His gloved fingers traced the contours of the phone in his pocket, lightly tracing the familiar curve.
It was old but working.
He knew that for a fact. He had just received his orders on it five minutes back…so it was working just fine.
“I am reachable but she doesn’t care…” he thought, cursing the wind and the snow and the day and the year and his life and everything in it.
He felt like he was 17 again, waiting breathlessly besides the large red family phone on its wooden stand in the hall, right besides the sofa.
There he had sat, waiting, hoping, even though his mother kept shooing him away so that she could put up the decorations.
He refused to give up his vigil though. He had just waited.
Like he was waiting today.
“Please…I know nothing…please.”
He smiled at the memory of his mother. His mother never got tired of putting up decorations for his birthday and he never got tired of the whole thing. It would be a sad day indeed when he would be tired of those who were happy to make him happy.
There were so few of them.
He flexed his shoulder muscles with a groan. They ached with a dull throb. The armour plates clanged against each other, digging into his back.
‘Extra protection’ is what the quartermaster had said while soldering it on. More plates, more padding, more protection…every where.
Maybe, but it was just more weight.
Everything hurt. His legs ached, his eyes burned, his fingers throbbed. And despite breathing heated air, his chest hurt with every breath.
It was cold, he was told. He would soon adapt to it, he was told.
It was the cold or the altitude or the armour or the strain of command or a hundred other things.
Whatever it was, it ached.
He looked around. There was certainly plenty of cold to be had. The wind whipped up the snow into fine little tornadoes. Larger flakes fell more steadily, piling up in little bumps everywhere.
The sky was that deep grey which inevitably leads to a spike in the suicide rates among the troops.
The view made him feel like he was on top of the world. From this little plateau where he stood he could see hundreds of white-capped peaks stretch out in every direction.
Yet none overshadowed the one he was occupying, even though it was only the third highest peak in this land.
“I am not the tallest yet…” he told himself, turning back to see the edge.
The edge of the plateau was only a few feet away, dropping away as a sheer cliff face for 570 feet, a relic from the time when glaciers ground past this mountain, eons ago.
Although there was some local legend about how some ancient king had cut the mountain away at this point because it was so arrogant about its size – a lesson in humility apparently.
“What did he use to cut it down, his giant throbbing cock?” He scoffed, his breath hanging in little puffs of mist as it exhaled out of his mask, fogging up the view ever so slightly.
“Ah yes, the stupid mask…” he groaned.
More metal, more weight.
It muted the sounds and its filters deprived him of all smell. He tapped one side of it with a finger, the steel tips of his glove making little clinking noises on the metal.
“For warmth, for protection,” he was told when they strapped it on.
They were lying.
It was to continue a legend – The faceless, the untouchable…the immortal. Black and featureless…a round blank, black faceless skull that could not be looked upon for too long. No visible eyes to stare into, no visible mouth to scream or smile.
It was a silly psychological game.
Like the one she was playing with him. Why couldn’t she just call? The silence was killing him.
Oh to be 17 again. He could feel it deep inside him, a buried little memory that glowed softly in these dark hours. He could remember it all. How his heart had thumped when the phone had finally rang, its jangling ring seeming so extra loud at that moment.
“I know nothing…n-nothing”
He could still feel his excitement, smell the cool breeze cutting through the hall, see the fluttering yellow curtains. He could practically taste the moment, even now, all these years later.
“H-hello?” he had muttered, his voice cracking from the strain.
“Hi piggy! Happy birthday!” she had sung.
Four words, sung out in that special sing-song accent of hers.
He knew then that he was in love. Not one of those silly loves that you forget when you grow up . The forever love.
Later, they would make fun of his affection.
“You followed her like a dog…” they would howl before cackling.
Even those comforting him could not hide the feeling from their eyes. He could feel it as they looked at him, – their shame and embarrassment at his choice, their pity for his state. They all pitied him in the end.
But he was never embarrassed. He had done nothing wrong. There was pain, humiliation and heart ache. But no shame.
His love did not embarrass him and she would not be forgotten. He was in love. And it would be forever. He knew when he heard her voice then. And he knew it now, even though the call was apparently not going to come.
He clenched his hand around his phone, holding it tightly and wishing for it to burst into flames rather than having to face these times, such moments, such pain.
The wind whipped his overcoat’s edges, getting stronger by the minute. A storm was coming.
Why must he always bear such pain?
“HELP ME! HELP ME! I KNOW NOTHING! PLEASE HELP ME!”
The scream cut right into his thoughts and he snapped back to reality.
