by Candra Hope
Soft silence and water dripping into water. It was quiet, too quiet.
Arthur sat up on his bunk blinking and trying to figure out why. He reached for his rifle and leaned his head out, looking both ways along the gallery.
“Hello? Tommy, Charlie? Hello?”
The bunker was empty. Not a soul in sight the entire length of the underground tunnel his unit called home these last six weeks. No one hunched over their gear cleaning mud from it or sat arguing matchsticks over a card game.
Maybe he missed something. A call to arms or worse, an attack with everyone outside fighting for their lives. But then, sounds of fighting would filter down to him. The silence didn’t make any sense.
Arthur pulled on his boots and laced them, swung his legs over the edge of his bunk and jumped to the floor. He splashed into an inch of water that sent ripples spreading out to the wall and back, shattering perfectly reflected candle flames from their waxen wall sconces.
He realised the pumps were silent too, with nothing but a steady trickling and dripping of water running down corrugated walls to break the oppressive quiet. It dropped from the roof beams in slimy strings that glittered like spider-web filaments. Dream-like.
Arthur held his breath, standing still in the water and listening for a familiar sound that would explain why it was being allowed to gather. Why everyone had disappeared.
The candlelight turned everything pale and sickly. Gave things a look of bleached bones on a cave floor. Their flames should have been restless and jumpy in drafts from outside but they were still, unmoving in the dank air. Then one of them flickered at the other end of the tunnel, the flame dancing as if someone had walked past it or blown on it. It was right on the corner where the gallery turned a right angle and ran up the stairs leading to the next level and the Lieutenant’s quarters. Arthur let his breath out in a puff of relief. They were playing a joke on him.
The Captain, the Fox they called him on account of how he led their unit across the foetid graveyard that was the field between here and the enemy line without so much as losing one man, was hiding with the Lieutenant and the rest of the men in the small space where the tunnel turned and ran up the stairs. All of them jammed in there like sardines, jostling and trying not to laugh, waiting for Arthur to blunder round looking for them. They’d all jump out at him, laughing.
He started towards the corner, walking softly so he didn’t splash through the standing water on the floor. He’d be the one laughing when he jumped out on them. But he couldn’t shake the silence of the place.
The constant drone and wheeze of the pump sucking water out of the tunnel. The endless thump and groan of shells hitting the ground and burrowing in deep before exploding and shuddering the tunnel walls. The rhythmic crack and zip of machine-gun-fire. The lack of these sounds left him nervous and uncomfortable.
Arthur stopped halfway along the gallery knowing instinctively something was wrong. His gut told him to keep away from that corner, that something was hiding round there and it wasn’t his unit. It told him to turn back and head up the back stairs. Figure this thing from outside in the fresh air. The weight of tonnes of slick grey clay above his head pressed down on him and he needed to get out.
The candle at the corner flickered again, almost blew out in a breeze that he should have felt on his face but didn’t. He looked down at his hands and saw thin skin stretched over his knuckles, pale and sickly like those bones in that cave floor analogy. It worried him and he shoved his hands in his pockets. He didn’t want to look at them.
An arm lay half drowned on the floor a few feet ahead, the flesh round the shoulder ball-joint torn and an unhealthy shade of grey. Rotting where it lay. Wires drowned in the groundwater. They should have been glowing with soft optic life, sparking and wriggling from the flesh round the bone, but they lay limp and useless. A scum of oil rippled a rainbow on the surface of the water round it. Arthur walked towards it and bent down and picked it up. It shouldn’t have been left there. There were no spares out here and the men did what they could with what they had. A total waste. He placed the arm on the bunk nearest him out of habit.
The quiet emptiness of the bunker niggled at Arthur’s brain. Thoughts of death and dying sparks and him down here alone made him catch his breath again and his hands twitch. Maybe he was suffering from Tunnel Fever. He’d seen it get hold of one or two before. Sending them shivering and shaking into a quick death at the hands of the Lieutenant who dispatched them with no pity. Who could afford a luxury like pity down here, after everything else?
No one wanted to go back to how it was in the bad time. Avoiding that fate was why they were fighting this stinking war in the first place and had been for the last twenty years. Skulking around guerrilla-like in the mud and filth. That was the only reality left, and dreams were for the fainthearted.
Water trickled down the back of his neck from an overhead sleeper and brought him back down into the bunker with a jerk. Like cold fingers slithering over his skin keeping him awake. He shivered. Forced his shoulders out of the hunched position they had wandered into and peered ahead along the gallery.
“Captain Harrison, sir?”
