A depraved blessing, p.19
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       A Depraved Blessing, p.19

           D.C. Clemens
 
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  Chapter Nineteen

  Stationary

  My view was of the brown seat in front of me, but that’s not where my contemplations lied. I was absent within the past I hardly remembered, the present I did not fathom, and the future I could not foresee. My mentor, my once potential father-in-law, my brother-in-law, and tens of millions around the world were lost, and I had yet to see our enemy. Even with our world collapsing before our eyes, they preserved their enigmatic status. The sky would have been a more realistic adversary to wage war against. The only entities we were permitted to see were their malevolent ships looming arrogantly by our cities. Never before had I imagined something could be so dominant and be so invisible at the same time. It was as if their shadows alone held mass.

  My overwhelmed mind did not realize the bus was coming to a stop until it had become completely stationary. I observed that a few soldiers on the road had caused our halt with a makeshift checkpoint.

  “Keep it still,” I heard a soldier say to the driver as she eyeballed the damage to our transport. Given the reduced state of the windows, I had no trouble hearing her. “Where’s the private? What happened?” She looked young, but did not sound as though she was.

  “We were attacked,” our driver answered. “A lot of us had to stay behind, including the private.” The soldier bit her lower lip when he gave his explanation, but that was the only emotion she expressed, the rest of her face remaining stoic. “He told us to go back to the gated community.”

  “You can’t go back. Most of our evac sites are being attacked, including the site up the road.”

  “Then where do we go?”

  After taking a short pause, she advised, “Get on the side of the street and stay with us for now. Maybe we can still get a bird for you.”

  The driver did as requested. It was eerily calm considering the forays stirring on either side of us. I felt as if we were wedged between two noxious realms, each guarded by a sentry of Mistress Death. No one could relax, but no one tried to exit the bus or move about, as we desired to be ready to leave should another crisis occur. It was here I wondered what had happened to the second bus. I never did find out. Every few minutes the silence would be splintered by distant gunfire, a far off explosion, or the buzzing of a passing helicopter. The wait was worse for Neves, as I was certain he was perpetually reliving what had transpired. He was quiet, like everyone else, his eyes incessantly boring into the floor, but I also sensed an inner intenseness roasting within him. I was sure the first time his daughter and wife set their eyes to him, they would not recognize him as the same person.

  A substantial hour had slipped away before we heard the soldier again. She informed us that a chopper was going to arrive to take us away from this timeless agony.

  “Where would it drop us off?” our driver asked the female warrior. “Arora?”

  “No,” she replied. “This one is going to Meltmore. Sorry, but only a few of our birds can make it straight to Arora. Just be glad we could get anything for you, a lot of Evac Zones were attacked and many airships either didn’t make it or won’t be able to return.”

  I examined the map from the pack I was able to save. Meltmore lied at the edge of the desert three hundred miles away, making it just halfway to the city we wished to encounter. Still, I did not allow myself to become too discouraged. The region appeared sparsely populated and I was almost certain the personnel there would try to reunite us with our families after we arrived, or so I and the other men would demand. It was ten minutes later when the small cargo helicopter arrived. The sound of the twin propellers served to remind me that our enemy could also be listening to the hovering bastion and callously wait for us to board again before forcing us down, if they did indeed take pleasure in ripping away sanguinity beneath our feet. There were women and children aboard when we entered, but there was still ample room for the new arrivals. The occasional turbulence, adult chatter, and the spontaneous high-pitched squealing of some of the children were not enough to foil my overpowering fatigue. I was asleep as soon as I sat down on one of the corner chairs fixed against the wall.

  I do not know how long I was restrained to the unconscious notions of my own mind, but when I came to, not much had changed, expect the sunlight was vastly dimmer. It must have been no more than half an hour after my revival when I saw the outskirts of Meltmore, its suntanned buildings becoming larger with our descent. As soon as we disembarked, we were shepherded into an old bus, which was apparently used as a prisoner transport at one time, and which hauled us to a refugee camp. The electrical grid did not work here, but the camp appeared to be well organized and some synthetic lights indicated they had some generators active. The only corporal drawback came in the form of the hot, dusty plain the town was settled on. I doubted my sinuses would enjoy the region much. I heard one of the men in our group ask a soldier, who was standing outside an insurance building they were using as a command center, when we would be transferred to Arora, but he had heard nothing of the kind and told him to check later. We were left with no choice but to wait tolerantly in the solitude of Meltmore.

  It didn’t take long to get acclimated with our new venue. We were assigned two small tents, with Bervin sharing with Neves, while I shared with Yitro. We ate at a designated food tent where I was never so happy to see a bowl of soup. I don’t even remember if it was served hot or cold, or if it tasted good or not. Afterwards, I set off for my cot with the hope of acquiring a restful slumber.

