Archive for Mark McEachran

To Buffalo

Redemption was waiting. The desire for acceptance and forgiveness from an authority, or a mentor is inherent in the human condition. Praise sits along with them in a sort of trilateral set of acknowledgements. They’re on the opposite side of the coin from criticism, discipline, but not the self kind, and punishment, which is not quite the same as discipline. These are the three correctives. Any parent, at any given moment interacting with their children is either giving a corrective, or acknowledging. In more colloquial terms these are referred to as the stick and the carrot.

The coin flips. It’s never sitting on one side for long. The energy it takes to hold state is too great and by will alone it flips itself. Overindulgence in carrots leads to the presumption of carrots, which leads to a change in behavior and the requirement of the stick. Conversely the stick’s extended use defeats all manner of bad behavior and will bring about an acknowledgement.

Jacko had felt the stick. For days the horror of the blade approaching his eye haunted his thoughts and dreams, when he could dream. They say the recovery is always worse, but the daily alcohol clenses did nothing to compare to the sound of his eye exploding in his skull and the memory of the blade.

On his goggles he blacked out the lens used over his missing eye, and carried with him a pirate’s eye patch for when he didn’t have his goggles on. He liked to call it his Friday Patch.

He was not yet redeemed, but he was on the path to it. Tynon assigned Jacko’s detachment to a search party. Oz was put in charge and they were on a mission to find Angel, The Birdman, the helicopter pilot who killed their comrades. Their orders were straight forward: Bring back the head of the pilot. Oz brought four detachments, a total of 21 men including himself. 21 Dragon.
Upon completion of the mission Jacko would find himself returning a hero. Blame for his failure would be laid upon the head of the pilot, which would further elevate Jacko’s accomplishment. Killing the man who took down not two, but six Dragon would be incredibly heroic, if not entirely true. The deceit did not bother him nor his men. As Tynon put it, “Why worry about the nuance of the truth? What does it matter so long as justice is served?” Tynon’s justice was served from an advantageous point of view. To him, the lives of two, or six Dragon were not the issue. The justice he was after was revenge. Angel had agreed to do a job, to repay a debt owed, and instead he betrayed his debtor. He wasn’t even sure if Angel had done the job he agreed to do. Where did the women really go? It was all too much of a mystery for Tynon, and besides, one more dead man was a fine solution.

21 of the finest killers in Toronto had set out to retrace the steps of their fallen, to the south. Not having had a chance to speak to them hampered the journey as navigation was always a question of where they might have come from. Based on Jacko’s recount of the events that led to their demise, Oz determined that they were most likely following the ridge of the dry lake bed for at least part of their journey. West-by-southwest in nautical terms, was their heading. The 21 walked single file, each carrying two waterbags and a bag on their back, full of dried and cured meat. Anticipating spending days and days in the open desert, they all wore light robes and head scarves to limit their exposure to the deadly sun.

Talking was discouraged, as it cost the body water when it wasn’t necessary. So 21 quiet men walked through the desert with only the wind to keep them company. It was at their back now, carrying with it an occasional tumbleweed. Sometimes it would hit their ears at just the right angle and howl. The desert was its own animal and that was its cry.

Buffalo - Last BarThey walked slowly for days until they reached the western most bank of what used to be Lake Ontario. From that point they were nearly forced to turn east lest they run into another lake. Oz wasn’t certain if it was the right direction, but it felt right. There was a city that way, he recalled. It was famous for being cold at one time, long ago. He recalled that there was legendary snowfall, and somehow people still decided to live there. Most of The Dragon had never seen snow, they were too young and didn’t live in places that still had any snow. Some of the youngest of them hadn’t even seen rain.

They wouldn’t know how Buffalo got its name, they had never seen a buffalo. Still, some of them knew the name of the place. The city had a name that only conjured the city into the minds of these young men. And none of them had ever been to Buffalo either.

Discipline

Eye - Last Bar“And then you tried to drag six bodies over nearly two kilometers to get them back to the city?” Tynon asked.

“Yes sir.” Jacko replied.

“And you all, eventually, overheated and passed out.”

“Yes sir.”

