The Nation was in turmoil—felt simultaneously threatened and neglected, from within and from without. To some it seemed it had always been and always would be so.
But for now the four young people allowed themselves pride in their accomplishment and hope for the future. They all came from the same poor rural District; had been friends since childhood. And now they were cadets no longer, but had just graduated—these three young men and one equally young woman.
Each now wore upon their shoulders the bars of a Sub-Lieutenant in the Nation’s Army—the self-ordained bulwark of their Homeland’s ongoing Defense against its many enemies, foreign and domestic.
Ideally, Military life would not have been the first career choice for any of them—though for Nelka, it might well have been the second or third. She had always been the Patriot of the four. But the Nation’s situation was anything but ideal. The Army at least promised steady employment, not to mention a real chance of advancement for this quartet of newly minted Officers.
All four felt certain that, at the very least, he or she would now be in a position to have a measurable impact on the lives of their People.
# # #
Blood and pus filled the Prisoner’s swollen mouth. The surviving eye blinked and teared; the bare socket adjoining it oozed a colorless, thick jelly-like substance. This jelly crawled, in slow globs, past a broken nose and across a shattered cheekbone to the lopsided perpetual grin of a badly fractured jaw.
To one side of her in the humid darkness, the creak of a wooden chair informed the Prisoner of another Presence. And then, in her ear: A familiar, sneering Voice.
“You are a trained Biologist, correct? You know of Pheromones?”
Head lolling, the Prisoner would have shrugged—if only she could. But the straps did not allow such movement. She was held upright, almost naked upon the unforgiving metal of the modified electric chair. Wrists, ankles, upper arms, thighs and neck—all were securely bound.
Strobe lights flashed in series. They glared into her blurring ‘good’ eye: Red light then blue then on to gold, white and orange, in turn. Then back to red and the cycle persisted—endlessly, mindlessly.
“Pheromones,” her Chief Tormentor’s whisper was as insistent as ever. “You know about them?”
A stooped shoulder was now clasped, shaken savagely.
And the Prisoner moaned. “Y . . .yah. . . yeh . . .yes!” The struggle to force an actual word from between her ragged lips exhausted the Prisoner. Smoke-scarred lungs rebelled and the resultant coughing fit caused the general dull ache in her chest area to grow more pronounced and localized.
Dimly, the Prisoner tried to remember how many ribs the human body contained. She wondered how many, what percentage of hers were broken.
“Pheromones,” she repeated with dull resignation.
And the strobe lights cut-off.
As abruptly, the white overheads snapped on. They stayed on as the Prisoner blinked, rolled her single eye. The red-and-purple sore that was her tongue set a row of rotting teeth wobbling as she studied the bare room and her Interrogator.
He wore Army fatigues, of course—though neither hat nor coat. Still, she saw the pips on his collars. That made him a Major. With Internal Security, no doubt—though at this point such distinctions hardly mattered. The Ruling Junta’s poisonous and paranoid influence had long ago spread generally throughout all branches of the Army, the Air Force, and the National Police and finally even the Nation’s once-proud and outwardly-focused Navy.
This Major was balding, his face moderately wrinkled. But in his way, he was a handsome man. He sat companionably near the Prisoner’s side, grinning. “What do you know, Darda?”
“T . . . Told you!” Despite the jungle warmth and suffocating moisture, the Prisoner’s loose teeth chattered. Another coughing fit erupted and the Major waited patiently, studying his nails. At length the hacking subsided; a flow of discolored drool escaped one side of her mouth. It carried down her chin a jagged, crimson-tinted fragment of enamel.
“Not the names,” the Major corrected, still seemingly enthralled by his manicure. “Not this time. That part’s over, remember?”
He leaned closer to the recipient of his recent handiwork. “Though you were helpful, of course—in the end. And after all those difficult weeks! So now you see that I was right: Being a stubborn little Bitch accomplished nothing. Correct?”
In silent agony, the Prisoner considered all the names, the faces, the individual histories. Old, cynical and ill-mannered Ba Win. That soft-spoken, outwardly cultured bastard of a Lieutenant-Colonel of Police. The grim-faced onetime University Professor. Distantly, she wondered if any of them had in fact been part of an actual cadre of the Opposition. They’d all finally confessed under torture and named names—if only to make the suffering end and thus to be allowed to die. But hadn’t she done the same?
And had not naming her brother, their older cousin or her long-crippled artisan friend and former lover Sein Lat saved any of them?
Probably not. They were all perhaps too obvious candidates for membership in her Resistance Cell. Yet in the perverse universe of lies and deception, of terror and counter-terror that the Nation had become, who could tell?