  Maybe it was longer than anything I had experienced lately, but it was definitely not soothing. The uneasy sleep had my eyes constantly reopening to see the tent’s white ceiling. I kept seeing the same soldier saluting over and over again. Each time I saw him, he was closer and more corrupted until I could see the blood running down his eyes like a crimson waterfall. His veins were so dark and swollen that they looked ready to burst. I would be roused awake by the gunshot reverberating in my ears.

  The following day passed without a single word of when we would be given transportation to Arora. There was, however, new updates making their way throughout the camp. The infection continued its annexation, becoming more widespread across the city we left, which forced the military to withdraw from much of their evacuation zones. Injectors were only bolstering their hostilely toward military targets, though I came to hypothesize that their attacks were more of an aspiration to discontinue evacuations rather than seeing them as a legitimate threat.

  “Do you think we should nuke them?” Yitro asked me later that evening. We were finishing up some of our canned rations as we sat on our squat bar stools outside our tent. The sun was setting in front of us and the sky to our backs was adorned with haughty stars taunting our ill luck.

  “We might have no other option if this keeps up,” I replied. “Though I doubt it’ll work.”

  “You think they’re invincible?”

  “Invincible is a strong word. I’m sure if we get a strong enough bomb inside one of those Towers it could disable it, but it’s made of pretty strong material from everything I’ve heard and seen. Not to mention the shielding it must have and the other defenses we don’t even know about.”

  “You sound as if we’ve already lost the war.”

  I was about to say that anyone who considered this a war was fooling themselves. That this was something more akin to a fight between a flightless insect and a fighter jet, and our only hope was if the insect miraculously managed to short circuit the jet. Instead, I looked straight ahead at the setting sun and said, “I just want to get back to my family.” At least the sun knew it was going to come back tomorrow.

  The sun did reappear the next morning, but that was not what woke me and my companion from our sleep. There was a furor coming from outside.

  The first thing I heard distinctly was the sound of a woman’s voice screaming, “He’s not infected!”

  I next heard a man yelling out sharply, “We can’t take that chance!”

  As I emerged from my shel
ter, with Yitro following close behind, I saw a dozen or so people alongside a tent a few yards down on my side of the row. Once I pushed through as much of the crowd as possible, I saw a boy no older than sixteen convulsing on the ground. Standing over him were two stout men. The less stout of the two was brandishing a pistol.

  A woman, with the same voice as the one who had awakened me, was on her knees behind the two burly men, struggling to force her way between them to get to the boy, but with little success. “Please!” she entreated hysterically, which was difficult to hear clearly amid her sobbing and screams. “He has epilepsy! He can’t control it! Please!”

  The men were not listening to her heart wrenching pleas. The larger man reached down and grabbed the quaking boy by the arm. The gun totting man merely looked on with consent as he kept the woman back, her screams rising in pitch. No one moved. Whether it was the immediate threat of the gun or the fear of the virulent infection foremost in everyone’s minds, no one showed any sign to attempt to stop the ruthless tormentors.

  I muscled my way through the rest of the crowd using the little muscle I had, overtaken by a part of my soul I did not know I possessed, though always hoped I did.

  The irrational being was beginning to drag the youth off to who knows where, when I exclaimed, “Let him go! For Spirit’s sake, he’s obviously not infected!”

  The man released the boy and I saw the other point his firearm at me, each of their eyes flaring with paranoid indignation.

  “This is for our own safety! Just stand back!” growled the unreasonable, shaking the gun he held, making me feel not untroubled.

  He was clearly beyond my reason or his own. I felt drawing out my own weapon would only escalate the situation, so I did the only other action I thought could work. I yelled out, “Yitro!”

  It was more instinctive than anything, since I could not be sure if Yitro would involve himself, or if he did, what he would do exactly. The uncertainties I held were vanquished when I saw the gun toting man soar upwards through the air in the blink of an eye. I had time to recall as he fell backwards that a fist-sized piece of the ground had ardently shot upwards and impacted directly under his chin. He landed on the ground already out cold. I glanced behind me to see Yitro casually standing amid the crowd. No one seemed to have noticed that he was the cause of this and they might have assumed I was the spirit warrior. Everyone, including the second brute, remained motionless and silent, either watching me or the fallen man before them. The lone sound came from the woman’s sobs as she scrambled to the boy, who had subsided his convulses, but was unconscious. I also went toward the youth. After giving the woman a look of sympathy, I was allowed to pick up the boy and carried him to the cot in his tent. I next asked an older gentleman standing near the entrance to find a doctor. He left straightaway, looking a little ashamed as he did so. As I went back to rejoin those outside, I saw the conscious man in the process of lifting his insensible compatriot off the ground.

  Before he could complete the task, I asked him, “Do you think he’ll be saner when he wakes up?”

