Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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An Instrument of War

by John Dougherty



Oren Greene had seen renderings of the Attero since childhood. They appeared savage and beastlike, a kind of sentient plant or amphibian. They had come from a distant world and lived undetected for decades before amassing an army formidable enough to drive the human race underground -- at least that was what Oren had been told.

Oren's nightmares were plagued by these gray monsters. They had lifeless eyes and mouths filled with acicular teeth. He would wake up screaming, still feeling their breath on the nape of his neck. In a way, he volunteered to put an end to those dreams. Soon, he would see these monsters in the flesh. Maybe their young would come to dream of him.

"Six hours," he muttered to himself. "I must have walked 10 klicks."

Oren felt no change in his physical state, which worried him. By now, he had assumed that the effects of the Virus would have manifested. He had not expected to live this long; he had figured on a short hike to a population center and a swift end.

He had not heard a sound or sensed the slightest movement for hours. Oren worried that he had set off in the wrong direction. He couldn't stand the thought of dying in vain in an isolated region, far from the Attero. The only hope of spreading the bioweapon was to be picked over like a piece of carrion.

"Shit, what do I do?"

Oren stopped marching. He placed his arms on his thighs, and leaned forward, panting heavily. His breath steamed as he craned his neck skyward. He had been travelling east and found no evidence of an Aterran stronghold. He began to feel the weight of time upon him; he wouldn't be alive much longer.

Oren pulled the collar of his thermal suit over the lower half of his face and adjusted the hood. It was the only equipment provided him and did little to combat the piercing cold. This was going to be a one way trip; why bother wasting supplies?

He continued to trudge inexorably across the planet's surface. It was much different than the Earth of his imagination. It was dark and cold with a sky void of stars. A moon glowed red through the blanket of dense atmosphere. The air was surprisingly odorless. Oren had expected the acrid smell of smoke and ash, but the world of his predecessors had burned centuries ago. The aftermath had long faded into this unscented wasteland.

Oren kicked something lightweight. He stopped and cautiously felt along the ground. His hand brushed alongside something spherical. He probed the mass with a gloved hand and found it solid, with several ridges. He suspected its identity when he felt two parallel cavities. Eye sockets. He was holding a skull.

It was small, unmistakably human, the size and shape of a woman's skull. It was missing the jaw bone making it difficult to determine its original shape. It could just as easily have been a man's, another volunteer who met his end at this very spot.

"You made it 15 klicks, comrade," he said, holding the skull to his face, "I hope you infected them all. I hope you died for something."

Oren let the skull fall to his side. He walked a few meters before something snapped under the weight of his boot. He knelt and swept around with both hands finding more remains. Oren assumed these were the bones of the volunteer, until he felt another hollow sphere. This was a separate body.

Oren searched his immediate vicinity and discovered three more skulls in a small radius. The gravity of the situation became apparent. There must have been a massacre, an Aterran ambush on a group of volunteers. Oren was close to a population center, or the remainder of one.

He scanned the horizon and saw a light glowing in the distance. His heart began to race as he inched his way slowly forward, pausing every few meters to assess his surroundings. He went into a prone position. The ground felt smooth beneath him, like a slab of ice; his knees and elbows began to burn.

Oren could distinguish a whirring, mechanical sound above the gusts of wind. Light poured from the window of a small bunker. A shadow crossed the narrow opening, the silhouette appeared humanoid. It had a diminutive head and torso. The creature stopped and stared in the distance. Oren lay still on the ice until the shadow passed.

Oren needed to make contact in order to deliver the virus. He rose to his feet and sprinted towards the bunker. The figure returned to the window holding a long, cylindrical object. Greene saw a flash of light and felt a burst of energy sail through his body, rendering him powerless. His muscles seized as he collapsed, unconscious, to the earth.

####

Oren awoke to find himself blind. He could feel his body jerk across the ice in short bursts. He tried to move but was unable, the signals were sent but the body remained limp. He scraped along a sharp ridge and felt the warmth of a room's interior. The space beneath him had changed into something textured.

The incremental movements had come to a halt. He heard the decrescendo of light footsteps fade into the distance. Whoever had carried Oren was leaving, gathering the bogey men of his childhood. Oren hoped the tales of their voracious appetite for human flesh were true. Once he was consumed the virus could run its course.

Bring them on, he thought. Bring on the whole damn lot!

