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He Who Hunts Us All

Silence at last. It was a feeling only dreamed of as of late. Yet here it was, still and quiet as a sleeping newborn. But there was no peace, no hopeful expectancy, nor contented resignation. All that remained was an empty building, frozen in time, devoid of all life, save him. Erie as it was, things were as they should be. At long last, a moment of rest.


Closing the door behind him, he paused for a moment to enjoy the cavernous echo it made down the deserted halls. All was as it should be. He turned and crossed the room, spun his high-backed seat around, and sat behind his desk. Thereupon he found the only object of interest within the whole of his office: a skinny-necked bottle of vintage 2019 pinot. With a deep sigh and a scratch around his graying five o’clock shadow, he produced a corkscrew from his desk and popped open and sullied the last pure thing in the whole building.

The comm in his coat pocket screamed abruptly in the stillness, and he set down his glass.


“Fleet Commander Collins.” His own voice felt alien in his ringing ears.

“It’s Dawes.” The voice was familiar, calm, and comforting. “Just thought I’d call and let you know we’re in position.”


“Oh? Is that so?” Another heavy-laden sigh and a sip of wine. “Well, I suppose it is about that time then, isn’t it?”


Another sigh answered his through the receiver. “It seems so.” A palpable pause. “What are you up to this evening?”


“Not much.” Collins spun around to face the enormous picture window that took up the entire wall behind his desk, providing a glorious view of the cityscape, now abandoned and hollow. “The base is empty, and I’m left here, cracking open that bottle of pinot. Seemed a shame to waste the taste of victory.”


“True words.” Dawes answered. “It’s sweet, isn’t it?”


“Actually, it’s quite dry. You never did give that bottle I sent you a try, did you?”


“No, I decided to save it for victory, same as I was taught.”


“You had a wise teacher.”


“That I did. But if it’s any comfort, I’ll be on my way back to my office in a moment. I’ll crack my bottle open and toast victory and your accomplishments.


“I’d like that.” Collins sipped his wine, gazing out at the clouds swelling up over the bay. “Do they ever haunt you?” Dawes failed to respond, so Collins continued. “Every man you failed, every sacrificial lamb you committed to the slaughter, every company you swore would have a fighting chance?”


“Sometimes. Only when I allow myself room to reflect.” Dawes held an even tone. “But victory has its cost, and as commanders, we bear a perilous burden. To us, the individual has no right to deny the many their right to life. Choices must be made. Don’t trouble yourself with their plight. Sympathy never won wars.”


“‘And the student shall teach the master’.” Collins conceded. “But even still, it’s not a valve. You can’t just shut them out, just like you can’t change the weather. The clouds will billow and blow, and we can’t do anything about it. One way or another, they always come back. Ten million blank faces, like some kind of twisted cryptic choir, sent to invade not only foreign nations but your own dreams. They’ll come for you. Don’t forget that.”


Behind Dawes, Collins could hear through the comm another voice.


“Sir, we have missile lock.”


“Very good. You may fire upon my command.”


“Oh, quicker than I expected.” Collins chided. “Somehow, I figured I’d have a little longer to enjoy the pinot.”


“You will. You’re about eighteen minutes out. We’ve got time.”


“That’s comforting. Where were we?”


“Demons in the dark?”


“Mhm, cruel mistresses, every one of them. Does it pain you, knowing how high the numbers got?”


“Only when I looked.”


“Mhm.” Collins grunted. “He’ll ask you, you know? When he comes for you? He’ll ask you, just as he’ll ask me, what we did with them all. What it all was for. If it was worth it. And where we think we belong.”


“A chilling thought. Can’t say that I quite know how to picture that. But I suppose he comes eventually, for people like us. Perhaps a separate hunter, removed from those who hunt the grunts in the trenches. Theirs is a common and milquetoast brand of villainy. They only do as they’re told. But we, we’re the architects of a billion slaughters. Compared to us, one man knifing his enemy in a bombed-out building is a playground brawl. I wonder that they don’t just let them all off.”


