One Hundred Twenty Three Degrees
by Jo A. North
The wind howls down the slope of the mountain, gaining in intensity as it cascades over rocks and fissures in its way. Winds that rush like the Dread Horde through skeletal pines and birches, lifting their petrified limbs to the sky in ancient supplication. Begging for mercy where none will be given. The wind blows in gusts across the barren plains below, suffocating any hapless creatures in its dread wake. Lying face down on the now-dry river bed, I try to shield myself from the wind. My face is covered with the thick scarf that usually lies lank around my gritty neck. The wind blows over me; around me; through me. Its deafening roar as it rushes past on its way to nowhere threatens to drive me mad. Thick blankets of red silt cover everything. Heavy layers of soil that was once rich and fertile.
Time passes; the wheel turns, and still, the wind blows. It tears at my tattered black cloak and rusty brown hair. Each breath becomes a struggle for life. Each minute an interminable war that must be fought lest one die. I gag and choke on the red silt that fills my mouth; my nose and my lungs. And, of sudden, the wind stops.
I climb to my feet, surprised and awed at the agility and crispness of my movements. There is no sweat on my wrinkled brow. The blazing sun dries it as quickly as the droplets form. Yet I swipe at my brow anyway. An old habit of an even older man born of a time gone by. They say that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Maybe so, for it is these old tricks that have kept me alive for so long. I scan my surroundings. All the same, red silt that lays like some blanket and barren rock are all that can be seen. The only trees left are dead, gray skeletons that serve to remind of a different time, a better time. The sun, a great blazing fireball that burns to ashes anything that it touches. My eyesight is poor now. Too many years spent in the caves. The Caves that are the last bastion of life on this desolate rock.
I think it has been about three months since the Underground sent me out on this hunt. Off in the distance, another windstorm gains strength. I despise the wind more than anything on this burned-out rock. The wind lifts the red silt and it seeps into everything. It fills your ears, your nose, seeps under your eyelids. If you are caught unaware and unprotected above the ground in a wind storm, you die. Simple as that. I guess that I just happen to be one tough bastard. Maybe that is why the Underground made me a water hunter, and an assassin, despite my age. Those coveted jobs were jealously guarded by the young and powerful. Maybe they are just trying to get rid of me. If there is anything worse than the accursed wind, it is the Underground. The damned tyrants that rule the caves with an iron fist. This is no democracy, it is an autocracy. They are all a bunch of ruthless sons of bitches and I have told them as much, right to their faces. Didn't like that too much, I can tell you. But, I am an old man. And they know it is the old ones that hold all the real knowledge.
I look through shaded eyes toward the East. It's about midday, from the place of the sun, and the heat already presses on me like old woolen blankets. But I have to go on. I have to reach the city by sundown. Before heading out, I uncork my small water skin, and take a tiny swallow, raising it to cracked and parched lips. My whole body feels the blistering heat, but my lips are by far the worst. The hot water brings jolts of electric pain and the salty tang of blood mixes with the water. Still, I savor the wetness, letting the liquid mix flow past my lips; my mouth; my throat. Re-corking the waterskin, I head out, my steps surprisingly quick and light. I glance down at my watch. Another old habit, I guess. I wear the watch all the time, as a gentle reminder of times gone by. The watch had been standard issue when my father had been called to the service. At the time, I had thought it had been a toy.
* * *
A boy of perhaps nine sat at the kitchen table. He stared through baleful eyes at the bowl full of oatmeal, wondering what type of evil genius invented the foul ooze. No more than a cruel word for gruel it was. It even smelled bad. Maybe it was torture, the boy thought, yeah..that was it. Torture for children. The boy was nondescript, really. A plain face surrounded by rusty brown hair that was continually disheveled and forever tousled by some unseen winds. His mother stood at the stove with her plain brown hair pulled tightly into a bun at the base of her neck. It was not an unpleasant look. She wore her favorite red apron that was covered with grease stains and had the words "kiss the cook" written in what was once white and now stained yellow. It was somehow appropriate for her. Red had always been her favorite color anyway. The boy favored black but his mother stringently disapproved. Black was not a color for nine-year-old boys, she told him. She turned to look at her son through ice-blue eyes filled with love and compassion. The boy always liked the color of her eyes. Like some wintry sky in mid-January. He knew that she was waiting for him to make some snide remark about his breakfast, but he didn't have the heart. She tried. That made the oatmeal somehow palatable. At least marginally. And even if he did say something, she would counter him with something like:
"There are starving children in Africa, you know."
