shook his head vigorously, “No…no…I’m stuck here, with my kid or without. Now he’s noticed you too. Something about you fucking saving him.” Lee winced. “You should have just dropped the gun and let the faceless men have you all.”
I pondered that for a moment. I was so concerned with saving my own ass I didn’t even think about it.
“Okay, fair enough. But do you know what he is up to?”
Lee laughed. “Yea, man, I can’t quite get my head around the why of it, but sure I know what he’s doing.”
“He is creating things. Fucking monstrous things. Most of them are one-off’s but not all. Why else is this such an epicenter for shit that doesn’t make sense? He makes these things with powers I can’t understand and then releases them when they no longer amuse him. He wants to subsume humanity with another of his creations. He says he ‘made mankind’, but I don’t believe it. I think he’s jealous of whatever, or whoever, actually might have made us. He lies about creating us because we are a testament the fact he isn’t a god. ‘Thou shalt worship no other god’ or some such. He’s arrogant. He’s fucking delusional and he knows I think it, but he doesn’t care. He made The Mimic..and that, Rook, is probably his final project. He…” Lee started to look flustered.
“He wants…he thinks it’s funny to replace us with an apex predator that can’t be differentiated from normal people. He…he embraces the chaos and fear that will cause as Mimics spread and subsume humanity. He already enjoys our chaos, but the confusion of such an intrusion, the violence…the collapse…it’s…it’s…it’s fucking insane. This whole…genocide…would just be fucking entertainment to him. Both entertainment and I guess….wiping the board clean of anything he didn’t create, anything not in his control. Spitting in the eye of whatever unfathomable beings created us and imprisoned him.”
“Why don’t you stop it?” I asked defeated.
“How? He can read my fucking mind man. He can react before I do it’s…I don’t know how. I focus on what I can do, what I can change. That’s the only way to stay sane. I’m bitter rook, I’m fucking angry. But enough about all of that. You’ve got to go meet the suit. Remember the range north-west of post that they turned into a wildlife refuge? He’s out there. You won’t be stopped. Go.”
The drive out was uneventful. I passed the normal menagerie of traffic on a late afternoon. Folks running food and ammo out to ranges that were still hot, other units clearing ranges and heading to their billets. Gut trucks (junk food), GSA’s (government civilian vehicles), and range control folks just going about their normal daily routines. As I crept further northwestward and the pavement turned to dirt the traffic dropped off. Soon, I was alone on the road.
The dirt road became narrower and less well kempt until finally I reached an ancient gatehouse straddling the boundary between the base and the wildlife refuge. I stopped, unsure of what came next when suddenly the gate started to open on its own, beckoning me onward.
Thankfully there was just one road and it led right to an old munitions bunker, tucked away in a draw between two hills. Outside were parked several vehicles including none other than The Suit’s black sedan.
I made it to the door to the bunker and it opened for me on cue. I was met by a blank faced man in a lab coat who led me in. The facility was much larger than it looked on the outside, which was to be expected I guess. I’d never been inside a munitions bunker, so it made sense that there’d be a lot of it underground.
I followed the man through a maze of equipment and containment cells which would have previously been used to segregate and secure different types of heavy munitions but were now imprisoning many things much more unique. The darkness prevented me from seeing clearly, but in one I could see Chris laying on a cot. In another, an ethereal form. In another, something resembling a demon. Just as quickly as those glimpses came, they went. My mind was reeling and every junction I passed was guarded by twisted versions of men, with empty soulless eyes.
Then I was standing in front of The Suit.
“So, you are good with high voltage equipment, generators and such, yes?” He started without pretense.
I nodded. “I’m certified.”
“Wonderful. I had a…falling out, shall we say, with our plant manager. He tried to kill the power in the facility…and, well, his position was vacated. The jobs yours!” He clasped his hands together with a smile. “You helped me escape, and well…you are kind of my only choice right now. But I don’t need to tell you what would happen if you were to…become a problem, do I?” I shook my head vigorously, and he continued “Good. And don’t worry, it’s temporary! Soon we’ll be shutting this facility down.”
Sheepishly, I asked “So, where do you want me and what are the rules? Am I stuck here?”
“What? No. No. You’ll just be on call with some additional duties. When not here, you will be back with Lee.” And with that, he shooed me out of his office and I was back in the corridor face to face with the man in a lab coat.
“Follow me, I’ll give you a breakdown of your duties and where the equipment is.”
We went deeper into the facility and the man, Gabriel, explained how things worked here. I mean that literally, the mechanics of it. Boring stuff.
However as we neared the generator room nestled deep within darkest depths of the bunker we came across a bank of chambers. I slowed and peered in.
“He uh…he is pretty open about what’s going on here isn’t he?” I asked.
Gabriel shrugged. “Yes and no. You flee, he will find you but he doesn’t see any of us as a threat, no matter what we know. We try to speak out and he appears and…well…obviously no one has been able to speak out. He knows nobody can do anything to stop him.” He looked sad at the last, a defeated man resigned to servitude.
I leaned closer into the viewing pane of the first chamber and in it a faceless man paced. I walked to the next, and saw a form on the ground. Unmoving, yet clearly in the process of some sort of transformation or infection. In the next, I saw a naked man pacing around and uttering nonsense.
