(This is the next chapter in the “X Faction Soldiers” series)
I remember the night I left the nursing home. From my seat on the porch I looked out across the garden; there was a lunar eclipse that night, so I’d timed my break to coincide with the cosmic event. The grass on the lawn was in dire need of mowing; the saplings that had been planted a few years ago had become withered and skeletal. We’d had a gardener at one point, but budget cuts left him redundant, and the edges of the garden had become somewhat wild looking. The trees surrounding the garden had grown out significantly. The branches reaching out through the wire of the fences they disguised; twisting and warping the wires as if they were trying to escape the confines of the garden. At one point, the garden boasted an eclectic mixture of beautiful flowers; scattered clusters of Anemone, which blossomed in scarlet, crimson, and white; complimented by blue Harebells and purple Columbines. In the spring, the Common Rue would bloom with light blue leaves, and Nasturtium grew around the edges of the garden near the trees. The central feature, a large green Willow tree cast its branches wide, hanging down like a protective shroud.
We, the nursing staff, were expected to maintain the garden on top of our already insurmountable workload. Frank -one of our elderly patients- had taken to pruning and watering the saplings, weeding the garden and even mowing the lawn from time to time. With only one arm, it took him a long time to get the job done, but he seemed to enjoy it. On warm days, he’d spend an entire afternoon pottering around the garden with a pair of clippers, wedging one of the handles in his armpit and using his remaining arm to do the rest. I asked him once why he did it; he told me about an old criminological theory about broken windows, and that keeping the little things in check stopped bigger problems from developing.
Visitors often wondered how Frank managed to keep the garden looking so ornate. He must have had some botanical skill to allow such a diverse range of flora to flourish in the same environment. Over time, he’d succumb to the inevitable decline of age, and began to spend most of his time inside. I remember looking out at the overgrown, empty garden on the night of the eclipse, and being hit with an unexplainable and sudden feeling of imminent dread, as if the world itself was coming to an end. It was that night that I’d left the nursing home for good.
The past few months had been strange; it wasn’t the budget cuts or the day-to-day stress of the job that pushed me to leave, it was the guilt that got me in the end. I couldn’t keep my head down any longer, but at the same time, I didn’t dare to speak out. I knew I had to get away from the nursing home, and all of the horror that came with it.
I’d been an ambulance driver in Ukraine during the third world war. Those were dark times, ferrying from field hospital to battle front to improvised command post. We’d pull up and pop the doors open, fresh soldiers would burst out, and dying soldiers would be shunted in. It didn’t make any difference to the rebels what the ambulance was carrying, it was all the same to them. I dodged roadside bombs, machine gun fire, grenades, you name it -and I always managed to keep my patients alive- during the war at least. After the war ended, I moved to Sussex and took a job in the nursing home. I’d served my time on the eastern front, and had no plans to go back when the inevitable fourth world war broke out.
The majority of our patients were amputees and the war-wounded. I’d seen the grisly stuff before; blood and burns, it doesn’t take long before your skin thickens and it doesn’t faze you. It was the nightmares that got me -the screaming abyss of the minds of battle weary soldiers- that chilled me to the bone. Some would whimper constantly, some would scream in the night, wet themselves of throw themselves headlong into the wall; the trauma of their ordeal affected them all differently, but one thing that remained constant was the quiet muttering of the words: ‘They’re coming back for us’.
Many of the staff chalked it up to mass hysteria. All of the veterans said it at one time or another. One night, I sat up with a soldier who repeated it endlessly. He’d been serving in Ukraine and Poland during the war. Between the screaming and whimpering, and the constant repetitions, there were brief periods of lucidity. He told me of his nightmares. A family, who’d refused to vacate from a warzone on the edge of Warsaw; he’d shot them dead on orders, and buried them in their own garden. He told me that –in his nightmares- he was standing in the garden, watching the ground pulsate and rupture as shells and airstrikes rocked the earth. The ground split open, and reanimated cadavers emerge from the fractured earth, gripping him by the neck and dragging him down into the dark chasm to suffer.
Frank seemed to have a way of calming the soldiers. Often when I was doing my rounds, I’d find Frank’s bed empty, only to find him sitting at the bed side of one of the patients, talking to them in a soothing voice or stroking their face. I’d tried all manner of therapy and sedative, but nothing seemed to abate the soldiers’ nightmares like Frank could.
Frank seemed to have a strong affinity with one of our orderlies; a young Ethiopian boy named Aldous. I’d often find the pair sitting together in the garden talking, or playing chess in the common room. I’d spoken to Aldous a couple of times, but he mostly kept himself to himself. I knew very little about him, other than the fact that he had emigrated to England after the third world war, he was an orphan, and was studying computer science. He’d even modified the existing computer systems, setting it up so that all of our patients, even those with no remaining limbs, could use their bedside interface panels with only their voice or eye movements.