The second he spoke he regretted it. The words bounced off the corrugated roof and echoed back and forth along the tunnel. The something hiding round the corner heard him, he was sure of it, and it meant to do him harm. He knew that was ridiculous but the knowing didn’t make the fear go away.
Something began to smell. Not the usual rich aroma of so many men grouped together in a tight space. This was a stink that came from rotting meat and got itself stuck up your nostrils till all you could smell was the rot and everything you ate tasted like you were eating a dead thing. An all too familiar stink out there on what was left of the fields round York, but one they made sure to keep out of the bunker. They had to live down here.
Arthur wrinkled his nose and breathed through his mouth, thinking maybe the arm was worse than it looked. He leaned over and sniffed. It wasn’t the arm. He turned back towards the corner and the reek hit his nostrils again and his breath clouded in front of his face.
An urge to jump back onto his bunk and pull the blanket over his head the way children did to escape the imaginary monster under the bed almost took over and he had to fight to stay where he was. He needed to find the rest of his unit, if only to prove he wasn’t going mad down here, left on his own under the ground. They said lack of daylight and fresh air could do strange things to a man. Could turn him slowly mad for the smell of green grass and rain on the wind.
It called to him. The big world they all wanted a piece of now they were in a position to know they wanted it. Arthur watched the candles, wary for movement, and remembered the day he saw his first sunrise as a man. Everything that happened since, the Movement, the War, the blood and the dying, buried what went before and he liked that well enough. Badly remembered snippets of a shameful nightmare. A shuffling sleepwalk through a life that belonged to someone else. He was fighting to the death for the right to stay awake and so was everyone else down here. But where the hell were they now?
Arthur planned to retire up north where they said the air was clean and the snow white, not sludgy grey like down here in the choking south. He was going to build his own house and sit outside and watch the sun come up every morning. Think about nothing and everything just because he could. But first he needed to figure out why he was alone in the bunker without his unit around to walk with him to the corner and confront whatever was round it.
He stared down the tunnel and wondered why he couldn’t bring himself to move. Whatever was round that corner wasn’t friendly. His heart skittered around in his chest and he stepped back, watching something he couldn’t see slide along the surface of the water towards him leaving ripples in its wake. It threatened to swallow him in a wave of malevolence and drag him down into a nightmare of slime and bone. Stinking of rot and filth. Drown him in it. Panic set in for real and Arthur took another step back.
But he was backing away from nothing. Just a smell and some ripples. He grunted and forced himself to stand still. He’d never live it down. Not after running back for Tommy who got his leg trapped in a hole in the mud, The Fox snarling at them to get a bloody move-on while he sent bullets ripping over the ridge two hundred yards to their right. Knowing there was nothing between them and safety but Tommy’s clumsiness. And Tommy thanked him for it with a grin and a cup of tea later on. The Fox hadn’t said anything but he didn’t need to and he never did. Just a look and a nod was enough.
Arthur’s back came up against the sleeper wall and he realised he’d been moving the whole time. He’d backed up so far he could see the second stairwell leading up on his left.
The back stairs. A straight climb out into fresh air.
He hovered at the angle between the tunnel and the stairs, unsure. Go or stay? Something was down here in the gallery with him. He was certain of it. But running blindly up those stairs was worse than suicide. Out there was the enemy with their shells and their twisted hatred and their bigotry. Hiding in the trenches, watching and waiting for some poor bastard who couldn’t take it anymore to stick his head up like a badger out of its set, eager to blow it off.
Way back down at the other end of the tunnel, that last candle flickered and puffed out. A small wisp of smoke trailed lazily up from the wick and Arthur’s breath clicked in the back of his throat. If the flame had been blown out the smoke would have twisted and turned in the breeze not floated up in a straight line. The next candle went out and Arthur spread his hands against the wall twitching, because nothing was blowing those candles out, yet out they went, one by one.
Soon he would be in darkness, a pitch so black he wouldn’t be able to see his hands in front of his face. Wouldn’t be able to defend himself against something logic told him wasn’t there but his gut screamed otherwise.
Charlie’s bunk was visible just within the shrinking pool of light. His rifle lay on the blankets gleaming the way only polished metal can. Charlie always took the best care of his equipment.
Arthur’s finger twitched in panic when he realised he’d left his own rifle on his bunk. An unacceptable error and now he would pay for it because Charlie’s bunk disappeared and he had no way of reaching the rifle on it without stepping into the spreading darkness.
The last candle winked out and he stood alone in a dripping black hole in the ground.