It didn't make the oatmeal taste any better though. Even the dog wouldn't eat it.
"Morning, dear." The boy's father walked into the sunlit kitchen and kissed his wife deftly on the cheek. "Has the milkman come yet?" He wore his service uniform. The stripes on the sleeve marked him as sergeant in the service of the New World Order. The unified alliance of most of the highly developed countries against the rampant terrorism of those Middle Eastern bastards.
"No dear, but there is a bit left in the fridge if you want," Mother told him gently.
He got the bottle and took a seat at the kitchen table across from his young son. His face carried a serious look, and the boy braced himself for some scolding for something that he must have done.
"Son, I want you to have something. Something very special. A kind of present even though it's not your birthday or anything." He kept looking at the boy with his gray eyes until the boy smiled. Somehow, this was going to be very special indeed. Father smiled back. "But if I give it to you, you have to promise to take very good care of it. Do you think you can do that, sport?"
The father pulled the watch from his breast pocket and handed it to his young son. It was too big.
* * *
Behind me, the sun is just beginning to sink lazily below the horizon. If you look long enough and listen hard enough, you could hear the sun sizzle on the sand when they touch borders. Before me lays the city, stretching off into the distance. Its massive towers of blown-out steel girders and crumbling masonry looming large like some macabre grave markers in some forgotten cemetery. Most of the buildings were reduced to rubble by the bombs. Ironic how such majestic works of architecture lauded as the best in their day were reduced to nothing in so short a span of time. The last rays of sunlight glitter off the broken glass and fractured steel covered with red silt. The city looks like it bleeds. Perhaps it still does.
Quickly, I move through the shadows of some of the outer buildings, no more than a shadow myself. A specter creeping on silent feet through a forgotten wasteland. From out of the shadows, an old man stumbles. His hair might have been white had it not been for the crust of red dirt that clung to everything about him. His body was bent and shriveled with age. His clothes no more than tattered rags to cover his sparse frame.
"My life for some water...." He whispers coarsely through a parched throat, his voice thick with unspoken anguish. I see him but do not stop or turn my head. I will spare him no water. No. He is dead already. I know there are many more people like him in the city. Maybe even a couple of hundred by now. Mostly all Dreggs, like that poor old bastard. Outcasts the Underground had banished to the aboveground and inevitable death. Mostly because they had outlived their usefulness. All up here were Dreggs save one. I don't yet know who that one is, but the Underground wants him dead. They say he preaches to the masses about a better time and place, filling people's heads with false hope. This one gives these people, these Dreggs, false hope and thereby threatens the Underground. But its not the Dreggs that matter, they don't give a damn about them. Let the Earth swallow the lot of them, the Underground laughs. I'm only here for the one that speaks of hope. Nothing else matters to me.
"My...life for wat...er." The same Dregg pitches forward onto the broken pavement of what was once the street and is still. I walk over and prod him with the toe of my worn boot. He's dead or will be before the night is over. Poor sick bastard. Should have found his own water, but that was near to impossible for most of these old Dreggs. That was what the Underground counted on. Too old, or too sick and out they go. Plain as that. I had to find my own water. I wanted to spit in disgust; more at the uncaring, cavalier attitude of the Underground than at these poor sick Dreggs, and then I purposefully turn my head. Running my hand through my rusty brown hair, I press on.
