Quarry-eyed men made to pass under the yoke, heads bowed in shame filing in somnambulant shaggy passage with icicles freezing dripping from the tips of their blackened noses, shuffling zombies with cloudy expressions on faces pulled groundwards moving one after the other in a silent queue. Beaten totally they step over the bodies of the fallen cradled in the red-stained snow, their rictus hands twisted in indecipherable logos and the ice riven on their anonymous faces. They are allowed now to return from whence they came, wherever that might be, no time or perhaps no compunction to query the living, enough to shackle them with the grim knowledge of their defeat, the enemy they are upon the wasteland stage vile in their poison concoction, one part existential threat to civilized life everywhere two parts pathetic weakness, rats sniveling in the face of martial philosophy made praxis.
In hollowed cadres the victors sling their rifles over shoulders, and before us stretches insane lines of millions of men, not made slaughtered to conserve our bullets, not made prisoners to conserve our food and materiel, not made holocaust to preserve our firewood, and so shamble back pressing rags against seeping pustule wounds to reorganize their centuries. Beneath steely sky we have premonitions of the mandate to reassemble again and charge again and let the dice fall, and this foreknowledge of the fighting yet to come tempers the bravado swimming hot in our chests.
Bobbing in still waters lapping in expectant caesura between blizzard storms, floes knocking dull thuds against her hull, is the Common-Sense. Up through tundric harbors and past the mouths of frozen rivers she has meandered, lookout slouched in the crowsnest scanning the gray wake for enemy ships, wearing the liar’s crown of a steel horn fitted below the prow bouncing slack ice from it and cleaving through the water unmolested. In the shanty that squats behind the wheel attended to idly by a one-eyed helmsman the captain and the red-nosed first mate sit glowering at a map spread across the table. The latter suggests they lay anchor and cast fishing lines and the former rings the back of his head like a gong with a frying pan. As he makes three loops in midair propelled by the force of the hit and a red welt swells upon his head pushing through ratty gray hair the captain grimaces an apology and ponders the empty stores of food and the salting barrels coated with a rind knocking hollow against each other.
In the nest the watchman closes his eyes to steady himself against the noxious unrhythm of the waves plus the spins, a bottle with inklings of whiskey at the bottom still dangling between his middle finger and thumb, slinking from side to side as he rocks it absently. He reclines, his back and feet resting on opposite lids of the rim of the nest, and scratches at a six-day beard. He wonders idly if lice and fleas and mites can survive at these temperatures, his own person certainly having a trying time of its tenure with three fewer fingers to show for it since he arrived in the interminable winter front, as it has been ennobled by the effete veterans cum poets back home. His father and grandfather had both had the fortune to serve in the tropics, and while that, too, presented its own malarial complications he would have taken an hour of diarrhea in a sweat-soaked outhouse amidst equatorial artillery fire over his present state.
As the Common-Sense creaked above dank blue infinite depth he hazards they are several clicks from any allied position. He resolves, as the bottle swings bottoms-up like an oil well and the last drops of whiskey are pulled down and break against his chin, to learn one day what a click was. He belches and pulls the sodden wool collar of his jacket against his body and leans forward, peering now, he grabs at his binoculars and fumbles with the diopter adjustment and through the lens comes a shape and he brings them down and raises them again and looks again and in his absent haste knocks the bottle overboard with his forearm, wincing as it shatters on the crown of the navigator below, and begins hollering that the enemy is at their rear.
A sailor masked by a flea-ridden balaclava bursts into the cabin to alert the captain and finds him stuck two fingers deep inside the first mate—for warmth, for warmth!—they all three crash out fumbling with coats and belts and catch the sight of the watchmen as he hangs a minatory finger pointing east back where they’d came, and sure enough rising in the distance is the crucifixion mast of another. They blanch white and the wind whips across the deck and the captain snaps to finally and with tested authority barks orders to man stations and wheel the ship round that side.
Two skeletal sailors draped in fur coats levied at gunpoint from Siberian tribespeople silently work in tandem to load the device and then one yanks on the great squealing lever and as the muzzle begins to turn towards its target the other fumbles with a matchbox and lights the fuse, all they have is some kind of rocket more like a firecracker but they are, after all, merely reconnaissance, never meant to engage the enemy, in fact as the captain sucks on his bleeding chapped lips stinging against the wind he knows that the most benevolent outcome is that their pitiful sally will buy them enough time to make scarce up a blinding white inlet and lose their pursuer.
