Cooper emerged from the tunnel expecting to see returning runners from scavenging missions and the eighty-third day of consecutive rain accompanied by oppressive clouds. He was not disappointed.
“Sometimes I can still see the too-distant blue sky when I close my eyes,” said Cooper as he rested his arms atop his holstered rifle. It was another day of skittering rains and grey skies, and the wind flapped his olive parka. Outside of the tunnel, under the blue tarp roof of his post, he could see the rolling hills of flourishing grasses and shrubs and scorched earth. The contrast between life and death always struck him with a morbid fascination with its particular and unique juxtaposed beauty. It was beginning, middle, and end coexisting side by side. The entirety of existence fit within his field of vision. Flourishing trees drank in harmony from the rain while almost completely concealing the lingering husks and starving frames of dead wood. Cooper wondered how long it would take for the fjords to replenish and fill once again.
The wind picked up and howled in the mouth of the tunnel. Cooper always thought that this tunnel entrance, one of the three last safe places in this country, was hidden in his favor, nestled into the backside of a large hill covered in foliage. Entrance is highly sought after and always denied. To keep the integrity of the location safe, adventurers and asylum seekers were gifted with lead poisoning from Overseer mandated rifles.
“When do you think is last time we see blue sky?” Kransy’s heavy boots sloshed their way through mud over to a wide thermos on the terminal by his partner. Turning away from nature, Kransy lifted his gas mask and took a swig of steaming liquid.
“I was thinking that too. Do you miss it?” Cooper’s question crinkled as it came out of his mask’s voice modulator. He turned to Kransy.
“Hm. Not really. I never like sun when I was boy, you understand?”
“It’s hard to believe you were ever a young person. Your wrinkles make you look like you knew Tsar Nikolai II,” said Cooper, smiling under his mask. Neither could see, but they always had a sense of what expression the other was making under the metal cheeks and plastic chins of the masks. Their eyes were sometimes betrayed by the tint of the protective goggles, but with enough light, their gazes could meet. Like now.
“Little you know, but I fight inside his army,” Kransy banged his hand on the terminal and erupted with laughter, though Cooper only chuckled and turned back to the wilderness. “He said I am very gifted fighter! Especially in rain like this. Shame royalty is no more. Maybe if Tsar was still around, that is how we maybe prevent this from happening.”
“Yeah, maybe a thousand years ago,” said Cooper. “Listen, if you were so great, why didn’t you stop the world from getting into this mess?”
“God is back in heaven now; all’s right with world,” said Kransy, screwing the cap back on to the thermos. “Maybe if we did not play with God, He would not have come visit so early.”
“Yeah, well we made a goddamn mess of the world, didn’t we?” Cooper sighed, letting static come from his mask, resenting the landscape in front of him. “We had our Eden. We haven’t been very good stewards.”
Kransy set the thermos back on the terminal and looked down, “Maybe tunnel is our new Eden. Overseer is like New-God, maybe.” He made his way over to Cooper, mud ever clinging to his boots. “We keep good stewardship over entrance, and Overseer, he stay happy with us. He does not open clouds to send winged-army to destroy metal machinery wonders we here make. Instead we get bake beans for our belly.” Once again, Kransy laughed at his own joke, still unaware of Cooper’s averted gaze.
“I’ll blame it on your generation. You were the kids making fucked up tech that pissed off the big man in the clouds.” Cooper looked back up at his partner, “I wasn’t even born yet!”
“Yes, I know. You are like baby. You are born in tunnel, and you will die in tunnel. You do not know real struggle when He came down to teach us lesson. It make me man.” Kransy leaned on the terminal and threw his head down. His voice dropped, “That was real mess…”
Cooper slapped his partner on the back, “Never occured to me that we humans could make a bigger mess than that fuckin’ Tower of Babel, huh?” Cooper looked down near the base of their hill and pointed, “Hey, why didn’t you clean that up?”
