Sleep, as ever, was conspicuous by it’s absence. In the old days, the time before, he’d just lie there and try to clear his mind. Ignore the little distractions; the dripping air conditioner from upstairs, the creaking boughs of the tree in the garden. He thought of how he’d let them be swallowed up by the white noise of the ceiling fan, the low rumble of that same ac unit.
But that was the old days. Now there was no power at night and anyone using it for something as frivolous as an air conditioner risked any number of extreme punishments, even death if someone felt like making an example.
Now sleep was a luxury. A few snatched hours here and there, often days apart. Nothing so minor as a few drops of water kept Randall Jacobs awake. More likely it would be the sound of nearby combat. That and the fear, the unending, gnawing, almost paralysing fear. Made ever worse if the sounds of battle drew nearer.
Randall Jacobs was suddenly ripped from his reminiscence by a shrill scream that had him reaching in panic for the rifle at his side. But the sound was too far away. At night, anything further than a hundred feet away was too far. Years before he might have thought of investigating. In this once busy neighbourhood, it might have been someone in genuine distress but it was more likely to be a drunk in a fight or even simply enjoying the night a little too much. Now, though, there was no ‘might’ about it. That sort of scream was always final. You didn’t go out at night. Not anymore.
Randall Jacobs tried to ignore the screaming. But it was no use. Poor bastard, sounded like he was caught in some razor-wire. Nothing to be done to help him. The harder you struggled, the more entangled you became. Until the other side got you or exhaustion or exposure or sometimes, sometimes… just plain fear.
‘Shaddap! Stupid bastard! You’ll bring the enemy right down on our heads!’ Yelled Randall Jacobs’ bunkmate, Terry, swinging himself out of the top bunk, rifle at the ready. Terry’s feet had barely touched the floor as, still yelling, he loosed a couple of wild shots out of the window. The noise was deafening. Terry was insane. Perhaps they all were. Not much perhaps about Terry though.
The screaming had lapsed into a frightened whimper. Terry climbed back into his bunk muttering something about ‘lack of discipline’ and ‘speak to the CO in the morning’. Randall Jacobs just hoped Terry wouldn’t try to talk to him. The last time he’d ventured a contrary opinion, Terry hadn’t taken it all that well. Randall Jacobs had needed seven stitches over his right eye that time. And pretty much every conversation – if you could call it that – with Terry ended up with you taking a contrary position. Somehow, Terry always made it turn out that way.
Randall Jacobs rolled over and listened to the fading sobs from outside. The too familiar sound of someone giving up and accepting the end. Eventually he drifted off into a thankfully dreamless – albeit short – sleep.
The watery sunlight from a new dawn leaked into the room as it slowly rose over the ruined buildings beyond the short expanse of ground outside Randall Jacobs’ room.
He woke with a start and then as reality sank in, blearily readied himself for another day.
Much like every other day that Randall Jacobs could remember of this war, it started with a lousy breakfast, listening to the usual soldier’s complaints on the standard of the food and then a short briefing before going out on patrol.
What chain of command there had been had eroded along with society after the war had gone on just too long and killed just too many people. Discipline – much to Terry’s chagrin – was almost a thing of the past and each squad was given the most cursory of instructions and then sent out for the day.
Today, like most others – every other that Randall Jacobs could remember – involved recon of the nearby area. That was it. Like kids in the summer. Go out, explore, be back before dark.
At some point Randall Jacobs had had an actual rank, Sergeant or something but now he was just kind of in charge of a handful of men. Picking their way through the remains of the city their building bordered. Disorganised didn’t come close. If you found something, you reported back to the others. There was the Captain, Marquez, who gave the daily briefing but even that was slapdash. Randall Jacobs wasn’t sure he was even a Captain, he suspected Marquez just thought it sounded cool.
Sometimes they were ordered to scout new areas, nothing too far out, just an overlooked building or ruins on the edge of their area of operations. Not that that ever provided any particular insight or new intel. It was more like checking off a list and with each passing day, it seemed more and more perfunctory.
There was only so far you could go, recon and be back before nightfall anyway. Especially on foot. Gasoline was so rare after all the oilfields had been destroyed, there was none left for any kind of motorized transport.
Horses were still used out in the sticks according to some of the old-timers but other than some chickens, pigs and the odd stray dog, animals were almost unheard of in the remnants of the city.
As Randall Jacobs and his squad set out that morning, he wondered, as he often did, what it would have looked like if scientific and technological process hadn’t been thrown back generations by this catastrophic war. He remembered the time before only slightly these days, it was brief snatches of memories, nothing too concrete.
