The Distant Echo, a Short Story: Part 1
A pounding headache. The first sensation, the first concrete memory he had, was of a throbbing pain. Wincing, he slowly came to, unable to remember anything at all. He stared blinking at his hands, rubbing them together as he took in the dismal room around him.
A tiny room, no larger than a closet, the wall was blank concrete, a single, barred window in the upper corner letting in a dim ray of light. He propped himself up, looking down at the filthy mattress on which he sat. An odor of ammonia wafted through the place on a cold draft. He shivered, realizing that there was not a single thing he could recall, not even his name.
â€˜Iâ€™m a John Doe,â€™ he thought, the label echoing through his mind.
Wincing from the pain, John stood up, staring at an ancient filing cabinet across the room. As the only other thing in the room, he decided to inspect it. The drawers yielded only a few bits of wire and an old file. He scanned the documents, realizing that they were in Ukrainian.
The papers turned out to be shipping manifests from 1983, and contained nothing of real interest. As John replaced them he decided that he had to escape. Besides the tiny barred window there was a steel door to his right, a latch in sight.
His head still pounding, John took a bit of wire from the drawer and bent it into a pick. As he knelt before the door, he realized he had no tension wench, and quickly checked his pockets. A pair of copper coins, a tiny strip of angled metal, a paperclip, and a small scrap of paper lurked inside. He smoothed out the paper, finding a short scrawl written in English.
â€˜Room 56, Be-li-nn-chiv-gret, fer-mah, Vu-li-tsia,â€™ it read.
He stuffed it back into his pocket, hoping that it might shed some light on his situation once his head cleared. A spasm of pain nearly caused him to black out again. After several deep breaths he had recovered enough to take out the angled metal strip, allowing him to start picking the lock.
The ancient tumblers did not give easily, years of bad maintenance forcing him to give it more effort than he would have thought. A creaking clack echoed from the mechanism when it at last gave up the ghost.
Sweating profusely, John leaned into the door and pushed it open, finding himself staring down the length of a dingy hallway, illuminated by a few lonely fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling. Shivering in the cold, he tried to get a grip on his surroundings.
Tentatively, John sneaked into the hall, advancing cautiously down the long corridor. Rooms fanned out to either side, most of them standing open and empty. A deep sense of loneliness washed over him. Around a hundred feet from his holding closest the hall came to an end, forming a T shaped intersection with another hall.
As he peeked around the corner, John saw another man for the first time. He was in a military uniform and carrying a Kalashnikov, standing on the threshold of a door to the outside. Immediately John threw himself back from the corner, fear taking root. When the sound of his footfalls echoed down the other corridor, growing ever closer, John quickly fled into one of the nearly empty rooms, pressing himself flat against the wall.
To his horror he soon realized that there were two set of feet stalking the halls. A second person he had not seen was evidently at large with the military man. The pair of them grew closer, whispered words echoing through the room. John closed his eyes and attempted to fuse with the wall, hoping against hope that he would not be discovered.
â€˜It is death to be found,â€™ he thought, knowing it to be true. â€˜I got lucky the first time.â€™
The patrolling soldiers passed within inches of him, one of them brushing against the open door. Yet they passed all the same, leaving him with a tiny sliver of their whispered conversation.
â€œPrisoner is inopportune,â€ one had said in Ukrainian.
â€œDealt with,â€ said the other.
Head pounding, John tried to think, knowing that they must be speaking of him. A moment later his stomach churned when he realized that they might be checking for him. On the brink of panic, he slid back out into the corridor. His heart jumped when he saw that the two men indeed heading for his closet.
In desperation he fled down towards the door, knowing it was only a matter of seconds before his escape was known. Around the corner and through the door he ran, emerging into a frigid foggy wasteland.
Though there was little snow to be seen, it was bitterly cold, the ground made of mud frozen as solid as stone. Two concrete structures stood a few hundred feet away, a rusty radio tower standing near the centre of the complex. For a moment John stood near the door shivering, pondering his next move.