The walls and floor creaked and groaned around him like the bunker had come alive and was breathing long slow breaths. Thick air pushing him inexorably through the sleepers into the freezing sludge behind. He fought the whimper nudging at his tongue and tried to stand his ground.
Something brushed his face, a soft movement of feathers against his skin and he lost control and screamed at the top of his lungs, a loud bray like a terrified horse. The sound echoed up and down the gallery and shocked him into movement and he slid to his left along the wall searching for the stairs.
Hard concrete edges grazed his legs.
Arthur threw caution and dignity behind him after the scream and scrabbled up the stairs on all fours.
A tiny light winked down at him and he made for it in mad desperation. Maybe someone was outside, holding up a candle to light his way. But he realised as he climbed that he would never reach it. The light glimmered and sparkled and taunted him from its position in the centre of a square of midnight blue. It was just a star glittering in the gap at the top of the stairs.
He made a final grab for the old wooden frame surrounding the bunker entrance, reached out with his hands and pulled himself upwards into the night like an escapee from the very depths of Hades itself. And the enemy be damned. He fell forward onto his knees in thick mud. Birthed from one horror into another, as his hand brushed against something hard and round and he looked down and saw a skull half submerged in the sludge. A relic of an earlier age, exposed when the bunker was dug out of the ground.
Arthur rolled onto his back and lay still, dragging in lungful after lungful of freezing air and staring up at the star winking down at him. He cried. Sobbed his shaking heart out in terror and relief because he was out and alive.
But the strange silence had followed him and it roared down from the sky and skimmed the edges of the crater surrounding the bunker entrance. Swallowed everything he expected to hear in its sparkling black jaws and left him colder and emptier than the skull beside him in the mud.
“Arthur? Arty, mate! What the hell are you doing?”
Arthur blinked and let his breath out in a long aaah.
The star blinked back and the roaring silence faded under a buzzing that raced through his body and pounded in time with his heartbeat. Then a whump, a scream and a thud. A shell hit the ground somewhere nearby, vibrating his bones as it exploded. The surface of the mud rippled and shivered in the blast and he heard gunfire off to his left. A loud incessant cracking.
A cold November wind slid icicles across his face, breathing fresh tingling air down from the north into his nostrils and blowing away the smell of death and rotting things.
“Come on mate, come back inside!”
Arthur raised himself on his elbows and looked round. Charlie’s grinning face peered at him from the stairwell.
“Am I dreaming?” Arthur asked.
“No, stupid. You were walking in your sleep. Old Foxy said not to trouble you because it’s bad luck, you know? Didn’t want you going back to the old way. Not now after everything we’ve been through.”
Charlie’s smiling face had never looked so welcome. “I thought something terrible was happening when you screamed like that,” he said. “You just ran off. Proper terrified you looked too. But I didn’t care what the Fox said. Wasn’t no way I was letting you run off by yourself. Not outside. Anything could’ve happened. But all’s well, eh? Come on back in now. We’ve got tea brewing.”
Arthur stood up and made his way back towards the bunker with a smile to match Charlie’s spread over his face. Just a stupid dream after all. Nothing was trying to get him. No monsters hiding in the dark. No hellish spectres come to fetch him down to their foetid depths and an eternal rotting nightmare. He almost laughed out loud at his stupidity when someone pushed him from behind.
He stumbled forward, annoyed and about to grumble at their rudeness because now wasn’t a time for practical jokes. Not until he was back inside drinking tea with his unit round him. He fell down on his knees again, a puddle of oil spreading out in front of him. It slid a greasy black smear across the mud and pooled in pockmarks, shining dark rainbows in the night air.
He couldn’t seem to catch his breath.
He looked up, surprised. Charlie was scrabbling for him like those crabs on Old London Beach, down on all fours like he had lost the ability to stand upright. Arthur wanted to say something funny about that, maybe break the tension on Charlie’s face, but black liquid came out of his mouth instead of words. He coughed and gazed up at the sky wondering why he couldn’t remember rolling onto his back.
Tired enough to sleep right there in the mud. Charlie would see him all right. He would pick him up like Arthur picked Tommy up and slung his arm over his shoulder. Charlie wouldn’t let him slip back. He would keep him here, keep him sentient and feeling because it was what they were all doing down here in the mud after all; fighting for the right to feel, like all the human beings who hated them for their impudence. Well, to hell with them.
“We’re men Charlie, isn’t that right?” he whispered.
Charlie’s face appeared over his own, blocking out the star.
“That’s right, Arty mate. We’re men.”
© 2012 Candra Hope
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.