Winter cloaks the landscape, squeezing life with the death-grip of a bony white hand. Trees shudder beneath the weight of snow piled high on sparse branches, stooping like tired old men. Heavy furred animals move slowly through the softly-filled trenches between the treelines, leaving wide tracks and runs in the deep snow. Time runs in slow motion, one shuddering, ice-filled breath at a time.
One breath. One breath. Frosting the dirty glass in the tiny brass porthole in the side of the carriage. The Bald Man wipes the glass with the palm of his right hand, a hand swaddled in an oily rag in the absence of gloves, and looks out, careful not to place his face too close to the brass ring. It will burn his skin as surely as if it had been heated in a fire.
"What do you see?" asks the Pretty Woman anxiously.
The Bald Man takes a great deep breath and expels it again, frosting the glass, obscuring the view.
The train moves slowly through the colourless landscape, iron plough pushing mountains of white death from its path, making the engine labour and whine. It is quiet in the carriage. There are no seats. The floor is oily and gritty. It is a carriage meant for animals, not people. But there are people here. No, they are not people anymore. They do not know that yet, but they are not people anymore. As they speak, they define themselves with talk of names, families, loved ones, careers, shared experiences. They program computers, edit newspapers, write books, practice law. Noble, intellectual activities. All these definitions will soon be lost. Something they have done - some know what that thing is, some do not - has angered the State. So they will not be people anymore. They will be Prisoners.
The Bald Man bores of snow and takes his place back in a corner of the gently rocking carriage, curling himself up to keep warm.
"It's so cold," he says. "My head. It's so cold. So cold."
The Fat Man raises his cumbersome body and takes over the Bald Man's position at the window. He uses his elbow to clear the frost, but he breathes twice as fast as his fellow Prisoner. Through clear patches he sees the big shaggy things ambling through the drifts on the edge of the impenetrable forest, as if they are stalking the train. They are bears, he thinks, particularly big bears ("You're a big bear, daddy!"). No, bears don't grow that big. Or wolves. Or anything else you would expect to find in the forest. Uneasy, he thinks that he has never before seen such creatures on the face of the earth.
They are packed tight in this carriage meant for animals, and the lack of room means there is little privacy. The Bald Man is pressed against the Quiet Woman who blushes fiercely and hides her face against the warm bulk of the Fat Man, who interprets her posturing as a sign of affection, and smiles in turn at the Pretty Woman, whose turn it is now to stare out of the porthole. She too watches the terrifying shapes shadowing the train from the edge of the snow-heavy forest. Who knows what they would do if the train stopped.
"We're stopping," says the Pretty Woman. She peers out of the porthole once again. The shadows are there, in the forest. Watching. Waiting. Waiting.
Waiting. They wait in the dark and freezing cold of the carriage, this Fat Man and Quiet Woman and Bald Man and Pretty Woman and their dozens of fellow Prisoners. No one speaks now, all ears strain to hear the engine picking up, or the sounds of approaching Guards. Where are we? Where have they taken us? What will they do with us now? Unspoken questions remain unanswered. Eventually the gruff, guttural sounds of the Guards' voices filter down the length of the train, followed by the slamming of doors. They have reached their destination, for better or worse. This is, literally and metaphorically, the end of the line.
The Guard, a black monolith as frightening as the forest shadows, throws back the huge sliding door. The carriage is flooded with white glare and icy air. Those closest to the door, the Fat Man and the Quiet Woman, shrink back into the carriage, seeking tenuous comfort in the dark crush of bodies. But more Guards appear and hands are thrust into the mass of Prisoners, pulling arms, legs, handfuls of hair, until all tumble out of the carriage and into the snow.
The Guards, in their heavy black overcoats, thick soled boots and furred hats jammed down tightly over their ears, resemble nothing more than ponderous automatons, corralling the Prisoners with punches and threats and prods from long batons or the muzzles of short, wicked little submachineguns. They are so well protected, barely an inch of exposed flesh is visible. Only coal black eyes, burning with hatred and menace. One stands now with his back to the others, weapon pointed into the forest, overwatching the shadows that sit there, patiently. Waiting. Waiting. Both equally implacable. Predator watches predator.
