What happens when natural selection is the law of the land, removing morality from life?
“And from the chasm of her throat she uttered the scream of our mortality,
In the vastness of her wet eyes she produced a flood…”
- Excerpt from “Mourning Song for Gaia” by Nascosto Nome
The apartment on Amsterdam Road was a mess. Crumbling bricks and flaking mortar were all that stood against the forces of gravity that weighed heavier and heavier on the old building with each passing day. The rusty squeals of the old iron fire-escape echoed through the building with every breath of the winter wind, and one could not help but hear in the sound the aching moans of a creature long overdue for death. It was but desperation that kept the building on life-support. None of the tenants saw the apartment as a good thing, but they all saw it as a vital thing. The decaying corpse of a once lavish home was all that stood between them and the cold harshness of the outside world. Where the old bones provided very little heat, what lay beyond offered nothing but cruelty and death. It was barely anything, but it was all they had.
And for Thomas Fremont, it was enough. As he hefted his tired legs up each step of the inside stairwell, he hardly even noticed the dilapidated state of his home. As a conscript of the city government, he was used to far worse. In his heavy boots and thick militia jacket, even the chill of the barely-heated hallways was but a mild annoyance. Besides, he had just finished a fifteen hour shift of constant manual labor with only three ten minute breaks. The combination of cold wind and heated flesh was nothing new to him. Indeed, it seemed so natural after all this time that it did not even register in his mind. To his weary body, the ghostly hallways offered little but the promise of a short rest. The bricks whispered to him of safety from the American Republic Movement protestors. Even the creaking stairs sang to him of peace and solitude away from the chaotic crowds and screaming masses. It was a simple melody, but it was one he ached to bathe in. For it would be the only bath he would receive in this district. Scratching his head, he wondered if it would be possible to get transferred out of the Dark Quarter and back into a city where there were still lights and running water. He knew the thought was ridiculous. No government official would even spare the energy it took to sit and listen to a conscript from the coast; not with the Triple Threat still a pressing concern. And especially not in the Dark Quarter, where government officials were rarer than cars. So it was no use even hoping for a way out. But even so, he could not help but imagine what it would be like to go home through a brightly lit city to an apartment with electric lights and plumbing and heat always available. He had heard some of the other conscripts speak of such places, out beyond the Rocky Mountains, where the world was bright and the violence not so brutal. It always amused Thomas that even in these fanciful stories they never went as far as to suggest a place where violence did not exist. It was always “less common”. Of course, having grown up during the Triple Threat, it seemed almost inane to believe in a world with universal peace.
Finally, Thomas reached the fifth floor. It was the only floor in the building that was not fully occupied, and the silence was oppressive even when compared to the other floors. Due to the weak structure of the apartment, few braved the last flights up to where the penthouse and suites used to be. Indeed, aside from the occasional Drifter, Thomas was the only one who called the fifth floor home. It suited him well, being so alone. He was not what one would call a socialite. Mostly he kept to himself when not on duty. When the soldier in charge released him, he would sleep, or read, or occasionally write letters to loved ones that existed only in his head. The barracks were off-limits to conscripts, and so he went to this old building to rest. No one ever asked for rent, and he never offered. When he could avoid the other tenants, he did so. After so many angry faces during his shifts, he did not want to see anyone. Every eye that looked into his, every mouth that opened to speak, every twitch of the cheek muscles, every movement, and every sound reminded him of the protestors he had killed. And so he retreated to his room, hiding there in the darkness with a stolen candle and what few books he had managed to collect from the ruins. In the emptiness of romantic words he would lose himself to the stories and the prose, the poems and the essays. Or at least he would try. He had read them all so many times before, and now it was becoming harder with each passing day to engross himself with reread pages of stories that meant nothing to him. Often times he would catch himself staring blankly at the wall, images and sounds from the previous day running through the backdrop of his mind like the old cinema picture shows. When he caught himself, he would shake it off quickly, desperately scanning the pages for something to distract his aching mind from the pain of the memories. But more often than not there would be no solace in those pages. Not anymore. And so he would spend the rest of the night huddled under a thin blanket he had stolen from the corpse of a homeless beggar, writing letters to no one or trying desperately to clear his mind enough to sleep. The former would often end with him writing his stream of consciousness onto a tattered page with a dull pencil that he whittled to a tip every time the graphite broke off. The pages quickly filled, and he would find himself with nothing to do until the following day’s foraging. But even the temporary catharsis of his letters was better than the tossing chaos of attempted sleep.
