A soldier finds himself imprisoned in an abandoned hospital being questioned about a battle he does not remember; by Ziyad Hayatli.
"John Dawes, Private in His Imperial Majesty's army."
"And what do you last remember before the incident at Allesfield?"
That question again.
"I don't remember any particular incident."
A look of concern crossed the Interrogator's face, as it always did.
"Then what do you remember?"
"One minute I was boarding the train that carried us to the battle of Allesfield. The next minute I was lying down in that damned city, and your men came to get me. I must have lost consciousness."
The Interrogator wore a pristine green uniform. A sabre and flintlock pistol hung at his side, his helmet always off when indoors. Chiseled cheekbones, strong set jaw, clean shaven, short greying hair. He was a far cry from the soldiers like me, who were nothing but a disheveled mess. From what I remember in training, we only looked remotely as presentable as he once a day, and that was in the morning for inspection. He got up without a word and marched out in long, purposeful strides. His polished, black boots hit the floor with strength.
The room in which they questioned me was my prison cell. The whitewashed tiles on the walls told me that this was a disused hospital, and their greying tint were a testimony to time's ravaging nature. An iron framed bed and a wooden chair furnished the space. A window above the bed gave enough light during the day, but I could never hope to squeeze through and escape.
I should not be thinking of escape. These people are my people, I fought for them. Then why are they holding me? Why do I remember nothing of my first battle at Allesfield? They ask the same questions again and again, just once a day. Every night, I scratch a line in the wall so I can keep track of the days - twenty have passed so far.
The 20th day was a different day than usual. The Interrogator came as always, but this time he led me out of my cell. What greeted me was a long, dusty corridor. Doorways lined its sides, outside of which stood one or two armed guards, always at attention. The Interrogator looked over his shoulder as I trailed behind him.
"By the way Mr. Dawes, do you even know where you are?"
The question shocked me. Where was I? I had never thought of that.
"Ironically enough, Mr. Dawes, you are actually in Allesfield. You were lucky. The day that you were sent was the same day we eventually took it from the traitors."
He said the word with pure disgust, as if it were rotten flesh on his tongue. He carried on.
"Anyway Mr. Dawes, you were right to call it a damned place. They did put up quite a fight here."
The Interrogator was never usually that talkative. Perhaps I would be released? Even with all my effort at keeping my hopes low, I could not help but envision my freedom.
We entered a room like any other. Box-like, bare except for a table and a few chairs. Sitting in one of them was a man in the long white coat of a doctor, flipping through a thin file, poring over it like some ancient monk. Upon hearing us enter, he snapped his head up and shut the folder, smiling a smile that never reached his eyes. A deceitful smile.
"And you must be Mister Dawes!" he exclaimed with a raspy voice. He outstretched an old hand, veiny, but nevertheless he had a firm grip.
"Please take a seat."
He spoke in a refined manner, something I had to learn to do when I joined the army, but he did it so naturally. He indicated to the chair opposite and I sat down, feeling pensive. I did not know what to make of this. One minute my hopes were raised, the next minute, for some inexplicable reason, they sunk low again.
The faint, yellowish light was hanging directly above the doctor's head, forming deep shadows over his sunken eyes. He look frail and thin, his hair brittle and grey, his face lined with wrinkles. I stayed silent, and the doctor almost threw his hands up in the air, chuckling as he did so.
"Oh where are my manners? I am Doctor Hays. Now I am aware that the Interrogator here has been asking you a lot of questions regarding the incident at Allesfield, which you don't seem to remember. So forgive me for asking more questions, but what I want to find out is, how much of your life before the incident happened do you remember? Are there any significant gaps in your memory?"
It was strange that the Interrogator had never asked me that question. I sat awhile, running through my own life story, but everything seemed fine. Then again, how is someone meant to know about something they have completely forgotten?
"No, doctor, I don't think there are any gaps."
"Can you tell me about yourself in general, Mr. Dawes?"
That's when he opened the file again and looked down, then looked up at me expectantly.
What is this?
"Well doctor, I guess I will begin by saying that I was born on the outskirts of Kaelton, the capital city. I'm from a family of peasants, really. Father was a hard worker, mother was a good mother. And I've lived there all my life."
"Yes, and when did you join His Imperial Majesty's Armed Forces?"
"About two years ago, doctor. The life of peasants was not for me." I paused a while, then decided telling him more would probably make him happy. "The only other choice I had was to take the path of my uncles as a factory worker in Kaelton itself. But that wasn't for me either. So I joined the army, and with the civil war breaking out, I thought I could do nothing better than serve His Imperial Majesty."