Tynon had gathered all five lieutenants to hear the story of Jacko’s encounter. Jacko and his detachment were standing in the center of a cavernous room on the second floor of a building across the street from The Dragon’s makeshift cafeteria. Tynon and his five best were seated in front of floor to ceiling windows with blinding daylight shining behind them. Their silhouettes before the bright, barren city were reminiscent of the four shadowy figures that Jacko and his team dispatched the day prior.
“Your mistakes, Jacko, if I may list them:” Tynon began speaking very slowly, enunciating each word and allowing a short pause between them as if to let the facts have a moment to soak into the sponges of their minds, “One – racing out to meet a potential opponent who was approaching your strategically superior position. Two – running yourselves to exhaustion. Three – removing your goggles in the field. Four – making decisions while delirious. Five – killing these men.”

Jacko listened to each of his mistakes repeated back to him in the succinct form and knew he had blown it. He blew his chance at greatness within The Dragon. His reputation, what little there was of it before, was now in ruin. He was fool who led his men out and killed comrades that he should have been greeting. Had he been more hydrated tears would have been pouring out of his eyes. It was one last indignity that he was gracefully spared. He wondered if Tynon was going to kill him. Maybe, maybe he will, he thought. I wonder if he’ll kill my men. In the end, we’re all disposable. Stupid.

“I’d forgive the first four, if not for the last.” Tynon continued. “You men, however, are efficient killers and that has merit. We need good killers. You need to have respect for your senses. Had you just kept your goggles on you would have seen that your prey, were actually your friends.”

Tynon looked at Oz, one of his lieutenants and Jacko’s commander. “Your men here need to respect their eyes. In fact, they need to cherish their vision beyond all other things.”

Oz looked back at Tynon, knowing exactly what Tynon wanted. He pulled a short dagger from his belt and held it at the ready. Jacko looked over at each of his men, who were ready to receive their punishment. Jacko’s face relaxed in defeat, knowing that he’d never look the same after this day.

“Teach them respect.” Tynon ordered.

Oz stood up and approached Jacko. He stood face to face with Jacko, looking to the left at the other five men.

“I need an eye.” Oz said, placing the dagger in Jacko’s shaking hand. Oz took one step back, but kept his guard up just a bit. Faced with self-mutilation, Oz knew that men often did foolish things. Standing too close, with no weapon in hand, was a dangerous position.

Jacko stared down in terror at the dagger, which was now sitting flat across both of his open hands. It had a very short blade, no more than five centimeters. This tiny little knife could easily penetrate the rib cage and pop a hole in the heart, but it was too short to reach the brain through the eye socket without some severe coaxing.

How does a trapped animal develop the will to chew off a limb? How does a man jump out of a burning building 80 floors up, knowing full well that he will die either on the way down, but certainly when he hits the ground at terminal velocity? How can a soldier jump on a grenade to save his friends? Where does the will come from?

Jacko, you are going to lose an eye. If you refuse to take it out, they won’t take it for you. They will slit your throat and leave you bleeding on the floor before they eat you for dinner. Take your eye. Reset. Start over. Begin. Again.

He clasped the hilt in his right fist with the blade pointing toward his face.

“Don’t miss, son.” Oz said in a fatherly tone. “Make it count and you’ll only have to strike once.”

Jacko’s hand was shaking. He cupped his left hand below his right to steady it and make sure that the dagger wouldn’t slip once it hit his eye. He decided in that moment to keep his eyelid open in order to save it. The last thing he would see with that eye would be the nose of the blade as it pressed through the iris, popping the slightly pressurized ball, and demolish the rods and cones in the rear, until finally it reached the optic nerve. What will I see when the blade touches the nerve? He thought. Will it be colors, blinding light, or something else altogether? Will it hurt when it gets there?

Courage, Jacko.

He tightened his grip on the dagger and took a quivering breath as deeply as his lungs would allow. His lip trembled and he took one last swallow of the small amount of saliva that his mouth had mustered and exhaled heavily. He took another breath. His hands began to swing the knife toward and away, toward and away, practicing for the strike.

Finally, one more breath.

The dagger swung up from below his view. It screamed toward his eye with a motion he no longer conciously controlled. His mind screamed in his ear as the knife approached. There was no time for him to think or regain control of his arms. He couldn’t stop himself.

It made the quietest sound, as if slipping into a pillow. Just a small pop as the seams ripped across his eyeball. A bit of liquid squirted out onto his hands and the hilt of the knife. And Jacko stood there. His arms had pulled the knife out as quickly as they plunged it in. He was shaking, but still standing.

And he wondered, am I redeemed?