Tonight, however, there was a little hope for him. He had been part of a raid on a group of A.R.M. insurgents camped inside of an old library and had managed to collect a few books from the wreckage after the firefight. They were mostly non-fiction history books from before the wars. Not exactly the most gripping of reading materials, but it was something, and since next to nothing about the pre-war era was common knowledge he figured he could spend a couple hours learning what few others knew. And if he could not engross himself in the history texts, he had also managed to grab a few copies of classic literature, some of the books dating as far back as the late 19th century. These were mostly period pieces or fantasies, both of which would be hard to relate to, but easy to escape in. With the combination of those books he hoped to be able to avoid any reminders of his existence for at least one night.
And so it was with a sense of neutral half-hope – the best mood he had been in for a while – that Thomas let himself into his suite, pulling out a small book of matches that he had managed to acquire from a black marketer. There were only thirty matches, but Thomas figured that would mean one month of light without having to beg a spark off of a neighbor’s heater. Thirty less tired, worn out, animalistic faces he would have to see. It was a small victory, but it was a victory nonetheless. Lighting the candle he left next to the door when he was on shift, he held it up to light his way into the dark room. It was hard to imagine the five room suite as the lavish home it once was. While a few scraps of opulence still remained; exempli gratia the gold-leaf crown molding along the ceiling of the sitting and dining rooms, the remains of the marble countertops in the kitchen, the mirrors in the bathroom and bedroom, et cetera, the majority of the room bore the mark of time. The white paint on the walls was peeling, the maroon carpets were worn to almost nonexistent piles of flattened threads, and everything wooden had been pulled apart to fuel fires long before Thomas had moved into the room. The few upholstered pieces of furniture that were still in the suite were in tatters, barely usable, having been ripped open for any piece of wood framing. Indeed, the only real purpose this room still served was as an austere shelter, with nothing in the way of luxury besides the stack of books that he kept in the alcove that had been a closet before the door was taken for firewood. It was, however, a shelter from the cold, so Thomas did not complain.
Dropping his backpack onto the floor, Thomas crossed into the wreckage that was given the title of kitchen mostly out of pity. Very little of the room suggested anything other than abandonment and destruction. The marble countertops were cracked, many pieces broken off completely. The walls were scarred from the violent removal of all things wooden. Cabinets, pantry doors, shelves, drawers, wood paneling under the counter, everything had been removed, by the looks of it in a frenzy of desperation for warmth. The porcelain sink, which Thomas imagined once gleamed white in the setting sun through the west-facing window was now brown with stains, the origin of which he could only guess. The closest thing to a culinary feel in the room was a box of dried rations that the soldiers handed out to the conscripts once every two months. The food was not very filling, but it was edible, and easy to access. Every conscript had to ration it out for themselves, as the soldiers were usually too lazy and found it easier to let the slaves take care of themselves. Several conscripts had faced starvation because they did not ration their supplies out correctly and devoured the pitifully small amount of food in a matter of weeks instead of making it last for the full two months. Thomas himself had suffered through several days of empty stomachs because he failed to ration it out, but as of yet he had never feared starving. And the temptation provided a crash course in self-control and foresight. It was not in any way a pleasant curriculum, but it was consistent. If he gave in to the temptation of his aching stomach, he would pay for it with the lingering pain of a slow hungering death. This thought was always in the forefront of his mind whenever he ventured into the kitchen. Always he knew that he could not appease fully the aches of hunger, but merely whet his appetite with nutrition enough to last one more day. Always he knew that when he had swallowed the last morsel of his ration his stomach would plead pathetically for more; if just a small taste, if just one small ounce to fill a little of the emptiness in his gut. And always he knew that he would have to suffer through the onslaught of relentless pleas for sustenance and walk away, lest he give in to the temptation and find then that his store of food had been swallowed up in his desperate, ravening feast. The knowledge weighed him down, and he found it necessary to move with a hastened step to and from the box. And so it was that each night at eventide he would rush in, picking up one day’s ration that he had meticulously measured out and sealed away in pieces of scavenged cellophane, allotting himself but one of the wrapped gifts of sustenance per day. On this particular day he found but five days’ worth of provisions remained. It gave him pause, as he racked his mind for an accurate count of days since the last distribution of rations. After a moment’s pondering, he was satisfied that the box of rations spoke truthfully, and that he would not starve waiting for the next box of rations.
