Christopher Hunt

In the war against brutality, pain, and hopelessness, feelings can be your greatest enemy -- or your most powerful ally.

We came at dawn to the city of the dead. The heavy treads of our tanks and APCs ground the crumbling road into bone-white dust.

We perched on the riveted white edges of our armor-plated vehicles, eyes narrowed in the sun's early glare, our skin and uniforms coated in layers of grime and sweat.

Huddled corpses watched us from the roadside, their freeze-dried haunches settling softly into the desert's swirling sands, their sticklike bodies as linear and two-dimensional as a child's drawings. They stared at us accusingly from hollow faces, empty eyes grimly welcoming, mouths stretched wide in sardonic grins, crooked skeletal fingers still clutching rusted food bowls licked clean and bare. Tattered shrouds fluttered diffidently in the careless breeze.

Even the flies were dying, buzzing angrily in futile circles, tearing at flesh as dry and unnourishing as old shoe leather.

The city shimmered in the morning light, a vast jumble of bleached and broken buildings, hollowed out and brittle as old bones. A tangled forest of TV antennas and satellite dishes stretched from the rooftops, their angular, leafless branches black against the morning sky. The sighs of the dead whispered through silent alleys and gaping windows.

A woman crouched on an empty oil drum next to the gate of a barbed wire enclosure, hugging her knees tightly. A Red Cross armband was wrapped around one of her sleeves like a bloody bandage. Empty grain sacks were scattered around her like discarded clothes. Her sunburned face was lined and scarred with the pain of others. Her eyes were as hard and blue as our helmets.

"You're too late," she told us, her voice dry and gritty as the desert wind. "You're always too late."

We offered her water and food, penicillin and kind words, but she took nothing. She crouched silently on her oil drum, rocking gently back and forth, gazing unblinkingly at the desert behind us, as if by staring at it hard enough she could force it to bloom, to bring forth the life buried deep within its sandy bosom.

Finally, we picked her up. She crouched in our arms, still rocking, her body humming like a high-tension wire. Her hair was knotted in a loose bun; stray strands as thin and dry as old straw rasped against her face and neck. We carried her to the ambulance, laying her gently on a thin canvas cot in the stale, overheated interior. We sponged her face with lukewarm water and disinfectant, wiping away death's residue but not its memory. We placed salt tablets and Nembutal under her tongue and a melting ice pack on her forehead. We stretched her curled limbs and spoke gently to her of ice cream and cool mountain streams.

"You're too late," she whispered, eyes sliding behind translucent lids as consciousness shut down and her mind moved to deeper levels. We watched as sleep passed its healing hand across her features, softening sorrow's lines. No longer a haggard woman overwhelmed by despair's fierce tenacity, she seemed almost a girl, innocence not yet faded from her face. Hope persisted in the serene curve of her mouth, the determined angle of her jaw, the gentle rise and fall of her breasts.

We shouldered our weapons and stepped back out into the dying landscape, posing grimly for the television cameras that tirelessly tracked us through frame after frame of emptiness, desolation, and death, breaking down the horror into digestible fragments ready for instant transmission to televisions in that other world, a world so distant we were beginning to doubt its existence, where death was a well-kept secret. That world existed for us now only as a secret memory, a myth embedded in our DNA, a place to which we could never return, except in our dreams.

We had come to this land with our guns and our butter, offering dreams of peace and salvation. We brought high hopes, the certainty of conviction, and the confidence of righteousness. We were here to fight for an ideal more urgent, more compelling than truth, democracy, or the American Way -- we were here to fight for life. We were an army of Mother Teresas, armed to the teeth and bristling with good will. Now, only three months later, we had become as eternal and as permanent a part of the landscape as the roving bands who preyed upon the dead and the not-yet dead. Past and future lost meaning as we wandered grim-eyed and bone-weary across fractured plains and river beds.