Kransy stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his partner, readjusting his mask. He threw his hood up and peaked out from under the tarp. Annoyance overcame the feeling of rain pelting his head, “So they start to rot and now is my fault? Maybe they should not come here,” said Kransy, turning his head up to make sure Cooper felt the words he was saying. “You know this is worst part.”
Cooper shook his head and waved his hand, dismissing Kransy’s comments, “You were supposed to clean them up like a fuckin’ week ago, man.” He pointed back down the hill at the two contorted and mangled bodies. “You want others to know where we are? You wanna leave ‘em there to send a goddamn signal to others? You want the Overseer coming up for our asses?” Cooper lifted his hands in the air, mocking, “Oh gee honey, look!” Cooper put his hands on his cheeks, “Dead bodies! Maybe we’re near a tunnel! Let’s see if we can get in! Or maybe you wanna invite more mothers ov-”
“You complain so much then you fucking do it! I don’t want to think about smell, unless you expect me to clean bake bean vomit as well,” Kransy said, shoving his thick, gloved finger in Cooper’s face. “When after we pull trigger, I radio down to custodian in tunnel to get clean crew or maybe mop and bucket. This is right after you go down to search them!”
Cooper laughed, “Oh, this is an undeniably incredible lie,” Cooper said and pointed a finger at himself. “You didn’t call shit. You know how I know?”
“Because I woulda lied too, man,” said Cooper, and he looked back down, letting his voice drift off. The sound of rain filled the air so neither would have to say another word. Kransy looked back, too, and wondered about them. He always wondered about those they were ordered to kill. ‘Anyone who tries to get in is our enemy, and those who want to leave are the same,’ the Overseer always said. The Administration Office would always remind them before they left for their posts each morning.
“Someone’s gotta do it.” Cooper threw on his dirt-stained plastic poncho and lifted his hood. “Hey, grab those binos and keep an eye out for me, would ya?”
He stopped at the start of the trail, “Promise me you got next?”
Kransy nodded and peered at his partner as he made his way down until the focused soreness of his eyes refused to stay isolated in the binoculars. He pulled away and let the binoculars hang around his neck. He could see Cooper, small as a toy from his vantage point, stop some meters away from the corpses. Twisted and broken lay dormant a mother and her daughter. What few belongings they had lay scattered and tattered, weathered from rain. Bones jutted out of the little girl’s impoverished canopy jacket. Rorschach-like bloodstains contoured her wounds over her dotted pink dress. Rain washed away excess blood, revealing the deep, drained cuts gouged in rotting skin, and mild to severe festering foliage punctures she had from the fall down the hill. Tight was how the girl’s decaying, fractured hand was wrapped around her bloodied brown teddy bear. Cotton seeped out of the toy. The girl’s eyes gazed up at him, and he could feel her anguish and confusion as if she were still alive.
“Why?” He remembered her asking him, eyes shining sapphire and voice robbed of hope and innocence like crushed flowers. “Why can’t we come in?”
Kransy could remember how tight the mother clung to her daughter’s wrist as they raised their rifles.
“Come now, sweetie,” she stuttered, trying to remain calm to try and prevent the consequences of her mistake. “We can go somewhere else. They’re full, see? They don’t have rooms for us.” She looked down at her daughter, “Let’s go, okay?”
Kransy reminiscenced about the feeling of cowardice that neither of the men could look the family in the eye before snuffing them of their lives. Shot in the back, face forward they tumbled down to the base of the hill.
Even in death, she persisted to keep the same look in her eyes, but they were even more drained of life while being offered up to the maggots circling her eyelids. Kransy looked away and instead started to scan the area.
Cooper threw a tarp over the little girl so as to not be conscious of what he was about to wrap and move. The mother’s torso twisted, and her final resting position was contorted, looking up at Cooper, asking, “Where are you going to take my daughter? Where are you taking us?”
