The first face that A. thought of, coming to, was his wife’s.
In the thick, dim twilight that seemed to seep through the tank, her face swam out towards him like a white flower in bloom. He tried to reach out to her, to cup her milky pale cheekbones in the palms of his hands, but he couldn't move. Everywhere hurt. A crisp, aspartic pain that ricocheted around his bones and sobered him up. Fuck he missed her. Why was he here?
The individual will need to have been somewhat injured earlier, yes. But that is immaterial given what will follow.
There was a deep stillness all around him, deep and heavy and opaque to the extent that he felt somehow enclosed by it. Tilting his head to the right he peered into the face of another soldier lying beside him, eyes blank with the sort of blankness that only death produces. He didn’t need to look into the faces of the other men around him to know they were all dead too, the morgue like feeling within the tank was enough. Have to get out of the tomb. He pulled himself up, ignoring the fiery aches that told him something was definitely broken somewhere inside him, and hoisted himself out of that hole that soldiers use to climb from the tops of tanks, and into the sharp, acidic sunlight. At least the sun was still hanging resolutely in the sky. It shone against the murky fog that was ebbing around inside his head (punctuated only by his wife’s white face). To be honest there was little else he could remember. There was nothing else he could remember. Did he have children? Did he even have a name? Certainly not one he was aware of. He must have been hit hard in the head or something - he had heard of that happening to soldiers in the war (what war was it?) one swift impact and the slate was wiped clean. He hoped he did have children, somewhere. He hoped they had her eyes.
He started walking away from the tank. He was in the middle of a wide field - corn or wheat or something - pockmarked by black scorched areas where (presumably) bombs had gone off recently. He thought suddenly of land mines and his steps grew slower and more meaningful. There was a wooded area about 500m away, and he had vague thoughts of shelter and safety and made towards it. There was a weird, warped quality to this reality though. The heat of the sun, maybe, refracting the light so that it shimmered like the liquid air above desert sand. And the sun really was so hot. And the breeze was holding its breath so that everything was kept in place with an unearthly motionlessness (but still that unbidden feeling that corn or the wheat was whispering to him).
60 mg should do it, he has already responded well to smaller doses, and we want to retain enough for the real thing. Essentially just a temporary distortion with an amnestic effect. We can use a little more on the day itself, perhaps.
The trees grew incrementally closer. It happened so slowly he couldn't help but wonder if he was moving at all - perhaps it was they who were simply growing towards him, stretching out their limbs to envelop and protect him. Finally, he was in shade, and the man who had been waiting at the edge of the wood was next to him. (A man had been waiting at the edge of the wood). Standing as still as the corn or the wheat, except for one single beckoning motion and the light that danced upon his bleach-white teeth. Now they were together A. wondered if it had been a mistake to head towards this man; the only thing that seemed to be remotely living in this parched, pockmarked wasteland. He noticed that their uniforms were different colours - a bad sign. The insignia was different - too different. They must be from opposing armies. A. wondered if perhaps it had been this tall, bright toothed man who had killed the soldiers in the tomb of the tank. The soldier had a gun in the holster on his belt and he pulled it out and A. recoiled in fear. But the man handed it to A., pressed an olive-skinned finger to his lips to request silence, and motioned for him to follow. He followed partly out of obedience and partly from fear, but mostly because he could see nothing else to do aside from lying on his back and burning to death in the shimmering haze of the watery hot fields. And he wished he could get home to his wife. And the children he was still unsure existed, who lingered in the corners of his consciousness, staring at him with eyes identical to hers.
After the trees had blended into one another, becoming a homogenous backdrop of constant green, and the edge of the forest had disappeared completely from sight, the man stopped and turned around.
‘My men and I gunned down the rest of your army. There is a village a small distance away, and we killed each man in the village as well’.
The muscles in A.’s legs began to twitch. And - as his pupils widened and the veins in his arms contracted, he thought again of his wife.
‘Afterwards they told me ‘we are going into the village to take the women and their daughters to our beds, to drink their wine and slaughter their sons’.
The sky was still throbbing above the dark green trees like a huge fiery artery.
‘I could not do this. I told them I am here because I love my country, and I love my family. I am not here to make a new family in the homes of the men I have destroyed. They did not like this. They raised their guns high. They told me to leave, and I ran to the edge of this forest.
‘I do not want to be a monster of war anymore. I want to go back to my home. My army has a small military base half a day’s walk from here. Few men remain there, the war being nearly over. And those who are left are tyrants - I once fought alongside them. They are not good people. If you will help me to kill them, there is ammunition and there are planes we can pilot back to our families, back to our homes.’