The Pretty Woman shivers in her thin dress, hugging herself, pulling her woollen cardigan around her. She remembers when she bought this cardigan, shopping with her husband in the smart boutiques down by the river, sipping frothy coffee in smoky bars, making love in the afternoon in a rented room with the lights of the old city below them. A glow spreads in her belly at the thought of her husband's warm embrace, a glow that dies with a sick cold flicker. It is a memory of a world away, another time, another place, a different reality. She is an alien now on her own planet. Banish all thoughts of lovers and old cities. The Pretty Woman looks up. Do not cry, tears will freeze in the eye, do not cry. The line of prisoners being assembled along the side of the train stretches away into the distance. The train itself curves gently on the track, toward the line. The Pretty Woman sees the massive black locomotive and the two startling, silver bullet carriages behind it, sandwiched between the shoddy gray cattle wagons. She sees several guards enter and exit, electronic doors swishing open and shut. She imagines the warmth in there. Carpet. Food. Beds. But not for her. Not for the Prisoners.
"!Aus!" the guards bellow. The line of Prisoners shuffle onward, moving along the curve of the train, toward the locomotive. The snow is ankle deep along the side of the track where the engine has pushed it aside. Prisoners wear sneakers, soft shoes, city shoes. Some are barefoot. Progress is slow, literally painful. Guards harry and chase like angry sheepdogs. Several keep their attention fixed on the snowfield, a few metres away to the right, watching the forest edge. No, not for you, forest creatures. They are ours. Ours.
The Fat Man is lucky, he has his bulk to keep him warm. He pities the Pretty Woman in her thin summer dress and the Bald Man with his shiny head, always complaining of the cold. So sad, to have a cold brain. He looks up as they pass the silver carriages, sees Guards inside wearing sweat-stained vests and braces, holding glasses of wine or steaming mugs, laughing, joking. He casts his eyes down to the snow-covered ground, sees a man lying to his right, a fallen man dragged from the line by Guards. Two stand over him now, making no effort to aid him. One is standing on his leg. The Fat Man looks, then quickly looks away. Nothing to do with him. Why should he care? He won't fall. He is strong. He has his body fat to keep him warm.
The big black locomotive is hard against massive iron buffers anchored deep into the frozen earth. Beyond the buffers there is no line, just a compacted snow track that leads away into the tundra, lined with stubby dead trees. A road to nowhere. The Guards lead the line of prisoners up on to it, then increase the pace. The ground is firm but no less cold. As the last of the Prisoners leave the edge of the railway, the great train coughs into life. All stand still and look back, Guards and Prisoners alike, as the train begins a long, slow reverse, engine building to a roar. When it is out of sight, the Guards turn back and rain blows from their sticks, urging the line on. They are alone here now. They will walk to the place they have been sent.
This is how things will be from now on.
If anyone lives long enough to tell the tale, thinks the Fat Man, they will call this the Long March, and they will chill their grandchildren to the marrow with its details around the winter fire. Fire. Grandchildren. Strange concepts now to the Fat Man. His world is narrowed to a view of the insteps of his soft city shoes as they rise and fall in the snow, his back stooped and his eyes downcast, avoiding the attention of the Guards. There is cold, intense cold. There is pain, there is hunger. Despair, fatigue. These things now define the world of the Prisoner. And two feet, moving in turn, onwards through the snow.
The things in the forest shadow them as they move. Tired Prisoners make the column extend into a snake, entwining through the bends of the forest track. Behind, there is a commotion, shouts of alarm, a woman's scream and a sudden shocking burst of fire from an automatic weapon. There is a break in the column which soon closes, and they move on. Several Prisoners are missing, along with one Guard. The forest has taken them. The other Guards look nervous, urging the Prisoners on, wanting to get to their destination, out of this cursed forest with its black depths and devil-beasts. Having left behind the sleek metal womb of the train, the Guards need another safe haven, a warm place where they can hide and swap stories of their bravado and brutality and play cards and drink beer and wine. They impart this need for urgency with their batons and their gun barrels and frighteningly random summary execution of an old woman who is too exhausted to go on. She is hauled to the side of the track, out of the line, forced to her knees in the snow, and shot in the face, straight through the hands she throws up instinctively to protect herself. Her body falls back, staining the snow with a pale bloody fan. The Guard picks up a handful of her hair and holds her ruined face close to his, staring into her distended eyes, hoping to see the spark go out, the switch being thrown. But she is already gone. Elsewhere. The first to escape.