As they trudged out of the gate, it was only Terry who looked remotely aware and on edge, but that was pretty much his permanent state. So it was he that noticed the poor bastard trapped in the razor wire first. ‘Look at this bozo,’ Terry said derisively, ‘stupid going out at night, that’s where the enemy lives ferchristsakes!’ And he spat as if to emphasize the point. ‘Asking for trouble’ mumbled another of the squad as they began to move on.
Randall Jacobs held briefly to look at the body, snaked in concertina wire, the arms stiff with rigor clawing at it. A testament of the man’s failure to free himself. The face held his gaze the longest though. Like so many corpses they’d found in the long years of this war, the body had few, if any combat wounds. The faces told you everything you need to know. Pulled into a mask of pure and total terror, it wasn’t an enemy’s bullet or even the wire that had killed this man. It was fear. The night had become nothing more than the embodiment of every man’s deepest fears. Even if the enemy wasn’t nearby, something else was and it terrified everyone, even Terry. And especially Randall Jacobs.
The squad moved on, picking it’s way through the dust and debris. Down unused streets and past abandoned and derelict buildings, long since looted of anything useful. In the early years of the war there were still the odd civilian encampments dotted around but they were long gone. Everyone lived inside the wire. Safety from the enemy, safety in numbers, safety from the dark, safety from the fear.
The squad picked their way through the ruined city streets until they reached the edge of their operational area. The point where it was safe to spend time investigating a building or anything else worthwhile and yet still having enough time to return to camp before nightfall. Not that anyone could remember finding anything worthwhile in recent memory. The last thing Randall Jacobs could remember anyone finding was an old stack of porno mags one of the other squads had found in a long abandoned service station. Good for morale maybe but certainly nothing useful to the war effort or for intelligence purposes.
Randall Jacobs stopped and took a long pull from his canteen. This was pointless. They all knew it. But routines were even harder to break than before. Especially when the only alternative was sitting around doing nothing. And that was always dominated by the ever-present, crippling fear. Better doing something, however pointless, than letting the fear take over.
Randall Jacobs realized in his idle reverie that he’d strayed down a side street on the edge of the squad’s intended route and into an area he’d not been in for several months at least and was vaguely familiar at best. It was obvious the rest of the squad had been caught up in their thoughts too as one by one they noticed each other coming to a halt and looking around. Randall Jacobs had a decision to make. They were running short of time and would need to return to base soon. Best to just turn around and head back, everything had been picked over many times before as it was. Before he could say anything, however, he noticed Terry had wandered further down the street and was now frantically waving and pointing at something from the far corner. The squad hurried over to where Terry was stood and looked in the direction he was pointing. “Look!” He hissed. “So what?” The normally taciturn Adams remarked. “It’s just the Library. Nothing’s been found in there for years.” His usual disaffected tone giving way to mild annoyance. “No!” Spat Terry. “Over to the side there, that big hole. It must go down to the sub-basement. Nobody’s been down there in years! All the doors were blocked off by fallen masonry.” Randall Jacobs looked and, sure enough, across the square that the library formed one edge of, part of the outer wall and roof was missing above a large hole about ten feet across.
Any reservations the squad had had about not making it back to base on time had been eradicated by overwhelming curiosity. Months, for some even years, had passed since any of them had seen anything that hadn’t been picked over a thousand times. Now, right in front of these men that had become numb to everything but fear, maybe sat a veritable treasure trove of interest. As one they hurried forward and began shining flash lights into the dark sub-basement and chattering excitedly.
There wasn’t a lot to see beyond the debris but they could just pick out some desks, chairs and even the odd bookshelf in the gloom on the edge of their lights. “See?” Said Adams. “Nothing that exciting.” As he totally failed to mask the almost fever-pitch excitement they all felt.
“Okay,” began Randall Jacobs, surprised at the authority and dynamism in his voice, “Me, Terry, and Lawall will check this out. Adams and Mazar stay up top to keep an eye out.” Randall Jacobs regretted leaving Mazar behind but Terry was the strongest by far and Lawall was smart and somehow kept Terry in check. Adams? Adams was just a miserable pain in the arse but leaving him without back-up would be unwise. Randall Jacobs ignored the pained expression on Mazar’s face and flung a rope into the hole as Terry and Lawall did likewise.
“We’ll be as quick as we can.” Randall Jacobs checked his watch. “No longer than 20 minutes.” He fastened himself to the rope and stepped backwards over the edge.
The drop was barely more than twelve feet, so one short stop and then the next was Randall Jacob’s feet hitting the floor. He attached a headlamp and looked into the basement, his heart pounding in his throat. For the first time in as long as he could remember, this wasn’t fear, it was pure, unbridled excitement.