Perhaps what was sensibly so obvious was now the best, most absurd protection possible!
Her friends and relatives—her Comrades. They were, she’d discovered at this very late date, really who she had been fighting for, all along. The People? If she had the energy, she would’ve snorted. Who in Hell were they, anyway? The faceless, grubby, apathetic and anonymous millions!
She closed her one ‘good’ eye.
That earned her a careless slap. “Look at me, Darda!” Another, harder blow followed. “Don’t you even want to know if you die today—or how?”
Oh, yes—that, above all else, the Prisoner wanted to know!
Her solitary eye opened, focused as best it could.
The Major nodded, offered his winning smile. “Better,” he cooed then he swung his head around. Over his shoulder, he gestured at the tiny camera mounted in the upper corner of the wall, scarce centimeters below the ceiling.
A hard-faced Lieutenant in crisp full uniform entered the room, followed closely but with obvious reluctance by four much younger junior officers—one of them female. From useless habit, the Prisoner struggled to fix identifying details for each in her memory. Two of the younger ones held large boxes in outstretched arms. The full Lieutenant and the other youngsters held one clear plastic squirt bottle apiece. The liquids inside the three bottles were each a different shade of amber.
Pheromones, she thought with vague foreboding. She noted that, in contrast to the stone-faced Lieutenant, all the youngsters reacted—visibly appalled by her condition. None could be more than 22 or 23, and none showed much desire to meet her gaze.
Oh, lads, the Prisoner thought wistfully, without consciously excluding the girl among them. Should’ve seen me ten years ago! Or five—or maybe even last year. . . .
Something was moving, rustling minimally around inside the reinforced cardboard boxes. Her one moist eye narrowed.
Yes, she thought. “Pheromones,” the Prisoner managed to repeat aloud, her voice as rusty as an old gate.
“Correct.” The Major gestured for one of the young officers to approach, to show the Prisoner his box’s contents. The lad grimaced, but obeyed. In contrast to the older men, this one had not yet excised the name stitched into the breast pocket of his uniform.
Hello, the Prisoner thought dryly, Sub-Lieutenant Shan.
“Once you were a biologist of sorts,” the Major muttered. “Ought to be able to identify these?”
A dozen fist-sized, dull-brown beetles milled about in the interior of the box.
The Prisoner frowned. “Carrion beetles,” she whispered. “Type common to . . . oh, the northwest Border States.” At times she’d wondered exactly where she was being held. Now the news came too late to be of value—perhaps it had always been too late?
She caught Shan’s dark, unwilling eyes. The young man’s wispy mustache twitched and she willed him to understand her silent plea. For an instant, she thought he did.
Then the Major directed Shan back to where the others stood.
“Yes, indeed.” The Major grinned. “Scavengers of the jungle, aren’t they? Cleaning up all the unsightly waste left by others. Normally quite harmless to anything still alive. But like all insects, subject to certain biochemical scent clues—known as Pheromones, correct?”
There was no need to answer, nor question. The Prisoner had the idea, saw the thrust of it. “Mandibles,” she wheezed, to make sure the young ones didn’t miss the point. “Not adapted to . . . living flesh!” Forcing out that many words triggered another round of hacking coughs.
The Major waited those out before nodding. “Yes, those wide strong jaws are meant for ripping dead, unresisting, decaying flesh. Working on live tissue, they would be most . . . inefficient. Even should the victim be . . . unable to resist. But what if the beetles were whipped into a mad feeding frenzy by doses of the right combination of Pheromones?”
“Which—” Yet another sustained coughing fit forced the Prisoner to break-off her reply. She drooled blood, trembled. She fought to hold herself together long enough get certain last coherent words out and make them clear. “Which you will provide, Major? Am I—what I represent—such an evil . . . such a threat?”
The Major snorted. “You’re nothing, Bitch.”
But she saw beyond him four young faces, which had their own opinions about that.
She made no further comments, merely watched as the uncaring Lieutenant collected the other two bottles from the youngsters and presented them to the Major. Then the Lieutenant hefted the one he held and moved into position alongside his Superior.
Darda braced herself, summoning what courage she still had, as her shattered body was liberally misted with a sickly-sweet combination of chemicals.
It must be a good death, she told herself. Stay calm, show them! Don’t scream too soon. It’s your last chance . . . last chance . . . your last ch. . . .
She realized with dismay that the Major had ordered the four junior officers from the room. She was alone with him and the equally unmoved Lieutenant.
Each man raised a boot, kicked over a box.