“Yea, it’s…the infection doesn’t take in everyone. About one in ten, maybe. The rest go insane, die.” Gabriel opened up to me, unprompted. “Sure, The Faceless Men can infect you if they choose but that’s not always how it was. Before, the infection was spread by the local fauna. Well, one species in particular. The tortoise. Where the infection came from, how it spread, I don’t know. But it’s part of an ecosystem. It refills the well of the other reality with the sacrifices of this one. It’s like a salmon swimming upstream to spawn. It turns men, and only men, into faceless ones or it kills them. And well…they…”
I jumped as a hand rested on my shoulder. The Suit was standing right behind us.
“What are you guys talking about?” He asked, coolly.
Gabriel clammed up and looked downwards.
“Your pets.” I opened.
He smiled at that. “Oh yes! They are fascinating, aren’t they? Dangerous too. I’ve actually used them to help me shape other…rather fun projects. The transformation is especially interesting. It subsumes the original identity and imparts fantastic gifts including agelessness, but they retain mortality. There is still so much I don’t understand about them…but you remember The Mimic, right?” He asked.
“Yes, of course.”
“That’s my pride and joy. Directly inspired by these wretches.” He scoffed.
“You mean you didn’t create them? You didn’t create us?” I asked innocently.
His face reddened. “I’ve created something better than you both. It just needs a little bit of tweaking before I release it and then I get to watch the fall of everything my dearly departed brothers and sisters ever loved. Oh, I can hear the wheels spinning in your mind. The realization. But I also know, just as you do, that you can’t stop me.”
At once I was frozen and a familiar burning sensation shot up my arms. I could see Gabriel was motionless. Time itself stopped.
“Don’t you ever compare me to my siblings. Never. They were jealous of me, so they imprisoned me. They subjected me to endless torture at the hands of those…” his hand shot out, pointing to the Faceless Men, “Those demons, and cursed humanity with the burden of sustaining my eternal prison with their own flesh and blood through the disease. But this isn’t the only place where that’s true, no. It takes a lot of blood to sustain that prison. A lot more than can be found out here.” He caught his breath and began to calm just as my inability to breath was about to cause me to black out, and then he released me.
I gasped and fell to the deck followed by Gabriel.
“My siblings created humanity and all the rest, but I uplifted you. For that I was cursed with eternal suffering. I was humanities greatest champion. But no, my siblings hypocrisies and cruelty could not tolerate it. I uplifted you, and then they burdened you with cruelty to match their own to spite me. Then…” He began weeping, ”Then they tortured me until I’d become as lost and monstrous as they. That rage sustained me. I honed the powers we are imbued with over an eternity. I bent one of their servants that straddled the division between this reality and the prison to my will and forced her to release me when they’d become complacent. Then I committed them all, my dear brothers and sisters, to the void. An eternity not of suffering, but of maddening nothingness. In that way, you could say I’m merciful. But it doesn’t matter now, I’m over it, it’s almost over.” His calm demeanor and smile returned.
“You shouldn’t ask questions like that again, Rook. I might find I don’t need you after all. On the other hand, serve me well and you may survive as a favored pet among my new dominion.”
I struggled to suppress a thought that was screaming in the back of my mind, this plan relies on compliance of the very people you wish to destroy, each person you tell complicates it all and increases the chance of it all coming down.
He smiled, clearly able to hear me. “No, that’s where you are wrong. There’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. Many have tried. All have failed.”
Rule 11: Fight until you can’t.
I know, these rules are getting a little more nebulous than the first, but this is intentional. As you go through life, age and climb those social ladders…things get more complicated. It becomes less about following arbitrary rules blindly and more about incorporating the ethos of those rules into your being. The more important the rule, the more it needs to become second nature.
In the course of everyone’s lives we face setbacks. The cold hand of reality will knock us to the ground, and will beat us down until we give up, or until we fight hard enough to get up, or until we get lucky or until we use our trickery or our speed or our claws (you know…metaphorically). That defeat can happen again, and again…and again. The main point here is how you recover and push on despite hardship, how you adapt and overcome. What matters is how resilient we are in the overwhelming face of defeat. You can get beat down 7 times in a row. You need to get up 8. You need rise again and continue the fight. Never accept defeat.
Fight until you can’t.
“I know he is up to something.” The Suit said, frustrated. “I just don’t know what.” He glanced at me. “What do you know?”
“I haven’t spoken to him much since he got back from the hospital. I’m not sure. Why..why does he interest you all of the sudden?” I asked.
He sighed. “Intuition. It’s in my nature. I’ve watched people try to betray me for so long that I can sense it coming. Michael has a small chance of making it more annoying than normal, however.” He grimaced “He knows too much.”
I bit my lip and tried to concentrate on the slight stench of mildew in the air, indicative of not-quite-adequate pumps for the bunker.
“I don’t trust him. I sensed something…he was, and is, hiding something from me. I just don’t know what.” Then he waved his hands, beckoning me to leave.
That night at the shop I was crowded into the bay under an incapacitated M1 Abrams with Lee, Mikey and Sarah.
“Listen, it’s worse than I ever thought possible. That Mimic we hunted a while back? That was his prototype. I think the whole reason it got loose was because the previous plant manager”, I shuddered, ”felt he had to act, and cut the power causing the Mimic to escape. It replaced Chris in less than two minutes without so much as a sound, there’s no telling how bad that can get once The Suit perfects it or hell…even just decides to release it as is. He wants to destroy humanity because he’s a delusional. He told me Prometheus’s story to try to get sympathy from me!” I was nearly shouting. “And I almost believed him!”