This matter now settled in his mind, he quickly retreated from the kitchen, walking into the master bedroom. Setting the candle down on a stand he had fashioned from bits of twisted metal that were all too easy to find out on the streets, Thomas scanned the room quickly, his nerves ceaselessly on edge in case of attack. Once assured that the room was empty of any Drifters who might have made a camp in the shelter of the apartment, Thomas set to work barricading the open doorway. Pulling his backpack inside with him, he hefted the makeshift portcullis he had created out of the old metal frames of the bed, all that was left of the luxury once known to the occupants of this place. Across the frame he had crisscrossed a series of wires, effectively making a sturdy enough door for his needs. He was not worried about a fight with a Drifter as much as he was preventing one from killing him in his sleep for the use of the room. Too many times he had seen a less precautious soul butchered and left for dead for no other reason than they had a shelter that another lacked. The images of gutted bodies slit open in every imaginable way still haunted Thomas’ nightmares, and he refused to face a similar fate. And so he kept his gate secured firmly in the night, with his conscript’s knife nearby and at the ready. If a Drifter wanted his room, there would be a fierce fight before Thomas relented. Such was the reality of the Dark Quarter. If there was a fight, be it between men, women, or children, one would surely die before the other relented. And it was not uncommon to find both dead from their wounds. Senseless brutality reigned supreme in a world where mere survival was a constant battle. Survival of the fittest was the norm, and grief for the fallen was a weakness few dared to indulge in. For all knew the price of failure in a culture bred to survive against all odds. No one wished to be the next in the ever growing pile of corpses burned weekly at the edge of town. All who breathed knew what the end reward was for kindness and compassion. Thomas himself had more than once been tasked with disposing of bodies. The fires still felt warm on his face, the putrid stench still filled his nostrils, the sound of crackling flesh and burning meat still rang in his ears. They served as a constant reminder of the consequences of carelessness. Such a reminder does not leave, and his mind was scarred with the reality of the world he lived in.
And so he closed himself into his small haven, trying to escape inside his books yet always pulled back with the lightest of sounds that echoed in the silent apartment. In the dim light of the burning candle the words melted together, forcing him to squint against the darkness in order to see each word. Every paragraph was a struggle, but it was worthwhile for the small amount of precious relief it provided. And when he had used up his nightly ration of candle light he allowed himself, he would let himself sink into the blackness of the surrounding darkness, lying on the hard floor under a thin blanket, struggling with the encroaching world until a fitful sleep took him.
The conscripted workers and soldiers of the government were little more than slaves for the enlisted men. The small regiments of government soldiers who were left in the Dark Quarter were mostly the military criminals who were of little use to the government cause farther east. Like Australia of old, the Dark Quarter had become the dumping grounds of the criminal and the disgrace of an empire. Few human beings of any merit ever arrived there, and the ones who did were quickly dragged down to the level of the surrounding filth. So it was that the Dark Quarter had become the home of corruption and all manner of vile and reprehensible persons. And to these persons the conscripts were bound, forever at the beck and call of their superiors. Such is the sorrow of human existence that the socially superior are so often the morally destitute. And of all the corrupt, underhanded, villainous creatures of the Dark Quarter, few rivaled the severity and animalistic malice of Sergeant Boseman. Though only a sergeant in the army, he was one of the highest ranking soldiers on the west coast, having been left in charge when his commanding officer bought himself a transfer to the Green Quarter. As more and more of the government officers headed east, Sergeant Boseman found himself commanding more and more influence in the politics and hierarchy of the Dark Quarter. But instead of using this newfound power to arrange a transfer to a more favorable location, he instead used it to set up a small kingdom in the ruins of Old Los Angeles. In his realm, he was no longer a detestable mortal; he was an exalted god, commanding all those below him with maniacal glee. To the enlisted men and noncommissioned officers who found themselves suddenly under the thumb of one who should have been a subordinate, he was the definition for a tyrant. To the conscripts and slaves, he was the definition of murderous death. None dared to defy him, but neither could any summon the ability to respect him. He was a creature of fear that is gawked at and submitted to, but never praised or worshipped in truth. Any kind word spoken of him was spoken out of shallow desire for life or desire for rewards in return. Indeed, many low-life soldiers and disgraced politicians had risen in the hierarchy of this new kingdom through flattery and the dismissal of all moral consideration. So it was that in this new government of liars and cheats, only those whose corruption and evil complimented that of Boseman himself had any hope of rising to greatness and prestige.