“We all have our sins, and there doesn’t seem to be some lesser hell for lesser crimes. But the weight of responsibility is exponential. One man, then ten, add a hundred, a thousand, and soon you become like us.”


“I would agree there’s no lesser hell for them, but I fear there must be a greater purgatory awaiting us. I’ll admit I have no wish to discover it.”


“I’ll send you a postcard.” Collins drained his glass and poured another. “Alright. ‘Bout time we wrapped this up. Put the gunner on.”


There was a shuffling on Dawes’ end.


“Sir?” A young naval officer’s voice come on.


“Son? You locked and loaded?”


“Aye, sir.”

“Very good. Well then, pending your CO’s word, feel free to send me straight to hell. I’ll bet it’s your heart’s desire.”


The voice faltered for a moment, but there was no mask on the hatred lacing his words.


“With a good will. Sir.”


“Gimme back to Dawes.”


“On my mark.” Dawes sighed, a mixture of relief, anguish, and joy in his words. “Fire!”


Out by the bay, there was a sudden and brilliant flash, followed by a concussive boom. Up into the clouds soured an agent of destruction.


“Dawes?”


“Yeah?


“Do me a favor, leave my staff alone. They fled the building hours ago and won’t pose any threat to you.”


“Very well. So long as there’s no incident of resistance, I’ll order my men to behave with mercy when we move into the city.”


“Don’t patronize me, you’re already here. I can see your command post across the bay.”


“Guilty. I suppose that’s your fault as well.”


“True. How long?”


“Seven minutes out.”


“Good. Enough for one more glass.”


He watched, as the missile disappeared off into the distance, far and away across the bay. Before long, it was gone.


“Am I to assume my wife and the rest of my family will be treated with dignity?”


“The punishment should fit the crime. They had no hand in your work. That’s the way I see it.”


“Thank you, Dawes.”


“Of course.”


The minutes crawled by. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.


“Here it comes. Beautiful really.”


“Is it?”


“Yeah.” Collins glanced at his watch counting down the seconds. “Hey Dawes?”


“Hm?”


“It’s sweet!”


A momentarily blinding flash erupted from across the bay! Seconds later, the fire could be seen from miles around, as the building crumbled.


Collins smashed his comm under his heel, then sat back and sipped his wine.


A few minutes later, a singular truck came up the road towards the building from the fire control center. Collins readied himself. From the window, he could see three men enter the office building on the first floor. They would be up on the second momentarily. Hopefully, his endeavor to hide the evidence would be enough.


Midway through his last sip, the lights flicked on. He whirled around in his chair and stood up.


Dawes stood awestruck.


Collins didn’t give him time to think. Out came his sidearm, and with two clean shots, he nailed Dawes’ guards right between the eyes. Dawes instinctively reached for his own weapon but was given another clean round in the wrist. Another in his knee, and he fell to the floor.

“Collins!?!” Dawes writhed in agony as a puddle gathered beneath him. “How? What—”


“You never even bothered to taste it.” Collins declared, tossing Dawes’ empty wine bottle to the ground. “What? Were you afraid I’d poison you? Shame.”


“You were across the bay! What about my men in this building? Where are they?”


“Probably answering the age-old question right now.” Collins stood over his pupil. “I think it’s time you did the same.”


Reaching down, he plucked Dawes sidearm from its holster.


“Pointless!” Dawes seethed. “What could you possibly hope to gain?! You’ve lost!”


“True. Your armies have beaten mine. My base of operations lies in ashes. And this country is

now under your superiors’ rule. But the day comes for us all. So, what’ll you say, hm? When he asks you? What defense have you left to make? Believe me, I’ve tried making them all. You’re right, it’s all pointless. But I could never bear the thought of having to answer before you. So here I am, the face chosen to be worn by He Who Hunts Us All. And soon he’ll wear another face to come and beg an answer from me. But as for you?”


“Coll—”


His cry was drowned out by a resounding thud of lead against skull, before he became aware of a silent call from beyond eternity, a questioning word, beckoning him draw near and answer.


“How do you plead.”

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