It was then that Doctor Hays looked up past my shoulder and nodded. I glanced back, forgetting that the Interrogator was behind me the entire time, standing as still as a sculpture, head upturned and proud like an Ancient Greek bust.
The doctor put his hands together, looking rather worried.
"Well after extensive questioning, and seeing you for myself at last, Mister Dawes, I have figured out the problem. This might come as a shock to you, but please, no interruptions. The rebels seem to have gotten their hands on a weapon. It is of a gaseous form, a breathable chemical if you will. And it seems to have the effect of completely wiping out short term memory, leaving the subject unconscious and in a vulnerable state, as you were when we found you."
I did not know what to feel. We had been attacked, but I didn't even know it. I remembered coming out of consciousness while I was lying down on a stretcher, for a while I did not recognize the uniform of my own army. And I was even surprised by the fact that I carried a musket and sword.
"What of my squad doctor? I must have been with a squad, or at least a patrol. What happened to them?"
For a brief moment, the doctor seemed to scowl. Or maybe it was the lighting, but he resumed his enthusiastic way of speaking.
"Well, Mister Dawes. We spoke to your commanding officer, he said that he had sent you and two others on a short patrol when you were all attacked. The gaseous chemical weapon is usually delivered by a throw, just like a firebomb. So it must have been a direct ambush. The other two managed to escape unharmed, as the gaseous chemical does dissipate quickly in the outdoors. You were the only victim of it. You lost consciousness, they carried you back to us, and that is how you woke up to find yourself on a stretcher!"
I wanted to ask more questions. Like where on this earth did these rebels get such a weapon? It must be complicated. But I kept my mouth shut; strangely enough I did not feel like a victim or an injured soldier, but a suspect. And something within me had been different since I came to. Truth be told, I did not feel the same way about His Imperial Majesty, I did not feel the fervor and excitement of being in the army. Why? Could it be a side effect of the chemical? Finally, I mustered the courage to ask a question.
"So what next, doctor? When can I get back on duty?"
"Oh, don't worry Mr. Dawes. Taking Allesfield was our main task and we have accomplished it for now. Things are, how do you put it, more stable. Having said that, you are considered to be a seriously injured soldier under Imperial Law. So I shall give you the minimum leave of seven days before you are called back on duty. Tomorrow a stagecoach will take you to the now liberated train station, and it will be a four hour ride to the outskirts of Kaelton."
Alarm bells rang, I did not know why, but they did. I nodded my head, and as I spoke I found that my mouth had turned dry.
"Where will I spend the night, doctor?"
"Oh that will be in your usual room" - he didn't call it a cell - "but we will still need a guard posted outside just in case of any further developments. Nightmares, vomiting and all of that. There have been similar cases and they have been rather... unpredictable. Mind you, tomorrow is the 21st day, three weeks since the incident, which is the recommended minimum time for you to be looked after. Anything else?"
That smile. I hated that smile.
Nightfall, my cell. They brought me a candle this time, and I was reading A Brief History of Our Glorious Empire by Alain Fletcher. I remembered how it inspired me, how it drove me, and now I realized that I felt indifferent towards it. Something had changed. I did not feel at home amongst these men, nor did I feel safe. As my eyelids went heavy, I blew the candle out and lay on my bed. It was unbelievably hot on this summer night so I did not bother with the covers. My uniform, which had been handed back to me at last, was folded and placed on my chair, ready for tomorrow. Beside it lay all my equipment. And as I shut my eyes and found myself at the edge of sleep, I heard a significant thud that broke the silence. One second past and I thought nothing of it, but by the next second I leapt out of bed and drew my dagger from under the pillow. It felt good to have that back where it belonged.
Despite my readiness, a shadow burst forth from the door and took me down to the ground, holding me in a grip. Panic gripped me as I struggled and fought, but to no avail. The thing was fast.
"Silence, Mister Dawes. Be quiet!"
I stopped. The thing turned out to be a man, wearing black all over. Mouth covered by a cloth, head covered by a cowl.
"You know, John. If I wanted to kill you I would have done it."
It was then I noticed the cold steel of his own dagger against my neck. With a flick of his wrist he could drain the blood from my body. And he knew my name. So I went limp. He stood up, towering over me, a slim but strong figure - almost reptilian, like a snake. I started.
"Who are -"
He raised a hand,
"Just a moment, my good fellow."
He went outside and dragged the body of the guard into the cell. In the dark, with only the moonlight shining in, I could see the glint of blood on the guard's neck. His throat had been slit.
"Now, we can begin talking. Of course, who I am doesn't matter, but what matters is the 'incident at Allesfield' as you know it, doesn't it?"
