By Lochlan Bloom
Published by Radial Books 2017 at Shakespir
© Copyright 2017 Lochlan Bloom
The moral rights of the author have been asserted.
Lochlan Bloom has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
Characters, names, entities, places, events and incidents are derived from the author’s imagination. This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to people, alive or dead, or real events is purely coincidental and not intentional.
The author and publisher do not assume and hereby disclaim liability for any injury, loss or damage to persons or property, however it may arise, including from negligence or any other cause. The publisher takes no responsibility for content that the reader may find offensive or vulgar.
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Their boots stamped down on the hard, sabulous ground, small clouds of yellowed dust curling into the air. They had been live less than five minutes and already Grant new something was badly wrong.
There should have been landscape pointers at the two hundred metre mark but their scopes showed nothing, nothing at all save for internal diagnostics. It looked like they were alone for the moment.
‘We got feed from Betty?’ Mitch called from the rear of the party.
‘Negative, Mitch,’ Grant replied tersely, through his headset. ‘We’ll give them another five then switch to G config.’
They had never lost the scopes before and, although the unit was trained in such an eventually, without them Grant felt strangely naked.
Their mark should be no more than a mile from the dropzone but that distance suddenly felt much larger than it should without the presence of Betty in their ears. Grant could feel a dryness in his mouth.
The hostiles were supposedly contained beyond the distant ridge but without live confirmation the peril of their current situation impressed itself firmly on Grant’s psyche.
What should have been a routine pacify and retreat mission was now fraught with numerous tingling potentials. Grant frantically searched his memory, trying to recreate the forms and contours of the battle map they studied prior to launching but there was only a fuzzy static of fragmented images.
The last vestiges of deep-sleep fogged his brain, tendrils of a smoky trance reaching back to the coma-like state from which he just awoken. It was standard procedure to drop into deep-sleep during transport.
The flight time to the dropzone could be up to eight hours and it was proven that deep-sleep helped enhance operational performance. The technology was thoroughly tested and, officially at least, there were no aftereffects or negative mental outcomes.
Despite this, Grant had experienced these wisping tendrils of slumber several times before and the others had experienced similar. It was not dissimilar to the sensation of waking from natural, animal sleep.
It seemed to Grant that for those first few minutes after waking he was still connected to the dreamstate, still anchored to whatever profound place it was that deep-sleep carried them before the fighting began.
He shook his head forcing himself to focus on the heat haze that cloaked the horizon. None of it fitted. None of the landscape looked right at all, none of the lines he observed matched those he remembered from their briefing.
Although he had grown to trust the guidance of the BT team he had never lost his gut instinct. On those rare occasions in the past where he had found himself making the wrong call it was only because he lacked the full information that the guys in BT had.
The flight time from base should have been no more than four and a half hours, a relatively short haul operation, but Grant felt there was a intractable chasm between them and their starting point. He had never felt this disconnected, separate, before.
‘We’ve landed off spot,’ Lance’s voice buzzed in his ear. ‘These landforms don’t match the prep.’
Grant let out a low grunt and signalled to his men to fall in with a swirl of his right hand.
‘Have we got any positive ids, any matches at all?’
Lance had closed the distance from the rear and stood no more than three metres from Grant. He hesitated over something, avoiding Grant’s gaze as he shifted his attention from the horizon to the ground and back.
‘No, nothing reasonable,’ Lance’s slow northern accent irritated Grant. They had been on three successful ops together and Grant knew he could trust him but sometimes, sometimes…
‘What have you got?’ Grant demanded gruffly.
‘We’re getting locks on three of the peaks,’ Lance replied motioning vaguely at the distant ridges. ‘Matches to Espanola Valley.’
‘Espanola Valley?’ Grant murmured. ‘And the GPS?’
‘GPS is giving the same sir,” Lance volunteered uncomfortably. ‘Something must have fried the kit.’
‘Can you fix it?’ Grant asked, an unpleasant bloodless feeling passing over him.