Fresh Kills

The heat bore down on Jacko and his men as they sat crouched behind a short sand dune. Their prey approached slowly causing them to wait longer than they anticipated. The sun, while glaring down on them at a long angle from the west, still cooked them in the sandy broiler. The heat from the earth rose up from below, offering them no quarter from which to cool down.

Long sleeves and goggles came off to let the sweat breath the air and do its job. It didn’t have a chance to bead up on their skin, but left a thin layer of sticky, brackish moisture all over as the heat and air carried it off.

It plays tricks on the mind, Jacko thought. It cooks our brains and plays tricks on us. Damn that sun, stupid Jacko.

The buildings would have offered shade, they would have compressed the breeze, making it cool. Not out here, out in the open we cook.

Clip raised his head just above the dune to see how close the shadows were. “Still far, why can’t they walk quicker?”

Jacko yanked Clip down. “Don’t let them see you. They may have lost our position in the sand.”

“I saw them. And a dustdevil.” Clip said. “It’s a big one, kicking up quite a fuss. It’s coming this way.”

Clip began fidgeting with his goggles, but his mind made the process difficult. He was having trouble getting the strap to fit over his head and when he finally got them wrapped around his skull he had the lenses on backwards with the bulgy sides stuck to his closed eyelids. It would take him another 30 seconds to get them on properly.

In that time Jacko peeked over the edge of the dune just as the devil peeked over from the other side. It whipped sand and scratch across his face before dropping behind the dune and covering each man head to toe in hot, scratchy sand. The turbulent wind pushed the sand into all the places it shouldn’t go. Ears, eyes, noses, crotches and ass cracks all became as caked in sand as the exposed, sticky skin. Only Clip’s eyes were spared a gritty frosting.

With the devil moving on the three blinded men panicked. With hands covered in sand there was nothing, so they thought, to clear the sand from the places it shouldn’t be. They tried to communicate, but with sand caked in their ears none of them could understand more than a muffled cocophony of mumbles and grunts.

Real nice, Jacko, he thought, his mind slowly dimming as the adrenaline wore off. What do we do now? We’re, blind, deaf, and covered in sand. The heat is making us dumber and the enemy is nearly on top of us. Brilliant, Jacko.

Clip, seeing that he was the only one with his vision, had the brilliant, stupid idea to find his way through the problem. He grabbed Jacko’s head in both hands. Jacko struggled, but only a little as he was getting delirious again. Clip brought Jacko’s face close to his, opened his mouth and licked the sand out of Jacko’s eyes. He had only enough saliva for one set of eyes and he deemed the leader as the most important.

Jacko, in turn, swallowed his hetero masculinity and licked Badger’s eyes, and he licked Zeb’s eyes. Zeb was not spared a revolting task, however. It was his job to suck on ears. As it did not require as much saliva, he gave everyone the courtesy of sound, save for himself. Clip was nice enough to oblige his ears. And while the sand was out of their ears, their hearing was far from perfect.

Blurry vision was all they mustered after ocular exfoliation. Jacko was no longer in his right mind and didn’t let on that his vision wasn’t 20/20. Still, he crept up the side of the dune to see how the shadows had progressed. “They’re almost here!” he whispered. “Grab your weapons.”

Weapons still consisted of clubs and short knives. It wasn’t much, but very effective and reliable in the sand.

“On the count of three.” He said. “One… Two… Three!”

The four men scampered up the dune and met their prey. Jacko, bleary-eyed, saw well enough at close range to fight.

His opponents held themselves low, tired by their journey across the desert. As Jacko swung his club the shadows dropped their stretchers and raised their defenses.

“Wait!” the drifters cried, but Jacko and his men couldn’t make out the words. They attacked, beating the first two shadows down with little effort. Clubs to arms shatter bones. Clubs to skulls give concussions. Clubs to groins buckle a man down. Clubs to the back of the head, kill.

After they took down the third man, Jacko, Badger and Zeb moved on to the fourth. He would be no match for them.

Clip, with clear vision, looked down upon the bodies. “Wait!” he cried. But it was too late.

The fourth man fell, becoming a puddle of bruised, dead meat. Jacko had beaten his prey, his enemy approaching the city. With a blurred mind and heavy breathing, he declared victory, raising his club over his head, “Huzzah!”

“We are fools!” said Clip. “We’ve killed our own men. We’ve killed Dragon!”