The Bald Man watches all of this as the column extends, contracts, extends. The Guards do not seem bothered by witnesses to their crimes. Then there is only one form of escape, thinks the Bald Man, and they move on.
"My head," he mutters to himself. "So cold. So cold."
Ahead lies the Camp, but the Prisoners will not find warmth there. Only cold, and pain, and death.
The Fat Man sees it first - a thin line of cold fire on the horizon, a faint smudge of gold against the painful monotony of black and white. Light means civilization, thinks the Fat Man, but he knows that such a simple and comforting concept no longer has any meaning for them. While they remain Prisoners, there can be no such thing as civilisation.
When the Guards see the lights of the Camp, they shout urges along the line, calling to each other in their guttural tongue. Then they turn their attention once again to the column, raining blows and curses to speed progress. A young man is hauled from the line and shot through the heart five times. The Quiet Woman witnesses this, thinks Why so close? Why force him to walk all this way then kill him within sight of the camp? She does not know, cannot know, for the world of the Prisoner is one of zero information, that this has been a Good March for the Guards. They have exceeded their quota of survivors. They can afford to play.
Closer, closer to the Camp, willed on by the Guards. The Pretty Woman forces her daintily-shod feet to pick up speed, fooling herself with thoughts of warmth and food, surely that is what they will find in the Camp? Later, she will remember these thoughts, and they will haunt her in the depths of her longest, darkest nights, distant memories of a time she was on the outside of the terror womb of the Camp. The world of the Prisoner is a world of zero information. Hope and imagination is all they have got.
The blur of the light grows, defines, becomes towers and wire and electric floods, a harshly defined perimeter stretching left and right and disappearing into the surrounding forests. The Camp is massive. The Bald Man is (was) an architect, and his dormant professional interest is aroused by the sight, at once alarmed and appalled that such an instinct has surfaced, such a crazy thought in the circumstances. He is impressed by the structure that even now throws open its enormous gates, flanked by Guards holding indistinct animals on chains that closely resemble the stalking things in the forest, leaping and lunging and snapping as the pathetic column files past. And this impressive structure holds open its maw, and swallows them whole.
"So cold," says the Bald Man, the architect, as he vanishes into the belly of the beast. "My head. So cold."
There are no cells. Only cages, stacked four high, linked by walkways and ladders and steps, all cold cold metal. Guards' boots, steel shod, echo like gunshots as they patrol. Ablution buckets drip foul waste from level to level through wide mesh floors. The noise of humanity - coughing, crying, sneezing, farting, ranting, shitting, talking, laughing, shouting, arguing, fighting - is a constant. To live in the cages is to become an exhibit in a monstrous living art installation, a macabre vision of Hell cobbled together by a demented anthropologist-welder.
The cages are housed inside a vast concrete bunker like an aircraft hangar. Two lines of cages face inwards, separated by a narrow walkway patrolled by the Guards. Harsh arclights in the ceiling blaze away and then extinguish at random intervals. Sometimes the darkness lasts for moments, sometimes for hours. Those in the upper cages are burned by their proximity to the lights. Those in the lower levels envy them even this injuring warmth.
The Fat Man and the Quiet Woman and the Bald Man and the Pretty Woman share a cage on the second level. There is no sexual segregation. They look into neighbouring cages and see similar combinations, although some are all male, some all female. Is it random or by design? Conversations strike up through the steel mesh, swiftly silenced by patrolling Guards, who hear even though they are a hundred metres away, monitoring all with preternatural observation. Eventually, the only form of communication that does not invite painful retribution is a whisper with a cagemate.
In the cages there are four bunks, wire mattresses with thin, reeking pads of damp foam, stiff blankets. A single sanitary bucket, leaking and crusted. Food comes irregularly - a pot of thin lukewarm stew of indeterminate origin with no utensils with which to eat it, hunks of stale bread thrown in through an opened hatch as if they were animals too dangerous to risk exposure. Occasionally a metal pitcher of clean water. The Fat Man and the Quiet Woman and the Bald Man and the Pretty Woman maintain a degree of civilization - there, that alien term again. They share the food, they do not fight, the men turn away when the women need to use the sanitary bucket, even though in the transparent heart of the cages, a hundred other eyes are upon them. But even this courtesy will slip, must slip, in the face of such degrading torment. The food ration is decreased further. The arclights are left on for what seems like days - although time, like many other conceits, has ceased to exist here, there is no way to effectively measure time - then equally, they are left in freezing darkness for an eternity. The Pretty Woman tells them that she has had her second period since they arrived. So, they have been here for at least a month.