Rain and worms had decayed her facial features, and the ghoulish, mouth-gaping gaze scolded Cooper, baring teeth. Flesh pulled back from bone. Skin under her eyes drooped downwards as if it was her daughter playing with an elongated string of chewing gum; a sludge waterfall of flesh.
Cooper flung out the sheet, making an area to place the bodies, his boots stepping on their litter. He knelt to lift the decaying mother but jumped when he heard a sudden crack. His boot stood dominant on a muddy picture frame, faces now distorted and covered by slop. The mother sat with her daughter on her lap, both calm from the protective presence of a father that stood behind them, his arms on their shoulders. He didn’t want to imagine them smiling and happy, loved and loving, but he did anyway. It is hard not to think about.
Cooper made sure his wrapping was knotted and secured. He lifted the tarp and hoisted them over his shoulder before making his way to the mandatory dumping spot. Directly below the outpost was a large hole dug into the side of their hill. Luckily, these were only bodies seven and eight. The inside was always damp, the smell palpable. The rot manifested to torture Cooper’s senses. Walking in was inviting a refrigerator of festering skin and dried bodily fluids into your nostrils. If it were not for the mask, the taste of the surrounding air would stain and corrupt his palate. Cooper closed his eyes before he dropped the bodies off of his shoulder. The tarp rustled when the bodies fell to his feet. Cooper shoved them with his muddy boot, and they rolled down into their tomb, filling the room with the sound of cracking bones, decorated in soil and leaves.
Right as the tarp hit the ground and had joined the other recently deceased, Cooper heard Kransy shout in his native tongue. He stumbled back up a few paces and looked up. “What is it you old coot?” He saw Kransy looking through the binoculars, pointing into the distance. Cooper threw his arms to the side, “What? Do you see something?”
Kransy dropped binoculars around his neck and he leaned over the edge as far as he could before shouting, “Someone, coming, now!”
Cooper froze. He couldn’t seem to process it. He was aware someone was coming, but he couldn’t find it in himself to move. He knew that this was the proper action to take. His legs refused to move. More people meant more cleaning up.
“Get the fuck up here, tupitsa!” Kransy’s hands would not remain steady as he looked back through the binoculars. The man guarding the tunnel saw someone approaching in the distance. Kransy identified the threat in time. He didn’t have time to be impressed with himself for pointing out the heavy camouflaged jacket the man wore. He could see brown cargo pants resting over black boots, and when Cooper got back to his post he filled him in, “He has square backpack. I can see them from shoulders. Mask too, like us.” Kransy passed Cooper the binoculars. “Do you think it is enemy? Maybe like stray dog?”
Cooper looked at the approaching figure with unease until sighing, lowering the binoculars. “I think that’s one of our runners,” said Cooper, turning to his partner. “Backpack gives it away. Maybe it’s Ronaldo. Matter of fact,” Cooper lifted his hand to read his watch, “he’s running late getting back. There should be one more coming back after him.” Cooper set the binoculars down.
Cooper could tell Kransy’s face was red under the mask, and made the decision to not talk about the false alarm.
“I am sorry for this one,” Kransy said. “I never do this before, see?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m gonna radio this in,” said Cooper. He picked up the radio receiver, “And hey, Kransy. I woulda done the same,” lied Cooper, trying to ease the embarrassment thick in the air. He updated the higher-ups in the tunnel about the returning runner. Hopefully, he found something worthwhile for being gone so long.
“You got some idents?” Cooper shouted, blocking the entrance to the outpost. The man got near enough to respond at a normal level.
“Runner Ronaldo, IE-34-Z. I’ve got some stuff to brief you on before I bring this shit to inventory.” He held up a badge, stamped with the Overseer’s approval.
Cooper thought to himself that Ronaldo’s voice was a bit off, a bit unsure maybe, but then again maybe it was an older voicebox in his mask.
Cooper grabbed it for further scrutinization. He turned around to his partner, “Kransy, get this man the rest of whatever’s in that thermos.” He turned back to Ronaldo and handed him back the badge, “Whaddya got for us?”
