So, after yesterday’s post, here’s one of the short stories from my notebooks. Not one of the stronger ones — Note how it’s basically a vague concept that peters out to nothing!
A Darkling Plain
by Jeff Somers
HARRY didn’t notice them for the first few minutes. His morning had been going according to routine: He’d woken up and allowed himself to stare at the ceiling for nine minutes, then slapped the alarm off and sat up. It was quiet, almost silent—he missed the roar of the bus, the chatter of adults off to work, car horns and slamming doors. As he shuffled for the bathroom in his underwear, the night before pressing uncomfortably against his belly, he wondered if he’d forgotten a holiday, if maybe the world was sleeping in around him.
He showered, dressed, and had his first cup of coffee for the day, standing in the kitchen with the paper spread on the counter as usual. Nothing in the paper caused him to read more than a few sentences, and he wondered again when he would stop reading the paper altogether.
It was a bright, sunny day, warm in the sun but cool in the shade. The walk to the bus stop was three blocks, two along the quiet side streets and a right turn onto Main Street. Harry was in the habit of walking this short distance, briefcase in hand, with his chin sunk onto his chest, pondering his day to come. He liked to plan and organize and be ready for the work ahead. Thinking of the work ahead made him happy.
As a result, he didn’t notice all the soldiers until he’d boarded the bus, digging change out of several pockets and ignoring the low buzz of conversation as he walked to the rear, selecting an empty double seat.
Then he looked up and squinted out the scratched and stained window.
There were soldiers everywhere. They wore bright white uniforms, fatigues tucked into shiny black boots. Cowls with wide plastic goggles built in covered their heads, giving them a faceless quality. Each one carried an automatic rifle slung over their shoulder. There were two on the corner, standing silently, one hand each on the strap of their rifles. Four stood against the wall behind the bus stop shelter. As the bus rumbled down the street, his eyes leaped from group to group, all of them appearing identical. He stopped counting after a hundred.
He looked around suddenly, seeing the rest of the bus for the first time. A few rows ahead of him sat Paul Drake from his office. Clutching his briefcase, he shuffled forward and crashed into the seat next to him.
Paul Drake was a round, balding man who had the breathless look of a man who sweated freely. He jumped and turned to stare at Harry.
“Jesus, Hank, you scared the shit out of me.”
“What’s going on, Paulie?”
“Don’t call me Paulie, goddammit,” Paul looked out the window and licked his lips. “No one knows. There’s nothing on the news. No mention of it at all. And no one I’ve talked to knows anything.”
Harry stared along with Paul. Groups of soldiers passed by like white clouds, there and gone. “This is impossible. Someone’s got to know.”
The bus route terminated at the subway, and Harry left Paul behind, walking briskly past an impressive row of soldiers lined up against the fence that separated the bus lanes from the subway entrances. he kept his eyes on the ground, afraid to look at them.
Underground, more soldiers stood around silently, faceless and ominous. Harry stopped just off the stairs, staring, crowds of commuters pushing around him like water, flooding the tubes. He noticed they gave the soldiers a wide berth on each side, crunching inward. The soldiers just stared straight ahead, occasionally shifting their weight.
Spying a Transit Cop near the electronic fare machines, Harry pushed against the crowd’s current and swam over to her.
The cop held up her hand without looking at him. Her long, red face was set in a tired expression, her eyes locked on something invisible in the distance.
“I don’t know anything. Believe me, I’ve tried to find out.”
Harry turned away. Keeping his eyes down, he walked to the turnstiles, acutely aware of the uniforms against the walls on either side. He paid his fare and stepped onto the platform, where another half dozen white uniforms waited, like statues. He looked around, noting the utter silence, and found everyone looking around, eyes meeting, little shrugs sent sailing back and forth through the warm, thick air.
At the office, no one was working. All morning people played radios, searched the Internet, and made phone calls. No one discovered any useful information. There was no mention of the event anywhere.
“How is that possible?” Harry asked over his fifth cup of bitter coffee in the break room. “How can an entire army be deployed without authorization, an announcement?”
