“We were caught unawares – nevermore, never again. To show mercy to the Janub is to profane humanity.” – General Torgald, before the slaughter at Yirnam
What is it to die? Does some immortal part of us pass through the invisible veil of this material realm, to the great unknown – or is it just a simple cutting of the thread, an end of a story, a flat-line? What is it to commit suicide then, to consciously end the state of being of oneself?
The thoughts rushed through Bartholomew’s mind like a hurricane. Semi-coherent, unformed things that slashed at his psyche like razorblades. A tall, slender man of pale complexion, he sat on the unkempt bed of his one-room apartment staring at the small glass table with an empty glare. His eyes were light brown, but the spark of life in them was not present. If someone were to look at his expression of utter resignation illumined by streetlamps, would cause them a great discomfort. Clothed with simple jeans and a t-shirt, his ash-blonde hair disheveled, the sharp lines of his visage adorned by a several-day stubble, he resembled a grotesque statue of once-a-man. A man, who in all essential sense, was no more. An empty husk, devoid of that untouchable, immaterial thing which makes one human.
The thing his empty glare looked at was his father’s gun. One of the very few material heirlooms his father left him after he had the good grace to finally die. Contrary to the ruinous apartment in which the scent of dust permeated the air, the gun was clean and glistening. A Colt 44, black-iron model. The light reflected from the gun and it almost shined with its blackness, enriching the dourness and gloom. Bartholomew’s lips curled into a sardonic grin. How apt, how cruel an irony of fate, that the thing which was supposed to end him – was such a source of reflexive dark light. The gun was polished, loaded and ready – and somewhere beneath the spectrum of his consciousness, Bartholomew could ‘hear’ its call. A call to be taken in hand – and used. Even though a cacophony of sounds blared outside the room, they couldn’t reach Bartholomew. In that exact moment, he was million miles away – in that lightless place, where desolation reigned supreme. He was there, all alone. Gone, never to return.
Bartholomew heard some people years back describing the act of suicide as a bomb going off inside a crowded room. A room in which those who are closest to the blast are the one who cared the most about the person. Most devastated by it. Was it still relevant, he wondered, if the bomb had gone off in an empty room, such was ‘his’ at that very moment? Bartholomew had already lost every person he cared about – long before the invasion of the accursed Janub, those abhorrent aliens who were a twisted mockery of the human form. But at that time, they were as inconsequential to Bartholomew as his own very existence. Ever since he was a boy he had struggled with the idea of what it was to be human and how to perceive the world. The strict, meritocratic upbringing failed to teach him about the nature of emotions. In his worldview, it was all about merit. One lived and died based on one’s strength and one’s merit. Nothing was given, but earned – even immaterial things like love, a hug, or a good word. He learned only that surviving was not a pleasant thing, it involved meticulous planning and flawless execution. The state of unconditional love was so foreign to him that he was flabbergasted when the people around him showed each-other unmerited affection. His father, like his father before him, intended to prepare him for the unavoidable pain and chaos of the future. His father was truly a magnificent man. He possessed a powerful foresight for the things yet to come – Bartholomew called it ‘the far-seeing eye’. Yet, the suffering in the absence of essence in such existence, was a thing that Bartholomew would truly experience throughout his life. In his father’s eyes, only the strong deserved to live. Those who were unable to cope with life’s hardships on their own, had no place under the sun. A lesson Bart would learn all too well. As time had passed, he learned that his fellow humans were far from the image of the ideal man his father had instilled upon him. Oftentimes they were petty, pitiful beings – who would sell even their own fathers for one trinket or another. A total antithesis to the form they bore. Of course, there were people whom he thought were important to him – friends, girlfriends, family. However, the well of his soul had already been poisoned by betrayal and suffering, confirming his father’s thesis that his fellow humans were, in their essence, selfish, malicious things. Which would make Bart equally selfish in his own right. It was a thought he struggled against, every moment of every day. But in the end, as the Janub advanced and brought destruction, everything paled into insignificance. Life itself, became cheap and meaningless. As he got older, Bartholomew became increasingly aware that, he truly had nothing to return to – no family, or friends, or loved ones, to provide purpose. He had become what he loathed most – a void existence. And thankfully, tonight, it would all end in a blinding flash and a loud bang.
