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Sierra Tango Yankee X-Ray

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The water gleamed like dull steel beneath the moonlight, rippling softly against the creaking wooden boat. He was tempted to touch it, to swirl his hand through the inky lake, but something held him back. He feared it would feel like oil, slick and viscous between his fingers, as though its fathomless depths were choked with the decay of long dead creatures.

Corporal Rendell left his hand where it was, holding the edge of the ramshackle vessel, only a few inches above the foreboding liquid. He watched the sluggish motion of the ripples, the dancing glitter of the pale light on its surface, telling himself there was no movement in the deep shadows beneath it. The tiny boat rocked only slightly, listing gently from side to side. He had the impression it was moving, but with no frame of reference except the soft ripples against the wood it was hard to tell. To his right, the water stretched for maybe a hundred yards before vanishing into a bank of thick fog, drifting unhurriedly on a breeze he could barely feel. To the left, the same. Illuminated by the moonlight, the mist floated by like a broken ghost for whom eternity had lost all meaning, obscuring his vision on all sides.

All except one. Opposite him in the tiny boat sat another man, staring expressionlessly out over the near-motionless water. Like him, he wore a uniform, combat fatigues and black boots, but he was younger than Rendell. He looked only about eighteen. It was too dark to properly make out the insignia or pattern of his uniform, but Rendell assumed it was from a unit based out of Fort Tranchdale like his. Rendell regarded the young soldier, wondering if his own jaw was clenched that tightly. He made an effort to relax it, realising as he did so that he had no idea how he’d arrived at this place.

He started as though waking from a dream, jerking the boat and sending it rocking more violently. He looked around again, at the water and the fog. At the boat, which he immediately identified as a fishing vessel used by the tribesmen in the village down by the base. He blinked at it, his breath coming in short rasps. With an effort of will he closed his eyes and counted, breathing deeply to calm himself. When he opened his eyes, he noticed the other soldier looking at him, his face partially hidden in the shadow cast by the moonlight.

“How did we get here?” Rendell said, looking around again. He rubbed at his head with one hand, the other moving to grip the splintered wood of the aged fishing boat again. It was an unconscious motion; he didn’t have a hangover.

“I think you know,” his companion replied simply. He had a touch of a Southern accent, a trace of West Virginia perhaps.

“What happened?” Rendell said, rubbing at his head. The fog continued to float gently past, impenetrable as the silent water beneath them. There was no smell, even the acrid stink of the pond-scum that usually floated on the shoreward edge of the lake near the village was gone.

“We must have drifted way out,” he mused, trying to rise to his feet in the unsteady vessel. When it jerked and pitched alarmingly, he gave up and sat down again. “Do we have oars?”

The young soldier said nothing, merely shook his head and stared out at the night.

Rendell regarded him for a few moments, something akin to anger starting to kindle within him.

“This isn’t my fault you know,” he said, wondering if it was true, “I’m as clueless about what happened last night as you. But we gotta get back to base, now. Before dawn. Even if we make it you can bet your ass the commander will hit the roof.”

The silent man turned his head with awful, leaden slowness. His eyes held Rendell’s gaze for a moment, before something like pity flickered across his face. He looked away again.

“What do you remember?” the kid asked, that Southern drawl seeming a little less pronounced.

“Nothing. Yesterday was a basic mission, routine recon stuff. We trekked through the jungle like we did two days ago, and two days before that, checking for signs of insurgents. There was nothing, like before. I headed back to base and I guess we got a little rowdy last night, and here I am. How about you?”

The young soldier closed his eyes, his chin lowering a fraction. A muscle twitched in his cheek. His eyes opened again, but he did not look at Rendell.

“What was the last thing you said to your squad then, before you went back to base?”

Rendell let out a short bark of a laugh.

“You for real man? What is this, twenty questions?”

The soldier shrugged.

“Call it a memory exercise.”

“Ok, well I said to Banko something like ‘same shit different day’, and he laughed. He clapped me on the back and we turned round. I followed Reece. He was maybe ten or fifteen feet in front? And we went back to base.”

“Did you?”

Rendell hesitated. He had turned to go back, so he must have gone back. The drinking would have started shortly after, so maybe that’s why he couldn’t actually remember.

“I…think so?”

“You usually lose your memory of the hours before you get drunk?”

No. He didn’t. But he didn’t like where this was going either.

“Look man, you know something here so why not spit it out?”

The soldier wasn’t listening. With a lurch, he suddenly rose to his feet, shouting and waving. The boat rocked wildly, almost pitching the young man into the silent depths around them. Somehow, the thought of that filled Rendell with a hideous, icy terror. All at once he realised he knew something fundamental and vital: he must not touch the water. He gripped the boat’s rim with manic desperation.

Ignoring Rendell’s panicked cries, the young soldier started screaming with even more hysteria, almost jumping up and down. Rendell made a grab for him and managed to snag his legs. He struggled and fought, trying to throw Rendell off as he fell to his knees.

“Get off me! There’s a boat!”