Thirty days. Thirty weeks. Thirty months. How long can this torture last? Why are they here? What have they done? What is going to happen to them?
Cages rattle, Guards boots echo. Shouts and cries. Prisoners are removed, brought back shocked or unconscious, bloody and bruised. The Guards move along the cages methodically emptying them, taking one Prisoner at a time. The process takes many days, many cycles of food and no food, of light and no light, of sleep and terrifying no sleep, waiting for the cage door to open and the frightening sight of the Guards coming for you. Eventually, it is the turn of the Pretty Woman, and the Bald Man, and the Quiet Woman, and the Fat Man, and eventually, all are returned to the cage. None speak of what they have seen, or heard, or experienced. The collection continues, until all have been taken and returned. Then the lights extinguish. Silence descends on the cages like a heavy, sodden woollen blanket. Things have changed.
The experiments have begun.
The Quiet Woman lifts her hair away from her right ear. There is a rough patch there, something she had not noticed before she went missing from her cage. She asks the Bald Man to look at it for her. He peers close, his fingers moving over the patch as large as his thumbnail, with a surface of tough burnished foil. It appears to be seamlessly bonded to her skin.
It has wording.
The lettering is tiny. The Bald Man strains to read it.
"X422269. Concentrated Breeding Program (Post Nuclear) Runtime #001."
"What does it mean?" the Pretty Woman asks, afraid.
"I don't know. I have one too. Can you read mine?"
She eases his earlobe forward and sees the same thing she felt on her own head.
"Z00 63A Anti-Flame Skin Preparation, Armoured Combat Troops."
The Fat Man and the Pretty Woman are asleep, but they too have the little plates. What does it mean?
The Bald Man is on fire. The Pretty Woman wakes to his screaming, thinks she is still in her nightmare. She is right. The Bald Man stands in the centre of the cage, naked, flames streaming from his head and his fingertips, his body the centre of a ball of gaseous fire. The Quiet Woman is curled into a ball on the opposite side of the cage, her legs shielding the rest of her body from the extremes of heat. Flames shoot up and down through the neighbouring cages, panicking other Prisoners. The Fat Man moves to throw his blanket over the Bald Man but abruptly the fire is gone and the Bald Man lies gasping on the floor of the cage, his skin blackened and peeling. Before his cage mates can come to his aid, Guards appear and drag him from the cage with no deference to his terrible injuries. They return him, some hours later, and the skin of his body is miraculously healed, although he is in deep traumatic shock. Sitting on his bunk, the blanket loose around his shoulders, he rocks gently back and forth.
"So cold, so cold. My head, so cold."
With a dull whump! he spontaneously combusts again. And again. And again. Time after time, throughout the night, the Guards come for him and return him, body mended, but his mind peeling like his blackened skin. By morning he can only communicate by complaining of the cold, his intelligence shattered.
The Fat Man is having a pleasant dream. The Quiet Woman is astride him, trying to stuff his flaccid penis into her. She pumps it frantically with her hand, hurting him, trying to coax some stiffness into him. He rises slightly to the occasion, and she envelopes him, rocking back and forth on his thighs. He reaches a hand up to touch her hair, but she bats it away aggressively. He ejaculates quickly. As soon as she senses his hot release, she dismounts and retreats to her bunk, eyeing the Bald Man simmering beneath his blanket, as if considering him as a subsequent mate. The Fat Man knows now that this is not a dream. Later, he wakes to find the Quiet Woman on him again, riding him, but this time he cannot manage an erection, and she shrieks her frustration at him. He is forced to strike her to drive her away.
Spontaneous combustion. Nymphomania. What have the Fat Man and the Pretty Woman been afflicted with? Is this their part in the experiment, that they must sleep in the house of horrors, listening to events in the surrounding cages - screams of torment, howls of anguish, macabre laughter. Relentless, the experiments continue.