  He stared at me for a moment, but it wasn’t one of contempt, but of remorse. “I’ll keep an eye on him,” he weakly replied. “Maybe the hit will do him some good.”

  “Keep the gun away from him until you’re sure,” I said in my most commanding tone.

  He timidly nodded, possibly expecting the ground to get its vengeance on him next if he did not comply. He proceeded to lift his friend and carry him toward their tent a dozen yards away.

  “That was pretty ballsy, old-timer,” said Yitro, now standing next to me as the rest of the crowd dispersed.

  “It’s a sad day when somebody standing up for a kid with epilepsy is considered ballsy,” I replied.

  “Well, actually, I mean you could’ve just stood back the whole time,” he said, giving me a coy smile. “I would’ve knocked him out anyway.”

  “I guess I didn’t really think it through. I’ll keep that in mind next time.”

  Later in the day, after the boy had awoken and had been seen and treated by a doctor, I again checked to see whether our proposal was any closer to being fulfilled. The answer was in the negative. I was told the military was already stretched too thin, and as we were already in a refugee camp, we were no longer deemed a priority. I was also informed that the Injectors were actively targeting aircraft of all types, quickly reducing their already low availability. I could tell most of soldiers were beginning to get annoyed with our pestering. With the hope of rejoining my family becoming lower and lower, I needed to think of some way to reach them, so I asked a soldier if he could at least let my family know we were safe. The soldier responded by saying he would talk to his superior. It was the following day when the military jotted down the names of the men to update the Arora camp of our arrival. It wasn’t until we were telling them our names was I aware that this would be the way Liz and everyone would discover a brother, a son, an uncle, a father, and a husband were no longer in the dominion of the living. It felt wrong notifying them in this impersonal way, to let them speculate on how it all transpired. In the end, it was necessary and unavoidable.

  Neves remained a shell of a man on each day and night I visited him during those early days in Meltmore. He was close to making me believe his spirit had already left his body. He drank little, ate less, and spoke not at all, nor did I attempt to converse with him at length. Only time held any promise to mend his mind. Nevertheless, an opportunity came forth to me one morning to lift his inflicted outlook. In the glare of coming daylight, I saw some kids playing shockball. I always correlated Neves and his happiest mood when playing or watching the sport that had given him his previously blessed life, so I asked Bervin to persuade him to accompany him on a walk, hoping that seeing the jubilant children playing his life sport would salvage some heartening memories and help bring him back from total misery. As Neves didn’t have the inclination to struggle, he readily yielded to the proposal of his friend. I was sitting outside my tent in the meantime, trying to watch his every move for any sign of revitalized life.

  When they first passed by the lively bustle of the laughing children, I was already beginning to think my scheme would be in vain. Neves did not seem to pay any attention to them, almost as if they were ghosts only I could see. A few moments afterwards, however, I was shown that not all hope was lost. Neves took a short glance back at them. As Neves walked back to his tent, after some minutes strolling the area, he could not resist going up to the amateur players and begin giving them pointers. The children seemed to eagerly listen to their elder’s instruction when it became apparent the stranger knew what he was talking about. He looked like his old self again, the one I remembered watching when he was first teaching me the finer points of the game over a decade ago. He had zero difficulty adapting to the youngster’s innocent competition and I had just about forgotten the depression he had held moments before. Even I was uplifted when Bervin integrated himself with the group and proceeded to clumsily stumble about and generally act as the comic relief, to the youngsters’ delight.

  An hour had gone by when Neves returned to his tent, with, I’d say, a lightened heart. As soon as he walked through, I heard the weeping of a wounded man dripping out the heavy, swelled heart that had been caged the instant he walked away from his son. Venting sadness in a tent was not something new in this place, but it was something new in his.

  That coming evening, for the first time since our arrival, all four of us ate and talked together in Neves’ tent.

  “They still won’t move us, eh?” Bervin asked once he had finished his meal.

  “No,” I answered, halfway through my own stringy soup. “I checked again today. From the sound of it, we’re going to be here a while.”

  “What if we just say Yitro was ordered to go to Arora?” he suggested. I could tell this wasn’t the first time the idea had crossed his mind. “They won’t know he’s unregistered.”

  I glanced at Yitro, but he wa
s still looking down at his food and did not appear to notice that his name was mentioned.

  I answered, “I doubt they’ll believe that. And even if they did, they might just ‘change’ his orders and send him somewhere else.”

  “That’s something I’ve been curious about,” Neves asked, which did catch Yitro’s attention. “Why aren’t you registered with the military? I always thought it was mandatory for anyone blessed with your gift?”

  “It wasn’t up to me,” the recipient of the question replied, in a quiet voice that sounded a bit stiff. “I discovered my ability early on and my father didn’t want me to become part of the so-called ‘complex.’ But he had no problem making me become a part of his.”