Oren tried to speak, but only managed a guttural moan. He heard footsteps approaching on his right. He was seized by his arms then felt a cord tighten on his wrists. The legs were bound a moment later with three quick tugs.

"You will come around in a few minutes and I will be damned if you are going to lay a finger on me, asshole!" The voice was harsh, but feminine. "Where are you from? Who sent you?"

Oren tried to curse his captor, but a stream of inarticulate gurgles poured from his lips.

"Are you one of them? Another idiot volunteer," there was a loathing in her voice, "Well, when you snap out of this I want some answers...and don't try anything smart. I have a plasma rifle trained on that big head of yours...and this time it's not on a stun setting."

Oren experienced a tingling which began in his lower extremities and seemed to pulse throughout the rest of his body. A cloud lifted and he was able to move. Specks of light began to bloom in his field of vision and things came back into focus. He saw a weathered cement ceiling with rebar exposed in several areas and long tubes of light draped in rows of three.

He lifted his head and was surprised to find an emaciated older woman perched in a canvas chair. A disquieting smile stretched across her gaunt face.

"You are human," Oren said. He slurred his words.

"Just barely," she replied.

She looked unhealthy, with dark circles under her eyes the color of an aging bruise. Her skin, drew taught around her sharp features, bore an almost lupine appearance.

"Are you infected?" Oren inquired.

"No...I am not infected, and neither are you...you dumb shit."

"What do you mean?"

"It means you were duped, comrade," she said sarcastically. "They don't infect anyone. They inject you with a compound to lower your body temperature and send you topside to die in the cold. Few have made it this far; most drop dead near their compound. You are a big fella, it looks like the T.I. didn't work too well, or is working slower...You might be dead all the same."

"You are a liar," Oren had better command of his voice; the effects of the plasma stunner had worn off. "You are a goddamn liar!"

Oren sat up. The woman flinched and poked the rifle in his direction.

"You're with them; of course you are," Oren said.

"Who...The Attero," she rose from the chair and moved closer, careful to keep a safe distance. "Oh honey, I hate to break it to you...There are no Attero!"

The last statement felt like a gut punch.

"I don't believe you." He said.

"I know you don't," she sounded sympathetic; "they get you indoctrinated pretty young down there. Where are you from, which compound?"

He glowered at the woman, now pacing at his feet.

"What is it hon? You're going to clam up? Do you think I'm going to charge out into the dark and single handedly annihilate the shit hole you live in? Answer the question. Where do you come from?"

"Compound B," Oren said.

"Compound B," She repeated. "That's 15 kilometers from here...that's pretty impressive, in this cold; with a thermal inhibiter...You must be pretty resilient...what is your class?"

"Five," Oren said.

"Compound B is getting rid of their fives now, that's amazing."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"It means things are progressing a lot faster."

Oren looked confused; the woman felt no need to elaborate. She stared at Oren the way a child would a bull ant.

"Let me out of these restraints, please...I have to complete my mission," Oren softened his voice, hoping to appeal to her compassionate side. The woman rolled her eyes.

"What mission, you imbecile? There is no mission. You are not listening to me!"

"It's a lie," Oren shook his head in disbelief. "It doesn't make sense...if what you are saying is true, then why have a briefing? Why bother with protective gear? Why not just euthanize me in the med chamber?" Oren demanded.

"Believe me; it wasn't for your benefit... The government needed a vehicle to exterminate the less desirable portion of the populace without raising suspicion. Bioweapons were as good a cover as any."

"Bullshit!" Oren screamed, his cheeks became flush and he could feel the blood pulsing in his temples.

"I wish it were bullshit," she said, letting down her veil to show the pain on her ragged face, "but it is true...I should know, I used to be a technician, only we were purging the two's and three's when I was doing it."

Oren slumped against the concrete wall. There was something sincere in her voice.

"But why?" Oren said, defeated.

"We live underground, Darling...our population is growing and resources are slim. The government has been selectively breeding a smaller, more conservative race for centuries. You must have noticed the higher classes were smaller than you, smarter, with better vision, more adroit...There was a reason for that?"

Oren didn't want to accept the picture she was painting, but certain facts were difficult to ignore. Where were the Attero? Where were the settlements? And why would they send him topside with inadequate gear? His heart sank to his stomach. Oren quietly sobbed into his chest.

"Don't cry in front of me, it's pathetic," the woman said.

Greene responded with a cold glare.