Before Ronaldo spoke, he set down his backpack that leaned over from the weight, and the two men sat down in creaky foldable chairs. “I-I spotted,” his voice broke off to regain composure. “I spotted seventy-five parties within the western region, maybe about 50-clicks out in circumference, all ranging from two to ten people total. Nearest here was maybe five out, but he was solo, heading north.” Ronaldo shivered and took a swig from the thermos.
Cooper was scratching down his report. This embarrassed Kransy, who couldn’t write very well.
“This shit never matters, but any of ‘em see you?” Cooper stopped writing and looked up from his clipboard. “Standard procedure, bureaucratic bullshit.”
Ronaldo briefly paused and scratched his neck, “No idea. I kept pretty far away from all of them. I doubt they were able to see me.”
“Well,” said Cooper, “regardless of binoculars, Kransy saw you.” Cooper started to tap the clipboard with his pen awaiting an answer. “Think real hard.”
“No, we’re good,” responded Ronaldo almost immediately, nervous from this misinterpreted interrogation. Annoyed, Cooper saw that he clenched his fists.
Cooper pointed to Ronaldo’s square backpack. “So if you didn’t see anyone, how’d you get all this shit? Even the side pockets look like they’re about to burst open.”
Ronaldo looked down at his muddy boots, thinking of an appropriate answer.
“I found a…I found a camp far from here, near the limits of my search area,” said Ronaldo, and he looked back up to Cooper. “No one was there, and their stuff was lying around. I think maybe one of those leftover creatures from the incident drove them off or took them away in the night. Maybe a wendigo, or stray angel, or some shit.”
Cooper hunched over and continued to stare at Ronaldo’s black eye lenses.
“So you’re saying to me that you didn’t waste a single motherfucker out there?”
“No, I did not fire a single bullet. You can check.”
Cooper didn’t know if Ronaldo’s eyes were really looking back at him. Glancing around Ronaldo’s body, Cooper’s eyes searched for any signs of dishonesty, as was standard procedure. He took a mental note. Two magazines were missing from Ronaldo’s equipment vest.
Both men kept locked on with perfect masked poker faces.
Kransy wondered who would say something first.
“Let me run this down to the administrator’s office,” broke off Cooper, standing up to gather the necessary return forms. “Kransy, need anything on the way back? I’m gonna grab some gum.” He started to head down the dim tunnel. “Blueberry, right?”
Kransy stiffened and clenched his fists. He looked at Cooper as intently as one could behind a mask. “Yes. Blueberry. Very perfect for me.”
He is gum? Maybe this is not Ronaldo, is this what Cooper is meaning? Kransy thought to himself. He kept an even tighter watch on his rifle.
Ronaldo kept his fists on his knees and his head down. Kransy felt that Ronaldo’s eyes were flickering at an unknown pace. Kransy could relate to only the most basic human emotions, ones that he could empathize with through his limited vocabulary. Every day, Kransy became more and more aware of social cues and emotional situations, but he considered the possibility that Ronaldo had seen or done something ungodly. Kransy could only imagine what it was like to venture out into parts unknown, in the constant dread of loneliness and inescapable fear of impending doom.
They stood idle in silent company, until, “Please, don’t let him take me away,” Ronaldo pleaded, still frozen in his chair. “I shouldn’t have come here.”
Kransy turned around, “What is that you said?”
“They’ll figure out I’m not Ronaldo soon enough. Please, let me go,” the stranger pleaded.
Kransy slowly put his hands on his rifle and took a few steps back into the mouth of the cave, “You, stay in seat.” He lifted his rifle to his waist and pointed the barrel at the stranger with a slight shake.
“Oh God, oh fuck…” The stranger rocked back and forth in his seat. “Please let me go man, please.”
“Where the fuck is Ronaldo?” Kransy raised his rifle and ended his sentence with the click of the safety. He held a hot rifle.
