Twilight at Armageddon

Prose, including snippets (mini-memoirs).
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sasha
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Twilight at Armageddon

Post by sasha » November 13th, 2018, 4:15 pm


When the sun had crouched below the horizon, when a protective blanket of darkness slowly overspread the wreckage of the town, when the Enemy’s army had settled into an indifferent watchfulness, the man known as Yeager roused himself to cautiously emerge from his hiding place. He feared, but was unafraid. He had been at war too long to succumb to the animal’s instinctive response to danger. Fear was the steel that kept his edge sharp. The armament he carried had long since become part of his body, an auxiliary organ triggered into action more by reflex than by thought. He bore no malice towards the Enemy, any more than be bore malice against the cold rain or the scarcity of rations that gnawed at his belly, or the vast bleak expanses of smoldering land that made travel by day so hazardous. These were simply the stark facts of survival, the parameters defining his world and his response to them. There was nothing personal about any of it.

Even recalling how the other seven in his squad had met their ends was undertaken with a dispassionate assessment of the facts. Mistakes had been made, and they had come at a price. Michaels had always been problematic, so determined to hide his fear under false bravado that Yeager had correctly characterized him as a loose cannon, the one most likely to come to a bad end. He’d opened up too soon, too sporadically, and had brought the Enemy down upon them with a vengeance. He didn’t like remembering the screams, the blood, the terror – but they had happened, and acknowledging them and integrating the awful events into his fabric would inform him how to avoid similar outcomes in the future.

The future…

Assuming there were one…

He shook his head as if to disrupt the negative thoughts; then pulled on his rucksack, hoisted and shouldered his weapon, and silently crossed the floor of the ruined factory building in which he’d sheltered that day, stopping just short of the opening to listen. The dead leaves littering the ground outside scratched and whispered as they fled before a light breeze rolling in from the northwest. Their clatter would help mask the sounds of his own stealthy footsteps. Edging closer to the doorway, he leaned against the jamb for concealment and unshouldered the rifle. He stopped again to assess the situation. Over the susurration of the wind, he thought he heard it, the distant hum of an Enemy encampment, and he scanned the darkened horizon for the tell-tale glow from the field lights with which they so brazenly illuminated their bivouacs. But there was only the darkness.

Or was there? He frowned in uncertain skepticism. The Enemy’s lighting produced a diffuse bluish-greenish haze visible only when partly eclipsed by intervening objects – hills, the remains of buildings, or other large structures. Instead, he’d spotted a yellowish pinpoint of light – and when he looked at it long enough he almost thought it was rectangular in shape.

Such as a distant window might appear if conventionally illuminated from within…

…One of ours?

He toggled his laser rifle from STANDY to ARMED and crept out from around the doorway into the expectant night.

A fingernail-thin sliver of moon shone weakly overhead, providing barely enough light to cast shadows. He shivered a little uneasily, concerned that this compromised his concealment, but thankful for the chill, knowing how the Enemy rarely ventured out on night patrols in such conditions. Still, he kept low, stopped often, and slipped through the darkness from one cover to the next, making his way towards that tiny yellow beacon in the distance along what had once been a city street.

Once, as he’d crouched behind a rusted pickup truck on its side, something had jumped out of the cab and rushed past him. His training had suppressed his instinct to cry out in alarm, but not to raise the rifle at the formless dark shape scuttling away into the gloom. When it briefly crossed a moonlit patch of broken pavement, he caught a glimpse of it just long enough to see it was a stray cat. Then it disappeared into the darkness beyond. He slowly exhaled, lowered his weapon, and allowed himself the luxury of a nervous laugh before advancing to the next cover.

He was now close enough to the light source to discern the different shades of yellow and orange reflected from the interior walls behind the window, and an occasional shadow cast by someone – or something – upon the wall directly behind the aperture. Not likely Enemy – but if one of Ours, pretty damned careless to provide a beacon like this, even if the Enemy was unlikely to be out aprowl. Emboldened by a flash of professional anger, he half-rose and ran to what appeared to be an entrance to the structure. He ducked inside and found himself at the end of a corridor serving what might have once been apartments. The orange glow was coming through an open doorway, the first one on the right.

“Did you hear something?” A voice came from someone unseen beyond the doorway, and carried an edge of anxiety.