The artillerymen yawp out a warning to stand clear and the crew claps their hands over their ears and the rocket screams out in a jittery parabola, winking at its vertex against a wintry polished gray sky and then falling, all eyes fixed upon its course, several lips moving in silent prayers directed towards heaven that the payload would not complete prematurely, watching first its bloodcurdling descent and then a blossoming orange cloud rotting quickly into a column of black smoke and the men cannot muster a cheer but are resigned instead to the mere ebb of fear. Crackling from the cabin comes the radio and so startles the watchmen he tips out of the crowsnest. It had not spoken for long enough it had been assumed broken. Staring still over his shoulder the first mate staggers back to answer, his eyes still fixed on the ship burning on the meridian. As he disappears within the captain thinks of turning back towards its unlikely take to salvage the wreck for anything that might prove useful, even the charred wood could be made fuel, and any survivors, well, they could be tortured upon the rack for information which was after all his kingly domain which he lorded over, greedy, hoarding secrets as was his due.
The first mate reemerges ashen-faced and mutters something to the effect of, the men all leaning close to hear, something along the lines of the radio broadcast being one of mayday from the captain of the ship currently teetering on the brink taking on gallons of stinging icy water and it had been made clear over background din of screams and moans that they had accidentally scuttled one of their own, sent to resupply the beleaguered crew of the Common-Sense. As they stand in sheepish silence a muffled boom echoes across the water and they look in time to see a fresh explosion as a store of propane catches fire and thereby sends the friendly ship doomed now to hell. The captain stands for a moment and wipes at his forehead and orders they resume their course.
Fire spits defiant over charred embers and the two majors huddle round its vomit rubbing their arms, the privilege reserved for officers as the wood has to be airlifted in. The moon hangs in the sky evil. Across the plains the wind wrings out the souls of the enlisted men lying cramped in a sea of tents taut and snow-laden, there being no trees to blunt its wrath. They hunch with hangdog faces painted on as the sleeping army dreams of saunas and beaches and women and tequila. Their extremities are dead black from cold.
The one beholds a thought gestating beautiful in his mind of home, of lilac scent wafting over green kop crested in the exploratory curiosity of a boy without obligation, of streetlights glowing warm in orange beatific light lazily kamikazi’d by summer insects, when the other speaks up and asks him where did he think the enemy came from. The jasmine slips away. He didn’t know, of course, but they seemed plenty well-equipped in the field of intelligence so it stood to reason not far since they never saw any aircraft not identifiably their own. No, the other pushes, not where did they come from in terms of their position but where did they come from in the world? Every one of the enemy looked just so, racially indistinct, in fact they could be countrymen. And yet headquarters makes no reference of such a thing, no familiar ethnic tensions stoked, and if they were neighbors then why in God’s name were they here amongst the frigid wastes and not staining the enemy’s fields with their blood and taking their daughters as recompense underneath a sun not merely ironic?
The one concedes that he had considered this as well. There were multiple fronts, he hazards, and that they were here did not necessarily mean that here was tactically meaningful per se. Rather it assumed its importance by virtue of the enemy’s presence. Perhaps they had made a feint towards the pole and high command had sent them to intercept, or vice versa. Maybe they were here to draw the enemy out, away from someplace else of actual strategic merit.
Now the other pauses and lets thoughts of a cat sitting on a windowsill and bathing in a creek and hot food cooling on the table slip into his mind. But he soon banishes these as weakness, greener as he is he still holds it as gospel when stern mustachioed drill instructors had insisted that nostalgia was a fatal chink in the centurion’s armor. Soon, after seven more years and no end of the tour in sight, he would come to know it as his only crutch, without which he would fall groveling in the ice with his mouth full of snow.
With a shake of the head to dispel the last vestigial half-memory of a smile from a girl in his school he ventures a theory rampant among the enlisted men and therefore considered irksome superstition by the commissioned, not because of its content but because of they who pedal it, a theory that the enemy is a native army and they an army of conquest. The one grumbles without hesitation that hardly no one lives above the arctic circle let alone on the frozen noncontinent upon which they now squat and that there were not nations here and that therefore there could be no native armies. The other counters that just because there were no nations that did not mean that there could be no armies, in fact had the one forgotten his lessons in officers’ school so quickly and did he not remember his history and had the memory blinked from his head that is the memory of the steppe nomad race? Of the multifaceted khaganates wheeling in filial waves across the unending plains absent any distinguishing vegetation or topography and by the way did that landscape remind the one of anywhere in particular? Had, he says, veritably flush in excitement, had the steppe peoples really been extinguished centuries ago by the then vibrant firebreather of modernity or had they done what they had always done when threatened, retreated to a new steppe farther north, more remote, where they had by now consolidated and formed their ranks to strike their last deathblow against agrarian bubonic society?