‘I’ll take a look, I don’t know, I’ll do what I can,’ Lance replied.
Grant shook his head and squinted at the distant horizon. Espanola Valley? It was impossible. They might have travelled off spot while in deepsleep. A four and a half hour radius from base could place them a hell of a lot of places but the one place they couldn’t be was in Espanola Valley.
How many years had they each spent training at the base? Day hikes, night ops, squad training, fly bys. Did they not know the Espanola Valley like the back of their hand? His throat was so dry.
The heat haze played games with him. Was it his imagination or did the peaks bear a resemblance to the familiar backdrop of the mountains and valleys surrounding the base?
The hillsides in front of them were bare, save for hot sand and rock. The jagged outlines resonated with a certain familiarity but there was no sign of the heatstacks at La Fito, the dull suburban houses stretching out from Las Tres Cruces or the landing strip at Rhewlsbad.
Grant shook his head. There was not a sign of human habitation in any direction. Nearly one and a half million people lived in the Espanola valley. It was impossible.
‘I can’t see anything wrong from the field diagnostics,’ Lance was saying. He was crouched on the ground at the centre of group, huddled over his backpack which contained the majority of the nav kit. ‘I’m going to have to do a full strip down of the kit. Want me to do it here?’
Grant studied the men, they were all but motionless; steadfast, locked in defensive position. The only movement was the side-to-side sweep of their eyes and the downward slide of sweat on their faces under the dry desert sun.
‘No we’re too open. Any foxhole?’ Grant asked.
Lance simply nodded and motioned with his hand to a point on the closest ridge. He was always looking out.
‘Good,’ Grant continued. ‘We’ll head there and you can get comms back up.’
The men shifted position without a word and moved into formation for the short march to the ridge. It looked no more than twenty minutes away and would hopefully provide relative safety until they found out what the hell was actually going on.
Adrenalin swept up through Grant’s body, producing a surge of vitality. He knew his guys were tough but if they were to get out of this alive, function as a team, react like the well-primed machine that they had trained to become, then the role of the leader was critical. It all meant something in those moments.
There was a light breeze blowing in from the direction of the ridge but other than that the entire plain was still, still and empty. The sun sat at one o’clock, punching short shadows and blasting the landscape with rich yellows, red and ochres.
The air smelt overheated, as if all the grease and shit that humanity normally spewed out into the atmosphere had been removed, baked out. If it wasn’t for his finely-tuned sense of threat, developed over years of combat, Grant would have said the desert plain was almost peaceful.
They proceeded at a good pace, in tight formation, half-jogging towards the sandy ridge. Grant was already thinking ahead, trying to estimate their exposure out there, hoping the repair to the comms unit would take no more than forty five minutes.
His eyes scanned the surroundings, constantly, flicking between his men and the horizon. The heat and the weight of the heavy pack quickly became uncomfortable but there was nothing to do but carry on.
As he adjusted his pack Grant winced, careful to avoid letting his guys see any sign of the weakness. Twice, out of the corner of his eye, he thought he caught sight of a fleeting black figure but when he turned to look saw it was simply the shadow of a lone rock some distance away.
Mounting the ridge, Grant quickly identified a hollow that offered some minimal protection and motioned the men down to it. Once there they squatted in position, Don and Billy quickly produced the camouflages and in under two minutes had constructed the make-shift webbing tent designed to hide them from view. Inside, Lance wasted no time, quickly setting about stripping down the comm pack with a look of focused determination on his face.
Grant took the opportunity to again scan the horizon, an unsettling feeling building in him. The longer he looked out at the skyline the more that creeping familiarity grew. He checked his water flask it was completely empty. He was normally more restrained.
In the haste to reach some shelter his instincts had taken over but now, studying the ridges again, he became more and more convinced they were after all in Espanola Valley.
Could it be true? Was this some kind of training exercise? He frantically scanned his memory. It didn’t add up, no matter which way he stacked it.