Another voice answered. “Shut the fuck up, Taylor,” it said. “That was just the sound of you shitting your britches.” A low murmur of reluctant laughter followed.

“Fuck off, Carter,” the first voice said. “Have another canteenfull of that cleaning fluid you’ve been swilling…”

Yeager raised his weapon and moved to the doorway. A Coleman lantern hissed in the middle of the floor, and four men sitting around it looked up at his appearance. Three of them sprawled listlessly against the walls; a fourth was on one knee, apparently in the act of rising to his feet. He wore a tattered and filthy uniform whose stripes identified him as a corporal. He looked at Yeager with an expression of startled surprise. Another sat with his knees drawn up and his back against the wall opposite him, eyeing Yeager with suspicious disdain. He was dressed in civilian clothes. The other two, uniformed privates, sat side by side on the wall opposite the door. They were sharing a joint, and regarded him with idle curiosity.

Yeager spoke first. “Who are you?”

The corporal slowly sat back down, stretched one leg out, and bent the other to rest his arm on the knee. One of the privates shook his head with a mirthless chuckle before toking and handing the joint back to his companion. The civilian answered for them. “Question is, Sergeant, who the fuck are you?” His tone was obviously crafted to convey contempt.

Yeager decided right away that he did not like this man. “Sergeant Carl Yeager, L Company, 23rd Division.” He turned to the corporal. “And you?”

The corporal replied. “Corporal John Taylor, Sarge. We’re all with the 19th, D company. We…”

“We were, anyway,” the civilian interrupted, still affecting a hostile, mocking tone. “When there was a D Company.” He picked up a canteen from the floor beside him, unscrewed the cap, and raised it to his lips. He took a sip, then extended the canteen towards Yeager. “Care for a drink… Sir?”

Yeager bristled, but didn’t allow himself to show it. “What’s your name?”

The man paused to replace the cap and set the canteen back down on the floor. “Carter. Edward Murray Carter. Sir.”

“What happened to your uniform?” Yeager demanded.

Carter gestured towards the window. “I left it out there somewhere. Next to the corpse whose ensemble I swapped it for. Gave myself an Honorable Discharge after I got busted, so figured I wouldn’t be needing it anymore.” He tugged at the lapels of his shirt. “What do you think? Does it make my shoulders look too narrow?”

“Desertion,” Yeager hissed. “That’s a firing squad, not a Discharge. Why were you busted?”

Carter returned Yeager’s stare, but the smirk had vanished. “For clocking a 2nd Lieutenant. The one who sent my patrol into a wood chipper.”

Your patrol?”

“That’s right, Yeager. I was their Sergeant.” The smirk had returned. “So I guess that puts you and me on equal footing.”

“Not anymore,” Yeager said, and turned his attention to the two privates opposite him. They’d extinguished their joint and seemed intrigued by the confrontation unfolding before them. “Your names, Soldiers?”

“Dawson, Sir. Private William Dawson. D Company, 19th.”

Yeager shook his head a little impatiently. “I’m a noncom, not a Sir.” He gestured with the rifle to the other. “What about you?”

“Jason Elliott, Sir – uh, Sarge.”

Yeager panned around the room, glanced out the window, and stepped back for a quick look behind him before lowering his rifle and returning it to standby. He pointed it at the lantern in the middle of the floor. “You might as well have hung a banner outside saying ‘US Army Combatants Here!’ You – Elliott – cover up that window.”

“Yessir – Sarge. With what?”

“I don’t know, find something! Dawson, go with him.”

“Yeager, those two are so baked right now they’ll forget why they left and won’t be able to find their way back,” Carter said. He’d opened the canteen again. “Are you sure you don’t want a drink?”

Yeager’s icy control wavered. He crossed over to where Carter sprawled and knocked the canteen out of his hand with the butt of his rifle. It landed on its side near his feet, dribbling its contents onto the floor. Carter had the sense to remain motionless.

“Jesus Christ, Yeager,” he finally said. “That was 20-year old Kentucky. Maybe the last of its kind.” He locked his eyes onto Yeager’s. “Just like we’re the last of ours.”

“The war’s not over yet, Carter!” Yeager snapped. “We’ve still got two divisions advancing from…”

“Sarge,” Taylor suddenly said. “Sarge – I think – I mean, we – we think he’s right.”

Yeager turned on him with all the fury he’d been saving up for Carter. “You think it’s over? You’re ready to surrender? You want to be court-martialed along with this asshole – “ pointing to Carter “ – for dereliction of duty?”