Paul and Shirley from Accounting exchanged a look, and Paul shrugged. “I don’t know, Hank.”
Shirley was almost as large and round as Paul, although her shoulders were square and broad. Wearing a lot of makeup and a pair of delicate glasses, she looked matronly and fragile, but Harry sat near her and heard her phone conversations. He knew she could be a real ballbreaker. There was nothing fragile about her.
“The fact that there’s no info means it comes from high up—the White House,” Shirley said authoritatively.
Harry pondered that. “I’m getting some air. And by air I mean a drink.”
The moment he stepped off the elevator, he could tell something had happened. He walked slowly towards the revolving doors. A crowd lined the street outside the building, dozens of people staring in mute shock at the dead, torn-up body of a young woman in a red business suit. She lay in a pool of blood and gore, surrounded by four of the silent soldiers. They stood quietly, motionless, their rifles held across their chests.
“I saw the whole thing,” said a breathless old woman, her gray hair pinned in place neatly. “She was just crossing the street. Suddenly they were all shouting Stop, dropping to their knees. She stopped, but they kept yelling. She stopped!” Her eyes were yellowed and watery. “Then they shot her.”
“What did she do?” Harry asked.
“Nothing,” a kid in a T-shirt and shorts said. “She didn’t do anything.”
Harry walked the half-block to Harrigans and ordered a double scotch.
“You see it?” the bartender asked.
“Nope,” he admitted.
“Where are the cops?” the bartender demanded. “That’s what I want to know.”
Harry swallowed liquor and grimaced. “I don’t know.”
* * *
Two of the soldiers had taken up position in the lobby of his building. The woman had been removed from the street, leaving no sign of her death behind. Harry stood in the lobby for a moment, feeling blurry, and then turned around and walked back out to the street, searching for the subway.
On the way home, a soldier could be found, silent and still, standing in each subway car. He passed two more shooting scenes, silent white forms ringed around bodies sprawled in the street, and had to force himself not to run home. Moving with stiff, artificial calm, he pushed into his apartment and leaned back against the door, heart pounding.
The news was full of shootings. There was still no explanation—or even discussion of—the soldiers, but the shootings were reported in careful detail, except for the reasons. Each report included an eerie video of a crowd of soldiers ringed around the body, grim and silent.
Harry kept the news on and started drinking.
* * *
He woke up late the next morning, head pounding, still in his clothes from the day before. The television was still on, the news now reporting a rash of shootings inside people’s apartments, all with the sort of desultory calm usually reserved for natural disasters. Feeling nauseous, he sat up and stared blankly at the report, which speculated that people were being shot for being inside after a certain time.
Swallowing vomit, he glanced up, thinking he could hear noise, boots on the stairs outside.
Heart pounding, adrenaline burning away his nausea, Harry leaped up. On the screen there was some confusion, the camera swinging this way and that as motion blurs filled the screen. Without keys or wallet, he jogged for the front door and snatched it open, stepping through and slamming it behind him. Letting momentum carry him, he spun into the stairwell, stumbling to a halt immediately.
A string of soldiers were marching up the right side of the stairs, cowls down. Forcing himself back into motion, he put his head down. “Gotta go to work,” he muttered.
The soldiers didn’t respond, they just kept moving silently past. Harry kept moving, kept his eyes on his feet, and didn’t look up until he found himself at the subway.
Cobbling fare together from loose change in his pockets, he entered the station in a haze, not noticing anything around him, stepping into his train by habit. Looking up as the doors closed, he blinked, all his nausea returning in a rush as the train lurched into motion.
Harry looked up, swallowing bile. The girl was seated across the aisle and had a puffy, tear-stained face. Her mascara had run down her cheeks in thick, gray streaks.
“They might execute you if you honk on the subway,” she said in a dead, flat voice. “My friend got shot for littering. Tossed a candy wrapper on the street.”
Harry turned to stare at the four soldiers standing at one end of the car. They stood silent and still as ever, faceless and implacable. Anger swelled up inside him, poisonous. He hated them. What right did they have? By what authority did they come?
“Don’t do anything,” the girl advised tiredly.