They had all used virtual training systems before and yes, they were realistic, but even the most advanced were light years from anything like this, they were realistic but not real.
He instructed the men to conduct a full hard-reset on their individual scopes but he was already starting to feel there was little hope that any of them would pick up a signal. It was starting to look like the equipment failure, for whatever reason, was no accident.
It took Lance only twenty five minutes to confirm his fears. His comm pack was not registering any satellite signals and despite resetting the ground-based positioning system it still showed their location as inside the Espanola Valley.
‘Well if its bust can you navigate us visually to the target,’ Grant asked, a frustrated rage building in his blood.
‘Cap, the thing is…’ Lance replied, cautiously. No doubt aware of Grant’s temper. ‘The thing is, visually, the landscape here… Well the thing is it does look a bit like we are in …’
‘We are going to perform a tactical evacuation, understood?’ Grant cut Lance off brusquely, turning his head marginally to indicate the end of this conversation. “Head down to lower ground. Think you can manage to get us there.’
Lance’s face crumpled at Grant’s harsh tone and regretting his anger Grant added, ‘I’m counting on you.’
They were quickly on the move again and Lance led them down the lee of the ridge to the vaguest of paths which ran beside a dried out stream bed. Grant nodded, he already knew where Lance was taking them.
The stream bed would wind down for around half a mile and then join a small river. The path they were following would then cross the river, over a few stepping stones, and lead on for another 4.7 miles until they reached Darch Corner. From there they would join the track and it would be a short march back to the barracks.
He could scarcely argue with Lance’s directions. It was a text book response to evacuate from their position and retreat into the safety of the lower valley but at the same time it was all wrong.
When they had boarded the transport it had been warm, hot even, it was April. It had been nothing like this, nowhere near this unbearable temperature. The Huisache and the Mesquite trees had been in bloom for godsake.
It was all wrong. They should have seen the start of the tree line by now for a start. The spare woodland with its hickory and black gum trees should be stretched out below them, curving around to join into the edges of the suburban sprawl at St Helnus. But there was nothing, nothing but sand and grit and that overheated smell in the air.
They reached Darch Corner in record time to find an unfamiliar landscape. That area in April was normally thick with leafy forest, but all they could see was a few diseased creepers, twisted grey vines and squat bushes.
The track was still there though and they were proceeding along it single file when Reg sent a SAU signal to the squad via the in-ear. As one the entire squad of men tensed, their training overcoming every fibre of their beings, like Pavlov’s dogs responding to the SAU bell ringing in their ears.
An SAU meant a direct sighting, unconfirmed as friendly or hostile. Grant scanned the undergrowth looking for anything unusual.
‘Reg, what d’you see?’ Grant whispered, shifting on his feet and motioning the men to split from the track.
‘Male, forty yards, three o’clock, camouflages, unclear view,’ Reg replied. He jabbed twice in the direction that he had seen the SAU but there was nothing there.
Grant kept his eyes trained on the spot and counted up to ten but nothing moved.
‘Cap, can’t be sure but thought I saw EFCS tags on that SAU.’
Grant mulled over this information. His thoughts were muddled, his mouth unpleasantly dry. If there were other soldiers from EFCS, from their very own division, in the vicinity then there were only two plausible explanations.
It was possible that a separate squad had been sent to the exact same drop zone at the same time, but this seemed unlikely. If there were two squads operating separate missions in the same zone with no communication or forewarning the chances were high that they might shoot each other.
True, the BT guys would not know their exact position, thanks to the broken comms rig, but still it was a major break of protocol to run live ops down the same attack corridors without meticulous planning beforehand.
If they really were back in Espanola Valley however it was quite likely they would run into some other soldiers from EFCS. After all they had run training missions through Darch Corner a thousand times before. Despite this some part of Grant’s psyche refused to believe it. It all felt so wrong.