Oren had felt so proud to volunteer. He remembered the roar of the assembly when he stepped forward. It was so gratifying. He hated the Attero to the very core of his being. He couldn't wait to kill them all, but the virus, this ultimate weapon, was all a lie. Oren had never felt so betrayed; the gentle sobbing became a wail of anguish.

####

The woman left the bunker momentarily and returned with a bottle of water. There were brown particulates suspended in it. She handed it to Oren, still bound by nylon cords.

"Here. Drink this," she said.

Oren reached out and snatched it from her bony hand. He drank greedily in large gulps. It was bitter tasting and perfumed with tannins of decayed plant matter, but it quenched his burning thirst.

"Thank you," he said.

"It tastes like piss, but you can survive on it. This bunker sits above a frozen lake," the woman said returning to her post on the canvas chair.

"How long have you been here?" Oren inquired.

Her chapped lips parted but all that escaped was a rattling breath of air. Tears began to collect on the rim of her sunken eyelids.

"A long, long time," she said.

"Please madam, I won't hurt you." Oren released his death grip on the bottle of water and sat it beside him. He held his hands toward the woman. "Can you loosen these restraints?"

"Not a chance."

Oren tried to contain the fountain of rage building inside him. He didn't want to frighten the woman, or he may never get free.

"Please, I give you my word."

"And what is that worth?" she quickly interjected.

Oren drew a deep breath to maintain his composure.

"It's all I have."

"You know you're not the first," the woman said, leaning back in her chair. "There was another volunteer several years ago, he had a weak dose. It took him three days to die...three hellish days. He begged for his freedom too. Much like you, he wanted to go out there," she pointed at the door, "he wanted to go deliver the virus to the enemy. Too dumb to realize he was on a fool's errand."

The woman reached for the rifle leaning against the wall and laid it across her lap. She shifted her weight forward and delivered a look of contempt.

"I took pity on him, the dumb sonofabitch...I let him go... but those drugs," her voice trailed off, "They kick in sooner or later. A few hours in the cold and it began to set in, the drugs and the knowledge that he'd been lied to."

She paused and looked out the window with a blank expression.

"But when he came back, it was a different story. He was freezing...wanted to go back to the compound. He said there had been a mistake. He wanted his hero's death, he kept saying, not to be cast out because he was genetically undesirable...He cracked me a good one, right to the back of the head," she pulled back her thinning hair to reveal a crescent scar at the base of her skull, "he took the last of my rations and thermal gear. He went out into the dark to find his way back to his compound," a wry smile crossed her lips, "but I knew he wouldn't get far, not in his condition."

The frail woman stood up from the chair and went to the window. She hung the rifle to her side and placed a free hand on the cold glass. Oren began to feel a chill set deep in his bones; he drew his arms toward his body and began to shiver.

"No, he didn't get far at all. I wrapped an insulator around my shoulders and trekked into the darkness. I found his frozen corpse a few thousand meters from here. I never could find my rations, no doubt he dropped them along the way, but I found what I needed. I dragged him back to the bunker...he was the first."

"The first what?" Oren asked.

She was quiet.

Oren understood her implication. She had eaten him to survive. She probably ate them all. He thought of the bone pile out front.

"You eat people?"

"I survive, goddammit!"

"Are you going to kill me?"

Oren was oddly calm. He was prepared for his death. He had just imagined it under different circumstances.

"I am not going to kill anybody...They killed you hours ago. The thermal inhibitor will take its toll on you soon enough. It's just a matter of time."

Oren's hands were becoming numb. He was unsure if it was a due to the cold or the nylon cord. The woman turned and faced Oren. She observed his trembling and shook her head.

"It's already started for you, hasn't it? I guess they got the right amount after all...You poor, dumb bastard."

Oren curled his knees to his chest and looped his bound wrists over them. It helped momentarily but he could feel the heat draining from his body, it seemed to sink into the concrete beneath him.

"You know..." he stopped.

"What is it?" the woman encouraged.

"I was always prepared to go. In the end, I knew I would volunteer some day. When the opportunity presented itself, I knew I wouldn't hesitate." Oren's voice began to quiver. "It felt noble...That is the only way I could describe the feeling...when I stepped forward and I heard my comrades' cheers. I cried. I really did."

The old woman looked despondent. A single tear coursed along her cheek. It hung on her chin for a brief moment before falling to the floor.

