This is a short story I wrote a long time ago, inspired by the song “Inception” by Ad Vitam. I’d like to say thanks and dedicate this to them (especially to my bro, Mattia).
Any feedback, either positive or negative, would be very appreciated.
« I was there » a voice stood upon the humming hall, as many eyes stared at its direction.
Silence and suspense filled the moldy room, where old blinds filtered the sunlight into sharp blades. Swarms of dust floated quietly in stasis, waiting for something to happen. Every man in the hall was looking at him, the one who spoke louder than them: Lieutenant Rupert Jackson was a thin, pale man in age, with hollow cheeks and empty gray eyes. His hair black, striped with white strands. His bones as edgy bulges under a delicate skin. His uniform a rag put on a scarecrow, worn by the sun and the wind. « I was there » said that bogeyman again, now with a quieter tone. « I saw what happened at Olive Hill. I remember everything. »
Not that he wanted to remember, nor to discuss those memories. He realized that he had to. The circumstances had forced him into stepping up and speaking in front of those warlords, those survivors of cruel machinations of fate. He would have preferred to forget all of it: the horror, the disgust, the pain, and the fear. But certain facts are marked with fire in the brain, memories a man cannot erase in time. It was war, they said, and they were fighting a war no one ever witnessed before.
Jackson waited for everyone in the room to sit down around the big mahogany table eroded by woodworms. Their looks were mostly severe, strong, somehow hollow. Certain men showed a glimpse of intrigue, some others suspicion. His heart was a drum calling for retreat, but the Lieutenant searched for the last drop of courage within himself and took a deep, long breath.
« We reached the village at dawn » he started, clearing his throat. « A thick fog covered the valley, surrounding the forest we were marching in. General Cook ordered us to stop at the woods margin, ‘cause he didn’t want the column to be exposed to enemy flanking. He gave me the order to patrol the area ahead, so I picked my six best scouts and went down the hill. There was a high ground about two hundred yards ahead, where the view was good and a massive bulk offered some cover. » His eyes lost sight of the hall, of the faces around him. The voice went lower and lower, until it became just a nervous whisper: « We climbed there, sneaking into the mist like shadows. Unseen, unheard. It was then that I saw… » Jackson struggled to find the words « …that I saw it for the first time. »
Some high officers with the Colonial insignia started confabulating in the dim light, nodding and offering no empathy at all. Nor comprehension. It was difficult for many to accept what was happening to the world they once knew; denial and refusal were spreading like a sore as fast as the real plague. Reality was rejected as if superstition was just spreading from mouth to mouth. Jackson could understand that, but he was a witness, a survivor. He would bear with that burden until his last hours. Feeling the risk of a nervous breakdown, he forced himself to maintain a decent posture and kept telling his version.
« I remember that I picked up my spyglass, the one with a small incision » useless details flourished like lawns of weeds during spring: unasked for, yet colorful and hard to extirpate. « I remember that I looked for the village in the fog, and when I found it I remember I saw a rug in the mud. It was an American flag, shredded and covered in blood – its thirteen stars, its red and white stripes flouted in filth. At first I couldn’t but enrage for such an offense, an outrage to my newborn Country, but then some feet started to stomp it, and the scene became just…odd to me. » With sore throat, he stopped and asked for a glass of water. Bourbon would have been better, but it did not looked like the proper time to get drunk. Although any time should have been proper for such an activity, everything considered.
« Some strange thing I noticed was that those feet were all different, from many diverse people » he continued. « There were baby feet, adult ones, both shod and barefoot, certain even…rotten, I’d say. I remember swearing in confusion when the mist allowed me to see the village: Olive Hill was in ruins, like it had been pillaged recently by savages. Signs of fire and fight were everywhere inside the wooden walls. The oddest detail was about the people, though. They were wandering around that mess without a goal, doing anything but…walk. »
The image of those infants dragging themselves in mud alongside to deluded adults was still focused in his mind, as he just witnessed it a minute before, and not more than a week ago. Wild dogs banqueting with corpses, while wound people looked helplessly detached from that context. Repelling scenes he could not erase from his mind.
« You mentioned some rotten feet, son? » A question came from the audience, an unknown source among the many old eyes and gray beards.
« Yessir » he answered, readily. « But not just feet: most of the people in Olive Hill looked like rotten corpses. »
Jackson did not have the courage to say the truth. Not there, not when many were already doubting of his sanity. He could not say that they actually were cadavers, dead bodies unexpectedly still moving, still interacting with the living world that they were supposed to have left. While murmuring snaked again around the table, echoing on the cardboard covered walls, he waited for their response. A part of him was hoping that they could reject his version, denying such improbable horrors as living dead, allowing him to flee far away from that mess and drown his sickness in alcohol. Waiting the end as a coward could have been better than go back to the frontline again to face nightmares.