After another couple of minutes crouched in the undergrowth and no more movement Grant signalled to the men to continue down the track, in defense formation this time.
The few miles it took to reach the site of the barracks felt like a hundred, like descending down a fathom’s length. Grant could feel his nerves bristling. Every step took them deeper, deeper into the pressurised depths of the desert ocean. His throat burnt with thirst.
There were no more sightings and the diseased vegetation changed very little until they reached the outskirts of the area where the barracks should have stood. Instead of the sprawling collection of low-rise buildings that comprised the barracks all they found was a vast, empty scorched space.
Over seventeen thousand men lived and worked at the EFCS barracks. Dorm houses, gyms, parade grounds, mech houses, canteens, admin blocks, BT and comms clusters, rifle ranges… the site stretched for miles.
For over thirty six months, Grant had spent a good proportion of his life there. He felt he knew it well. It was safety, none of the bloodshed of the field, none of the chaos of civilian life. There life was straight, ordered, boring.
But there was nothing. Grant’s instincts told him they were not in Espanola valley and yet he had lulled himself into the belief that they would round the final corner to find themselves home but there was nothing. The entire barracks was gone.
The next few days passed in a haze of activity and exertion. The sun finally peeled away on the first day to reveal a cold, frosty night. The men camped a couple of miles from the vanished barracks in the hollow of what would have been the disused steel works at Lampedusa.
The site offered some cover and they found a muddy stream nearby which provided semi-drinkable water. However much water Grant drank however his thirst never quite seemed to subside. A thick metallic taste lodged in his throat.
Grant made sure to tire the men out, sending them on errands back and forth, collecting kindling, preparing traps, testing water purity, mapping the surrounding terrain. Countless task of the sort dreamt up by fantasist survivalists. Anything he could think of to keep their minds from the fact that they were lost.
For the most part the men seemed to hold up well, they went about their duties, they joked, they grimaced, they acted as if there had, after all, been no change in their mission. But for Grant the whole world had changed.
The first night he was unable to sleep a wink. It seemed clear to him something was badly askew. Whatever region they had landed in was beyond the realm of the normal mission.
It was more than mere coincidence that the geography of the place matched their home terrain of Espanola exactly. He could feel it in his bones. Everything around them resonated with an ominous wrongness.
In the morning, Grant sent three two-man units off in different directions to scout the land. He had little hope that they might report anything meaningful. Indeed they were no more than 1 kilometre away when a strange static overtook their comms.
Returning hours later all three units reported that they had sighted SAUs. Again soldiers with EFCS tags. Grant made no comment on these sightings but he could tell his men were unsettled.
All three units had eventually lost sight of their targets. Reg was adamant it was the same individual he had seen the previous day. He and his partner Warren had tried to make contact but the unidentified strangers retreated. Mitch and his partner in contrast had opened fire but were unable to confirm if the target had been wounded or not.
‘It’s probably back up,’ Grant said. ‘They’ll zero in on us once they establish a safe corridor.’
He could see that the men did not believe this any more than he did.
It was understandable that their mental health would be impacted. The trust that had been so tightly wound between the men could not help but become unpicked by the rising uncertainty. Was Grant keeping something from them, the men no doubt asked themselves in the shadows of their thoughts.
Who were the phantom-like EFCS soldiers that haunted the land? Was this some test by the guys at HQ? Or had they been transported to some alternate reality? And if so what did that mean for their prospects of survival?
Grant for his part found the strain exhausting. He found he could sleep no more than a few hours at a stretch and woke every time from violent blood-filled nightmares.
On occasion he dreamt of Claire and the little ones, back home, the soft carpet in the upstairs of the house. He would be tucking them in or reading a bedside story. Claire would call from downstairs.
The light in the bedroom was syrupy, warm and inviting. He felt as if he too might drift to sleep but then, just as his eyes were about to shut, a remembrance would pull him awake.
Nothing concrete, something just beyond a memory, there was some detail, some important detail that eluded his grasp, something which until that moment had remained hidden, something it was vital he recalled.