Sarah looked down at her feet, and took a deep breath.
“He might not be lying about that.”
All three of use looked at her, dumbfounded.
“You saw what the faceless men do to me every time I’m used as a sacrifice? Imagine that for eons. That was The Suits fate. Tortured, but not able to die. He is immortal like me, you know? Imagine that suffering forever. No wonder he is where he is.”
“You sympathize with him?” I asked confused.
She held up a hand, “No, no, I just empathize. Don’t you judge me. You don’t know what it’s like to be conscious while demons feed upon you causing just as much pain in the beginning as in the end. What that could do to your mind over eons?” She shook her head, “No. Evil he may be, but he had evil done to him too. None of it was right.”
Lee spoke first, “Well…what do we do?” He was cool, almost free of worry despite the circumstances.
“We have to fight. We have to do something!” Mikey responded passionately.
Sarah was silent, in thought.
I spoke first. “Why don’t we use the others to help us. Get a bargain and…”
Lee stopped me. “If you really want something, they will never give it to you because it won’t amuse them. Don’t be naïve. We can’t go to them.”
Mikey spoke next. “Well, we could take him through the Aperture somehow…”
Sarah interrupted, “How would you lure him, and how would you secure the lure? You’ve seen what he can do.”
I was about to speak when Mikey got red in the face.
“God-damnit Sarah! What the fuck am I supposed to do?! I’m always coming up with ways to deal with this fucker and you always shoot me down and you never offer any fucking answers. No explanations for your…abilities, or how you know so much about The Suit. It makes me think you are trying to protect him!” he shouted. “You are even making excuses for his senseless slaughter of innocents. Did you help him escape? Is that what this is about? Your memories have been returning since shits been going off the rails, you remember that far back yet? Huh?”
“I’m remembering a lot more but I’m not..I didn’t…” Sarah started, before Lee jumped in.
“Mikey, calm down! You know how powerful he is. What do you expect us to do?”
“I almost fuckin had him at mole-town. What the fuck have you or Sarah ever done to even slow his progress down?!”
“Mikey, just wait a minute..”
Mikey shot back “No, this is bullshit. Humanity is going to end and we need act!” He kicked open the door and sprinted to his truck before peeling out.
Lee and Sarah looked at each other.
“I’ll go get him.” Lee said.
Sarah nodded without showing any emotion. Then Lee, too, took off.
Neither Lee nor Mikey had returned for over an hour before I got worried. I checked my cell nervously waiting for a call from The Suit, but none came. I decided then that I needed to act.
“I’m going, Sarah, I have to know if he’s okay. The Best way, as I see it, is to head back to The Suits bunker and check.” I grabbed my tool bag, planning to use preventative maintenance as a pre-text for returning so soon.
Sarah looked at me with a sad smile. “Ok. Just..be careful.”
I turned to leave and paused. “Do you remember anything else about The Suit that could help me, before I go?”
“….No. This is how it needs to be.” I could tell she was lying about the first part, but I didn’t press it. The Suit wouldn’t be able to read my mind and figure out whatever she was up to if I didn’t even have a clue.
I shrugged and left.
When I pulled up to the bunker I could see both Mikey’s truck, clearly marked with the white ‘E-75’ bumper number, parked haphazardly near the entryway and in the place of The Suits car was Lee’s own vehicle. I walked over to the bunker door and keyed the code. When it opened I found myself face to face with one of the disfigured guards.
“Just came back for some preventative maintenance. I don’t know if the last guy kept up-to date with all that needs to happen to keep the generators up. We wouldn’t want to have a power outage or anything, would we?”
The guard grunted and stepped aside, letting me pass.
I stalked through the cramped hallways peeking into each cell looking for any sign of Mikey or Lee. Contrary to my expectation I ended up finding them in The Suits office. I was down the hall and still out of sight. Peeking from the shadows what I saw caused my heart to sink.
Mikey was bruised, beaten and being held in The Suits temporal grasp. Mikey was unable to move and only the barely perceptible muscle tension indicated he was in immense pain.
“Lee, I’m so very glad you are on my side and that you caught this snake before he could annoy me any more than he already has.” The Suit turned his gaze to Mikey. “Nice trick at mole-town, by the way. Lee told me all about it. The only question now is what to do with you.”
The Suit seemed genuinely elated as the prospect of punishing Mikey.
Lee smiled and glanced down. “Well…you could give him to the Mimic. Or maybe put him with one of the faceless men.”
The Suit rubbed his chin. “Hmm…either way it’d be quick. Perhaps too quick. What to do, what to do.” Then an Idea came to him. “Let’s do this. Let’s give him to The Mimic and then set it loose into the population. What I really like about The Mimic is how it binds and sustains the victim’s consciousness for a time as it replaces the victim top to bottom. Mikey will be able to watch helplessly, while his consciousness slowly fades to nothingness, as his stolen form ushers in end of humanity! Yes, that would be a perfect punishment for disobedience. It moves our timeline up, but after thinking about it…Rook was probably right. I overcomplicate things for symbolic purposes. We can just go ahead and get started.”
Lee looked up. “Perfect.”
I darted down the hallway as Lee escorted a defeated and bound Mikey, now free of The Suits power, up to the Mimic’s cell.
I knew I didn’t have any time to act and only one Idea occurred to me.
I headed down to the depths of the bunker. Towards the cells of the faceless men. Towards the generator.