His hand reached for the gun. His fingers ran across its form, as if getting acquainted with it for the first time. A soft, delicate caress – a lover’s touch of his beloved’s body in the throes of passion. The dark mahogany grips fit his hand like a glove. A shiver ran through his spine, as it always did, in the anticipation to the violence yet to come. As with the targets in the distant past, the act of holding the weapon aroused in him a sort of morbid excitement at its destructive potential. Even though the enemy this time was the self – and it’s unending, senseless suffering. The act of putting the barrel of the gun beneath his chin roused the air in the room and spread the fragrance of gun oil. Slowly, ever so slowly, he cocked the hammer with the thumb of his left hand. The grinding of metal against metal was in itself a sort of a death’s knell, a preparation to roll the credits of his story. His dull eyes glanced at the streetlights outside. Moment later, the lights went out and the room was engulfed in utter darkness. Bartholomew sighed and closed his eyes… in front of them, an image of everyone who had had the misfortune to be loved by him flashed. They were all gone now, either dead – or connections utterly severed, bridges burnt. Meaningless melancholy, a spastic reflex – last shriek of self-perseverance. All too weak, all too insignificant. His index finger began the final act… the tolling of the bell.
A loud bang echoed through the room.
A flash of light brighter than a thousand suns tore the darkness in the lightless place. Bartholomew that was – he who sat hugging his own knees, raised his head to the sky. The light engulfed him completely, somewhere in the distance he heard a panicked cry.
The entrance door burst open and a woman rushed in the room, screaming. Light rushed in the room from the window once again – and the corridor beyond. Her light-brown, long, straight, hair was uncombed and filthy, a streak of red coating several of her locks, making them sticky. Her face was painted with horror and agony. Her hazel eyes were glistening with tears of blood, terror, and suffering. In his mind’s eye, he remembered a similar set of eyes. His mother’s eyes, in those moments when his autocratic father dished out the punishment for insubordination. The screams were not so different either. This woman, who wore a filthy dark-green dress stained with soot, oil and other, less describable things – was in the same kind of hell as his mother all those years back. A hell of terror and hopelessness he was powerless to stop. Moment later, a dark figure, one of the accursed Yanub, rushed in after the woman, chasing her. The woman stumbled and fell few feet away from Bart, panting heavily. In that moment Bartholomew’s instincts and indignation took over, his eyes opened – radiating with detached determination wrought by his father’s rigorous programming. Instinctively, the hand holding the gun extended and he squeezed the trigger four times in an instant between two heartbeats. The Janub, clothed in dark tunic was blasted in the corridor beyond the entrance – the wall behind him painted with his own blood. He fell in a heap and didn’t move.
Surprised by his own actions, Bartholomew blinked twice and then rushed to the woman. He gently turned her on her back and positioned her in his lap, cradling her head. The woman, who was maybe two or years younger than him slowly opened her eyes. To his great surprise, her lips curled in the sincerest smile Bartholomew had ever seen. With a soft, weak voice she spoke.
“Thank you, stranger. Thank you…”
Bartholomew gave her a quick glance and saw a piece of metal protruding from her abdomen. The blood around the wound was dark, it had damaged her liver. At most, she only had minutes to live.
“You need not thank me, girl. Your stomach wound is fatal – you are going to die. I have failed you – just like I’ve failed myself, my father and everyone I’ve ever met,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Foolish boy,” she scoffed weakly, “I would rather die a thousand times over rather than be turned into one of them. God has delivered me to you. I… am Shira…” she answered, clutching something bloody in her right hand. Bartholomew stroked her hair softly, totally unaware of the act.
“Shira, gods do not exist. They are figments of our imagination to provide solace from the utter loneliness we are doomed to.”