Other times he was hiking on a trail with Claire, the little ones nowhere to be seen. Claire dragged a blood bag, dangling from a hospital stand, over the rough ground.
Again he struggled to remember that important detail but the harder he strained the further it was from him. Over the hill a terrible sound came, the primeval sound of war, and he knew that if he could only remember he might be saved.
Sometimes it was not Claire but his brother, as a young boy, pale and haggard dragging the same blood bag on the metal frame, his kidney returned, once more engorged. The sound of war would build and they were pulled towards it.
Always it ended in bloodshed. Back on the battle field, hacking, shooting, torturing the enemy. An orgy of violence. And the enemy were legion. And he knew it was a fight he could not win but he continued anyway.
He awoke disoriented. Glad to be free of the dreams but anguished at the loss they connoted. He started to hallucinate that he and all the men had actually been killed in combat on their last mission some seven weeks previously.
The squad’s return, the weeks passed in the barracks, the training, the spindly girl he had slept with in Bronco’s, the altercation with the traffic cop, the sight of his semen swoshing down the plughole in the shower room, all of that was unreal.
That sweaty, desert to which they had been delivered was therefore some heaven, hell or purgatory. His thoughts floated and looped, unhinged and he had to do his utmost to prevent them manifesting themselves in a phrase or expression that might let the others know what he was thinking. It was no wonder time felt elastic.
It was on the third day that Grant finally confirmed the various sightings that had been accumulating, growing, tantalisingly of the EFCS soldiers. A squad of men emerged from the hazy morning sand at seven hundred hours.
Equal in number to Grant’s squad they wore identical EFCS uniforms, identical EFCS helmets, identical expressions of exhausted distrust. They were led by a Commanding Officer who introduced himself as Emilio.
‘We’re in the shit,’ this Emilio said, speaking in a chewed up drawl. ‘They sent us in to find you guys after your comms went black and now we’re in the same shitcreek.’
Grant nodded sagely.
‘You can’t get any signal from betty?’ he asked spuriously.
‘Not a sound. Its fucked. Our comms all say we are back in Espanola. Would you believe it?’
Grant no longer knew what he believed.
‘How come you took so long to find us?’ Grant asked, uncertain whether to trust this muddy-looking spic.
‘We had no idea where you guys would be. They warned us …’ The man to the right of Emilio shot him a glance and he stopped, ‘they warned us the region was in hostile control, we had to proceed slowly. We only hit the ground 24 hours ago.’
Grant was about to reply, to tell Emilio they had sighted his squad days before, almost as soon as they themselves had landed but he bit his tongue. There was no point introducing more confusion.
‘So you have no idea where we are either?’
Emilio paused and looked at the man to his right for a long moment before replying no.
Emilio’s squad was better provisioned than Grant’s, prepared as they were to face a situation where they might have to shepherd a wounded or depleted squad back to safety. Pitching in, the men quickly bonded but Grant could see he was not the only one to question their presence.
How did none of them know each other? It wasn’t impossible. There were seven thousand men in the barracks sure but still, the chances were high that from the nearly thirty men now camped in that space, a space that should have been a disused steel work, that at least two of them might have known of each other.
It took some time to calibrate and compare their comms by which time the full heat of the midday was bearing down on them. With little to do and no plan as to which direction they should travel Grant let his men retreat to the cool of the tents to sleep a little. He put Mitch and Louie on guard at the perimeter.
It was only later he noticed Emilio and his men had gone. Neither Mitch or Louie claimed to have seen them leave. Grant felt a surge of panic. He ordered search parties to sweep outward from the perimeter of the camp. They searched until nineteen hundred hours when Emilio and his men were spotted approaching the camp from the west.
They had gone to investigate a possible hostile sighting they said. They hadn’t wanted to wake Grant or his men. Grant thought it best to let this slide and not bring up the fact that he for one had barely rested and would have been wide-awake should anyone have stuck their head through the flap of his tent.