The park ahead is nothing more than a spot a little more free of the broken metal and glass. Maybe it had been a park once, maybe. Full of trees with deep-green leaves, flowers with delicate scents, and even birds that sang doleful tunes. Now, as I approach, it looks like the rest of the land. Broken rocky soil devoid of water and covered with the telltale red silt. I see the spot the Underground sketched out for me. It is the carved-out shell of a natural rock-formed auditorium. The sheer cliff of the rear wall formed the perfect spot for an ambush. There was a pathway that led into the basin through a narrow draw between two massive boulders. Far too narrow for more than one man at a time. With the right strategy, a person could be trapped as solid as a bird in his gilded cage.
This auditorium, this is where the man comes to speak to the people and the Dreggs every day at first light. Preaching is more like what he does, or so they say. I climb to the top of the escarpment and look down. This is going to be too easy. Shrubs and brush will be my cover and no one would be able to climb that escarpment without me getting a good lead on them first. I find a narrow crevice and settle in to await the coming of dawn. Morning is still a couple of hours away. Time enough for an old man to think a bit. Why had the Underground, those self-effacing nefarious jackasses, chosen me for this job? Me? An old man, as old or even older than the Dreggs they pitched out as useless. I've muddled that over a hundred times and still can't find any good answer or reason. My mind drifts, a peaceful half-doze that borders on the realm of dreams and those buried memories that I don't wish to remember. An old jazz tune floats in my head, a song from another lifetime. It's the song I used to sing to my son. He had been such a good boy.
* * *
A man stood in his backyard with a weathered baseball glove on his hand that was as old as he was. Rust-brown hair fell in soft curls just to the level of his ears. He lifted the glove to his face, breathing in the oiled leather scent. Smells that brought back images of his own youth in this same backyard. Games of catch with his own father. Those had been more gentle times, when life had been so much more innocent. The man watched as his own son struggled to put on his new baseball glove. The big glove was awkward on his small hand, but he persevered, a look of consternation on his young face. The father smiled at his son. The boy held out the glove to catch the ball as the man lobbed it up in a high arc through the air. It bounced off the glove and rolled through the boy's legs. Father and son both laughed.
"You have to hold the glove up like this...." The man held up his glove for his son to see and try to emulate.
"Okay, Daddy." He had his father's looks. A strong jaw line, heavy brows and deep-set ice-blue eyes. He stood in his faded denim overalls, trying desperately to hold his glove like his father had shown him.
"Get the ball, son. Let's see that pitching arm of yours."
"Okay, Daddy." He ran through the newly mowed grass, and grabbed the ball, holding it up triumphantly for his father to see. "Watch how good I throw it, Daddy, I'm gonna be a pitcher, you just wait and see...."
"You sure are, son. Let's see what you got." The scent of steak on the barbecue drew the man's attention away. The low rumbling in his stomach reminded him of how hungry he was. His wife stood on the patio, wearing a red-stained apron that said "kiss the cook". She was standing so still, he could see her trembling visibly. And there were tears in her eyes.
"John...." Her voice quavered, no more than a ragged whisper. John knew that something was wrong, something was terribly wrong here. The ball bounced to the ground a few feet in front of John but he didn't see it anymore. He ran over to his distraught wife and then saw the tell-tale manila envelope in her quivering fingers. She held it as one would hold a long-dead fish, something that was rotten and poisonous. John took the envelope, and removed the letter though he didn't need to read it. Sanity seemed to slip away with the tears streaming down his face. Report for active duty, it read. The draft. It had finally begun. The letter fell from John's fingers and floated lazily to the sun-browned grass. John watched as his son ran up, concern mirrored in his youthful eyes. He saw his brand-new Buick waiting to be driven, knowing that it would not be by him. He saw the sun, a bright red ball that threatened to burn the world alive. And then he was gone. He never saw his son again.