Lawall and Terry landed with interspersed thuds beside him, their excited breathing moving the dust motes in the stale air.
“Mazar!” Randall Jacobs barked.
“Sergeant?” Answered Mazar, peering down at them. ‘I guess.‘ Thought Randall Jacobs. The chain of command seemingly fully restored by having something to actually do.
“Uh, keep a perimeter around the debris. We’ll be back within 20. Keep in contact.” Randall Jacobs checked his radio, satisfied he unhooked his rope and moved off into the gloom. Terry and Lawall close behind.
Their headlamps bobbed and swung from side to side as they walked, picking out desks and chairs and the occasional shelving unit stuffed with files. A cursory look found the files to be full to bursting but only with old pre-computer file cards and the like. New things to read were a rarity back at base but few people were going to wade through this stuff for pleasure. As if to highlight this, Terry angrily tossed a box of file cards aside and grunted out an expletive. They moved further into the dark. Lawall stopped and called out to the others, “hey, who’s this guy?” And his lamp illuminated a portrait on the wall.
“Franklin D. Roosevelt.” Grunted Terry. “Didn’t they teach you nothing in school?”
“The D stood for ‘Delano’, they taught us that at least.” Lawall replied and shot Terry a withering look that seemed to explain volumes about their relative backgrounds and educations and was enough to put Terry firmly in his place. Randall Jacobs was glad he’d picked Lawall to come along. But something bugged him about that portrait. Something he couldn’t put his finger on.
Randall Jacobs moved away to investigate another part of the room, his headlamp reflecting the dust motes disturbed by his movement. The light picked out a door at far end of the room. A sign on it read ‘Archive’ and he opened it. Entering the room, he was struck by the difference between it and the room he’d just left. Dust lay thick on the rows of racks that stretched into the darkness. More files and folders greeted his gaze but everything here was untouched and looked like it had been so for many years. As he walked silently though the racks, Lawall and Terry spread out to investigate other areas of the room.
Unlike the previous room, the contents of the archives looked much more promising. Moving slowly between the racks Randall Jacobs noticed a large trunk secured with a hasp. He stopped and squatted down for a better look. Brushing away the dust that had collected on the lid, Randall Jacobs read “First Editions”. He jimmied the hasp and lifted the lid. Inside he found several hard bound books he dimly remembered as ‘classics’. Randall Jacobs leafed through a few at random, one by some guy named Wells, another by Phillip K. Dick. He felt like he should recognize these authors but he barely remembered anything. And then he saw it, the number, ‘1984’. This one brought back all kinds of dim and distant memories, he even remembered that it was one of Orwell’s before he saw the name. Randall Jacobs flipped through a few pages until one sentence stopped him: “We have always been at war with Eastasia.” It triggered something deep within him but Randall Jacobs wasn’t sure what. A similar unease to the portrait they’d seen earlier but far stronger. He was just slipping the book into a pocket and trying to make some sense of this feeling when he heard Terry yelling. Suddenly, Lawall appeared at the end of the row of shelves, laughing and out of breath. Right behind him ran Terry, head down, full tilt. Terry barreled into Lawall and sent him flying into the shelves. Slowly the first set teetered and all three – Terry and Lawall’s play fight forgotten for the moment – stared in horror as it fell into the next and then that one into the next, picking up speed and, like giant dominos, toppling the entire row.
With a terrific crash, the final rack slammed into the door and lay still. Randall Jacobs realised they had to get it moved and barked at the other two to help him. His radio crackled into life, “Sergeant? Come in, Sergeant? What the hell was that?” It was Mazar. “Terry and Lawall” at this from Randall Jacobs, the pair gave each other recriminating looks, “knocked some racks over. It’ll take some time to shift.”
“Okay, but you’d best hurry, the sun will be setting soon. I don’t know how much time we have.”
In the background Randall Jacobs could hear Adams loudly and angrily complaining.
“We’re right on it. I’ll be in touch when we’ve got this moved. Out.”
Randall Jacobs motioned for the other two to help and the three of them knocked a couple of racks aside to get at the one blocking the door. With all three lifting, they made short work of moving the last rack aside and, knowing that time was of the essence, Randall Jacobs reached for the door handle. He turned it and to his horror it just span in place, not catching the lock mechanism. He pulled at it and the door gave a little in the frame but that was it. He kicked it in frustration. “The impact must have bust the lock. I can’t get it open.”
“Can we bust it open?” Asked Terry.
“I doubt it,” answered Lawall, “it’s a fire door, reinforced.”
Randall Jacobs got on his radio.