We were ghost-warriors in clouds of smoke and dust, on a quest with a goal as ephemeral as the mirages in the near distance. We knew only that our task was to dispense justice with fair-handed impartiality, to distribute death and life as required in accordance with the strict guidelines listed in the little book entitled UNPROFOR Rules of Engagement, which we all carried in the breast pocket of our desert fatigues.

We entered the city, passing through a massive stone gate festooned with time-worn carvings of unknown gods and goddesses. The cameras followed, storing our images on magnetic tape, compressing our actions and modulating our thoughts, transforming us into discrete packets of data.

A half-dozen attack helicopters angled across the sky, the air vibrating with their passage.

The city was ancient, a barren metropolis bearing the ravages of millennia. The center of a civilization that had declined long before our ancestors emerged from the forests to trade bone for bronze and fur for wool, the city had once ruled a verdant empire stretching from the bright coastal plains to the dark heart of the continent. Now it was home to scavengers and the dead, its buildings reduced to speechless ruins, their artistry and craftsmanship eclipsed by the random etchings of sand and wind.

The journalists spoke with conscientious excitement to their cameras, somberly contrasting the city's thriving past with its brutal present. They spoke as if by rote, reciting passages from some ritual catechism learned long ago in bright fluorescent temples. Now the words were shorn of meaning, their significance eroded by ceaseless repetition. While the journalists declaimed in their obsolete tongue, the cameras turned away, panning intently across the faces of the dead, peering curiously at faded murals and maimed statues.

We halted in the city's main square, securing the perimeter and dispatching patrols to scour the twisting alleys for signs of life. We set up an emergency broadcast system and began announcing our presence, declaring that the city was now under our authority and that food, water, and medical assistance would be made available to all those who required it.

There was no response.

We set up our field kitchen and had our lunch. We ate wilted greens and warm, soggy cold cuts.

Billy MacDonald sat beside me in the shade of a chipped and mangy lion, writing a letter to his girlfriend. He wrote her the same letter every day, concealing his desperate longings and deepening bitterness in carefully couched words of cheer and steadfast belief. He didn't want to worry her, he said. She wouldn't understand the truth.

Billy never sent the letters. He folded each one carefully and placed it an envelope, printing his lover's name and address in small crimped characters on the face of the envelope, and then depositing it in his knapsack. He was afraid she wouldn't answer.

We were all afraid she wouldn't answer.

In the afternoon, we were assigned sanitation detail. This meant collecting and disposing of the dead.

We moved cautiously from house to house, grimly alert, methodically clearing each domicile of its lifeless inhabitants as if battling them for control of the city.

We loaded the dead on flatbed trucks, stacking their insubstantial bodies like firewood. When the trucks were full we drove to the outskirts of the city where other men unloaded them, piling the corpses in pyramids and dousing them with gasoline.

As the afternoon dimmed into evening, the dead still burned, rising heavenwards on plumes of black greasy smoke.

When night fell, the living began to stalk us. The men who raided the airlifts and the convoys, who ambushed aid workers and isolated patrols. The men who had brought death to this land and who now fought each other for mastery over the lifeless remains.

The popcorn crackle of gunfire echoed in the hollow stillness. The sky lit with flares and powerful searchlights. We fired at shadows, smudged blurs of heat in our nightscopes. In the city of the dead, the living were patches of darkness against white walls, fleeting ghosts materializing briefly in windows and on rooftops, bright-eyed creatures of the night who faded in the light of day.

In the morning we found the corpses of those we had killed, their bodies stiff-limbed and heavy, more substantial in death than in life, as if only in death could their existence be confirmed.

We had just finished clearing our sector of the night's dead and were sprawled in the thin shade of a dying palm tree when we saw the lieutenant and the relief worker walking toward us along the empty avenue. The lieutenant walked thoughtfully, head bowed, hands clasped behind his back. The relief worker was speaking animatedly, her hands in constant motion, as if she were simultaneously translating her words for the benefit of deaf or distant onlookers. Together, they looked like a pair of academics strolling across a campus, engaged in profound discourse.