The night passed with incidence, the men all made a large bonfire and gathered around it. There was no longer any pretence of concealing their location. An open fire was a sure signal for any hostiles in the area but Grant and his men had given up believing that any threat would come from an enemy attack.
A certain hysteria built up around the campfire and despite having no access to alcohol the men started to jump and lark around as if they were quite drunk. Grant bit his lip and let them carry on with their buffoonery. Not one of Emilio’s men disappeared from sight for the rest of the night.
The next morning was hotter than ever and Grant woke apprehensively from more blood-soaked nightmares. He had been driving a wooden spike through Mitch’s chest, twisting harder and harder with each cry for mercy that emanated from Mitch’s flooded vocal chords.
Groggily, he pulled on his uniform and laced up his boots. He ordered the few of his men who were awake to carry out some menial marking tasks and marched round to find Emilio.
‘We should strike out from here today?’ Grant said, what he had intended to be a statement instead morphing into a question as he spoke.
‘No, not today. What’s the rush?’ Emilio asked lazily. He reclined on a pop chair, his bare chest gleaming with sweat. ‘We ain’ got no idea which way to head. At least here we got access to water.’
It was true, the muddy stream, five hundred metres from the camp, did have drinkable water but they couldn’t stay there indefinitely. Grant could think of no counter-argument and so instead took Emilio’s offer to sit next to him.
They sat in silence for some time, squinting against the dank morning sun, staring across the few shabby tents at the exposed gravel of the mountains beyond. Finally Emilio spoke.
‘Our supplies wont last so long now we are twice as many.’
Grant wasn’t sure if this was meant as some reproach.
‘We have enough until we find friendly cover,’ he replied.
‘That could be a long time,’ Emilio sighed, and then after a pause, ‘We have already been here a long time.’
Grant didn’t speak to any of his men as he left the camp. He just kept walking. The ground opened out into a vast plain and he marched in a straight line. He felt strangely weightless.
The thick air melted into his skin and all he was aware of was the rhythm of his legs moving beneath him, propelling him forward. Time became something external to him. Something hidden.
The sun had long passed its midday peak before some semblance of awareness returned to him. He had no idea where he was. All he was aware of was his burning thirst and the need to keep moving. The camp was no longer visible. He was surely miles away. He shook his head in disbelief. He had walked as if in some trance.
For the first time since he left the camp that morning he looked around trying to get his bearings, to work out how far he had come. The landscape in nearly every direction was featureless but to his left in the distance he thought he could make out, miraculously, some signs of life.
He thought he could make out the tips of trees waving and the haze of water moisture shimmering over some lake. He felt thirstier than ever. He longed to reach this oasis as soon as possible but every step was now exhausting.
He was almost choked by the heat and the dust by the time he rounded the lip of the small hollow. To his amazement he looked down and saw the oasis was just as he had imagined it.
Pure clear water glistened in a small lake, rimmed with exotic trees and shrubs. Dappled shadows provided areas of succulent shade and as he looked closer brightly coloured birds appeared, cheeping from the undergrowth.
He was about to run down the slope that led to the lake and plunge his head beneath the water when he realised he was not alone. He froze and there on the far side of the lake, half hidden by the foliage he made out the unmistakeable flash of human skin.
Edging forward he hid himself behind a tree he was able to observe human figures, bathing in the water, some two hundred metres away. They splashed in the water and he thought he could detect a silvery laughter floating up through the trees. He was certain they had not spotted him and so, emboldened, he edged closer.
From this vantage point he was able to see better and let out a small gasp as he realised the figures were none other than Emilio and his men. They were entirely naked and splashed around quite unaware they were being observed.
Their bodies appeared to glitter in the sunshine like marble statues of Greek gods. Water glistened on their muscular torsos but despite their evident strength there was something fey about each movement. Grant watched helplessly.