“It looks like we’re stuck for the time being. You and Adams head back. We should be safe [he glanced at Terry and Lawall, hoping the worry he felt wasn’t evident] until the morning.”
“If you’re sure-” Adams cut in, “Are you friggin’ nuts? Who knows what the fuck’s down there!”
“You keep that bullshit to yourself!” Randall Jacobs responded, angrily, surprising himself again. This was becoming something of a habit. “We’ll be fine, we can’t get out and I’m damn sure nothing can get in without us knowing.” He was actually far from sure but saying so made him feel better. He suspected hearing it helped them too. “Now make tracks. That’s an order. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Okay, Sergeant.” Mazar answered with a mixture of resignation and concern. “Good luck.”
“Thanks. You too. Out.” Randall Jacobs felt suddenly adrift. He shook himself and addressed Lawall and Terry.
“Maybe we can find another way out. Failing that, maybe something to jimmy the hinges and take the door off. I’ll go look down to the right. Terry? You go look over to the left. Lawall, keep trying to get the door open. You never know.”
Randall Jacobs and Terry headed down the central row and without a word went their separate ways to opposite ends of the cavernous room. What could be said? They were both utterly terrified, Terry not wanting to show it to keep up the illusion of bravado, Randall Jacobs trying to uphold this newfound sense of responsibility in leading this squad. He moved off into the dark past row after row of racks filled with boxes. There was nothing that might help them open the door, so he kept moving. Eventually, Randall Jacobs came to the far corner of the room. There was no exit here but a few offices, the names and titles of their previous occupants stenciled on the glass doors. Another dim memory surfaced of watching old films where the hard-boiled detective sat waiting for another client behind that kind of door. Randall Jacobs doubted anyone had ever sat inside these offices finishing off a bottle of Rye and wearing a battered fedora. He gently pushed open the door of the first office and stepped inside. It was nondescript, small and, apparently, previously occupied by someone meticulous in their neatness. Every book, every file folder, even the pens on the desk were arranged with uniform order. He idly opened an immaculately organised drawer and found a letter opener. “Better than nothing” he thought, pocketing the letter opener and stepped out to look in another office. The next office was the complete opposite of the first. It would be easy to assume that the previous occupant had fled in a panic, grabbing what he or she could before leaving. Perhaps on the eve of the war. Randall Jacobs suspected that the truth was far more mundane, the previous occupant had just liked it untidy. Piles of paper balanced precariously on the edge of the desk, the bin overflowed with scrunched up scraps of paper and books were not so much arranged in the shelves as haphazardly piled according to size. Randall Jacobs gave the room a quick once over and then got Terry on the radio. “Terry?”
“Yes, Sergeant?” Came the response. Randall Jacobs could barely contain his surprise. Terry rarely addressed anyone by rank and had never even used Randall Jacobs’ name, any form of address was usually far from formal or polite.
“I’m not having any luck here, how about you?”
“No exit this side. Found a toolkit though. Hammer, some screwdrivers.”
“Okay, meet me back at the door and let’s see what we can do.”
Randall Jacobs hurried back the way he had come and soon saw Terry’s flashlight bobbing towards him from the opposite direction.
“Right, let’s see what we can do here.” And he knelt down to examine the door hinges. Feeling confident, Randall Jacobs pointed at the tools Terry had, “I think we can use the hammer and chisel to crack the hinges and then crowbar the door open if needed.”
“Right.” Said Terry. “No time like the present…” He pulled a chisel out of the toolkit he’d found.
Lawall stopped him. “Listen. Maybe we should leave this ’til morning? I mean, we have no idea who or what the hell’s running around out there. We’re a ways from home and in an unfamiliar part of town. Right now…” He exhaled, shakily. “I feel safer in here.”
Terry stood back. “Good call.”
Randall Jacobs thought about this for a second. Not only was this sound thinking, he was pleasantly surprised by how level-headed everyone was being. “Alright, I get your point. Aside from some narrow windows I doubt a kid could wriggle through, this door seems to be the only way in or out. We should hear anything trying to get through it way before it actually does. Let’s stay put for the night. We’ll sleep in shifts and get some food. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”
Randall Jacobs helped Terry and Lawall maneuver a bookshelf in front of the door. They felt safer but not entirely safe, after all. He set up a small military cooker and opened up a ration pack. Terry and Lawall did likewise and soon the three of them were sat quietly eating. Shortly, Randall Jacobs began to feel sleepy. He stretched and then spoke. “I think we should bed down right by the door. Whoever’s awake can keep an eye down the row. Anything coming over or through the racks will make all kinds of racket, so that’s the only direction to be wary of. Any takers for first watch?” He asked, hopefully. Randall Jacobs could barely keep his eyes open.