The other three looked at Clip. And for a moment their vision cleared and their minds became sharp. They stared down at their four fresh kills and the two on the stretchers and realized their folley. Below them, dead and bleeding in the sand, was one of the teams sent out to find the men who never returned from the helicopter transport. Jacko’s team had killed them all. They had waved “hello” and he killed them anyway. They continued to approach the city knowing full well that The Dragon would have taken it by the time they returned. No fool would have done these things unless they were Dragon.

Jacko dropped to his knees, dropped his weapon and screamed, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuu!!!”

The Run

The RunTwo by two they ran to meet their adversaries. After half a kilometer their bodies’ oxygen stores were depleted. Their bodies ached as the anaerobic metabolism began burning through the sugars in their muscles. Half a kilometer done, and one and a half to go. Jacko strained a look to his right at Clip, then to the rear at Badger and Zeb. None of them were ready to show the pain, so they all kept running.

As the cleared the taller buildings they felt the full force of the wind blowing up from the south across the great chasm that was once Lake Ontario. What used to bring cool, moist fog and cloudy skies created only dry, hot breezes full of gritty, stinging stand. When did it dry up? Jack didn’t know. He has only known it to be an empty, lifeless canyon.

The depleted air left little to breath when sitting still, and even less when at an all-out sprint. The human body, while amazing, has never had so little oxygen for a sustained period of time. Bodies of all surviving men and women had adapted, growing extra avioli in the lungs to capture as much O2 as possible. Take a human from their time and drop them on the highest peak 100 years prior and they would have no trouble breathing, but would probably die quickly of exposure. While their lungs had grown extra layers, their bodies had become thin to deal with the heat and infrequent meals. Muscles were dense, but small. Body fat was less than five percent. The high surface to volume ratio allowed the body to disperse relatively large amounts of heat, and the smaller frame we less exposed to the sun. It didn’t take generations for the bodies of Man to adapt. These advents were built in from the beginning. Humans have always been creatures of extreme environments.

One kilometer in front, one behind. The detachment had slowed, little by little. At first they didn’t notice, but by the half-way point it was obvious that their pace was cut in half as well. They covered the first half in five minutes, and it would be another 10 before they reached their target if their pace continued to decline. As their bodies starved for oxygen, a delirium set in. Jacko tried to come up with a plan and discuss it with his men, but all that came out of his mouth was gibberish. “When we get high, flank and collapse, both sides.”

Clip and the others stared incoherently at their commander, themselves unable to form a sentence or even a clear thought to back one up. Eventually they just shook their heads and dropped their gaze to the sand. After a minute or two they had all forgotten the exchange even took place, except Zeb, who laughed about what he thought he heard Jacko say, which wasn’t even funny.

All of them joined in the chuckle for no reason. None of it was funny, but they laughed anyway, and kept up a pace that could barely be described as a light jog. Their arms flailed, or so they felt, and their feet kicked up small piles of sand that were caught by the wind and half-blown to the north. All of this amused them.

With only half a kilometer to go Jacko had a moment of clarity and ordered his men to stop. By this point they were within shouting distance of their prey, and quite within sprinting distance if they were able to breath at all. The humor had died and exhaustion set in. It was not caloric exhaustion, but from lack of oxygen. Their minds recovered quickly, but their bodies were still sore and weak.

The approaching shadows were now clear human figures against the bright orange sky. Two sets of two men, each set dragging another man on a makeshift stretcher.

One of them waved again. “Hello!”

Jacko squinted to see if he could discern a face from the sun, but was unable to. By this point he had given up his position, the element of surprise, and any hope of an ambush. Stupid, Jacko. And now you’re tired too. Dumb and tired, he thought.

“Hello!” they waved again.

“Maybe they’re friendlies,” Clip said. “Maybe they’re with us!”

Jack strained to hide his disappointment in himself by staring at Clip thoughtfully. “Maybe,” he said. “Or maybe it’s a trap. Sure, they look helpless enough dragging their wounded, or whatever. Maybe those guys are just faking it and are waiting for us to tucker ourselves out.” He cut himself off as he realized he exposed his bad decision to run out toward the shadows. We could have just waited. Stupid, Jacko. They were coming right for us. We could have just waited an hour for them to show up.

“We will wait here for them.” Jacko said, regaining his command. “We’ll wait right here. That way they’re beyond the city border. They won’t get in without a fight.”