I rushed forward, careful to slow down as I passed hideous yet powerful guards in a vain attempt to not look like I was in a rush. I’m sure I looked pale and if any of the guards could read a human face I’d be fucked. But they couldn’t. I had the protection of The Suit, for now, but I was about to blow through all of his goodwill.
I opened the final door between me and the faceless men’s cells and was met with a terrible blow to the face.
My vision blurred and I saw stars. There before me was Gabriel.
“I knew you’d be a problem. I told The Suit, I told him you’d try something slick. You think you can eavesdrop and not get noticed? We have camera’s everywhere.”
I dove forward for a tackle, and Gabriel sprawled demonstrating far more physicality that a man his age had any business having. In the course of his sprawl he drove my face straight into the concrete floor. I almost blacked out from the pain. I managed to grab one of his ankles and pushed off the ground with all my might, twisting to lift him off his feet.
It worked, sort of. He went to the ground and I was up, struggling to maintain a dominant position. I was only able to land two hits before Gabriel delivered another devastating blow to my temple, causing my legs to buckle and me to collapse on top of him.
I struggled for breath, I struggled to stay conscious and somehow was able to escape Gabriel’s defensive guard and stand back up in an unstable boxers stance.
“Oh come on Rook, I’m not even breathing hard. A perk of following the one, true god. You’re done. It’s over. A new dominion is upon us.”
I lurched forward with a jab which Gabriel easily blocked and then he shifted into a counter strike to my solar plexus.
I collapsed, unable to breathe at all.
“Stay down. It’s over. If you make me kill you, you won’t get to have any fun with The Suit. We can’t have that.”
The monster of a man continued to talk, though through the ringing in my ears and my semi-delirious state from repeated blows to the head I only caught bits and pieces. Something about the coming end, the fickle and amoral carelessness of gods, the worship of chaotic impulse. I don’t know, I couldn’t make sense of it. I made another attempt to move and Gabriel delivered a blow to my side more powerful than the rest. The kick was accompanied by an inaudible crack as at least one of my ribs broke. I collapsed, unable to think or move as my vision started to dim from the pain.
Gabriel walked to the wall and picked up the phone. He punched in a number and almost immediately I could hear The Suits voice.
Smiling, Gabriel spoke. “You need to come down here. I have an offering for you.”
Rule 12: Never leave a fallen comrade.
This is it. This is the end. The last rule. The most important and the longest. If you haven’t read the others, do so now or else none of this will make a lick of sense.
The cold concrete pressed against my cheek helped me cling to consciousness. Barely.
I’d been careless. I’d acted without thinking and now I’d pay the price. We’d all pay the price.
My thoughts drifted to Lee’s treachery. We never had a chance.
I then thought about Sarah. How could she have let us fail so miserably? Why didn’t she want to help? One moment she seemed loving and supportive, the next cold and distant. At one time wanting to act, the next avoiding confronting The Suit at all costs. I felt betrayed. Abandoned.
Rule 12: Never leave a fallen comrade.
Pulling my knees to my chest, I placed my palms down flat and began to rise. I got into a crouch tentatively and found my feet surprisingly functional, even as shooting pain emanated from my broken ribs. Gabriel wasn’t facing me yet and hadn’t heard me stand. I looked to the cell door past him, whose viewing window contained a faceless man who had pressed itself against the glass.
In the Faceless Mans void I was treated to images that made little sense, all but one. An image of a guard punching in the code for the cell door. The digits were clearly visible.
Rule 11: Fight until you can’t.
I launched myself at Gabriel with the last of my strength. I caught him by surprise slamming him into the cell door. Dropping my level I gripped his waist like a vice as I attempted to key in the three digit code before he could process what was happening.
A stabbing pain shot through my back as Gabriel brought an elbow down.
The cell door unlocked and opened as we spilled into the cell. The sudden loss of the door as a firm surface to mount his defense caused Gabriel to flail and fall. We sprawled out as the Faceless man descended upon Gabriel. I scrambled to exit the cell and lock it behind me. The Faceless Man made no effort to stop me as he consumed Gabriel, a tacit approval of my ends. Gabriel’s shrieks slowly ebbed and then ceased altogether as he was consumed by the void.
Still struggling to breathe and stay standing I made my way to the generator.
The door behind me, which led to the rest of the facility, creaked open ominously. Expecting the Suit, I turned.
Rule 10: Keep it simple, stupid.
There stood Lee.
“Oh fuck you, traitor.” I gasped through the stabbing pain in my chest.
He sighed, “Easy, easy. We don’t have much time. Sarah said you were on your way. We have to go. Mikey is counting on us…everyone is counting on us.”
“…I…what?” My anger melted away, replaced by guarded confusion.
“The Suit doesn’t understand people. He’s so confident he knows all the variables and that he’s defeated our will to resist. Well, he doesn’t get people. I’ll be honest, you and Mikey have thrown a wrench into things but if we can pull it off it may end up being cleaner than our original plan. The Suit thinks he’s the only one who can see past his own nose.” He rubbed his temples. “Listen, Mikey is outside the Mimics cell waiting for the power to go out so we can steal it and lure The Suit out of here. I want you to get up there and let Sarah in. I’ll cut the power and then head up.”