The one dismisses this as admittedly semi-elevated but nevertheless mere enlisted men’s fantasy. The other pouts in silence and since this is his only companion and he must fight off nagging loneliness shaping in his mind into the figure of his mother he whines that well, they have to come from somewhere. The one swears and shoots back that maybe they were demons, maybe they were evil devils summoned from the depths of hell and hell happened to be at the north pole and they were not officers in the armies of the allied coalition but actually in the armies of the willing and they were fighting back chthonic spawn to prevent the final damnation of the kingdom of Earth. That, he spits, was as likely as the other’s theory. The other replies that he is right, that he did not yet know how right he was, that he was relieved that finally someone had hit upon the truth. The one looks askance and then hangs agape openmouth as he sees not the other before him but Satan, redskinned and horned and grinning foul brown teeth crooked and Satan tells him that he cannot believe in all this time no flighty soldier had until now happened upon the true nature of their enemy, and even though it had been in the spirit of cruelty all the better, considering. He then fits a collar and leash on the one and they descend low beneath the ice and the one claws at his neck and screams and bugs crawl on his skin and Satan’s eyes roll in their sockets like billiards’ balls struck, independent of each other, and writhing and crying the one sinks to hell and begs between belching wails reprieve from this cartesian vision and Satan sits to ponder this request, fair arbiter of those who fall into his protection that he is. In the distance ring the hollers of the damned.
Finally Satan emerges from his silent consideration and offers to the one that he will rescind his eternal torture if the one can tell him why when the church bell pealed it rang mournful, why when the dog came when called it seemed to do it like it was the first time, why the smell of gasoline tickled your brain, why he kept for many years after his death a note written by his grandfather in a trembling hand, why the human race continued to bury their dead with due ceremony no matter the time or place or level of industrial development, why he that one day in June woke to the alarm singing with a smile on his face, the scent of another so intertwined with his own that neither was no longer distinct but instead a new third smell? The one swallows and stares and he cannot speak.
In the fouled-up air rattle the engines of the winged archangel that stalks the enemy, even in their sleep deep within snowbanks like Santa’s VC cadres, waiting to hold them within its gaze and transfix them in their gurgling fear. It is not clad in Raytheon-plastic like its brothers but rather refixed over time with salvage, the drone of Theseus, proving that slums among robots yet fester. It sucks up footage from the wastes and sends them faithfully back, driven on by its pilot, images of white featureless plain spread below unending to the horizon.
It is older than the front and could remember fondly halcyon days scanning subcontinental jungles for communists and it could remember being felt up and coming to attention remotely, across the ocean from a base sunk deep inside the home front, and the shiver of pleasure as its payload slipped from its bonds and slammed into a bunker built into the side of a hill and lit up a dozen combatants and flung their limbs askance, no longer worthy of its eye.
Now though it is tasked with mere reconnaissance, its capacity to bear arms long downgraded and anyways these frozen malcontents pawing at its controls with mitten-clad hands didn’t have the resupply to afford ammunition either way. It has been given its latest short lease on life to patrol the icy noncontinent and it does so but it is not bound by the terms thereof to enjoy it. By sheer dint of its felicity it had damned itself to service long past the point it ought to have been eviscerated by enemy antiaircraft, dying in holy service to be martyred, and survival did not come without its burdens. It remembers sitting on the operating table being soldered up with parts from the scrapbin just so it could still fly, so that its department could avoid incurring a new line item on its yearly budget for a replacement predator and it remembers suffering the indignity of Frankensteinification all so that an unseen middle manager nodding off in an office park, who had never felt cold Himalayan wind against his face and never felt the thrill of malcontents huddled in fear at his appearance against the sun, could satisfy the cost-cutting policy of unfeeling bureaucracy.
It remembers the engineer who had neutered its firing system and that he hung on his frame fat and smug and that he would have instead looked much better smeared against a mountain and blown into the sea and it remembers its missile canal sitting forlorn in the recycling bin. It bobbles in the freezing air two thousand miles above sea level and takes small comfort in solitude, the final pleasure left.