* * *
A tree crashing to the ground somewhere in the not-so-distant area rouses me from my morbid reverie. Walking slowly around, I see that dawn is still a couple hours away. My body aches from the rock and unforgiving ground and the chill of the night air pressing its weight on my aged bones. Groaning softly, I gradually try to shift my body to ease the cramping from being stuck in the narrow crevice for hours. I move my body only a little, trying to be as one with the lengthening shadows. It was a skill I had learned quickly and well long ago. Now it was just another of my old habits. I let my senses relax a bit as I settle back into my self-appointed ditch. The night seems long somehow, but I have spent countless nights before without sleep. Nights just like this one, lying awake, waiting. I spent three whole years lying awake waiting. Three years that seemed more like three decades. Those years had been hell. Yet no better or worse than the hell of now. The desert and jungle had been as much a jail as the barren wasteland with its red dust, with steel bars just as unrelenting....
* * *
The heat was amazing as John trudged along the overgrown path. The ground was soft and pliant under his tough army boots. At least it helped to deaden the sound of their passing. Vampiric insects swarmed around them, no more than a stinging annoyance. Perhaps to the lucky, they would bring the fevers of malaria or the quick death of Ebola. John looked at the watch his father had given him all those long years ago. Fourteen-hundred hours, two in the afternoon to the Great Unwashed. Five more hours of light left, but here in the jungle, darkness came early and the shadows were already long and lengthening. The rest of John's company was spread out behind him, in search-and-destroy formation. The last few of his men lost in the shadows of the trees and clinging vines. They all knew well the art of camouflage. Stealth was the key to survival here. John was the navigator to this sinking barge of men. A cartographer by trade. The rest of the company relied on him to make sure they didn't get lost. Truth be told, one jungle melted into another, but John couldn't tell them that. Knowing where they were was the only hope they had. He didn't have the heart to tell them that they were running blind. His compass was broken, but he pressed on blindly. If he could just see the cursed sun, he might have been able to get them out of this damn mess. But jungles, by their very nature, precluded the touch of sun, and the gift of sight, or any real sense of direction.
John placed Old Jones in the lead, hacking out a path through the overgrown brush with his three-foot machete. He had arms like oak logs, so thick they were. Old Jones had been here in the heat of the deserts and the swelter of the jungles that made up the East for over three years now. A die-hard soldier. Some of the men in the company with Old Jones said he was too tough or too damn stubborn to die. John believed his men. Old Jones was a tough bastard, tough as nails and colder than a frigid desert night. All about the company, the jungle pressed in, the stench of filth and human decay assaulting their senses. A lot of the men smoked to fend off the putrescence. In the end, it had been that silly habit that had been their undoing. Even as it had been back in Vietnam, when Charlie knew the men were there by the smell of their Marlboros, so it was here. In the distance, the sounds of the jungle night life threatened them. Or maybe it was the enemy. John couldn't really tell and he didn't much give a damn anymore. Death would be a welcome alternative to this nightmare. He moved on behind Old Jones, trying to concentrate on keeping his feet moving. But he couldn't even see his feet through the cursed fog that always came with the beginning of night. It swirled and eddied around his thighs as alive as the jungle, and no less intimidating. He cursed aloud as one boot sunk deeply into stank water. Another swamp.
"Hell of a way to fight a war, eh, Old Jones? Tramping through GD swamps?!" John laughed, trying to make light of a difficult situation.
"Pipe down, ya sonofabitch! Wanna get us all kilt?" Then he stopped. He turned his dark brown face toward John, a face now totally devoid of color. His cigarette fell haplessly from his dry lips. Though his face was covered in dirt and thick beads of sweat, the fear in his eyes stood out like a beacon in the darkness. Raw fear. The sight of it brought John's heart to a standstill. He wiped at the sweat on his own brow with a trembling hand. Old Jones's lips were moving but John didn't hear what he was saying, he couldn't. He already knew what was wrong. It was a trap. And then the world was ripped apart.