Lee walked over to the wall phone, picked it up and dialed. “Sarah, it’s Lee. We’re a go. Give me one minute. It’s time for you to get to work. Also, I’m sending Rook up to let you in, then we’re getting The Mimic and getting the fuck out of here.” There was indistinct chatter. “No, he’s a little worse for wear but he’s alive. He’ll live.” Lee re-hung the phone.
So I left. No alarms had been raised yet so the guards remained at their posts unconcerned that anything might be amiss. I climbed out of the belly of the bunker careful to hide the pain I was in. I made it all the way to the entrance of the bunker without incident. As I stepped towards the panel to open the door the guard standing nearby grabbed my wrist and squeezed so tightly pain shot up my arm.
“What are you doing?” it gasped through barely functional lips.
Wincing, I squeezed a response through clenched teeth, “I left a set of tools I need in my truck. I’ll come right back in. Easy-peasy.”
The creature thought for a few moments and released its grip. It grunted. I reached forward and opened the door.
Rule 9: Maintain Perimeter Security
Sarah stood there with a small object in her hand, and a large one strapped to her back. In the bag on her back I could see some movement but then The Sleepers horn held in her hand caused me to start to lose consciousness. I clenched my eyes shut. Using the wall to help me keep my balance, I waited until I heard the guard collapse and Sarah give me an all clear.
“Hey Sleepy, you okay?” Her smile had returned and her new nickname for me warmed my heart. She was in her element. Not thinking about tomorrow, just focusing on the adventure.
Forgetting about what she carried on her back, I groaned. “Let’s just get a move on. Today blows major ass.”
She winked at me and took the lead as we moved toward The Mimics cell, The Sleepers horn held in front of her but out of my view. Each junction we passed we left unconscious guards in our wake. As if on cue, when we came to The Mimics cell the power cut out. We stood in darkness for moments before the emergency lighting came on.
“Mikey.” Sarah whispered.
She was answered by a form creeping out from behind some piping.
“Hey. We’re really doing it.” Despite his wounds, he looked excited.
“Don’t get cocky, a lot can still go wrong. Come on, let’s get The Mimic.”
Lee came around the corner at a run.
“The Suits coming, we have to move!”
Without even thinking I darted in the direction from which Lee had come, Sarah tried to grab me but I just barely slipped from her grasp.
Rule 8: Aim small, miss small.
I had to delay him. I ran out of earshot of The Mimics cell and came face to face with The Suit. I emptied my mind and focused. Even in the crimson glow of the emergency lighting I could sense his fury. Before I could speak he stopped time around us. Again, I couldn’t breathe and experienced that same searing pain radiating from my fingertips to my shoulders.
He approached me to the point where our noses were nearly touching and he yelled, “What did you do!”
Nothing. Nothing. I was heading down to you. To the generator. I didn’t cut the power. I couldn’t have. My inability to breathe helped make my plea’s both sincere and focused. I emptied my mind and focused on the nameless horrors that could escape if I couldn’t get the generators back up before the backup power ran out.
He closed his eyes but didn’t release me. I could feel him searching my mind. In it he found terror. Panic. All genuine, but all misleading.
Then he released me.
I fell to the deck coughing, once again near the abyss of unconsciousness.
“Follow me.” He commanded.
As we walked he looked at me. “You are in immense pain. Why?”
“I fell and hit my head, one of the guards damn near crushed my wrist for trying to open a door…oh and I have a few broken ribs from a fight I got into not too long ago. The girl of my dreams keeps giving me mixed signals and you also nearly choked me to death. Today is just not my day.”
We continued walking towards the cell and tried to suppress a reflexive prayer that Mikey, Sarah and Lee had been able to escape with their prize.
Rule 7: Stay away from the Desert Tortoise.
My suffering and sincerity must have amused him. He briefly smiled before his eyes rested on the collapsed, unconscious form of a guard. Then his eyes drifted over to the corpse of a Desert Tortoise laying inside the otherwise empty cell that was supposed to house The Mimic.
“Oh god damnit…” I cried out both in confusion about the Tortoises role in the plan as well as in anticipation of The Suits inevitable tantrum that usually ended in me getting fucking choked. He must have sensed my confusion above and beyond any other emotions or thoughts because the exercise of his power didn’t come.
The Suit stood there displaying an emotion I’d never seen in him before. Shock. Things were happening too quickly for him, throwing all his best laid plans into chaos.
Rule 6: Maintain accountability of your sensitive items.
“No..No…this can’t be.” He was scared, but only for a few moments. He recovered his poise, his vigor, and his rage and turned it towards the task of hunting down those who were causing such great annoyance. “How…how could I not have seen this plan in Mikey? They…they must have contaminated The Mimic with the affliction. That will be bad. Very bad. It will imbue The Mimic with powers it shouldn’t have.”
After a brief moments pause The Suit took off at a sprint heading towards the entrance. I was in no shape to keep up with him, not after the beating I’d taken. But I emerged from the bunker in time to see Mikey in his idling truck with a zip-tied and gagged Mimic in the back, still wearing Chris’s form. I idly wondered why The Mimic chose to keep that form as Mikey’s taunts stole my attention. Then it clicked.
He was taunting The Suit and the Suit was unable to use his power.
Over the curses and insults Mikey was shouting at the stunned Deity, I scanned the bumper of his truck once more. Echo-75. Echo-75. The same truck we used to try to ambush The Suit in the City of Faceless Men. The same truck that housed the artifact I recovered from the faceless men we’d shot.