“I cannot even take a moment to mourn by myself. Such was the world.” He muttered, as he finally gave up his thoughts and walked over to the edge, taking care to avoid stepping into the little drops of blood staining the clean white snow.
The men hovering around end of the cliff took a step back and stood stiffly as he approached. Except the man who was holding the rope dangling over the edge. He merely nodded.
“General” the Captain said and saluted as he passed. It still surprised him that he was a General. How quickly things had moved.
A silent moment passed as the men waited, salute still firmly fixed to their foreheads.
But the General did not return the salute. If he stopped to do that every time, there was nothing else he could do. He had not come here, so far away, to stand around saluting.
Depending on how you looked at it either he was at the end of the Empire or at it’s very start.
However you saw it, once you came here, in the cold and the among the shattered mountains and torn valleys, the one thing you would agree upon was this was surely where the world ended and the void began.
“And it has always been populated with stubborn mules.” The General thought as he walked over to the every end and peered over the edge, down into the abyss.
The rope dangled down, taunted and swinging in the wind. As the General followed it he could just about see where the rope was wrapped the ankles of a pair of ankles. Snow was being blasted over the edge, obscuring the view but he could see that the tips of the toes were already a deep blue.
“HELP!”, the boy yelled from below. The General was impressed he still had the ability to scream.
He glanced back up. Besides the edge, the boy’s boots, shirt and sweater were neatly piled on one side.
The boy would probably never walk again. Not without wooden pieces padding out his shoes to make up for the gaps anyway. But this was a concern for a later time.
The General looked back down.
“HELP ME PLEASE PLEASE HELP PLEASE”
“Pull him back up,” The General ordered and strolled back a little to give the men space to work.
The man holding the rope nodded, tightened his grip and began to walk backwards slowly. The rope came up rather easily. The boy did not weigh much.
The Captain stood to one side and watched the ground. The men surrounding him also seemed fascinated with the ground.
“So nervous…so unsure…just like I was when she called,” the General thought as he watched the clustered men.
“Any word yet?” came the voice of his second-in-command from far off behind him.
The General turned and watched the Lord Agarius lounge up towards him with all the speed of ice melting.
Tall, lanky and with a shock of hair hidden under a black helmet, Agarius was not what one would call fastidious. Badly was what you mostly could call him – badly shaven, badly dressed, badly behaviored…just generally bad.
And though the thick black scarf that was wound around his face covered it for now, the General knew that a single silver loop was still pinned proudly to one eyebrow.
The possibility of frost-bite was a small price to pay for the pride of Lord Agarius. And it was paid with élan.
The rumour was that all the ladies swooned over the precious ‘rogue’ Lord.
The General had no reason to doubt it.
He waited until Agarius managed to stumble his way over before replying.
“We shall soon see what the words are…” he said.
Agarius gave him the typical barely-there salute he gave everybody and began to light two cigarettes.
“Is this necessary?” Agarius breathed in a low voice as he handed one of the cigarettes over to the General.
“We shall know shortly.” The General whispered as he pushed the release catch of his mask, a tiny bump behind his left ear. With a click and a hiss of heated air the mask unlocked, splitting open in a circle from chin to the back of his head.
A soldier besides him jogged up and pulled the General’s helmet and face plate off, scurrying away to stand at a respectable distance, eyes fixed on the ground.
Custom said you do not look at the General’s face, whoever he was, if you wanted a good end to the campaign. And nothing is as superstitious as a soldier, the General had come to realize.
The cold hit the General like a slap. For a moment he could not breathe. His burning eyes immediately clamped shut, watering in desperation. His nose burned and he could feel the skin on his cheek crinkle. He automatically reached up to stroke his cheek.
Agarius, who had gotten used to this little routine, grabbed his gloved hand before it finished the journey. He gently clinked his own steel tipped glove ends with the steel tips of the General’s gloves.
“I forgot” The General muttered, lowering his hand. The first time he had taken off the mask in the snow and touched his face, his frozen steel tips had torn the skin off his cheeks in long narrow strips where he had stroked it.
Now Agarius did his best to prevent a repeat performance.
“For your own health, I suggest you demand for the new carbon tips we are all waiting for.” Agarius muttered.
The General put the cigarette to his lips and took a deep drag.
The carbon tips, along with a thousand other requests were a distant dream, never to be fulfilled.
He exhaled, relishing the great gales of white smoke the little drag produced in this weather.
“We work with what we have…” The General replied softly. Too many soldiers were too close for this conversation.