During the fourth war, our budget was drastically cut. I sat out in the garden during my breaks on night shifts, watching the saplings wither and die slowly. It seemed that the outbreak of war caused a resurgence in nightmares among the soldiers. The patients screamed and cried the night away, until a sudden outbreak of Red Masque fever saw a number of our patients moved to a specially quarantined hospital for special treatment. None of them ever returned. We were told their bodies were incinerated to prevent further infection. Frank was among those infected, and was taken away for quarantine.
The nights descended into a cacophony of screams, the halls became a labyrinth of nightmares. I walked from room to room, administering sedatives to the patients. I’d given up hope on soothing them. The only thing I could do was pacify them with chemicals, and hope that the storms would subside.
One night, I heard heavy breathing coming from Frank’s empty room. The door was locked from the inside, and a quarantine sign had been hung on the door. I knocked three times, and the door clicked open. I waited for a moment, before inching the door open. As I entered I saw a figure standing in the dark, leaning over Frank’s bed like a phantom. He turned to face me, his dark eyes glistening in the moonlight which poured through the window. It was Aldous, but his face had taken on an almost mephistophelian visage. His breathing heightened, and his eyes twitched uncontrollably as he muttered the same words I’d heard so many times before.
“They’re coming back for us.”
Aldous left shortly thereafter. He gave no notice, and told nobody where he was going. Some suspected he’d returned to Ethiopia, others thought he may have taken his own life. It wasn’t long after that notes began appearing around the hospital from a blackmailer calling themselves ‘Mother Mercy’. The notes told of a forced euthanasia program that was being carried out in the facility, claiming that Red Masque fever was a false disease, manufactured by the government to dispose of undesirables.
The paramilitaries became a constant presence in the nursing home. They never spoke, patrolling the garden and the hallways with shotguns in their hands. I was questioned constantly by the Metropolitan police, the Paramilitaries, and even the IIC, but I kept my head down despite my suspicions, I only told them what I knew to be true, never speculating on the events of the previous months. I’d seen enough bloodshed.
Mother Mercy’s messages became more radical, telling how those responsible for the program were the truly sick ones, and that he would only accept a pound of flesh for a pound of flesh. He put the death toll at exactly forty lives. It was at this time that a crisis in government occurred, and many politicians fled the country, many others were killed and the X faction rebels were held responsible.
As I looked over the broken garden that night, the light from the moon disappeared behind the shadow of the Earth. As the light began to fade, the skeletal remains of the saplings that had once been tended by Frank began to look like animated cadavers crawling out of the earth; the green Willow tree, which once offered gentle shade and protection, now towered over me like a harbinger of dark things to come. I left the nursing home the next morning.
I considered emigrating, but Mother Mercy never came for me. Maybe he didn’t see me as a threat, or deem me responsible for the program, or maybe he was saving me for something else. It had to be Aldous; it couldn’t have been anybody else. They knew it and so did we.
It came as a shock to me when the Paramilitaries asked me to drive for them. They knew I could handle a van, but I had been a suspect. Maybe they knew that I wasn’t linked to Mother Mercy, or maybe they thought it was important to keep their enemies close. I knew deep down that Mother Mercy was right, I knew they’d been killing our patients. What use was a crippled soldier? What did their nightmares really mean?
All I could do was go along with it, keep my head down like I always did, and hope that the eye of the paramilitaries never switches to me. But most of all, I feared Mother Mercy, and the debt I owed for my complicity. I’d never been a religious man, but the experience at the nursing home drove me to prayer. I prayed on dark winter nights, asking God for forgiveness, but something from within told me that God would only compensate me with outrage for my sins.
“Hang that gun up Lemarte” my colleague scowls at me.
I look across at him from under the ridge of my helmet, gripping my shotgun even more tightly, and gently stroking the trigger.
“Does it make you nervous Alson?” I say, raising the barrel and pointing it at his kneecap, “Don’t worry son, the safety is on.” I say, knowing full well that it is not.
Alson is always badgering me. Nothing was done right unless it was done his way. He was the kind of prat who would watch you peel a banana, then tell you that you were doing it wrong. I never understood people like that; I’ve never –not once in my life– attempted to peel a banana and failed. He was always winding me up about my surname too, seems that wasn’t good enough for him either. He said it sounded French. He used to joke that my war flag was a white eagle on a white background. Real funny fucker.
I once watched Alson strap a match to a cat’s tail with an elastic band, then strike it up and laugh maniacally as the mangy fucker shot off down the road. Pointless waste of time. He’d rather spend his time torturing small animals than fighting the enemy on our soil.