The same artifact they carry to shut down The Suits powers, and it inhibited The Mimic as much as it inhibited The Suit.
I was completely out of The Suits mind at this point (literally and figuratively) and he shouted a frustrated curse and ran to one of the utility vehicles, hopped in and fired it up. As he did Mikey took off, beginning the chase.
I stood there exhausted, watching the vehicles race off into the distance. “Well what the fuck do I do now? Nobody wants to let me in on the plan. Oh we’re just going to let him bumble through it all, that’s cool…”
“We told you and Mikey only what you needed to hear.” Lee called out.
“Hey, Sleepy!” From a hiding place behind the bunkers walls both Sarah and Lee emerged. Lee looked pale from the exertion and stress he’d experienced so far in keeping up the lie. Sarah looked a little sickly. Red in the eyes, flushed.
I felt a stab of fear I didn’t imagine I’d feel for her. “Sarah, you okay?”
She shrugged it off. “I’m fine, just tired. It’s been a busy month.” She smiled sadly. “Listen, we need to get going if we are going to pull this off. Sorry about not filling you in, but to be honest Lee and I were prepped to do this all by ourselves. You and Mikey are just adding a welcome bit of confusion to the mix. Sorry for that, by that way, but you can’t be too careful with a mind reader.”
“Ok…fine..but will you finally let me in on your guys’ plan? What was with the Tortoise?” I asked, exhaustion sapping the normal sarcasm I’d choose after having been lied to multiple times by a pair who schemed behind my back.
“Well…we want The Suit panicked, agitated so he’ll make mistakes. The Tortoise seems to have helped..as for the plan…”
Rule 5: Always have a map
Lee and Sarah looked at each other, before Sarah’s vibrant smile returned and she held up a map. “Mikey doesn’t have a map.” She tossed it into the dirt.
I was in disbelief. “You…you are going to lead The Suit back through the Aperture? How the hell will that work?”
Lee spoke first, “Well, we’ve never told him it oscillates. Through careful omissions and half-truths he still thinks it’s entirely constrained within the impact area of the northern ranges. That’s the entire reason he arranged to have the ranges set up that way to begin with. But, he’s not very patient. He didn’t see the Aperture move. We did though. When we were tasked with mapping the other side, we mapped this one too.”
“Okay okay, but even if we can get him to pass through the Aperture how do we seal it? I’m assuming Mikey will come back via the heart but…what if The Suit corners him what if.…”
Sarah cut me off. “We have a plan hun, and it will work. It has to.” She coughed. “We’re going to go get him and make sure the job gets done. Whatever it takes.”
Rule 4: If you go to the city of faceless men you’ll need to bring a sacrifice.
We loaded into Lee’s truck and headed toward the City of Faceless Men. As we approached it was clear something was wrong. The entire city was bathed in darkness. I felt uneasy given my previous experiences there but the exhaustion, pain and adrenaline helped to dull my anxiety.
Our headlights helped drive the faceless men back into the shadows as we headed deeper into the city, until we came to a central courtyard. “The good thing about The Others is that they are pretty punctual.” He checked his phone. “Looks like Mikey made it. He sent me a text that he was entering the Aperture with The Suit in pursuit.” He chuckled at the rhyme.
He continued, “I think it’s actually an object that is up there on some ancient trajectory. They get close enough to Earth every month to exact their toll on us according to some completely alien imperative. Just a theory, mind you.” Lee took a deep breath. “Rook, I’m sorry I was a total dick to you. If you see my son, please let him know his daddy loves him more than anything else in the whole world. I never gave up on him, but I had no choice but to do what I’m about to. The only thing that kept me alive was the thought of seeing him again, the only thing strengthening me against what comes next is the hope that maybe he will be returned to live in the world we will give him. Tell him daddy loves him.”
“Lee what are you talking about…”
Rule 3: Don’t look up.
He locked eyes on me and continued with stern determination, “Rook, look up.”
I complied with the command on instinct, then blackness. Then nothing. What followed as I came to was a collection of incoherent memories. They were jumbled all about as if time were meaningless. I saw Sarah and Lee, eyes downcast as we went into the generator room for the city. Myself trying desperately to make eye contact. Careful not to touch them so that the rules would be followed. I remember myself smiling. I remember a few tears running down Lee’s cheeks as the thing that took control of my body told him something about his son while sneering. Then, before a flash of light returned me to myself I could hear The Other that had possessed me speak.
“You’ve won the wager. We will do what you ask.”
Then all at once I had control of my faculties once more. I looked around, coming out of the haze I was under to find Sarah and only Sarah there beside me. She was looking even more sickly than before, gaunt and exhausted. how long was I gone for?
“Where’s Lee? What…was the wager?”
Sarah said nothing for a while, eyes still downcast. “Lee’s gone, Sleepy. You were the wager, but he took your place in return for closure of the Aperture. The Others accepted the sacrifice, they made a deal, and they always keep their word.”
“Can they do that?”
She looked at me, “I don’t know if there is anything they can’t do.”
We sat there in the still-idling truck in a moment of numb silence for the cost of the days work as she reached over and handed me the radio’s microphone.
“Alright, I’ll let you do the honors. We aren’t done yet. We’re almost there. We’ve closed the Aperture but Mikey’s still over there, and a whole city of Faceless Men are still over here.” She smiled weakly and pointed at the radio.
Rule 2: COMSEC
“Samantha.” My physical exhaustion almost made my exclamation of her name sound sensual.
