Bringing the Bodies Home by Christian Riley
Bringing the Bodies Home by Christian Riley
The plane has crashed, the copilot is clearly dead, all radios are down, and Otis is stuck in the cockpit. He tries to disengage the forward hatch, but the metal hinges must be bent—nothing gives. The windows? Impervious up to a 30mm round, and his sidearm is only a Browning 9. Gone are the days of having a cabin door, at least on cargo planes of this line. But there’s a reason for that detail—the solid wall of titanium behind him—a damn good reason.
If there’s a bright side to this morning, it’s that Otis is still alive, and the plane’s homing beacon has turned on. Luck of a million quasars if the rescue team arrives in time. And the view? At least it’s interesting. A hundred or so yards away lay the Sea of Silence, an expansive black drum forming the horizon. Otis thinks it looks as quiet and still as every author has penned it to be. They’ve been writing about that wave-less ocean since Sentinel Command first found this planet, some three decades ago.
Three decades—that’s a long time to be fighting a war. Turns out the Secretians were tougher, and smarter, than Sencom had first suggested. Victory seemed promising in the beginning, the first few years, at least. They hit those buggers hard, hit ‘em damn hard. Seemed as if they had the war bagged. Then, out came the secret weapon. It was everyone’s opinion that the Secretians had gotten desperate.
For Otis, it seems ironic. As a kid, playing at war, he and his brothers each had a “secret weapon,” something they saved for special occasions, down to the last man sort of thing. Otis’ favorite, Jimmy had made up. He called it the “Turn-cloak,” and when activated, the nearest enemy went on his side, started fighting previous teammates.
A taste of irony, but still, not the same. Not even close. They don’t have a side, other than their own. Sencom, the Secretians—fair game the lot of them.
Otis unbuckles and checks himself for damage, unintentionally gazes at the copilot’s broken form, his body tin-canned by a malfunctioning ejection seat. Old Eddie…
Otis never liked him. He was the worst copilot, boring as shit, had the personality of a box of rocks. Is that what they call a mixed metaphor? Otis wonders—then, doesn’t care, as it beats anything Eddie ever came up with. Their first day out, Otis told his funniest joke, and Eddie, he just gave back a blank stare. Been rocky ever since. And there is nothing remotely decent about that, considering the nature of their job: hauling bodies home from the war. A guy could stand a bit of fun, surrounded by all that grief, and danger. But now? Well, Otis suspects he’ll be getting a new copilot, assuming he survives this ordeal. Cheers to the bright side!
Speaking of bodies: if memory serves Otis correctly, the Sea of Silence has swallowed quite a few over the last thirty years. Ships, and planes, interstellar modules—they’ve all been shot down over that watery graveyard. The last one, not even two weeks ago, in fact. It was a Frigate Carrier, Tsudo Class…the SCS Miyaki, Otis remembers. Had over five thousand personnel onboard when it went down—took them all to the bottom of that ghostly sea. What a way to go. Then, with a sidelong glance, Otis looks over at Eddie—bloody sack of pulp that he now is—and after, the titanium wall behind him. There are, of course, worse ways to meet one’s end. Much worse.
Looking away, Otis studies his control panel, makes a few inquiries: cabin pressure good, CO2 scrubber functioning, redundant life support systems sound, on hiatus. Not bad, considering the crash landing. Then he checks his Cryo-containment settings, in the unlikely scenario that he may need to go into a state of hibernation, assuming…well…assuming the worst.
There’s a depressing thought. Going into Cryo-state comes with a mandatory of ten, uninterrupted years, allowing for a proper deep freeze, and safe incubation period—not to mention a painless defrost. Otis thinks about his wife, his two sons, even his dog, Harry. Ten years is a long, long time.
His last memory with his family, he was sitting—
Otis leans forward, double-time. That sound, it came from the back, behind him—behind the titanium wall. It’s not much of a surprise, now that he coldly wraps his mind around the noise. Although, he does check his wristwatch. Seems to him that, despite the engine failure, and the crash landing, he should still be in the green zone. As far as Otis knows, complete transmutation never occurs in less than thirty-six hours, and the loadmaster had been quite clear about where these bodies had come from. And, more importantly, when they were pulled out from the Gray Wastes—the Secretian’s secret weapon.
Well, so much for certainty. Instinctively, Otis recoils back into his seat, attempts to make himself smaller. In his mind, he does some rough calculations, trying to figure out when the rescue party should arrive. Enemy lines are six thousand kilometers to the east. Forward base, where he departed from, that’s a good three thousand, give or take. No major conflicts or operations within this sector. All in all, they should be here soon. Somebody should.
That last sound—the sound of tearing metal. In his mind’s eye, Otis pictures scabrous hands ripping through the plane’s fuselage. It won’t be long now, this he knows. If only he could conceal himself in some way. If only there was a place to hide. He glances again at Eddie: the luxury of a quick, painless death, no doubt.
If they see Otis, and observe him for what he is—a living morsel—the bodies will stop at nothing to get at him. Some of them, Otis may recognize. May even know. As a general rule, he never looks at the complete cargo manifest. What’s the point? The job is depressing enough on its own. Why add company to the misery?