The dull-colored, great-jawed beetles stumbled over one another. The smell, the unmistakable and irresistible guide to their actions hurried them forward. The first reached a dislocated toe, bent grotesquely to one side and especially exposed. But the carrion beetle had no mind for aesthetics, no concern for anything—except for the perfect and complete and total need to fill its maw. A set of insect jaws closed with a tiny snap. The first jerk was answered by a second and a third then an infinity of others.
There was no point holding back now. The screams went on for a full hour.
The feeding would’ve gone on much longer, if the Major hadn’t ordered his young charges to recapture the beetles. “They might prove useful again,” he stated with a smirk.
The Lieutenant stood watching at the open doorway. He was not surprised that all four of the callow youngsters became physically ill at the sight, one after another. He knew from personal experience they would harden, become used to it and finally accepting of the necessity of such methods.
What did surprise him was that the Prisoner still lived—unconscious when the others began prying the beetles from her with gloved hands, yet still breathing. He withdrew just long enough to inform the Major, who was also surprised—but not unhappy at this result. And so the four young officers were alone with the Prisoner in the single moment that she fought her way back to semi-consciousness.
“Help me, Shan,” she whimpered blindly, though the one she directed this last plea toward happened to be Sub-Lieutenant Wu.
Then she passed out again.
# # #
Hours later, four young Officers slowly walked a path in jungle twilight. Sub-Lieutenant Shan, as usual the one in the lead, lit a cigarette and took a puff. Then he passed it on to the next in line. Kian did the same and handed the smoldering object to the woman. Nelka inhaled slowly, took the cigarette between her fingers and turned her head. She arched a questioning eyebrow when the last man nodded and extended his arm. Wu was normally a non-smoker—but tonight nothing at all seemed normal to the four.
He took the cigarette, drew the smoke in clumsily and gagged as twin streams of acrid vapor flowed from the nearby woman’s nostrils.
They continued walking. Perhaps a hundred meters on they came upon the remains of a dead bird—and two large brown beetles feasting on the corpse.
The youngest of the still-new Officers stepped forward and raised a quick grim boot. But Shan elbowed him aside. The middle two simply stood there, nodding. The four finished another cigarette between them as the scavengers ate.
“Better things to crush,” Sub-Lieutenant Shan remarked at last.
“Don’t even think it,” Kian warned.
“We can’t let it go on!” Wu said, astonished.
“There’s not a fucking thing we can do!” Kian shot back. He bit his lip; shook his head. “Besides, she’s . . . a terrorist.”
“According to Major Tang.” Shan ground the cigarette butt under his boot.
“She confessed,” Kian pointed out.
“After all they did to her?” Wu asked. “Who wouldn’t?”
Kian winced; looked to Nelka for support. The woman met his eyes and slowly, grimly shook her head.
“And how about what we did?” Wu demanded.
“What are you talking about? We just . . . Major Tang and Lieutenant Vonn are our Superior Officers! We only did what we were told; we followed Orders!”
“Making us complicit,” Shan snarled, his eyes narrowed to slits.
“Bullshit!” Kian whipped his head around in one direction and then the other. “We did our Duty!”
“Really?” the woman said.
“Nelka, you of all people—”
“Yes, me—of all people!” She sniffed, ran the back of her hand across her lips and frowned. “That was wrong and Major Tang—”
“He’s the Ranking Officer . . . the local embodiment of the Ruling Junta!”
“Exactly, Kian.” Shan sighed. “And if we go along with it . . . .”
“What choice do we have? Shan, think about it. If we refuse lawful orders—”
“Lawful!” Nelka interrupted.
“In this situation, the way things are . . . .”
“Anything goes?” Wu stepped up, his face within centimeters of Kian’s. “Doesn’t that make us terrorists as much as anyone?”
“We just carried some stuff into a room, put it down and left when told to.”
“And afterward?” Wu taunted.
“Yes, I know. Look it’s a terrible thing. But all we did, personally—”
“What about tomorrow?” Shan answered. “Or the next day, next week? That’s how they work it. Drag us into it, step by step. Soon we’ll be required to take an active part in this shit. Then we’ll be trapped!”
“As if we aren’t already?” Kian turned, walked two steps away and faced the darkening jungle. “What do you propose we do? Desertion earns us the firing squad, just like refusing orders would.”
“If we’re lucky,” Nelka murmured.
“Yeah—and our families?”
“Could we get word to them?” Wu thought aloud. “Tell them to go into hiding?”
“How? Where? You’re all dreaming.” The misery on Kian’s face was unmistakable. “And what do we do then—join the fucking rebels in the Hills?”
Nobody replied. Nobody met his desperately searching eyes, either.
“You’re insane—all three of you!”