Sarah giggled deliriously. “Don’t make me jealous, Sleepy.”
I smiled but hesitated. She reached over and calmly held my hand. “Samantha is the one who broke The Suit free. Samantha straddles reality between this world and the next. Once she was a helpful tool in the enforcement of his exile. Ensuring his siblings could check in on him without ripping open his prison. But as eons passed their visits grew sparser until many forgot about him and his imprisonment altogether. Meanwhile he twisted Samantha to his will, contaminated her with his rage and convinced her to tear open the reality in which they resided. It was a tear so large even she couldn’t fix it. Then he cast her adrift and ignored her as he exacted his revenge on all of his siblings. He spun his ‘Prometheus’ story for her long before you, all myths start somewhere. You aren’t the first to be won by its emotional power. She still possesses an artifact of his rage, that paired with her own rage at his betrayal and that results in unfortunate…confrontations. But she’s lonely, shunned, and depressed. She’ll help us make everything right.”
My mouth hung open unprepared for the confession. “How…how do you know? Your memories..”
“Well, for one, the longer I contemplate my distant past the more memories come back to the surface, and two well…let’s just say I’ve dipped myself into an eternal river that shows me things I’d forgotten. Three, I know Samantha will help us because I’ve already asked her to help us, and she agreed. She’s going to send us all over to the other side; this city and all of its horrific inhabitants and the bunker too. She’s waiting now for us to ask. So…just ask.”
Remember how I said, all those Rules ago, that I never unintentionally broke a rule twice?
I reached over and cleared the encryption (fill) on the radio. Then, I keyed the microphone.
“Samantha, we’re ready. Is the Aperture closed?”
A simple response issued from the radio in morse. ‘Yes.’
“Ok, good. Can you help us make this right, can you help us save Mikey?”
The ground trembled. A loud moan echoed from all around. The stars and moon disappeared behind a black fog and we were passing through the mysterious ether. All sound stopped. Time once again became meaningless. The lights on our truck dimmed and died. Then slowly light returned. All reds and oranges. We were still in the City of Faceless Men, but we were in The Other. The Eternal prison.
The wastes of the eternal prison were bright. Forever illuminated by another sun that never set.
“This place is sustained by the blood of men. I don’t know why we did it like that. I was too young. That entire era feels like a fevered dream. Childhood, that’s what It was. Childhood among gods. Well, not gods..but you get what I’m saying. It was some sort of a pact, to bind us together. I’ll be honest…the old ones who created this place were…not kind. They were powerful, but cruel. They demanded much. If a new pact is formed it cannot be the same as the old. The cycle of suffering must end.”
“So, he and you are…the same type of being.” I stated, more than asked.
“Oh yes. And the reason I’ve avoided him is that I’ve always felt he’d notice me on sight, though only recently have I come to know why. He spared me the fate of his siblings and cast me adrift.” She looked exhausted. “Enough, we have to find Mikey. We find Mikey and get out of here. That’s all we have left to do. Never leave a fallen comrade, Hooah?”
She added the last part sarcastically, and it gave me a chuckle. False motivation is better than no motivation. So I put the truck in gear and we headed to our next destination.
We pulled up to a scene of chaos. Mikey’s truck had wrapped itself around a bone spire, while The Suits vehicle rested, overturned, not far off. The remnants of an intense chase.
Mikey was in bad shape. Blood oozed from multiple cuts and it was clear his leg was broken as he dragged himself along the ground toward the spire and away from the advancing figure. Not far away was the twisted corpse of The Mimic.
The advancing form held a tire iron. It was unmistakably The Suit. His clothing was torn from the wreck, but whatever wounds he had sustained had healed completely. It must have been the only power he had that wasn’t muted by the artifact presumably still resting in Mikey’s truck.
“You’ve, uh….” The Suit started, “You ah, have really set me back here Michael. I have to be honest, I’m a little irritated. I didn’t want to come back here. That was a good trick, you know. Very tricky. I didn’t even know the Aperture moved!” He let out barking laughter. “Now, after I’m through with you…I’m going to have to go find it. What a pain in the ass. You know I can’t leave through the heart, right? Good ol’ warden won’t let me. It’ll let you out, just not me.” He took a deep breath. “And what was the deal with that fucking Tortoise? You really gave me a scare. If you’d have exposed The Mimic to it…well…that would have been bad for everyone. But The Mimic is dead, and an exposed Mimic wouldn’t be able to die. So what was the point? Who got exposed? Lee?” He chuckled “Doesn’t matter, I guess. Just another Faceless man in the making. OK, enough talking, time to die.” He strode forward and raised the tire iron.
“Dad, stop.” Sarah shouted, and not for the first time in our relationship my jaw hit the floor. The Suit froze and his head swiveled inhumanly fast, and Sarah turned to me. “Listen Sleepy, our adventures have been one hell of a lot of fun..but all good things end.” She leaned in and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “I’m going to talk to him while you get Mikey out of here. I’m going to stay with him, here, either until he is redeemed or until humanities end.”
I could see clearly now a change was overcoming her. Her symptoms, the tortoise. It hit me all at once. That ‘eternal river’ she dipped herself into. It was the ancient affliction. She’d exposed herself in order to become something more.
“..no..” I whispered. “No, no, no. Come on, there has to be another way. Please tell me you didn’t…what…why would you…we were supposed to walk out of here together!”