“Who are you?”
“I-I don’t know who he is I-I just-” the stranger recoiled his legs away from the area near his feet where Kransy let loose a shot.
“Who sent you? Why are you here?” Kransy strode over to the stranger in his chair. “Tell me now or I will explode your head.”
“I-I-I,” the stranger raised his hands in front of his face and looked away, “I’m looking for someone, some people I mean.”
“Who?” Kransy asked. He kicked the stranger over in his chair and towered over him, mud splashing everywhere. The man sloshed through the wet ground. “I will not ask again.”
“O-O-Okay, just don’t fucking shoot, okay?” The stranger leaned up on one arm. “I’m looking for my daughter,” he gulped with heavy breaths between each word, “and my, and my wife. Some p-people told us about this place, and we were heading over here together, but we were attacked.”
Kransy stopped breathing, shaken. It cannot possibly be, he thought. The stranger couldn’t see Kransy’s expression or defense drop, nor could he feel Kransy’s heart stop.
“Who tell you of this place? Attacked by who?”
Kransy only heard their collective breathing.
The stranger’s cry pierced the voicebox and rendered it useless, and only the muffled scream was heard. “The man who wore this gas mask, the man who wore this jacket!”
“You kill Ronaldo?” Kransy whispered.
“How? How could you possibly…”
The stranger noticed the feelings his captor was expressing and looked around for something to defend himself with. Everything was out of reach. “He slipped. I-It was raining…I reached for his rifle and-and-and shot him. Shot him right in the chest.” The stranger jabbed a finger into his chest.
The stranger curled up and grunted from Kransy’s heavy kick. “You killed good man. Good man who help keep my family and his family alive in tunnel. A man who we need very much.” Kransy took the opportunity to knock the man’s backpack out of the way, removing any potential defensive items from reach. “Why do you do this?”
“Am I not a good man?” Came the muffled, painful plea of the stranger from each lip. “He attacked my family. We were just trying to find safety. He keeps you guys safe,” the stranger swallowed, “I keep my family safe.”
Kransy returned to his position over the stranger. “If you keep them safe, why are they not here?”
“Your man, he lept at us from a tree, like a fucking panther. I screamed, I told them ‘Annette, get you and Sherry out of here, now!’ I told them to run, I..I told them to run,” he paused. “They knew where to go, I told them how to find the right direction.”
Kransy covered his face with his hand and shook his head. “You…Your family. What is it they look like?” Kransy knew the answer. He had prayed that he would never know the answer. He pleaded with God that this would never happen. It was coming.
“I have a picture,” the stranger pointed over to his back, “It’s in there. You will see.”
“Don’t. Move.” Kransy kicked him again for good measure. “You should have never come here.” He knelt down and unbuckled the latches of the backpack. “Durachit.”
Kransy rummaged his hand around in the bag until a corner poked him.
Both men were silent, and the pattering rain snuffed the noises of the bag. Kransy’s stomach felt sharp and twisted. He lifted the frame close to his face.
All Kransy could identify were shining sapphire eyes and the innocence he claimed.
The frame splashed when it hit the mud.
“See? Is that- does that make you feel better? Have you seen them?”
Kransy lingered, knelt down. “I have seen them, yes.”
“Really? Where?” The stranger sat up. “Where did you see them?”
Kransy remained silent.
The stranger threw off his mask and clawed his way over to Kransy on hands and knees, mud splashing. “Did you send them away?” He grabbed onto Kransy’s shoulders and shook him. “Where the fuck is my family?”
Kransy remained idle. He wouldn’t dare look at the man in his blue eyes. He didn’t want to see that little girl again, not like this. What was more merciful? How could he make up for what he had done? Should he tell the stranger he murdered that mother and child without a second thought the same way he was about to slaughter him? I’m just following orders, he thought.