Nelka grimaced. “What other choice do we have?”
“Loyal! To what exactly? I signed on to make my Country better!”
“Maybe we still can—by staying, coming up through the ranks until we can influence things—?”
“Now who’s dreaming?” Shan spoke again. “Look, this woman—she was a biologist?”
Kian nodded. “So what?”
“Remember a few years back, how the old Junta tried loosening its grip a little?”
“In response to outside criticism,” Kian said. “Yes, I recall. Things quickly got out of hand.”
“Right,” Nelka mused now. “People tasted a few tiny crumbs of freedom and demanded more. High Command panicked, the current bunch overthrew the old crew and clamped down even harder than before. They even shut down the State University.”
Wu nodded. “They purged the Air Force Chief of Staff and a half-dozen other relative moderates, mostly Navy guys.”
Kian turned back to Shan. “What about it?”
“I got to study some evolutionary biology before they banned the text books. It’s said our greatest survival skill is our ability to adapt. People can—and will—adapt to their environment in order to survive. We can literally get used to anything.”
“Yeah, that’s nice.”
“Is it? Right now, we’re at the edge—right on the threshold of something that will change our lives forever, one way or another. There’s no turning back; no avoiding it. We have to choose: Are we going to get used to this? One way or the other, we must pass over that threshold!”
“Do we stay?” Nelka whispered in Kian’s ear. “Become like Tang and Vonn? Or—”
“Or what?” Kian threw up his arms. “Run off and become guerrillas?”
“We can’t just leave her,” Shan remarked, his downturned eyes following the carrion beetles. The big insects finished their meal and turned, wobbled off into the surrounding jungle.
“So you want to do what, Shan? Indulge some romantic notion of a rescue mission? You’d have to carry her, crippled up as she is and she’d die anyway.”
“Along with the rest of us,” Nelka agreed grimly. “Just having her with us, she’d slow us down and we’d be caught.”
“Caught and slaughtered.” Kian nodded vigorously. “Glad I’m not the only one here with some brains left!”
“But to leave her for Tang?” Wu’s round face distorted with pain.
“She knew, I’m sure of it. She begged for the only help, the only mercy we could possibly provide.” Shan turned, drew his sidearm. He knew it was loaded, but he checked anyway.
“You’re all crazy. Look, I’m not getting shot—getting my family hurt, maybe killed too. Not in order to save some Goddamned Biologist-turned-Bomb-Thrower!”
“No?” Shan lifted, pointed his pistol.
“For mercy’s sake, Shan!”
“Exactly.” Shan bit his lower lip and fired.
# # #
Lieutenant Vonn happened to be out in front of the armory when the three of them appeared. He was about to ask what they were doing—and where was the other kid?
He didn’t get the chance.
They knocked him and the private guarding the door unconscious.
Shan and Wu went inside, emerged with three assault rifles and several grenades. They found Nelka standing, her face grim and the knife in her hand dripping crimson.
The two looked from that knife to the wide gash in Vonn’s throat. Wu nodded; Shan handed Nelka a rifle and they marched across the compound under a balefully full moon.
The bored corporal on guard duty out front was quickly dealt with and they rushed into the building. Wu held two astonished soldiers at gunpoint in a room with a monitor that displayed what ‘fun’ their CO was having around back.
Shan and Nelka burst in. Tang jumped up, turned and took a burst from Nelka’s weapon in the chest. Shan took out his pistol. He took two steps forward, met the Prisoner’s single grateful eye and fired.
Quickly retracing his steps, Shan told Wu, “Come on!”
Just behind them, Nelka gritted her teeth and whirled—took out the other two soldiers before they could reach their guns.
The small base was crazy with confusion from the late-night gunfire and the three made their escape with relative ease.
Within five years the old regime—along with most of the Nation—was in ruins.
Before the rebels allowed UN teams in to help guide the Nation toward some semblance of decent governance, the hard old men of the Junta came before a Tribunal of three much younger, but now equally hardened Officers.
Most drew long prison terms, but the worst of the Old Order faced firing squads. Yet in some ways, they were the lucky ones . . . .
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Deadman’s Tome Book of Horrors Anthology
Deadman’s Tome is a growing horror zine that publishes short stories and flash fiction whether it’s ghost stories, zombie invasions, bigfoot sightings, slasher sprees, bizarre fiction, classic horror literature, lovecraftian literature, or erotica. The darker the tale the better. take Over The Threshold for example, a story of dark, gritty, and hypocritical side of war. If you’re thinking where to submit horror short stories then consider Deadman’s Tome. If you enjoyed the story, or even if you didn’t, leave a comment below as it helps the authors.