* * *
At the office, Harry took time to vomit in the hall bathroom and wash up, the cold crank air making him feel grimy. Feeling worse than before, he staggered to his office, noting plenty of empty chairs. No one looked at him. And he wasn’t the only person in wrinkled clothes and ratty hair.
He sat in his chair and stared. If he didn’t work and was fired, would he be shot? Would he be given a grace period to find a new job?
His phone rang, and he jumped. Would he be killed for not answering his phone? He leaned forward and plucked up the receiver, putting it against his ear gingerly.
“Harry? Paul. Harrigans in fifteen minutes. We’re having a meeting.”
* * *
The first swallow of whiskey made his stomach lurch, but then it settled down and he felt incrementally better. Paul sat at the head of the table, ignoring his gin and tonic and drumming his fingers on the wormy wood. Harry recognized most of the people sitting nervously around him, staring uncomfortably around, but realized this was probably the first time he’d seen most of them outside the office.
“There’s no rhyme or reason,” a skinny older man with fine, thin hair that disappeared every time he shifted into the light.
“They’re just culling the herd.”
“No, that’s not right,” a young woman with an attractive round face said. Her cheeks were flushed from the glass of red wine in front of her. “It’s all minor violations. Littering. Jaywalking. Shit like that. Maybe major violations, too—they’re policing.”
“With fucking prejudice,” someone muttered.
“It doesn’t matter,” a large, middle-aged man sporting a thick salt-and-pepper beard bellowed. he sounded drunk. “It’s still an occupying army murdering people. There’s no legality to this.” He pounded his fist on the table, and everyone fell silent.
Harry looked around. “I’m glad,” he said, more loudly than he’d intended. Everyone turned to look at him.
“I’m glad. We can’t just let this happen. We’ve got to fight. We’ve got to organize and fight back. Get armed. Go after them.”
He nodded firmly. “Resist.” He looked up at Paul. “What’s the plan?”
There was a long moment of silence. Everyone looked around at each other. “Uh, Harry,” Paul said slowly. He stopped and looked around, then ponderously stood up, keeping his eyes on the table. “Uh, organize—yes. Yes, certainly organize. But not to fight.” he shook his head. “We cannot fight these soldiers. I mean, come on! There are thousands of them. Maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. We can’t fight them.”
Harry stared as Paul looked around, his tiny eyes flitting nervously from face to face.
“What we need is information,” Paul continued. “We need to start exchanging information and figuring out the rules. I saw someone shot for jaywalking yesterday—I don’t want to die like that. We need to start building a database, and getting the word out.”
Harry looked around, stunned to see most of the people around him nodding.
* * *
The afternoon was dying in heat and humidity around him, the sky orange and thick. Harry stood with his back against Harrigans’ big plate glass facade, smoking a cigarette. He’d taken the time to get drunk while Paul’s group had talked excitedly about making sense of it all and publishing guidelines for survival on the Internet.
Directly across from him were a loose line of soldiers. There were large gaps between groups of them. The streets and sidewalks seemed empty, but a few cars did speed by behind them.
“You gonna start the revolution?”
He jumped and looked up. The young woman from the meeting listed beside him. Here blue eyes, very pretty, were locked on his cigarette, glassy and squinted. Harry smiled and handed her the burning fag.
“Thanks,” she said.
“No,” Harry finally sighed. “Not alone, any how.” He felt tight and black, smothered. He turned his eyes back to the opposite side of the wide avenue, where the static backs of another line of soldiers waited.
He stood there for a moment, feeling sick again, the fumes of his own inebriation blurring his vision like heat. The white uniforms were crowded everywhere, pressed into alcoves and shadows, dozens just on this block. Looking down at his shoes, he started to walk. As he approached the silent forms he tensed up, expecting them to move, to grab him, to tear him apart. But they didn’t. They stood silently, waiting. Even when he inched his way to the curb, standing between two of them, they didn’t react or move. He stood there for a moment.
“Hey,” she called blurrily from a mile behind him, anchored to the sidewalk. “Hey!”
He stepped down onto the asphalt and began walking, slowly, for the opposite shore.