On the Horizon

After having gotten used to the feeling of bloodlust in conquering the city, patrolling it demoted Jacko and his team to the role of policeman. They were fighters, demons on a rampage, not Canadian constables. Adding to the insult, anyone caught lurking about was not to be killed, but captured. Jacko wasn’t even entrusted to make the decision on whether or not a boy in the street would be worthy of becoming part of The Dragon. But patrol they did, that is what Tynon had assigned to them and that’s what they were going to do. They, for the time, became the police force of Toronto, or whatever name the city was going by these days.

The great city had several names but perhaps most famously, York. The war of 1812 saw it bombarded shortly renamed after the Mohawk word representing trees growing over water, Toronto. It was once the most populous city in Canada. Now, no one really knew where the populated cities where. Much like Toronto, major cities had evolved through the drought, eventually crumbling into decay.

With The Dragon taking up residence, the city itself felt a misplaced hope that they might rebuild her, bring back her cultural diversity, bring back her life. She saw the people in the streets, making things safe, organizing in groups, marching, eating, and using her streets and buildings. The city could not discern their intent, she only knew that there was life inside again in the here and now. And without a political affiliation or agenda, maybe she didn’t care that the group ultimately desired to bring down what remained of humanity. Maybe she only cared that there were people, once again, living within her borders.

On the horizon, late in the afternoon, to the southeast Jacko’s patrol spotted the silhouette of a group of men. The sun blazed behind the shadowy figures as they struggled through the sand and wind toward the city. Jacko lowered his shaded goggles to pierce through the light. He could see four men fully upright, but struggling to make forward progress.

On the Horizon - Last Bar“Volunteer.” Jacko whispered just over the sound of the wind. None of his men stepped forward, irritating the makeshift leader. He spoke it more loudly, “Volunteer!” Finally one raised his hand. Jacko looked at the other men in disappointment. “Go. Tell Tynon that we have visitors coming from he southeast.”

By Jacko’s estimate the men were still nearly five kilometers away and it would take them an hour to reach his position at the sluggish pace they were going. He was excited by the opportunity to be on the forefront of such an event. It was his team who discovered the travelers and his order to inform Tynon. He wondered if this would help him move up the ranks, to become a lieutenant or squadron commander. Deep down he felt he could be a great leader. He was clever, intelligent, authoritative, and supportive of those he commanded, or so he thought.

Jacko envisioned himself in the future standing next to Tynon, sitting upon the throne. He’d be Tynon’s right-hand lieutenant, taking care of all manner of important business for the great man and, more importantly, being in the room, at the table when big decisions were being made. He knew he’d get there given enough time and enough expression of his smarts. Tynon would eventually notice him and then he’d have a meteoric rise through the ranks and take a role worthy of his cunning. It was just a matter of getting his kill count up, or ensuring a clean block when he finished patrolling, or making all the right decisions when men were spotted on the horizon.

“The rest of you are with me,” he whispered again, for no reason. With the wind and at such a distance, there was no chance the sluggish men before the sun were going to hear him, but he whispered because that’s what he thought you did when you were near a possible enemy patrol.

He waved his men out of their complacency and they moved away from the city center, toward the oncoming band of shadows. They were careful to keep themselves behind buildings and rubble as they moved. While they felt clever for crouching and bolting around in discrete movements, they were very exposed by the angle of the sun and their inexperience. The men on the horizon easily spotted them, but trudged onward anyway.

Jacko’s team got to within three kilometers, they could finally see that the men were dragging something, two somethings. Their sluggish progress now had an explanation, or at least a partial one. What are they dragging, Jacko wondered, why would you slog through the sand with cargo like that? No wheels, no cart?

One of the figures waved.

“Shit! We’ve been spotted.” He said. His mind raced to come up with some sort of plan. Do we attack? Hide? Wave back? Idiot! Stupid, stupid, stupid! You let yourself be seen by a possible enemy!

He mustered his courage in the face of his idiotic mistake. Can’t let his men see the chink in his armour. In looking at them he wondered if one of them might have a better idea than racing out to attack, but asking might show weakness and he can’t have his men ever see him as weak. Maybe I’ll send one of them out there. No, that would be suicide. Dammit!

The shadowy men continued their slow approach. Jacko would have to make a choice soon, or his only choice would be to let them men come upon his team. Having done nothing proactive to intercept these travelers, Jacko would have only proven himself as useless as the city rubble that would greet them. He would not have it. Jacko was a man of action, after all, of courage and decisiveness and cunning. “We’re going to rush them.”

His team unloaded their waterbags and gripped their clubs tightly. They had less than two kilometers to cover.

In his most polished commanding voice, Jacko said, “Let’s go!”