Being a Paramilitary police officer meant fighting terrorism by any means necessary. No action carried out in the service of England could ever be considered unjust, but torturing a cat was of no service to the country. The savages kill, burn and poison this formerly great nation for no reason other than their own sheer hatred. But they’re all cowards really. Once they’re in a holding cell, they all break. Caught one last night, a young girl with a big pink Mohawk and a face like a slapped arse. Pulled her up and asked to see her Identification card; I knew she wouldn’t have one. She spat and kicked and clawed at me, until I had no choice but to put that bitch down with a sharp crack of the baton. Not such a scratchy bitch when she’s bleeding on the floor. I dragged her down an alleyway and stripped her down, searched her whole body, inside and out, from her filthy little mouth to her rotten little cunt. I found a bag of Victory powder in her bra. She’s lucky I was feeling merciful and left her in the alley. I could have bagged and dragged her if I wanted to.
I stroke the barrel of the gun excitedly, recalling the event. Part of me wants the van to get pulled up, I’m loaded and ready for action. But if any reeking grimester scum comes within five feet of me -fuck aiming for the legs- I’ll blow their head off their shoulders.
I conceal a sigh, and bury my memories of Sussex once again. The road meanders unpredictably as we leave the city and head towards the suburbs, and I need my full concentration for the job. We don’t know the route we’re supposed to take in advance, it is fed to us through a satellite navigation system, which refreshes every couple of miles. Sergeant Richard “Big Dick” Heston, a steely beast of a man, told me it was for security; if I took a detour without authorisation, or stopped for too long, armed response units would be sent to apprehend the van.
The van is surprisingly agile for its size, far more so than the top-heavy ambulances of Eastern Europe during the third war; those old tin cans would topple at the drop of a hat. I can hear the Paramilitaries in the back, talking in mumbling voices. The tone of their conversation seems to flit unpredictably from grumbling resignation to raucous laughter and back again. They gave me a revolver to take with me on the job. Big Dick gave it to me and told me that if I need to defend myself, I should aim for the legs. Then -furrowing his brows- he leaned in to my ear and whispered, telling me not to expect the same level of courtesy from them.
I know what he meant, we all do. I don’t even know why the paramilitaries even pretend to follow protocol. A friend of mine in the IIC said he’s examined far too many bodies, shot dead by the Paramilitaries, with post-mortem gun shots to the legs. It seems far too common that the X rebels are able to continue to fight after sustaining a shotgun blast to the shins. That’s why I emptied the bullets out of my gun and threw them out of the window. I wouldn’t be killing anyone for them.
We approach the bridge, after this my shift is over, and Ben takes over. Easy job for him, he just needs to keep his foot on the pedal down the motorway. I shift gears quickly, as we approach the entrance.
Something shoots out in front of us and a crunching thud ripples through the van as we approach the bridge, as if we have hit a speed bump. The van skids for a moment, before regaining traction. Suddenly a deafening boom comes from behind the van, and I know we are under attack. I accelerate hard, hearing a second blast come from behind the van. A woman appears ahead of me, holding a lit Molotov cocktail in her hand. I swerve as she throws the missile, it misses the van and smashes onto the ground ahead of us. I narrowly avoid the flames, as another bottle is thrown, this time by a man wearing thick blue and white makeup. The bottle smashes into the side of the van, and at once the vehicle is wrapped in flames. I take my foot off the accelerator for a moment, as the flames obscure my vision, then put my foot back down. The man appears in front of the van once more, hurling another bottle directly towards the van. It breaks on the windscreen, and I can see nothing of the road ahead.
“Stop!” One of the paramilitaries shouts to me, “Let us out!”
I slam the brakes on quickly, as the Paramilitaries stand, preparing to open the door.
Another bottle hits the back of the van, and I accelerate again. The jolt causes the Paramilitaries to stumble and fall about the van.
I swerve about rapidly, which helps to clear some of the flames. The woman I saw earlier leaps out of the way of the van rapidly as I swerve from side to side, before charging ahead. The flames begin to die down as the van picks up speed. As I approach the end of the bridge, I notice a car heading straight towards us. Before I can react, we hit the car head on, pushing it back several feet. The flames begin to burn more brightly once again. I try to accelerate again, but find the van is unable to move.
I look at the car through the flames. Dark, steady eyes, illuminated by the inferno, with that same diabolical visage. My eyes twitch as I hold his gaze, and from the darkest corners of my mind, a voice rang out like a thousand mad men screaming into the abyss; and at once I knew.
He’d come back for me.
© JC Axe 2015