It was for this reason that the brutality of the soldiers was extreme, even when compared to the already cruel world of the Dark Quarter. The men in charge of the conscripts would often play games of chance, the prize being the honor of killing a slave, the stakes being how brutally the murder was committed. No matter who one, someone would always die. Among the army men, it was a constant competition to see who could outdo the other with the number of conscripts he had killed. For the drafted men, the only hope was to keep their heads low and hope that they did not draw the attention of one of the enlisted. When one of the enlisted spoke, every conscripted slave around him flinched, fearing what the nature of the words would be. The words were invariably harsh, saturated with profane titles and expletives. Though for the men cowering under the tirade, words were far more welcome than the violence that was often visited upon them. Words did not kill, and they rarely bruised. Indeed, to Thomas, the words carried close to no weight at all. They were as meaningless as the sound of the wind through the streets or the crunch of heavy feet on gravel. All he heard were the orders. That was all that mattered. He could not fail to follow a direct order from an enlisted soldier; to do so was to invite a summary execution. So he listened respectfully for the wished of his superiors, all the while rushing to do their biddings. This time the shouted words were ordering him to the front of a group of other draftees, all carrying their signature knives. It was an unruly mob to say the least, but it was an effective unit for the army’s purpose. When it came to combat, the conscripts were but distractions and moving targets to keep the enemy occupied while the enlisted men rained a barrage of bullets down on them. Half the time the majority of the casualties in a raid would be government draftees, shot from behind by one of their superiors. No one was ever sure whether these killings were intentional sport or merely a stray bullet. And no one was ever brave enough or interested enough to bring the subject to the attention of an authority. It would be useless to try, anyways. So as Thomas rushed to join the mob, knife clutched in his right hand, he took a breath, knowing that it could very well be his last. Looking around he could see nothing that would indicate A.R.M. insurgents. Indeed, the small cul-de-sac was one of the most peaceful places he had seen in this city. It was like stepping back into a time before the war. He knew it would not remain that way for long, but for that moment, it was a time capsule of a better time in this city.