The world was alien to him, the whole thing. Though he knew what the components he had seen were called, he had no context. A nauseous fear began welling up inside him. The sights around him seemed somehow unreal, and without context he felt a growing doubt that anything could be trusted.
John rubbed his hands together before finally choosing a direction to march. He took a tentative step towards the radio tower, then another, determined to send out a distress signal. To whom and how he would do so were details John did not feel capable of contemplating. A quiet voice in his head told him the effort was futile, but he drowned it out, for fear of losing the only direction he had. With each step he felt increasingly unmoored, adrift in a world he barely knew.
As he made his way across the cold ground, John began having second thoughts. Each one made his head ring, his vision blurring several times before he at last reached the base of the tower.
Around the other side of the tower he spotted a decrepit military truck sitting beside one of the pylons. Several wires seemed to lead between the truck and a box attached the rusting metal array, giving John his first feeling of hope.
He ran the last few feet, stumbling twice as his headache grew too great to handle. So bleary with pain was he that John barely noticed the soldier leaning against the truck. He barreled to within a few inches of the man, his eyes taking a moment to adjust.
The soldier opened his mouth to speak, his hands reaching for an L-shaped pouch strapped to his belt. All at once Johnâ€™s vision became a blur, the world banishing as bells rang in his ears. Disjointed images flashed though his mind, of a darkened office where he was speaking to a pair of suited men, the clacking of a typewriter in the background. He felt a camera shoved into his hands, a flash of the bulb going off.
Then he snapped back reality. The soldier lay at his feet in a pool of blood, the camera having morphed into a smoking pistol. John tried to remember what had happened, what he had really done, but the effort made his head ready to explode. Overcome, he felt o his knees, heaving onto the ground. Several drops of blood landed in his puddle of sick.
Gun still in hand, John reached up and found a large bleeding wound on his head, though the scabbing on much of it told him that it could not have been inflicted by the man he had killed.
Bells rang and sirens bleared; the glassy eyes of the dead man glared at him. Tears rolled down his cheeks, though weather they were because of guilt or simply the overwhelming pain John could only guess. A few moments passed, the pool of blood expanding as his head shrank, the pain returning to a dull, manageable throbbing.
Only then, as the bells faded, did he realize the sirens were real.
Alarms were sounding across the base, dark shapes moving in the distance. Terror gripped him as the world closed in around him. For a moment he considered laying down and waiting for death, yet soon the instinct to survive overpowered whatever suicidal thoughts were floating in his head.
He turned around and threw open the door of the truck, clambering into the driverâ€™s seat. By then a posse of four soldiers were advancing on him from his right, their Kalashnikovs trained on the truck. John found that there were no keys in the vehicle, but there was a knife laying on the seat.
He seized it and rammed the blade into the lock, managing to jam the thing open. With two desperate turns he ignited the engine, and in a moment threw the vehicle into gear. The soldiers opened fire, their bullets shattering the windows and hitting the engine block, causing smoke to swirl into the fog.
Hunched low for fear of being shot, John slammed the gas and aimed between the two far buildings, worrisome noises echoing from beneath the hood. The truck lurched over the ground, bullets impacting from all sides.
As he crossed between the buildings, an officer in a peaked cap jumped into his path, waving his pistol in the air. The man apparently believed that John would not run someone over. A second later John demonstrated that the man had been mistaken.
Screams of agony, blearing alarms, angry shouts, and gunfire formed the music of Johnâ€™s flight. He was past the buildings now and approaching a rusty chain link fence. Beyond it lay uneven terrain sloping downward. The sight struck him as ominous, but he knew there was no turning back now.
Sound faded as he crashed through the fence, the gunfire stopped, the shouting died away, the screams fell silent, and the alarms faded into the background.
A quiet ringing filed his ears as the ground began sloping downwards, odd ridges forming in the ground around him. The terrain turned more rugged, battering the already damaged truck. Out of the gloom loomed a line in the ground, beyond which no ground could be seen.