His very straight, clean teeth glistened in the dappled light.
A. thought of his wife’s smooth skin, of her alabaster face, and decided he would not mind if some anonymous warlords gave their lives so that he could hold onto her again in the dead of the night, be lulled into calm by her cool, slow, repetitive breaths. He nodded.
He’ll accept it. Why wouldn't he? We’ve gone over our plans thoroughly enough - I’d accept it, if it were me.
Their pace was brisk, and with each passing tree, each stone underfoot, the sun inched its way across the pulsating sky. A.’s mind felt clearer, despite the sweat, his racing pulse. His thoughts hung steadfastly to the home he supposed must be waiting for him, to the family he still hadn’t managed to remember. Imbued with a new sense of purpose his steps were swift, for a moment it seemed almost as though he was leading his comrade through the dense forest, and not the other way around. At last they reached the camp, approaching, stealthy as thieves. This was the moment, and if he was to see his wife again then death must surely come for these vindictive strangers, his enemies, still asleep in the temporary calm of their tents. The tall white toothed man fired a single shot into the air, a shot that called out to his victims, and as A. watched the soldiers spill from their tents out into the mud of the camp he thought only of her. He thought of pressing his hot feverish forehead into the cool skin of her face. He thought of drowning in her blue eyes, falling asleep with her pale arm draped over his chest. He needed to cool down, he needed her like his parched throat needed water.
He opened fire.
Men dropped to the floor like the heads of clipped daisies. There were more than he had expected, but he shot and shot nonetheless. Shot until every bullet was gone, and the floor was littered with the human stems and petals and miscellaneous debris of what once were soldiers.
He surveyed the wreckage he had made, it swayed in his fever, the bodies seemed to come to life, warped by the hazy heat. It seemed the soldiers had been at the camp for a while - there was an accumulation of those miscellaneous trinkets that places only acquire through prolonged periods of inhabitation. Letters from home, playing cards, a few unremarkable sketches attempted by hands too used to holding guns instead of charcoal. There were photographs too, amongst the lifeless bodies - of families, of friends back home, of dogs and children. He stared at one photograph in particular for a long time, bemused by the sudden sense of significance it seemed to imbue in him. Two men, arm in arm and not in uniform. Embracing each other with the brotherly affection of men who have shared much of their lives in each other’s company.
Then, with a sudden piercing pang of insight - - It was him. It was him in the photograph, and (with all the ironic horror of a Shakespearean tragedy) beside him in the photograph, was the very man whose corpse now lay at his feet, with all the trinkets and the warm mud in the decimated camp. His friend. His camp. These men were all dressed in green, the same green, A. now realised, as his own uniform. His breathing became shallow and fast, as a rabbit who has been shot but not yet killed. My men. My army.
His vision blurred and a deep, rushing terror throbbed within his chest. The howl that burst from his lips was bestial, and the tall, white toothed man’s mouth was a tear across the charred and darkening sky, a stark, blinding leer. And the howl continued to flow out from him like burnt butter, like grieving black-tar smoke.
It was the tranquilliser in his arm that stopped the screams from escaping, in the end.
Kept alive for the questioning, yes. But he had nothing new to tell us that we hadn’t already heard before we left him there, and he was with our guy the whole time after that. We could attempt another operation - there is a second camp farther afield, I believe he knows its whereabouts as well, and could lead us to that one like he’s done with the others… but I’m of the opinion that termination would be wiser. It won’t take long, he’s incredibly weak already, and I believe he may be bleeding internally… the injuries we left him there with from the time before. Probably not much use for any subsequent…yes, yes I agree.
It will be easy, at any rate. May as well make it painless, we have some morphine left and there’s no need to be cruel now it’s done.
It was cooler in here. That was nice.
His wife. His wife. How had she found him? No matter now (and never mind those vague unpleasant recollections that bleated jarringly in the dark background of his brain. A face in the mud. An old photograph). No matter now. His wife.
His eyes traced the outline of her jaw, dreamily, down her thin, long neck, resting for a moment on her clavicle - a deep white hollow. Down to her pale green hospital gown, one final barrier between their two bodies. Oh how he longed for her. He lifted his hand to her long-awaited face, and felt the ghostly chill of her pale cheeks. He smiled at her through his half closed eyelids, as he felt her push the syringe deeper into his veins.
A lethal dose.
The nurse smiled somewhat mechanically down at him.
May as well make it painless, we have some morphine left and there’s no need to be cruel now it’s done.