« There were any mortal wounds on them you could spot? » A young officer, probably younger than him, posed that question with a tone that suggested he was inclined to believe Jackson’s story. « Any indisputable sign of death? »
« Yes » his answer was firm as his eyes now. « I remember observing a man with– » hesitation comes from the abhorrent sometimes, « – with a lung hanging down his flank in coagulated blood. A young girl with her ribs open from what it seemed to be an explosion. And many others, indeed. »
« There it is, my lords, your so-awaited confirmation: » announced the young officer pointing a finger to Jackson, « the dead are rising from their graves! »
Some nervous laughs erupted around the table.
« Absurdity! » Yelled an old man.
« Ridiculous! » Echoed another.
« Enough » said a third voice, with a quiet tone, and everyone was silent again. « I will not tolerate any further disarray. »
A shiver went through Jackson’s spine, as he recognized who was that man. George Washington looked exactly as rumors said, just older and grimier. Perhaps the hard times were playing a bad joke on him as well. His eyes intercepted Jackson’s, a stare that could force the moon to rotate backwards and the ocean itself to retreat. Those were the eyes of a natural born leader, a commander, a king.
« Thanks, Lieutenant. You provided a valuable report to us, now please sit down. » An order gave with manners, yet still an order. The Lieutenant obeyed steadily, and the main attraction became part of the audience. His minutes of fame were already gone, luckily enough. « Lieutenant Jackson’s report is just one of many we heard recently » started again the General, « and not just from Olive Hill. Many other are the tragedies taking place around us, and they are not of British origin. Our spies confirm that imperialists are having similar troubles with these so-called living dead. Although it might seem rather absurd, I am inclined to believe them. »
With a well-conceived pause, Washington took a moment to observe his underlings’ reactions. No one tried to contradict him, but many looked doubtful, to say the least.
« Now, along with this statement comes a fair question: » he said, repressing a revolt of ire yet raising his voice, « How can it be possible, for a trained army with advanced weapons and knowledge, to be defeated by mindless walking corpses? »
Silence. Awkward, tense silence. All around the table not a single fly could be heard buzzing its wings, nor a breath was exhaled in fear of being noticed, addressed, and directly questioned by the General.
« They are but wild beasts! » erupted Commodore Mander. Clearly he was a believer. « Those animals, they do not speak a word anymore, nor they reason at all. Their only purpose in life… »
« Life? » Steadily asked Williams, with a sardonic smile on his face.
The commodore ignored that comment: « …is to endlessly nourish themselves. Yet, they represent a threat more minacious than the British Imperial Army itself. God help me, this plague could be the worst enemy that the whole human race ever faced! »
« We do not require fanciful images of a nigh apocalypse» yelled a man without grades on his rugged uniform, «We need solutions to put an end to this madness! »
« There can be only one solution to such problem that this council can conceive, my lords: » It was Williams’ voice, speaking louder and clearer than others. The man standing, his eyes glowing of a nasty malevolent gash. White teeth emerged in a grin on his face.
« Our enemies’ complete, indisputable annihilation. »
It started at night.
A cold wind was blowing from North-West, howling at times like a caged wolf. The remains of the American army were gathered in the woods near the eastern Kentucky border. Ten thousand men trained and armed, ready to stare down the well of their deepest nightmares. It was a black, dreadful night. The very atmosphere around them was dense and humid, as the whole forest was being absorbed by a thick fog.
Lieutenant Jackson was near the camp center, eating his rations with his eyes wide open, searching the darkness for anything odd. A movement, a trembling branch that could anticipate the horror to come. Not a single torch was lighted, for General Washington’s commands. It appeared that lights attracted their attention as much as loud sounds. So the whole army was ordered to stay quiet, an infinite crowd constrained in a deep, surreal mutism.
Earlier that day, the fourteenth regiment under Commodore Lexington had captured a prisoner: a Shawnee scout, rumored to be delirious and driven into the madness by his bloodcurdling beliefs. His interrogation was overheard by sentinels, and the report of what he affirmed sprawled along the whole army. The sole idea of his hideous sentences sent a shiver down Jackson’s spine once again. Such were the folkloric tales he told that no one was to believe a single word, but every man in the lines deeply realized that those stories could indeed be true: since when hell rise in the form of living dead creatures of humanized aspect, nothing was considered impossible anymore. As expected, the indigenous prisoner was taciturn at first, lingering on his knowledge and not answering any question. Yet, when asked about the inferno that was flagellating that part of Kentucky and Ohio, he erupted in a devilish laughter. The raving words that followed cast a veil of doubt on his sanity: he stated that the legion of un-dead enemies was the last weapon of his ancestors to liberate the land from unworthy invaders. That the men, women, and children rising again from their graves were soldiers called by the Great Spirit to fight alongside with Shawnee and Cherokee warriors. Such picturesque, distorted vision of reality was probably to be rejected until he mentioned an ancient ritual performed by some shamans, so called priests and sages. Lieutenant Jackson heard first-handed from the sentinel himself, a soldier called Tiberius Pickers, that in his last few words the Shawnee threatened all the souls of the living to be rejected by the Great Spirit, condemned to become slaves of his tribe. Then he bit his own tongue, bursting in a last gurgling breath of dement laughter. Silence fell upon the tent where he was held in chains, but after a few moments his voice was heard again: a senseless rumbling growl followed by a single, imperious, gunshot. No one dared to speak loudly about what happened, but whispers scattered, rumor spread again, while men became yet more disconsolate and fearful.