“You don’t believe in God…”
“Such a beautiful name, a saint’s name. Your parents must have loved you very much,” she said and coughed softly. Bartholomew snorted derisively, unbidden memories flooding his mind.
“Loved me…” he was rolling the words in his mouth, frowning at the unfamiliar taste, “I’m not sure if I ever felt such thing. I have been reading about it, I think I’ve loved several women whom I bedded or failed to bed, but I do not know if I have ever been loved,” he replied, lost in the torrent of past images and sensations. “I was being prepared though – for the darkness yet to come. But I was weak… I still am.”
Her eyes filled with tears, and somewhere deep inside, Bartholomew sensed something strange. Something was stirring. He felt her free hand clutching his gun hand and shuddered. The warmth of the contact felt so… distant, unknown, unnerving.
“Poor thing, do you really believe that a creature such as you – who would readily defend someone else in need is unworthy of love?”
Bartholomew felt increasingly uncomfortable in the presence of this girl. This creature of beauty and pain and suffering, who poked and prodded wounds long after they scabbed over – scars long since faded. What right did she have to speak of love or gods or other such things when she was at her deathbed?
“For one to be worthy, one has to earn the right to be considered worthy. It’s because of this, far too many weaklings disgrace the soil upon which they walk,” he said briskly, with somewhat irritated voice. “And how did I defend you, when you are still going to die in a few minutes time?”
He expected a frown of admonishment, but all he got is another weak, beatific smile. He felt her hand caressing his, finally becoming aware of his own caresses. Why did he do it? Was it a final act of comfort for a dying soul? A protocol to be observed? He couldn’t find the answer, yet he didn’t stop. She coughed once again and crimson droplets, like rubies, appeared on her lips. Bartholomew quickly undressed his T-Shirt and made a makeshift pillow for her head. He gently raised her head and positioned it on the pillow to make her more comfortable. The light outside, shone upon the cobweb of scars on his arms and torso – lessons carved on the canvas of his own flesh. Lessons not to be forgotten. Shira gave a weak glance and her finger ran across the rugged tissues. A shiver ran down Bartholomew’s spine and he shuddered. It was the first time for someone to lay a hand on the echoes of his misery in such a way. A beneficent, healing human touch. So foreign a sensation.
“All I see is an angel wrought by God’s own hand, forced to bear God’s pain for a very long time. A Phoenix – to suffer the immortal pain of death and rebirth, tasked to shine brightly upon the world – for everyone else to bask in his light. Yet, all he could ever see was the primordial darkness and the imperfections of those upon whom his light fell.”
The stirring inside Bartholomew’s soul slowly grew in vehemence. Something that was of him but not entirely, rumbled like a volcano. Those words felt different from anything he was said or taught until then.
“Angels are not broken things, who put guns to their chins and pull the trigger. Angels are strong, of purpose. Of course, that is if one subscribes to that idea. Which I don’t. What I see is the unending misery, devoid of purpose. When one takes a long hard look at life, all we were, all we are and all we will ever be will end in dust. We are just fleeting existences in this cosmic pit of dark loneliness. Devoid of meaning and purpose. Gods are fables for little children to behave, lest they are devoured by the demons of the night. For all his faults, my father was right in this. Good things don’t happen. Only tolerable things.”
“Can you deny the bliss I am feeling right now? Aren’t you of purpose at this very moment, to console me in my final moments on this blighted earth?” she asked, her piercing voice making him wince. Bartholomew’s eyes widened at the sudden question. For the first time in a long while – he was caught off-guard. The monolith of his upbringing was truly challenged for the first time.
“I can’t,” he sighed, “but I am sure that great overseers in the sky have nothing to do with it.”
“I see it, even though you can’t. I was brought here, in the very moment you were about to end your own life and instead we ended up saving each other.”