They call the Guard the Kind One. It is meant ironically. He is the only one they recognise, because he is much bigger than the others, much crueller, his eyes black pits where foul deeds are hatched. When Prisoners are killed it is the Kind One that is the executioner, killing with his bare hands, choking, snapping necks, stamping on spines. He does not care if they see his face. Perhaps he thinks they will all be dead long before he has to face his final reckoning.
The Kind One is given a special task. For this task he will require men, big men, strong men. His fellow Guards could do it, but it is beneath them, they consider themselves soldiers - although they are nothing of the sort - not diggers of dirt. Let the Prisoners bury their own dead.
So the Fat Man is pulled from the cells along with every other reasonably able-bodied male. They leave the Bald Man gibbering on his bed, with the women. The Guards think that he is too dangerous to be near, he could ignite at any time.
The Fat Man is herded down through the labyrinth of cages, the assembly of Prisoners for the work detail growing as they pass through, until they are forty strong, all male. They leave the relative sanctuary of the cage block and for the first time since their incarceration, expose themselves to the cutting wind of the Camp's environs, where the Kind One and his Guards lead them to the southern perimeter where an apparently unguarded gate stands, opening into the forest. It appears that here the forest creatures are the guardians of the gate, and their attention is more terrifying than anything the Kind One could devise. The Fat Man remembers it all for future reference. He has a keen intelligent mind. He does not want to end up like the Bald Man. He wants his mind and body to survive this. He wants to escape.
At the edge of the forest they have begun to dig a pit. At the side of the pit is a huge mound as if a vast amount of frozen earth and snow have already been excavated. But this is not spoil, it is human beings. A pyramid of men, women, children. Most dead, some dying. Some mutilated, some dismembered.
While his Guards hand out shovels the Kind One takes out his cock and pisses on the pile of bodies in a long hot stream, and laughs with a noise that sounds like the Devil's climax.
The Fat Man grips his shovel, and burns the terrible scene into his mind, and starts to dig. He does not look up.
When the Fat Man returns to his cage many hours later, he finds the Pretty Woman comforting the Quiet Woman. The Quiet Woman has severe burns to her inner thighs, and is in great pain. The Bald Man keens on his bed, unaware of the injury he has inflicted. What are they doing to us, thinks the Fat Man, that drives us to this? It must end.
It must end.
A notice is pinned to the cage. It lists numbers corresponding to the Prisoners and pairs those numbers in a logical repeating sequence. The Pretty Woman reads it over and over but does not understand it. Then the whisper comes down the line, what it means, what they are expected to do.
It is a mating rota. She reads the numbers again. She must have sex with the Fat Man. And then the Bald Man. And then, the Fat Man again. And so on. And so on. And so on.
And so on.
The Fat Man has escaped! The Guards wake all up in the cages, hammering the mesh with their batons, angry at the Prisoners for their own inattention. While digging a fresh grave pit, the Fat Man has slipped into the forest, and vanished. The Prisoners will pay dearly for this tonight. The Guards are angry too at their own cowardice, they will not pursue the Fat Man for fear of the forest beasts. But they will beat every Prisoner, to show what happens when just one of them betrays the others.
The Pretty Woman and the Quiet Woman hug each other, waiting for their turn. Even the Bald Man, the Burning Man, will not be spared despite his hideous self-regenerating injuries. As if predicting doom, he ignites softly in the darkness.
The Fat Man is brought back to the cage. He is dying, his vast bulk torn and mutilated from his encounters with the forest creatures. He lies on the cage floor, hyperventilating, bleeding from dozens of wounds. A note has been pinned to his chest. The note reads :
The Bald Man sits on the edge of his bunk. He is calm, untroubled. His skin is clear and bears no mark of the internal fire that consumes him. He bends forward and with his bare hands tears a loose strip of flesh from the Fat Man's chest. The Fat Man shrieks, a terrible noise that silences the cages. It seems to go on forever, penetrating souls. The Bald Man, unminded, eats.
The Pretty Woman and the Quiet Woman wait eagerly, eyes bright, waiting for the Bald Man to say it is fine, fine to eat the Fat Man's flesh. He says nothing, but tears more off. The Pretty Woman and the Quiet Woman accept this as a signal to fall upon the Fat Man, and use their sharp nails to tear him asunder. They find him good to eat.