"But, can I be honest," Oren continued. "I was also tired... just tired of it, tired of my life, tired of the routine. I wanted a life of significance...I know it's blasphemous to admit, but I wanted to stand out from the crowd...to be loved. I was so alone. The men were segregated most of the time. There wasn't a lot of opportunity to meet someone special or sustain a meaningful relationship. I petitioned the government for a mate, but they never found a suitable female. The last extended contact I had with a pretty girl was when I was injected," he began to laugh to himself, "it's funny, the only girls I've spoken to...face to face in the last few months, have either killed me," Oren turned his head toward the woman, "or plan to eat me when I'm gone.

The woman appeared to be deep in thought. She seemed to wrestle some unwanted impulse. Several times she lurched forward, but then hesitated. After some time, she stood and walked to a small cabinet in the corner of the room. She retrieved a knife from a long drawer. She walked to Oren's shivering body, and hovered over him, brandishing the knife. The hilt was stained with blood. She leaned forward. Oren flinched.

"What are you going to do to me?" Oren inquired.

"I am taking pity on you...don't make me regret it."

The woman slashed the nylon cords on his wrists. Oren was free. He felt an immediate sense of relief. He sat rubbing his wrists as she went to work on his legs.

"Thank you."

"No need...you're not going to make it, but it's getting hard to watch you die. Most volunteers just fall in the tundra. I find them after they've expired. I've become a goddamn vulture."

The woman collapsed in the corner, her shoulders slumped. Her clavicles bowed across her sunken chest, protruding like a necklace of thick cable. For a moment the two just stared at one another, and then the woman spoke.

"Now get out of here...It'll go much faster for you out there."

Oren stood for a moment then felt the strength drain from his legs. He fell back down to the textured floor. He was lethargic. Greene lay motionless, facing the woman. His hands and feet were numb. It seemed to concentrate the cold along the length of his spine, but the shivering had stopped. The world had slowed around him.

"I can't move," he said.

"It's because you're dying, hon," she replied.

She considered going outside and leaving him to die. Oren could see the woman's thoughts plastered on her face. This wasn't the ending he had in mind, but he wanted her company, as unpleasant as it was. The thought of dying alone had lost its appeal.

"Please don't go," Oren said. "Talk to me...Tell me something."

The woman sighed, resigned to watch Oren in the throes of death.

"What do you want to hear?"

Oren was slow to respond. He had to concentrate to form the words.

"How did you get here, what happened?"

Oren saw her visage change from concern to anger. She drew a deep breath to calm herself before she spoke.

"You said you were tired of your insignificant little life. I was just the opposite...I loved my life. I had a family, a mate and two children. I lived happily for years. I didn't mind the comfort of a routine. I joined the military because I believed in the principles of the government. I admired the structure and craved the responsibility...I wanted to make my contribution," She winced at this remark.

Oren lay still. Her voice sounded distant. He was finding it difficult to breathe. His body felt disconnected. He struggled to hear her every word.

"It all changed when I watched them take my babies away. They were six and seven. They were assessed and sent to play their role in the grand machine. I knew it was the way it had always had been, but it left a hole in me. My mate was eventually reassigned to another compound and, for the first time, I was all alone. They transferred me to Bioweapons. It became hard to watch the scores of lower class, with their child-like enthusiasm, line up willingly to be injected. I began to doubt our infallible society. I saw the cracks in the system and I wasn't unique. There were many willing to dissent. But before we could organize, they routed us out and I found myself in exile in this godforsaken wilderness. I have been cold and alone for many years, and each year that passes I lose a piece of my soul, but I can't find it in myself to end it. I need to survive, even at your expense, comrade."

The woman's voice was now a murmur. Oren's could feel his body shutting down. His concerns seemed to diminish with each labored breath. He thought of verdant fields flooded with sunshine and clear cerulean skies, the way the world must have been. He cast his eyes at the stygian darkness beyond the window and summoned the strength to utter his final words.

"Dying -- for nothing."

All he knew began to fade to a single point of light. It flickered like a candle in the breeze then suddenly snuffed out.

The woman saw the life escape from Oren's eyes. He lay motionless with a peaceful look on his face. She studied the body for a few moments before rising to her feet. Tears tracked down her cheeks as the woman picked up the knife. She walked towards the dead man with a firm grip on the handle.

"You'll keep me alive a while longer, hon," she said. "Not what you signed up for, but it's something."

THE END


© 2011 John Dougherty

Bio: John Dougherty developed a love of writing at an early age. He dedicates his free time to pursuing his passion, writing fantasy and science fiction shorts from his home in Santa Barbara, CA.

E-mail: John Dougherty

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