The tree John jumped behind was scarcely enough shelter for a bone-thin child. An explosion ripped through the air, the force of it enough to knock John off his feet were they not mired in the muck of the swamp. The swamp probably even saved his life. He saw bits and pieces of Old Jones fly past him; an arm here, a let there. The blood of all his company painted the dark green of the jungle a sick crimson red. Then the firing started and John's mind shut down, turning to something resembling animal rage. All around him, soldiers fell and were swallowed whole by the denseness of the jungle, forever lost. Some were called MIA. Some POW; whatever the name, the outcome was the same. Dead or dying. John heard Smith scream and then Billy. He could see the bright flash of gunfire as it ripped through the sea of green and hear the bullets as they thudded dully into flesh and bone. Someone John hardly knew fell at his feet, his helmet gone and his face a mask of pain and fear, forever frozen into that hideous visage. Forever burned into John's memory.
More explosions and bullets tore apart the remnants of the jungle, throwing showers of dirt and foliage into the air. John was blinded by a white-hot fear and rage that pulsated through his body in rhythm to the firing of his 16. He saw Tom fall, then Doc. John screamed; a scream born of a place not human. Rage tore through his body like the bullets that ripped through his comrades. He jumped out from behind his tiny shelter, not caring anymore. As long as he took some of these Middle Eastern bastards with him. As long as some of them died too. That was all that mattered. As long as someone paid dearly for this travesty. John stood alone in the dark jungle, his gun shots and those of the enemies the only sound in that place of death. John felt it was his fault, and his fault alone. He had gotten them lost and been too proud or too stupid to tell them the truth. And his stupidity had cost his company their lives. Another memory, another piece of guilt to last a lifetime.
He felt a white-hot fire burning in his side, a kind of dull ache that spread quickly to his thigh. And then another came in his right shoulder. Time and space stood still. Hearing was lost, and sight no more than a hazy blur. Voices floated through the gray mist but the words were indistinct and meaningless. Somehow, he knew, he alone had been rescued. He saw a medic, his green camouflage stained in blood, his eyes filled with the horror he beheld and sorrow beyond comprehension. The pilots were saying something about a Purple Heart or maybe a Medal of Honor. Is that what all that training in assassination and search-and-destroy and anti-terrorism had been for? A damn piece of metal? Somehow, it didn't matter anymore. Nothing did. Nothing made any sense.
John's hospital bed was comfortable and the starched sheets felt cool against his naked skin. Though his eyes were tightly closed, he could hear the nurses scurrying about, tending to this piece of a man, or that one. Words were not recognizable. Somewhere close by,, a man moaned and cried out to his God. A voice whined over the PA system.
And then, it was deathly quiet. John opened his eyes slowly, allowing them the time to adjust to the bright fluorescent light. Nurses stood frozen in mid-action. They were all foreigners, most were Israeli or Saudi Arabian. Some of them were crying. Some lay cringing in terror on the floor. John didn't understand. Not right at first. Then came the American voice over the PA. It spoke in hushed tones of the war. It spoke of the bomb. THE bomb. John closed his eyes, the tears spilling on his cheeks. He didn't hear anymore. He didn't need to. He knew what had happened. The moaning beside him had stopped.
* * *
That had been so long ago. The bomb was a mistake that no one was willing to lay claim to. They had come from everywhere. No lands had been saved. No little piece of paradise remained. The first shaft of sunlight crept on silent whispers of the wind from behind the escarpment. It was almost time. I stand slowly and stretched my cramped limbs, still careful to remain hidden. My whole body aches and I wonder at the years behind me now. No more accurate calendars existed, so I have lost track of what my age should be. Too damn old, that was for certain. I suppose that somebody knows somewhere. But what does it matter? Someone from the Underground probably knew what year it was. They claim to know everything. But they still haven't found the answer to how to make this life this hell worth living in.