“Mere coincidence. And what makes you so certain that I won’t just blow my brains the moment you die?” he scoffed. Shira suddenly opened her eyes wildly and locked his gaze with an intensity he was powerless to resist. He felt himself losing inside those fiery hazel seas. He felt her hands clutching him tightly, her visage as clear as a spring’s morning dew.
“Because I know I was delivered here for a reason. To tell you, Bartholomew, that you are of purpose. You are the strongest person I’ve ever had the good grace of laying my eyes onto. You are a God’s angel, made to protect those who can’t protect themselves. Even if you do not believe in this yourself. God gives purpose regardless of one’s belief in Him. Even now, you feel the flickers of purpose stoking the flame inside your soul. Soon, it will become a wildfire so bright, to engulf the world. To purge the Janub menace. To aid those in need. And for that I love you…” before she could finish her thought, Shira coughed for the last time. A spray of blood coated Bartholomew’s face and torso, rendering him a macabre guardian for the dying girl. Her hand clutched his tightly, and he felt something sharp and metallic biting his palm. They gazed in each-other’s eyes for a moment longer. Then, the fire in Shira’s eyes ebbed, and with a final blood-gurgling sigh, she died. Bartholomew could witness the exact moment her heart stopped beating and her soul, if ever there was such a thing, leaving her broken body.
Something hot and wet ran down his cheeks and fell to Shira’s visage. Bartholomew felt the thing which stirred inside him, finally waking up. It was a thing of power, fury and purpose. A terrible, unstoppable beast. He closed his eyes and when he opened them, his vision was blurred, as if he was seeing through water. For the first time in fifteen years, Bartholomew cried. The screams tore through his chest and echoed throughout the room. Directionless things, born of pain and suffering – never allowed to be felt, always kept under a tight leash. Shira broke that leash, and for the first time in a very long time, Bartholomew felt brimming with energy and fury and rage unbound. What was different this time, was the fact that it had direction. The tears that ran down his face, purged everything to ashes, a Phoenix’s death. When the tears finally dried up some minutes later, in his eyes burned the fires of rebirth – a firestorm which would engulf the world.
With a gentle hand he closed Shira’s eyes and opened the palm in his hand. He held a six-pointed star, made from chromed tempered steel on a silver chain. It was a thing strength and beauty, just like its wearer. He slowly stood up and purposefully approached the fallen Janub, who against all odds, was still alive. The Janub muttered something in its guttural growls it called language. All that it was – was an antithesis to the purity of the human form, a vile mockery of humanity that made Bartholomew’s guts twist in disgust. He rolled the creature on its back and looked directly in its eyes. As the creature saw Bartholomew’s thunderous gaze, it balked in terror. It started screaming something, possibly a cry for mercy. Its cries failed to reach Bartholomew however. He tore the dark mask from the Janub, which revealed a face of a man with dark complexion, so very nearly human, yet so profoundly abhorrent. Without a word, Bart exposed the Janub’s throat and bit it with the fury of a beast of old. Cartlidge and bone cracked, the creature’s screams were muffled by the crushed windpipe, gasping for a breath that would never come. With one final bestial wrench, he tore the creature’s throat and felt the metallic taste of alien blood. It disgusted him and he spat the gobbet on the dead creature’s face. Then he proceeded to stomp the creature’s skull with his boot, turning the creature’s head into a slurry of bone fragments and brain matter.
Once again silence reigned in the building. Only his steps could be heard in the distance as the firestorm burned inside him with the intensity of a caged sun.
“When Sin claps his broad wings over the battle,
And sails rejoicing in the flood of Death;
When souls are torn to everlasting fire,
And fiends of Hell rejoice upon the slain.
Who can stand” – Sir William Blake
The Janub, when they first came with their alien ships – were hailed as long-lost cousins to humanity. But very soon their sinister purpose became clear as they sought only subjugation of all who were different. And humanity had suffered by their malicious hand for a long time. Their cathedrals of high spires which profaned the air with their guttural ululating calls to battle – they were an affront to humanity’s vision for prosperity. The Janub sought destruction, and after three years of bloody fighting – destruction came to them. Yirnam, their last stronghold on the face of the planet, was the best equipped city to hold against a siege, but the relentless determination of General Torgald, led those who opposed the menace in the bloody purge.