Then the first shot was fired, and the once peaceful neighborhood exploded in violence. A man waving the red, white, and blue flag of the A.R.M. appeared on the roof of one of the crumbling houses at the end of the street, and suddenly dozens of people appeared in the windows of every house, all shouting the war cries of the insurgents, waving their weapons tauntingly at the cluster of draftees. The enlisted soldiers began shouting, and the guns began to fire. With a single word, the mob of conscripts split into smaller, equally unruly groups, charging headlong into the houses, knives held above their heads in an absurd display of suicidal warfare. As if rewarding the ridiculousness of the tactic, the A.R.M. rebels started firing their weapons – stolen guns and reserve munitions that still remained from the pre-war era – at the charging throng. The cacophonous symphony of violence played with merciless volume as men who had been given no choice but to fight fell, bloodied, one by one to the earth they had come from, never to rise again. As he ran, Thomas kept his eyes on the house in front of him. He had no ambitions of heroics, no dreams of glorious battle. He ran, desperate, just trying to get to the cover of a solid wall. More likely than not, he would die when he got to the house, a victim of the inane bloodshed, the irrational carnage. To him, the thought of death was a horror he accustomed to. He had held the bitter taste in his mouth so long that it had taken on a sweetness of its own. Whether it would benefit him more to live, or to peacefully cease to exist in a world that did not know him, he was no longer so sure. The end of his conscious mind, sinking into eternal nothingness, was at once a terrible and yet wonderful fantasy. His mind, which had known only terror and pain throughout his short life, cried out for solace. But would solace come? Even in death, would the nothingness be peaceful? Or would he, in his endless sleep, toss and turn, writhing in discomfort? Truly he did not know, and the ignorance held him back, causing him to hesitate at the idea of embracing death. And so he ran harder, desperate and torn, at last reaching his destination. Knife held high, he struck the barricaded doorway, slashing at the bindings that held the makeshift metal door together, directing all of his stormy emotions into the attack. With each piece of wire and twine he cut, he came closer to shelter or death. Soon his knife was joined by a dozen more as the survivors of the mob caught up with him. Gunfire still resounded all around them as the occupants of the house attempted to halt the vicious onslaught upon their home. Thomas felt the spray of blood on his face as the man next to him fell, his work now ended permanently. By this time, however, the bindings had been cut enough that the once sturdy barrier collapsed in a heap of pipe and beam, metal clanging loudly as it struck the hard floor.
In a burst of renewed vigor, the wave of enslaved humanity rushed in through the opening, taking refuge from the guns behind them while simultaneously presenting themselves to the weapons awaiting them. As the occupants of the house, three men and a woman of approximately twenty years of age, faced the conscripts, guns brandished defiantly, Thomas could not help but see in their terrified eyes the same senseless brutality that tore at his own heart and mind. They were frightened, and in their fear they chose destruction. Their last stand was a short one, as even four panicking people with guns could not stop twelve desperate men with knifes. In mere moments the fight was over, with only seven gory corpses as evidence of what had happened there. And those would not even last as an enlisted man appeared in the doorway, a kerosene lamp in one hand. Thomas marveled at the sight of such an expensive item in the hands of a soldier. The soldier yelled at the convicts harshly, ordering them outside. Thomas could still hear the roar of gunfire and was less than eager to return to the open air. One look at the soldier’s face, however, convinced him that resistance would be a foolish endeavor, and so he took his place in the line of men as they trudged out onto the street, looking around nervously as the fighting continued down the street. It was quickly clear who the victor of the day would be. On a rooftop down the street, the corpse of a man was held suspended by the flagpole impaling him through the chest, his blood staining the flag he had so nobly waved in defiance of his government. Behind him, Thomas heard a crash and the sound of igniting flames. As the soldier marched by, he could feel the familiar heat of a bonfire consuming everything around in a ravenous blaze. All he could about was the kerosene, enough to buy anyone a transfer to wherever they wanted, burned and gone.
It was a well known fact to all that under Sergeant Boseman’s reign, the use of conscripts had morphed from that of a soldier pressed into battle to property that was pressed into whatever task needed to be done. An average shift for a draftee in the Dark Quarter was filled with tasks ranging from menial errands to manual labor essential to the life and prosperity of the population. At the word of a superior, be he enlisted man, officer, or peasant, the conscript would be bound to serve until his master pro tempore was satisfied enough to release him. In this, there was no priority, save one. If the order came from Boseman, it took all precedence. Other than that one rule, however, it was very much possible for a conscript to be serving as many masters as had need for him. And one could not put off one task for favor of another, lest the originator of the errand became displeased and saw fit to relieve the draftee of duty permanently. And so it was that many a conscript preferred hard manual labor at the edge of town gathering what wood remained or burning bodies rather than be tasked with menial work inside the city. For inside the city, death was only a second’s hesitation away.
For Thomas, his day in the city had arrived. He had managed so far to remain beyond the city limits doing the manual labor of the slave, but this day was to be different. As soon as the soldier pointed to him and began cursing at him, Thomas knew he had entered into a whole new world of dangers. The angry soldier continued to shout and curse at him, and with many a vulgar expletive ordered him to carry a report to the army’s local headquarters.