Should he spare him? He couldn’t let him go and live the rest of his life gambling that his family is somewhere still out there in the wastes waiting for their father and husband’s warm hand. Should he tell him first what he had done, then spare him? Would that be a fate worse than death? Would he act reckless and attack Kransy like a wild animal? Words of Kransy’s old chief officer rang in his ears. Fear the man who has nothing to live for.
Kransy’s bombardment of mental questions and erratic interrogation lit a fire under the pot of his frustration. Rage and regret burned his chest and bled their way out. The stranger could not feel Kransy shaking and continued.
“Where are they? What direction did you send them in?” The stranger took initiative and pushed Kransy to the ground. He felt that his hands were going to jump out of his skin. Neither went for a rifle. “Why the fuck won’t you answer me?”
Negative emotions boiled over and spewed from Kransy’s lungs. He erupted to his feet and screamed with guilt, picking up the stranger high in the air before throwing him to the ground. “Why the fuck did you have to come? To come here?” Kransy’s mouth gaped under the mask, and his chest rose and fell with each breath. His lenses developed an accented fog.
The adrenaline in the stranger kicked in, and he couldn’t feel the pain in his snapped ribs. “Don’t-don’t kill me, please. They’re still out there, aren’t they?” The stranger held his chest and sat up, slowly pushing himself backward with his boots, away from the man reaching for the loaded rifle.
“Why won’t you say anything? Are you a, a fucking golem or something?” The stranger continued to back away, immensely confused as to why Kransy was shaking his head while aiming the rifle.
“Why did you come here?” Kransy checked his ammunition. “Why do you make me do this?”
“You-you don’t have to do anything,” pleaded the stranger, raising a hand while continuing to back away. “You don’t have to do this. Please don’t.”
The stranger’s pleas fell silent, and instead soaked in the rain. Soft voices of the dead rang in Kransy’s ears. The voices of the stranger’s family screamed. Kransy wondered if the stranger could hear his family too.
“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” cried Kransy. He raised his rifle.
“Wait..you…you didn’t…” The stranger trailed off, putting the pieces together. “You killed them, didn’t you?” The life in the stranger’s eyes sunk, receding from his pupils. “Did you kill them? No, you couldn’t have.” The stranger began to choke up.
“Sherry was only a child.”
Kransy’s voice cracked, “Why did you come here?”
“Please, please answer me. Did you do it? Please, tell me.”
Kransy stiffened his aim and closed his eyes.
“Please, not my little girl.”
A shot jolted Kransy’s eyes open. No bullet casing fell from his rifle.
Kransy walked forward and inspected the stranger. He lay, covered in mud, eyes rolled back and mouth open. The bullet entered and exited in a straight line through the forehead and out the back. Rain diluted the blood flow.
Kransy’s eyes swelled and short, horrified gasps escaped through his voicebox.
“Fuckin’ shit, man. You alright?” Cooper made his way from the darkness, approaching his partner with gentle, steady steps, moving one foot at a time. “Is he down?”
“No, he needs to be sent down now.”
Cooper now stood next to his partner, “What?” He looked up at Kransy.
Kransy did not say a word. Instead, he stood swaying over the body.
Cooper tried to lighten the mood. “Made a fuckin’ mess, did ya? Now I gotta clean it up. Again!” Cooper knelt down near the backpack, stuffing odds and ends inside to bring in for inspection. A corner poked him.
Cooper held it up close and looked at his partner after careful scrutiny of the photograph.
“Kransy? Don’t tell me that’s…” Cooper’s voice drifted off. He looked back down at the picture frame. The glass splintered across the faces of the family like a lightning bolt.
Back turned, still looking down at the stranger, no, the father, Kransy said, “Their world ends with us. Their dreams are gone; they’ve gone with us.”
The glass crinkled in the frame as Cooper set it on top of the dead man’s body.
The never-ending rain continued to fill the silence.
Duo Valentine is an award-winning speculative fiction author and aspiring games writer with a knack for the romantic and grotesque. You can find him at herostory.info or @duo_valentine on Twitter.