Bartholomew was exhilarated at the sight of battle. Even though he never admitted it openly – Shira was right. He was of purpose. To protect those who can’t protect themselves – the weak, the innocent. There was serenity in that, and he accepted it. Spilling the blood of the Janub was an altogether different beast, entirely. The joy he felt at each murder of a Janub filth, elevated him on a level that was more than human. He was a force of nature, righteousness itself made manifest – to wipe the accursed aliens from the face of planet – as blighted as it was. Death breathed deeply on the battlefield, as some of his men, all heroes in their own right – fell to the fire of the Janub and their wretched alien technology. He was tasked with securing one of Yirnam’s main overpasses from the hands of the enemy. He threw himself in the battle with the brutal efficiency of a machine. And with sustained fire he and his unit cleansed the makeshift Janub bulwarks. His unit was so efficient, they had managed to surround and capture 20 Janub alive on the overpass itself. Bartholomew now resplendent in a captain’s uniform observed the captured creatures with disgust and revulsion. Private Yindal of the “Wretched”, Bartholomew’s own unit approached the captain and saluted.
“We have managed to capture these dregs at your command. Corporal Talmir extracted information that around 700 of the Janub are fortified in the Last cathedral beyond the hill stronghold. Your orders sir?”
“String them up,” Bartholomew replied coldly without a second thought.
Yindal was surprised for a moment. He knew his commanding officer had a loathing for the Janub, but the hatred he saw burning in those light-brown eyes at that moment, terrified him.
“Sir? You mean… from the overpass?”
Bartholomew turned to Yindal with that firestorm in his eyes that made even his own men cow.
“Have you forgotten Torgald’s words, soldier?” he shouted, “To show mercy to these… things, is to profane humanity. They have abused our good grace and tried to subjugate us. For that sin alone, they must all die.”
Yindal balked, saluted and after few minutes returned to the captain with several coils of metal string. In the sky above, the mighty zeppelins of the “Grendal’s 2nd Airborne” were fighting the wretched ships of the Janub. The battle was fierce, with heavy losses on both sides. The sky itself was tortured by the battle for air supremacy, with dark clouds roiling, black rain falling. This however, did not stop Bartholomew to turn the captured Janub who were screaming for mercy in their foul tongue, into grotesque wind chimes hanging from the overpass. Some were even beheaded by the velocity of the fall. The foul aliens were finally confronted with humanity’s unforgiving fury and righteous retribution. For the Janub, it was too late. They knew it and fought to the last man.
After several days of intense battles, the last Janub stronghold fell. The remnants of their forces were gathered inside their largest profane temple and dowsed in accelerant. Bartholomew held a burning torch, the names of his fallen comrades carved on it. On top of them all, just below the burning head, Bartholomew carved the name of Shira. He raised the torch on high and proclaimed.
“Brothers, humans. Let this pyre burn brightly, to show the universe that humanity will not be trifled with. Let it show that we will never fall, and that our vengeance will be ruthless, thorough and final!” Then, he threw the torch and the ‘pyre of hope’ was lit. Its flames burned hot, hungry for the lives within the building.
The fire quickly engulfed the building. The cries of the last Janub quickly died out in the hot flames of retribution. In the sky above, the zeppelins blared their sirens for all to hear. The soldier’s cheers echoed in the night, welcoming the dawn’s pure light, free of the alien menace. At long last, Yirnam was reclaimed.
When the flames of war finally ebbed and the Janub were no more, Bartholomew retreated in his own office. He poured himself a glass of the best bourbon and unlocked his private drawer. From it he pulled out an ornamented wooden box in which Shira’s star laid on a satin pillow. He raised the star at the overhead light, lit one of his Cuban cigars and smiled softly.
“I am of purpose… indeed.”