“Take it to Captain Wearly, and you better make sure it gets there, is that understood?” demanded the soldier harshly, shoving a package roughly into Thomas’ arms.
Thomas did not make eye contact, keeping his eyes instead trained on the horizon so as not to incite further rage from the soldier. “Yes, sir,” he answered smartly, tucking the package firmly under his arm as he turned on his heel and jogged quickly away under the ever impatient eye of the soldier. As he jogged, his mind began to fall in step with him, running hard to escape the terror of being alone in the city. He had no soldiers escorting him, and in his militia jacket and heavy boots, no one would mistake him for anything else than what he was. And while a soldier’s report was an important task, it was still low enough on the chain of command that should anyone stop him, he could not refuse service. So as he ran through the outer streets of the city, he kept his senses sharply on alert. To his relief, all he heard was the crunching of his boots on the crumbling asphalt roads, and all he could see was an empty, dead slum, abandoned long before as the occupants died out or fled for better places. For a moment he wondered aimlessly how many had actually found that better place. Maybe a few had, he concluded, somewhere in the Green Quarter where life was still somewhat peaceful. Most, however, had probably been lost on the way to that better life. Somewhere between Boseman’s kingdom of filth and the distant mirage that was peace and prosperity many would have doubtless fallen, never to rise again to finish their quest. The carcasses of their fanciful dreams lay scattered on the side of that long, torturous road to freedom, and the pilgrimage to that marvelous fabled haven would never know fruition. Before them they left a broken road, and behind them an empty and dying city. For as he ran Thomas could not but see the death and hear the dirge for this once proud city. Truly, all of the Dark Quarter was dying, and in some places was already dead. Boseman’s kingdom was one last testament, a pinnacle of determination built from the filth, and in the end only a living cadaver. Nothing wholesome survived there, but neither had the kingdom ceased to breathe. Its blood still flowed in the muddy, sewer-drenched streets, defying the death knells that rang unendingly for it. It was not a victory, nor a defeat, but merely a stalemate with the oppressive crush of a world that wanted nothing more than to destroy the petty resistance provided by the survivors still living in the stubborn kingdom of evil. Thomas himself felt the weight as he ran through the streets, passing numberless streets of empty, ruined homes. It was but a matter of time before the strength of the pillars of human excrement gave way, and all around him was crushed.
While it stood, however, he was doomed to be a slave to the masses. And even in his musings, he dared not take his attention off the passing world. He was nearing the beating heart of the city’s population, and he could feel the presence of the people around him as more and more the houses began to show signs of habitation. With each glimpse of humanity, Thomas braced himself for the taunt of Fate spoken in the harsh voice of an impatient new master. There was some mercy in the air that morning, however, as not one raised their voice in beckoning for Thomas’ aid. Indeed, he gained such little attention running through the street that it was as if he had ceased to be. None batted an eye, nor glanced away from their own doings to notice his presence. It was a glorious reprieve for his worried mind to have such anonymity amongst those who could have easily caused his death. He all but sprinted the last few miles to the army headquarters, not wanting to risk a change in his unusually good luck. And it was with near-elation that he, turning a corner, glimpsed the waving red and black flag of the government army. It swayed lazily from it pole, high atop one of the last buildings that still stood maintained and sturdy in the city. The building had once been a glorious hotel, the resting place of many a traveling celebrity and wealthy persons on their vacations. Little remained of its elegant charm, however. The tall white walls that had once gleamed brightly as a sign of opulence now glared upon the road with stark pallor. Armed soldiers stood guard by the gold-rimmed glass doors, rifles at the ready, watching the world around them with an eternal expression of disapproval. And more than that, it was the occupants that lent a reverent terror to the building. The red and black flag spoke its cautions to any who dared to disrespect its agents. The petty insignificance of the opposition was well known to it, and its contempt knew no restraints of pride or prestige. As a symbol it knew no fear, and accepted no reproof. As a banner, it commanded respect, and under its guidance gods bowed to mortals and peasants ruled over kings. To all who breathed under its auspices it was omnipotent and omnipresent, favoring no persons as sacred, accepting no establishment as an equal. All who beheld it knew the taste of servitude, for it was the very flavor of bondage. And the soldiers who swore allegiance to it were its horrible task masters, showing the same mercy, bestowing the same grace. For this reason, no one dared to entertain the notion of defiance before the tower of the oppression. Even Thomas, who as a conscript was tasked to serve those inside, was not without fear as he marched up to the doors. His fear was not unnoticed, and the soldiers did not refrain from displaying their pleasure at his misery. They did not, however, prevent his entry, allowing him to continue without incident.