The boy was up by then. He lay in the snow, panting and bleeding, twitching every so often. He made little moaning sounds as the men crowded around him.
The wind had blasted him into the cliff wall over and over again, his chest bearing a testimony to each caress. Although his face seemed to have taken the brunt of it.
The men lifted him to knees.
The General walked over and squatted next to him, putting himself in eye level. The soldiers quickly retreated, eyes scattering to every direction.
“Who is in the village? Where do the silent ones go every night? Where does the flower bloom? Tell us…” The General whispered softly.
The boy stared at him. One of eyes was gouged out and it dripped fluid onto this cheek in little drops. His cracked lips sunk in places where teeth had been knocked out.
“You are a shepherd. You go to every home. You walk around. No one sees you but you see everything. You know. We know you know. Tell us and it will all be over.” The Captain barked from a little way off, staring fixedly at rock besides the General, avoiding his face.
The General gave him a sideways glance.
“You too, Captain?” he thought, wishing he had left the mask on now.
The boy stared at the General silently. One of his cheeks was gashed open, the wound pulsing with his every breath. His long hair was frozen in long spikes, standing almost comically erect on his head. The General had seen young boys in the Capital who also had the same hairstyle.
“One way of being in fashion,” the General muttered as he turned around and gestured Agarius to come over.
Agarius shook his head violently.
“Get over here Lord Agarius else I shall have you shot.” The General screamed, his patience snapping.
It was all getting to him. The cold, the wind, the mask, the averted eyes.
And the long silence of the phone. It still had not buzzed.
Maybe she was following the same superstition as the men, he wondered. Did she also think it was unlucky to be in touch with him?
Or maybe she was just so busy cuddling her new lover that he was all but a memory. He did not want that to be true. But that probably was how it was.
Agarius strolled over sulkily, flopping himself gracelessly on the snow besides the boy. He had bought the boy’s sweater with him.
“Ask him in his own lingo…” The General said, looking over the edge and smoking while Agarius draped the boy with the sweater.
Agarius muttered out the lines, softly, with a pleading tone. The lines were longer than necessary.
“Probably comforting him with lies” The General thought. When Agarius stopped the General turned to look at the boy again.
The little thing was ruined and that was for sure. His fingers were clutching the sweater tightly, the tips chafed and bleeding. Several nails were missing. One of them was definitely broken.
He turned to stare at the General again.
“What does he see?” The General thought. “Is he hoping for more comfort? Does he pity me because I chose the wrong bird since this one has no plans of singing? Is he steeling himself for the end?”
The boy stared in silence.
The General wanted to reach out and slap the boy. What was he looking at? What could he see?
“He doesn’t know anything.” Agarius finally said. “Look at him. He was surprised to even see us when we got him and he is shocked now. “
“Fine” The General said, conceding defeat.
He stood up, the blood rushing back into his aching calves. The edge was only a few feet away, the long, rough line of blood and disturbed snow from the boy’s upward progress already being hidden by the wind.
He went over to the edge and peered downwards.
He could not see anything expect a white flurry somewhere down there, snapping and swirling with the wind.
What could be seen? He wondered.
After a moment, the General flicked his cigarette away and held out his hand. The mask was placed in it.
He stared at it as its black enamel over metal glistened in the dawn light. Faceless, featureless and so black.
A deep red groove was painted across from one end to another in the curving shape of a jaw.
Theoretically it was supposed to fool an attacker into thinking the mask would crack if hit on the red line, thereby drawing the attack to the thickest part of it.
“So many mind games”, the General mused. “You would think she trained us all.”
He clipped the mask back on, reveling in the moment of absolute darkness as the mask booted itself. There was no better feeling of peaceful solitude than that single moment when all was dark in his little metal womb.
“Welcome General” A soft voice chimed in is ear as the world was once again filled with light and warm air began circulating, melting the little flecks of snow that had stuck to his face.
“The temperature is -2 degrees, sunrise is in 7 minutes. You have no new messages.” The voice droned before fading away to silence.
She would be home by now, no matter how late she had worked, he decided. She had come home and just decided to ignore him.
“As usual” he told himself bitterly.
“We will just have to take it as it goes. Move out.” He screamed, striding back in hurried steps, past the men and the boy and Agarius. He would go back to his flag ship and gave a good brood in silence. That always made him feel…well not better…but it passed the time at least.
“What about the boy?”
It was the nervous Captain, his quivering voice echoing across the plateau.
The General turned and looked at Agarius. No expression was possible through the mask. But the message went through anyway.