The lieutenant was a hunched, nervous young man whose pale cheeks were sprayed with angry traces of acne. He carried his authority tentatively, like something too hot to touch. When he spoke his overlarge Adam's apple trembled in his throat, as if all his fears had coalesced there in a huge lump too big to swallow. Once we had despised him, treating him with ironic deference. Now we pitied him, sharing his pain, seeing beneath his pinched, wary features the bookish child who had once fled the playground and sought refuge in adventure stories and medieval fantasies, seeing himself a noble warrior, a selfless knight bringing succor to the world's downtrodden.

Now those dreams were gone, the knife-sharp clarity of youthful idealism dulled by the callused reality of a world impervious to faith or reason. Like all of us, the lieutenant no longer sought to make an impact, but only to survive.

Our sergeant pushed himself stiffly to his feet, saluting as the lieutenant came up. Nobody else moved.

"As you were," said the lieutenant, flapping his hand against his forehead as if brushing at a fly. He was staring at his boots, perhaps searching for something in the intricate patterns of dust and cracked leather. The relief worker watched us silently, arms folded under her breasts. She looked stronger today, her body relaxed, but her eyes still seemed to be focused on some invisible point in the distance, registering us only as foreground static. The hope we had seen in her sleeping face was gone.

The lieutenant shuffled his feet, reclasping his hands behind his back. "Ms. Lindquist here," he jerked his head toward the relief worker, "has indicated that there may be a relatively large group of still viable refugees located at an Irish relief camp a few klicks north. The location of the camp has been verified by air but no on-site examination has been carried out."

We watched his Adam's apple as he spoke, measuring the cadence of his words by its movement. He licked his lips and glanced at us briefly before returning his gaze to his boots. "Colonel wants us to check it out," he mumbled.

"That mean now, sir?" said the sergeant. There was no trace of contempt in his voice. Though older and wiser, the sergeant never treated the lieutenant with anything but the utmost respect. He cautioned and counseled, maneuvering the lieutenant without questioning his authority. It was as if he were adviser to a child king, discreetly controlling his master's actions while grooming him for leadership.

The lieutenant nodded. "Ms. Lindquist here will accompany us."

"Has transport been laid on sir, or are we humpin' it?" the sergeant asked.

The lieutenant nodded vaguely. "Transport, yes. We'll take a couple of jeeps."

"Yes sir," said the sergeant crisply. He turned to us. "Alright! You heard the man," he snapped. "Get off your asses. Let's go."

We rose without enthusiasm, slapping at the chalky dust on our fatigues. More than anything we wanted to sleep. To sleep and sleep until the nightmare ended.

"We're probably too late anyway," Billy MacDonald murmured.

The road north was a narrow track that wound sinuously through abrupt hills. Deep ruts had been carved in the road by the ceaseless passage of aid convoys weighed down with powdered food and medicine. Here the sand was the color of rust. Fist-sized chunks of malachite glittered like emeralds in the dust.

We sat in the back of jeeps, helmets pulled low, eyes barely open, watching without seeing. Our weapons were cradled loosely in our arms, our flak jackets hung open. Though the area had not been declared secure, we anticipated no danger. For us, death struck only in the dark.

Only the sergeant was alert, his eyes on automatic scan, tracking the low-slung hills with pinpoint precision, focusing in on scattered patches of scrub and brush, searching for the glint of metal, the sudden star-bright flash of sun reflected from a sniper's scope.

A lone vulture circled us lazily, drifting across the sky in long, low arcs.

The lieutenant sat in the lead jeep with Ms. Lindquist. She was still talking. It seemed as if she were trying to comfort him, as if now that there was no one else left for her to save, his puerile timidity compelled her attention, gratifying the same needs that had brought her to this helpless land.

No one else spoke. Words seemed futile here, their meaning disintegrating almost as soon as they were uttered. Conversation was something we no longer understood. It implied the interaction of personalities, the subtle give-and-take of social intercourse. But the distinguishing features that had once set us apart as individuals had been worn away by sand and wind and persistent despair. Like our excess flesh, the painstakingly constructed masks we had once worn were gone, leaving only bone, sinew, muscle, and some indefinable core that told us we were alive, but nothing more. We no longer knew if we liked each other or hated each other. We didn't care.