“I’ll do it.” Terry said, with a surprising lack of disdain and was that concern in his voice?
“Thanks.” And Randall Jacobs lay back on his bedroll thinking how wonderful it was to be pleasantly surprised for a change and how they might just make it out of this okay. They even had some supplies to take back and some stories to embellish for the mess hall. He closed his eyes and began to drift. And that was when the screaming started.
Randall Jacobs sat up, startled. His radio had suddenly come alive with noise. Breathless shouts, terrified screams and the unmistakeable sound of gunfire erupted from the small speaker.
“…ALL AROUND US!” It sounded like Adams followed by another burst of gunfire. This time they could hear the shots from outside as well.
Randall Jacobs took hold of the panic rising within him and spoke loudly but calmly and, he hoped, authoritatively to the men above. “Mazar? Adams? What’s going on up there?”
“Adams is out of control, Sergeant!” It was Mazar. He was breathing heavily. “We were on our way back to camp when he thought he saw something or someone following us. We doubled back to make sure and I think we’re back by the library…”
Adams cut in, “There’s definitely someone out there! I think they’re shooting at us!” He screamed again and they heard more shots.
“Adams panicked and ran.” Mazar again. “He’s firing blind. I didn’t see anything. I can’t tell if there are incoming rounds or not.”
Randall Jacobs’ mind raced. He could hear muffled, sporadic shooting from outside. He had to help somehow. “Listen, Mazar, are you with Adams?”
“No. He’s somewhere else but nearby. It’s so dark out here. I see muzzle flashes from time to time but I can’t tell if it’s him or not. I don’t want to use my flashlight in case someone else is around to see it.”
“Try to get over here, if you can. We can defend this place together, if need be.”
“I’ll do my best Sergeant. I can’t see hardly anything out here.” Mazar’s voice was strained. It sounded like he was running. “I think I’m heading in your direction but I can’t tell how far-”
Gunfire erupted again. Even muffled in the basement, it sounded close. On the radio, it was deafening.
“OH CHRIST THAT WAS CLOSE!” Mazar sounded like panic almost had him, he was panting heavily. “I’m nearly by you guys, I think. Not sure, it can’t be-” There was a short, agonised yelp of surprise over the radio, followed by a sickening thud they could hear from outside the door.
Randall Jacobs stared at Terry and Lawall. Lawall was wide-eyed with terror. Terry stared back, his face grim.
Lawall began breathing in panicked sobs, he muttered under his breath. “They got him and they’re coming for us.” He repeated it over and over like a mantra, quickly and quietly.
“Get a hold of yourself!” Terry hissed. Lawall stared at Terry but stopped muttering. Randall Jacobs could tell he was on the edge of a complete breakdown. He glanced quickly at Terry and then tried his radio. “Mazar? Come in, Mazar.” There was static. He tried again, no answer. “Adams? Come in Adams.”
“Sergeant?” It was Adams. At least, the disembodied voice said it was Adams. It really didn’t sound like him. The voice was barely audible, high-pitched and it terrified Randall Jacobs. “Firing’s stopped. But they’re still out there. Waiting.”
“Okay. Listen to me.” Randall Jacobs tried to keep an edge of calm to his voice. He wanted to shout at Adams, tell him to get his shit together, he saw that Terry obviously felt the same way. But Adams had snapped and Randall Jacobs didn’t want to risk pushing him further. “Did you see Mazar? We lost contact and -”
Adams cut in. “They got him!” His voice rose. “He ran. I could hear him. They got him! But they won’t get me.”
“Adams? Stay where you are. We’ll come get you. Adams? Adams!” But there was no response. Randall Jacobs cursed in frustration.
“What the fuck is going on?!” It was Lawall. He was wild-eyed and looking nervously from Terry to Randall Jacobs and back. “What do we do? They’ll get him! And then they’ll come for us!” Lawall began babbling.
“GET A GODDAMN HOLD OF YOURSELF!” Yelled Terry and slapped Lawall across the face. Hard. Again, Lawall stopped babbling. But again, he stared on in fear and muttered under his breath.
“We have to get out there.” Said Randall Jacobs softly. “Mazar could be badly hurt and Adams has lost it. It’ll be light or near enough by the time we get topside.”
“Right.” grunted Terry in agreement. Once more, Randall Jacobs wondered about his roommate. From the moment things had started to go to hell, Terry had remained resolutely in control. His volatile demeanor nowhere to be seen. Any other time, Randall Jacobs might have been concerned but right now, he was just relieved. At least someone was in control here. He made to pack up his gear and begin working on the door, Terry followed suit.
