I awoke with a start, hitting my head on the bunk above me. Surprised to find I wasn’t on the battlefield, but also to be alive. I could feel my own heartbeat of course, but placed a hand over my chest, then checked my pulse just to be certain. Waking up after a bash like that means one of two things, and I was in a hurry to rule one of them out.
“Oh I saw him alright. Prancing about like an excitable little twit. Just had no clue what his problem was until the truck was on us. I wouldn’t put this on him, he did what he could. Still, he’s dead weight. I don’t see what’s so important about this one fuckin’ radio man that we can’t just-”
Their eyes locked with mine and widened. As if about to ask how long I’d been awake, although what came out instead was “Welcome back to the land of the living.” Less so with every passing minute. The room around me was plainly some sort of bunker, corrugated steel sheeting forming a hemicylinder with flat concrete walls at either end.
After bickering with the nurse for a bit over whether I was in a condition to stand, I was finally permitted to leave the bunk room. Just to use the bathroom initially. But then I’d added that I’d like to shave. Then that I could use a shower, and so on until she grew tired of waiting outside for me and left me to my own devices.
It was nice to be fussed over, and in truth I did still feel somewhat shaky. But although I suspected there was only one way it could turn out, I wasn’t about to lay back and watch it happen while somebody periodically changed my bedpan and gave me sponge baths. There is some part of men, a nagging voice in their head which grows louder and more insistent the closer death is.
Get up, it whispers. There’s still so much left to do. The longer you lay there, contemplating final submission, the louder the voice grows. Until it’s shouting at you. Berating, demanding, imploring you not to accept your end.
Because while that voice reviles death, another competing voice welcomes it. Death is comfortable, and comfort is death. It’s too easy. You’ll stagnate, weaken. Until after relaxing for too long you find you can no longer stand.
Life is a struggle, so to struggle is to live. A cliche familiar to anybody who’s listened to the non-stop propaganda broadcasts, but with a basis in truth. I surveyed the adjacent room and found it bustling with activity. With life that had not yet surrendered. Which would not yet contemplate it, holding out hope until the end that some scrap of our civilization can still be saved.
A great array of round glass picture tubes hung from the ceiling in a semicircle around a central control console. Men in wheeled chairs wearing radio headsets scooted from panel to panel, twisting knobs, toggling switches, reading aloud sequences of numbers from tape being printed out into an ever growing pile around their feet.
“Depot 118 is overrun. Withdrawing remaining teletanks to reinforce forward defenses at foundry 326. ETA seven hours, forty five minutes assuming they don’t encounter opposition en route.” The man next to him operated a set of joysticks. The monitor before him displayed the view out of what, when I noticed the cannon looming overhead, I realized was a tank.
Remote control by radio! With video transmission no less. Only the second time I’d seen such technology in person, the first being a world’s fair before the war broke out. Really state of the art stuff. Other monitors told the same story, with the men peering at them controlling all manner of fighting machines from aeroplanes and tanks to zeppelins and battleships.
“Triage. That’s what you’re looking at, son.” I turned to see the Captain standing behind me, brown trenchcoat speckled with black stains. “Saving whatever can still be saved. Judiciously sacrificing what can’t. Don’t think it doesn’t pain them to leave men behind. So few of us left now. But with this technology, every drop of red blood equals a gallon of the black stuff. Those dozen men you’re looking at are doing the fighting of a thousand.”
Before I could inquire how, he herded me through a doorway in the opposite wall. Row after row of glass tubes I recognized as the sort found in any home radio covered every wall. A low pitched hum enveloped me, and I could faintly hear a continuous series of mechanical clicks. “We call it Monstermind. It’s a thinking machine of sorts. Maybe too grand to call it that. But it’s enough to continually carry out the last set of orders any given tank, plane or other machine received until it’s issued new ones.”
Absolutely astonishing. I felt alarmed at the brief rekindling of hope within me. Not that I opposed it, but because it’d been burnt out for so long. What other technological wonders were being kept hidden from the men on the ground? But then, would we rush so readily to our deaths if we knew our orders came from an unfeeling machine, not so different in certain ways from the enemy?
“Is there truly hope?” I inquired. “That we might somehow pull through, I mean.” He looked at me with undisguised disdain. “What the hell sort of question is that, boy? Irrelevant navel gazing. If we didn’t believe there was hope, why do any of this? Why fight? Why carry on, why breathe, why live? If you’re in such a hurry to join the dead, there’s a shortcut I can avail you of.” He fingered a sleek black pistol hanging from his belt. I elected not to test his sincerity.
The next room he took me to looked unexpectedly familiar. Row after row of caskets lined the floor, with disused channels to the surface above them. “Gravestation 907” was stenciled in letters ten feet high across the far wall. “This whole complex was converted from a captured coldblood settlement. That’s how we got our hands on much of the technology you’ve seen so far. But there wouldn’t be nearly enough electricity to power all of it if not for the POWs.”
His meaning was unclear until I noticed the casket nearest me shaking. Like there was somebody inside trying to get out. Closer inspection revealed that it was nailed shut, locked, and wired in series with the rest of the caskets via thick red and black cables. A little bulb on the lid flickered with each blow, but stayed lit.
“The tech boys tell me they’ve still got no fuckin’ clue how to extract electricity directly from the black stuff, the way coldblood tanks do. But it’s easy enough to just pull current from their bodies.” A trio of technicians wrestled a gagged coldblood into an open casket, restrained him, then attached alligator clips to a pair of bolts drilled into either side of his neck. Finally the lid was shut, and soon the bulb on it illuminated.
The Captain seemed to sense my dismay. “Don’t look so shocked. They feed on us, we feed on them. Any man who imagines there to be such a thing as ‘rules of war’ profoundly misunderstands what war is. After we’ve won, after the dead have been returned to the soil for good and the last grave mite has been gassed, we can sit down and discuss whether what we did was morally right. Until then, we haven’t the luxury.”
The nurse finally tracked me down, and the Captain visibly strained himself trying not to laugh as she lectured me. “A shower, you said. A shave. Some shower! Some shave! Back to bed with you! Don’t think I’ll fall for that twice, either.” I didn’t resist. The tour took more out of me than I expected.
Stay Tuned for Part 5!