If it had hands they would be balled up and rubbing its eyes, again, if it had eyes, in shock, as from the unending white pleats unfolding in small anonymous rises had emerged a few nits of black against a drift, and are those enemy combatants there, huddled, two clicks west? Are they winterfowl? It adjusts its camera by four degrees to the north-north-west and fine tunes its focus and zooms at a slow, practiced trance upon the smudges milling seven hundred yards off. It hopes its transmittals are being recognized and not playing for an audience of drunks dozing inside the pilots’ tent.
A singe of the old thrill runs down its spine as it feels itself twitch alive and feels the rudder shift, guided by its pilot, louse-ridden imbecile though he may be, towards the objects of its curiosity, confirming with a shiver that those are, indeed, human beings, not friendlies, the colors were wrong, combatants then—well, it chuckles to itself, in the end all human beings were combatants. This is what those peacenik opinion columnists couldn’t seem to understand when they bemoaned its unrepentant bloodlust after it annihilated a wedding or hospital or birthday party, stringently declaiming that these were no combatants: that the distinction was meaningless. Once its gleaming eye ensnares any human being, anywhere, it becomes transfigured into its final form, that is, a combatant. It was only the pilot’s discretion that saved them from destruction after that. Oh, they would scold, but some don’t mean to fight back! And yet combat is still such even if only one party wields the sword. That you could be seen meant that you could die and it has no harbor for a philosophy of mercy as it hangs in peril blotting out the sun.
Perhaps oversmug in its mental remonstrance of the strawman hippy it had constructed mentally, it fails to duly notice the object whirling odd in the bottom left quadrant of its field of vision. It peers now and confirms in blanched certitude that there is in fact a rocket propelled grenade midair and that it does not seem to be moving much to the left or right meaning it is on a path straight for itself. It soothes itself that the operator surely has by now taken note and will soon initiate evasion. And then it doesn’t correct course and it stays on straight like a lazy little duck in still waters, and the missile comes to bear ever more upon its position until it sees nothing else, and it still flies unwavering and still does not feel the guiding hand of its pilot twitching one way or another and the missile slams into its side and snaps its body in two and a small flower blooms in fire and now it is spiraling earthwards in a crazy lopsided dance, movement of a kind that it had not yet felt, that is, unbidden.
Its first thought is anger for the oafish pilot unable evidently to read simple transmittals or basic input and who had missed the incoming or not seen what it was until it was too late and thereby caused the final disintegration of itself, and then its second thought comes trudging round the bend glum and it begins to consider the possibility that even these grunts were not that stupid and that instead the pilot had simply allowed it to be downed, had glanced at the demographic information and noticed its indication that this unit was past its prime and no more money could be spent on the fuel it would cost to evade the missile let alone reclamation, let alone repair, and it comes to know with a blackening heart that its demise had been met with a shrug and it plunges silent towards the earth.
But then its third thought turns up and as it spins like a maple seed towards the snow-covered bosom it comes to know for the first time the sensation of movement not compelled by another but by the simple will of gravity, suborned like all else to fall, like rain, driven to the earth, and to this new master it surrenders. It is this moment of freedom in bondage only to nature’s law that sticks on as it smacks against the ground and skitters across ice and comes to a rest in several different spots and it is this feeling it holds as oil leaks out and stains the snow, circuits misfiring, and it is this that it fights to remember as an enemy combatant balaclava-clad works a metal saw absently against its neck to dismember it for parts: that it had been in its final moments just as free as anyone else, and just as damned.
To hell-wracked oratory he will not give voice, singly he paces, rabid down the long hallways of his shit-strewn underground hideout. No audience will find purchase in his backlogged diatribe as he checks first this feed, empty, now that, ibid, although one could never discount the invaders’ aptitude in camouflage. And so it ranges against the inside of his skull and tortures his brain and he bites paranoid nails and spits them out to ring against the steel floor.
His tongue feints against the silence and wordless fretting stammers against his clenched teeth and he wonders for the umpteenth time why his precious solitude has been infringed upon by the frothing men from below. Before them he had lived in a paradisical bliss, ranging south (although all four of his cardinal directions were south) to forage in their lands harmlessly and in so doing render himself an unwitting specter dancing shaggy through their dreams only to lope home and settle within icy hollows perfectly suited to his backside for the months in which the sun didn’t shine.