  “So who taught you?” asked Bervin.

  “An associate of my father’s.” Yitro looked back down at his food. “He had a lot of connections. None of that helped him in the end, though.”

  “He didn’t make it?” I asked.

  “No,” he said wearily. “A silver lining for me in all this.”

  “Eloram seems like another silver lining,” I said, feeling he wanted the subject changed. “What’s her story?”

  He somewhat perked up, saying, “Sweet girl, isn’t she? If it wasn’t for her… Well, let’s just say I owe her. I’m at least glad she’s with good company. I know she’ll start seeing Dayce like a little brother in no time.”

  “And Liz did always want a daughter,” I said, the remnants of a smile still on my face.

  With the shadows becoming darker and the moons and stars brightening later that night, we received an update informing us that many of the Towers had departed from their cities. The next few days were met with much speculation and consternation on wondering what the next intentions of the Towers would be. It seemed everyone in the refuge was anticipating their strike at any given moment.

  Not long after this news, reports of the most intriguing kind sprung from the working radios in the camp. Valland had taken the action many thought long overdue. The nation decided to take their fate into their own hands by exercising their nuclear option on the infamous mother ship. Each new story that followed became conflicted with the one before it and the one after it. They created more questions than answers at first, but, little by little, the story started to come together. It had been seven hours since a squadron of bombers had left for their imperative assignment, but none had accomplished their mission. In fact, none were able to even reach their target. It was said they crashed, but exactly at what point or by what method was unconfirmed. A second attempt was tried shortly afterwards with a wave of ballistic missiles from ships at sea or by the subs under it. Some of the missiles had unmistakably detonated, but well before hitting the target of their desire. There was a word of a third attempt, but that was all we had, a word, for most of the other statements stated there were only two up to that point. It was plain from all the accounts that the vessel from the void was being protected by an unseen force that prevented our most powerful weapons from giving their shot at a counterpunch. It was now official; nothing conventional would work against them. This insight brought about a deep sense of vulnerability over all our souls, as if we had been caught naked in front of an assembly of gawkers.

  The succeeding days passed uneventfully. Of course, that was suggesting being in a refugee camp was uneventful to begin with. Like most modernized citizens, I never imagined I would be in such a position. This was a place I thought only existed half a world away, across seas, canyons, and assemblies of sandy deserts, off in barbaric, war-torn lands. A TV commercial would come on every now and again to remind you to send some extra change to these dissolute places. They often showed the lamentable grime covered faces of children, who, under the best circumstances, lived in feeble homes you could not be sure would survive a minor accumulation of dead leaves. It was Liz who would often urge me to donate, and as soon as the rush of good feeling washed over me, I would forget their troubles when my own snags arose. Now I was one of those faces in those commercials, walking aimlessly in an ailing land. I was now dependent on uncontrollable events and counted on the goodwill of beings that seemed to have none. Yet I knew I was among the lucky ones. I had cooked food, clean water, and a place to sleep. We had to forget the luxuries of the past to remember the fortunes of the present.

  Most tried making the best of our situation, not only because it was sensible, but because it was necessary for our spirits to endure, given as it was one of the few possessions we still had left. The days sluggishly elapsed under the heat of the sun, which radiated with more intensity with each new sunrise. Many switched their sleep cycles to avoid the star’s burning firelight as much as possible, becoming more active in the evenings and early mornings. Someone somewhere usually had music playing in some form when the temperatures dropped, and people would gather and share food and stories with their new neighbors. Bervin and Neves often seamlessly merged themselves with these get-togethers once Neves rediscovered the need for social interaction, attempting to mend the collateral damage left when Orins was ripped away. It did not take Neves long to find support in others who suffered as he did. Yitro liked to go off on his own and would never really say what he was up to, but I never cared to ask. I was never in the mind to find comfort in the company of others, least of all strangers, so I rarely participated in the gatherings. When I did attend, I seldom stayed long. I understood why others did it, why they needed it, but I could not find solace in it.

  It had been a fortnight since our arrival to the camp when we received distressing information. Arora had been attacked. Details were slow to reach us. All the men whose wellbeing was bound with the events in Arora were diligently and impatiently waiting by the military tents to await the coming of new information. The anticipation of the news and the conjecture as to why the attack occurred was agonizing, to say the least. My heart pounded so robustly that I had to sway back and forth on my feet to make sure no one saw me shaking in my suspense. I could not understand why they were attacked. Arora was supposed to be the safer dwelling in its more isolated location. I was supposed to be the one constantly afraid for my life, the one that couldn’t sleep because even the whistling of the wind was enough to make me think the infected or their creators were finally coming to stake their claim. I needed to be the one who would have to fight to escape death, not them. Could they not even let me have that much?

 
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