“What of the boy? No one remembers…” Agarius said and began to follow the General, a carefully blank expression on his face.
Agarius could sour all he wanted, the General figured.
He had never loved a soul in his life. He did not know what it felt like. He did not know the meaning of pain. He just lived in his own oblivious little bubble.
He did not know how it feels to have your hopes and dreams broken. He did not know what it felt like to have your body, your soul broken. He did not know how it felt when you knew your life was over. He knew nothing.
“Only I know my pain” the General thought, shoving his hand in his pocket to clench his phone, and resuming his walk.
“He is only a boy…” The Captain called out, unwilling to let things go.
The General ground his teeth. People were never willing go just let it go were they? They always thought they were so right.
Why do they always do that?
The General turned halfway, giving the Captain a side profile as drew his pistol.
They had taught him that stance in training.
The boy stared at him, looking blank. He had still said nothing. The General gave him a moment to reconsider. The boy stood up shakily. He swayed for a while. Then stood firm and stared at the General.
A memory came to the General. His old drill master voice rose through the depths, as it screamed over the megaphone at the training ground.
“Always present your enemy with the least visible target, always line up your wrist and shoulder and eye in a line. That is the true Royal line.”
The boy stared. And then, almost too soft to hear, he finally spoke.
It was a few words in his language, too short and firm to be a confession. It was a declaration.
“Fine,” The General said, and squeezed the trigger.
The shot blasted out, echoing through the hills. An explosion of white vapor covered the General as the snow from the nearby boulder shuddered lose and slipped over to over the General’s boots. Somewhere far away, ice creaked and cracked before settling into silence once again.
Of course there is the part they never tell you during training, the part you never know until that first ragged time when, charged with anger and fear, you squeeze that trigger in a hot flash. When you fire into another life.
Only then, amidst the shock and stench of burnt powder and heated oil, when the little squeeze and jerk ends with a spray of red mist and flakes of bone, is the training really over.
The bullet was the Royal .50 ‘heavy’ hollow-point. Designed to expand and ‘tumble’ once it enters a target. Death could come from close to 200 feet away if you were a good shot.
From about 12 feet away, the results were coated all over the unwilling Captain, who watched the headless corpse crumple to the ground.
To his credit, the General noted, he did not flinch.
“We are the black, Captain. “ The General said softly. “No one remembers…”
The Captain made no move. He did not even twitch. His eyes did not move.
The General turned and resumed the long trek back.
No hope for me though, the General thought, as he looked up to see the sun finally break free from the edge of the world and glow in a blaze of brilliance.
The phone was silent.
“No hope at all” he said.
The edge was a little upraised nob at the end of a long plateau. As the General crested the top of the nob, he could see his flagship rock slowly up and down, a metal ship on land. She was surrounded by hundreds of ships, thousands of camp fires and tens of thousands of men, scurrying around and doing whatever it is armed men do in the morning.
The Blue Fairy she was called, and she hovered in a white mist of her own, looking a like a ghost ship from hell.
The General didn’t mind though. He could always have the engines changed to the newer stealth version which hummed silently. But he liked the effect these ones gave out.
“Besides” he thought as he rubbed the side of his mask and stared at all the black uniforms, “we are big on effect in this division.”
Men, their faces hidden in black scarves, watched him silently as he walked over to the open gang plank of the ship.
Agarius caught up to him at the bottom of the gangplank.
“What did the boy say?” He asked Agarius.
“We do and we die…” Agarius replied, taking off his helmet and running his hands through his uncombed hair.
The General said nothing, but the silence was oppressive. And it dragged on.
The General sighed and flexed his cold fingers.
Where was the warmth gone? Where was the sun? Where were the days that he could remember? Where were the flowers he had seen that day?
He looked at the ground, the silence beating down on him. The phone still refused to ring.
It would never ring, he knew. But he did not want to say that out loud either.
“She has not called…” the General finally admitted. He felt broken from just having to say it.
Agarius said nothing.
When they stood this way, in the silence that was so comforting to Agarius and so overpowering to him, the General almost felt like they were 17 again, back in his home, back in the days which he was allowed to remember.
“There is still time, maybe she will…” Agarius finally said slowly.
But even as they stared at each other they knew it was not going to happen. The General knew that for some pains, some truths – there was no escape.
“No escape, except in the lies we tell ourselves,” the General thought.
“Yes…Maybe she will…” He eventually replied and climbed up the gangplank.
It began to close almost immediately.
The General stood at the top, watching Agarius.
“Happy Birthday General” Agarius called out, just as the hull slammed shut.