The bizarreness of this statement made Rendell let go. He looked to the side, as the younger man got to his feet again, more calmly this time. Their boat lurched less alarmingly.

Cutting through the fog, another vessel glided silently across the black mirror-like surface of the water with a stately grace. It was like theirs, low and simple, but longer. Two dark figures, partially obscured by the pale mist, sat in the rear. At the front, another stood facing out, piloting the vessel with a single long pole. The figure was shrouded in a long black robe, the cowl pulled up against the night air. The pole made no sound as it moved up and down, in and out of the oily water, even the faintest sloshing of liquid lost in the expanse of still night air and the encircling fog.

“Hey! Hey! Over here!” the young soldier was shouting, waving frantically at the figures in the boat. Rendell felt a deep, cold dread settle into his stomach. He did not want to see the face of the man who piloted the boat. He had a fair idea of what it would be. His gaze flitted to the silky water, dark realisation stealing over him like night falling.

“I never made it back to base,” he said softly.

“Yeah no shit,” the kid said, taking a moment out of his frantic screams to cast a contemptuous glance at Rendell.

In the gliding boat to their left, the shrouded boatman slowly turned its hooded face, but whatever terrible visage waited beneath that black robe was hidden behind a wisp of swirling mist, as the boat slid into the bank of fog beyond. The two shadowy passengers drifted out of sight, and away, into the Stygian night.

Rendell was vaguely aware of the young soldier slumping down in the far end of the boat, dimly recognising the choking sounds coming from him as sobs of despair. He studied the sky, unsurprised that no stars burned alongside the ghostly moon.

“How long have you been here?” he asked finally.

The soldier raised his head, the tears still drying on his cheeks glinting in the moonlight.

“I don’t know. A long time. I think…years. Time is strange here.”

“But you’re what, eighteen?”

The soldier looked at him with a bitter, tortured smile.

“Once perhaps. Long, long ago.”

“What happened to you?”

“I was lied to,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. “They made us kill civilians. Told us they were the enemy, but they were civilians.”

“Jesus,” Rendell breathed, “but you didn’t know–“

“Know?” he laughed bitterly. “I don’t know what I knew. They were orders. You don’t question orders in Russia.”

“Russia? But you speak English with an American–“

“So? I see you wearing a Russian uniform and hear you speaking Russian. We’re dead.”

Rendell digested this in silence.

“So, what happened to you?” the Russian asked.

“Nothing like that. I joined up to pay for college.”

“Did you kill anyone?”

Rendell was silent. He hadn’t meant to. Hadn’t wanted to. But there had been insurgents in the jungle, and it was his job to clear them out. It had been kill or be killed, or so he’d thought when he’d fired into the treeline that day in a panic.

“Yeah I did,” he said eventually. Reluctantly.

“And you regretted it,” the Russian said bitterly, gazing out over the water, “but the universe is cruel. And you are damned for it regardless.”

“He wasn’t armed,” Rendell said softly, mostly to himself. “We retrieved the body, and we could tell he was an insurgent from the tattoo. But he wasn’t armed. And I’d killed him.”

“So here we are,” the Russian said quietly, “reluctant killers. Dishonoured. Dead.”

Rendell nodded. There was no way around it. He’d died there in that jungle near the place where he’d killed an unarmed man, and now here he was.

“Purgatory,” he said. His companion nodded.

“How long for, I wonder?”

“Forever,” the Russian replied grimly.

“No no, I think we’re moving,” Rendell said, peering again at the water.

“We’ll never make it across,” the younger man spat, his voice rising in anger, “don’t you get it? Life was a lie, and so is death! There’s no paradise for us!”

“You have to let that go, man. If there’s one thing I remember from Sunday school it’s that repentance is the key to–“

“Repentance?” the soldier screamed, a wild anger seeming to overtake him. “Why should I repent?! Repent what?”

“Killing those people–“

“Orders!” he shrieked, “They made me do it! I was lied to! I don’t deserve to suffer like this!” He threw back his head and screamed at the uncaring sky, before turning his tearful eyes on the inky black water.

“Wait!” Rendell cried, guessing what the Russian intended. “Don’t do it let’s talk this through there’s still time to–“

But the distraught man was beyond hearing. With a strangled scream of despair he leapt from the boat into the dark lake, thrashing wildly for shore. His half-mad screams became a wail of desperate horror as things emerged silently from the depths to claim him. In moments he was gone, pulled inexorably down by grasping hands Rendell could barely see, the half-glimpsed figures fading back into the oily darkness with their prize. A grinning wraith, straggles of hair still hanging from its skull-like head, turned to regard Rendell with black, ghoulish eyes before it slipped silently below the surface. Those empty eyes seemed to him expectant, patient, calm with the knowledge that eventually he too would throw himself to the waiting dead.

For the river was wide, and eternity long.

 

 

Bio: Steven D Jackson is a British writer who enjoys writing short creepy stories and posting them for free. If you like what you read, check out his other short stories and novels at http://sdjackson.blogspot.co.uk/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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