Lawall looked at them both in amazement. “Out there?! Are you guys nuts?”
“Yeah,” grunted Terry, “out there. We got a man down and another in trouble. We gotta do something about that.”
“You’re crazy! I’m not going back out there!”
Despite reasoning that Lawall wasn’t thinking straight, Randall Jacobs was beginning to lose patience. “This isn’t a democracy and we need to help those men. Like it or not, we’re going.” And he heard himself say something none of them had heard in a long, long time. “That’s an order.”
Lawall looked resentful but was thankfully quiet. Randall Jacobs and Terry sorted through the tools and began working on the door. It wasn’t long until they’d worked two of the three hinges on the fire door loose. Terry had wedged the crowbar between the door and the frame and Randall Jacobs had enough space to get a good hold on the door to try and pull it open when they heard the unmistakeable sound of a rifle bolt sliding home behind them.
“Let go of the door and drop the crowbar,” Lawall spoke in an eerie whisper, “and then step away from the door.”
Randall Jacobs and Terry turned slowly to see Lawall leveling his rifle at them. Terry held up his hands, letting the crowbar dangle lazily but not dropping it. Randall Jacobs tried to reason with Lawall.
“Take it easy, I know you’re scared, we all are. Just put down the rifle and we can-”
“STOP TALKING!” Shouted Lawall. “We’re not leaving this room. If we go out there, they’ll kill us.”
“We have to go.” Randall Jacobs implored and he noticed Terry slowly moving towards Lawall. “Adams and Mazar are out there. In trouble. We need to help-”
“NO. The enemy already has them. If we go out there, they’ll get us too. You’re trying to get us all killed. You and that psycho, Terry.” Lawall motioned towards Terry, then turned his gaze towards Randall Jacobs. He was about to start speaking again, when Terry lunged at him, swinging the crowbar. It connected with the rifle, knocking it upwards and Lawall fired a round into the ceiling. Before Terry could swing again, Lawall let the momentum turn the rifle over and jabbed it at Terry. It connected with his head hard and Terry fell back stunned. Randall Jacobs had a split-second to take advantage of the opening Terry had given him and he leapt at Lawall. He kicked the rifle out of Lawall’s hands and then followed up with a flurry of punches. Lawall staggered back and then charged, he ran full tilt into Randall Jacobs, the impact sending both men to the floor. Lawall grabbed at the other man wildly, trying to get a hold of Randall Jacobs’ head to smash it against the floor. Randall Jacobs managed to connect with a couple of body blows but Lawall was faster, stronger and possessed of a rage that shrugged off any chance to fight back. Soon, hands were clasped around Randall Jacobs neck, his head hit the floor with a thud that made his eyes fill with water from the blinding pain. Through the tears, he could dimly see Terry trying to stand but still groggy and punch drunk from the blow to the head. Randall Jacobs tried to pry the hands from his neck but Lawall had him in a ferocious grip. Little by little, Randall Jacobs could feel himself sliding towards unconsciousness. His hands fell away and he felt one graze his trouser pocket. He could feel a metal point. He realized what it was and felt down and wrapped his fingers around the handle of the letter opener. Randall Jacobs knew he had no other choice and with the last of his strength he swung his arm up and plunged the letter opener into the base of Lawall’s skull. The grip on Randall Jacobs throat eased as Lawall jerked upright. His eyes fluttered and went wide, his mouth opened and closed and a low moan escaped him. A small trickle of blood crept from one nostril and drops splashed on Randall Jacobs’ jacket. All the anger and fear gone from him now, he wanted to do something, help this man in some way, tell him he was sorry, beg his forgiveness. But he just stared in horrified fascination as Lawall tried to reach for the letter opener, his hands flapping uselessly at it. After a few seconds, his body toppled sideways and went limp. It suddenly convulsed violently on the floor twice and then was still.
Randall Jacobs lay motionless. Unable or unwilling to comprehend the enormity of what he’d just done. Terry finally dragged himself up into a crouch. “Jesus. I’m sorry. I tried to help but he pole-axed me.” Blood was streaming down Terry’s face from his badly disfigured nose, he fumbled with a pouch at his side and used some gauze to staunch the flow. A large, ugly bruise was already forming on his right cheek. “Sonofabitch broke my goddamn nose. Only just beginning to see straight.”
“I killed him.” Randall Jacobs croaked. His throat red raw and forcing him to barely speak above a whisper. “I killed Lawall…”
“I know.” Said Terry quietly, genuine concern in his voice. “But he was going to kill you. Me too, by the looks of him. He was totally gone. Seen it before. Didn’t figure him for it though.”