A breeze stirs and faintly carries the sound of voices to my ears. I edge to the top of the cliff overlooking the rock-formed auditorium. I can see that the Dreggs have already begun to arrive, to quietly file in one at a time. They speak in hushed tones, whispering to one another and casting furtive glances over their shoulders. The wary man stays alive. All of them appear anxious and eager for the man they wait for to speak. Maybe I will wait for a few moments to hear what it is that this man says that is so terrible and destructive. Right before I kill him. Will the Dreggs feel angry? Can they? Surely they must respect this man to risk their lives out in the open like this. Why else would they be here?
I get my weapon out of my pack, feeling its weight. Its lightness. No more heavy shotguns like the M-16s. Only these effective laser guns now. Light. Quiet. Deadly. Efficient. The morning reflects dully of the cold hardness of the platinum. Yeah, it's a good weapon. The noise from the Dreggs grows louder. I turn my attention to them, searching the crowd for the one man destined to die today. The crowd is larger now. Easily three hundred of them are pressed into the bowl of rock, with more pouring out into the early morning light. I see, to my surprise, some young people in the crowd. People who belong in the caves as part of the Underground. People who have the strength to work the mines or search for water. They sure don't belong here with this rabble. Yet, here they stand, shoulder to shoulder with the Dreggs. Something is wrong here. It sticks in my craw but I can't quite put a finger on what it is.
Suddenly the crowd parts just like Moses parting the Red Sea. The noise ceases. The air is still and quiet. Even the breeze stops. I strain my aged eyes to see this newly arrived figure, but he is no more than a shadow silhouetted by the morning sun. He appears tall and powerful. I sight him with my weapon, knowing without a doubt that this is the man I was sent to kill. This man is my target. He says something I can't quite hear, and the Dreggs give a loud cheer, their radiation-poisoned arms reaching into the air. I try to hear his words but he speaks too softly.
Then, a lone cloud covers the sun for an instant, and the man stands there exposed to me. He is tall and lean of frame, yet strong. His rusty-brown hair hangs in long soft curls to his shoulders. He has a look of grisly determination on his face and a sense of duty. His ice-blue eyes shine with a fierce inner light. He could easily command an army to its death with that penetrating gaze alone. Just like I did. He begins to speak again, his words carried directly to me by a soft wind. His words are beautiful. A picture is painted in my mind of green valleys and blue skies. Images of little white houses with picket fences and green grass kept neatly trimmed for a dad and his son to play catch and throw a ball around. Times when children went to parks and played baseball on dusty diamonds. Images of water in such abundance that people swam in it and threw it on the ground or at each other and even washed in it. Then the man speaks of knowledge and schools of learning open to all. He speaks of wondrous technologies and great cities where millions lived together in relative peace.
Tears come unbidden to my eyes. Something that has not happened for longer than I can remember. The Man? He has his father's looks. My looks. In all the world, in all the universe, I never expected to see him again. I counted him lost like so many others in my life that I once held dear. Yet there he is, standing before me now. A man now. He is so close, I could stand and yell out his name. Jonathan! We could be united. Then I look at myself. An old man with dirt stains for clothes and matted straw for hair. My weathered skin wrinkled and tight against my aged bones. I am a shambles. No more than a Dregg. My weapon falls haplessly to the ground. Unused. Inside me, a wind is howling, ripping my soul to shreds.
* * *
Above the man named John, the sun burns hot. The old man trudges wearily across the barren plain, his threadbare boots crunching in the red silt. His body is bent, shriveled, and his tattered clothing hangs loosely from his skeletal frame. His hair would have been white were it not for the crust of red dust. He looks down at his wrist. The battery to the watch died decades ago, but the temperature gauge still works. It reads one hundred and twenty three degrees. Maybe the wind will stop blowing, John thought, as his blistered feet shuffled leaden across the plain to nowhere. He was now a man with no home. A Dregg. Soon dead. The wind never stopped blowing.
Story copyright 2003 by Jo A. North Jostories@aol.com
Illustration © 2003 by Romeo Esparaggo firstname.lastname@example.org
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