Seconds later and silence prevails, but there is nothing comforting about it. The proverbial calm before the storm, as Otis waits, motionless, like the blank sea before him. Will they buy it?—him playing ‘possum, playing dead. He thinks again about his family, then sees a shadow cross the ground on his left. They’re coming.
He watches through slitted eyes, sees the mangled forms stagger forward, past his periphery. Six, seven, then the last one—eight creatures now, wandering in the forefront of the plane. Otis’ heart rattles in his chest, an engine in overdrive. These are vile specters, abominations of humanity created through their own deaths, from a gray sludge of God-knows-what. And, they’re beyond dangerous. Beyond deadly, even—if ever there was such a thing. Just one of these guys, Otis recalls, tore to shreds an entire A-Team of Brunt Force operatives.
Collectively, the bodies turn and stare at the cockpit, as if one of them had given a command. Otis swallows hard, feels the sudden urge to piss. He tries to remain calm, comatose, his eyes a hair’s width apart. They might be able to get at him—collectively—rip the glass away from the cockpit, pull him out and onto the ground, pick him clean straight down to the bone, crunch on that, suck the marrow dry. Otis has no doubt that they would certainly try, if they had the faintest inkling he was alive.
He holds his breath. He holds his breath, and waits. He knows that Cryo-state would do an even better job at disguising his “liveliness.” He thinks about his wife and kids, his dog, tries not to think about the worse, when suddenly, the bodies turn their backs on the plane and shamble off—toward the Sea of Silence.
What is this? Otis thinks, opening his eyes. He watches as the bodies shrink into the distance. They reach the flat water, plunge into obscurity, are gone—nothing but faint ripples now.
Otis exhales, relaxes. He leans forward, peers outside, double checks the manifest, finds the number “8” on the cargo line, relaxes some more. “What a fucking miracle,” he says.
Now, it’s all about the wait. And, Otis waits. He waits for hours. He falls asleep, which eats up a few more hours, wakes up, checks the time, falls asleep again. When he wakes the second time, he realizes he’s been grounded for over twelve hours, which takes him well past the green zone, and into the red. Any rescue team now would have to know this. They’ll be coming in fully armed, a squadron or two, prepared to deal with eight ravenous carcasses. What little they know, Otis thinks.
His stomach churns with hunger, (speaking of ravenous). Otis reaches behind his seat and pulls out a small gear bag, dumps its contents onto his lap. He finds three protein bars, a carb-shake, and a canister of fat tablets. Halfway through his second protein bar, he hears a distinct sound in the distance, pauses chewing. He cranes his ear toward the sky, then smiles. It’s the sound of a Nakajimi 2160, coolant-pressed, twin-drive engine: standard fitting for the Horsefly troop carrier. Not one, but two, which means that Otis was correct with his assumptions: the cavalry would be coming.
He watches as the turbo-copters pass overhead, circle the scene, then land roughly two-hundred yards down the beach, to his left. He sees the soldiers storm out, form a defensive perimeter, guns up and ready—easily a hundred men. One of them raises an arm, then they all move forward, toward the crash site.
Otis yawns, stretches. He looks around for any personal effects he’ll want to take with him, grabs the photo of his wife taped near the control panel, shoves it in his front pocket. He glances over at Eddie…grim. Otis feels a little bit sorry for the guy, just a little, then looks away, notices something in the distance, on the horizon.
It’s the Sea of Silence.
It seems to be…boiling?
What the fuck?
And then: the breaking of the surface, the rise of hundreds—no—thousands of grotesque black heads, flailing pale arms, ragged torsos and warped legs, a massive wall of rot scrabbling out of the surf. Otis blinks, doesn’t believe his eyes.
The surge of bodies erupts onto the beach and lurches forward, the soldiers now noticing, now panicking, upon being waylaid, their path back to the transports no longer unrestricted. Discipline breaks as a firestorm of bullets scream into the army of death, fooling Otis not in the slightest. The worst…the worst has now arrived, and Otis has no other options but to…
A lot happens in the short seconds it takes him to dial in the Cryo controls. The cost of ten years echoes inside his head, bangs out a migraine an inch behind his eyes. A gruesome, howling massacre unfolds on the sandy beach a hundred yards away. And the suspicion that this plan, this last ditch effort—to capsulate and freeze his body—will most likely prolong his death by mere minutes, if even that, crosses Otis’ mind.
He activates the Cryo sequence anyways, feels an immediate blast of cold wind dash across his face. He squeezes his hands into white fists, as the translucent casing slowly slides down and seals him in. As his body goes heavy, and his mind and vision begin to fog, suddenly, Otis thinks he sees movement at his right. He swears it’s Eddie’s legs, shifting and twisting, but he can’t move his head to be sure; and that can’t make sense, because Eddie popped on the way down. And then, just before Otis’ eyes clamp shut, and his conscience drifts away, does he really hear a whisper in his ear? Someone saying, “I never liked you, either.” Otis swears it’s Eddie’s voice, but he can’t open his eyes to be sure, and that too makes no sense, as Eddie never got hit by the gray sludge, and…
Copyright Christian Riley 2019