Slowly, gingerly, Randall Jacobs sat up. Christ, he ached all over. Carefully, he touched his throat. It hurt terribly. Terry came over and took a look. “Bruising pretty badly there, but you should be okay. No bones broken?”
“No,” croaked Randall Jacobs, “but you look pretty bad.”
“Yeah? Hurts like a bastard too. Don’t think I’m too bad though.” Terry seemed remarkably stable, considering. “These,” he indicated his battered nose “always look worse than they are.”
“Terry… I killed him.” Randall Jacobs couldn’t hide the tremor in his voice. He stared at Lawall’s body.
“Snap out of it, Sergeant. Wasn’t nothing you could do with that psycho. Him or you. You understand?”
“I guess. But I-”
“But nothing. You need to hold it together. Adams and Mazar are still out there. This guy,” he nodded at Lawall’s body, “he’s beyond help. Probably was before.”
“Before I killed him…” Added Randall Jacobs.
“Like I said.” And Terry picked up the hammer and crowbar. “Him or us. Guy was scared out of his mind. Literally. Not like we never seen it before.”
Randall Jacobs thought about the look in Lawall’s eyes when he’d attacked them. It had been uncomfortably close to the body in the barbed wire.
Terry took a few swings of the hammer at the chisel he’d wedged into the final door hinge. The hinge broke off in jagged pieces and he jammed the crowbar into the gap in the door. It didn’t take much effort and the door fell open. Dust filled the air as it hit the floor with a loud thud.
Randall Jacobs busied himself getting his backpack and their weapons together. He tried not to look at Lawall’s body. He handed Terry his rifle. “Let’s get out of here.” Said Terry and they headed into the other room. Randall Jacobs stopped and turned, looking at the body of the man he’d killed. He and Lawall hadn’t been close or anything but the man had been in his squad for a while. He was still having difficulty processing what had happened. What he’d done.
“Leave it.” Terry warned. And then softer, that tinge of concern in his voice. “Nothing we can do now. Let’s save those that can be, okay?” And they moved on.
It was still pitch black in the basement and the beam of their flashlights picked out their earlier footprints in the dust and debris. They picked their way towards the hole in the ceiling and were almost back at the ropes they’d lowered when Terry suddenly noticed something. His flashlight picked out a shape in the darkness, it was a boot. The beam moved and picked out the rest of a body. It was Mazar. Terry rushed over but they could both see their squad mate was beyond help. He should have been lying face down almost in the recovery position, if his body was any indication, but his head was tilted at an impossible angle, the neck broken. His face was a rictus of pain and his eyes stared unseeing into space. One arm was pinned under his body, obviously thrown out to stop his fall and also badly broken.
Terry swore violently. Then quieter, under his breath.
Randall Jacobs’ head began to swim. He rocked back on his heels, swayed forward onto the balls of his feet then suddenly doubled over and vomited violently. He stood upright unsteadily, his face pale. Randall Jacobs’ eyes were wide, he looked around frantically. Terry stepped forward and shook him hard by the shoulders. “You with me, Sergeant? Come on, snap out of it!”
Randall Jacobs stared at Terry. He shook his head and then quietly replied that he was okay. “Christ, Terry. What are we going to do?”
“We’re gonna go find Adams.” Terry replied, flatly. “He’s still out there.”
Randall Jacobs found himself once more relieved that at least one of them had some idea of what they were doing. He grabbed one of the ropes hanging over the edge of the hole and began to climb. It was arduous work, made harder by the weakness he felt from vomiting. Not to mention everything else that had happened. His throat and sides still hurt like hell from the fight with Lawall. But the need to find Adams and get the hell out of this place was stronger and he eventually clambered over the side of the hole and onto the plaza in front of the library. The first rays of sunlight beginning to spread across its expanse. Terry appeared a few moments later and they paused to catch their breath. Terry’s face was turning a particularly angry shade of purple from his injury, it looked like it was agony but Terry seemed to dealing with it okay.
Randall Jacobs keyed his radio. His voice a raspy stage whisper. “Adams? Come in, Adams, do you read?”
The only reply was static.
Terry looked over and shrugged. He took a few steps and then looked at their surroundings to see if Adams was visible in one of the buildings around its edge.
Suddenly a chunk of dust flew up from the ground near his feet accompanied almost instantaneously by a high-pitched whine and the sharp crack of a rifle nearby. “FUCK! Incoming!” He cried and sprinted a few steps before diving to the ground and taking cover behind a bench.
Randall Jacobs barely had time to register what was happening before another round whined off the ground near him and he leaped after Terry.
Terry had his rifle up and was scanning their surroundings, desperately trying to get a fix on the shooter.