The scene in front of him was unreal. A fiction which he could not shake. He stared greedily as their young, bodies flexed, framed in this perfect Sylvanian scene. His throat constricted with dryness. From some unknown corner of his mind a memory awoke. A painting. An image. Perhaps it was something he had always known.
He recalled walking through the corridors of an art gallery. A giant capacious space, hung with grand friezes and incomprehensible fictions. He had passed through many spot-lit rooms and antechambers until finally he found himself in front of one particular painting.
It depicted voluptuous maidens bathing. He had stared at the image for a long time. Lost in the baleful beauty of the glorious woodland scene. He remembered this moment only. It was from another life.
As he watched, Emilio and his men in the scene were the maidens bathing. Beautiful and innocent. Their bodies were life and purity. He edged forward desperate to quench his thirst.
As he got closer however he realised that each of the men wore a trance-like expression on his face. Despite the outward appearance of relaxed frivolity each man’s face was slack as if drugged or under some spell.
Building up courage Grant reached the closest of the men and touched him lightly on the shoulder. The moment his finger brushed the soldier’s achingly white skin the bodies of the entire group, as one, stiffened.
Grant recoiled in fear. Whatever spooky connection he had triggered between these men he was now fearful for the consequences. They remained motionless for several seconds and then Grant became aware of a low humming.
The men in unison had started to sing. At first a low mournful hum but quickly it grew as the sad harmonies of the men built. Each of their faces was entirely expressionless and they all now stood facing the centre of the lake, half in the water, completely naked.
Grant backed away but the melancholy tones of their song grew louder. He was enthralled. The song, if you could call it that, was something quite unlike any music he had heard before, celestial, angelic almost and by extension entirely sorrowful.
There were no words but Grant could tell, instinctively, that the song was an ode to the world they had all been forced to leave, a world they would never return to and an ode to the world they longed to reach.
The unearthly music built up and up and Grant felt the blood pulsing in his head. It confused him, this plaintive music, it made him unsure of himself of his purpose. What did it mean to have a purpose after all? Once he had known something. He had known how to kill.
A strange pressure built up in his skull and despite the great beauty of the scene he was forced to retreat, scrabbling back up the slope and onto the vast desert plain.
He walked steadily, with his back to the oasis for a couple of minutes and the pressure in his head soon dissipated. It was with shock he noticed the outline of his camp lay no more than seven hundred metres ahead and confused and utterly shattered he staggered back towards his tent.
It was Mitch who first spotted him and soon a roar of voices came up as his men clustered around to question him. Was he ok? Where had he been all day? Had he found any settlements? Had he seen Emilo or the other squad? What had happened to his skin?
He told them he had gone on reconnaissance but made no mention of the lagoon and his sighting of Emilio and his men. Gratefully he let Mitch rub lotion into his neck. He was severely burnt, the skin on his face and the back of his neck peeling of in thick strips. He was drained. His emotions flayed.
Eventually the men receded and he closed the flap of his tent, disappearing into a dark, secluded sleep. He fell, tumbling helplessly into a black, warm space of dreams, his body shrinking to the size of a child’s as he span slowly against an inky background.
When he awoke Lance was standing over him, shaking him awake. The men were getting restless. Tel and a few of the others were insistent that they should strike out that afternoon to try and make contact with the nearest friendly base.
Grant dressed quickly and stumbled out to meet the men who stood huddled close together, talking energetically next to the burnt out ash of the campfire. When Grant approached their voices hushed and they all snapped round to face him.
‘We’ve got to get out of here, gov,’ Tel said, an insolent look on his face.
‘We don’t trust them other guys either,’ Mitch put in. ‘They disappear every evening, what are they doing? Where do they go?’
There were general murmurs of assent from the crowd and Grant sensed for the first time that he might have to fight to assert his authority. Until that point he had assumed, had known even, that his men were loyal to the death but now a dangerous scent of mutiny hung in the air.