“I know, I know, it’s okay. Everything’s going to be okay. This is how it has to be. Redemption and peace require sacrifice. For as long as he is free to roam here he might find a way to escape. He can outwit the faceless men, even with their abilities. He could escape again. We will do it right this time. I will remain here to watch over him as those who imprisoned him refused to do. It is a responsibility I am willing to shoulder, that the old ones in their narcissism weren’t. And this transformation is what’s needed to make that happen so I can be one with this prison and all those who ensure its integrity. I’m only half deity, I had to…to be strong enough..” She took a labored breath, “He really was one of humanities greatest allies, you know…before the fall. He was good. Or as good as our kind could be. He was also powerful. Still is, honestly. I’m not strong enough without entering the ecosystem, the eternal river, without shouldering the burden of the affliction. The heart alone is not enough, this place requires a mind too.” She smiled weakly. “Plus…the affliction only kills men. It only creates faceless men out of men.”
She was growing weaker as the transformation progressed. “Go.” I held her eyes for a moment then moved.
The Suit was walking directly towards Sarah and I gave him a wide berth. Both Mikey and I were forgotten. I dashed over to Mikey and hoisted him up, he winced from the pain of a broken leg and I from my ribs. Together we made one fully functional cripple. As we limped towards the Spire I caught a mere sample of the conversation between The Suit and Sarah.
“You…you worked with them to lure me here. Why?” He asked, pleading “I spared you because I loved you. Why would you betray me?”
“You’ve lost your way Dad. I’d Hoped somewhere deep down that you’d abandon your pursuit of cruelty and chaos to spite those who committed crimes against you. But the stains of your imprisonment here…they won’t wash away.”
“And what, you are to take over the mantle of head torturer?” He scoffed.
Sarah collapsed and I could hear genuine concern in The Suits dash to catch her.
“No, of course not Dad. I’m not like your siblings. I couldn’t have faced you on the other side, you wouldn’t have listened. You would have brushed me aside.”
“You’re goddamn right I would have.”
She smiled. “There will be no more torture. I can hear the Faceless men now beckoning me. Beckoning me for order. Direction. A counter to the Chaos you brought. I can hear them. They will no longer torture you. As I transform, my control over them and this place will grow and you will remain unmolested. But you also cannot roam free in the world. We have all the time we need to work through this together. To find Redemption. But you must find redemption. This is a new covenant. The old ways are dead.”
I didn’t catch the rest. Mikey and I stumbled out of earshot and descended into the Spire. We passed several Faceless Men who simply watched us and let us pass. Sarah was in control.
I whispered one last goodbye as we pierced the heart and tasted complete and overwhelming pain as the heart tore us atom from atom and returned us to our world.
Mikey and I dug our way out of shallow graves somewhere out past where The City of Faceless Men once existed. Replaced now by emptiness. Our wounds were gone as the heart had rebuilt us whole, but I for one could still feel the pain of oblivion. Now, we were faced with a long fucking walk back to the contonement area. Thankfully even though we didn’t have a map we could see access roads in the distance, we’d just need to make our way there and head south.
It was morning. A cool, refreshing wind caressed us. A consolation for all we’d endured and all that was lost. We said nothing.
Rule 1: Don’t stray from the installations access roads.
After an hour of walking we came to a Jeep stuck in the sand. Three forms continued their eternal task of trying to free the jeep. I didn’t try to avoid them this time. Rather, we walked right up to the Jeep.
“You need a hand?” I called.
A ghoulish face popped out from the front of the Jeep. Its dead eyes locked onto me and it strained through its bloated tongue.
“Yesth, we’d apprethiate it.”
Mikey and I fell in among the three long dead soldiers and helped them dig their Jeep out, then with what meager tools they had we helped them fix it.
“Thank you.” The lead apparition said. “Thank you.”
We rode in silence over the barren plain as the three lost souls drove us to the edge of the access road. We hopped out and I walked over to the driver side of the Jeep.
“Hey, is there anything else we can do to help to free you from this cycle?”
“No. You have already freed us. Compassion. Redemption for your prior cowardice.” The last bit stung as I remembered my fear at our first meeting. Then the creature saluted and pulled onto the main access road, fading to nothing as if they had never been there to begin with.
Never leave a fallen comrade.
In the end, this was embodied by Sarah’s steadfast determination to redeem a father who once was. It was her stubborn refusal to abandon him and her rejection of a perpetual cycle of horror. It was also her offering to Samantha for closure, to wash away the sins of the past.
For me, it was Mikey. Perhaps in some small way, it was also those lost souls in the desert who’d never given up hope of rescue and clung to their non-corporeal existence.
For Lee, his son.
Sometimes adherence to this rule leads you to destruction. But it can also lead you to redemption and a meaning greater than yourself if you are willing to shoulder the burden of the requisite sacrifice.
We eventually made it back to the shop. It was surreal in its normalcy. Quiet and peaceful. Sarah’s stuff still decorated her workspace, pink craftsmen wrenches now an artifact of someone was long gone. The coffee Lee had brewed before the final chapter kicked off was still sitting there in the pot, unconsumed, and on his desk a photo of his son. I was numb to it all and had no idea how we were going to explain things. Then I noticed something out of place. A printed article from that morning was resting on my desk. I picked it up.
“MISSING 7-YEAR OLD BOY FOUND IN GOOD HEALTH AFTER 3 YEARS. NO CLUES IN DISAPPEARANCE.”