Inside the headquarters there was total silence, save for the muffled clicking of boots and the gentle breath of air from open windows somewhere beyond. The lobby of old now served as a form of reception area. Thomas was awed to see throughout the room wooden furniture and doors that not only were undamaged, but polished to a shine. All the old furniture remained, yet somehow, though he doubted anything had been rearranged, the furniture seemed more austere than inviting. More than that, however, there hung on the walls kerosene lamps, burning brightly to illuminate the otherwise dim room. The light was so alien to him, as was the sight of so much oil in one place. The incredible extravagance of it all was enough to leave him gaping in a stunned stupor. And yet, at the same time, the display of wealth and prosperity was a silent judgment upon the trespasser who was unequal to the riches of the room. The light of the lamps was harsher upon the poverty-stricken draftee who could never aspire to such luxury. Indeed, the entire room held the same kind of cruelty hidden in its lavish displays of power and wealth. It was as if merely being present in the home of the military had transformed the comfortable armchairs and coffee tables and cherry counters into cold, unappealing aberrations in the emptiness of the room. For empty it was. Though the room was supposed to serve as a reception area, there was no one present to receive the stray visitor. Few were allowed inside the headquarters, so the need for such a position of greeter was lacking. It was the general assumption that any who made it inside already knew where they were going. This assumption was a dangerous one for draftees, as few of them knew anything about the freemen of the army or their places of habitation. Indeed, Thomas had so rarely seen an actual officer in the army that their kind had faded to the level of myth in his own mind. The idea that one not only existed, but that he was about to meet him (albeit only long enough to deliver the report) was enough to make Thomas’ mind race with possibilities and questions. He had received o training on proper protocol, and was unsure how to address an officer, or if it would be out of line to even speak. He knew well that anything seen as audacious or irreverent would be punished with swiftness and violence. And yet he did not know what would be presumptuous and what would be expected. He did not even know where he would find this Captain Wearly. As of yet he had not found anyone who could help him, and seeing as the lobby remained empty, Thomas decided he needed to move on. And so, treading lightly to avoid scuffing the polished floor with his heavy boots, he made his way across the lobby to the oak door that stood sentinel behind the reception counter. Allowing himself but an instant’s hesitation, Thomas opened the door and stepped through.
Beyond the door there was an expansive of narrow, empty hallway, laid out in a straight path stretching on to a side exit that had once served as a maintenance door for the janitorial staff to use as well as an emergency exit. Now, however, there were sturdy sheets of thick metal over the door, allowing neither glimmer of the outside world in, nor a hint of the goings on inside out. Between him and the outside exit, the hallway was line on both sides with doors leading to small rooms that had once housed the patrons of the hotel. Glancing inside the first room, Thomas found instead of bedding and luxurious living furniture, the Spartan accommodations of an office. The most luxurious thing about the room was the oaken desk, which was still enough to make him gawk slightly. The office was conspicuously empty, however, and so he moved on to the next room. To his continued frustration, none of the rooms were occupied. A slight shiver of apprehension ran through him as he began to imagine the consequences of being caught here. No excuse of trying to locate Captain Wearly would appease the eager trigger-fingers of the soldiers who called this place home. Indeed, they would revel in the sport of a lost conscript caught lost inside their headquarters. For such a marvelous toy there would be no quick death. The sheer novelty of it would send the ravenous bloodlust of their militant brains into a frenzied state of excitement. They would kill him, that he was sure, but he was equally convinced that his death would be a slow one, prolonged for the amusement of their barbaric cravings. The thought was enough to make him frantic as he continued his search for the Captain elsewhere. Abandoning the corridor, he turned to find the exact objects of his concern standing ominously in the doorway.