‘Where do you suggest we go Talbot? Are you reading nav now?’ Grant growled at Tel, unhappy to have been dragged out bed to deal with this, his tongue dry against the roof of his mouth.
‘Down gov, we’ve got to get to sea level, you don’t need to read nav to recognise this place. What else? Stay here forever?’
Grant stared at him furiously. What did the idiot expect to find if they went to a lower elevation? A red mist came over Grant and a all-consuming rage seized him. Suddenly he found himself pummelling Talbot’s head into the dirt. His mighty fists raised and fell like pile drivers, battering Tel’s face again and again until the blood and sand mingled together.
The other men stood aghast to begin with but eventually Mitch and a couple of the others stepped in to drag him off Tel’s body. Grant was panting like an animal and staring at his men wildly. Each one of them avoided eye contact but solemnly stood their ground.
Grant retreated, making his way to Emilio’s part of the camp. Emilio was in the same seat as the previous morning and made no acknowledgement as Grant sat beside him. He smoked one of Emilio’s cigarettes, a brand he had never heard of. Its thick vegetable flavour for a moment seemed to assuage his thirst.
‘They call it a war, but is it? There’s nobody knows what it is we’re doing any more. Nobody knows what’s at stake any more. We fight all these battles and we tell ourselves we are approaching some final conclusion, a resolution, but there is no end, only our own squalid nature. We ain’t even copies of copies of copies. There ain’t nothing but empty clay. What happened to the Gods that once roamed the land?’
Emilio finished his cigarette with a long draw and ground the butt into the sand beside his seat. Grant looked at him sceptically and was about to ask about the oasis and the events of the previous day but some timidness stopped hm.
‘But there are beautiful things in the world.’ Emilio said finally. ‘There are beautiful things?’
Emilio’s words hung in the air for a long time. Finally, Grant excused himself and rose from his seat. He felt ancient, like some fossilised sea creature reluctantly returned to life after millennia of peaceful decomposition.
He returned to his tent, avoiding his men who he saw were now clustered together around Tel’s tent, evidently discussing some contentious matter. Grant felt as if he was standing atop the dam that held back the final deluge. His mouth was drier than he had ever imagined possible. He wondered how long the dam could hold.
He walked the same direction as he had gone the previous day, never looking behind him. Never thinking about the past. Some time passed and finally he saw the hazy shimmer of the oasis in front of him.
As he stumbled down the sandy slope of the hollow, towards the trees and the lake, he could see the distant figures frolicking in the water. They were singing, the same tones as he had heard the previous day.
Again he approached the nearest of the bathers but this time he knew what he had to do. Pulling his knife from his sheath he heaved the man’s firm body close to him and slipped the blade across his neck.
The blood flowed out, thick and rich, and the weight of the man’s now lifeless corpse caused Grant to stumble backwards in the shallow water. Cradling the man’s head he looked up and, as the blood spurted onto his lap, for the briefest second he felt his thirst entirely quenched.
The next moment the ice of the world hardened in his veins, preparing him for whatever came next.
About the author
Lochlan Bloom is a British novelist, screenwriter and short story writer.
He is the author of the novel , published by Dead Ink Books as part of their New Voices series, from InShort and the novella .
The Wave was one of three novels selected for the Publishing The Underground initiative funded by Arts Council England.
He has written for Slant Magazine, BBC Radio, Litro Magazine, Porcelain Film, IronBox Films, The Metropolist, EIU, H+ Magazine, Palladium Magazine and Calliope, the official publication of the Writers’ Special Interest Group (SIG) of American Mensa, amongst others.
He has also attend the invitation only SCENEinsiders event at the Gothenberg Film Festival and taken part in workshops from the Publishing Training Centre and Edinburgh Mediabase.
For more details visit: lochlanbloom.com
The Waters Of Eli follows a group of soldiers lost far behind enemy lines. Finding themselves in unfamiliar territory they slowly start to become convinced that they have been transported to an alternate universe