I was shocked, and did not know what to think. A man just killed the guard outside, didn't harm me when he could have, knew my name and knew of the incident. As if in answer, he pulled a folder out.
"Remember this, Mr. Dawes? You may have seen it this morning."
Yes, it was the folder that Doctor Hays had when he questioned me this morning. The mysterious man pulled out a match and lit my candle.
"Read the last page."
I realized my hands were shaking. This man could have killed me! I could have died! I almost stumbled towards him, fighting hard to keep my posture. On the front of the small brown folder were the words:
John Dawes - Profile - CLASSIFIED.
Stamped in red. That was all. Inside was the one photo that existed of me when I enlisted in the army. Those cameras have just started appearing and they seem like incredible things. Details, details, everything seemed normal. And then the last page. Scribbled in an almost illegible hand.
Incident at Allesfield - diagnosis:
Suffers from war trauma. Memory loss of massacre. Possible change of moral alignment. Cannot be trusted after extensive questioning.
My heart beat faster and faster. Massacre? And then in the final words, which were more readable than any part of the last, was the damning verdict.
Scheduled for termination immediately.
My head spun, and my legs almost gave away, but I steadied myself with my hand on the chair. I felt another hand on my shoulder.
"Termination, my good fellow. Immediate termination. That's tomorrow."
"Why? Massacre? What massacre? Why can't I be trusted - fuckin' hell!"
I had to get my thoughts together, I could not remember a thing. The word massacre kept on appearing in my head. I was told of an ambush, not a massacre. But the man in black waited until he could wait no more. He shook me steadily by the shoulder.
"Mister Dawes, it appears that you are a liability to them. Why I do not know, I am merely a servant to my master, and he has all the answers. All he told me was to tell you that you must run away. Get out as fast as you can. They think you are placated, that they have you comfortable and unsuspecting, but their attempt to deceive you will be their undoing. Put on that uniform and get out!"
And he just disappeared without trace or sound. I quickly put on the uniform as the dead, lifeless eyes of the guard watched me. I walked out to the corridor, lined by faint yellow lights hanging from wires here and there. It was empty, and eerie. The sword at my side was partly unsheathed, and I loaded up the pistol with the one shot, ready to go. Following the signs, I was surprised that I found no one until I reached the exit. I carefully looked outside into the night time before announcing my presence. There was a checkpoint of sorts. Three, no four guards milling about. One had gotten off his horse for a rest. They seemed relaxed, so it was most likely that all of Allesfield was indeed ours. I heard one of the guards speak.
"Hey, someone should check up on Matthew, poor sod is probably bored out of his mind."
"Nah, fuck him. I hate that creepy old building anyway. I don't know why they removed everyone except for that one fella, what's his name, James?"
"No, I think its Jeremy."
They were all right in front of the door. I noticed the buildings opposite had glowing windows, they must have been used as living quarters, either for the guards or people more important. I drew in a breath, and with my helmet low I decided to just go for it. As they were busy with the argument, I stepped out of the door and made a sharp right; they were just a few feet away, too busy arguing about what my actual name might be.
Just as I shuffled into an alleyway and thought I was safe, I heard a shout.
"Oi! Matthew, is that you? Where do you think you're going? Get back to your post!"
It was the guy who thought my name was Jeremy. Without pause I broke into a run and heard shouts of alarm behind me. The moonlight did not reach this alleyway, and as I ran and the alleyway narrowed further, I tripped. The streets were cobblestones, some that stuck out more than others. With the sound of rushing boots behind me, I quickly turned around and pulled out my pistol, using my arm to keep myself up. I tried to scramble to my feet in time, but I saw their shadowy silhouettes run towards me.
I was but a Private in an army. A fresh recruit. So panic gripped me as I squeezed the trigger, a loud bang quickly replaced by a longer wail of pain as one of them fell. The second one started to pull out his pistol, but the third shouted aggressively.
"No! We'll take him alive if we can!"
I threw my pistol away and raised my hands, and by the next second the unsheathing of swords filled the air, and a blade rested at the nape of my neck.
They took me to the houses opposite the old hospital. It was there that the doctor, or whoever he really was, was staying. Inside a nicely furnished room, with gilded walls, a laden bookshelf and a mahogany low table, I sat on a rickety wooden chair that was strangely out of place. Only candles burned here, giving the place a dim glow.
My hands were tied behind my back, my legs tied to the legs of the chair and one of the soldiers who found me was right behind me, breathing down my neck.
And opposite, looking completely different, was Doctor Hays who I had just seen this morning.
"I am far from pleased, Mister Dawes. My men tell me that you slit the throat of the person who was looking after you. Now that is just a terrible lack of manners on your part."