Being alive was enough.

The relief camp was only six kilometers from the city. It took us nearly two hours to get there. While we drove, images of the world flickered behind our eyes. Air-conditioned supermarkets and glittering department stores, soft ice cream cones and barbecued steaks. We wondered what we would do if we ever got back.

The camp was surrounded by a flimsy fence built of plywood and rusted chicken wire. The gates were open, hanging from their hinges like broken cupboard doors. The vulture settled on one of the gateposts, its flat, dead eyes mocking us as we approached.

We drove slowly through the entrance. Here, too, the dead had gathered to greet us. Many of them had been shot. Some hung limply on the fence, their hands still tightly clutching the wire, as if they had just paused to rest for a moment before resuming their climb.

They had not been dead long. They stank. A rank odor of decaying matter and fetid water hung in the still air, like flowers left too long in the vase. The stench stung our nostrils. We rubbed mentholatum under our noses and wrapped sweat-soiled bandannas around our faces.

The Irish flag still hung above the compound, flapping briskly in the sour breeze.

"We're too late," said Billy MacDonald.

We pulled up next to the living quarters and climbed out of the jeeps.

"Secure the compound," said the lieutenant, his weak voice muffled by his bandanna.

The sergeant nodded.

We fanned out, weapons at ready, more alert now, as if wakened by the smell of death. We walked slowly among the dead, occasionally prodding them with our boots, throwing ourselves to the ground at the slightest sound. The flap of a loose shirt. The sudden sigh of released gas.

The vulture swooped down from its post, pecking its way fastidiously through the corpses, chattering excitedly to itself.

Billy MacDonald lifted his rifle to his shoulder and squeezed off a shot. The impact flung the vulture against the fence where it collapsed in a heap of twitching feathers. We all started firing.

When our magazines were empty, we declared the compound secure. We slammed fresh magazines into our rifles and kicked down the door to the living quarters. We burst inside, covering the corners of the room, our eyes bright above our faded bandannas.

Six people knelt against the far wall, their hands bound behind their backs, their faces pressed against the cracked plaster like supplicants at the Wailing Wall. Two were men, four were women. All were naked. The men were black. The women were white. All of them had been shot in the back of the head at close range. Thick black pools of crusted blood had coagulated on the floor.

The lieutenant coughed, turning his head away. Ms. Lindquist stared at the corpses, her fierce eyes filled with rage.

"I assume those are the relief workers?" the lieutenant mumbled to his feet.

Ms. Lindquist nodded grimly. She stared around the room like an angry lioness, and the scent of blood sharp in our nostrils. At that moment we heard a long, soft cry, faint and distant, almost like the mournful wail of a lonely cat.

We tensed, listening.

The lieutenant's head bounced up. "What was that?" he whispered. His Adam's apple quivered.

"Be quiet," commanded Ms. Lindquist. Her nostrils flared. She thrust her head forward, twisting it slowly from side to side. Her tongue protruded slightly from her mouth, flicking across her lips as if tasting the air.

Again the cry came. A ghostly lament, eerie and high-pitched, its source indeterminable.

"In there," said Ms. Lindquist softly. She pointed at a door on the side of the room.

We moved forward cautiously, padding deathly-quiet across the hard-packed earthen floor, our fingers stroking the triggers of our rifles. Rumors whispered in our heads, memories of macabre tales told by nail-hard paratroopers from the French Foreign Legion. Suddenly, we were afraid, afraid that this land could no longer absorb the crushing burden of the dead and was now rejecting them, returning them to life.

The sergeant leaned against the wall next to the door. Gently he turned the doorknob and lightly pushed the door open.

The room was dark and windowless. A thin shaft of pale light fell through the door, revealing only gray shadows and dust. The Sergeant slipped his hand inside, feeling the wall for a light switch. After a moment, he shook his head and signaled us to go infrared.