“Oh, come off it, Yeager!” Carter snapped. He rose to his feet. “How do you fight them? Tell me – just how do you conquer an Enemy like that? By boxing them in with two divisions? Seriously? We have been at war with them for a whole lot longer than you seem to remember, Sergeant. Long before any military intervention, long before they advanced their technology, long before we advanced ours! For every move we’ve made against them, they’ve counter-moved. Face the facts, Sergeant Carl Yeager: they, not we, are the Master Race – and they, not we, shall inherit the Earth!”

“I should put a round through your head right now,” Yeager snarled.

Carter was silent for a moment. “Please do,” he eventually said quietly. “It’ll be better than what They have in store for us.”

Elliott had begun to sob. “If you take him out – could you take us with him?”

Yeager gaped with speechless shock. “What the fuck is wrong with all of you?” he demanded. “Where did you train? DID you train?”

“Oh, we trained, Sarge,”, Taylor said. “Along with the best. And now they’re gone. We watched them march into a buzz saw that chewed them up without breaking a sweat, wiping them out to a man despite Their losses. And They came back stronger, more powerful, more numerous than ever.”

“It’s over, Yeager,” Carter said. “The war of millennia is over. It’s Their turn, now.”

“Listen,” Taylor said, and they fell silent.

Over the hiss of the Coleman, they heard it – the hum, the buzz, the drumbeat of the Enemy’s call to arms – and through the open window the remains of the town were silhouetted against the blue-green glow of an implacably advancing army, unstoppable in its sheer size and ferocity, and in that moment, Yeager’s confidence collapsed under the crushing weight of his reluctant admission that what they said was true - which he’d always privately known but denied, that Destruction was at hand, and that he and the others were unlikely ever to see daylight again.



In the darkness about to envelop the world, the insects were preparing to launch their final assault.


Last edited by sasha on November 20th, 2018, 2:10 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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mnaz
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Re: Twilight at Armageddon

Post by mnaz » November 19th, 2018, 4:46 pm

The armament he carried had long since become part of his body, an auxiliary organ triggered into action more by reflex than by thought. He bore no malice towards the Enemy, any more than be bore malice against the cold rain . . or the vast bleak expanses of smoldering land . . . These were simply the stark facts of survival, the parameters defining his world and his response to them. There was nothing personal . . .
Very good opening depiction of disconnect from all things sentient, open, aware. Gutter survival’s circle of hell. The inevitable Bombed/Burned Out City of Our Fate. Has a “retro” feel, despite the laser rifle—no infrared night vision, etc. Just a whipped detachment’s grim holdout amid ruins. And then the Twist at the end. Didn’t see it coming… Nice work.

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sasha
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Re: Twilight at Armageddon

Post by sasha » November 20th, 2018, 2:02 pm

thanks - I didn't want to clutter the story with too much glitzy tech, just wanted to focus on the desperate humanity of the characters and build up to the twist. Earlier drafts didn't even mention a laser rifle, just a garden-variety firearm. I accidentally left a remnant of that behind when Yeager says "I ought to put a round through your head"... oops... oh well
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mnaz
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Re: Twilight at Armageddon

Post by mnaz » November 20th, 2018, 9:47 pm

Good point (about "round"). I didn't catch that. You definitely conveyed a convincing, sustained sense of desperation and inevitable doom, which is easier said than done.

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goldenmyst
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Re: Twilight at Armageddon

Post by goldenmyst » January 13th, 2019, 11:54 pm

The suspense here was awesome! This made me think of the upcoming WWIII some predict. And America may be on the losing side. But you created a story which held my fascination throughout. What will our next war be like? And given the likelihood that we'll be outgunned the scene you so exquisitely paint could very well happen.

John

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sasha
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Re: Twilight at Armageddon

Post by sasha » January 14th, 2019, 2:49 pm

This is a total rewrite of a tale I penned waaaayyy back in high school, for the literary magazine, years before "The Hellstrom Chronicle" was released, but after I'd seen a documentary about how the insects would likely be the only survivors of a nuclear holocaust. The characters in v1.0 were crafted from every stereotype I'd seen in tv wartime dramas - I tried to dial it back here to let what little was left of their humanity show through. Don't know how successful I was, but thanks so much for the words of affirmation!
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