John slammed the breaks, only to discover that they had failed. He braced himself as best he could as the truck sailed over the rim and bounced down a nearly vertical slope. Each jolt on the short trip to the bottom nearly knocked him out of his seat. By the time he careened to a stop his head was bleeding again, and the truck was well and truly ruined.
For a time he sat still, leaning against the steering wheel, trying to gather himself.
Acrid smoke forced him to action, as it poured into the cab through the heater vents. He took the knife and pistol, tucking them into his belt, before kicking the door ajar. A gust of freezing air rushed through, blowing away much of the smoke, as well as any heat left in his body.
Using the respite for all it was worth, he searched cab for anything else of use, finding a few cartridges beneath the seat and a ratty looking military jacket. He pocked the bullets before wrapping himself in the jacket. As bundled as he was likely to get, John stumbled into the cold.
Visibility was low, though there seemed to be little to look at. All around him was a flat plain of frozen mud and rock, a few hardy plants emerging from the ground at random intervals. Time lost all meaning to John as he wandered across the bleak valley floor. After awhile he began to doubt that he was making progress at all, an image of himself wandering in circles flashing through his mind.
A part of him began yearning for the burning truck, knowing that it could at least have provided a source of heat. So still and quiet was the world that the first sign of movement came as a great shock to him. An outline in the fog appeared a few yards away, a shambling creature half the height of a man.
It was walking away from him, and seemed to be paying him no heed. Filled with a thousand contradictory feelings, John stopped in his tracks for a moment and simply stared. Unable to make out much about the beast his curiosity became peaked. He quietly crept closer to the thing.
Fur clung to its flesh in clumps and it walked on all fours, yet something about the creature stuck John as terribly off. It possessed no tail, and its barely visible head appeared nauseatingly suggestive of a simian creature.
The absurdity of judging a creature as off was not lost on him. He almost cracked a smile at the thought, aware that for all he knew these beasts were as common as men, or perhaps even more numerous.
His existential ponderings were cut short moments later.
Another shape, twice the size of a foot and pointed on both ends leapt up at his unsuspecting quarry, appearing from the ground itself. It vanished into the flesh of the simian beast, which shattered the silence with a mortal, whining screech. So terrible was the noise that John staggered from it as though hit by a blow.
The only thing worse was the silence which followed as the poor thing collapsed to the ground in a pool of blood. A moment later and the pointed thing burst forth from its prey, its grey carapace glistening with blood as it opened the three apertures on its head and began to eat.
Sickened, John felt his stomach churning and nearly heaved again, the noise catching the attention of the daemon. It turned to face him, coiling its twelve spindly legs as it prepared to leap. Horrified, John drew the pistol in a single motion and put the sights onto the little monster, shooting the daemonic thing without hesitation.
It exploded in a plume of green ichor.
Before he had time to recover from the shock, the sound of more simian creatures could be heard, growing louder with each passing moment. Assuming that they were searching for their fallen comrade, John turned and ran, not wanting to find out what sort of greeting they might give him.
Yet the noises continued to drew near, dark shapes appearing at the corners of his vision. Grating his teeth, John looked over his shoulder. Four yowling and ululating creatures were chasing after him, their glowing amber eyes piercing the gloom.
Pain racking his frame, John ran for his life, the featureless terrain becoming hostile in his mind. Without shelter or diversion he was as good as dead. He tentatively fingered the pistol, but did not think he could kill all of them before he was overwhelmed.
Then, out of the fog, emerged a chain link fence. His headache cleared for a moment, hope returning again. He ran down its length, searching for a gate. Though it seemed minor eternity, John found the gate after only a minute, the metal squealing in protest as he pulled it open and slammed it shut. The latch clacked into place, the beasts crashing into the barrier moments later.
Terrified that it might not hold or that they might simply climb over, John drew the pistol and took aim at the nearest creature. It glared at him, knocking against the fence several times before turning and giving up the chase. Silence returned to his world, leaving John time to think.