Suddenly a voice came to them from across the square. “IDENTIFY YOURSELVES!”
“Is that… What the fuck?! That’s Adams!” Rasped Randall Jacobs, his terror and confusion replaced by fury.
He tried to yell but it was hopeless, his voice just croaked out a string of barely audible expletives.
Terry ably stepped in to cover the short fall and screamed at Adams to cease fire with a healthy dose of his own invective.
“Lower your weapon and stand up!” Shouted Adams. Terry grudgingly obliged and Adams appeared from a doorway a couple of hundred yards from them.
They slowly moved towards each other. Randall Jacobs and Terry at a brisk pace, the pair of them glad to see Adams alive but far from amused by his actions. Adams looked around nervously, his eyes darting like the short runs he made between any sparse cover he could find.
They met up, Randall Jacobs wanted to grab Adams rifle and feed it to him, barrel first. Terry shot out an arm to calm him before he could speak and with what Randall Jacobs thought must have been a Herculean effort, Terry spoke in an even measured tone. “Adams, what happened out here? Are you okay?”
Adams spoke rapidly, his eyes frantically searching both their faces and their surroundings. He said his explanation in a hurried staccato.
“Heard something while we were waiting for you… Tried to locate it… I even called out for them to identify. Got into cover. Fired a warning shot. Whoever it was fired back so I fired a bunch of rounds and tried to reposition to see them.”
“Adams,” said Terry quietly “did you see what happened to Mazar?”
“Mazar?” Adams spat. “That creep spouted something about echoes and then hightailed it. I didn’t see anyone but they were there I’m sure of it. Figure my shots scared them off.”
Terry shot Randall Jacobs a look and without Adams seeing shook his head. The buildings surrounding the city square they were in amplified and echoed every sound they made. Shouts were diffuse, hard to trace, multiplied. Shots even more so.
Randall Jacobs began to feel his grip on reality shifting. He felt like passing out or retching. Was this what Lawall and Adams had felt when they had started to lose touch with the rest of the squad? He looked at Terry’s placid face, looking at Adams and saw some measure of compassion and tried to pull himself together. Randall Jacobs wanted so badly for this to not be happening, to be some kind of fever dream or elaborate practical joke. He knew it was all real and all happening right now, whatever he wished. He took some small measure of comfort from Terry’s handling of the situation and resolved to keep it together and at least get the three of them back safe, if not altogether sound.
“Okay, Adams,” Randall Jacobs exhaled slowly, “Mazar and Lawall didn’t make it. We’ve got to get out of here and get back. No sense sticking around for…” He paused briefly, uncertain of how to continue. “…the enemy to find us.”
Adams took a step back. “Mazar? Lawall too? Christ! What happened?”
“Mazar couldn’t have seen the hole in the dark and fell in. Lawall…” Randall Jacobs trailed off.
“Lawall lost it. Fought with us and then took off. We think he headed back. His radio must not be working.” Terry said, flatly.
Randall Jacobs struggled with this lie but figured Terry didn’t want to get into what really happened and possibly make Adams more unhinged. For now, it seemed the path of least resistance and he wasn’t sure how much fight he had left in him.
“Huh.” Said Adams. “Just like Mazar. Well, you can count on me. Those bastards aren’t going to get us!” His voice rose. “We’ll show ’em, right? We ain’t afraid of nothing! ” He looked at Randall Jacobs and Terry excitedly but they could both see the tremble in his hands, hear the strain in his voice.
Adams set off. The other two either side of him.
“You guys ever get a good look at the enemy?” He asked.
“Can’t say that I have. All the big engagements were a while before I got roped into the military.” Replied Randall Jacobs.
Terry stared into the distance. “More than I’d like.” He said, quietly. And then, so quiet it was barely audible, so quiet Adams didn’t hear, Randall Jacobs thought he heard Terry say: “Damn near every day.”
Randall Jacobs was just trying to make some sense of this when he remembered the book in his pocket. He remembered the phrase that had struck him earlier. The truth of his situation, their situation, everyone’s situation dawned on him. His eyes grew wide with mounting horror.
Randall Jacobs spoke in a tremulous voice, “We have always been at war with-”
“-fear itself.” Terry finished. The compassionate look he’d given Adams was back on his face again. This time it was tinged with pity. Randall Jacobs realised Terry already knew. Maybe he’d always known.
Randall Jacobs stopped. Slowly, he sank into a crouch and began to cry. He put his head in his hands and sobs racked his body.
Adams looked back at him in confusion. “Come on. We need to get moving.”
“Yeah,we do.” said Terry. But he just stood, staring into the distance.