The two men wore the grey-green fatigues of enlisted men, with a black-and-red-striped band around their right arms. On their heads they wore the smartly creased black field hats of men not on combat duty. Their black leather boots shone with a polished gleam, testifying to hours of conscripts on their knees, rubbing vigorously at the boots to the delight of the taunting soldiers. Around their waists was hung a thick black belt supporting the only object of true interest to any conscript. From the black canvas holsters of each man protruded the black grip of a firearm, and beside it loops of fabric holding three extra pistol magazines securely in place. Thomas cringed, glancing from the guns to the twitching fingers of the soldiers. He did not dare look up into their faces, lest he incite them more than he already had.
When one finally spoke, Thomas could hear only the sound of his own imminent torture. “Well look here, Grison,” chuckled the man on the right in a distinctly foreign accent, possibly Australian. Easily the taller and more muscular one of the two, he towered over Thomas. “Seems this ranko here decided to have a little fun in officer country.” Thomas winced at the use of the soldier’s slang, and winced again as the one called Grison cursed in what could only be called profane pleasure.
“That he did,” agreed Grison with a dark laugh. His voice was a lot gruffer and crueler than that of his comrade, without the smooth accent or tone. Thomas’ first impression of the man reminded him of the men in his apartment. Scrawny, grizzled, and rough, with a cruel, violent streak that ran them through to the core, his smaller and thinner stature was but a deceiving façade to an iron-clad brute. He was the more dangerous of the two, as he was easily taken for granted, with only his voice to belie his carefully concealed strength.
“What are you doing here, ranko?” demanded the first, his amusement slowly turning into bloodlust. Thomas could see he was in danger of being shot outright if he was not careful. He did not believe there was much hope for him in any case, but he would not remove himself farther from his chances of survival.
“I was ordered to deliver a report to Captain Wearly, sir,” answered Thomas, standing smartly at attention. Conscripts were forbidden from performing the government army salute as a further reminder of their inferiority, and so Thomas merely lowered his head in submission and waited his next turn to speak.
Grison guffawed loudly, his twitching fingers dancing anxiously at the edge of his holster. The nervous tapping song of his fingers rang with lyrics of rage and pent up excitement. To Thomas the message of the melody was clear. But before Grison added the harmony of bloodshed, the first man spoke again, and in his voice was nothing but boredom. “Captain Wearly, eh?” he muttered, all amusement and bloodlust now absent from his voice. The man swore viciously, giving the officers many a cruel review. But his words were the most violent he allowed himself to become, and that fury was not even directed at Thomas. Finally when his bout of profane slandering was finished, the man growled out a few directions for Thomas before turning smartly on his heel and walking away. Thomas could feel Grison glaring at him, and the drumming beat of the soldier’s fingers told him he was not yet safe.
“You best watch yourself little ranko,” warned Grison finally, his voice low and whispering of vile deeds planned in the soldier’s heart. “You got lucky being one of Wearly’s Ward. But the name of the good Captain will not always protect you.” With many a dire curse, the man Grison finally turned on his heel and followed after his partner.
The instant the two were out of sight, Thomas collapsed to one knee, his whole body quaking and every nerve tingling with the fiery heat of pulsing adrenaline. Rare is the time when one chances upon death unprepared and dances around him to safety. Indeed, it is rarer still to so suddenly face so volatile a death, stumbling blindly onto a high wire with no plan or escape. Even for Thomas, who was a walking corpse of man, doomed to forever walk in the shadow of imminent death, the unexpected encounter with the soldiers had left him unnerved. Shaken to the core, he could not help but to stop to steady himself before continuing on the way the soldiers had pointed to Captain Wearly. In his mind, Thomas feared standing, lest in his state he collapse, warranting further attention from the soldiers beyond. Grison’s threat had not been without intent. Any soldier would kill with no provocation necessary, and Thomas had already provoked the two by claiming an excuse to be present in their home territory, far beyond the areas normally open to conscripts. And while his task had temporarily halted their ceaseless aggression, he knew it would not save him a second time. For that reason, he dared no risk taking more time to recover his damaged nerves, instead forcing himself to rise, walking shakily back out to the lobby.