« Did you hear that? » Asked a soldier without insignia to his right, awaking him from those gruesome meditations.
Jackson could but hold his breath and listen, trying to leave out the sound of the wind: « Hear what? »
« That sound. Like a far rant, or that of a vermin crawling on the soil, with claws and limbs. »
The Lieutenant looked at his brother in arms with eyes wide open. Such macabre taste for imaginative figures was certainly not adequate to the mood, nor the circumstances they were into. He was about to argue, when someone yelled in the distance, and the loud sound of trumpets filled the night. No further question was required to understand what was taking place. They were there. The monsters had arrived. The undead smelled fresh meat gathered all in one place, and decided to join the banquet. Jackson found the idea to be somehow exhilarating, to say the least: a hysterical laughter erupted from his lips, while he started crying at the same time. Many reacted differently, but they were men who never witnessed the horror of hell themselves before, and they were but merely scared. In their souls there was still room for primal terror.
Of that night, Jackson could remember very little. A few moments of clarity in a hurricane of feelings, mostly hideous and terrifying sentiments, and pain. Neither could his brain forge in fire the memories of an event that was clearly too much for a sane mind to bear. For many sounds and pictures became an insane mixture in his head.
Yet, he observed from the sidelines, at dawn, what remained of the initial battlefield. The valley that skirted the forest was a morbid painting from a disturbed mind. The undead, once farmers and soldiers, merchants and honest laborers, attacked the American army from West. A first answer must have come from the cannon fire, judging by the state of many enemy bodies reduced to pulp. Then muskets reduced foes line by line, but it was not enough. It was clearly not enough. Lots of good soldiers were on the ground, scattered as rats fleeing from a wrecking ship. Some of them must have been turned into those monsters, as expected. Thus the army was deployed in a horseshoe formation, on the hills surrounding the valley. Jackson was on the Northern side, facing South and fearing West to his right. The rising sun was still covered by the woods, projecting long and unsettling shadows upon the massacre. Far from sight there was a horrible legion, advancing slowly yet unrelenting: more undead from the nearby villages, emptied by Shawnee or Cherokee magics, starving for American blood. The horde advanced in disorder, a slow creeping of a thousand unsteady steps. They went up the hill like an army of Godless savages, moaning and biting and growling cries without meaning.
« There are too many of them, sir» whispered Jackson to his superior. He could not remember who it was, General Washington himself or just a new Commodore promoted on the field that very same night.
« I can see it by myself, Lieutenant » he answered, with his sightless eyes looking nowhere near the horizon. A murmur loud enough to be heard by him alone. Hope had abandoned his voice, leaving a mad accent to the words coming from that mouth of his.
« I can see it by myself » exhaled again, before calling for retreat.
« Why are they praying? » The question erupted spontaneous from Jackson’s lips. He looked a the men and women exiting the church, and then the pastor to his right. He was smiling, although his eyes were conceived in a sad gaze.
« Men always need to believe in something, son. Faith helps them, makes them stronger, allows them to keep living. »
« Due all respect, pastor, but I find rather hard to believe in God after witnessing such loathsome facts. »
« That is the very reason why faith is required, Lieutenant: soldiers need to hang firmly to their beliefs, to not be driven into the madness…to not lose hope. To keep fighting. »
« Beliefs won’t overcome fear » Jackson was doubtful, almost disillusioned. « They never will. Fear is something that crawls inside you just to scream wildly the moment after, and then it corrodes you to the point of no return. There’s no other God than fear, priest. »
His eyes were looking way over the hill, on the distant trees and mountains. He was watching once again the distressed land they used to call America. The holy man stood silent to his side, patiently waiting for him to stop daydreaming nightmares.
« There might be more than one » a voice interrupted his reflections, forcing both him and the pastor to turn around. General Washington himself was there, his arm bandaged and sustained by his neck. He was harmed, but not dead.
Lieutenant Jackson frowned: « Beg your pardon? »
« There might be some God out there, after all » Washington was grimier than ever, a hollow man still trying to act as a leader. Jackson recognized himself in that look, for the first time. « A more cruel God than ours, more powerful even. These last months served as a proof that there is some power higher than men’s, capable of rising dead from their graves, destroy armies, and kill unborn nations. »
No one dared to respond. To address such imaginative machinations of fate was beyond their will. The father himself stood silent, too afraid of the implications of those perilous ideas. The three of them were frightened and astonished all the same, and too fragile to speak more about that matter. Truth was out there, under a rock in a vast valley or behind the trees of a very dark forest. It was a truth of powers behind human comprehension, recalled from the depths of oblivion from incautious cultists, crawling back into the world of living creatures like the corpses emerging from cemeteries all around the continent. No one dared to pronounce it loudly, but divinities as humanity had knew for a very long time were then in question. Something more terrible, most terrifying, was turning its gruesome look to Earth again, and that apocalyptic war was just but the beginning of a greater, more unimaginable catastrophe.