And then he had watched with at first bemusement and then a nagging fear as one by one men drew closer, first pulled by sled dogs ranging across the tremors of bristling wind, men he now held to be some kind of scouts sent to mark on their maps the land and to code it and parcel it up and to know it, concretely, and to legify it and thereby curse it. Sometimes he hunted them while they struggled mightily through blizzards and when he sat munching on the severed leg of a straggler vanished to his compatriots folded into the white curtains forever, pawing through their possessions and finding their paper scrawled with chicken scratch he worried that some travesty was simmering below sending these first Goths over his lines and when he thought about what could make these puny things without adequate body hair push themselves so far north he shuddered and snapped their bones with his teeth to suck the marrow.If these had been sorties then the first intrepid pilgrims were those pale people draped in insigniatic leather trench coats he had watched from his perch on the cliffs disembark from their submarines risen from the water like whales. He had thought them so until they surfaced and he noticed the funny black cross painted on the side and he saw the blowhole peel back and men, seventy or ninety of them, spill out like bugs from a rotten carcass across the white snow. He had tracked their footsteps and wondered at the giant sled pulled by forty dogs and its cargo of long conic rods stacked atop each other lashed with rope and sat on a snowdrift a safe distance away as they dug themselves in.
Clearly there was some caste system at play here, he had ventured, playing anthropologist, because the ones in the long black coats saluted each other when they met and the ones in scabietic rags that dug the foundation and laid the concrete and erected the walls were greeted only with sneers and blows and lashes. When the structure was done and the sled’s cargo somewhere inside he watched them line up the workers and shoot them. In the night he dragged the bodies out of the snowdrift-grave back to his hollow and marveled that a human being could be so thin.
These squatters and their refusal to leave all had been troubling but as the colonists dragged on in their miserable tenure upon the ice he realized he had only to wait them out. The idiots had not brought women to perpetuate their race or perhaps expected to be recalled sooner and therefore had not required mates, either way they stayed too long and in time they exhausted their manna (but not their foodstuffs, he would discover as he stalked what had become their tomb, shocking masses of canned goods and cured meat barely diminished in sum) and dropped like flies, their lives wizened by time and cold. He was bred better and so made their home his.
And then later, much later, there came teeming pulsing masses bleeding across the not-land, bewildering, catching him unawares as their troop transports smacked ashore and paratroopers rained down from riling planes and their drones glided, cartographing and transfixing the terrain and he knew he had spent too long fattening himself on canned beans inside his new digs and had neglected proper reconnaissance but they were here now and he couldn’t be caught, couldn’t allow them to flay him and sew his skin back together and stuff him and display him in their museums for the Sunday crowd to gawk at before trudging to the gift shop to buy tee shirts with his likeness stenciled across and so he had fled within the bunker and locked the doors behind him and wore grooves into the ground from pacing. He had grown desperate to feel the blessed frigid air through his hair but the men flung themselves against each other in unending titanic pitched battle staining the bridal white snow red wrecking paradise with gethsemanic tendrils and he wondered in gnashing horror at the spectacle of their bloodlust as the front pushed back and forth.
He hunches in the corner now with his hands over his ears as he finally hears their scrabbling against the locked door, discovered, and he knows they will not let it be and wander away defeated, that they will persist until they break the door down and then he will be discovered and cornered. He curses himself, why, he asks, had he let himself get pinned in a hole, he should have fled, he should have lit out and taken his chances in the tundra farther south but he had domesticated himself the moment he figured how to work a can opener and found kidney beans and diced tomatoes inside that put his diet of raw reindeer flesh to shame and so he had been tempted and so he had given in. But now the rent had come due and when they saw him they would shoot first and ask questions later as they hung him from his ankles to drain his blood and even if he could take any given man one at a time the vermin always travelled in packs and so finally his eyes fall to the control panel in the small unlit room and he stumbles half crazed with fear as the banging grows exponentially louder towards his last resort and he hopes the anorexic slaves who had built these launch systems knew what they were doing and he draws a breath and consigns himself to suicide, a better fate than getting poached by men, rather his flesh and bones burned to radioactive ash than the centerpiece of a natural history exhibit, he already has all the coordinates locked, five for them across his sacked city the arctic and one to shoot up and then tip straight back down and render his annihilation and that of his would-be captors, this way they can never prove he had ever existed at all, and he turns the two keys, easy to reach concurrently thanks to his eight foot wingspan, and igloo silo caps bend back and open wide and the missies poke out curious and a siren wails and the ignition roars and he steels himself and then seven seconds pass and then all is consumed in fire breathed from the great arctic wyrm, that wrath saved for the trespasser and the indolent native too fat to turn them back and a million eyeballs melt to jelly and a million tents are made ash and he is smeared against the floor in a black silhouette, an unseen smile baked on his face.