The Pretty Woman is pregnant. Her belly swells with alarming speed, causing her to cry out during the night as the thing in her womb gestates. The Bald Man and the Quiet Woman care for her as best they can, feeding her from the bloated carcass of the Fat Man, until the Guards come for her and take her away. She is gone for a long time. When she returns she is pale and bloody and shocked. She lifts her filthy garments to reveal a sagging empty belly cut and stitched with thick, stiff wire. The edges of the wound are green and sticky. She tries to sleep, but her cries of pain and anguish penetrate the night.
The Guards have begun killing the prisoners. They start with cage one, row one. They enter, club the Prisoners to the floor, then execute them with single shots to the head. There is no waste, they have many to kill, and only limited ammunition. None of them wants to kill a hundred prisoners with their bare hands. Except, maybe, the Kind One.
The Prisoners keen and wail and scream as they await their fate. More Guards appear, starting on the upper row, moving down, hastening the process. Death pincers in from each side. Eventually they run low of ammunition and with the Kind One as their grim guide, they begin to kill like Neanderthals, with bare bloody hands.
The enemy are coming, goes the whisper through the cages. The enemy are coming across the tundra, in their tanks and planes. That is why we must die. To eradicate all evidence of us. To make it look as if this accursed place never existed.
The Pretty Woman and the Quiet Woman and the Bald Man, who has ceased to burn, huddle in the cold and dark, and await their bullet, or the Kind One's hands.
There is silence in the cages. The Guards have gone, their foul task complete. They think they have killed all the Prisoners, eliminated every witness. The enemy will see evidence of terrible things here, but none of those responsible will be brought to justice.
One still remains alive. The Quiet Woman lies beneath the corpses of the Pretty Woman and the Bald Man, a bullet lodged in her shoulder. She shrugs off the bodies of her friends, and moves out through the open door of the cage.
The block is dark and heavy with the stink of death. Slowly, tentatively, she moves down through the levels, aware of how strange this feels, walking by herself, in the silence, not being dragged by a Guard. She passes each open cage, and tries not to look inside, knowing what she will see.
The block door is a huge construction, and has been left open by the Guards in their haste to depart. The Quiet Woman peers outside, watches unfamiliar soldiers in white snowsuits and black respirators. They have flat bed truck that are piled high with bodies. She watches as they find two young women, much like herself, alive in another block. She is about to step outside to join them when the soldier who found them shoots them both in the back. They are thrown on to the truck with the rest of the dead. So, that is how it is. Not a liberation, not rescue, but wiped out like a virus. The Quiet Woman nods resolutely to herself, and slips away from the block, staying hidden from the soldiers cleansing the camp. She will take her chances with the forest creatures. Perhaps they will show her more mercy than the soldiers and Guards.
The train carriage is clean and dry, in stark contrast to the one that brought her here, but the landscape out of the window is the same - tundra, forest, snowfields, dark shadows. The Quiet Woman shrinks into the seat that smells of old tobacco as the soldiers patrol the aisles. No tickets are demanded for inspection. There are many refugees on this train, and no questions are asked.
A man is seated opposite, across the aisle. He is a big man and the soldiers eye him warily, even though he is dressed in smart civilian clothes. The Quiet Woman recognises him at once. He is the Kind One. He smiles at her, and she looks away, picturing the things she has watched him do. He waits to see if she will identify him to the enemy. She does not.
The war is over. Her side has lost. She is trying to find her way home. She wants revenge on the Kind One, to make him pay for the things he has done, but her vengeance must be subtle. As the train journey continues, the Kind One moves to another carriage. He smiles to her again before he leaves. The smiles says I know you know, and I am watching.
As the wastes of the tundra begin to spot with settlements and human habitation, and the endless vistas begin to blur with the lights of the city, her home, the poisonous thing in her belly flips and extends chitinous limbs and for a moment horribly distends the skin beneath her thin dress. She gasps and it settles again, calm, as if it senses that its time is near.
The Quiet Woman bears the child of Camp 741 home to the city.
The city will not survive.
© Noel K Hannan 2002.
This story appears here for the first time.
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