Hearts pounding, we pulled our goggles down over our eyes and stormed into the room. Our rifles were slippery in our hands.

It was the infirmary. A long row of beds ran along each side of the room, each bed occupied by a heatless body. The room smelled of formaldehyde and excrement.

We scanned the beds slowly, searching for signs of life. There were none. The dead lay unmoving on their beds, their shadowed eyes locked on the exposed steel beams over their heads. Had the cry come from these assembled corpses? A trick played by gas-bloated stomachs and intestines? The last breath of air expelled by a collapsing lung?

"It's clear," the sergeant said.

"You sure?" said the lieutenant.

The cry came again. Longer now. A cry of despair, unalloyed fear. Definitely human. And definitely alive.

Like a child having a bad dream.

We stood frozen in the thin shaft of light like rabbits caught in the glare of an approaching headlight.

"It comes from in here," said Ms. Lindquist. "I am certain."

We heard sobbing.

Somebody found the light switch.

"Check under the beds," said the sergeant.

There were three of them. Huddled tightly together under the last bed. Tiny, bone-thin creatures with huge heads and big round eyes. Their ages were indeterminate. They might have been three years old. They might have been fifteen.

At first they were afraid, weakly scrabbling away from us, snapping at our hands with toothless mouths.

Only when Ms. Lindquist crouched down and talked to them softly in their language did they relax. They answered her quietly, the sound of their voices like birdsong. They folded themselves into our arms and let us carry them outside. Their bodies were ethereal and insubstantial. It seemed as if they might float away on the breeze like falling leaves. Their eyes were serene, staring at us expectantly.

We stroked their fragile heads, whispering to them, words suddenly coming easily to our tongues in a tumbling rush. We cooed and murmured like brand-new fathers, amazed by these fragile creatures, awed by the forgotten miracle of life.

"I hope we're not too late to save them," said the lieutenant. He watched the children warily, as if afraid they would crumble into dust before his eyes.

Ms. Lindquist smiled. We saw again the face we had seen yesterday, the hidden face where hope still lived. "You're not too late," she said.

That night Billy Macdonald sat under the stars in the city of the dead and wrote another letter to his girlfriend. The lieutenant brought us a case of beer and fresh batteries for our Game Boys and Walkmans.

The light of the stars turned the city to silver. We drank our beer in the cool glow, marveling at the sweep and depth of the star field. We had never seen so many stars. They coated the sky like glitter dust. We drank our beer and argued over the names of constellations and talked about adopting children. We watched as Billy MacDonald removed all the letters he had saved from his knapsack and set them alight. We laughed and clapped our hands as our unwanted memories snapped, crackled, and crumbled into fine black ash.

While we slept the stars sparkled in our dreams like bright-eyed children.

In the morning we saw clouds clustering on the horizon. A cool breeze caressed our faces, carrying with it the fresh clean scent of rain. A few wispy tendrils of black smoke still trailed across the sky. We let the children wear our helmets and carried them to our jeeps. The cameras congregated around us. The journalists spoke new words, unrehearsed, spontaneous, their deadpan monologues barely able to restrain long-pent emotions.

Before we left the city, a grinning Billy MacDonald went to the quartermaster and mailed the letter he had written during the night.

Later, as we drove into the desert, the sound of children's laughter was loud in our ears.

Christopher Hunt (chrish@wimsey.com) was an encyclopedia salesman, waiter, cook, clerk in a porno bookstore, and factory laborer before ending up in Japan, where he taught English and later worked as a copywriter with a Japanese ad agency. He's now a Vancouver-based freelance writer and library junkie who wonders why he has to work so hard to make a living. When he has time, he edits the Web 'zine Circuit Traces.

InterText stories written by Christopher Hunt: "Game Over" (v5n3), "Dust" (v5n6), "Autoerotic" (v6n3).

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 5, Number 6 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1995 Christopher Hunt.