I stayed quiet. There seemed to be nothing that I could do now. I just maintained eye contact with him.
"Furthermore, they tell me that you have been trying to escape. Tell me John, do you remember anything of the incident you were involved in here at Allesfield?"
I just shook my head slowly, side to side.
"ANSWER ME YOU FUCKER!" shouted the doctor as he leapt from his own chair, knocking it over, leaning into my face. I saw every wrinkle, every line and scar, every little bit of stubble. The outburst made me jump, but I calmed down and resolved myself to silence.
He straightened himself, cleared his throat and carried on.
"There was a reason that you tried to escape. It makes no sense to run away from your fellow servicemen like that, Mister Dawes. And you even killed one of your own, which by the way, you have not denied."
It was then that I muttered two words, since I had nothing else to say.
The doctor leaned in, a smug look on his face.
"So you do remember don't you? You figured it out somehow, and I am actually impressed."
"No, doctor. I just figured out the termination part. But the massacre, I do not know."
"Two words mister Dawes. Michael. Briggs."
He was the captain of the squad that I was assigned to on the way to Allesfield. I remember that... but then, my memory exploded into a wave of colours, sounds and smells.
There we were. It would have been a peaceful sunny day if not for our presence. Captain Briggs was pacing in front of the masses of women, men and children in the city square. They were forced to the ground, hands and legs tied, while captain Briggs stood upright, lecturing them.
"Our intelligence has revealed that a small traitor presence remains in the city of Allesfield. And we think that someone from your area of this city knows just where we can find them and their lairs. So, speak up or we will start killing you one by one."
There was a silence. One second, two seconds, three seconds, four seconds, five seconds. And then he shouted.
"Private Dawes! If you can do the honour of showing them how serious we are."
"Yes, Captain!" I said it out of fear, out of habit, out of something other than monstrosity, or at least I hope I did. But when I looked at the sea of faces, all I saw were my family. People who had laboured all their lives, destined to labour all their lives if they survived this day. And as I walked, I realized the power that I had in that moment, the power of fate itself. Any one of them I could choose.
A man, I chose an old man who seemed to have no one with him.
"He will do." Briggs muttered.
I hoisted him up, half dragging him, half walking him so that he was in front of the crowd and I set him down on his knees. His head bowed low in submission. His shoulders shook from his cries and sobs, but I blocked it, I blocked it from my mind. With a trembling hand I raised the flintlock pistol to the back of his head, and as I shot my heart leapt into my mouth. He slumped forward, blood pooling on the cobblestone below, painting the dark grey a shade of crimson. Children started wailing. But I blocked it from my mind...
Again Captain Briggs asked, and again he was met by a five second silence. Another private was ordered to do the killing. He did not choose wisely, it was a mother of two this time. And as the children cried and threw themselves in front of her, he kicked them away like they were nothing. They writhed on the floor, screaming, trying with all their little strength to break from their bonds. And he did the same to her.
It was then that the tears starting coming. Heavy breathing, heartbeat quickening, hands shaking. My legs gave way and I collapsed to my knees, but the sea of people before me seemed to have no expression, no reaction. They were dead already. And it was the last thing I saw before I lost consciousness.
And then, and then I woke up on the stretcher.
That was the only sound I found myself saying out loud. I felt disgusted, I felt ashamed. And yet there was Doctor Hays, standing in the dim light of numerous candles. He had calmed down.
"Because Mister Dawes, you must serve His Imperial Majesty with your life, and at any cost if we are ever to be great. But you could not stomach it, you were too soft."
He unsheathed a dagger from behind him, a curved, menacing looking thing with a simple hilt, glinting.
"You are not a special case, you know. We were afraid that after this experience, whether you remember it or not, your loyalties might shift. We were afraid that you may work something out for yourself, so we watched you closely..."
He was edging closer.
"...and here we are. You are now willing to kill your own to escape. We suspected from the beginning, oh yes we did."
And even closer, taking his time.
"Truth is, the rebels have no secret weapon. Actually they have been good for us, they have united us and distracted the masses."
He leaned in, the cold steel of the dagger resting on my neck as he looked into my eyes.
"There is only one true enemy for a soldier, mister Dawes" - I swallowed the lump in my throat - "and that enemy, my friend, is conscience."
With a swipe he cut my throat. Warm blood flowed down, dampening my uniform, and it continued to flow. I could not scream, could not shout. I felt a force push my chair backwards and I hit the floor with a thud. Vision blurring, ever increasing weakness in my limbs. Slowly, inside an elegant room and upon a wooden chair, I slipped into the embraces of death.